It has been reported that leaders of the Anglican Church in Ghana are supporting a parliamentary bill that would strengthen harsh criminal sentences in Ghana for same-sex sexual activity, criminalise people who advocate for LGBT rights, and even punish people just for identifying as LGBT.
At Living Out, we do not currently have any direct relationships with leaders within the Church in Ghana but we are seeking the opportunity to dialogue with them as our brothers and sisters in Christ to share our deep concerns about this draft law.
Criminalisation of same-sex activity and therefore of LGBT people around the world is very real. According to the Human Dignity Trust, there are 71 jurisdictions around the world that treat consensual same-sex activity as crimes, including several in which the penalty for it is death. It therefore seems timely to set out why at Living Out we are opposed to criminalisation, even though we believe that Scripture teaches that God’s good gift of sexual intimacy belongs only in the context of marriage between a woman and a man. In this short blog post, I would like to focus on four reasons.
1. LGBT people, like all of us, should be treated with dignity and respect.
LGBT people are made by God in his image and are precious to him. They should be treated accordingly. In John 4, we read about Jesus’s conversation with a woman who was living with a man to whom she was not married (verse 18). Whilst Jesus does gently challenge her about this, what is remarkable and beautiful about their conversation is the respect with which Jesus, a Jewish man, treats her, a Samaritan woman. Far from treating her as a criminal, he makes himself vulnerable to her by asking for a drink of water and taking her theological questions and thinking seriously.
As a result of their conversation, many other people believe in Jesus (verses 39-41). Treating people with dignity and respect is the way to lead people to faith and obedience to Jesus. Treating people as criminals is far more likely to drive them away.
2. Jesus saved someone who had committed sexual sin from brutal punishment.
In John 8, we read about Jesus’s meeting with a woman who had been caught in the act of committing adultery. The penalty for this under the Law in the Hebrew Bible was death by stoning (verse 5). Some of the religious leaders try to catch Jesus out by seeing whether he will really uphold the Law (verse 6). But, as we’ll see in a moment, Jesus challenges them in such a way that they go away without harming her. He then reassures her that he does not condemn her either (verse 11). Just as with the woman at the well, Jesus does not ignore the fact she sinned, or endorse it: he famously tells her to ‘go and sin no more.’ But even this challenge is in the context of his rescue and reassurance of her.
Elsewhere in his teaching, Jesus is actually stricter about sexual morality than the Law of the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Matthew 5:27-28 and 31-32). But he did not apply the penalties of the Law to those who had committed sexual sin. Indeed, quite the reverse: on the cross, he bore the penalties of the Law upon himself.
Following the example of Jesus therefore means standing against the criminalisation of sexual sin, rather than supporting it.
3. Criminalising same-sex activity but not other forms of sexual immorality is unjust.
Of course, there are actions that should be treated as crimes, including sexual crimes such as rape. But (not least because of the example of Jesus in John 8) we do not and should not treat consensual sexual sins such as premarital sex or adultery as crimes. Whilst they are sinful and harmful in various ways, we recognise that God has given us scope to make our own choices, and ultimately it is God who holds us all to account for our deeds. Law cannot control all behaviour or enforce moral standards.
At Living Out, we believe that consensual same-sex activity is no more sinful or harmful than consensual sexual activity outside marriage between two people of the opposite sex. We may not approve of it, but it is unjust to treat one form of consensual sexual activity more severely than another, simply because it is between people of the same sex.
4. We are all sexual sinners, and are not entitled to condemn others.
In the episode just mentioned in John 8, the way that Jesus persuaded the religious leaders not to harm the woman was by confronting them with the fact that they, too, were sinners: ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’ (John 8:7, NIV). Elsewhere, Jesus teaches us to treat other people the way we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). The point is, we are all sexual sinners. We all deserve to be in the same place as the woman caught in adultery. How then could we presume to punish those who have committed sexual sin, when we deserve to be punished ourselves?
What might we do in the light of this? Most of us won’t be in a position to influence church leaders, let alone legislators, in the places in which same-sex activity is currently criminalised. But we can consider doing three things:
- Pray for LGBT+ people around the world who frequently experience mistreatment and abuse as well as criminalisation.
- Consider supporting efforts to de-criminalise same-sex activity around the world.
- Ensure you are equipped to offer unconditional compassionate support to LGBT+ people in your own community and networks.