On the Bible and Homosexuality
"The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals, and 362 admonishments to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision." – Lynn Lavner
This past weekend, I watched an exchange between two people who were on very different places of what I like to call the “spectrum of faith.” These kinds of interactions are some of my favorite kind of discussions to have, and I have been thinking about this particular one a lot over the last few days.
And I mean really thinking about. Like I have been having intense debates with myself in my head about it. Happily, I’m here to report that myself and I have a reached a sort of consensus on some things. And we thought it might be useful to share.
I won’t get into too many of the details of this dialogue. I am going to be like Dragnet and just state the facts as best as I remember them.
Here are the essential bits:
An openly gay Christian says that the only places where the Bible condemns homosexuality is in the Old Testament. He makes a dramatic point by saying that is going to list all the times that Jesus condemned homosexuality in the New Testament and then giving a long pause, indicating accurately that Jesus never did once mention homosexuality.
A person that I presume to be Atheist asks how one can defend the (at least) three places in the New Testament that condemn homosexuality, namely Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10 (and maybe also Jude 1:7).
The openly gay Christian responds that this is an unfair question and chooses not to answer it.
Being that I was not a part of this conversation, I got to dodge the bullet of having to answer that question on the spot, because I honestly had no idea what I would have said then. But like I said, I’ve been chewing on this for a while. Here are my thoughts.
But first, at least one caveat and one tangentially related point:
Due to my pseudo-franciscan vow of poverty (cough, check out my patreon, cough, wink, cough, hint, wink, wink), and due to the fact that it’s prettier and more relaxing, I have taken to writing in public parks instead of coffee shops or Wi-Fi connected places. While no internet means less distractions, it also means less impromptu research. So I am going to be kind of winging a subject that shouldn’t be winged.
So there’s gonna be some things I get wrong.
But this is a good thing, and let me tell you why:
It diminishes any illusion of me being an authority on the subject and forces you to think critically about whether or not what I am saying is true (no guru, no method, no teacher. Sorry kids, but we are morally obligated to think for ourselves).
More importantly, this allows us to crowdsource accurate information. If you catch me saying something patently false, post it as a comment. That way we can all learn together. And learning together is exciting.
The Tangentially Related Point:
In spite of what some of us would prefer, there is no requirement to have any knowledge or understanding of doctrine or the Bible to become a Christian. Christianity only requires belief (or faith. Or both, I am still not sure I know the difference) in the divine and redemptive power of Jesus. Some theologians might argue with my exact verbiage there, but the point is that you don’t have to take a test or anything. Today you will be with me in paradise. Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. You can be a Christian without having ever opened a Bible.
Do I think Christians should study the Bible? Absolutely. Especially if you are one to believe that the Bible is the literal and infallible word of God. I mean, dude, that’s a big thing. It is something to care about.
But look, though it is almost always packaged as simple, Christianity and the Bible are actually incredibly complex.
As I have said before, it is probably more accurate to say that there is no “Christianity” in America and the world, but rather “Christianities.”
There is always a doctrinal tension between works and grace and how one defines “holiness” and how much of a Christian’s behavior actually matters (plus a whole lot of other stuff that we won’t mention now).
Plus, the majority of Evangelical churches that I’ve been to so far tend to emphasize a lighter and more simple theology on Sunday mornings so to remain more invitational for newcomers. But unless a Christian goes to a mid-week small group or bible study, Sunday morning theology is the only doctrine they may ever know.
And all of that is interesting and worth discussing in its own right, but for our purposes, the point here is that if a Christian does not know the answer to a particular question or explanation of a problematic Bible verse, it does not mean that there is no answer or explanation to that question.
And it also doesn’t mean that this is a bad or ignorant question. I wouldn’t expect an Atheist to perfectly understand or explain evolution or defend the problem of consciousness. I think you can be a Lord of the Rings fan even if you have only seen the movies. And I am aware of how controversial that last statement is, but what can I say? I’m a radical.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t ask questions or demand scrutiny. Because I think that is essential. I would just personally advise remembering that the average person might not be an expert. In my view, it is not about who knows the most, but what is actually True.
