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Homosexuality: dimensions of the issue in church and society in Namibia.

Just how prevalent is homosexuality in Namibia today? Is it a consciously learned behaviour, or is it related to inherited hormonal and genetic influences? Is homosexuality a condition that can be changed by appropriate pastoral counselling and psychological treatment? How is the traditional bias in African civilization towards heterosexuality related to African religion, Judaeo-Christian scriptures and Islamic religion? How should the Christian church and religious communities respond pastorally to homosexuals? Should Christians support the decriminalization of private acts between two consenting adult homosexuals? Should they call for ensuring the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms, as outlined in the Namibian constitution?

These are some of the crucial questions on the subject of homosexuality which call for careful reflection by Christians and religious communities in Namibia today. For example, the Namibian constitution affords both men and women equal rights to choose a partner in marriage and to found a family. Article 14 states that "marriage shall be entered into only with free and full consent of the intending spouses". One could argue that this statement, especially the term spouses, establishes a constitutional right for homosexual marriage.

In this discussion, I shall address the issue of homosexuality by first offering an overview of how the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia (Elcrn) is trying to deal with the issue, then outlining the African perspective that human relationships define human identity. In the third and fourth parts I shall bring these perspectives into dialogue with the use of scriptures and apply them to Christian morality.

The report of the theological committee of Elcrn

The Theological Committee of the Elcrn submitted a report to the meeting of the general synod of Elcrn in September 1993. Here are some extracts from that report:

On January 25, 1993 the Theological Committee submitted to the Elcrn

Church Council a letter that dealt with the issue of homosexuality and

Committee informed the Church Council about two resolutions taken by

the Committee, namely

- To write a letter of enquiry to the Lutheran World Federation (LWF,

in order to find out what the ecumenical family of Lutherans are

saying on this issue.

- The Committee reminds the Church Council that there might be cases of

homosexual/lesbian relationships in our own church and suggests that

the Church Council should take up this issue; otherwise the Church

Council might ordain homosexual/lesbian persons

without knowing it.

The first resolution is taken with a view to investigating the issue

from a theological/biblical point of view. We want to do such research

from an ecumenical point of view and have,

for this reason, contacted the LWF Department of Theological Studies.

The second resolution is taken with the expectation that the Church

Council should deal with the issue from a pastoral counselling

perspective. In other words, that the Church

Council should talk pastorally with those who might have such

relationships. Furthermore, the Church Council will know our

present and future co-workers much better, and they are

in a unique situation because they deal with the life-situations of our

present and future coworkers almost on a daily basis.

Against this background six recommendations were made to the Elcrn synod.

1. From a biblical perspective in Genesis 1 and 2 the community is

described under the four main aspects:

- the human being is created as woman and man:

- woman and man have the gift of fertility;

- the community of woman and man helps to overcome loneliness:

- woman and man are together called to live responsibly in the world.

This shows that the will of the Creator is for the human experience of

sexual happiness, in its full sense, to be found only in a marriage which

can possibly in a family. Therefore,

Elcrn, has to reconfirm that there is, according to the biblical

witness. no alternative result of the same value of marriage or celibacy.

2. Elcrn should not reject people because they are homosexuals, but

compassion and understanding should be revealed and extended.

3. When a homosexual person applies to the Paulinum Seminary for

theological studies which will result in ordination, such an

application should be rejected. The reason is that

church co-workers must be aware that their service is public. They

bring an extra personal potential of conflict with them. They should

therefore ask themselves if they would be better

looking for a job outside the church. The homosexual church co-worker

must know, that he or she does not have the right to live his/her

sexuality openly in the congregation.

4. If it becomes known after ordination that a pastor is a practicing

homosexual, then such a pastor should be allowed, preferably, to

do administrative duties within Elcrn, but should

not be allowed to preach or to administer the sacraments.

5. Any Elcrn congregation will face problems, division, confusion and

separation if it becomes known that a pastor or a church co-worker

is homosexual. Therefore, for the sake

of church unity, if it becomes known that a pastor is homosexual then

the Church Council should pastorally talk to such an individual It will

be expected that such a person resign from being a pastor.

6. Finally, we recommend that these recommendations should be discussed

at congregational and circuit levels.

