Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Homosexuality, Holy Scripture, and the Church

          Can we be a biblical people and a people who welcome and honor homosexual persons as part of our faith community? Often, we hear scripture being read as condemning of homosexual persons.  Therefore, what I am going to suggest tonight is perhaps a different reading of holy scripture than you’ve yet heard. Tonight is an exercise in biblical interpretation in the hope of a greater inclusion and welcome of homosexual persons within the church.
       Tonight I will examine  a number of biblical passages. I will take a look at those I’ve heard most often cited when condemning and/or excluding homosexual persons. I also offer the New Testament passages that in my mind speak to the deeper inclusion and acceptance of homosexual persons within and by the Church.
There are risks in tackling this topic; but there are greater opportunities for good. The first is that it is sometimes in the most difficult of issues and life experiences that we are touched by the radicality of the grace of God revealed in Jesus. The second is that this issue may help us all as we seek to live out our mysterious, wondrous, powerful, unruly, complicated and conflicted sexual lives in ways that move toward sexual healing and sexual responsibility.
Text number one is from Genesis 19, the story of Sodom. Two angels in the guise of men come to visit Lot’s house. All the men of Sodom gather at Lot’s house and issue this ominous demand:
Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them (19:5).
What the men have in mind is rape, gang rape. Lot refuses and offers them instead his daughters -- which reveals the low estate of women at the time. The men insist on Lot’s release of the guests. The angels strike them blind, and later the city is destroyed.
The sin here is not homosexuality, but rape. Later scripture identifies the sins of Sodom variously as inhospitality to strangers, injustice, greed, lack of care for the poor, and general immorality (see Wisdom 19:13, Ezekiel 16:48-9; Jeremiah 23:14; Matthew 10:5-15; Jude 7). It is we who have forced a focus on homosexuality.
Text number two: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (toevah) .... If a man lies with a male as with a woman both of them have committed an abomination (toevah); they shall be put to death.
These verses are from the holiness code, which had hundreds of rules about cleanness and uncleanness. Homosexual conduct between men is forbidden as toevah; but if you take a careful look at the whole code, you see that it forbids a wide range of conduct, some of which we still consider destructive and immoral such as incest and adultery. Some we now consider morally neutral; for example, sex during a woman’s monthly flow. Some we would never consider toevah, like eating barbeque ribs – that is, unless your cholesterol is high.
        Jews and Christians alike take these passages and determine what parts still hold moral force and which do not. Our communities tend to agree on the Ten Commandments, but not on all the multiplication of these commandments, nor the penalties imposed. In Numbers, a man who picks up sticks on the sabbath is put to death (Numbers 15:32-36).        In Deuteronomy, a son is to be put to death for disobeying his parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
The challenge is to make our moral discernments about these laws thoughtfully and as consistently as possible.
I use two main criteria in my own interpretation of scripture. The first is from St. Augustine: Does my interpretation increase the love of God and neighbor, or decrease it? The second is to use Jesus, the Word made flesh, as a key to interpretation: What seems consistent with who he was, how he lived and what he taught?  And, we all seek the help of the Spirit of God as we interpret scripture. As Paul said, "The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life."
We all tend to be selective literalists. We can only hope to interpret consistently and thoughtfully and in ways that bring life and healing.
Those are the Old Testament texts. There are three New Testament texts (I hope you are noticing how few there are).
       The first is I Corinthians 6:9-10. 
In Chapter 6, Paul describes appropriate conduct for Christians. He begins the chapter by saying Christians should not take other Christians to court. No lawsuits between Christian brothers and sisters!
Then in verses 9 and 10, he lists behaviors not fit for the kingdom of God:
The immoral (pornoi), idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakoi), homosexual offenders (arsenokoitai), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers.
Note our inconsistencies. Do we ever have church discussions about letting greedy people join the church, or about greedy people becoming deacons or greedy people being married in the church? Do we exclude alcoholics, slanderers, and swindlers?
But, we also need to take a look at the two Greek words here often associated with homosexuality. Malakoi literally means "soft"; and arsenokoitai joins two words: "men" and "bed." We have tended through the years to translate these words in line with our current prejudices.
I think they are most accurately translated: male prostitutes and homosexual offenders. They, I think, refer to the most prevalent forms of homosexual conduct in the Greek/Roman/Hellenistic world: The use of young males and feminized men as prostitutes and the older man/younger boy form of sexual behavior called pederasty. We are talking here of exploitative, abusive and promiscuous forms of sexual conduct. The biblical writers could have had no conception of homosexuality as an orientation, or of a lifelong committed and monogamous same-sex relationship.
Next text.  I Timothy 1:9-10. Here is another list of behaviors presented as contrary to Christian doctrine and practice: "men-slayers, immoral persons (pornoi), homosexual offenders (arsenokoitai), men-stealers (think kidnappers and slave traders), liars, perjurers. . . ."
Again, I would translate the word "homosexual offenders"- emphasis on the word offender - describing exploitative forms of sexual conduct. What they had in mind is what you might see on 42nd Street in New York City.
Next Text: Romans 1:18 - 2:1. Paul is describing what happens when we worship ourselves, the creature, rather than God the Creator. Idolatry takes many forms. Paul groups them into three. The phrase "God gave them up" introduces the three groups:
1. "God gave them up in the desires of their heart to uncleanness (akatharsian), to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves": This is a general description of sexual immorality.
2. "God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations (physin) for unnatural (para physin), and their men likewise gave up natural relations (physin) with women and were consumed with passion for one another." This refers, I believe, to the patterns of exploitative and abusive homosexual conduct I have described above. We may ask, What does "against nature" mean to a same-sex oriented person?
3. "God have them up to an unfit mind to do unseemly things." In this group are those who engaged in "pornoi, immorality, and poneria, evil," those "full of covetousness and malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil constructions, gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, merciless." (Have we left anyone out?!)
Now, Paul turns to the Jews who had been holding their noses through Paul’s description of the first three groups and says: And so you my fellow Jews, you too "have no excuse when you judge others, for in passing judgment upon the others, you condemn yourselves, for you the judgers do the same things . . . ."
