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Your Questions about the Bible: Homosexuality

Your primary identity is not your sexuality; it's who you are as a man or woman in Christ.
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.

The story behind the sermon (by Rick McKinley)

I hesitate using this sermon as the ultimate model for how to preach on this topic. I suppose it is because the topic of homosexuality is such a hot button issue in the church and in our culture, and no one sermon can say all that is needed or should be said on this topic. However, I am convinced that we need to be talking about it a great deal more than we do, and with that said, I hope this contribution can add to a much needed dialogue around how churches address people who find themselves attracted to the same sex.

I want to give a backdrop into the context that this message was preached. There are no generic contexts and mine is no different. I am in Portland, Oregon, which is a highly progressive city and continues to be ranked the least churched city in the country. Homosexual marriage is not legal in our state at the time of my writing this, and within our congregation there are people on all spectrums of the issue: those who would define themselves as homosexual but who see acting out sexually as a sin, those who believe they can be healed, those who believe that God made them this way and don't see it as a sin to act out, and many who fall somewhere in between. Additionally, the reality is most people within our community have gay and lesbian friends whom they genuinely love and care about.

Our church enjoyed a strong working relationship with our previous mayor who was openly gay, and I was invited into a small circle of his friends who are leaders in the LGBTQ community. I, along with several other pastors, were warmly received by that community and are grateful for the relationships that we have made; they have helped me tremendously in developing my perspective on this topic. Preaching this message in Portland was a difficult one for my friends in the LGBTQ community to hear, and the way in which I preached it is highly reflective of the power of the pulpit and the danger of not balancing truth and grace appropriately. That is why I would suggest you listen to the message and not simply read it so you can hear the tenor of my voice. Not to mention that my sermons are not very good in the written form.

Finally, I offer one last word on the changes that have and are occurring in my city. A few years back same sex marriage was a ballot issue here in Oregon. Many churches jumped on the political train. Many gave out yard signs to their parishioners to place in their lawn, which said things to the effect that marriage is between one man and one woman. In the years that have followed, same sex marriage has not been legalized in our state, however churches' relationships with the LGBTQ community are somewhat different.

The issue of homosexuality can no longer be removed from relationship, nor should it ever be. Most pastors I know have gay friends and would not hand out yard signs to their congregation if gay marriage were to make the ballot. Most whom I know are trying to balance the sexual teaching of the Bible with equally important teachings like Jesus' command to love our neighbor as ourselves. Many of us have neighbors who are gay, and we want them to experience God's love for them in Christ through us.

It is within the specific context of Portland and my own relationships that I preached this message, and I believe that it is crucial to recognize that the audience is a fundamental piece of the word spoken and received; the sermon does not stand alone or outside of its context. This particular sermon is not the first nor the last word on the subject of homosexuality, but I do hope it will be of some use to you as you navigate this issue for your congregation.


We are moving through a series called "Your Questions about the Bible." We took in hundreds of your questions, compiled them, and created this series in response. Today we're addressing the issue of homosexuality. This was a question that a lot of you had: how do I reconcile Scripture with what I know about myself, my culture, and my friends?

A few months ago, some other pastors and I had the privilege of meeting with leaders of the gay community in Portland. They are leading initiatives in their own community. Two things in that conversation shocked me and woke me up. The first thing was a middle-aged woman who mentioned that the worst thing she ever heard about herself came from behind a pulpit. As I listened to her and thought about what I do every week, it was a shocking reminder about the power of standing behind a pulpit and saying, "This is what God says." The second thing I found shocking was this: during that conversation, I said that we as the church need to repent for misrepresenting the love of Christ to the gay community. When we finished, Sam Adams said, "I never thought I'd hear that come out of a pastor's mouth." He never expected to hear an apology for the ways in which the church has mistreated the homosexual community.

I understand that this is a difficult topic for some of you who are gay or have gay neighbors, friends, loved ones. Every week we're trying to articulate how we understand this text which we believe is the inspired Word of God. It's handed down to us through thousands of years of church history. There are moments where it clashes with our cultural understanding. We don't want to hurt anyone. If you're a homosexual or have gay loved ones, relatives, neighbors, then I know this is an extremely difficult topic for you, because it relates to how we follow Jesus. It relates to the love of God. If you, like most of us, know and love people who are gay, it's difficult for you as well.

