Pastoral Counseling Perspective on Homosexuality
in Korean Church Communities
K. Samuel Lee
“‘Coming out’ is an enormously risky, if not life-threatening proposition … Korean gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffer in hiding without the benefit of a supportive community.
To speak about the complex issues of homosexuality is difficult at best in conservative and patriarchal Korean church communities. Most Korean church communities consider homosexuality to be a blatant sin belonging to the realm of sins that are unpardonable. They often quote biblical passages as clear evidence for their position. They argue that homosexuality is misaligned with the natural order of God’s creation and an abominable deviant behavior. Some others claim that homosexuality is a mental illness. Because homosexuality is regarded this way, Korean gays, lesbians, and bisexuals find it extremely difficult to have conversations about anything homosexual. “Coming out” is an enormously risky, if not life-threatening proposition. Because homosexual issues continue to be regarded as unspeakable and are suppressed in Korean contexts, Korean gays, lesbians and bisexuals suffer in hiding without the benefit of a supportive community. The Korean church communities in general have not been able to provide safe places for these persons.
In this brief essay, I would like to address three pastoral counseling related questions: Is homosexuality a sin? Is homosexuality an illness? and Can sexual orientation be changed? My perspectives on these questions have been informed by my thirty-year-long ministry experience (as a pastor and pastoral theologian) and my clinical work as a licensed psychologist. For additional pastoral counseling related information about homosexuality, I recommend David K. Switzer’s two helpful books: Coming Out as Parents, and Pastoral Care of Gays, Lesbians, and Their Families. For other psychologically related information, I recommend that readers consult a series of articles on the topic available at American Psychological Association’s (APA) official website: http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx.
Is Homosexuality a Sin?
Many Christians assume that this is a question with a self-evident answer that requires no discussion. They would think incorrectly that reading and understanding the Bible is a straightforward activity, that will provide them with clear information on which they can base their conclusion that homosexuality is a sin. Reading the Bible, however, requires excavating through layers of possible interpretations. This interpretive process is necessary because, for one, the Bible as we now have it is the result of a multilingual translational process. This means that, in order to capture the intended original meaning of the Bible, readers of the Bible must bridge the social, historical, cultural and religious gaps between the times when the Bible was written and our time when it is read.
Consider for example that in the Greek language there was no word “homosexuals” but Bible translators with anti-homosexual bias often interpreted certain Greek words into English that reflected that bias. When we consider the original Greek words for “effeminate,” “homosexuals,” “sodomite,” “male prostitutes,” “fornicators,” “pervert,” and so on, the meanings of these words are not self-evident and they require us to study them carefully to capture the intended meanings. The word “sodomite” (1 Timothy 1:10 in Revised Standard Version), for example, does not appear in original Greek or Hebrew texts. This term that is generally considered pejorative, has an ambiguous meaning, even in contemporary time and as a legal term. In some U.S. states it refers to someone who engages in a homosexual act while in other U.S. states it refers to a similar sexual act between a man and a woman. The use of the word “sodomite” in translating the original Greek word raises many questions. This is one example where, perhaps, the translation shows the bias of the translator(s) rather than the intended meaning of the biblical text.
The two references (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) in the Old Testament have produced controversial interpretations. Some biblical scholars have argued that these passages in the Holiness Code have to do with male prostitution and sexual orgies practiced at that time. They were not intended as blanket judgments against homosexuality.
Many biblical scholars, who devote their whole lives to studying the Bible, help us with the insight that, when the Bible was written, there was no concept of “sexual orientation.” The concept of homosexuality or homosexual orientation emerged only in the twentieth century. These scholars make a distinction between homosexual “acts” and homosexual “orientation.” From the viewpoint of the dominant heterosexual perspective, at that time homosexual acts were thought to be wrong. Condemning homosexual acts when there was no understanding of sexual orientation is not same as condemning homosexuality in the twenty-first century when we have much better understanding about sexual orientation. Albeit scientists have not reached a consensus about why an individual person is heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual, it is generally accepted that people do not have the sense of choice about their sexual orientation.1
We know from the Christian history around the world that the Bible was mistakenly used to defend racism, sexism, imperialism, slavery, and other oppressive social practices. The Bible was also used to condemn interracial and interreligious marriages. For a long time in Christian history, different manifestations of mental illness or physical deformity were also regarded as effects of sin. Bible reading must be done with utmost care lest we participate in perpetuating oppression of “one of the least of these brothers and sisters” (Matthew 25:31-46).
Is Homosexuality an Illness?
Homosexuality was no longer regarded as a mental disorder with the introduction of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-III in 1973. Decades of research have shown that lesbian, gay, and bisexual orientations have nothing to do with psychopathology. These sexual orientations have been present in many different cultures, including the Korean culture, throughout history. The mainstream medical and mental health organizations have concluded that different sexual orientations are all normal forms of human experience and that different sexual orientations do not contribute to dysfunctional human relationships or bonding.