This passage is part of a five-chapter-long theological discourse which I summarize:
Point One: The pagan Gentiles are without excuse because they have broken God’s laws revealed in nature and conscience (1:18-32). 
Point Two: The pious Jews are without excuse because they have become judgers of others while themselves breaking God’s law revealed to Moses and Israel (2:1-24). 
Point Three: All have sinned and come short of the glory of God (3:23). 
Point Four: But miracle of miracles, we unrighteous folk have been set right with God by his grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a mercy-seat (3:21-26). The "mercy-seat" is an allusion to the high altar on the Jewish Day of Atonement. The death of Christ has become the Day of Atonement for the whole world, the once- and-for-all forgiveness of sins, past, present, future. 
Point Five: In Adam, the old humanity, we all die; in Christ, the New Adam and New Humanity, we all are made alive (5:1-20)
Are you getting the point of the great good news being announced here?! We’re all in the same boat, the same belovedness, the same vulnerability and same capacity for sin, but God’s grace is for all and in all. Sin is strong, but grace is stronger. The old creation is being transformed into a New Creation.
Those are the Biblical passages I have heard most often used by some to condemn homosexual persons. What did Jesus say about homosexual conduct? If he is our guide to interpretation of scripture, it is important to know what he said.
         There’s a pamphlet, one of those you see in the church narthex (along with all the other tracts which address one thing or another). The bold title reads of the pamphlet reads: What Jesus Said About Homosexuality. You turn the page and see four blank pieces of paper. On the back are the words: That’s right, nothing!
Jesus is silent on the subject. Jesus’ ethic did not deal with lists of clean and unclean rules. His focus was on the heart. And, his ethic had a seriously practical purpose: Did it hurt or help people? Moreover, he seemed especially tender-hearted toward those who had made sexual mistakes, perhaps because sexual sinners were trying so hard to love and to be loved. And perhaps because religious people were so fixed in their judgment upon them.
The story in the gospel text from John captures Jesus’ spirit. Some men drag a woman to him who has been caught in an act of adultery. (Where was the man? It takes two to tango.) They ask him if they should follow the law of Moses and stone her to death. Jesus says, "You who are without sin cast the first stone." He then stoops and writes something on the ground. One by one, they all slink away. Jesus turns to the woman and says, "Where are your accusers?" "They are gone," she replies. "Neither do I condemn you," Jesus says, "Go and sin no more."
Here we have a Lord who forgives all our sins and who calls us to a higher moral path. Can we be such a community? A community of morals and mercy? Of character and compassion? Here is the narrow way that leads to life. There are plenty of communities that are one at the expense of the other.
There is one more set of texts at which I wish to look this evening. The first is in Acts, where Peter and the church are struggling with what to do with unclean Gentiles who are believing in Jesus and wanting to join up: Those of Gentile orientation and Gentile life-style.
Peter is struggling with the moral and racial repugnance he feels toward Gentiles whom he has been taught to consider toevah, unclean. In Acts 10, a voice comes to him in a vision and commands him to eat unclean food he has always been commanded to avoid. Peter refuses to eat, but the voice says, "What God has cleansed, you shall not call unclean or common."
At that moment, messengers show up from Cornelius’ house, inviting Peter to come to his house and tell him the gospel of Jesus. Cornelius is a Gentile; Peter is forbidden by Jewish law to stay with him and eat with him. But the Spirit drives home the point: Those whom God has cleansed I cannot call common. Peter goes and shares the gospel. Cornelius believes and is baptized. The Holy Spirit falls upon him. And Peter says, "How can I hinder God, whose Spirit has fallen upon them?" (Acts 11:1-18)
This has been my experience over and over: I’ve seen the Spirit of God demonstrably present in gay persons. How can I hinder God?
The last texts are from the Apostle Paul.
In Galatians 6:15, Paul writes in an unforgettable flourish:
Circumcision means nothing
Uncircumcision means nothing [speaking here of both anatomy and theology]
The only thing that matters is the New Creation!
The church today seems fixated on battling over old - creation distinctions while God is calling us to something more, something greater: The New Creation.
II Corinthians 5, Paul says, "From now on we regard no one from a human point of view" -- that is, by race, class, looks, money, sexual orientation, I.Q. or percentage of body fat. "For if anyone is in Christ, there is a New Creation. The old is gone; look, everything has become new."
In our day, new light is breaking forth from scripture, from science and from our own spiritual experience. I think it is saying, “Let us do away with sexual orientation as a moral category.”  Morality has to do with behavior, not wiring.
We have an important role to play in a society still filled with hatred and discrimination toward gay persons. This will not be easy, and it may even go against the "conscience" which has been shaped by culture.
In Huckleberry Finn, Huck is caught in a moral dilemma between his conscience shaped by church and culture to accept slavery and a deeper conscience which has been influenced by his friendship with Jim the slave, owned by Miss Watson. Huck leaves home and is joined by Jim, who is now a runaway slave. Will Huck return him to his owner? Huck writes down a letter to Miss Watson telling her of Jim’s whereabouts, and feels temporarily better. But he can’t escape the dilemma. He looks at Jim and at the letter. This is how Mark Twain captures the scene, in Huck’s words:
I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied it a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I’ll go to hell" -- and tore it up.2
Huck was willing to go against his culture and church and go to the hell they told him he’d be sure end up in, in order to be true to something truer he’d gotten hold of by benefit of his relationship to Jim.
I think what he got hold of also, or what got hold of him, was the New Creation, the New Creation whose door was opened to us by Jesus Christ.
If anyone is in Christ, look,
there is the new creation ....
All this is from God, who
through Christ reconciled us
to God’s own self and gave to us
the ministry [service, calling]
of reconciliation.
Jesus calls us to follow and become part of the New Creation. Here is the invitation of the gospel:
God loves you exactly as you are; and it is from where you are that we invite you to build with us the banquet of the kingdom and manifest the New Creation.
The first step in following Jesus is this: To give as much of yourself as you can to as much of Christ as you know.
  As you take that step, there is great adventure ahead: There will be more and more of yourself to give, and more and more of Christ and the kingdom you will discover to give yourself to.
The invitation is to all.
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, 
will you let my name be known?
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
2 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Franklin Center: The Franklin Library, 1979 ed.) p. 302.
3 Will You Come And Follow Me by John Bell, hymn composed for the Iona Community.

