I remember the first time I encountered the word ‘homophobia’. It was on the back of a bus I was driving behind in Liverpool, in an advert placed by the police encouraging people to report ‘hate crimes’. It was in a list of other hate crimes including racism and sexism. After a moment of puzzlement over what this neologism could possibly mean (‘fear of the same thing’, literally; what on earth is that?) I of course worked it out. And immediately the significance of this as a rhetorical move became clear.
This was a new word invented to place opposition to gay rights (as they were still mostly known back then, a whole decade ago) in the same category as racism; and to render such a position equally socially unacceptable. It does so by rolling together a number of distinct things in a single concept in such a way that the word cannot be used at all – either positively or negatively – without inherently supporting the LGBT agenda. And therein lies its problem for Christians. We cannot deny that we are homophobic without denying things which Christians must not deny; and we cannot affirm that we are homophobic without affirming things that Christians must not affirm. Let me unpack this.
Words carry and communicate concepts, and the word and the concept of ‘homophobia’ contains and combines at least three elements. First, the suffix ‘phobia’ implies an irrational horror, as in ‘arachnophobia’: an involuntary revulsion at the idea of homosexual acts. Second, a personal animosity, even hatred, towards those who identify as ‘homosexual’. Third, a belief in the moral wrongness of homosexual acts. The first of these is clear from the choice of construction of the word; the second is obvious from the fact that it is conceived of as a hate crime, and has perhaps become most commonly associated with bullying; the third has been amply demonstrated by the reaction of LGBT campaigners to those who hold a principled objection to, for example, the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of clergy in gay relationships. Yesterday’s news about and reactions to the decision of an Anglican diocese not to appoint a bishop because he is in a same-sex relationship provided a classic example.
And therein lies the reason why the word is an impossible trap for Christians. For at the heart of the Christian gospel is the atonement: Jesus Christ gave up his life, in obedience to his father, to bear the wrath of God which otherwise justly would have landed on those who richly deserved it. And in so doing, God made peace. Therefore the Christian gospel both condemns sin and proclaims peace, love and forgiveness to the sinner, if he or she will hear Christ’s call and respond. Jesus Christ, by his death and resurrection, has broken the link between our actions and our status before God. So God condemns the sin still, but because he condemned it in Christ’s flesh (Romans 8:3) the gospel is one of mercy and forgiveness towards all of us sinners.
Now this applies equally to every Christian. Sin, and the desire to sin, is universal. Homosexual acts, and the desire to commit them, is just one example, albeit a serious one. Knowing ourselves to be forgiven sinners, saved by grace, transforms how we relate to every other human being. Christ’s message to us was to repent and believe; to recognise that our actions have deserved death, and to trust in Christ who died in our place as our only, and our certain, hope. And so Christ’s message through us to everyone else is the same: to repent and believe. Recognise that your actions have been wrong, and trust in Christ who in infinite love for you promises forgiveness if you will leave them and follow him instead.
It makes perfect sense for non-Christians to assume that, if you believe an actions is wrong, you will inevitably despise those who do them. But that makes no sense at all for Christians. We affirm that the actions are indeed wrong, and the desire to do them is sinful; and we love those who (just as we did) do such things and we seek nothing but their good. This belief in the reality of sin, and this fundamental orientation towards sinners, is part of the irreducible core of Christianity.
On top of that Christianity has a nuanced and glorious understanding of our conscience. God made us with a natural sense (written on our heart, Romans 2:15) of what is right and wrong. This sense is largely intact in all human beings but also significantly damaged in all human beings. So a natural revulsion to sinful acts – especially sexual sins – is good and to be expected, but it is by no means a trustworthy guide on its own, without reference to God’s laws in Scripture, to right action. So to find the thought of sodomy (sorry to use the word, but there is no real substitute) revolting is not wrong, and is indeed a right reflection of the laws of God, which God may use to keep us from sin or make us aware of our own guilt; but it absolutely does not justify acting in anything but love towards those guilty of it or tempted by it.
So then, are Christians homophobic? We need to consider separately the three elements the word rolls together. So first, many Christians indeed find the thought of homosexual acts revolting, and they are not wrong to do so. But some do not, and that does not make the acts permissible. Second, to act in animosity or hatred towards another human being, a sinner like ourselves, and like ourselves an image of God, is a denial of everything Christianity is. We are instead to show them love and proclaim to them Jesus’ good news of mercy, forgiveness and freedom from sin. And third, we must repent of our sins which includes recognising that God’s laws stand over us, and we cannot change them; so yes, we must affirm the wrongness of homosexual acts. Indeed, this is part of being truly loving; for with all of God’s laws, breaking them looks to us like freedom but in reality it is slavery which leads to death. Embracing a homosexual lifestyle is no exception.
So on the first count we may or may not be homophobic, and if we are, we are not wrong to be; on the second we certainly are not; and on the third we definitely are. But the whole point of the word is to roll all three together in such a way that we cannot make those distinctions. On the terms of an LGBT-affirming society, of course we are homophobic, on at least one count, and quite possibly two; and the effect of the word is to imply that if we’re guilty in either the third or the first sense, we’re certainly guilty of the second. One might say, the word might as well have been invented – and quite possibly was – to make it impossible to speak either way on the matter without abandoning those distinctions. It is a piece of rhetorical sleight of hand which we accept uncritically at our peril.
Which means that the only course open to us is to refuse to use the word. Attempts to deny that we are homophobic (such as this recent article from Desiring God) inevitably end up denying what we must not deny, about God’s good laws for humanity and his good design of humanity in the makeup of our conscience. And of course, we cannot simply affirm that we are homophobic, for that is to accept an accusation that we hate gay people which is, quite simply, not true; worse, it is to deny the good news our Lord himself has commanded us to proclaim to a sinful but beloved world.
Rather we need to call out the rhetorical move that this word entails. When asked ‘Are Christians homophobic’, we must refuse to accept the premise of the question. We proclaim a gospel of love, far more profound, real, transformative and permanent than the false love proclaimed by the LGBT version. We cannot accept the language of non-Christians here without capitulating to a non-Christian way of thinking. Let us use the language Christ gave us instead. Let us call people to repent and believe the good news, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.