Monthly Archives: February 2014
Let me tell you a little bit about me. I’m the girl who grew up the perfect archetype of a good Christian girl. I can’t remember a period of my life when I wasn’t attending church consistently, often multiple times a week. I breezed through high school with easy straight A’s, then went on to attend one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the nation. The first time I had a drink just because I wanted to was a thrilling moment during which I giggled inwardly at the scandal of my rebellion.
I’ve always pursued morality tenaciously, and I’ve felt plagued with guilt every time I inevitably fell short of the standard I enforced upon myself (though I always told myself it was God who enforced it on me).
This might seem like a good thing, but I can assure you it is not. When you ride yourself so hard, you have a way of turning good morals into an idol, and conflating your adherence to those morals with God’s love for you. So when you fall short, the worthiness you feel in the sight of God also diminishes, and that is something that should never happen.
Now I’m going to turn a corner, and tell you a secret. I made it to third base with a guy I was in love with. I compromised my values, capitulated to lust, and awakened desires and impulses that I never knew existed.
And to this day I feel the shame of that. My idea of morality is so hopelessly entangled with my desire to please God that I can’t really sort out whether I feel ashamed because that’s what I’m supposed to feel when I compromise my sexual purity, or because I sinned, or just because it all felt so good in the moment.
I think there might also be a deeper, more profound reason for this saturating sense of shame. Messing around with my (now ex) boyfriend was the first time I’d ever deliberately committed one of the “big sins” I’d been taught to avoid. In other words, it was the first sin I’d committed that truly tarnished my image of myself as a “good Christian girl” and came face-to-face with the reality my own depravity.
So maybe, in a weird and ironic way, something good came out of my choice to compromise. I learned how weak my flesh can be, and how disposed to sinfulness I really am, in spite of my upbringing and my commitment to my values. I’ve come out the other side a wiser and more careful woman, though also a woman who now has some emotional baggage to work through that I didn’t have before.
So, what do you know. Perhaps good can come of sin after all—even the sexual kind.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been feeling very uplifted and encouraged at church and in my personal walk with God. I’m not sure if it’s just because my mood is at the high point of an ebb, and if the flow will soon come and I’ll go back to feeling cynical. Or perhaps it’s because God is genuinely working on my heart, making me more malleable towards those who think differently than I do. I think, more than anything, I have come to realize that compassionate hearts can be found in the most unlikely of places, and that the Christians I have chosen to surround myself with don’t deserve all the harsh negativity that I have lately been directing at evangelical Christianity as a whole. These people are my brothers and sisters, and our common bond in affirming Christ as Lord always comes first.
This is why I can forgive when the Christians around me fall short of what I believe God desires of us as Christians. This is why I can think before I speak, consider the impact of my words before I let them fall from my lips, because I know just as well as anybody that words have consequences. This is why I can try to practice patience and grace, even as my heart pushes back against the conservative values my church teaches, values I know so well and have come to regard with a wary eye.
We are all sons and daughters of the same Kingdom, and we are all beautiful and indispensable parts of the body of Christ. Some of us defend the literalism of the Bible protectively, and some of us have learned to see truth in it whether the events it describes actually happened or not. Some of us find their relationship with God strengthened by leaving organized religion, and some of us desperately need to be surrounded by other church-goers in order to stay sane in this crazy world. For some of us, love and compassion come easily, but so does scripturally unsound compromise.
We all have different battles we fight, and different gifts we have to offer the Body. No two of us are the same, and this is why we need each other so much. Even when I’m not in a good place like I am now, and angsty thoughts about the Church are the only kinds of thoughts I can find it in my heart to generate, it is still so wrong to give up on her. The Church is my family, my support, a powerful catalyst that God can use to keep me connected to himself. And the kicker is, the Church is made up of people who are no more flawed, misguided, and capable of lousy judgment than I myself am. And when I remember that, I find it very hard to keep those angsty thoughts churning.
So I’m going to keep building relationships. I’m not going to stop challenging the status quo, or thinking critically about how we can best approach how we do community together and how we stay unified even though we will never wholly agree on how it is we’re supposed to go about being Christians. Because at the end of our lives, when Jesus calls us home and we stand before the judgment seat, I don’t think he’ll be interviewing me about my beliefs when he assesses my devotion to him. I think he’ll be asking me how I loved him with my life, and how I loved his children. And I want to be able to say that I loved his children by offering them the exact same thing that he offered me: a relationship.
