November 21st, Paul Simon Day!
BEHOLD! I hereby declare November 21st to be Paul Simon Day! He has sung to me for like my whole freakin’ life, a blessing and a bardly companion through the years. I’m feeling super grateful this morning for all he has sung into my life over the years, from the melancholy strains of Sound of Silence to the dancing joy of Graceland. One of my earliest cassette tapes was Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, and it’s in my iTunes library today with others.
My all-time hands-down no-contest favorite song from Paul Simon? It harkens back to the good ole’ Simon and Garfunkel days… The Dangling Conversation. Simply some of the best lyricism on the planet.
I don’t know for sure that Paul needs a day, but now he has one. I’m holding out hope that we’ll still meet up one morning (with all the other hipster wildebeests) at Starbucks and lead everyone munching on their Cranberry Bliss Bars in a rousing chorus of Bridge Over Troubled Waters, because you know, I’ll just happen to have a ukulele with me. We all need a dream right?
Happy Paul Simon Day, beloved!
Happy Paul Simon Day, Paul!
There’s an undercurrent of non-affirming Christianity that is sincerely seeking a way to welcome gay Christians without having to deal with gay marriage or the thought of gay people having sex, and it boils down to the idea of enforced celibacy. This means that gay folks are welcome to be gay, but not as whole sexual human beings. What I find most interesting in this proposal is what it indicates about the thinking on homosexuality among straight Christians, namely that more and more are finding it hard to assert that gay is a choice.
If you’d like to read the most civil and gentle assertion of enforced celibacy, you can read Mr. Ronald J. Sider here at Christianity Today. His article is the reason I’m writing this post. I would have eventually gotten around to writing about celibacy in our discussions of LGBTQ concerns, but his writing got me thinking, and thinking leads to pacing, and pacing leads to more writing… reminds me of a proverb I heard once, Proverbs 10:19 (NLT), “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” Hehehehe, I can’t turn off the flow…
What is celibacy?
Celibacy is the absence of sexually gratifying physical activities. We don’t find much in the Old Testament about celibacy as the people of Israel didn’t think very highly of it. They had other concerns in mind, mainly procreation. Poor Prophet Jeremiah was commanded to be celibate as a graphic image of coming suffering. Ouch. That’s about it for the Old Testament where the idea of celibacy is not so highly celebrated. Of course, neither was same-sex relations, again as the focus was on making babies. All sexual minorities had a difficult time in those days: any LGBTQ people, eunuchs, celibates and barren women. They simply didn’t have a way to plug into the overall drive to populate the earth.
One of my favorite scenes in all the Old Testament is between Hannah and her husband Elkanah in 1 Samuel 1 (NRSV). She is barren, and her husband’s other wife ridicules her for her barrenness, but her husband loves her and says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” He loved his wife and celebrated their love without the need for her to bear children. Awesome.
And on a side note, Elkanah’s other wife? Yes, he was married to both Hannah and Peninnah. And God heard their prayers and Hannah’s son was the great prophet Samuel. But I thought God “ordained” marriage as one man and one woman? I would swear I’ve seen someone holding a sign that said that. So much of what we have in the biblical narrative lays outside the simplistic models we bandy around in our own day and age.
Sorry, back to celibacy. We have to move into the New Testament where the active redeeming of sexual minorities and marginalized begins to take place in its fullness. Jesus begins this by having women prominently placed around himself and his ministry and they are often the focus of his attention and conversation, to the befuddlement of his male disciples. And who is among the first Gentile converts in the book of Acts but an Ethiopian eunuch!
Jesus also affirms celibacy in a discussion of fidelity and eunuchs in the first half of Matthew 19 (NRSV). It’s a fascinating discussion in which Christ affirms fidelity in marriage by chastising the religious for casually breaking the kinship bonds (bone of bone and flesh of flesh) of marriage. He then mentions some outside the kinship/marriage bonds, those who do not marry, what seems to be three types of eunuchs:
1) natural eunuchs (asexuals? hermaphrodites?),
2) physically altered males (eunuchs made eunuchs by removal of the testicles), and
3) spiritual eunuchs (those choosing a celibate life for the work and glory of God).
