Note: Back in the early 1990s I was asked to give some talks about what the Bible really says about homosexuality. This is the latest version of that. (If you would like a more recent take on this subject by someone else who makes many of the same points I do but in a different way, click here.)
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Tackling this subject is, sad to say, much like deciding to go bungee jumping off a two-story building with a six-story cord. It’s often a losing proposition because many people who agree with you have heard enough to be tired of the subject and aren’t interested in further discussion, while people who disagree often do so with such resolution that nothing you say can persuade them to see things in a different light. Still, I think it’s worth our time because of the rest of the people in the middle, who are simply confused or who at least are open to thinking about things in new ways.
I am a member of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the history of discussion in our denomination shows that any talk of any kind of sexuality is bound to get someone upset. So I have no doubt that some people who read this will find comfort in what I have to say, while it will make others of you uncomfortable. It will annoy some of you. It will outrage a few of you. I won’t be able to help much of that. But what I hope I can do here, above all, is to get you to think and to get you to return to your Bibles and to take a serious, careful, open-hearted, close look at this whole difficult subject.
The Presbyterian church, as you may know, historically has refused to ordain as members of the clergy people who acknowledge that they are homosexual, although, of course, over the course of church history, many homosexuals have served as clergy anyway. The ban on ordination wasn’t written into the church constitution, or Book of Order, until the 1990s, with the adoption of what was called Amendment B. The General Assembly reaffirmed that ban once, but at its 2001 gathering, it decided to remove the ban. All of this happened with fairly closely divided votes.
The assembly’s recent action to remove the ban did not take effect immediately, however, because under church rules the action needed to be ratified by a majority of the church’s 173 regional governing bodies, called presbyteries. The results of the voting by those presbyteries was reported to the 2002 General Assembly, and the presbyteries rejected the General Assembly’s action, so the restrictive language of Amendment B was retained in the Book of Order. Another, more recent attempt to do away with Amendment B garnered more votes among the presbyteries but also failed. But finally an amendment was adopted that allows local presbyteries the option of ordaining otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians to ministry. That took effect in mid-2011.
Even with the ban removed, however, it does not mean that ordaining gays and lesbians to ministry takes place automatically. Rather, it means that every church member who feels called to ordained office is eligible to be nominated or to apply, though no member would have any automatic right to hold that office. Presbyteries and sessions ("session" is the name of the board of elders in churches) will continue to decide who is fit to be ordained, using the standards found in the Bible and the church’s Book of Confessions, the very standards by which this decision historically was made prior to all the recent back-and-forth about ordaining gays and lesbians.
Each presbytery and session, thus, is required to work out a way to live within the new constitutional guides on who is eligible for ordination not only to the office of clergy but also (for sessions) the offices of elder and deacon. Removing the previous ban simply means that presbyteries would not automatically be required to say no to otherwise-qualified gays and lesbians. This has been a long a complicated battle, and I'm glad it's ended the way it has, though it's causing continuing division within our denomination.
To set the stage for what I have to say about scripture and homosexuality, I want to share with you a 1993 column that I wrote for The Kansas City Star on the subject of gays in the military, a hot topic then. It will give you a sense of where my heart is in this area and how I approach such subjects. It also will tell you some things about the general subject of homosexuality that may prepare you for what I have to say about what the Bible says about it.
Just for the record, I am heterosexual and have been married for a majority of my life. I am the father of two daughters. Today my (second) wife and I, between us, have six children and eight grandchildren. None of our children is homosexual. My guess is none of our grandchildren is, either, but the oldest of them is only 18, so that may change.
One other thing I’d like to say before I give you a reprint that 1993 column is that, at the time, I had not received more response to any column I’d ever written than I did to that one. Since then, that number of responses has been exceeded several times, and each time that happened, the subject was sexuality.
OK, here’s the article that ran Feb. 7, 1993:
If I could change anything in that column today, I would advise people that Bishop Spong developed a reputation for radical thinking in the Christian community and many people, including me, believe he is wrong on some issues of theology. But his errors of judgment in certain matters of theology don’t mean he’s wrong about everything.