The other day I was listening to another of Jonathan Martin’s fantastic sermon podcasts, and there is a small portion of what he shared that I feel will stay with me for a very long time. Pastor Jonathan was briefly discussing scripture, and how every word of it ought to point us back to Jesus. Then he started getting to how Jesus reads scripture throughout the four gospels, and what those readings say about Jesus and his authority as the Son of God. Luke 4:16-20 is the passage he zeroed in on, and in Luke he reads it like this:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,”
Notice the comma at the end of the excerpt? In verse 20 it says Jesus finished his reading, promptly handed the scroll back to the scribe, and sat down. He finished his reading in the middle of a sentence! What is that all about? Well, when you go back to Isaiah 61 where this passage is originally found, the part of the sentence that Jesus leaves out reads: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” I find it beautiful and fascinating and redemptive that Jesus would intentionally leave that part out. Of course it doesn’t mean that God’s vengeance will not come, and that there won’t be a day when we are called to judgment for how we have lived our lives.
I’m completely speculating here, but I wonder if Jesus may have read the text that way to establish the redemptive purpose for which he came. Perhaps he wanted the people to know, “Hey, the Messiah’s here, the ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ has come upon you now after centuries of waiting.” I wonder if Jesus wanted to end with healing for hurting, freedom for those in bondage, redemption instead of wrath.
But like I said, that’s just speculation.
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~ Romans 8:38-39
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the boundless nature of God’s grace and love. I’ve been reading about how there is no corner of the earth he won’t go to in order to search out his wayward children, and that no amount of sin could possibly make God love us less. I’ve been drinking it all in, marveling at the truth of it.
And all the while, I’ve found my heart grow hardened toward the other side of God. I don’t want to think about or talk about God’s holiness and justness. I feel as though, to acknowledge that my God is as much a God of judgment as He is a God of love would somehow dampen my conception of the breadth of His love. I feel as though talking about consequences and holiness and the pursuit of right living would somehow make those beautiful verses in Romans less true.
It’s a frightfully complex paradox. The more I think about God’s nature and how it is wholly defined by that beautiful word—love—the more I realize just how little I understand about what the word means. Does love mean that hell can’t exist? Does love mean that our sins are washed away? Without repentance, will love one day expire and be replaced by wrath? When does love constitute discipline and when does it constitute mercy? How do I love when I don’t even fully understand what love is?
To try to measure God’s love seems to be a futile task, and I can’t begin to dream of knowing how to address it. All I know is that I can look back to moments in my life, and remember with stunning clarity the times when I felt truly and unconditionally loved. And those times never carried a trace of guilt-tripping or condemnation, though sometimes they involved gentle chastisement. Those demonstrations of love were never about reminding me how much I’d screwed up, but rather they were about affirming my value as a daughter, friend, sister, human being.
And I think those moments, those little specks of time that have since fleeted but remain burned in my memory, those are times when the people around me became unknowing vessels of God’s love to teach me what His love really is.
God’s love is a mystery, but I must trust it.
For a while, I was sharing a lot of angsty thoughts about my church—all the reasons it’s doing things wrong, and all the ways it needs to improve. While I still think those concerns are valid, I have found that they are bothering me much less than they were before, due to a combination of factors. One of them, I think, is that I’ve quit going to the service on Sunday mornings. Instead, I go to a Saturday night service called Ignite which is considerably more low-key, laid-back, and significantly smaller. I love Ignite, and every time I miss a service I’m seriously bummed out about it.
I’ve noticed, though, that I’ve become aware of a different problem with church—and this problem doesn’t have much to do with the institution itself and everything to do with me. See, I am a major introvert. Though I am generally friendly and happy to carry on a conversation, I’m downright lousy at starting them. It really defies my nature to walk up to someone I don’t know and just start chatting away. So usually, when I go to Ignite I just slip in a little late and let the worship songs sink into me. And I always bring my Bible and a notebook, because I can absorb the message more easily if I take notes on it. I really enjoy myself in my little bubble, but when the service is over, I usually glance around plaintively, half-hoping that someone will come up and talk to me. I’m anxious for conversation and interaction, especially when it’s about God, but I’m just an absolute pansy about initiating those conversations most of the time. So I usually just take the easy way out and leave early.
Well, the other day at Ignite, I actually ran into someone I knew—an older man who recently got hired where I work. That made it easier to talk, and it was no time before we were chatting away, talking about a pleasant variety of topics. Then…he asked me if I knew anybody else who attended the service that night. Mind you, I had just finished telling him that I’d been coming to Ignite for at year and a half! I pointed sheepishly at one couple, who I know reasonably well because I’m good friends with their daughter.