There’s room to quibble on the descriptions of the types of eunuchs here, but what cannot be quibbled over is that the option to become a eunuch (presumed to be celibacy) is a choice made by one who can accept celibacy as a calling.
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Paul celebrates his celibate lifestyle. He’s happy to be celibate himself, and he encourages anyone who has the gift of celibacy to exercise it…
1 Corinthians 7:7-9
“7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. 9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”
Let’s make special note of two things here from Paul…
1) celibacy is a gift for one called to it, and
2) Paul is substantially challenging many millennia of religious focus on marriage and procreation. Whoa.
I think the worst thing that happens when we engage this text is to give people the idea that they should just get married if they can’t contain their sexual desires. Marriage is much, much more than that. We shouldn’t read Paul saying there is only denied lust in celibacy and fulfilled lust in marriage. But we also make a big mistake when we don’t engage this text and slip into thinking that celibacy might be something that we may impose on someone not otherwise gifted or called to celibacy.
And how about Paul going up against all the millennia of religious preoccupation with procreation? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a sermon about the way Paul challenged procreation as the basic reason or function for human sexuality and marriage, but there he goes. I know, the chapter goes into more than marriage and celibacy in the sense of calling. It’s a deep and unique discussion on calling as a Christian. But hey, 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 (NRSV) is actually an amazingly beautiful exposition of equality between marriage partners. It’s very not-at-all-patriarchal. I like it a lot.
Celibacy in scripture is a choice, a gift and a calling. It is not a consolation prize or a requirement that one Christian might decide to enforce upon another.
An Acts 15 Redux, please!
Ok, let’s get to the good stuff… I am calling for a repeat of the church council in Acts 15! LGBTQ folks want a place at the table with us, the table where we all sup equally of the joys of marriage, acceptance and full citizenship in our churches and civil communities. And so far the straight Christians are not all sure what to do about this insistent desire.
Let’s remind everyone what happened in Acts 15. Gentiles had begun converting to Christianity and some of the Jewish Christians felt that those new Gentile converts should be circumcised and made to adhere to the Law of Moses as a prerequisite for being in the church. Paul and Barnabas didn’t want that to happen and in the interest of settling the debate they go to Jerusalem to put the matter before the church elders and apostles. They go and tell the story of the Gentiles’ faith, and Simon Peter steps in with a great idea… don’t put rules on them that even we can’t tolerate.
6 The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. 7 After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. 8 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; 9 and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. 10 Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
Others agree, and James steps forward to outline a simple down-to-bases list of things to ask the Gentile Christians to avoid: idolatry, fornication, meat from strangled animals & blood. It seems totally sensible that they are asked to avoid association with idols, though it was probably a bit difficult as the new converts would be confronted with civic gods and household gods at every turn in daily life. The fornication they are asked to avoid is porneias, or a general sexual infidelity. Sounds legit, as we are called to be a people of covenant, both with God and one another. The meat of strangled animals and blood part seems weird to us today, but would have made much more sense to people steeped in purity rituals than we are.
We need a Simon Peter to stand in our midst, a rock, a voice of wisdom and liberating courage to say, “Enough with our reticence. Enough with our burdensome ideas and rules. We need to celebrate the faith of our sisters and brothers and not do anything more that causes them to stumble or lose hope.” And then we need a James who can help us chart a course of grace. Our Peter and James don’t have to be males, we just have to listen and make a move in faith.
What if we straight Christians would look and see God moving in the faith and lives of our amazing LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and would celebrate? What if we chose not to try to bind impossible conditions on these sisters and brothers, something as horrible and as unscriptural as enforced celibacy, but instead decided to welcome them into our shared down-to-bases understanding of God’s will for sacramental and covenantal relationships and life?
We would be faithful to ask for things like…
- Purity. We’re all called to live lives of purity, avoiding unrestrained sexual activities and lusts that can overwhelm us.
- Fidelity in Marriage. We’re all called to be faithful and committed life in the covenant of marriage.
- Full Offering of Gifts. Our LGBTQ brothers and sisters should be sharing their full gifting with the church to help us grow and mature in faith, just as we are each dependent and in need of the other, and we all share this responsibility to one another.