And in that aim, I see all of us in the dark together. So I don’t know, let’s have a little charity for the opposing viewpoint (whatever it is) and try to learn things together. Because that’s fun, remember?
And I will stress here that nothing I just wrote has anything to do with the people that inspired this particular essay. I don’t know them or how much they know about any particular thing. I also don’t know why Christian dude chose not to answer the question. I am just speaking in generalities here and it seemed like a good place to make that point. But let’s now move on.
The Main Show:
The words “homosexual” and “heterosexual” were not coined until 1890. Fans of Foucault will tell you that the invention of these words created categories that were not necessarily perceived before. Same sex intercourse went from an action to an identity. It is no longer something that you “do” but something that you “are.” This is one of those places where I wish I wish I had the internet, so I will move on and allow this bit of conversation to happen in the comments.
Because in a sense that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Paul (or whoever was writing these letters) and the writer of Jude did not use a word that directly translated to “homosexual.” What also matters is that, believe it or not, our views of marriage and sexuality is wildly different than first century Rome or Corinth.
This raises the question just what was it that Paul (or whoever) was actually condemning?
There has been an awful lot of scholarship on that question in recent years. I’ll let you look it up on your own. Some think this was a condemnation of sex with young boys, or against prostitution, or maybe just sex with temple prostitutes. And sure, it is possible that the writer of those words actually intended a blanket ban on all same sex relationships. We don’t actually know.
The last I checked, Paul was pretty dead.
We might make more of an educated guess after reading through rabbinic writings from the same general area and location, as the New Testament writers were probably not that far removed from those teachings. And if anyone has done that and would like to share, please do. I think that would be incredibly helpful.
It would also help with the Jesus question. He wasn’t recorded saying anything about homosexuality, but that by no means means that he condoned it. Or, for that matter, that he condemned it.
It means we don’t know. It means we probably never will know.
But what is important to note here, is that there is a lot that we don’t know about Jesus and the Bible. There are a lot of troublesome passages and ideas that are constantly being debated over. There are also passages that are glossed over a lot more than others. The book of Philemon is entirely about how to treat a runaway slave. And one doesn’t hear a lot of Sunday sermons from that book. At least not since the Civil War.
And since I went there, let me also throw this little bee in your bonnet:
Do you ever think about how confident slaveholders were with their interpretation of the Bible? I would think (or hope) that most of us today would agree that saying the Bible teaches racial superiority, that women are grossly inferior to men, and that God cursed the African people as inferior so as to be enslaved is an objectively immoral view. But yet, Christians at the time claimed emphatically that this is what the Bible says.
Crazy how they could be so confident that the knew the truth, but yet be so wrong. Good thing there is no chance of that happening with Christians today, isn’t it?
There are a lot of people that claim that the Bible is fully infallible and inerrant, that it is the perfect and exact word of the actual God.
The problem here is that we ourselves are in no way infallible or inerrant. We always bring our past experiences, preconceived notions, prejudices, fears and beliefs into everything we do. That is all obviously going to influence the way we read things.
Not to mention that unless one of you is a Highlander or own a Delorean, you are (probably) not a first century palestinian Jew. So there are (most assuredly) some implicit cultural things that the original readers would totally get but we totally miss.
Kind of like how I didn’t have to explain what a Highlander or a Delorean was just then.
It is also likely that, no matter what it might say on your business card, you are not actually a prophet and thus are unable to divine the mind of God when reading these books. At least not perfectly.
All of which is to say that it is my strong belief that no one can ever, ever, say “the Bible says…” with any kind of legitimate authority. It is all our interpretation. It is always limited by our own understanding.
And Christians would agree with that for the most part. They understand that time or doctrine has changed some things.
They will, for example, eat at Red Lobster.
And when a group of people sell all of their possessions to live communally, someone usually calls the FBI on them.
Christians don’t follow those commandments because they believe they no longer apply for some reason.
