In Search of Holistic Ethics: A Chinese Pastor Considers Sexual Identity and the Christian Faith, Part 2

As the Chinese house church grows, so does its desire and ability to engage with questions of ethics, morality, and identity not only on China’s social landscape, but on the global stage as well. This is the second post in a series by a Chinese house church pastor engaging issues concerning homosexuality and the Christian faith not only in his Chinese context, but also in the light of Western developments. This series was originally published on the pastor’s personal blog in 2007, and updated and republished this past summer. This post has been edited to contain excerpts from the original due to its length. You can read the first post in the series at In Search of Holistic Ethics: A Chinese Pastor Considers Sexual Identity and the Christian Faith, Part 1.

Christians believe that the value of marriage and sex are grounded within the blessing and boundary of God's relationship with man. If homosexuality simply stopped at individual behaviors, Christians would not request the government to mandatorily rectify these ethical behaviors. Liberal political scientists hold the same position, and it conforms to the Bible's teaching. At the same time, when a Christian says homosexuality is a sin of lustfulness, he must admit that he is also sinful. Jesus said, "Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery." This is not a Confucian prohibition on external behavior. The opposite of lustfulness is holiness. God's purpose is to call people to be holy. In other words, love and holiness are connected together. Therefore the Bible teaches, "You shall love your wife as you love your own body." If there is no God, when you have evil thoughts in your heart, you can pretend you did not betray your wife. But if there is a God, or as the ancient Chinese say, "The heaven knows, the earth knows, you know and I know," the evil in our hearts not only leads to adultery in God's eyes, it has also caused harm in our spouse's life. Actions committed against our own body are equivalent to actions against our wife's body; actions in our own souls are actions done before God. Therefore I am just the same as my gay friends; we have all committed adultery. [The only difference is] that I have never been subjected to such a special temptation like homosexuality; hence, I do not understand their dejection and misery. I would rather take on Christian writer C.S. Lewis's posture - do not criticize others for sins with which you have never been tested. But I have been tempted by lust, and from these ordinary lustful sins, I understand the bondage and predicament behind such addictive sins. When a Christian says homosexuality is a sin, I think he should first come from a position of mercy, not from a position of self-righteous disgust. Homosexuality is indeed a sin, but it does not mean that the existence of homosexuality automatically magnifies the righteousness of straight people.

But same-sex marriage is no longer an individual ethical behavior. Whether you are a Christian or not, I believe you would admit that marriage is one of the very few values, traditions, and basic social institutions that is universally acknowledged in human society and history. It is also an individual behavior approved and institutionalized by the laws of nation states. My point is, Christians also do not approve of mandatory restrictions on a gay person’s external behavior because sexual relationships are an ethical issue. Unethical sexual relationships exhibit an offense against the Holy One and cause internal suffering of individuals, but not external harms against society. Therefore this topic should not be “politicized.” But when gay supporters further request society to legalize their relations, request others to ethically and legally recognize their co-habitation relationship as “marriage,” that is requesting society to approve and institutionalize an ethical issue. At that point, in light of my Christian ethics, I must strongly oppose any public policies that approve of “gay marriage.”

Some people say, “Your belief that homosexuality is unethical constitutes a type of forced moral value.” I think that the effort to legalize homosexual [marriage] is actually an imposition on my values. You can make an analogy between ethics and aesthetics because they are both non-political. Just like an unattractive individual, we can agree that he should not receive any systematic discrimination and prejudice. But we have the right to hold our own aesthetic judgments outside of the law, like continuing to believe that he is very unattractive. My aesthetic judgment is only a type of public opinion, not a forced moral value. No one can avoid other people’s aesthetic criticism; it is even more difficult to avoid other people’s ethical criticism. But when an unattractive individual requests the legislature to pass a resolution that requires other people to call him handsome, his request would actually constitute a coercion of the aesthetic judgment of most members in society. He would be attempting to turn an aesthetic judgment into a legal judgment, to bring an issue unrelated to the state into the territory of law enforcement.