Aaand that was it. In a stunning moment of revelation, I realized that I knew nothing about a single person in the entire room—not their names, not anything about their families. Nothing. And as I said, I’d been going to this church for a year and half! I’d always just walked in the door, basked in the service, then quietly and promptly walked out. I was kind of ashamed to realize it.
I’m not really sure what to do about it, though. As I said, it is entirely against my nature to just walk up to people and start talking to them. I really enjoy deep, meaningful conversation, but I’m downright lousy at getting the ball rolling on them. And I know church is definitely supposed to be a place where those sorts of conversations are had; I just don’t know how to make church that kind of place for me while being true to who I am. Because while sometimes my introversion feels like it stems from insecurity, other times I realize it for the gift that it is—I can easily identify with others who are shy, and I can have conversations that dig into the meat of a matter because I spend so much time thinking about such matters. So I do think my introversion is a gift. I just need to figure out how to make it work within a church setting.
This is the second essay in a two part series. For part one, click here.
Over the past year, I have studied the topic of homosexuality and the Bible extensively. I have read the relevant scriptures in context many times, and I have carefully weighed both affirming and condemning commentaries about the Bible and its treatment of homosexuality. Through these studies, I have found that each position requires an overarching framework by which the reader interprets biblical texts and assesses their applicability in our modern society. And I have also found that the framework offered by the affirming argument aligns with the overarching narrative of scripture in a way that is holistic, compelling, and doctrinally sound.
The purpose of this essay is to outline this framework and assess how it applies to homosexuality. I will be separating this argument under several different headings, each of which addresses a different angle of what I believe about homosexuality and scripture. In this respect, it will be very different from my first essay, which methodically assessed a series of passages that are traditionally used to condemn gay relationships as sinful. In this essay, I am much more concerned with the larger, overarching themes of scripture, especially the New Testament.
I will be honest and say up-front that there are no Bible verses that directly and explicitly affirm homosexuality. However, I believe that the reason for this is the same reason why there are no explicitly clear scriptures that condemn slavery or misogyny, or afford women equality in the church and in marriage. Every part of the Bible was written by individuals constricted by their cultures to people constricted by the same cultures. This does not mean the Bible does not contain timeless truths, and it does not mean the Bible was not divinely inspired. Rather, I think the Bible contains a complex blend of timeless truth and ideas limited to particular times and ways in which the Holy Spirit infused writers to write words relevant for a particular people, but not always for all people in all times.
Therefore, discussing an affirming view of this issue can be quite a challenge because our culture is so different from the varying cultures in which the manuscripts that now make up the Bible were written. It is the exact same problem that abolitionists of the mid 19th century faced when told that challenging slavery was the equivalent of denying God’s Word. In that day, the pro-slavery camp actually had much more explicit evidence by way of particular verses than the abolitionists did (much in the same way conservative Christians today have more explicit evidence concerning homosexuality). See this blog post for more thoughts on that, and how this point connects to my discussion below.
The Nature of Sin: Origination in the Heart
One clincher for me in the debate about the sinfulness of homosexuality was what the Bible says about the nature of sin. Specifically, in Mark 7 we read a story about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees. The Pharisees get upset with Jesus because his disciples are eating food without washing their hands—which they considered to be a ritually unclean act. Jesus chastises them, then later in private discusses the encounter with his disciples:
““Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)
He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”” (Mark 7: 18:23)
Jesus is telling us here that sin is not external—i.e., committed by forgetting to wash your hands, but rather internal. Sin is a matter of the heart, and letting your own flesh win the day. All the sins he lists—sexual immorality, theft, murder, etc., stem from a deeper place that abandons love for the other in favor of some form of selfish indulgence. Jesus is trying to teach his disciples that sin has nothing to do with violating the letter of the law and everything to do with letting your own flesh reign.
Paul describes a similar concept in his letter to the Romans. As a human being who struggles constantly with sin, his words are full of frustration and angst:
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (Romans 7:21-24)
We see here that sin is as deeply saturated within the spirit of Paul. It is within his very nature, and holds a place of internal conflict within his heart. Such is the nature of sin; it originates inside and then is manifested in selfish acts.
Now, what does all this talk of sin have to do with homosexuality? As we have established, sin originates with the heart. Every evil action stems out of evil desire. Therefore, to claim that homosexual relationships are sinful, but heterosexual relationships are by nature wholesome, you would have to concede that there is something innately sinful and corrupt about loving someone of the same gender. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot come up with a reason having to do with the heart why this would be so.