Many researchers recognize that the pre-1973 classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder has more to do with the political and social agenda without the scientific or medical basis. Harsh sociopolitical and religious prejudice toward gays, lesbians and bisexuals are not inconsequential. It has been well-documented that they suffer from prevalent forms of harassment, violence, and abuse at their jobs, schools, homes, and even churches. Effects of prejudice and discrimination can be devastating. They may experience limitations on job opportunities, parenting or family relationships, and relationship recognition. Like the social and individual effects of racism and sexism, gays, lesbians and bisexuals also confront stereotypes and social stigma, which adversely affect the mental health of these individuals.
Internalized homophobia is also regarded as a serious mental health issue for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Heterosexual persons may have homophobia―the hatred or fear of homosexuals―because of their ignorance and misguided religious or cultural beliefs about homosexuality. Such negative stereotypes and attitudes unconsciously become “internalized” for gays, lesbians and bisexuals, developing internalized homophobia. Internalized homophobia refers to negative feelings that gays, lesbians and bisexuals have towards themselves because of their homosexuality. Internalized homophobia may manifest in extreme denial of one’s sexual orientation, which may have grave mental health consequences.
Is homosexuality an illness? The definite answer is NO. Can the social, religious and political prejudice and oppression make gays, lesbians, and bisexuals “sick”? As is the case with racism, sexism, and classism, the definite answer is YES. There s a plethora of research that supports these answers.
Can Sexual Orientation Be Changed?
Recognized groups of psychotherapists, often affiliated with fundamental religious groups, claim that their “conversion therapy” or “reparative therapy” can “cure” gays, lesbians and bisexuals and make them “straight.” Most mainstream mental health professional organizations including the World Health Organization have said that no evidence has been produced to support the claim that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed by conversion therapy. They go on to say that the attempt to change one’s sexual orientation is harmful and ineffective. People who have undergone conversion therapy reported increased depression, anxiety, and in some situations increased suicidal ideation. Virtually all major medical and mental health professional organizations have discredited conversion therapy and stated that such practice is in violation of their ethical standards. Because of the potential harm of conversion therapy, a new state law was introduced in 2012 in California to ban gay conversion therapy, although the law is pending the court’s decision of its constitutionality.
The topic of homosexuality is extremely controversial in Korean church communities. I have known Koreans and Korean Americans whose lives were devastated by the realization that the individual or a member family was gay, lesbian or bisexual. Although exceptional cases exist, Korean families by and large have not been able to embrace homosexuality. Many gays, lesbians and bisexuals hide behind the facade of marriage. This would be an extremely insidious arrangement, the parallel of which would be a straight man being forced to live in a gay relationship. I have seen Korean gays, lesbians and bisexuals whose life conditions were so unbearable, that they tried to escape through repeated attempts at suicide.
“Coming out” is considered an important self-affirmation but it is not a simple process. Coming out is an extremely challenging process in Korean church communities because of the still widespread prejudice and discrimination. Gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals would benefit from consultations with competent mental health providers and/or pastoral caregivers who can offer supportive counsel as allies to the individuals. Consider the following APA statements on coming out:
The phrase "coming out" is used to refer to several aspects of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons' experiences: self-awareness of same-sex attractions; the telling of one or a few people about these attractions; widespread disclosure of same-sex attractions; and identification with the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community. Many people hesitate to come out because of the risks of meeting prejudice and discrimination. Some choose to keep their identity a secret; some choose to come out in limited circumstances; some decide to come out in very public ways.
Coming out is often an important psychological step for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Research has shown that feeling positively about one's sexual orientation and integrating it into one's life fosters greater well-being and mental health. This integration often involves disclosing one's identity to others; it may also entail participating in the gay community. Being able to discuss one's sexual orientation with others also increases the availability of social support, which is crucial to mental health and psychological well-being. Like heterosexuals, lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people benefit from being able to share their lives with and receive support from family, friends, and acquaintances. Thus, it is not surprising that lesbians and gay men who feel they must conceal their sexual orientation report more frequent mental health concerns than do lesbians and gay men who are more open; they may even have more physical health problems.2
Being both Korean Christian and gay/lesbian/bisexual is a difficult challenge at the current time. I pray for the transformation of the Korean church communities in the near future, so that gays, lesbians and bisexuals can feel safe and find that they have a home within them. Such a future, where our prayer of “Thy Kingdom come” is realized, can never be realized too soon.
Dr. K. Samuel Lee is an ordained minister, a licensed psychologist in California, and Professor of Practical Theology, Spiritual Care, and Counseling at Claremont Theological Seminary.
- 1. APA. “Sexual orientation and homosexuality: Answers to your questions for a better understanding.” Available at http://www.apa.org/topics/sexuality/orientation.aspx. Accessed 2/1/2013.
- 2. Ibid.