Ethical Stances on Homosexuality

The Rev. Dr. Katherine G. Killebrew
Pastor, Collingwood Presbyterian Church, Collingswood, NJ

From the beginning of the Bible, we see that God loves the in-breaking of light, sound, new ideas, salvation, birth, growth and death that shakes up our world. It is all part of God’s plan. God has created us with this dilemma of loving dependability and order and yet craving the possibility of change. Just ask anyone who needs to change their bad behavior or hears the call of God to “go therefore into the world” and you will hear the innate call of change. “Behold, I am creating something new among you. Can you perceive it?” says the prophet Isaiah. I think God loves surprises and miracles. And yes, even God changes. (cf. Ex. 32:14, Jer. 18:10, Jer 26:13)

Change doesn’t happen overnight. Most people require a catalyst or crisis to force change. Any change requires some loss. God created a creation that loves order, and yet requires change to survive. It was God’s intention to create us as creatures of habit, so we will maintain order. But it is also God’s intention to create us in need of the disorder that keeps us lively, creative and discomforted enough to change. When we fail to manage change, reconciliation and redemption are built into the core of Christian faith.

So how do people change? For some it is the exposure over time, which can feel like a loss of intentionality. Much of this kind of change is unconscious. This is not always bad, but we as people of faith, like to be intentional and guided by Scripture and the Word of God, not the word of the world. In other instances, we intentionally and rationally decide to make a change, then coax our bodies and souls to adhere to the intended changes.

As people consciously invite the new into their lives – perhaps a new baby, new friend, new job or new community – they start a long process of synthesizing what their mind, their soul and their physical experience are telling them. I think it is a dance. They experience (not in this order necessarily) dissonance, new experiences; they think, pray, talk about it, try it out, put it away, bring it out, try it on, try for a time, fail to believe, lash out in anger, talk about it more, tell their fears, figure out what they might lose and give that up, and then claim it as their own. Then of course we start all over again, because we are human and humans live in a world of change. It’s a requirement of life and faith. Jesus said “For truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”  (Matthew 18: 3-5)

Now let’s take a look at the movement in thought on the specific issue of homosexuality. As Dr. Stacy Johnson writes in his study paper for the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church,

For decades now the church has blamed its debate regarding gay and lesbian people as a clash between two antithetical view points. One side passionately calls for affirmation of gay identity and life; the other argues with equal vigor that the church must maintain its present non-affirming stance. By framing things this way, the church has forced its membership, year after year, to join sides in a series of winner –takes- all battles. *

Johnson goes on to cast a typology of different stances as:
• Prohibition: does not approve and would bar activity
• Toleration: does not approve the activity but would not prosecute it when it occurs
• Accomodation: does not approve the activity ordinarily, but would allow for exceptions on “lesser than evil” rationale.
• Legitimation: wants to prevent the activity from being singled out unfairly
• Celebration: the activity should no longer be scorned, but affirmed as good
• Liberation: sees societal attitudes about the activity as caught up in wider prejudices that need to be remedied
• Consecration: argues for the blessing of the activity in a religious context

I appreciate the work of Dr. Johnson and recommend studying this typography further. However, I found that in my work with my congregation and with other church members, we needed a more personal description of where people stood on this issue.** Observe this continuum and see how people change and move in these ethical stances:

Ethical Continuum for Congregational Members
(or “You gotta move when the Spirit says move”)

1. I believe homosexuality is a sin, against the commandments of the Bible. Homosexuality is worthy of punishment and expulsion from the Christian Community. Their behavior is abhorrent and disgusting, I would even advocate putting gays and lesbians to death.
2. I believe homosexuality is a sin and not in the plan of God for love relationships. We were created to be heterosexual. Physically, humans are not created for homosexual acts, since sex is primarily designed for procreation. I cannot accept it. It is destroying the moral fabric of our society and the human family. I don’t want to see it, talk about it, or read about it.
3. I believe homosexuality is a sin but I believe we should love the sinner and hate the sin. I pray they will be changed and believe it is a choice for a lifestyle.
4. I don’t know why some people are homosexual. Some scientific research claims a genetic makeup that is present since birth. Maybe there is something wrong with their genetic makeup, but they aren’t making a conscious choice. Still I don’t want to see it.
5. I know gay co-workers and relatives. I wouldn’t call them my best friends. We are too different, but who am I to judge? I am not God and believe that all should live in peace. Live and let live.
6. I have gay friends and gay relatives. I believe they are who they are from birth. I believe that homosexuals can be moral, committed and holy people. Not all gay people are promiscuous, not all heterosexual people are faithful. I am willing to talk about it, read about it and be with gay people comfortably. I believe that LOVE is the ethic for all people.
7. I believe that God has created some people to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. God loves them and they are just as holy, faithful and moral as anyone else. There have been homosexuals from the beginning of time in every species. This is God’s will for diversity.
8. I am willing to advocate for GLBTQ people politically and publicly. I would risk my job or position to insure their rights. I have advocated politically for change in social, political and ecclesiastical life.