The New Covenant Means Freedom from the Law
For me, one of the most beautiful aspects of life as a believer under the New Covenant is freedom from the Law. But let me be clear. This does not reduce the Law to pointless and arbitrary rules. Rather, as Paul states in Romans 7:7-10, the purpose of the law is to reveal the sinfulness of our own hearts. He uses the example of coveting; because the law forbade it, Paul realized how often he desired to covet.
But as New Covenant believers who are infused with the Holy Spirit, we are utterly free from the restrictions of the Law. Paul makes this abundantly clear over and over again throughout the New Testament; he reminds us that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law” (Galatians 5:18b). And in Romans 10:4 Paul tells us again, “Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.” Galatians 3:19-25 and Ephesians 2:14-16 offer similar exhortations about freedom in Christ from the burden of the Law.
And so, under the New Covenant, we are free to walk in direct community with the Father through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. There is no set of written codes that is sufficient to guide us; the Holy Spirit itself provides the guidance we follow. And to the extent that we produce love, joy, peace, patience and all the other fruits of that Spirit, we are walking in obedience to the Father, and no code or law of morality or righteous practice is necessary. Therefore, when we see our gay brothers and sisters—whether single or in covenant relationships—exhibiting such fruit, what right have we to impose a moral code upon them? What right have we to say that their lives run contrary to the very real truth in scripture which says that against such things as the fruit of the Spirit, there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23)?
Before I move to the next section, I would like to expound on the preceding paragraph by offering a few more examples in scripture. For it is all well and good for me to say that the witness of fellow believers is sufficient to embrace the wholesomeness of their relationships. But unless I can back it up with biblical passages, these are just my words.
So let’s have a look at Acts 15:1-21. In these verses, the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are having a contentious debate about the newly converted Gentiles, and whether they ought to be bound by the law of circumcision. After several Jews insist they must, Peter, Paul, and Barnabas stand up and offer their arguments. Peter begins by reminding the council that God alone decides who is accepted: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith” (v. 8-9). Then, he chastises them for insisting that the Gentiles bear a yoke the Jews themselves have not been able to bear (v. 10). Paul and Barnabas enthusiastically reinforce Peter’s points by describing the signs and wonders God has performed through the Gentiles (v. 12).
In the end, James resolves the issue. He suggests a compromise: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (v. 19-20). In other words, the testimony of good works brought by Peter and Barnabas, and Paul’s insistence that God alone decides the condition of the heart, are sufficient; the Gentiles are not bound by the law but free to pursue the will of God without conforming to Jewish law.
I would suggest to you that the debate that the Jewish council had about the Gentiles is the very same debate we Christians have about the gay community. We exclude them from the possibility that they are walking in obedience to the Father because their lives do not conform to the standards that we understand to be established as law by God. To the Jews of that day, it was inconceivable that God could accept those who have chosen so blatantly to deny his law. And to many Christians today, it is inconceivable that God would accept and work His will within the hearts of gay people, simply because they have the capacity to fall in love with the same gender instead of the opposite gender.
The Exhortation to Love Fulfills the Law
Here we come to the very linchpin of the pro-gay biblical argument. For me, Romans 13:8-10 is one of the most important passages in all of scripture. It sums up everything we could possibly need in order to walk faithfully in the will of God. This beautiful passage reads:
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
The extraordinariness of Paul’s claim is overwhelming; it is saying that love itself fulfills the law, and no other commandments are necessary! Not only this, but as Justin Lee informs us in his essay on homosexuality (which you can find here), this passage is essentially the crescendo of all the arguments Paul has been building in Romans to this point:
“Incidentally, this passage in Romans 13 isn’t just some random, obscure passage. Paul spends almost the entire book of Romans building an argument about law, grace, and sin, trying to explain what the Christian gospel is all about. Paul uses the word ‘law’ 74 times in twelve chapters! The passage I just quoted from Romans 13 is the conclusion of Paul’s grand argument; it’s the last time ‘law’ is mentioned for the rest of the book.”
This is the same point we see again and again in scripture, spoken by Jesus himself as well as the other New Testament writers (see Matthew 22:37-40, John 13:35, Galatians 5:14, 1 John 4:7). Every commandment God has ever given us is simply an extension of the commandment to love. Therefore, if we love, we automatically live in submission and fulfillment of God’s commands; this is Paul’s point. And so when a man loves a man with the same compassion selflessness, and strength of spirit that a woman loves a man, why would that first sort of love violate Romans 13:8-10 when the second sort wouldn’t? Therefore, to call gay relationships sinful reduces God’s law to an arbitrary command that is divorced from the standard of love and renders the Romans passage void.