It is exactly because the Bible considers homosexuality immoral that Christians believe that legalizing... same-sex marriage is not an answer to their pain. In other words, the state and the law are not their savior. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage are in fact opposing a gay utopia, a nationalistic utopia, and a legislative utopia. Most people’s view of marriage is similar to their aesthetic values. This is a social and historical truth. If you support a gay person to achieve legalization by drawing on public opinion, it would be equivalent to agreeing that the state has the power to pass judgment on ethical differences. Then your thinking is exactly the view of “caesaropapism” (the idea of combining political power with religious power)…

You may say, “Gay individuals should best seek other types of protection, such as a series of financial and inheritance contracts. The law should protect these contracts.” I also agree. When it comes to financial contract protections provided by the law, homosexuality certainly should not be a reason for discrimination...

Pilgrims, you have mentioned, "I know the teachings of Christianity, it requires interferences like the ones Li Ying He wrote about on sexual behaviors." But if by "interference" you meant interference by force, then it is not compatible with the teachings of Christianity…

If there were religious freedom in China, then the Christian churches would certainly be a force of moral conservatism in public life. The churches and their members, coming from a biblical worldview and ethics, perhaps will publicly criticize and object to certain social issues. But to seek mandatory government intervention on specific individual behaviors, that would be contrary to the Christian way of the cross. In other words, if mandatory intervention works, Christ would not need to be crucified. But take a step back, even when public opinion requires certain individual behaviors to be legally regulated, in a democratic society, as long as these opinions were expressed in a non-coercive way, they are permitted. For example, there was a conservative Christian faction in American history who successfully passed a prohibition amendment to the Constitution. I do not agree with this type of legislative lobbying, but I have to admit that in a democratic system, it is still acceptable to use lobbying to bring about constitutional changes. If you disagree with this amendment, you could only use lobbying to repeal this prohibition. In the end, prohibition was repealed by another amendment to the Constitution.

Besides taking a conservative and non-coercive ethical position in public, the church's internal discipline of its members is also non-coercive. Imagine a Christian who practices homosexuality, or is having an extramarital affair; a church that is loyal to God's word should point out that such behaviors are contrary to the teachings of the Bible. The church should not compromise (although that is certainly an option – and currently more and more churches have begun to compromise). The church and believers should encourage and help him, hoping that he will confess his sin and helplessness before God, rely on God's mercy to change himself, and return to a life of holiness and freedom (you may realize that our definition and understanding of freedom is a little different). In the end, churches should also exercise discipline of believers who refuse to repent. These disciplines are done according to the principles of the Bible, but they also comply with social limitations. Therefore they do not include any physical coercion.

There are two main disciplinary actions: first is the exclusion from the Lord's Supper, and second is excommunication - no longer treating him as a member of the church. These are similar to the practices of internal warning and expulsion in other social organizations. If you call this "intervention," then the church does indeed "intervene" with a believer's ethical life. The church has the power and the duty to express plainly its objection to unethical behaviors. The goal is not to show off its own righteousness, but rather to redeem and regain our brothers in love. If there is a church who clearly knows that its believers are behaving contrary to God's commands, but pretends to be unaware of the situation and fails to point this out, then it is no longer a church of Jesus, but only a human club.

Whether in public or within its own congregation, the church of Jesus should take a morally conservative stance. This would certainly create moral pressure on others. But even in terms of liberal philosophy, the development of such pressure is acceptable. For those who are different from or even opposite from us, any of their values or lifestyles could constitute a certain pressure. Like a colleague who does not accept bribes, or a doctor who does not prescribe useless drugs, they all make other people uneasy. But what is to be done. I cannot change my ethical position just so that you can live more freely. I cannot lie just so that you can be more comfortable. This is true freedom of religion and thoughts. Anybody's freedom of religion and thought could create external pressure on the opinions of other people. As long as this pressure does not result in coercion or domination, it is compatible with the principles of liberalism. But there is currently a type of "politically correct" ideology, which believes more and more strongly that if there is any external pressure, it constitutes intolerance. If there is any criticism, it constitutes intolerance. If you do not hold a pluralistic value, it constitutes intolerance. It would be best if there were no Christians, no Muslims, completely doing away with any type of people who insist on a specific ethical value, [for] then society will have harmony in complete relativism. Honestly, this leftist "politically correct" view is the worst kind of intolerance, similar to the ones proposed by the Communist Party.