The Readings 

  1. Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them. (Gen. 19:5; compare Judges 19:1-3)
  2. You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22)
  3. If a man lies with a male as with a woman both of them have committed abomination: They shall be put to death . . . . (Lev.20:13)
  4. Do you not know that the unrighteous (adikoi) will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral (pornoi) nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes (malakoi) nor homosexual offenders (arsenokoitai) nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (I Cor. 6:9-10)
  5. . . . the law is not laid down for the just but for the man-slayers, immoral persons (pornoi), homosexual offenders (arsenokoitai), men-stealers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. (I Timothy 1:9-10)
  6. Therefore God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to uncleanness (akatharsian), to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . .
  7. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations (physic) for unnatural (para physic), and their men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another...
  8. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to an unfit mind to do unseemly things. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness (adikia), immorality (porneia), evil (poneria), covetousness and malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and evil constructions, they became gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless and merciless. . . .
  9. Therefore, you have no excuse, my fellow person (anthrope), whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon the other, you condemn yourself, for you, the judger, do the same things . . . . (Romans 1:18; 2:1)
  10. But now the righteousness of God (dikaiosune theou) has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all sin and fall short of the glory of God. They are all set right with God as a free gift by God’s grace through the act of redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God presented as a mercy-seat . . . .(Romans 3:21-25)  
  11. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?. . ." When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. . . ." When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." (John 8:2-5, 7, 9-11)
  12. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Galatians 6:15)
  13. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (II Corinthians 5:16-17)
  14. Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, "Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?" Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, "I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call common.’ . . . At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. . . . And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." (Acts 11:1-18)
  15. . . . and he said to them, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (Acts 10:28) 


Art M. said...

Interesting article. A debate I have had numerous times with my fellow Christians. "What makes their sin more egregious than yours or mine?" I have considered it the height of hubris for one to decide that that one sin is the one Christ's sacrifice is insufficient to atone. Glad I read this!

P.V.E. Wood said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Scott said...

Thank you! Good presentation. Perhaps you'll do it at St. John's too?

Scott said...

Thank you. Good presentation. Perhaps you'll do it at St. John's too?