My personal experience and my conversations with many church members lead me to believe that many of us have already changed from one ethical stance to the other on this issue. Generally most people are in the middle of this continuum, which creates an extreme difficulty when forced to vote in a political forum on this issue. Notice how most of the stances “do not want to talk about it.”  Who wanted to know that their parents had sexual relations when they were young? What child isn’t embarrassed in health class? Prudent people, whether gay or straight, usually find such conversations to be inappropriate in public settings. Frankly, most of us wouldn’t talk about heterosexual sex in public either.

Furthermore, our over-sexualized society has forced increasing promiscuity upon our lives and our children’s lives to the point where most Christians, understandably have had enough. So the backlash comes upon the just and the unjust alike. Unfortunately, committed, faithful homosexuals have been lumped into the bath water of all sexual promiscuity and thrown out with the baby.

What Christians need to do is to stand for holy and just behavior. We believe that God wants people to make commitments, act out of faithfulness and flourish sexually in a loving relationship. God knows we want to draw boxes around who is right and wrong, we were created that way. However we were also created to change when we need to and work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Thanks be to God for this amazing gift of the ability to change and become new!

“ If God gave them the same Spirit in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God? ” (The apostle Peter upon changing his mind whether the Gentiles should be allowed in the Christian Church. Acts 11:17)

[*] Johnson, William Stacy, “Same Gender Relationships in the Church: Seven Theological Viewpoints” Paper prepared for the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force, PCUSA.

[**] Special thanks to Charles Miller, Rev. Tom Murphy and Deacon Myra Ostrander for their help on this continuum.


  1. http://Carl%20Davis says

    Sounds like Kirkpatrick, Killebrew, and others who continue to fight for Amendment 10-A are of the “If it feels good, do it — it’s OK” crowd. The scriptures are quite clear about the proper context of sexuality. Promiscuity is sinful, no matter whether hetero- or homosexual. Further, homosexuality is clearly wrong, and unnatural. A Bible believing Christian has to wonder why the controversy even exists in the heirarchy of the Church. Is it any wonder that the PCUSA continues to lose membership?

  2. http://Thomas%20L.%20Fultz says

    The Rev. Dr. Katherine G. Killebrew, you conclude this carefully constructed essay with your understanding of a call from God to be open to change, to free ourselves from the boxes we place around who is right and who is wrong. You call us as “Christians …to stand for holy and just behavior. We believe that God wants people to make commitments, act out of faithfulness and flourish sexually in a loving relationship.”

    In general, you refer to homosexuality/gay sexuality, except at Point 8. in the Ethical Continuum. I am curious of how you understand God’s desires concerning the place of bisexuals in the church and I raise these questions for your response:

    If bisexuality is a gift from God, then how have you seen it practiced with commitment and faithfulness; or what if any “boxes” have we Christians, or the non-Christian culture around us, created concerning bisexuality that need to change? If Christians believe “God wants people to…flourish sexually in a loving relationship” can we be certain that multiple loving relationships might not be within our calling for full sexual expression?

    If the full expression of bisexuality includes sexual interaction between the bisexual and persons of both genders, meaning at least two sexual partners; would your understanding of God’s plans lead you to extend the church’s openness to a person who claims the sexual orientation of bigamy – if practiced in committed faithfulness?

    In approaching issues of sexuality, an ethical continuum explains where we as humans are living/thinking. We are created by God, but prone to wrong choices, and you contend that includes wrongly placing boxes around behaviors. Your contention is that we should be open to God doing a new thing, but what role does Scripture play in determining what is faithful and what are God desired commitments?

    The Church has consistently understood Scripture to lead us to the expression of sexuality within the marriage between one man and one women, a relationship of commitment and faithfulness. What has changed in our day, except our culture that now frowns upon limits on any expression of sexuality?

    While it brings division in the ranks of the PCUSA members with the broad ethical continuum outlined by Rev, Killebrew, the current standard focuses the denomination on the orthodox understanding toward sexuality. The current standard is needed to frame today’s work of the PCUSA within the call of Jesus to faithfulness in our commitments/relationships between wife and husband. As long as there is confusion in the non-Christian culture that we live in, the PCUSA should affirm God’s plans from Scripture by ordination standards.