- Grace & Hope. And finally, as we recognize that we really aren’t two separate people at all, but one family in Christ, we would ask that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers would extend us a healthy dose of grace to overlook our delay in celebrating their faith and to join us in a deeper and more faithful hope that better days are coming for us all.
I’m going to go sit in the corner of my living room now and savor the dream. I’m going to revel in my belief that our God will be found to be much bigger than our divisions and worries. I’m going to be watching and listening for the Peter and James that God will raise up among us. And then she speaks, I’m going to be there to sing a hymn of the purest praise to our awesome God.
O my God! My God of impossible dreams and limitless peace! May your people of every nation, tribe and tongue, every color and continent and island, every gender, every sexual orientation and every corner of your amazing world call on you in joy and hope! May all of us join together in praise of you and love of one another! Speak and make us listen! Amen!
I promised we’d come around to Romans chapter one, and here we are. This will be a long post, and up front I want to mention how we’ll do this… we are going to try to look at Romans 1 with fresh eyes, if that’s possible. We’ll also spend some time talking about the nature of sin and an individual’s conscience. Our third stream of thought will have to do with identifying and relinquishing certain presumptions which stigmatize and hurt LGBTQ Christians.
I want to say at the beginning that even in the years before I came to hold views of faith and scripture which affirmed my LGBTQ sisters and brothers, I had a hard time relying on Romans 1:18-32 as a key non-affirming passage. Most of my reticence was due to my not understanding from WHERE IN THE WORLD the section in verses 18-32 even came. The passage just didn’t seem to fit the letter to Rome at all. Paul’s all happy and flowers and gospel joy, and then boom, people are crazy horrible. When I was young I often heard the saying, “If a man gets Romans, God gets the man.” Considering the overall themes of grace, God’s power over condemnation, and a robust spiritual rebirth, I was confused by this passage in chapter one. Let’s take a quick look at the verses in question, Romans 1:18-32 NRSV…
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Alright, Paul seems to be talking about some really bad folks. Verses 18-23 introduce us to these people… they have known God, at least by virtue of creation’s witness, but it seems they knew much more of God. They had truth, but they chose to consciously suppress that truth. Verse 32 affirms this idea, saying that they understood the gravity of rebellion, but still chose to rebel and reveled in other people’s defiance of God.
They became idolaters, worshipping images of humanity and animals, and this seems to be the point of pivot for them. Becoming idolaters precipitated God’s response; God gave them up. In the Greek Paul uses a term of resignation, the same word used when Pilate gave Jesus over to an angry crowd to be crucified (John 19:16), and the same word describing the moment Jesus gave up his spirit on the cross (John 19:30). Total resignation.
God’s response to their conscious choice to rebel is to let them go and to experience the depths of their rebellion. With total resignation God let’s them go into extremes of their desires. There is a statement and restatement with verses 24-26. God gave them up to degrading lusts because of their idolatry, because of which God gave them up to degrading lusts. If there’s a clear message here it’s that God is resigned to these people’s rebellion.
Now we get into the nitty gritty. Paul begins to elaborate on what these people do in their lusts after God has given them up…
- Women begin to engage in “unnatural” sex. The word unnatural is the same word that Paul will later use to describe the difference between natural branches upon an olive tree and those grafted to the tree in Romans 11. Paul doesn’t give specifics about what is unnatural about the sex in which these women are engaging.
- Men had sex with one another. Paul is clear in his language that these men are having sex with one another. When he shifts to speaking of the men he says that the men are “likewise” or “in the same manner” moving away from what is natural. Also, as a direct result, these men received some type of recompense, one matching their behavior.
Now again, in verse 28, God is resigning them to their trajectory of rebellion and enmity. Paul goes on with a list of further behaviors which marked their rebellion, and we’ll list those as enumerated in the NRSV:
- They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.
- Full of envy
- they are gossips
- inventors of evil
- rebellious toward parents
It seems safe to agree that Paul can’t say enough about how badly these people want to reject and rebel against God. The first question we now must ask is whether Paul is speaking rhetorically or if he is speaking about an actual group of people. The reason we ask this question is because of the next few verses, Romans 2:1-3…
1 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2 You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3 Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?
