This article first appeared in the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 2 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Can a man who experiences same-sex attraction be ordained as a pastor in the gospel ministry? Many believe that homosexuality is such a heinous sin that it permanently disqualifies a man from any eligibility for ordained ministry. Others believe that he rightly may be ordained, and some conjecture that his homosexual struggles may actually make him more effective as a minister in a culture awash with complex gender issues. But what does the Bible say about this issue? That is the perspective we all need.
What Does Scripture Teach? Romans 1:18–32 indeed affirms that homosexuality and lesbianism are unnatural acts of sexual perversion. In Romans 1:26 and 27, the practices of homosexuality and lesbianism are condemned by God because “women gave up natural relations for those that are contrary to nature, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men.” Homosexuality is unnatural because it is against nature — contrary to God’s design for male–female procreative sex. Homosexuality is more heinous than adultery, fornication, or other immoralities between heterosexual individuals because it is so contrary to God’s design for complementary genders. But, as we are about to see, heterosexual immorality might also be viewed as unnatural.
God’s creation order designed and allowed for sex between two people who were (1) male and female, (2) joined in a lifelong marriage, (3) sexually faithful to one another (i.e., monogamous), and (4) engaged in the procreative practice of giving birth to children. This is the pattern set in Genesis 2:18–25. Therefore, it may be argued that homosexuality should be grouped together with fornication (sex between unmarried people), adultery (sex with another person’s spouse), prostitution (sex for hire), incest (sex with family members), “recreational” forms of sex that intend to avoid the responsibilities inherent to the act, even to the extent of killing its natural fruit, and bestiality (sex with another species) as “contrary to nature” (Rom. 1:26), perverse, and heinous. Would all these sins, prior to one’s conversion to Christ, disqualify a man from ministry? Probably not.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9–20, Paul lists a few representative sinful patterns of life that would prohibit one from “inherit(ing) the kingdom of God,” that is, from going to heaven when one died. Three sexually perverse lifestyles are mentioned: “the sexually immoral” (the Greek reads “fornicators”), “adulterers,” and also “men who practice homosexuality.” These practices were rampant in the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, as they are in the Western world today. Paul makes it clear, however, that though “such were some of you,” many had been redeemed from such perverse lifestyles, were cleansed by the Holy Spirit, and were in the process of being sanctified by God’s grace. No doubt some of these people were called to ministry and became early church clergymen.
A Simple Answer to a Complex Problem? May a man who experiences same-sex attractions be ordained to church service? Answered simply, yes! It should be noted that a man who engages in homosexual relations and the man who experiences same-sex attraction are not in the same spiritual category. Homosexuality refers to practices of same-sex intercourse. Same-sex attraction often stops short of actual intercourse. To compare, let’s look at two heterosexual men. If a single man lusts after a single woman and has sex with her outside of marriage, then he has become a fornicator because he fornicated with her. But if a single man frequently lusted after the same woman, eventually repented of it, and never had sex with her, we would not call him a fornicator. He struggled with lust, not fornication. The same principles apply to homosexual men. A man becomes a homosexual once he acts on his same-sex attractions, but not before then.
If he is in Christ and called by God to ministry, a man may become a pastor, missionary, or campus minister after a life of homosexuality and in spite of same-sex attraction. That is the simple answer to this complex issue. But it is never wise, nor is it biblical, to give simple answers to complex questions and complicated issues. I suggest that the question should not be “May a man…” but rather “Should a man with same-sex attractions be ordained to gospel ministry?”
If we ask, “May a man be ordained?” we are delving into the realm of possibility, focusing on the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law — which is love (Rom. 7:6; 13:10). We also run the risk of turning the discussion toward selfish ends; is the man entitled to be ordained if he so desires? Is it his right to be ordained? Are we standing in the way of his fulfillment through ordination? The better question is this: “Should a same-sex-oriented man be ordained for the good of the church and for the glory of God?” This is a completely different question.
A Genuine Call to Ministry? A man’s call to gospel ministry is comprised of three parts: an inward call to ministry issued by the Holy Spirit, the approval of a local church who would hire the man as pastor, and the certifying actions of an ordaining body of church officials (e.g., a presbytery, classis, diocese, convention, or association of churches). All three parts must align in order to act on a genuine call to ministry. Therefore, the man with same-sex attraction must carefully examine these three facets of his call.
