Image Source: VCU.edu
Written by: Ben Menghini
“When all is said and done, the increase of this love of God and neighbor remains the purpose and the hope of our preaching of the Gospel, of all our church organization and activity, of all our ministry, of all our efforts to train for the ministry, of Christianity itself.” –H. Richard Niebuhr
As I explained last Thursday in my post about care for the poor, a number of issues have been made immanent in the fallout of the World Vision hiring policy kerfuffle. For today I want to again suggest that we approach scripture in the tradition of sola scriptura, meaning that we read the text and figure out what it means for its original audience, and for us today, before we try to pile on our own ideas and opinions. I want us to examine our attitudes and practices regarding homosexuality to see how we might better be a light of Christ in an ever darkening world.
American Evangelicalism has a homophobia problem. I wish there was a kinder way for me to say that, but even if there were I believe the shock of the statement is still important. Before I try to get into it though, I want to make it very clear that I know I’m in volatile territory here. It is not my intention to offend, to insult, to stereotype, or to belittle anyone. American Evangelicalism is not a homogenous group, and there are a wide variety of perspectives on various topics within the movement. That said, there is an easily identifiable trend emerging among a large portion of Evangelicals, and that is an unusual obsession with sexuality, especially in terms of “traditional” marriage and homosexuality.
The trend at work here is for a particular, specific reading of scripture to define human sexuality in very limited terms. This has to do, not just with homosexuality, but also with gender roles in marriage. By reading a handful of select biblical passages, very specific and limited ideas are offered. More importantly though, is that they are offered in an “all or nothing” attitude. This is what leads evangelical leaders, in situations like the World Vision fiasco, to say outrageous things about acceptance of gay marriage, such as calling it a “Betrayal of the Gospel”, a betrayal of Christian community and the Bible, claiming the gospel of Christ is at stake, tragic and trivializing the cross. This is the attitude that leads to disturbing interviews like a recent one with Franklin Graham. It comes out clearly when Thabiti Anyabwile at The Gospel Coalition discusses homosexuality in distressingly archaic and homophobic terms, insisting that one should gag when they think about homosexuality, and suggesting that laws in Zambia and Russia which imprison people, and have been linked to hazing, public humiliation, and even torture, are good and Godly and should be supported by Christians.
So how does the Gospel of Christ, with its focus on love, forgiveness, and reconciliation, end up here? I think it comes from a combination of fear of the world, misplaced priorities, and a very narrow understanding of how to read the Bible. In the denomination that I currently hold membership (Evangelical Presbyterian) the motto of the denomination is In Essentials, Unity. In Non-Essentials, Liberty. In All Things, Charity; Truth In Love. This motto summarizes the exact attitude that I want to advocate for the church. But I think the first hurdle in that direction has to do with how we read those things in the Bible. I will attempt to do this by examining representative discussions of relevant biblical texts. I am not asking conservative Christians to change their theological position, only their attitude. What I believe about homosexuality and marriage changes even from day to day. What I want to demonstrate is that what we know about homosexuality in the Bible is not as clear as many would have us believe, and that how we apply those ideas in our live tend to be culturally based.
The Old Testament is a place many turn to study issues of human sexuality. Commands from Leviticus 18 and 20 are often cited, because they are possibly the most direct addresses in the Bible. Leviticus, which is a collection of instructions of the Israelites based on the holiness of God, is meant to set them apart from the other people that existed at that time. This is very important, because at this time in redemptive history, God’s people are defined ethnically, and behaviorally. It could be seen then that non-reproductive sexual activity is discouraged, in the same way that foreign wives are discouraged. The question then is whether that distinction still matters for the people of God, who are not defined ethnically as a people group. If God’s people grows by evangelism, rather than reproduction, does this command hold up? Also consider what other things in Leviticus are punishable by death: cursing one’s parents, adultery, and incest. Historians generally agree that the death sentence was rarely carried out in these situations, especially for disrespectful children. The fact that we do not practice this death penalty should make it clear to us that we have allowed our attitudes to change since then, just as our attitude has changed on a many other commands, such as eating shellfish, tearing down a house with mold, or touching a woman during her period. I contend, therefore, that you can’t just cite this text and say “that proves that,” but that we have work to do with the text.