Paul has used all that extremely graphic language and the laundry list of accusations to make a point about his audience’s own culpability and the absurdity of their judging others. Wow. Paul paints a word picture of the people his audience would most recognize as enemies and outsiders to God’s grace, and then says they are the same, they do the same, and they are in the same place of judgement. The rest of chapter two continues this discussion by contrasting what makes a person righteous before God or simply a religious hypocrite.
But I thought Romans 1 was about gay people?
We do some interesting (as in mistaken) things with this passage. First, we don’t read it in the context of Paul’s point about not judging others, and so we use it to judge. Oooops. Second, we selectively read certain of the behaviors backward through the passage to identify people today with rebelliousness, in contrast to Paul’s first presenting their rebellion as the reason for the behavior. Third, we don’t engage the use of the word unnatural, but simply read it as sinful.
Context & Message
To the first point, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a person who fits this list of naughtiness in Romans 1:18-32. I know I’ve been guilty of gossip, envy and even some ruthlessness on occasion. But the point of this passage from Paul seems to be a lesson on humility: think of the person you most believe to be the epitome of living in rebellion to God, then put yourself in their shoes, because you’re in their shoes. The sexuality of the passage is unrestrained, excessive and driven by lust. It’s also heavily associated with the idolatry of worshipping the creation instead of the Creator. And, though the women are having some type of sex which qualifies as unnatural, we again see the habit of ancient writers to dwell on the same-sex activities between males. Go and spend some time with Leviticus 18 & 20 to get a feel for the way a woman’s sexuality is treated differently than a man’s. Her role is passive; she “presents herself to an animal for sex” while a male is in the active role of having sex with someone or something. And an honest reading of Romans 1, without backward implying same-sex relations as described for the men, leaves us in the predicament of not having a single scriptural passage about a woman having sexual relations with another woman, from Leviticus on to all of Paul’s passages. Are women exempt from the scriptural same-sex debate?
This is again all about reading and handling scripture with respect and honesty. It’s the same as in our discussion on Sodom when we showed how overlaying our obsession with the attempted rape in Genesis 19 obscures what all later biblical writers are actually teaching us about the city’s destruction. When we obsess over the sexuality in the verses in Romans 1 we completely miss the lessons of judging, hypocrisy and humility that Paul is trying to communicate to the Christians in Rome.
To the second point, we have had the tendency to read this passage backwards, choosing something from the listed behaviors that we see or imply into the lives of someone around us, and then label them as rebellious and in defiance to God. Some have taken same-sex orientation as a sign of rejecting God because the rebellious male idolaters in Romans 1 engage in same-sex activities. Therefore many straight Christians have been taught that any and all same-sex activity is a sign of rejecting God.
Our assumptions and backward readings have led us to say extremely hurtful things to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. Because of our backward reading of texts like this one, we assume that a person is only LGBTQ by a conscious choice to rebel against God. We make assumptions that all LGBTQ people live in an excess of lust and unrestrained unprincipled sex. By the way, when Paul revisits questionable behavior later on in chapter two, the only sexual reference is to adultery, that is sexual infidelity.
A major problem with our assumption of other people’s rebellion is that we are making implications about their conscience that we have no right to do. As people of faith and readers of the scriptures we know that a person’s conscience is often the basis for whether something is right or wrong for an individual to do, such as eating or fasting (1 Corinthians 8) or doing or avoiding the doing of good (James 4). We have been taught to rely on our conscience. Why would be deny other’s the same ability?
Assuming that our LGBTQ sisters and brothers have made a conscious decision to rebel against God and need only repent of that decision is problematic in the extreme. Too many of our precious LGBTQ brothers and sisters have shared their stories of the long years yearning not to be gay for us to continue ignoring or marginalizing their experience and faith. We need only listen.
I was sitting at lunch a week or so ago with two gay brothers in Christ who were lamenting how hard it can be to date and fall in love, as Christians. They were frustrated with the sexual promiscuity in many men in the gay dating scene where they lived. They yearned for a committed relationship of trust, monogamy and lasting mutual care. I had to chuckle a few times because their desires and frustrations so perfectly aligned with the desires and frustrations of any two straight Christians with whom I’ve ever had the same conversation. We are the same, but with different sexual orientations. Our shared faith calls us to the same desires of fidelity and commitment. Straight Christians often use the phrase “Gay Lifestyle” to condemn all gay people as sexually promiscuous. That is sinfully unfair and untrue. LGBTQ Christians could just as easily refer to the “Straight Lifestyle” to condemn all us straight folks for the sexual infidelity and excesses in straight dating and relationships. 50 Shades of Grey, anyone?