I didn’t have much space in that 1993 piece to talk in any detail about the Bible and homosexuality, and that’s what I’d like to do now. But it’s important that you understand this: Scholars have devoted chunks of their lifetimes to this subject and have not either exhausted it or reached a consensus for all time and all people.
The first thing it’s important to say about not only this subject and the Bible but all subjects and the Bible is that it makes a great deal of difference how you read it. That is, it’s important for you first to decide whether the Bible is just a book of interesting literature or whether it is in some sense the inspired word of God. If you hold the latter view, your interpretative work is not yet done. In fact, it’s barely started.
If you believe the Bible is God’s word and that it has authority in your life, you still must decide on what theologians call your hermeneutics. That’s a fancy word meaning the eyes (or methods) through which people read and study the Bible. In other words, hermeneutics refers to the science of the methods of interpreting Scripture.
If you are a Biblical literalist and believe every word of the Bible is literally true, historically accurate and otherwise inerrant (which is a bit -- but not much -- of an oversimplification in describing a literalist) then your task in reading and interpreting scripture is different (and in many ways simpler) than it is for someone who, like me, believes that the Bible is God’s word and the authoritative rule of faith and life but that it must be interpreted for our time and our place by careful attention to the time in which it was written, the authors, the audience, the historical context, word usage of the time and other human limitations.
And, beyond that, that individual passages must be understood in the context of the central message of the whole of the Bible — the central message of God’s unconditional love for us, particularly as that love is revealed in the birth, ministry, death, resurrection and salvific work of Jesus Christ.
Daniel Migliore, who taught systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, has written a book called Faith Seeking Understanding, and in it he says a couple of vitally important things about how Christians should interpret the Bible.
“The Bible is faithfully interpreted,” he writes, “when it is read as a source of freedom in Christ to overcome every bondage, including the use of the Bible itself as a weapon of oppression.” Is that not precisely how sometimes the Bible has been used in the debate about homosexuality — as a weapon of oppression?
Migliore adds this: “Our interpretation of Scripture needs to be tested and deepened by readings of its message that arise out of communities of suffering and struggle for justice and freedom.” Again, words directly applicable to the debate about what the Bible says and doesn’t say about homosexuality.
As I’ve indicated, I am not a Biblical literalist. I think Biblical literalism requires one to hold a very low — almost robotic — view of scripture.
Rather I affirm our Presbyterian confessions of faith that the Bible is God’s word and that it should, therefore, have great authority in my life, but it cannot be read as a static document. People with my view of the Bible believe that the word of God is revealed to us only as we interact with scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. We do not believe in the Bible. We believe in the God of grace attested in the Bible.
When it comes to trying to understand what the Bible has to say about sexual matters — or almost any other subject, for that matter — we also must keep in mind that specific passages must be seen in light of broader concepts in order for us to make a judgment about whether what is being said should be taken as words for people in a particular situation 2,000 or more years ago (a situation that may no longer apply to us) or whether what is being said should in some way guide our behavior today.
For instance, the practice of polygamy is simply assumed throughout much of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. It is never expressly forbidden and, in fact, is even protected by Mosaic law (which you can verify by reading the 21st chapter of Deuteronomy). Should we, then, adopt the practice of polygamy because it was common in early Biblical times?
Of course not. Part of what must instruct us is both later Jewish and Christian practice and the teachings of Jesus himself.
We know, for instance, that among Jews polygamy was supplanted by monogamy sometime before the first century. And we know that Jesus blessed the marriage of one man and one woman.
But this discussion of how to read particular Biblical passages in view of the culture, times and audience to whom they were directed is important when we begin to look at passages in the Bible that seem — and sometimes clearly seem — to denounce homosexuality as a sin.
For instance, the same chapter of Leviticus that seems to scorn homosexual intercourse also forbids intercourse with women who are menstruating. In fact, cleansing rituals were required before menstruating women were allowed back in the life of the tribe. Other passages in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians traditionally have called the "Old Testament") forbid women from wearing men’s clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5) and call for ostracizing persons with deformed sexual organs (Deuteronomy 23:1).
