Note: For deeper study of this issue, read Homoeroticism in the Biblical World by Martti Nissinen. For insight how to engage in respectful conversations with people who don't share your views on biblical interpretation, read A Letter to my Congregation by Ken Wilson. For a general understanding of how I approach, value, and apply the biblical text, Pastor Adam Hamilton wrote an easy-to-read book for his congregation entitled Making Sense of the Bible. I fully agree with his approach. In the Appendix, he also deals with this same subject well.
What color is the dress pictured here? This dress has become quite famous over the last couple of weeks because people are so divided about what they see. My daughter asked me what I saw, and without hesitation I told her the dress was blue with black lace. My son, who had seen the same picture, objected with “No way! What are you talking about?” Then my wife looked at it and answered my daughter, “It a white dress with gold lace.” Depending on your visual cortex wiring, some people will see blue and black, while others see white and gold. The issue of homosexuality in the Church is like that. Some people see it clearly as a non-negotiable sin, while others do not see our current issue as sinful at all. My hope is that this brief teaching will give you information to help you understand what you believe and why.
Think about this statement: Loving, covenanted, same-gender sexual expression can be compatible with being a committed follower of Christ. Do you agree with it or disagree? Why? Has your response been the same throughout your life? If not, what changed? Is your response similar or different from your family of origin? Knowing what we currently believe – and why – is very important as we consider the information we have to work with.
Now I’d like you to consider your opinion of the Bible. Which statement most closely aligns with your view?
o The Bible is literally breathed from God – every word is exactly what God intended – read it and do it!
o The Bible is inspired by God through human writers, but the inspiration overrode the human element sufficiently so that on the important content is what God wants us to know.
o The Bible was written by devout, prayerful humans who earnestly invited God into their writing process so that they were at times inspired with heaven-born insight. Inspiration is equally in the careful, prayerful interpretation among the faithful.
o The Bible is an entirely human creation on par with Greek myths of antiquity and should be treated as descriptive of its historical paradigms, but beyond very general principles does not speak to our present age.
How you view the Bible makes a significant difference with this issue – and many issues. If you most closely align with one of the first two statements, it may feel as simple as looking up some verses and making your decision – it’s right there in black and white. To question any part of the Bible is to question all parts of the Bible, which then undermines its authority. For you, then, it will be very important to know what the Bible says in its original language (Hebrew or Greek). We’ll get to that. If you most closely resonated with the third answer, you are also going to want to know about the original language and context as you determine how one should apply a text forward. Fourth option people don’t really care what the Bible says, and probably aren’t reading this anyway… The first three views are held by people who share respect for the Bible and also treat it as an authority for their faith. But realize that especially between the first two and third option, the blue/black or white/gold dress phenomenon occurs, with each group questioning the others’ sanity.
Before we take a look at the texts that address the subject of homosexuality, I want you to know something about how our brains work. When we hear something new, we try our best to understand it based on what we already know. We’ll label it with familiar terminology and metaphor. The car was first called a horseless carriage… If it doesn’t fit our way of seeing the world, however, over time we will discard the idea and forget about it. New ideas are difficult to integrate. In fact, sometimes we will reject an idea simply because it is foreign, like an organ transplant recipient rejecting the organ that is saving his or her life. Be open to what you read and how you feel. Be aware that every cultural shift was met with resistance.
There are 31,102 verses in the entire Bible. Given how much attention has been given the issue of homosexuality, we can safely assume that there must be a lot of verses on the subject. In fact, there are only seven texts in the entire Bible that deal specifically with homosexuality. Here they are, with brief explanations of their context.
· Genesis 2:20-25 (Adam and Eve). The creation stories in Genesis, first and foremost, were to draw a clear distinction between the Jewish understanding of the creation of the cosmos in contrast to all others. When it comes to God creating male and female and that they were made for each other is shocking because God called them very good – much different than other cultures which believed the gods could barely tolerate humans. Obviously, procreation requires a male and female, and was the earliest motive for marriage. We live in a time where committed, lifelong, loving companionship is the primary reason for marriage, with procreation as a part of the equation but not the primary reason. There was no paradigm in the ancient world for sexual orientation, which makes this process reliant on theology more than exegesis.