Today I want to clarify what Scripture says, and I want to wrestle with how we live out the whole Scripture. How do we live into this, and how do we do that as faithful witnesses of Jesus? How do we treat people like Jesus would treat them?

Rejecting moral superiority

First, the church has no moral authority in and of itself. We have no moral high ground on this issue.

  • First, we have misrepresented the love of God in numerous ways. There are countless young people who grew up hearing that their sexual orientation was the lowest form of sinfulness, that God didn't love them, and they may never find their way back into a community of faith.
  • Second, we've proven through countless statistics that, whether it's on premarital sex or adultery or divorce, we are in no place to judge based on our own merit and goodness.

We have no moral high ground on this issue. But we do have this inspired Word of God speaking into a culture. It's confronting some things we have to wrestle with.

Finding our identity in Christ

We're not going to hit every place where the Bible addresses homosexuality. But I hope to give a larger perspective on how the gospel addresses not just homosexuality but sexual orientation in general. We'll start in Romans 1:18. Here, Paul is writing to the church of Rome. He's unfolding his gospel of God, his theology of the gospel. And he starts with humanity's rejection of God and God's judgment of humanity. It says:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relationships for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty of their error.
Furthermore, just as people did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but they also approve of those who practice them (Rom. 1:18-32).

First John 4:7 says, "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." We also know that Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." So how do we understand passages like Romans 1 in light of passages like 1 John 4? Why would a loving God call homosexual behavior sin?

Cultural confrontation is not unique to us. This isn't a new reality, that the Bible would confront something in our culture. A different culture like the Middle East might agree with what the Bible teaches about sexual ethic, but it would probably have issues with "Pray for those who persecute you" and "Love your enemy." The gospel and the Scriptures are going to confront different things in every culture, whether it be polygamy or something else.

Paul would have known that in both Rome and Corinth homosexuality was a normative practice. Rome and Corinth had homosexual relationships that are not just masters abusing their slaves, but consensual relationships between adults. At that time only the very wealthy could afford a secretive private life. Everybody else had to live life out in the public square. In this passage, Paul's confronting his own culture. How are we to understand this passage in light of what is becoming normal in our culture in relation to sexuality?

Romans 1:21 says, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile." This is how creation fell into this state. It began with knowledge of God and a refusal to worship and give thanks to him. This is the core issue for all of humanity. If God is Creator and he says, "I give you the gift of life, I give you the gift of creation, I call you into being, I sustain you by my Spirit," then our response to him should be worship and thankfulness. That's what we were made to do in this relationship, in this communion. But when we refuse to do that, when we reject God and are no longer grateful, we turn towards ourselves. We turn towards creation. We turn towards others.

This week try starting every day by thinking, Today I'm going to thank God for at least ten things. That seems very minimal. You'll find that your heart, your perspective, everything will have to change. You will recognize that life is a gift, your relationships are gifts, your job is a gift, your community, your culture, and creation around you are gifts. And you'll find yourself taking on this right relationship with God, because we were made to live under his grace and his gifts with thankfulness. When that doesn't happen, when we lose that sense of worship and thankfulness, we turn in towards ourselves. Paul describes in verse 21 that humanity's "thinking becomes futile and their foolish hearts become darkened." So when we move away from a grateful worship of God, we find our freedom and our fulfillment in creation.

In our current culture, sexual expression and sexual orientation are looked at as our hope and the place where we find fulfillment and freedom. After the sexual revolution of the 60s where your parents were at Woodstock, naked in the mud, a philosophical understanding developed that anchored itself in the culture. It said that sexual expression was the path to freedom and fulfillment. In other words, if I can't express myself sexually as I want to or feel like I'm supposed to, then that is oppressive to me. This applied for singles saying they're going to stay single. They're not going to get married because if they do, they're going to have sex with only one person for the rest of their lives. And those who were married thought, Oh no, I'm having sex with the same person for the rest of my life. So they thought about how they could get out of it. If I could sexually express myself the way I want to, I would be fulfilled. I would be free. And if I can't, God's decrees over are oppressive. This philosophy includes homosexuality, but it also includes premarital sex, adultery, pornography, withholding sex from your spouse. So instead of giving thanks to God, we now put him on the witness stand and judge him as the oppressor, because he won't allow us to express ourselves sexually and find the freedom that we hope to have. We're trying to find freedom apart from God, but we say it's an issue of justice. This is what Paul calls "futile thinking."

