Sometimes, Christians can happily agree to differ with one another. At other times, the gospel itself is at stake.
The Bible allows for disagreements on a number of issues. In Romans 14, Paul speaks about ‘disputable matters’ and calls on his readers to be convinced in their own mind what they think (Romans 14:5). But Paul also argues that some issues are non-negotiable, because the gospel is at stake. In 1 Corinthians 15, he reminds his readers of the ‘matters of first importance’ that he had earlier taught them and which stood at the heart of their gospel faith (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Into which category do same-sex sexual relationships fit? Does it affect the gospel?
Two passages indicate that this is a gospel issue.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul’s reference to homosexual practice comes in the context of warning his readers that the unrighteous will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9). In this category he includes those who practise homosexuality. Along with all who are unrighteous, such people are heading for destruction. Their only hope is the gospel, which will involve receiving a new identity in Christ and repenting of their former lifestyle.
To deny this has huge consequences. It is not the same order of disagreement as Christians have over, say, baptism, or the role of women in church leadership. In the case of homosexual practice, the gospel is very much at stake. A church leader who teaches that even certain kinds of homosexual activity are okay is actually encouraging people towards destruction (whether that is their intention or not). Homosexual practice is not unique in this regard – Paul also mentions greed, and adultery. Homosexual practice is very serious, but it is not the only kind of sin that is.
In the case of homosexual practice, the gospel is very much at stake.
In Revelation 2, Jesus rebukes the church in Thyatira for their tolerance of a false teacher:
‘I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practise sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.’
This is someone whose teaching leads others in the Church into sexual sin. Jesus warns that he will judge her, and any of her followers who do not repent (v. 22). But he also rebukes the whole church in Thyatira – including the many who do not follow her (v.24) – because they ‘tolerate’ her.
Some forms of tolerance are sinful. We must not tolerate in our churches those professing Christian teachers whose teaching leads people into sexual sin. If we treat this as a matter of acceptable disagreement within our fellowships, Jesus will hold it against us. As Christians, it is right that we engage such teaching where we come across it. Of course, we must take pains to understand it carefully. But ultimately, we must seek to persuade people that such teaching does not agree with the Bible and is therefore not appropriate in church.
In the Bible, sexuality is part of the architecture of the gospel, because heterosexual marriage is designed to point us to the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32). It is why the Bible insists on marriage being between a man and a woman (and sex being designed exclusively for this context), and on Christians having to marry fellow-believers.1 Corinthians 6 and Revelation 2 both show how important this is. The Bible’s teaching on sexuality is not an issue over which Christians can agree to disagree. In our disagreements, the gospel is at stake.
But the importance of this issue should not blind us to other issues that are similarly serious. There is no excuse for Christians singling out homosexuality for special condemnation. The Bible insists we are all sinners, and all sexual sinners. We all alike are hopeless apart from the grace of God – transforming grace that is freely available to all of us.