Are these passages the infallible, inerrant word of God for Christians today or are they explicable only in the context of an ancient society that was struggling to become the holy people God had called it to be and was wrestling with rules laid down by priests who sometimes borrowed notions from previous pagan societies?
And if Christians are to take seriously a passage that seems to scorn homosexual intercourse, why aren’t the radio talks shows also filled with people calling in to declare it is a sin against God for men to have sex with menstruating women or for women to wear men’s clothing? Well, it is obvious to me that some old prohibitions are simply what Bishop Spong calls “clear examples of pre-modern ignorance.”
The difficulty in interpreting these passages — as well as several passages often cited in the New Testament — is that we must first understand what the Biblical writers really were against. This is especially true of the New Testament passages, because, as Robin Scroggs argues in his excellent book, The New Testament and Homosexuality, “Christian statements about homosexuality in the New Testament are responses to that cultural scene.”
I certainly don’t have time — or the expertise — to go into great detail about what that cultural scene was. But it is important to know that the Greco-Roman culture that permeated First Century Palestine was male dominated in every sense. It was not only androcentric — which is to say patriarchal in almost every way — but also guilty of both misogamy, a hatred of marriage, and misogyny, a hatred of women.
Beyond that, it sanctioned the widespread practice of pederasty. Pederasty was the practice of adult males having younger boys as lovers. But more than that, it was the practice of the adult males being the active partners and younger boys being the passive partners in homosexual acts that resulted in sexual gratification for the adult male but not usually for the younger boy.
Though even at the time there was debate about the merits of this practice, it is clear from a variety of sources that pederasty was very common and that it violated almost every rule of morality and behavior that Jesus came to proclaim. The practice, though it involved homosexual acts, had almost nothing to do with what today we would call someone’s homosexual orientation.
Rather, pederasty subjected young boys to oppressive, degrading, dehumanizing behavior for nothing more than the sexual gratification of an adult male — a male almost certainly assumed to be heterosexual. Pederasty lacked any sense of mutuality because the partners were never equal.
The pederastic relationships were impermanent and in no way nurturing to participants. They sometimes led young boys to become prostitutes and, because they most often seemed to be between heterosexuals, they involved perversion.
In his book, Scroggs argues that homosexual behavior by homosexuals should be thought of not as perversion but as inversion — acting out natural instincts that involve an expression of sexuality that is nowhere near as common among people as heterosexuality. Perversion, he argues, means behaving in a way that is against one’s fundamental sexual nature. And it was perversion (heterosexuals engaging in homosexual acts) — not inversion — that pederasty fostered.
Here is what Scroggs concludes from a careful study of the New Testament passages condemning homosexual acts: “. . .these passages all oppose one form or another of pederasty, insofar as they speak of male homosexuality.”
It seems clear to me that these pederastic acts should have been condemned because they failed to meet the high standards for human relationships that Jesus taught. But to leap from condemnation of unnatural and, finally, oppressive sexual acts practiced by pederasts to a condemnation of homosexuality as we are finally beginning to understand homosexuality today is bad Biblical scholarship, bad theology and bad human relations.
When comparing Greco-Roman literature with the Bible, one of the first things one notices about the Bible — as Robin Scroggs points out — is its almost complete silence, perhaps indifference, about homosexuality.
The fact of the matter is, the Bible never expressly condemns what today we understand homosexuality to be, and even in passages that seem to denounce homosexual acts, only male homosexual behavior is usually referred to. There’s hardly a word in the Bible about female homosexuality. Christians might think that if God wanted to be clear that homosexuality is a sin the scriptures would have said so with clarity. They don’t. In fact, Scroggs finally concludes that the New Testament cannot be used helpfully in any serious discussion of homosexuality “without seriously violating the integrity of the New Testament itself.”