…Honestly, when we say, "Freedom is doing anything not prohibited by the law," the freedom in this sentence is strongly influenced by European rationalism and romanticism. Although it has always been considered a classic liberal description of personal freedom, in fact, it repeats the same meaning twice. I have never paid much attention to this, but when the word freedom is used interchangeably with rights, you will notice the difference. The rights in English Common Law are rooted in traditions, not the result of logical deductions. As a result, you can see that there are countless things permitted under the law (i.e. things that the government had no rights to coerce).

But a citizen's constitutional rights, in any constitution of the world, only add up to little more than ten items, because constitutional rights are legal expressions of freedoms that took shape through history, tested and challenged in history, and cherished and defended by mankind. They are not imagined or deduced from logic, nor are they only a cover for "freedoms" which have no deep-rooted traditions at all.

The state cannot interfere in homosexual behavior because each person has his or her own personal and property rights. These two constitutional rights, privacy and property, formulate a firewall that protects any voluntary behavior between adults inside private properties (incest, group sex, homosexual activity, and another others) from government coercion or scrutiny. In other words, the law can only ignore these behaviors. This does not mean that I see them; I only admit that these behaviors themselves comprise a category of constitutional rights.

…When Miss Li Ying He advocates for the “non-criminality” of homosexual behavior and many other voluntary sexual acts, I fully agree and support her. When her freedom of speech is subjected to discrimination, humiliation, and even repression, I support her all the more. This is also compatible with the Bible’s teaching. In the story of the prostitute Mary Magdalene, Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus did not deny that prostitution is a sin before God, but in an unusual way, he again affirmed that prostitution is indeed a sin. But what Christ questioned is our right to judge. We are all sinners; even as I have said earlier, we are all adulterers. Therefore Christians will continue to insist that homosexuality is a sin, but we would also insist that whether it is gay people or prostitutes, they should not be stoned by anybody in this world (I meant real stoning, not stoning as a metaphor for verbal accusation). Therefore, I fully support the rights of same-sex couples. It is their right not to be arrested, fined, detained, sentenced, or other measures of discrimination. This is “non-criminality,” or in my own words, “non-incrimination.”

We can also use the concepts of "negative liberty" and "positive liberty" to look at this problem. You can say, "I agree with gay rights." This is a type of non-mandatory, negative right, not a type of rights that are gained by legally and actively removing all other obstacles. To be honest, I do not totally agree with Berlin's dichotomy of two liberties, because a citizen's constitutional right is never a negative liberty; it is by all means positively achieved. It is a right reached by wielding the most powerful sword to cut away all illegal obstructions. Take freedom of speech as an example - my right is not activated only when the government legislatively interferes, limits, or cancels my freedom of expression. Instead, when the opportunities and effects of my expression are affected at any level, I can request to remove this type of obstruction. I can request that all of government's activities must be subjected to the scrutiny of the constitutional rights of its citizens. Would you qualify this as negative or positive?

…The validation of rights has in fact amounted to the most powerful discourses in Chinese society in the last decade. When people righteously say, "I have a right to such and such," the social atmosphere of this expression has already implied an ethical component. In other words, people have begun to unwittingly ethicize "rights." "I have a right to such and such" only expresses that your behavior is not subjected to public constraint; it does not mean that your behavior is ethically justifiable. It also does not mean that your behavior is worthy of people's respect; it definitely does not mean that your behavior can be free from public opinion and criticism.

Christians are exactly a group of people who will ethically criticize and object to any same-sex, incest, transactional, group, premarital, and extramarital sexual behavior. In spite of the fact that before I believed in the Lord, I too practiced premarital cohabitation. I have repented such wanton sins and wept bitterly over such behavior. If you have bitterly wept and repented before God, you have certainly have seen tears turn from bitter to sweet, hearing the music of forgiveness and grace.

Incest and homosexuality are not constitutional rights. But pilgrims, the last point is only something I've considered more recently. I apologize that I could only offer the above summary, and was not able to offer more powerful arguments.