Skip to main content

Issues Facing Missions Today: 45. The Misnomer ‘Homophobia’ and its Theological Implications

Issues Facing Missions Today: 45. The Misnomer ‘Homophobia’ and its Theological Implications

In his opening speech at the Lambeth gathering of Anglican Archbishops this week (11-15 January, 2016), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, allegedly stated,[1]

We can also paint a gloomy picture of the moral and spiritual state of Anglicanism. In all Provinces there are forms of corruption, none of us is without sin. There is litigation, the use of civil courts for church matters in some places. Sexual morality divides us over same sex issues, where we are seen as either compromising or homophobic. 

Indeed, the newly invented term, ‘homophobia,’ has become a standard term in Western society in reference to persons opposed, for whatever reason, to homosexuality.  It is a profoundly inappropriate term, behind which lie numerous errors with serious consequences.  The term is not only a linguistic game played by those wishing to put their own viewpoints forward by shaming others, it is also an intellectual error of the first order.  It disrupts the halls of rational discourse and entertains a number of theological errors.  Christian witness, therefore, needs to confront this language and its erroneous, theological implications.

1. A phobia is a fear.  A sin is the opposite of what is holy, and to call a phobia what someone understands to be a sin is to deny that this is a matter of holiness.  Neither the call to holiness nor an understanding of a holy God whose commands must be followed are brought into view.

2. A phobia is an irrational fear.  It does not submit to reasonable discourse.  It lacks intelligible argument as it is, after all, a matter of psychology, not philosophy, theology, or science.

3. A phobia is not held in relation to a moral issue.  It is not a sin, and the object it fears is equally not a sin.  To call something a phobia is to deny the legitimacy of any discussion of sin to the matter.  Open spaces are not a sin, and fear of them is not a sin.

4. One cannot repent of the thing that a phobic fears.  One can repent of sinful desires and acts.

5. When one is diagnosed as having a phobia, it is the phobic, not the object of a phobic’s fear, who needs to be transformed.

6. Any notion of transformation, when speaking of phobias, is relegated to psychology and not to God’s transforming power.

7. A phobia is personal, a matter for someone to sort out without allowing his or her fears to settle upon others as well.  It is, therefore, not about a person’s serious and real concern for a community but about a private matter that needs to be kept separate from a community.

8. A phobia is about things and places, such as spiders and mice and open or closed spaces.  It is not about behaviour.

9. A phobia is acquired.  Some treat religion as an acquired taste, a matter of aesthetic pleasure, or a sentiment, or a nostalgia, or a cultural expression.  For such persons, the Church’s ethics easily falls into the same category of something acquired, adopted, or embraced for reasons of taste.  It is a short step to suggest that someone’s tastes are, in fact, phobias.

10. A phobia is dismissible from the high and deep matters of religion.  It is a person’s own, closeted quirk.  It should not and cannot touch the rafters of religion, reaching to the heights of God.  Someone trying to drop his or her phobia on all society is like a poor painter turning from the canvas and trying to use the paintbrush to change the world, to paint the sky a different colour.  But if the alleged phobia is really a sin against the good creation God has made, then the world as God made it is the critic of the painter’s poor painting.

11. A phobia is something friends and family tolerate, not a matter for divorce or ostracism.  As irritating as the phobia is for a family, the family shows its love by including the weaker member.  If the phobia reaches psychotic proportions, the family may, regrettably, have to hospitalize the individual.  The psychotic level is reached when the family can no longer conduct its life tolerably or when the psychotic person becomes dangerous.  Imagine, however, a society that turns everything upside down, labelling the normal as phobic, even psychotic—well, we needn’t have to use our imaginations anymore.

Given the significant errors wrapped into the language of ‘homophobia,’ any serious and intelligent dialogue needs to avoid the misnomer altogether.  More significantly, any lingering inclination to see the historic, Christian teaching about homosexuality and the pastoral care given to persons internally disordered in their sexuality as a matter of phobia in any sense of the term implies heretical perspectives.  It betrays not only confused thinking but also theological error.  Such errors include misunderstandings about holiness, sin, repentance, transformation, pastoral care—indeed, about the Christian faith.




[1] As reported in the Vanguard.  ‘Primates 2016: Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address,’ Vanguard (January 11, 2016).  Accessed online 14 January, 2016: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2016/01/primates-2016-archbishop-of-canterburys-address/