These recommendations were referred by the synod to the Church Board of the Elcrn so that they might be discussed at congregational and circuit levels. It should thus be clearly stated that the Elcrn has taken no policy decision on the issue of homosexuality. However, I have submitted the basic text of this article, along with the resolutions mentioned above, to church circles, where it is still being discussed.

An African understanding of human relationships

Culture is all around us. We live our lives by means of culture, just as a fish lives its life in water. To put it another way, culture is the storehouse of ways in which we create a meaningful world. We have to use those meanings across time as well. Culture is about what we do today as well as what our foreparents did yesterday. If their ways still work for us today, we are fortunate. If they do not work, then we need to devise new ways.

These ways of making sense of culture help us to understand what our world is about. In addition, these ways help us to understand who we are. Hence, people of African descent are characterized by their deep interest, first and foremost, in human relationships. African scholars such as Zephania Kameeta, Simon Maimela, John Mbiti, Mercy Oduyoye and Desmond Tutu agree that to be human means, in the African understanding and social context, to be a corporate being, a social being, a being in relation. This anthropology and socio-religious practice is based on the principle of inclusiveness rather than competition, so that the outstretched hand of the other does not grope in the void but finds in mine the support which is asked. It is in such a "being in relation" that we find mutual acceptance, the common joy, love, peace and reconciliation that enables us to be companions, associates, comrades, sisters, brothers, families and helpmates.

In African culture and religion a homosexual man or lesbian woman is first and foremost our brother or sister, with eyes, ears, hands and all that is human. He or she is not a second-class citizen or a second-class Christian but is, like any heterosexual. God's child, created in the image of God. In short, they need the recognition of social existence (Sozialitat).

However, the question that needs to be asked is whether homosexuality should be tolerated in light of the Word of God.

Reading the word of God today

The typology of how scriptures are used by Jewish and Christian people offered by James Gustafson constitutes a good entry point into our discussion, since both heterosexuals and homosexuals use the same scriptures.(1) I should like to address the question, "What is God doing in our contemporary history, and particularly in the debate on homosexuality?", in the light of the general principles Gustafson proposes. He begins by outlining four approaches:

1. The Scripture is taken to contain revealed truths and principles which the interpreter can apply to contemporary situations.

2. The Scripture is understood as enunciating moral ideals to which the believer aspires. These ideals are often associated with the promised fulfilment of history (the "kingdom of God") or to the designation of one nation or people as elect at the expense of others.

3. The Scripture is read as a record of right and wrong actions which can be applied to contemporary issues. For example, in the case of divorce one only needs to consult the Bible to know whether it is right or wrong.

4. The Scripture is regarded as containing a variety of moral values, norms and perspectives. These form an intellectual context for making ethical and political decisions. The aim in this case is to formulate a biblically-based theological anthropology and theology of history which informs socio-political and economic judgment.

Gustafson himself prefers the last of these approaches. It has a number of advantages: it avoids "literalism", the belief that the linguistic symbols of the text are unconditionally true and authoritative; it appropriates the diversity of Scripture exposed by modern critical scholarship; and it frees the reader to exercise responsibility and judgment.

For these reasons, I shall follow Gustafson's lead in this section.

The reading and understanding of the Scriptures today are done by taking into consideration the historical and social context in which they were written. For example, let us consider two texts from the Bible -- Exodus 21:16 and Galatians 3:26-28.

Exodus 21 reflects ancient Near Eastern family laws. It is impossible for us today to apply this law, which condones slavery and female subordination. The constitution of the Republic of Namibia states that "no persons shall be held in slavery or servitude" and "no persons may be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status" (Articles 9 and 10). Furthermore, the constitution explicitly recognizes the equal rights of women. They are legally entitled to enter into contracts without the consent of their husbands or fathers or partners, and they have the right to purchase, sell or bequeath property without the involvement of a man. The constitution also guarantees women equal pay for equal work, and accords equal rights to women and men in all aspects of marriage, including the right to divorce.