N.T. Wright says it this way:

Life and sexuality are always gifts of sheer and unmerited grace. The appeal to justice seriously misrepresents the notion of justice itself. Not just in the Christian tradition of Augustine, Aquinas, and others, but in the wider philosophical discussion from Aristotle to John Rawls. Justice never means treating everybody the same way, but treating people appropriately, which involves making distinctions between different people and different situations. Justice has never meant the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire.

So in verse 22 Paul says,

Although they claim to be wise, they became fools. They exchanged the glory of an immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles. And so God gave them over in their sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for degrading of their bodies with one another. And they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and they worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

This is a description of idolatry. Rather than letting God be the ultimate object of worship and my thankfulness, now idolatry rejects him. This isn't just about homosexuals. It is about all of us, all of humanity. We've exchanged the truth of who God is for a lie, because we believe that freedom and fulfillment can be found in these other things, whether we worship people or other things.

If I were to ask, "What would it take to go forward in absolutely freedom?" most of us would say, "I need enough money to get the stuff I want, enough sex or access to a perfect relationship, or enough power." Money, sex, and power are the three major idols in a capitalistic culture like ours. Paul says that we exchange what life really is about in communion with God for a lie that says life is about money, sex, and power. God says, "You reject me, so I'm going to reject you and give you a mirror. Whatever you see in that mirror, be it yourself or the reflection of me through creation, are the things that your heart is going to go after." Whether that's a person or sexuality or images on your computer screen or money and things, that's where creation moves away from worship and bends in on itself. And we define that as freedom. But God defines it as judgment. It is a sign that our entire culture has walked away from and rejected God.

Admitting that we're all sinners

Romans 1 is not only talking to homosexuals. The church is really good at pulling out the sins we think are the big bad ones. That makes the other sins less atrocious—and they just happen to always be my sins. My sins aren't so bad. Yours are tragic and appalling. Paul is saying that this entire culture has turned away from God, and one of the signs of this is homosexuality becoming normative. When he says "even,"—"even the women exchanged natural for unnatural, men exchanged natural for unnatural"—in reality, sex is a gift. It's not God. This is true no matter what your orientation is. When sexual hope and freedom moves into normative homosexual expression, it's a sign that the culture has created a false freedom—not only the people who see themselves as gay, but the entire culture. In our culture sexuality is seen as ultimate instead of secondary. We have replaced God as ultimate.

Some of you might say, "But this seems natural to me," or when I speak with my friends or my siblings or whoever, they say, "This is their natural inclination." That's not what Paul's talking about here. He's talking about God's design within creation. If Paul was talking about what feels natural, every guy that wanted to commit adultery would say it's natural. People could defend sexism or racism, depending on what feels natural. But Paul's talking about something different here. The loss of the knowledge of God leads to a twisting of the way we think about freedom and life and hope. We think we can have freedom and life and hope apart from God—who is no longer good, but is actually oppressive and wants to take away all our fun and hope and freedom by putting these mean rules on us.

A couple of things need to be said. First, this is an entire culture, not just those who practice homosexuality. Second, sexual desire is not the same as acting on it. Those of you who are here, if you have same-sex attraction, no matter what sexual sin we're talking about, the desire and the temptation is not the same as the act itself. It's appropriate to live honestly with those desires, to talk about them, to pray about them, and to stand with each other to resist temptation.

Paul is describing the inward bent of all people who are seeking personal freedom apart from God. When sex becomes the soul's hope, or people become the soul's hope, then we are in danger of losing ourselves no matter what our sexual orientation is. A man who puts his hope for fulfillment in his wife has put her and his expectations in major jeopardy, because she can't fulfill his soul. Only Christ can. The same is true of anything we make the ultimate thing.