And on the third point, we read the word unnatural as though it were a synonym for sinful. While something may in fact be both unnatural and sinful, that remains a dangerous way to read scripture. The use of the word unnatural should clue us in that Paul is speaking out of a combination of his religious mind and cultural mind: his worldview. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul has a similar discussion on how it’s unnatural for a man to pray his head covered, or for a woman to pray with her head not covered. Paul assumes his audience, holding a similar worldview, will easily see that nature underscores his point. Huh? Doesn’t work as well for me… every SINGLE rendering of Jesus I saw while growing up had him in long hair, and yet if I didn’t doff my cap at a high school football game during the prayer someone was going to slap me on the back of my head. How many non-affirming straight Christian women routinely condemn LGBTQ people on the basis of “nature” and yet never cover their heads to pray?
In point of fact, the “nature” language points us to patriarchy and it’s prevailing hold on the ancient worldview. Today, we live with an increasingly post-patriarchal worldview. Some Christians understand this and will intentionally fight for maintaing a patriarchal worldview (even though they support things like women voting or having careers, etc). Many only use the patriarchal assumptions when handy for undergirding religious arguments, while they go on living for the most part free of patriarchal restraints. There’s a big problem with patriarchy, today. We need to talk deeply and honestly about how and why we speak and act out of some patriarchal norms while ignoring others. If we don’t dig in with patriarchy then we’ll continue to use it to selectively attack and vilify our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. That’s a bit of foreshadowing for the other coming blog posts. =)
So, where are we with Romans 1?
It’s fair at this point to stop and get some coffee and let our heads clear. We’ve covered a lot of ground and talked a lot of talk, but where have we arrived? As I tried to conclude my blog on 1 Timothy 1:10 on common ground, I believe we can do the same with Romans 1 & 2.
Let’s agree that Paul’s point about judging others is a fair one and the one he intended to make. Is it really probable that his audience were all doing exactly what he was outlining as rebellious behavior in chapter one? Probably not, but his point was that none of us should be playing the “look at how bad they are” game with the people around us. I will never be able to justify myself by condemning others.
Paul did in fact speak of an excessive unrestrained sexuality in Romans 1, and it included same-sex activities for the men. But the list in Romans 1 is a different kind of list compared with 1 Timothy 1 or 1 Corinthians 6 or even a familiar passage like Galatians 5:13-26. In other lists Paul is casting a wide net of behaviors that are problematic for a Christian. In Romans 1 he is making a laundry list of what a particular group of rebellious God-hating people are doing. Because we don’t differentiate in the kind of list he’s making we have no qualms about pointing to Romans 1 as a passage about all same-sex activities without ever mentioning it is a specific group of rebellious people also involved in gossip, foolishness, envy and much more. Paul is not casting a net to catch a group of various people here, but instead outlining all that a particular group is doing.
Here’s the deal: I cannot with a clean conscience associate ANY of the LGBTQ Christians I know with that group of rebellious truth-haters and God-haters in Romans 1. It’s an impossibility. Their faith and their lives cry out against that association, even if they have a same-sex or bisexual orientation, or they identify as transgender. In truth, I can’t find many LBGTQ non-Christians I can associate with that group, if I’m honest in observing their attitudes and behaviors compared to Romans 1.
I think our common ground is found in Paul’s intention to teach humility, and that’s where we need to remain as faithful readers and interpreters of scripture. To stray from Paul’s intent and begin building secondary or tertiary teachings on broad same-sex generalizations, to the exclusion of all the other problematic behaviors in the passage, leaves us on very shaky ground exegetically and theologically.