There is just one other Bible passage connected to love that I find to be very enlightening for this discussion. In Matthew 12, we read an account of Jesus’ confrontation with some Pharisees. They have caught his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, and they demand that Jesus chastise his followers for violating the law. Instead, Jesus turns the tables on them completely:
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice; you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:7-8)
Here Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, in which the prophet Hosea is rebuking the Jewish people for being aloof of the suffering around them. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, co-authors of The Children Are Free, offer this commentary on Jesus’ words:
“Amos, who prophesied around the time of Hosea, talked about how people of the time were attending places of worship, offering sacrifices, and then going home to cheat the poor and foster injustice. Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing the same thing; they were more concerned with rule keeping than with human hunger. Jesus’ point is clear: Human need is more important than rules—even rules found in the Bible.”
Again and again, throughout the Scriptures, Jesus ignores the pull of legalism in favor of compassion. He recognizes human need, whether it is physical or emotional, and meets those needs. This sort of compassion—this sort of love—is not the sort that thrives on obedience to laws but rather keeps an open heart toward the suffering of those around it and engages that suffering. This is the love we are called to demonstrate again and again throughout scripture, and it is exemplified in the love of a same-gendered partnership no less fully than an opposite-gendered one.
The very purpose of the Gospel is to free us from the law of sin and death. We are no longer under the yoke of the Law, but rather we are free to pursue the heart of the Father and walk daily in his commandment to love. And perhaps, if nothing else, we should remember that our lives should reflect the fruit of love that God is sowing in us. For as Jesus says in Matthew 17:16-20,
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
I have seen such good fruit produced among Christians in the LGBT community. I see devotion to the Word, loving-kindness for those around them, and compassion demonstrated where often none is deserved. I see love demonstrated in all of its beautiful forms, both romantic and otherwise. There is no corrupted heart, no sinful indulgence in the way these Christians interact with others, no veil of sin between them and God because they are in same-sex relationships.
And so I ask you. Who are we to deny that witness?
I’ve been meaning to write this series for a long time, and I am now very excited to finally write down all the thoughts that I have read about and mulled over for more than a year now.
This blog post is going to be written in a considerably more formal and long-winded tone than most of what I write here. The reason for this is that once I get into “English major” mode and set about exploring a thesis I’ve established, the formal writing style tends to flourish. That being said, I will be breaking up this topic into two separate blog posts. This post addresses the so-called “clobber passages”, the six passages in the Bible that Christians typically use to condemn homosexuality. In my next blog post, I will address the scriptural foundation for why I find it plausible to affirm gay relationships.
Before I officially begin my exploration of the “clobber” passages, however, I must offer the disclaimer that most of what I discuss below is a summarization of others’ research, all of which is cited at the end of this essay. I am not a Bible scholar, and indeed I have not even taken formal courses on biblical studies. But that does not mean I don’t have a brain and can’t uncover and examine biblical interpretations and assess their validity for myself. So my words below reflect the soundest, most persuasive arguments I have found which have informed my current understanding of scripture and homosexuality.
And so, without further ado, please enjoy part one of this series…
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I believe the Bible is the holy, inspired Word of God. I also believe that covenant gay relationships are equal in all respect to straight ones. I know that most modern evangelicals would find those two statements to be entirely incompatible, but the research I have done over the last few years has led me to believe that this is not the case.
In this half of my discussion of homosexuality and the Bible, I will be discussing five of the six passages that Christians typically turn to in order to condemn gay relationships as sinful. Let me say before I begin, however, that I recognize that it is not enough to refute traditionalist arguments concerning the so-called “clobber passages”; I must also be able to provide a biblically cohesive reason for why I believe scripture supports gay relationships. This is what I will be addressing in the second half of my series.
The first reference to homosexual sex in the Bible is in Genesis 19. This passage narrates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s decision to destroy the cities because of its inhabitants’ many sins. Due to its irrelevance, I will not be incorporating this passage into my discussion of the traditionalist biblical proof texts on homosexuality. I believe that the context of this passage as well as cross-references in Jude and Ezekiel are clear enough that we can safely surmise that the homosexual acts described in it are domineering and lust-driven acts of rape that have no place in this discussion. I will leave it at that.
In Leviticus 18 and 20, we find two matching series of commandments regulating sexual practices among the early Israelites. Embedded in this list, we find a commandment forbidding same-sex erotic behavior (v. 18:23) and a subsequent decree of capital punishment for such behavior (v. 20:13.) There are several ways of understanding these verses. Some identify them as sexual purity codes established to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding cultures of the time. They refer to the beginning verses of Leviticus 18 to support this claim.