Paul describes this inward bent of seeking freedom away from God as acts of the flesh. In Galatians 5:19-21 he gives three categories: sexual freedom, spiritual freedom, and social freedom. He says,

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery [sexual freedom]; idolatry and witchcraft [spiritual freedom]; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like [social freedom]. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

This all-consuming list says that freedom to turn away from God towards ourselves manifests in these ways.

In Galatians 5:1 Paul says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and don't let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." He is talking about freedom from enslavement to self that says, "I can only find hope and fulfillment in myself or in other created things." When Christ sets you free from running after these things of the flesh, you're free to be in Christ. This is an identity issue. Do I have the freedom to be who I'm made to be? Culture places sexuality as the largest expression of self, as we see in Romans 1, but the Bible says you bear God's image. You're a man or a woman. You don't have to quantify that with an adjective before it. You're an image bearer of God. You are not simply identified by your sexuality. Your identity is not just your behavior.

Living in gospel freedom

First Corinthians 6:9-10 is the last passage I want us to look at. This is another passage where homosexuality is referenced. Paul says,

Or do you not know that the wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers now swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Again, we lift homosexuality out of this list and miss everything else. We're all on this list. He says in verse 11, "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, and you were justified in the Lord Jesus Christ." Your primary identity is not all that you've done, all that you've worshiped. It's not your sexuality. Your identity is that you are a man or a woman who's been adopted by God. You are a son or a daughter of God. Now you are in Christ; the whole game's changed. The core of your own personhood is in him.

This is a massive gospel declaration on all of you who bear guilt and shame over behaviors or are confused about your sexual orientation. It's a declaration of freedom, true freedom—not freedom that comes from finding our hope in sexual expression, but freedom that says you can come out of the closet in your faith community, you can wrestle with these things on a common journey, because you're with a whole bunch of people that are coming out of the closet about a whole bunch of other stuff. We have to be on this journey together. You're in Christ, and that's irreducible. That's what names you above anything else. You can honestly seek to follow him. You are more than your sexual orientation.

One of the questions that comes out of passages like this is, Do homosexuals go to hell? When I speak with gay people, the last question I want to answer is, "What do you do for a living?" I say, "Oh, I'm a pastor." I want to say I'm a soul architect, or I just want to make up something. But inevitably their first question is, "Because I'm gay, do you think I'm going to hell?" I want to say, "Do you think I'm an arrogant jerk because I'm a pastor? Do you think I'm a bigoted jerk?" It's important that we change the conversation from little "yes or no" boxes and acknowledge the complexity of the issue in this conversation.

No one goes to hell for homosexuality or adultery or any other sin. You go to hell for self-righteousness, because you believe you don't need Christ, that you don't need the gospel. That could be religious self-righteousness that says, "I get to go to heaven because I'm heterosexual." But it can also be a nonreligious self-righteousness that says, "I'm okay the way I am, and I don't need anybody else." The gospel says both of those attitudes put you in danger, because before Christ the playing field is level.

We are all in sin. We are all desperate for Christ. We're all screwed up. We thought about just putting this box on our membership covenant: "Are you screwed up?" We wouldn't accept membership from people who answered "no." They wouldn't fit in with us. We all need Christ. And when we admit that, no matter what our sexual orientation is, Christ is ready to receive you, forgive you, wash you, justify you, rename you, and make that identity of being in Christ your primary identity—not your behavior or your sexual orientation. He'll set you free. But when we want to fight him and reject him and refuse to give thanks to him, we end up in a self-righteousness that leads to enslavement, whether religious or irreligious.

Loving gay friends

How do you love your gay friends and invite them to follow Jesus knowing that the Bible says homosexual behavior is a sin? I haven't figured this out completely, but here's what I have so far.

First, we need to share that we have a common story of trying to pursue freedom and life and love. All of our stories are imperfect and incomplete. We need to communicate that our understanding of Scripture, sexuality, and spirituality is imperfect. We continue to learn. Try to find relationships where you can ask questions and listen, where they can ask questions of you. Those questions are invaluable for the journey. When you talk about Jesus and invite people to the hope of the gospel, check your own heart. Recognize that you have plenty of sin. If you think you're better than this person, something's wrong. Realize that we all need grace.

Own your sin with your gay friends. Our sin is on the same list, no better and no worse than any other sin in the Bible. Figure out how to be a compassionate friend. While you stand in truth and grace, stand in love and walk with them. God has to give you a lot of discernment.