That’s a view shared by Dr. Jack Rogers, professor emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary and author of a more recent book on this subject called Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. Indeed, Rogers for many years held the view that the church should condemn homosexuality because the Bible does, but eventually he took the time the study the issue in detail and changed his mind. He now says that “neither the Bible nor the confessions, properly understood, is opposed to homosexuality as such.”
There really wasn’t even a word for homosexuality at the time the books of the New Testament were written. The term homosexuality is of fairly recent vintage, in fact. It seems to have appeared first in German in the 1860s, entering English two decades later. Before that, the acts were named but the people who committed them were not categorized. So for writers of the Bible, there were words only for homosexual acts. And it was clear to the Apostle Paul and other authors of the New Testament that these homosexual acts often occurred in a destructive context -- pederasty or prostitution or even slavery. Jesus himself, at least by the testimony of the Gospels, never mentioned either homosexuality or homosexual behavior, though he clearly did ordain and bless male-female marriages.
And Paul, the source of most of the few New Testament passages that seem to condemn homosexual behavior, was more persistently concerned with celibacy, a practice he recommended as much better than marriage.
In fact, Bishop Spong correctly points out that Paul, in the first chapter of Romans, views homosexual acts not as the sin but as the punishment for the sin of unfaithfulness.
(Just as an aside, we also have to remember that over the centuries some Christians have drawn some bizarre and destructive conclusions from misreading the Bible. Some, for instance, used scripture to justify slavery and the divine right of kings, and to prevent full equality for women. The Presbyterian denomination refused to ordain women to the clergy until 1956, and as we all know there are other branches of Christianity that even today continue that ban.)
Despite the length of this talk/essay, I have not dealt very specifically with the biblical passages that seem to condemn homosexual acts. Allow me to do that briefly, and to suggest to you that such authors as Scroggs and Rogers can offer a much longer, careful analysis of these and other verses.
Many scholars who have wrestled with these few passages with an open mind and with a non-literalistic approach to the Bible have agreed with Bishop Spong that they make no ironclad case against homosexuality at all.
Let me focus for just a minute on the Leviticus 18:22 passage, which says, in the King James Version, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”
(That passage has to be coupled with Leviticus 20:13, which says that a man who lies with a man as he lies with a woman has committed an abomination and the penalty for both men is death.)
Scholars like Robin Scroggs — who, by the way, when he wrote the book I’m quoting, was a professor of New Testament at Chicago Theological Seminary — say that is not, finally, a condemnation of homosexuality. But how can this be so when the words seem so plain?
Well, first of all, notice that female homosexual acts are not prohibited here. In addition, the sentence in the original Hebrew is extraordinarily awkward, meaning that the act of intercourse is pointed to euphemistically at best — just as it’s pointed to very euphemistically in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which, by the way, the central sin being condemned has nothing to do with homosexuality but, rather, with a failure to live up to the strict requirements of hospitality.
There was, in fact, no technical word in Hebrew for homosexuality, probably reflecting a failure to have an understanding of anything about homosexuality beyond some sexual acts. So the sentence in Leviticus 18 technically gets translated this strange way: “With a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman; it is an abomination.” The word for lie is the Hebrew word “shakav,” which Scroggs says is frequently, but not always, used to denote sexual intercourse.
Leviticus 20 also lists other crimes punishable by death, including men or women lying with an animal. In fact, even the animal is to be punished by death. But Leviticus is the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures that prohibits homosexual acts.
As Scroggs observes: “No rationale is given for its appearance as an abomination. One might conjecture that originally it was linked to pagan religious culture or with the thwarting of the intended use of semen for purposes of procreation.”
In fact, the list of do-not rules in Leviticus — the so-called Holiness Code — was in great part a list of acts that were attributed to the cultures of Egypt and Canaan, and they were acts the people of Israel were being advised to avoid so Israel would be different. The act being prohibited seems to be one of perversion — which is to say an act committed by a heterosexual in an unnatural way for a heterosexual and in a way that simply uses someone else for sexual gratification. It seems, in fact, to refer to the culturally sanctioned rape we later find in the Greco-Roman practice of pederasty.
