It wasn’t until I spent a wonderful four hours with my dear sister/best friend that I realized how much I have missed her. We have been blessed with a deep soul-friend relationship for almost thirty five years now. She moved to North Carolina ten years ago and I miss her fiercely. This visit is the first time we have really dialogued about the church and queers. I use the word queer with the utmost affection, by the way. It is a word that holds under its umbrella all of us who are not heterosexual normative. There are a lot of us. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, intersexual, and on it goes. I identify as pansexual, which just means gender-blind. It doesn’t matter to me if you are male or female. I don’t care about your outside, I care about your inside. I fall in love with a person’s heart, not their gender. Which is a lucky thing for me, since my partner of 8 years came out to me 3 years ago as being transgender. Being transgender today is like being gay 20 years ago. Very, very hard and with little understanding or compassion from the general population. The whole transgender issue is one I have talked about only a little, but here is a short rant (transformational insight). I’ve also had a thing or two to say about the churches attitude towards the gay community here (notes from my journal: on a love that is true) and here (rant inspired by a broken heart).
This post is written for any of my family who are Christian (I would say friends and family but I lost almost every Christian friend I had when I came out), and who may struggle with my coming out as queer. I write this as thoughtfully as I am able, after months and years of considering what it is I want to say and what my intention is in saying anything at all.
Let me reassure you that my intention isn’t to try to change your mind about your beliefs. The reason I want to speak about this is to share my own thoughts about Christianity and homosexuality, specifically what the Bible has to say about it. Although it may be an uncomfortable subject for you, my hope is that you care enough about me to want to understand me.
Please try to hear me with an open mind. Our belief systems can be tricky things. It has been my experience that I have often reacted out of a belief that wasn’t substantiated by any real depth on my part. It wasn’t something I chewed on, studied out for myself, tried and tested it for its truth. I had absorbed this belief into my belief system without thought. I would only ask here that you listen to my own thoughts as openly as possible, without fear. If what you believe is absolutely true for you, then it won’t be shaken by another point of view.`
I will be addressing the “clobber verses”, the 6 or so verses out of over 30,000 in the bible that form the basis of the churches judgment against gay relationships. I won’t be talking about the civil rights of gay people. I will assume you to believe, along with me, that all humans deserve civil rights. As to civil rights, I agree with the Christian philosopher Simone Weil, who defined equality as “the public recognition, effectively expressed in institutions and manners, of the principle that an equal degree of attention is due to the needs of all human beings.” No, this post will only be touching on those few verses and what I feel is a need for the church to readdress their meaning and relevance to us today.
I want to keep foremost in our minds that the struggle to come to a deeper engagement with the truth of God’s word is one that the church has entered into many times throughout the course of history. Most thoughtful Christians are not biblical literalists who take every single statement or command of scripture at face value. Rather, most acknowledge that there are central texts, which articulate major themes of scripture as a whole and there are peripheral texts, which articulate subsidiary and sometimes culturally particular themes that are less relevant to every time or place. The meaning must not be drawn from just one passage but from the way the passage is located within the larger themes and movements of scripture as a whole. It is imperative to discern the deeper and more comprehensive moral logic that undergirds the specific commands, prohibitions and examples of the biblical text. To rightly interpret any single passage, in must be considered in this larger fabric of the meaning in scripture as a whole. Thank you for caring enough about me (and the millions of others like me) to read this post thoughtfully.