Which, to me (and again, show me how I’m wrong in the comments) actually makes the question not “what does the Bible say about homosexuality?” but rather why some Christians have chosen to make homosexuality such a big issue in the first place?
Three or four passages in the New Testament and a handful of passages in the Old is really not very much to build a doctrine on. And in the New Testament, it is usually (if not always) listed with a bunch of other things like witchcraft and drunkenness and lying. But somehow homosexuality is getting a lot of attention from the church. Like an incredibly inordinate amount of attention.
My conservative Christian friends have told me that this is a response to the fight for increased civil liberties for the LGBTQ community over the last few decades, and perhaps more importantly, the gradual but ever increasing acceptance of not just homosexuality, but gender fluidity, non-monogamy, and other forms of queer identity.
And I am sure that it is a part of it. We never had to talk about this stuff when it was only happening behind closed doors. Now that it is being practiced more and more openly, we must come to terms with it all. Which, I hope, involves some actual thought and scrutiny and not just a blanket dismissal of any non-hetero lifestyle.
I am not satisfied that reacting to these social changes is the entire reason we put the spotlight on homosexuality. After all, this is not the only social change that has been occurring.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not see a lot of lobbying for making divorce illegal. I know that Christians used to be very against women in the workplace and especially women in the ministry, but are more and more coming to believe that this is actually a Biblical practice with a highly historical precedent. There are Christian feminists now. Some social changes have been accepted by the church, but others have not.
And yeah, there are some people who really hate those changes just as much as they hate the acceptance of homosexuality. But it sure does seem to me that Christians care a lot more about “the gay agenda” than other things. A lot of very prominent Christians presently even seem fine with serial adultery and blatant political corruption as long as it is politically advantageous for them.
But not the gays though. They can’t buy my wedding cakes. They can’t live under my roof or be called my son, no sir. Someone’s gotta stand for decency.
Could it be possible, even if there is only a small chance, that you are just maybe actually a little bit simply prejudiced? Is there any chance that bias might play at least a small role? Could it be that maybe it’s just something you don’t understand and it makes you uncomfortable? Could it be that this is just what you were always raised to believe and maybe it’s not actually what the Bible says? Is any of that possible?
And even after some soul searching your answer to my above questions remains “no.” And you still believe the Bible is clear on this matter, is there a reason to treat some sinners better or worse than others? Sin is sin, right? If you would go to the wedding of someone who had been divorced or a couple that has been unrepentantly living together, why won’t you go to the wedding of your lesbian friends? What is the difference?
Look, discussing theology and philosophy and various holy books and scriptures is valuable and essential and important. But at the end of the day, what matters more is how we treat each other.
No matter our orientation, gender identity, politics, worldview, or religion, we all want to be fully known and fully loved. And at the very least we all deserve to be treated with some patience, kindness, and compassion. The world is hard on all of us. It’s way more difficult when your family doesn’t love you simply because you are being yourself.
And that’s why I am choosing to love people even when I think they are wrong. In fact, I am trying really hard to love people no matter what they do at all. Because I think a love that requires you to change the fundamental nature of who you are probably isn’t actually love. You can disagree with me on that. And I love you for it.
Now on to the comments! What are your thoughts?
I love your post. Just a couple of thoughts: I am Christian who accepts that we do not know what the NT writer(s) meant when they condemned the behavior that has in the 20th century been translated as homosexuality. I am convinced that it probably entailed demeaning sexual behavior on the part of those with power (the pater-familias, for instance) perpetrated against those who did not have power, slaves, boys, etc. What Paul meant in Romans chapter 1 is tricky though. Humility is the name of the game anytime one interprets Scripture.ReplyDelete
My experience in the Church has confirmed, for me, that whatever the NT writers meant, it is (obviously) more than possible to be gay and live as an exemplary follower of Jesus -- exhibiting the "fruits of the spirit," etc., etc. Moreover, I have observed committed same-sex relationships that have exemplified and fulfilled every theological purpose for marriage as laid out in Scripture (i.e. marriage as generative of life [may not look like hertero-normativity, but that doesn't mean it is not generative], marriage as a school for holiness, marriage as a sign and sacrament of Christ's love for the Church and the Church's participation in the life of God as the body of Christ.) I am therefore a proponent of the full inclusion of homosexuals into the Christian life, and in the sacraments and ministry of the Church, including marriage. As I heterosexual white male, and a leader in the Church, I acknowledge my privilege in getting to make these grand pronouncements.