Here we should also deal with the idea of “biblical marriage”. This is a popular phrase that is thrown around somewhat carelessly in our churches today. Often what is meant by this is the nuclear family prevalent in Western culture for several centuries, mainly mother, father, and children. Contained within the Bible, however, are many different kinds of marriage which are endorsed. Although there are many biblical passages that may serve as a guide for marriage, it is also important to remember that the idea of marriage has shifted over time, often serving the culture it is surrounded by. There was a time in the Bible when polygamy was accepted, Solomon is often remembered for his many wives. In biblical families a woman often left her family completely to join a man, and if their families lived far apart, she may never see them again. Evidence also shows that in medieval Europe it was acceptable for two men to be married for economic benefits. In just a few centuries past children were considered an economic commodity. Arranged marriages were often the norm, romantic marriage is really an expression of our times. It then becomes difficult to define exactly what a “biblical marriage” should look like.
Moving on, a common New Testament scripture is Romans 1:27, in which Paul says that men gave up natural relations with women for unnatural relations with men. Again, this seems clear. But what is Paul talking about in chapter 1 of the letter to the Romans? His bigger topic is idolatry. Idolatry is a major issue in Roman culture, and we observe Paul warning about it in many of his letters. Often his warnings are paired with a discussion of sexual practices. That is because idol-worship in Rome was often coupled with orgies and temple prostitutes. What we observe in Romans 1 is that because these people engaged in idol worship (which is what this passage actually condemn), they were then given over to illicit sexual acts, most likely in the temples. Now again the passage becomes much less clear. Is Paul condemning these acts because of their connection to idol worship, or are they wrong on their own? If Paul is so concerned with adultery and prostitution, would the idea of homosexual marriage change his perspective? There are other passages in the New Testament worth dealing with, but for the sake of brevity I will recommend to you a sermon by my pastor in St Louis, Matt Miofsky, that does thorough work on these texts.
At this point many will ask, what did Jesus have to say about the subject. The honest answer is that we have not one recorded word from Jesus on homosexual marriage. It is at this point, however, that some, grasping at straws in order to make an argument, suggest that Jesus defined marriage when he talked about divorce. This is really a stretch. Jesus cannot argue against something that did not exist at the time, his description of marriage between a man and a woman simply explains what existed at the time. He would have sounded foolish to condemn homosexual marriage at a time when no one had any idea what that was. It is also interesting to call attention to divorce when discussion this topic, because like homosexuality it has been a debated issue about which ideas have changed over time. Some churches allow divorcees to serve as Elders, while others do not. There was a time when divorcees were denied access to communion. We are then compelled to ask, if we can change our minds about divorce, can we change our minds about homosexual marriage as well?
On the other hand, we may be able to find in Paul enough condemnation of homosexual behavior to conclude that it remains sinful, as many have. The argument is also made that Paul’s personal bias is more influential on his writing about sexuality than any specific condemnation from God. Paul’s real opinion may not be available to us.
Perhaps the most convincing approach is an argument from creation. Because God made man and woman to be together and have children, that pattern then defines how all Christians should live. This is a perspective Paul seems to like. But part of the assumption in that explanation is that marriage is primarily to have children. That was definitely true of marriage in biblical times, and even up until around the last 100 years people got married in order to have children because children meant financial security. Today people get married for a variety of reasons, which complicates that reasoning. If marriage is not just for survival and child bearing, does that open up what marriage can look like? It is also a difficult position for couples who are not able to conceive children, because it implies that they cannot fulfill God’s purpose for marriage.
What I am trying to get at here is that when an issue comes around, like the World Vision incident, it would benefit evangelicals to approach it cautiously, feeling out the messiness of a confusing topic. When evangelicals talk about homosexuality, we tend to do so in a language and a tone that is incredibly harmful to those that identify as LGBTQ. We use language that communicates a message that says “you are not wanted, you are not good, you are not worthy.” We communicate that we are afraid of them, that there is no way that we could understand them, and that they are worse off than the rest of us. This is the homophobia that I want to call out. On a non-essential issue, on which there is not clarity, we need to avoid the jump of making the issue “the heart of the gospel.” The heart of the gospel is God’s love for broken creation and redemptive work in Jesus Christ. Being gay or straight has nothing to do with that.
Again, I’m not asking anyone to change their theological position. What I am asking is that we change our behavior and our language when we are talking about homosexuality. How can we surround our words with grace? How can we make our posture one of embrace, rather than exclusion? How can we be the face of Jesus to people who have been told God hates them? As St. John of the Cross famously said, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” What practices can we engage in that will show the world that God’s church is a place of welcome? How can we be a church that offers redemption rather than condemnation? We should be less concerned about how others are meant to live, and more concerned with how Jesus is calling us to live. We should be asking ourselves what will be the best way to point someone toward Christ. Perhaps most importantly, we must decide for ourselves how we can live a life that will point others to Christ.