The discipline of deeply re-considering scriptural interpretation was required when Galileo called into question the earth-centered structure of the cosmos that people had always imagined – a structure of the cosmos they saw reflected in scripture itself. Suddenly, a whole range of texts needed to be reread, and some passages assumed to be literal in describing the sun moving around the earth had to be read in a different way. (for example 1 chronicles 16:30 and psalm 104:5) The same dynamic can be seen in the 19th century debate over slavery. The Bible contains 324 references to slavery that condone or assume that it was a given part of society. Yet, today no one needs to be convinced that slavery is utterly opposed to God’s intention and that opposition to slavery is a compelling biblical mandate. Christians in the 19th century argued that the tradition of the church, the clear witness of scripture and even their human experience (if they weren’t slaves) proved the point. It took the persistent work of the holy spirit and a deeper engagement with scripture that went beyond what had been assumed for centuries was the meaning of certain texts – along with attentiveness to the human experience of those who suffered - to lead some Christians to support the cause of abolition. This is a good example of how the church’s struggle with assumed understanding of scripture can be overturned through a deeper engagement with the whole truth of the word, enlivened by the witness of human experience. The 20th century debate concerning women in leadership in the church and interracial marriage has caused the same changes in reading, not discarding the bible when it didn’t cohere with changes happening in society, but going to the bible with fresh eyes to look for the underlying values and forms of logic not seen so clearly before. My point is that over the years the church has come face to face with questions that required her to probe more deeply into issues not foreseen by the biblical writers themselves. In each of these cases, it was social pressure that was the catalyst for reforming church traditions.
I won’t spend much time talking about the old testament verses, which can easily be studied out and discarded. The story of Sodom, for one. Rape was a common method of humiliation and power over a subdued people, both rape of men and of women and children. Sad fact. Violent gang rape is not the same as loving, consensual sex. These are not gay men spoken of here. And God did not judge Sodom for this, anyway, as is seen clearly in Ezekiel 16:49, “ Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.” The story of Sodom is also referred to 20 more times in the Bible without reference to homosexuality, instead referencing arrogance and apathy toward the poor, as when Jesus spoke of inhospitable treatment in Mt 10 and Lk 10.
Moving on to the other Old Testament clobber texts. These are in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. To read these in context it must be remembered that they lie within 613 rules. These laws were concerned with ceremonial issues related to tabernacle rites and worship rules for priests about offerings, clean and unclean food, diseases and bodily discharges and sexual taboos. These verses are of secondary significance to a Christian, not only because of who they were written primarily to (Levitical priests), but also because of their context within Levitical law. Consider these verses: Acts 15 (where there was some concern whether or not to instruct gentiles in the law and it was decided not to, since they were saved by grace and not by the law), Galatians 6 and Colossians 2, which speak of grace as opposed to the law and Romans 10:4 (for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth). The whole 8th chapter of Romans is a beautiful, poetic renunciation of the law and rejoicing in the spirit. It is abundantly clear that the love of Christ frees the believer from the law. Christians are no longer subject to laws concerning food from Lev. 11 or clothing laws from Lev 19, just two examples among so many of how we are no longer under the law. There is no good reason to make exceptions when it comes to us being free from the law. Period. (as a side-note, the word “abomination” does not mean what it did at the time of translation. This word described practices common to foreign nations. It is used in Lev 11 and Duet 14 to describe food, for example).
On to the New Testament, then. There are 3 main texts that are used as “proof” or “clobber” verses. I’ll start with Romans 1:26-27. To put these two verses in context, Romans chapters 1-3 speak of the unrighteousness of all humanity and our universal need for Christ. These chapters speak of idolatry and of God turning away and letting the idolaters be given over to their passions. Paul clearly expects his readers to join him in outrage over the sexual behavior he describes as an expression of excessive, self-centered desire. He describes this behavior as an expression of “lusts”, as driven by “passions” and as “consumed or burning with passion”. This is in keeping with the general perception of same-sex relations in the ancient world: that they were driven by insatiable desire, not content with more normal sexual relationships. Christians opposed to same-sex relationships often show no awareness of the modern notion of sexual orientation, instead focusing on what is perceived to be out of control, self-seeking desire. To read these verses in the larger context, there is a building intensity resulting in the crescendo of condemnation – then the sting strikes back in Romans 2:1, which begins with that tell-tale word, “Therefore”. “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” Paul is exposing the more subtle but no less deadly sin of judgmentalism. Passing judgment on another is a sin that is equated with licentiousness, greed and lust. Out-of-control lust has in common with judgmentalism the tendency to place ones own desires or opinions above others.