· Genesis 19:1-29 (Sodom and Gomorrah). This story is about violence, humiliation, and rape – not what we’re looking at.
· Judges 19:1-30 (Levite and Concubine). Similar to Sodom and Gomorrah, this is a tragic story of rape, not love.
· Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 (ceremonial and other sex laws). These specific laws refer to cultic practices outside of Judaism that involved temple prostitutes. The tip-off that this is the case is the word/phrase that gets translated as “it is an abomination”. The only time the writer of Leviticus uses that phrase is in the context of an act of worship to pagan gods.
· Romans 1:18-27 (Paul’s “Gotcha!” Don’t judge.). Two things here. First, the same type of same-gender sex is what’s being talked about here. Second, Paul is suckering his audience using their own prejudices only to hold them to the same measure – they are as guilty and in need of grace as those they loathe. The last thing Paul was trying to do here is grant permission to judge people!
· 1 Corinthians 6:9-17 (sexual immorality). Same issue as the others – not what we’re talking about today.
· 1 Timothy 1:10 (perverts!). The Greek words used for homosexuality in this and the Corinthians verse
· Jude 5-7 (general immorality/promiscuity). This short letter written by one of Jesus’ brothers simply highlights promiscuity in general, which most likely inferred the use of male prostitutes by the upper class. Once again, the sexual expression addressed here is one of exploitation.
I don’t know any person of faith that cannot get on board and affirm what every single one of the above seven texts are speaking into. Collectively, they condemn rape, cult prostitution, and the exploitation of minors. Anybody who seeks to love God and love others should stand against all of these things. But what do we do with the reality that none of these verses speaks anything close to what we’re talking about in this teaching? What about the fact that Jesus never uttered a word about homosexuality? He endorsed regular old heterosexual marriage, and spoke against promiscuity, prostitution, lust, and non-shalom sex altogether. In order to reconcile this mismatch, cultural and historical context must be addressed.
If we were to build a time machine and go back to a day when Jesus was teaching somewhere and asked him if he thought same-sex marriage was okay, what do you think he would say? Without a doubt, in 35 CE, Jesus would say “NO”. The reason I am confident that this would be his answer is because the only paradigm of homosexual expression available to them was violent. Rape. Prostitution. Exploitation. No faithful Jewish person would think these acceptable. So, does that settle it? Not necessarily. If you were to ask Jesus to share his wisdom regarding cosmology – the study of the universe – including how the solar system works and the basic shape of the earth, you would not take his answers seriously. He could only guess that the sun revolved around the earth. He could only surmise that the earth was sort of shaped like a snow globe with God’s heaven outside the “globe”, hatches that could be opened to let water rain on the land below, and an underworld where the dead reside – all describing the image given in Genesis. Do we blame him for holding such views? Of course not – it’s all he and everyone else in his time could come up with given their primitive stage of scientific development.
What would happen if we took Jesus in our time machine and rolled into 2015, somehow simultaneously downloading all the scientific knowledge that we’ve acquired over the millennia? I am confident that he would act like the Jewish scholars before him: he would take all the available information available to him as he sought to interpret the sacred texts. He would affirm God’s creative influence noted in Genesis 1, but would likely let the details slide about the order of creation and the shape of the earth alluded to with the word “firmament.” Sexual orientation – the idea that people are born attracted more to the one gender than the other, which means some are attracted to the same gender – was a completely foreign idea in the ancient world. Being introduced to a paradigm of homosexuality that can be expressed with the same level of mutual love and devotion – shalom sex – as heterosexuality would be a radically new thought to them. I think, in true Jewish Midrash fashion, Jesus would weigh everything as he thought about the kind of expression we’re talking about.