Against such protection of human and fundamental rights under the Namibian constitution -- which makes it very clear that the powers of parliament, the president and every other organ of the government and state are limited by these provisions -- we cannot argue from a scriptural point of view that according to Exodus 21 slavery is right. Even if Exodus 21 favours slavery, it is religiously and morally wrong today. This is even more so because God's world has -- through a long historical struggle -- undermined such institutions as slavery and made societies evolve towards equal dignity, justice and mutual love. Galatians 3 reflects the final stage of this process: in the new humanity willed by God there will be complete equality of dignity. Therefore, Galatians 3 states, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

What becomes clear is that religious texts should not be used as instruments of hatred or discrimination but as a source of social and spiritual renewal. Religion is essentially an accelerator of social change and not a brake on it. Armed with the Scripture as it relates to the praxis which does not allow theology to degenerate into sterile arguments about dogmatic belief, the good news -- the liberating praxis -- becomes a source that makes love of one's neighbour a manifestation of the love of God. In short, in order to formulate appropriate answers in all responsibility, one takes into serious consideration next to the Scriptures accounts of what is happening today.

Such appropriate answers could be developed by taking into consideration the following guidelines:

-- Do not fall back on simplistic, cut-and-dried responses to issues by quoting a certain scriptural text and terminating the discussion.

-- Recognize the fallibility of your own powers of reason and interpretation regarding the understanding of God's purposes for our world.

-- Listen to those sisters and brothers in the faith who are challenging us to reconsider positions encrusted by centuries of unquestioned assumptions; for example, the use of condoms by unmarried persons to prevent AIDS.

-- Be open to new discoveries regarding the nature of human sexual behaviour, for example, those related to homosexuality.

-- Reflect on the fact that godly women and men throughout church history have clearly been mistaken about some issues that seemed clear at that time. For example, Christianity sponsored a corps of solitary and celibate contemplatives, both women and men, and these people came to be considered as the Christian elite. Gradually celibacy was legislated for priests, and many official church documents praise virginity as a higher state than marriage. However, in Protestantism. ministerial celibacy was later attacked because marriage was necessary for the proper fulfilment of the commandment in Genesis to be fruitful.(3)

Finally, Scripture alone is never the final court of appeal on a contemporary issue. While taking the Scriptures very seriously one ought also to take into consideration contemporary events, human relationships and needs. All these factors provide the basic orientation towards particular judgments. In short, scripture deeply informs judgments but does not by itself determine what they ought to be. That determination is done by persons and communities as finite moral agents responsible to God.(4)

Christian sexual morality

By focusing on the network of relationships in which human beings find themselves, African anthropology has much to contribute to Christian sexual morality. While taking into consideration that Scripture informs decisions, one must bear in mind that the decisions themselves are taken by people as finite moral agents responsible to God. African anthropology reminds the church that what stands at the centre of the Scriptures and its message is the sense of social existence, mutual acceptance of each other, inclusiveness, common joy, gladness, love and peaceful co-existence. These African principles are not foreign to Christian religion, especially in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. But how do they apply to homosexuality?

It is of primary importance to note that the Hebrew Bible views sexual activity in a highly positive light, even reserving it for the sabbath, which was the high point of the traditional Jewish week, and nothing was too good for celebrating it. So the family would have its best meal on the sabbath, saving for this even when the times were hard. The whole family would go to the synagogue, there would be time for mild recreation and hospitality to the poor and less fortunate, and husband and wife were encouraged to make love at their leisure.(5)

During the first century, when the writings that now constitute the New Testament were widely circulated, both Jesus and Paul assumed that the time between the present and the eschaton, the final consummation, would be shoe. Thus in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul counselled Christians to stay in whatever state they were, whether single or married, and not to be concerned about or change that state. Jesus spoke of celibacy for the sake of the reign of God, and Paul preferred that Christians remain unmarried. Once the church had entrenched itself in history, this heritage complicated its position o n marriage and family life; and as a result sexuality and sexual activity have been seen in most periods of Christian history as a concession to human weakness. Balancing this, however, was a fundamental realization that Jesus had accepted the institution of marriage (though he himself apparently had not been married) and that marriage was necessary for the proper fulfilment of the command in Genesis 1:28 to "be fruitful and multiply".

Even into modern times, Christian sexual morality as interpreted by some churches has generally forbidden intercourse outside of marriage, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, masturbation and the distribution of erotic literature and pictures (cf. The Namibian, 14 July 1996). The predominant moral judgment has been that all of these are serious sins that break one's intimacy with God.