This wasn’t much for authors of the New Testament to draw on. But it seems pretty clear that New Testament opposition to homosexual acts has its roots in its attitudes toward pederasty.
And non-Biblical commentaries of the times — in addition to condemning some of the more repulsive types of pederasty — seem to base some of the cultural attitudes against homosexual acts on the interesting concept that male semen is being spilled and not used for procreation at a time when making children was a high and necessary calling, responding to God’s promise to make the Jews more numerous than the stars. This same concern led to non-Biblical condemnation of men who mated with women known to be barren. It was a waste of semen.
Well, what Scroggs eventually concludes about all of this is this:
“Biblical judgments against homosexuality are not relevant to today’s debate. They should no longer be used in denominational discussions about homosexuality, should in no way be a weapon to justify refusal of ordination, not because the Bible is not authoritative, but simply because it does not address the issues involved.”
Notice, please, that he doesn’t say the Bible condemns homosexual orientation, nor does he say that the Bible condones homosexual practices or orientation. He says simply that the writers of the Bible did not have any clear understanding of what today we would call homosexual orientation. In short, Scroggs says that the Bible really doesn’t say anything specific and useful on the subject, aside (and it’s a big aside) from whatever way the central message of the Bible — the message of God’s love for us — informs our approach to the subject.
Scroggs even asks the difficult question of whether Paul, who condemned the homosexual acts associated with pederasty, would have said the same thing about what Scroggs calls the current homosexual model of a caring adult relationship of mutuality. And what Scroggs is forced to say, simply, is that “there is no way of knowing.”
In a more recent book than Scroggs’, Dr. Daniel A. Helminiak, a Roman Catholic priest, takes a bit different approach than does Scroggs, but concludes essentially the same thing — that the Bible finally has nothing specific to say about homosexuality.
Dr. Helminiak carefully reviews all possible Biblical references to the subject — with special attention on Romans 1:18-32, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-10. In addition, of course, he considers the passage in Leviticus so often referred to by Biblical literalists.
Here is his conclusion: “Leviticus forbids homogenitality as a betrayal of Jewish identity, for supposedly male-male sex was a Canaanite practice. The Leviticus concern about male-male sex is impurity, an offense against the Jewish religion, not violation of the inherent nature of sex.
“Second, the Letter to the Romans presupposes the teaching of the Jewish Law in Leviticus, and Romans mentions male-male sex as an instance of impurity. However, Romans mentions it precisely to make the point that purity issues have no importance in Christ. Finally, in the obscure (Greek) term arsenokoitai, I Corinthians and I Timothy condemn abuses associated with homogenital activity in the First Century: exploitation and lust.
“So,” he concludes, “the Bible takes no direct stand on the morality of homogenital acts as such nor on the morality of gay and lesbian relationships.”
But in the end, Christians must remember the principal of all sound Biblical scholarship. Christians must return to the central message of the Bible — the message that God loves people enough to die for them, and that this love was revealed most powerfully in the birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection and continuing lordship of Jesus Christ. It is the principle of God’s overarching love for God’s creatures that should guide Christian thinking about all human relationships.
This is not to deny the stark reality of sin. Indeed, the Reformed Tradition of Protestant faith (in which I locate myself) places special emphasis on a doctrine referred to as the Total Depravity of Humankind.
This badly named doctrine calls us to an awareness that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that we all, therefore, need a savior. I believe the way Christians treat homosexuals should be based on the acknowledgement that we’re all sinners in this together, and that God’s love is available to everyone.
As I said in the article in The Star, my hope is that one day we will tear down the false walls that divide us and begin to understand that we are — for all our differences — much more alike than different.
As a Christian, I believe that we are called by the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebekah, the God of Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan, of Mary and Joseph, the God and parent of Jesus Christ to love one another as God has loved us. That call to love leaves us precious little room for hatred and oppression based on our differences.
That is how I — a Trinitarian, Reformed, Protestant, Presbyterian Christian — have analyzed and decided this issue for now. I am not through learning, and I hope you aren’t either.