The word “nature” (phusis), used also in Romans 2:14, is often translated as doing something instinctively, what comes naturally, being authentic or being true to one’s own nature or identity. The focus is on the individual nature or identity of some gentiles who do naturally what the law requires. They show that what the law requires is written in their hearts. The focus is not on conformity with some external nature in the visible world, but on living in conformity with what is already “written on their hearts”. Paul speaks in Romans 1:26-27 of those whose natural inclination is abandoned to engage in homosexual activities. To go against their natural inclination, they must have been straight! Heterosexuals acting against their “nature” and disposition. To act unnaturally is to fail to find your rightful place in the world, to come to know who God has made you to be. Unnatural to Paul is synonymous with unconventional – what is accepted as “normal” in his world and culture. Read 1Corinthians 11:14-15 on long hair. Social convention, cultural normality. Both are called “degrading” or “dishonorable”. What is considered natural and unnatural should be understood within the context of the culture of the ancient world. Given our broader understanding of sexual orientation, can we read about what is natural or unnatural the same way? If we are considering a loving and committed relationship, should this still be thought of as sinful? Is this a good interpretation? If my true nature is to be gay and I go against that to try to appear straight, is that not going against how God made me? Is it not being inauthentic, living a lie? How does spurning my true nature bring glory to God? Lustful, casual behavior is different than love and desire for commitment, whether gay or straight. Long hair is called “unnatural” and is condemned with the same words and made shameful, yet we have come to read it differently. Why? Custom is widely seen as the difference in how we read this… why not the same with Romans 1?
On to 1Co 6:9 and 1Ti 1:10. These contain the “vice lists” that include several words that have often (of late, since 1946) been translated “homosexuals”. There was no word like this or understanding of committed same-sex relationships in the ancient world. Male same-sex words refer to the practice of young boys who were castrated and pimped out to lustful older men. 1Co 6:9 uses two words: malakoi – literally “soft” or “effeminate” ones and arsenokoitai – literally “man-bedders”. The vice list in 1 Ti 1:10 includes 3 interrelated terms in reference to male-male sexual activity: porni – translated “fornicators” but can also mean “male prostitutes”, arsenokoitai - man-bedders, same word as above, and andropodistai – “slave dealers” or “kidnappers”. Many scholars believe the three terms go together in this list: slave-dealers acting as pimps for their captured and castrated boys, servicing the older men who made use of these young boy prostitutes. These cultural terms are blurred by the NIV translation which uses the term “homosexual”, which shifts the meaning of the word to refer to sexual orientation. When we take the original social context of these vice lists, we can recognize a gap between what the vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in contemporary same-sex committed relationships.
The moral logic undergirding the verses needs to be examined to see what may be culture-specific when we attempt to apply them to contemporary contexts. The dynamics of relationship and gender vary from one culture to another and from one time period to another. The call to honor each other persists in all cultures, but its particular behavioral manifestations may vary from one culture to another. Understandings of gender, including masculine and feminine identity, shift dramatically from one culture to another and one time period to another. In Paul’s day, it was assumed that “nature” itself taught that it was degrading for a man to wear long hair. Assumptions about masculine and feminine identities and the roles and behaviors appropriate to those identities have undergone massive shifts and the majority of western Christians recognize these variations as different cultural norms rather than as deviations from a divine norm.
Not everything that the biblical writers assume or take for granted is to be considered normative for Christians today. An example is the assumption that slavery existed and would continue to exist. The church of the 19th century had to reread the texts on slavery in a more penetrating way. In light of the fresh experience of the 19th century church, Christians grew in their ability to discern deeper and more abiding forms of moral logic that shapes the biblical narrative at its deepest level.
Might committed same-sex relationships present a similar kind of challenge to the church today? The important question is: should the moral logic that informs the condemnation of same-sex erotic activity in these ancient societies being dealt with in these “proof” texts apply categorically to committed and loving same-sex relationships today? What about when contemporary relationships are not lustful or dishonoring to ones partner and when there is the establishment of lifelong bonds of kinship, care, and mutual concern? Such same-sex relationships were never considered by the biblical writers.