Following Jesus if you're gay

The bigger question is, How do you follow Jesus faithfully if you are gay? Our sexuality is formed in a complicated context. There's no simple answer. But we're on a common journey, and plenty of people are trying to walk out their sexuality in faithfulness to Christ. Your struggle might not be their struggle, but we're all struggling. And we could try to say which one's worse. I want to pretend to do that. I would simply say there's a common journey here of what it means to be faithful to Christ.

Second, Jesus can be trusted, and he loves you, right where you are. The gospel declares that we can be fulfilled in Christ. He alone is our hope. And anything we try to replace him with will ultimately disappoint us. How do I do this? Here are the options.

Be faithful to Christ with your sexuality. If you feel that you're homosexual, then God calls you to live a life of singleness, unless he changes that in you and you find yourself attracted to the opposite sex. Then he calls you to live faithfully in a heterosexual marriage for life. If God calls you to live a life of singleness, won't you be lonely? Yes, you're going to be lonely. If I had preached this message ten years ago, I would have come up with reasons why you wouldn't experience loneliness. But I have a disabled daughter who now is 20, and I watch her struggle with loneliness. I walk with her in that loneliness, and her life's going to have a lot of loneliness in it. But I trust that God's in the loneliness. I don't know why she's that way, why he allowed that. I know it's our gift to walk with her for the rest of our lives. So yes, I think you will be lonely.

I know what I'm saying is difficult to you. I can only reconcile this by inviting you on a journey of trusting God with the deepest needs of your life. There are people who will walk with you, who are walking the same journey as you. The Bible doesn't always give us a satisfying answer to questions like this. I can only see three ways of using the Bible in this issue:

  1. You can change what it says. I've read a lot of the arguments that say that homosexual practice is compatible with the Bible. But these arguments aren't very strong. They don't deal well with the text. I want to have integrity when interpreting the text.
  2. You can reject the Bible. That's an option. You can say, "I don't like it. I don't believe it. I'm not going to follow it."
  3. Or you can trust that the whole of Scripture is true. There's a good God with good intentions for you. He loves you as you are, but his commands call you to live a life you don't understand.


We try to make sense of what the Bible says in light of what we feel or what our culture tells us. The truth is that you're a man or a woman who's loved by God. You're made in his image, and you are called to be fulfilled by your Creator through a life of worship and communion and thankfulness. Jesus, not our sexuality, is the hope of your soul, just like he's the hope of my soul. Jesus is with us when we fail, when we doubt, when we fear, when we're lonely, and when we trust him. And he can be trusted.

When Jesus talked about sexual immorality, he clearly taught that all sex outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage is sin. Yet as clear as he was about that, he was compassionate towards people, towards prostitutes and adulterers and people who lived all kinds of sinful lives. He had compassion toward the broken, so much so that he died for us. He went to the cross for us. He died for sinners like us. Jesus Christ lived a celibate life for 33 years as a single man who found fulfillment and hope in relationship with the Father. He was faithful to the Father even in moments he didn't understand, like in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said, "If there's any way other than going to the cross, take this cup from me." But in the same breath he prayed, "Not my will, but your will be done." In that obedience that caused him to suffer, he was raised from the dead as our glorified King. He bought us freedom from the mirror, freedom from our inward bent, freedom to stand up as sons and daughters of God—not heterosexual sons and gay sons, just sons; not straight and lesbian daughters, just daughters.

I hope this doesn't make the list of the most hurtful things you're heard behind the pulpit. This church is not anti-gay or anti-anybody. We are trying to faithfully live with integrity to the Bible, with integrity to the loving gospel of Christ in our culture. We're imperfect, but we try to live it out. Today I'm asking not just those of you who are homosexual but everyone in this room: have you found freedom in Christ? Have you found that he is the ultimate hope? Or are you still finding fulfillment through your sexuality? That's a question we have to wrestle with as we leave here today. We are promised that he is ready to be your hope.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Rejecting moral superiority

II. Finding our identity in Christ

III. Admitting that we're all sinners

IV. Living in gospel freedom

V. Loving gay friends

VI. Following Jesus if you're gay