Within Protestantism, Martin Luther helped to liberate sexuality from the prison of a dualism that regarded "spirit" as good and "flesh" as ugly, bad and evil. Sexuality is part of God's creation which is good yet fallen, Luther said, and he made a special effort to restore sexuality to its rightful place in God's creation -- precisely because sexual acts were considered a dominant expression of sin, as outlined above, within the context of Christian sexual morality. Thus Luther broke his own vow of celibacy, married, and enjoyed family life, declaring "that God gave us and implanted into our bodies genitals, blood vessels, fluids, and everything else necessary to accomplish married life". Preventing sexual activity within marriage is "preventing nature from being nature".(6) Yet, at the same time, Luther viewed homosexuality as an "idolatrous distortion instilled by the devil".(7)

Luther considered such statements on marriage and homosexuality as historically conditioned. For him such statements are based on a sense of "natural order". The three main groups of order are the family/society, the government and the church. Luther said, "Three kinds of callings are ordained by God: in them one can live with God and a clear conscience. The first is the family (Hausstand). the second political and secular authority, the third the church."(8) Most importantly. Luther regarded these components of order as impermanent and subject to change.

Luther believed that history is made and changed by what he called "great men and heroes". Such heroes are found among all nations; and as examples he cited Samson and David, Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Augustus and Themistocles. Significantly, Luther believed that God may recruit these special heroes from any estate of society. In short, this means that the natural order is not to be considered an unalterable "law of God". God changes the order through finite moral agents responsible to the people.(9)

In summary, it can be said that what people regarded as natural order was for all practical purposes based on natural law, reason and tradition. Yet such order needs to be redefined constantly. A redefinition is not accomplished lightly or in an irresponsible manner but as stated before, within the context of taking the scriptures seriously and being informed by them in our judgments. Yet, the final determination is made by persons from any estate of society as finite moral agents responsible to God.

Some conclusions

1. African anthropology stresses the principles of inclusiveness rather than exclusivity and of acceptance rather than rejection. When talking about homosexuals we ought in the first place to regard such persons as brothers or sisters. These brothers and sisters are God's creatures; and God is not a-humanistic even if we are a-humanistic and atheistic!

2. Often in church history, Christians have accepted changes in their traditions, especially regarding ethical practices, in order to enhance the mission of the church. For example, polygamy was tolerated in many African cultures where an immediate change to monogamy would have created chaos or suffering. The church and its practices must always be reformed, as we saw above in considering the passages from Exodus 21 and Galatians 3. In the light of historical changes which have taken place in Namibia, and with the adoption of its constitution -- widely acclaimed as one of the best in the world -- we ought to reflect on and discuss homosexuality in the contexts of faith and fundamental human rights and freedoms. Morality is never a well-tied parcel of what is considered right or wrong. It is continually changing, especially in response to the challenge of new issues and conflicts that often emerge around those issues. In short, while being faithful to Christ's mission in our day, we may be led by the Holy Spirit to question some of the moral rules and practices we have inherited.

3. What then is the view of the church on homosexuality and the ordination of homosexuals? Perhaps it is best to respond with a Jewish story.

A rabbi once asked his disciples how one decided at what hour the night was over and the day had begun.

"Is it perhaps when, from a distance. one can recognize the difference between a cow and a pig?" asked one of the disciples.

"No," came the answer

"Is it perhaps when, from a distance, one can distinguish the difference between a black and a white dog?"

"No," the Rabbi replied.

"But how can one decide?" asked one impatient disciple.

The rabbi responded: "It is when one looks into another person's face and one can see one's brother or sister. Until then, the night is still with us and it is still dark."


(1) James Gustafson, Theology and Christian Ethics, Philadelphia, United Church Press, 1974, pp 121-47.

(2) Jose Miguez Bonino, Toward a Political Ethic, Philadelphia Fortress, 1983, p.44.

(3) D. Carmody, How to Live Well: Ethics in World Religions, Belmont, MA, Wadsworth, 1986, p.47.

(4) Gustafson, op. cit., p.145.

(5) Carmody, op. cit., p.29.

(6) Cf. Luther's Works, St Louis, Concordia, 1955, vol. 39, p.297.

(7) Ibid., vol. 3, p.251.

(8) Cited by G.W. Forell, Faith Active in Love, Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1964, p.123.

(9) Ibid., p.137.

(*) Paul John Isaak is chairperson of the Theological committee of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Republic of Namibia and teaches at the United Lutheran Theological Seminary (Paulinum) in Windhoek.
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Title Annotation:Homosexuality: Some Elements for an Ecumenical Discussion
Author:Isaak, Paul John
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Intercession or blessing: theological reflections on a Swedish liturgy for homosexual couples.
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