    I look forward to Rev. Killebrew’s responses to my questions and to my affirmation of the current Book of Order provisions.

  3. I keep hearing that homosexuality isn’t Biblical. However, from what I can see, divorce and remarriage isn’t Biblical either but those actions are allowed in the Presbyterian Church ministry. Is it fair to pick and use what we want to see in the Bible and not take the Bible as a whole?

  4. http://Alice%20Tewell says

    We are using your continuum in our Adult Ed class this week to discuss where we see our church (local) and where we would like to be. I had Stacy Johnson in seminary. Thank you for making his wonderful work more accessible to a congregation!

  5. http://Thomas%20L.%20Fultz says

    TO Alice Tewell – Where did your Adult Education class determine it would like to be on the continuum? Did anyone answer the questions I raised to Rev. Killebrew’s article?

    Rev, Killebrew asserts that Christians believe “God wants people to…flourish sexually in a loving relationship”, so can we be certain that multiple loving relationships might not be within our calling for full sexual expression?

    If the full expression of bisexuality includes sexual interaction between the bisexual and persons of both genders, meaning at least two sexual partners; would your congregation’s understanding of God’s plans lead you to extend the church’s openness to a person who claims a sexual orientation of bigamy – if practiced in committed faithfulness?

    Alice Tewell’s comment affirms that in approaching issues of sexuality, an ethical continuum explains where we as humans are living/thinking. Rev. Killebrew and I agree that we are created by God, but prone to wrong choices. Rev. Killebrew contends that we should be open to God doing a new thing, but what role does Scripture play in determining what is faithful and what are God desired commitments? Did your class evaluate the place of Scripture in drawing conclusions on issues of sexuality?

    Did your group come to a consensus to one of the stances outlined by Stacy Johnson:
    • Prohibition
    • Toleration
    • Accomodation
    • Legitimation
    • Celebration
    • Liberation
    • Consecration

    I look forward to your reply and the comments of others.

  6. http://David%20O'Dell says

    Mr. Fultz, I cannot speak for anyone else, but I can speak as a bi sexual on this issue. I am attracted to both men and women. Always have been, always will be. I am now in a marriage with another man which was blessed in a Holy Union ceremony in our church. As long as he lives, I will be faithful and loving to him. Should he die, and I survive him, I may find love again in my life. It might be a woman, it might be a man. In either case, with that person, male or female, I will be faithful, and honor my vows.

    The idea that a bi sexual is someone who MUST have two (or more) partners simultaneously is the result of a mindset that sees anyone who is not a heterosexual as someone incapable of faithfulness, monogomy and devotion. In truth, your very question shows how skewed you view on the topic is, for I am a fully “expressed” bi sexual, and monogomous.

    Are there persons who are not heterosexuals in relationships that are unfaithful, promiscuous, and unloving? Of course. Just like many heterosexuals. Probably most heterosexuals, with our cultures pattern of serial monogomy marriage/divorce/remarriage. But, the church is called not to be a part of the culture, but apart from it, and a place where faithfulness, devotion, and love, where families, including mine, can come together to worship God, and show a good example to our children, and where we can celebrate the gift of salvation by grace, and share the Good news.

    It is the fact that more and more of the voting Presbyters see this….and no longer assume that all bi people are playing (both) fields. Not to mention how very much like hetero families ours are. That is why so many in the church who once saw us as needing “healing”, now welcome and value us for who we are, and how God made us to be.

  7. http://David%20O'Dell says

    a brief note to follow my previous post. We ALL need healing of our sins. But, as some of our most respected theologians and seminary professors, from Rogers to Bruggerman (and many others) have pointed out, our relationships, once seen as sinful, are not inherently so. And this is hardly the first time the church has made such a change after centuries of holding a position consistantly after all. Thank you.

  8. http://Thomas%20L.%20Fultz says

    My question on the practice of bisexuality was not intended to say that bisexuals were not as capable of faithfulness, monogamy or devotion as heterosexuals or homosexuals, but to understand whether supporters of Amendment 10-A had any limits to their view of what is faithful expression of bisexuality. I greatly appreciate the responses of Mr. O’Dell in which he addresses one of my questions from my two postings by asserting that monogamy is God’s desire. I do wonder how he draws that conclusion – what basis is there to reject the conclusion others make that multiple loving relationship can be devoted or faithfully committed?