There are an estimated 10 million LGBT souls in America today, and this estimate is very conservative. Science, as well as the testimony of these millions of people, speaks to this being an inborn trait, an orientation and not a “choice”. Would so many choose the hardship this life entails? I won’t try to “prove” that this isn’t a choice, that has already been decided, even if it hasn’t been recognized in a small part of the church. So, assuming this is how these millions of people were formed in the womb, what then? I had a very dear friend who said that gay Christians were called to deny themselves. Her belief was that being created homosexual was not in itself a sin, but that acting on it was. This was one of the most hurtful of the mind-sets that has been presented to me. Deny ourselves? Pretend to be what we are not? Never to fall in love, never to build a long-term relationship or build a family, never to have that emotional bond or experience the quality of love the same as straight people? To retreat into isolation for life? Crushing, truly crushing point of view, and not biblical in the least. To restrain oneself from sex is something one is called to, not a choice. But beyond that, to be what you are not is a lie and a sin against yourself and the God who created you.
In closing, what do I believe? I believe in the whole counsel of the word. I believe in Jesus’ words on the subject, or lack of them. I believe in his example of love and inclusion and acceptance. I believe the church has done a great disservice to millions of seekers of God and turned them away and left them bereft. I have seen so much pain caused by the church. I can’t explain how the wounding of these souls has affected me. I believe LGBT souls are a part of God’s amazing creation, created just as they are, loved and accepted by God just as they are. That they are treasured and precious in His sight. I believe God does not intend that we live our lives alone but to be in companionship. I believe that the Bible emphasizes the goodness of God’s creation, the goodness of God himself and the supreme value of love. I believe that the greater understanding of human nature that we have available to us today should inform how we read the Bible. I do not believe that God intends us to live in the small world of ancient biblical culture, but rather in God’s larger evolving world that is informed by science, reason, and experience. I don’t believe a stubborn insistence on holding to a few texts and denying millions of souls a place at God’s table is pleasing to Him. I believe in building bridges of love to all people who are hungry for God. In my own life, I feel the resonance of Thomas Kelly’s words, “The hunger of the committed one is for unbroken communion and adoration, and we may be sure He longs for us to find it and supplements our weakness. For our quest is of His initiation and is carried forward in His tender power and completed by His grace.” This describes perfectly my path. Who I am today is who God created me to be. The path I walk is the path He has called me to walk. A fruit of holy obedience is entry into suffering. And I have suffered and seen great suffering, believe me. The struggle to become authentic, the dark night of the soul, the rejection and heart-breaking halfway acceptance…but more than that, the experience of suffering that I have seen out here, among those who have been cast out.
In my own life and experience, I have known a passion for reality in my dealings with God. William James said, “In some, religion exists as a dull habit, in others as an acute fever.” This burning fever has been my experience. And the fever I burn with today is for understanding and inclusion for the rejected ones. Again, Simone Weil observed that, “Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.” My fervent hope is that, in loving me, you would place yourself on the side of the oppressed, that you would put on my shoes and walk for a mile, that you would climb into my skin and feel what I feel, look out through my eyes and see what I see. If this is an issue that you have yet to give serious thought to, I would encourage you to do so now. There are millions who would benefit from the church opening her arms. It doesn’t matter how many teach a thing, how long something has been a tradition, what the history is of a culture. Find out what your own truth is. Study. Read. Reflect. My hope is that you will leave your time of reflection with a fuller understanding of what it is to be me, how it feels to be shut out. My hope is that you will leave your study with a deeper understanding of God’s love that triumphs over EVERYTHING. You don’t have to agree with me. It’s okay if you don’t. All I ask is that you take up the task of studying to see if what you believe is truly what you, in your deepest heart, believe to be true…about God and his love and his calling to his church. I love you and accept you whatever you decide. My heart is open to you, always and forever.