The above was written by James Stambaugh, by the way. Don't know how to use this newfangled "blog" technology.Delete
I actually guessed it was you!Delete
Wow! That was a lot of ink spilled just to end with the conclusion that "discussing theology and philosophy and various holy books and scriptures is valuable and essential and important. But at the end of the day, what matters more is how we treat each other. "ReplyDelete
In other words, we can talk about what a book says but at the end of the day, I'll do whatever I think.
In my former (armchair theologian) life, I spent several years wrestling with the homosexuality issue as well as with human beings who identify as homosexuals. (Issues are easy to draw hard lines with. People not so much.) I didn't reach much of a conclusion but it left me with a strange question.
There was a Brian McClaren book (I think New Kind of Christian) that had an analogy that I really liked. He drew a line on the ground and said each end point of the line represented one end of the argument. People feel the need to identify where they stand along that line (usually we are somewhere more towards the middle than the ends). But then he proposes that the "answer" isn't on the line at all. It is up here (imagine waving your hand over the line). In other words, we might be asking the wrong question.
He went further to look at Jesus' interactions with his Disciples.The focus was looking at the questions the Disciples asked and how many of them were answered by Jesus with "you guys really don't get it, do you?". Then Jesus would give them an answer that was "above the line".
And I think that's where you were going with: "Which, to me (and again, show me how I’m wrong in the comments) actually makes the question not “what does the Bible say about homosexuality?” but rather why some Christians have chosen to make homosexuality such a big issue in the first place?"
To me, at the end of the day, the Bible isn't a science book, it isn't a moral authority, it isn't a religious constitution, it is a story book. And It is God's story, not ours. As such, the only thing it is "good" for is to discover who God is. When we make it a book about "me" (how should I act, work, eat, dress, screw, etc.), we miss the point. When we make it a book about "God", we discover truths that radically change how we view everything and, if we actually accept those truths, the old way of things passes away and we become new creations.
Ryan, this is an incredibly thought-full piece. I mean, I can tell you spent a great deal of time reflecting on this. I think your call for humility is essential, too. And as to your final thoughts, I said nearly the same thing on the phone to my mother tonight: Regardless of one's faith, what matters most is treating others with kindness, treating others with dignity, caring, and love. I so deeply agree with you. It's the essence and aim of religion--at least it should be--I think.ReplyDelete
It's important you mentioned Christianities. I'm glad you did. Although, when you mention "Christians" or "Christianity" (in America), are you referring to Evangelicals, specifically, or any conservative segment of any denomination? Because even in Lutheranism, Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Episcopalianism, even Quakerism!, Homosexuality has been schismatic. I've heard at least three stories of significant strife in Twin Cities churches over this. One Episcopal church broke off from their progressive denomination over it. Another church lost the majority of their congregation over embracing same-sex couples, and the Quaker meeting I occasionally attend experienced a great deal of strife over this. I guess Evengelicals are simply the most vocal, as it is in their nature to be; broadcasting messages abroad as they do (I hope I used that semicolon correctly. I should check and learn, finally, how to use them).
Why Homosexuality has overshadowed divorce, promiscuity, fornication, greed, rampant materialism, gluttony, etc, etc, etc, is very interesting, as you pointed out. I'm curious to know, too. I have a hunch that beyond Homosexuality's "otherness," political gaming has a lot to do with it. But it's only a guess. It's similar to Abortion in this sense, I think, in its divisiveness. Those are perhaps the two most divisive issues in American politics. They have served to divide people who would probably otherwise agree, I think.