    To put it another way: What understanding of God’s plans leads the church to see wrong in the relationships of a person who claims the sexual orientation of bigamy – if practiced in committed faithfulness? Is there a basis to insist that God made us only for monogamous sexuality? Or as I said it before…. what role does Scripture play in determining what is faithful and what are God desired commitments? I mean these questions to further the discussion and to point toward what constitutes faithfulness to help others conclude a holy and just position on the continuum outlined by Dr. Stacy Johnson above.

    Again I thank David O’Dell’s for a clear and heartfelt response, but it does leave me wondering how he and other supporters of Amendment 10-A know what is sin and what is not.

  9. http://David%20O'Dell says

    Dear Mr. Fultz

    First, let me thank you for the tone and manner in which you write. I am sad to say it is unusual in this time, and very nice to see.

    The theological arguements that support living, faithful same gender relationships, as I understand them, have been laid out, and done so FAR better than I could do so, by scholars such as Rogers, Brueggerman, and others. Many of these scholars are among our most resepcted professors and scholars in our seminaries, and many of them formerly held a conservative view. I would suggest the interview with Dr. Arlo Duba, an evangelical conservative who has also changed his mind on this issue.

    The way one approaches scripture matters. If we had taken a “it says it here in English, plain as day” reading of the Bible, we would not have female clergy (even the uber conservative ones who seem to forget this when they work so hard to prevent gay ordination, etc.). I speak only for myself here, but such is my understanding. The great message of the Bible, which is one of love, grace, and the Reformed understanding of our faith, which is reformed and always being reformed, according to the word of God (many people forget that last part) means we must read the Bible, Gods gift to us, with the understanding that, as the 69 Confession points out, it is the inspired word of God, but nontheless written by men (humans) and much of the understandings that once held, such as the subjugation of women, the legality and even morality of slavery (both EASILY supported by the Bible if read literally) no longer hold, because we have begun to study and understand the Bible as Gods gift to us. This means, as with these issues, we can grow to understand more, and better, with time. We are called in Micah 6:8 to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. It is not just to tell some who is called by God, and who would be a great pastor to a congregation that needs them, that someone elses literal interpretation makes them uncomfortable with it that they cannot take their call. Nor is it loving, nor is it humbly accepting that God can call whom He deigns best. Not any more than it would be just, loving or humble to say “you cannot be called…you are only a woman”, or “I can sell and buy other humans…the Bible even give directions!” (sadly, I have known very old men in the south who still thought the wrong side one, and slavery should be legal FOR JUST THIS “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” reason.

    This is, I must admit, the observations of a layperson. The scholars I noted above make the case far better than do I. I only mention this because I wanted to explain my own thoughts on this to you, as you had respectfully asked. I felt you deserved, if only from myself, a direct answer.

    Once again, please accept my thanks. So many on the other side of the debate speak to those of us on this side as if we were strangers, fools, and even enemies. Sadly, some on our side do the same…but they do so largely as a way to lash out from being hurt, which I am sad to say, does happen when one is repeatedly told one is everything from “evil” to the more polite but perhaps even more hurtful “damaged and in need of ‘healing’ “. It may be human of them, but is still unfortionate. Your tone, and Christian love, are truly appreciated.

  10. http://Thomas%20L.%20Fultz says

    David O’Dell suggests his view is expressed in the interview with Dr. Arlo Duba; whom O’Dell describes as “an evangelical conservative who has also changed his mind on this issue.” I did read that interview and raised similar questions to those above in a comment I posted to that interview and no one responded to my questions.
    I would conclude the lack of response indicates that those who support Amendment 10-A either are of the same monogamous view as O’Dell, but do not want to acknowledge they find any limits to inclusivity; OR they disagree that there are any limits on consensual sexual activity, but sense that view of total inclusion distracts the middle of the road Presbyterian who seeks a position that a majority can support, so they are silent on demanding total inclusion of all sexual expressions.

    For a perspective on the view which seeks unity at any cost, read Dr. Mark Achtemeier’s rationale supporting Amendment 10-A. Those of that view seem to care little for calling Christians to faithful, covenanted relationships, but want so much for this debate to end, they offer as the rationale to change the Book of Order, a simple “let’s agree to disagree and stop all discussion of sexuality” approach – forget any Scriptural basis or any understanding which the Presbyterian Church has documented in our Book of Confessions or in Authoritative Interpretations. As one Commissioner to the Presbytery of South Alabama said in discussions on Amendment 10-A: “Let’s get over obsession with sex – as long as it is discrete behavior, no one should care what goes in my bedroom.” So does that mean all sexual activity can be appropriate as long as it is behind closed door? Or is David O’Dell on target that monogamy is required, and promiscuous sexual activity is sin – that God expects God’s people to restrict sexual practice to faithful, committed relationships between two persons? More questions……

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