While I believe this is a sound observation, I also think that there is more to these verses than that. Furthermore, to group Leviticus 18 and 20 under the category of moral law does not acknowledge the bizarre and erratic nature of the laws—for example, why do these verses forbid intercourse during a woman’s period (v. 19) and having sex with a woman and her daughter (v. 17), yet remain silent on more general sexual sins such as premarital sex and adultery? These laws are oddly specific.
Therefore the most sensible analysis that I have found for the purpose of these laws had nothing whatsoever to do with morality and everything to do with protecting the social hierarchy of ancient Israelite culture. These laws also served the purpose of protecting women and children, who were considered socially inferior in a patriarchal society. Preserving the patriarchal order of male headship was necessary for their safety and the general preservation of societal structure. Therefore, men having sex with men would have disrupted that order. These laws were not established for moral reasons but for social ones.
There are no further verses in the Old Testament that refer in any way to homosexuality, so we will now turn our attention to the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, Paul lists off a number of sins, traditionally called the vice lists. Homosexuality is included in both lists, and when most Christians read these verses it can seem plain as day that Paul is condemning same-sex behavior as universally and inherently sinful. However, a deeper look at the original wording of these verses suggests a great deal of ambiguity.
In the Greek, the word translated as “homosexuality” in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy is the word “arsenakoitai”, which is a compound word that combines the Greek words for “man” and “bed.” So it is very clear that “arsenakoitai” refers to some form of same-sex erotic behavior. However, it is difficult to get more specific than this, because “arsenakoitai” was used so rarely in writings contemporary with Paul’s letters. In fact it is so rare that some scholars even suggest that Paul created the word himself.
The 1 Timothy passage sheds some light on how we may be able to interpret “arsenakoitai” properly. The verses in the NKJV read:
“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.”
It is very interesting to note that this vice list is broken down into closely connected pairings: “the lawless and insubordinate”, “the unholy and profane,” etc. In the grouping which includes homosexuality (here translated as sodomites, betraying again the ambiguity of the Greek word), we find that it is grouped with fornicators and kidnappers. Why would this word be grouped with seemingly unrelated sins, except because they are in some way connected?
I would offer the suggestion that “arsenakoitai” refers to Romans who indulged in pederasty. This would explain the word grouping. It is very likely that the Greek words for “fornicators” and “kidnappers” refer to male prostitutes and the slave traders responsible for selling them to the “arsenakoitai.” Therefore what Paul is condemning is not homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather exploitive sexual practices among first century Romans.
Again, though, the interpretation of the word is not conclusive. The view offered above, however, is the one that I have found to be most faithful to the context of scripture and the meaning of the original Greek words. Therefore to translate this word generically as “homosexuality” is an unfortunate travesty.
Because the same exact compound word appears in the 1 Corinthians passage, I will not address it further here but rather let this interpretation of 1 Timothy stand, since this passage offers a little more context than 1 Corinthians. It should be noted, however, that the vice lists in the two passages as well as the manner in which Paul expounds on these lists is remarkably similar. Suffice it to say, based on the wide variety of ways the original Greek is interpreted and translated, I believe it is completely implausible to rely exclusively on these two verses as a reliable way of deciding the sinfulness of homosexuality.
This leaves one last passage in the Bible which addresses homosexual sex: Romans 1:18-32. I believe this is the most compelling of all the “clobber” passages, and so I will be spending more time addressing it than I have the other verses.
In most of my studies, I have found that those who affirm gay relationships appeal to verses 22 and 23 to suggest that Paul is talking about Roman pagans who worshiped idols (specifically, the Roman goddess of fertility, Aphrodite) and engaged in unnatural sexual rites (both heterosexual and homosexual in nature) as part of their temple worship.
While I believe this interpretation has some degree of merit, I also do not believe it describes the entirety of what is going on in Romans 1. The inclusive language in verses 18-21 suggest that Paul is talking about a much larger group of people than just a few Roman pagans. Likewise, the extremely long list of sins in verses 28-32 seems to include the sorts of sins that all of humanity is guilty of, and not just a selective, small group known for its temple sexual practices.
In his review of Eugene Rogers’ book Sexuality and the Christian Body, Richard Beck suggests that the key to understanding Romans 1 lies in the general human understanding of race and gender. Throughout history, the “standard view” holds that women are morally inferior to men, and thus more prone to sexual deviance and promiscuity. Likewise, minority races have been considered the same way (e.g., in antebellum America, black men had a scandalous reputation for having an unnatural sexual appetite for white women). As Beck writes:
“In both cases we see how immorality generally, and sexual licentiousness in particular, get attributed to natural kinds (e.g., race, gender). In the Old and New Testaments this same reasoning was applied to the Gentiles. As a natural kind the Gentiles were considered to be naturally prone to immorality and sexual deviance. Paul gives us the standard Jewish view of the morality of Gentiles in Romans 1.”
