Larry Smith

President Bill Clinton implemented the (in)famous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy regarding gays and lesbians who served — or desired to serve — in the military. The policy, which later was expanded to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue, Don’t Harass,” was in effect from February 1994 to September 2011. (Historically speaking, homosexual activity among active service members had been banned since the Revolutionary War.) While DADT did not undo this policy completely, it allowed gays and lesbians to serve unless they disclosed their sexuality or were convincingly “outed.” However, superior officers were no longer allowed to ask about service members’ sexuality.  

Some viewed DADT as Clinton’s “Solomon-esque” compromise between religiously conservative Americans on one hand, and an increasingly vocal (and influential) LGBTQ community on the other. Neither side was completely satisfied — which is often the nature of compromises. (I am aware that this situation is much more nuanced than “two sides”; I use this terminology for the sake of simplicity and brevity.) President Obama repealed DADT as of September 20, 2011, clearing the way for gays and lesbians to serve proudly and openly. 

Speaking of King Solomon, a de facto version of DADT has long been the policy of the Black church. As is true with most of us who were reared in church, I vividly recall various members who were obviously gay — or who people strongly assumed were gay. (Many of them were music directors or choir members.) Pastors tended to ignore these members’ sexuality, as did most everyone else in the church. In fact, in-depth discussions of sexuality of any type were generally avoided. The exception, of course, was when preachers inveighed against homosexuality during sermons (e.g., “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”). 

While the Bible identifies multiple sexual sins, the sad reality is that homosexuality tended to be — and often still is — singled out more frequently than others. (As I would begin to understand, there were myriad reasons for this fact.) Unfortunately, space constraints will not allow me to express nearly as much as I would like to regarding this theologically, socially and emotionally fraught topic. Thus, I will offer a few thoughts and then patiently wait for the inexorable blowback — from “both sides.”

To begin, the Bible clearly identifies homosexual activity as sinful. Whether one believes it should be identified as such is not the point; any plain and intellectually honest understanding of the Bible (in both the Old Testament and the New Testament) leads to this conclusion. (Importantly, it is not clear whether being gay is a sin; the textual focus is on behavior.) Similarly, even if one does not believe in the concept of “sin,” the Bible expressly, repeatedly and unmistakably advances this notion. There is even a branch of theological study — hamartiology — that focuses on the advent, nature and consequences of sin. Indeed, there is no soteriology (i.e., the doctrine salvation wrought by Christ) without hamartiology. 

My purpose herein is expressly not to argue the “rightness” or “wrongness” of homosexual behavior, despite the biblical proscriptions against it; I am merely asserting that such is the case. (I understand that, despite the objective clarity of this statement, I will be accused of advocating discrimination.) Further, there are those who argue that the Bible identifies many sins — such as the wearing of wool and linen together, eating pork, etc. — to which Christians pay little (or no) attention. The problem with this argument is that Christians, based upon the dicta of both Jesus Christ and Apostle Paul, are not to adhere to most of the prohibitions of the Mosaic Law. Many people advance such arguments out of genuine ignorance; others do so out of genuine intellectual dishonesty. 

The Black church grapples with a wide range of challenges regarding sex (e.g., non-marital sex, adultery, sexual orientation, gender identity, rape and predation within the church, pedophilia, etc.) Though the issue of sex — and sexual misdeeds — often dominate headlines, it is just one of the seemingly innumerable minefields (and mind-fields) through which church leaders must navigate. 

Further, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is a much-maligned aphorism. Yet, it is the sine qua non — the essential element — of the Gospel message. Why? First, if there were no such thing as “sin,” there would be no need for the One (i.e., Jesus Christ) who redeemed humanity from the consequences of sin (i.e., hell). Second, the “greatest commandment” is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. The corollary is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Thus, while “love the sinner, hate the sin” has been applied far too narrowly in the past, its centrality to Christianity cannot be overstated — or dismissed. It applies equally to every thought or act that the Bible identifies as sin. Period.

Finally, it is imperative not to conflate affirmation with love. 1 Corinthians 13 is, in my view, the greatest explication of the importance, nature and application of love ever conceived. It is as uncompromising as it is clear. Nowhere does it offer us an “out” for failing to love each other; and nowhere does it offer us an “in” to affirm that which the Bible identifies as sin. I do not view any sexual sin as worse than any other — including my adultery that ultimately led to my divorce. And I genuinely love my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, binary or otherwise, as I do every member of the human family. 

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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