An example of making a massive break with the Law and Tradition… The Apostle Peter was meditating at a friend’s house when he was caught up in a vision from heaven. Three times in a row, a sheet was lowered from heaven, filled with all sorts of food Jews were forbidden to eat. Peter experienced a voice telling him to “Take, eat!” Each time, Peter vehemently rejected the notion. But after the last time, the voice told him not to reject as unclean that which God has made clean. Immediately after this, Peter was invited to come to the home of a Roman military leader where he and all of his household waited – all Gentiles. They wanted to know about Jesus. Peter knew he was doing something he shouldn’t – he was doing solid for the Roman oppressor, and violating a longstanding tradition of not mingling with non-Jews. He began his preaching acknowledging that he was doing something “wrong”. But as he continued, the Holy Spirit showed up – on and in the Gentiles! Peter could not deny what he was witnessing, and invited them to be baptized into the Christian community of faith. The vision he had prepared him intellectually for the experience he could not deny. Certainly, he was surprised himself at what happened. No doubt, he was shaking in his boots as he made his way to Jerusalem to explain himself. He was met with fierce resistance from his Jewish compatriots. But Gentile inclusion has taken root. God didn’t change. What happened? Peter experienced a new level of insight about the nature of God which caused him to view the world differently.
In regards to the statement: Loving, covenanted, same-gender sexual expression can be compatible with being a committed follower of Christ, my personal conclusion is “YES”. I agree with the biblical texts we examined, but I also believe it is in keeping with our biblical tradition to weigh all data as we move forward into the future. The same phenomenon happened within the Bible’s legal code books – over time “God’s” laws changed regarding women, orphans, and immigrants as new awareness about them evolved. Please remember: the ancient Jewish scholars believed the inspiration regarding the creation of the scriptures was equal to the inspiration regarding the interpretation of those texts. They treated their study, interpretation and application as a holy exercise. So do I. I hope you do, too.
Similarly, Quakers in 17th century condemned slavery as inhumane and began calling for its end. What they concluded intellectually was backed up with what they saw and experienced. Susan B. Anthony understood intellectually that change needed to come after she experienced the inequality women faced in a man’s world. Martin Luther King, Jr. committed his life to pursuing racial equality as he experienced discrimination as a human being because of his skin tone, even as he understood that God did not show such favoritism. In each of these examples, a combination of intellectual understanding blended with experience changed their minds and subsequently opened their eyes to a new understanding of what God was doing in the world.
Homosexuality is the next issue in a long list of divisive concerns where information and experience are shedding a different light on how we see our world. Just as with the Gentiles, women and African Americans, the Holy Spirit has been at work in and through Christ followers who happen to be sexually active homosexuals. Some of these folks are even pastors who have been helping others experience God’s grace even as they have experienced it.
What doesn’t this mean? It doesn’t mean that “anything” goes in terms of homosexual expression. The same sexual ethic guides heterosexuality and homosexuality alike: shalom is the goal, supported by love of God and love of others like we would hope to be loved. Cheap, shallow sex? Not shalom, regardless of sexual orientation. Exploitation through sex trafficking and prostitution? Not shalom, ever. Physical intimacy should be commensurate with the level of emotional, intellectual and spiritual intimacy in the relationship. Orientation is irrelevant at that point.
If you disagree with this conclusion, Jesus does provide instruction for you as you move forward: don’t judge. The role of Judge is God’s alone, not yours. Your primary role as you interact with the world and it’s people around you is to do your part to redeem it, to facilitate more and more of God’s grace.
If you call me your pastor, you can count on me to do my best to serve you regardless of whether or not we see this issue similarly. But you can be sure that you will never hear me condemn the kind of covenanted loving relationship we are talking about here, because I don’t believe God condemns it.
Some see a blue and black dress. Some see a white and gold dress. At the end of the day, it’s a dress. Some see homosexuality as sin, others see orientation as benign. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about people. A dress doesn’t have feelings or emotions; people do. Behave accordingly.