So we see that this passage is about much more than Roman pagans or even modern-day gays and lesbians. Paul is describing Jewish sensibilities toward Gentiles, only to refute them two chapters later. In Romans 3:9 Paul essentially levels the playing field and reminds the Jews that there is no morally superior race, but all come to God equally, as sinners in need of redemption. The point, then, of Romans 1 was not to condemn homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather to outline Jewish understandings of moral inferiority—including sexual deviance—then turn the principle on its head.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that these arguments in and of themselves do not suggest support for the morality of gay relationships. Rather the purpose of writing this is understand how and why these passages describe specific homosexual acts as inherently immoral (as in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), culturally binding purity laws regarding gay sex (Leviticus 18 and 20), and general statements about the sexual perversion of a class of people considered to be morally inferior (Romans 1).
While I believe the interpretation I have offered of passages is valid, I also recognize that it is not enough to refute the conservative approach to these verses; I must also be able to present why I believe scripture affirms and supports gay relationships. If scripture is to be our guide for morality and living a Christ-centered life, we must be able to draw from its pages a cohesive understanding of what it means to live such a life, in our romantic relationships as well as in every other part of our lives.
Part two of this series, which I am very excited to write, will address this. After all, writing about the “good news” is so much more of a blessing than exploring the problems with the “bad news.” I hope you enjoyed this, and look out for part two to be published within the next few days.
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“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
These lines come at the end of that beautiful passage that describes with such poetic elegance what love is. As I read them, peace washes over me in great bounds, because in all my searching for the right way to live out my faith in Christ in this world, I know that I merely “see in a mirror, dimly”. This world, and all my knowledge and all my understandings about Jesus and God, are mere reflections of the Truth. And one day, I will know that Truth. One day, I will come face-to-face with God, and my dark and swirling visions will become as clear and bright as the sun.
So we must remember. It is okay that we “know only in part.” It is okay to cradle our beliefs with an open hand and a teachable spirit. Because we are always, always seeing only one small part of the picture, one piece of God’s grand design and purpose for this world. It’s okay that we don’t know it all, and don’t have all the right opinions about the right issues. It’s okay that we screw up, that our distorted vision of life screws with how we think and relate to one another. That will happen, because we “see in a mirror, dimly.”
Yet what we must not lose sight of is what Paul says is greater than prophecy, greater than tongues and greater than knowledge—greater than all these things which will come to an end.
The ability to be patient and kind. The ability to restrain envy and boasting, arrogance and rudeness. The ability to step back and let others have their way, yet not be irritable or resentful about it. The ability to rejoice in truth and not wrongdoing. The ability to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. Love.
This is the standard by which our devotion to the living God will be measured: our ability to live out these things every day in our interactions with those around us, whether our hearts are willing or not. May we never lose sight of that beautiful truth.
Recently, I have had my great admiration for the popular author and blogger Rachel Held Evans deeply questioned. I was told that although she was an eloquent and beautiful writer, her ideas were incompatible with scripture and that I should be very careful about exposing myself to human thoughts that run contrary to God’s Word. It felt like a small taste of what Rachel must experience on a regular basis from other evangelicals, and it wasn’t an experience I enjoyed very much—although I must admit that the person I was speaking with inspired me to remember that God’s word always has the authority (as I noted in my previous blog post).
However, after watching Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate about creation vs. evolution last night, I feel the need to express why exactly I appreciate Rachel’s perspective so much. Just like I told the friend I had the aforementioned discussion with, I love Rachel’s writing because it is so inclusive. She offers room for disagreement and never claims that her word is the final word, or even worse that her word is God’s Word. She writes with a tremendous amount of humility, respect, and faithfulness both to scripture and to this modern world we live in. She helps me make sense of things that otherwise seem impossible to reconcile, and for that I am infinitely grateful.
All right. I’m done gushing now; let me get back to my purpose for writing this post. This morning I was perusing all the various reactions to the debate, and as often happens when I’m reading internet articles, I ended up following a rabbit trail to articles written a few years ago on the human origins debate and the Bible. In the articles I dug up, Rachel and Ken Ham were essentially responding to each other’s statements about the authority of the Bible and what it means for the historicity of the creation account.