First, the man must be spiritually mature enough to resist and eventually overcome his same-sex attraction. In whatever form these lusts and desires manifest themselves, they are unnatural, sinful, and potentially destructive. Just as a man must be far-removed from fornication, the use of pornography, and unbridled lust before he is ordained, so a man with these unnatural desires must be mature enough to be certain these lusts will not suck him into sin and disqualification (1 Cor. 9:24–27).
Second, the church contemplating calling a man to pastoral ministry who experiences strong, regular, and persistent same-sex attraction has a right, even a duty, to know this. Homosexuality and same-sex attraction make many souls uncomfortable. Some may have a sincere problem both accepting and trusting a man with gay inclinations. The sacred and serious bond between pastor and people calls for mutual love, mutual trust, and mutual honesty. The required level of spiritual openness, even intimacy, between pastor and people must not be sidestepped in dealing with this issue.
Third, the ordaining church body must ensure that a very proactive and practical structure of accountability is established both to safeguard the flock and protect the would-be pastor from trouble. Some will argue that ordaining such a man contributes to a “slippery slope” of downgrade concerning the biblical view of sexuality. Let’s be honest: it can lead to this. Experience has shown that the church’s lack of seriousness about adultery, fornication, and pornography in the pew has led to a tsunami of adultery, sexual abuse, addiction to porn, and even pedophilia in the pastorate. While it is impossible to shield both congregation and clergy from the moral meltdown of the larger culture, it is not impossible to establish high standards of moral behavior and high levels of personal accountability for pastors. All the more is called for if a man already is weakened by homosexual urges. Paul warns church leaders, “Do not lay hands upon (ordain) anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin (i.e., pure)” (1 Tim. 5:22 NASB).
A Clarification with Complication? The intimate dynamics of life in a congregation may well prohibit a man with same-sex attraction from becoming a pastor, even though he may be permitted to do so by Scripture. Will the men of the church receive him, honor him, follow him? Will the mothers of teens and children trust him and feel safe with him? Will his known struggles compromise his preaching of the Word, especially when he speaks on sexual morality? Will the spiritual energies expended to fight against his own sin issues drain him of strength needed for other ministry endeavors? Will his choice to remain single and celibate hamper his ministry to married couples and those with children? Can he meet the higher-than-average demand for holiness that comes on ordained men so that they are “without reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2)? These and other questions must be honestly addressed by the man, the congregation, and church officials prior to the assumption of ordination vows.
Jesus once addressed questions about divorce. His answer was both clarifying and complicating, calling us to examine our own souls and our own situations. Matthew records this exchange in Matthew 19:1–12. In this text, Jesus affirmed that “from the beginning” (i.e., creation), God had ordained sex and marriage between one man and one woman (Matt. 19:8). Those who could not accept this truth — divorced people, single folks not yet married, polygamists, and perhaps homosexuals — fall into three categories. These categories apply to our discussion.
Some were “eunuchs from birth” (Matt. 19:12a). Born unable to have sex and/or sustain marriage, these souls should not (and would not) ever marry. Perhaps this applies to those who believe they were “born gay.” They should not attempt to become pastors.
Others were “made eunuchs by men” (Matt. 19:12b). They had been cruelly forced into celibacy by the actions of others. They too would probably never marry, though perhaps some might. Could this be the man whose sexual disorientation is due to his own homosexual choices or because he was molested by others as a child? Could he be restored to holy and healthy sexuality? Yes. And thus he might someday become a pastor.
Finally, still others choose to live as eunuchs “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” — for the benefit of ministry. These choose not to marry in order to serve God with undistracted energies and focus (1 Cor. 7:6–7, 32–35). This might be the man with same-sex attraction who remains single and celibate in order to serve the Lord and the church in the gospel ministry.
“Can a man with same-sex attractions be ordained?” Simply answered, yes. But he must factor in and weigh heavily the complex nuances of his unique sinful nature and give primary consideration to the spiritual good of God’s church before he answers this question for himself.—Michael F. Ross
Michael F. Ross is pastor emeritus in The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), with thirty-five years of pastoral experience in three congregations.