On his website, Ken Ham posted this article, which I found to be infuriating. It was loaded with buzzwords and buzz phrases that really got under my skin and reveal the reality of Ham’s agenda. He describes evolution as the “indoctrination of our age”, essentially dismissing it as a religion and not a science that has no scientific plausibility and a plethora of harmful effects on my generation. Ham also laments that Rachel “has no doubt been led astray by compromising church leaders”, despite the fact that she is very clear in her book and on her blog that honest research into the science of evolution led to the position she has adopted, and that her change of mind had little to do with what liberal church leaders were teaching her.
Speaking of the word liberal, Ham also makes this harsh statement: “the BioLogos website indoctrinates people in rank liberalism”. BioLogos is an organization founded by the head of the human genome project, Francis Collins. The website offers an exploration of theistic evolution, and how we can understand that evolutionary science points to the immanent and awesome power of our God. The scientists at BioLogos simply hold that science and religion are completely capable of compatibility. There is nothing rank or liberal about it—Ken Ham is simply projecting negatively saturated political ideology onto a science organization.
What bothered me the most about Ham’s article was his avid devotion to fighting a culture war over this his beliefs. He concludes his article with this remarkably antagonistic statement: “Well, Rachel, I have news for you. Your generation is not ready to call a truce in this battle in the culture wars; in fact, we are finding more and more people are getting enthusiastically involved in fighting the culture war by standing uncompromisingly and unashamedly on God’s authoritative Word.” Whether you agree with Ham or not, I think it is quite safe to say that his words are divisive, one-sided, and completely committed to keeping battle lines intact.
And here I circle back to why I have so much more respect for Rachel Held Evans than I do for Ken Ham, even though it has been suggested to me that her ideas are not “firmly grounded in Scripture.” She answers Ken Ham’s accusations in this blog post, which she concludes with this wise statement:
“I am not asking Ken to change his interpretation of Genesis or even his devotion to it. If he believes it is the best interpretation, then he should continue to commit his outstanding energy, creativity, and resourcefulness to promoting it. I respect his conviction and I count him as a brother in Christ because, at the end of the day, Ken and I agree on what’s most important —that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.
All I am asking is that he honor this common bond and join me in making peace, in acknowledging that there is enough room in Christianity for both of us and that we can talk about this issue without our weapons drawn. We don’t need a Church in which everyone agrees on the age of the earth. We need a Church that is committed to the Apostle Paul’s instructions that “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).””
This is a far cry from Ham’s devotion to a culture war, and serves to illustrate the fundamental difference in these two ideologies. Ham says the entire Christian faith depends on a literal interpretation of Genesis. Rachel says such things as differing ideas on biblical interpretation are peripheral to our commitment to unity as a body of Christ. There is room for a truce, room for conflicting ideas to put down their weapons and join each other in communion. Why is that so hard to accept?
After a fantastic and convicting conversation with the young adult group leader at my church, I’ve had a lot to mull over. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible and its role in my life, and how I ought to approach it. Basically, I was told to be careful about the Christian blogs I read because they may offer ideas that are not based in scripture. I ought to be going to the Bible first when seeking to understand doctrine, then weighing the verses I read against what other Christians are saying before I embrace a particular doctrine.
That would be all well and good if scripture were always clear. But it’s literature, and so of course there are many layers and complexities and meanings to its holy words. And the blogs I read help me make sense of those words and offer a layer of human understanding that in some instances infuses these well-loved verses with a meaning and a perspective I could never have found on my own.
I have realized something, however. I have realized that I do rely on the blogs too much. In fact they are drowning out my own voice, and when I debate controversial topics with people, it isn’t my own ideas that I am expressing, but rather someone else’s. I think, perhaps, that I rely on the voices of others on the internet because I feel as though I can’t defend my ideas without them. Like I’m not smart enough or something like that, so I have to look up sound, compelling evidence that I am right.
And…I think there might be a thread of truth to the idea that I allow the blogs to color how I read scripture. I guess I’ve just come to realize that, at least when it comes to believing certain doctrines, sola scriptura isn’t enough. Listening to the ideas of my contemporaries—both on blogs and fellow believers at my church—is very important. And so is listening to church tradition, intellectually sound reasoning and the nudgings of my own heart. But reading scripture to figure out doctrine is also different from reading scripture with a spirit that is seeking to learn how to be more like Jesus.
So I’m going to try to focus on tempering my blog-reading time and spend more time in the Word with a teachable spirit that does not ignore the ideas I read on the web, but also does not elevate them to a position they shouldn’t hold either. Because, let’s face it—when it comes down to it, the Bible has a lot more to teach me than the blogs do.