Thanks for hanging with me through this long post. I know that we’re going to be in new territory here for a lot of faithful folks. We all have a lot of unlearning to do with these passages and the ways we’ve been taught to read them. I hope this is enlivening for all of us! I love to spend time with scripture. I love to realize that I’ve brought things to Paul and forced them onto his words, and then get to break him free to speak as he wanted to speak. I find it thrilling and chilling. May God bless the reading of the scriptures in our lives and give us the courage to stride faithfully and joyfully into scripture’s liberating warmth. So be it, world never ending!
21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
In the last blog I emphasized the need to hear LGBTQ Christians tell their own stories and to let them have a voice of their own. We learn a lot when we listen and allow our brothers and sisters to share their journey. A sentiment I’ve heard many times from straight friends who get to know an LGBTQ Christian, or even have a chance to worship with our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, is something like “Hey, they’re just like us!”
Yes, they are. Their faith is built on the same hope and trust in God’s grace and God’s love. They wrestle with similar doubts and fight similar temptations and trials. They are people. They are Christians. They are us. We are they.
Today, I’d like to share something that many allies and LGBTQ Christians are excited to share across their Facebook, Twitter and blog feeds, the keynote address from Dr. David Gushee at The Reformation Project conference in DC last weekend: “Ending the Teaching of Contempt against the Church’s Sexual Minorities“
Dr. Gushee shows us a path for change. He uses a powerful analogy and an historical precedent for how the church can intentionally change our views and our interpretations of certain passages. He shows us that when faced with damaging and problematic teachings and interpretations, “We have repented before. We have changed before. We can do it again.”
This is a powerful address, and not a short one. Yes, it is an hour long, but very worth the time. Grab a comfy seat and your beverage of choice, settle in and soak it in. And see if you catch a glimpse of me in the audience in the opening few moments (red sweater, bald head)! =)
And have a blessed, amazing Sunday!
I won’t try to do deep exegesis in every blog post on LGBTQ inclusion. It’s equally worth our time to step back and be reminded that people are people and their stories do mater. I’d also remind us to be mindful of our own stories. Be mindful our own stories? Oh yes, we all have our stories.
It’s time that gay Christians are heard telling their own stories.
It’s time they are allowed to tell their own stories. I’ve noticed, and in the past have been guilty of, a need that many straight Christians feel to frame (and kinda highjack) the stories of their gay brothers and sisters. And when we do that we almost always frame their stories in a way that excludes wholeness, health (spiritual or physical), faithfulness and sincerity. So we use categories that make huge assumptions and use generalizations that do harm. We talk of the gay agenda, the gay lifestyle and we speak from assumptions that a persona’s sexual orientation is always a conscious choice. We speak of assumed abuses in childhood and will seek someone to blame for the gay person’s orientation, yet that framework just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Here are three stories that I want to ask you to engage… I just today saw the video from a new, Perrin, who courageously shares his story of faith and sexuality. That’s his picture at the top of the post. Please hear him out and take him at his word about his journey of faith and sexuality.
Justin Lee is someone I have named before, a brother in Christ who grew up conservative Baptist, and had to struggle with his faith sexuality. His book Torn is amazing and I highly recommend it. Justin tells his story in a sincere, gracious and compelling way. He wasn’t abused as a child and tried for years to find a way out of being gay. His story of faith and sexuality is valuable to straight Christians and needs to be heard. Justin is the founder of the Gay Christian Network and has many videos on the GCN YouTube channel.
Matthew Vines is the amazing young man who founded The Reformation Project and has written the book God and The Gay Christian. He also grew up in a conservative Christian home and was not abused. I think he’s done a great job in telling his story and helping advance the conversation we need to have about how we read and interpret our scriptures. Matthew has videos available on his YouTube channel as well.
Even as I share these links and names, I have a lump in my throat. Please, don’t go troll them or say un-Christlike things on their media feeds. As the biblical writer James encourages us, let’s “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Let’s all seek to learn and listen, and seek God’s righteousness without anger.
I can’t explain in just a few blog posts my total journey to where I am today on LGBTQ issues and how I have come to be affirming of LGBTQ inclusion in my reading of the scriptures. It will take a lot of posts, but we have to start somewhere. I’ll start with a quick discussion of why I decided to dig into this whole issue and to see if there were another way I might read and interpret the scriptures, other than the way I had been taught. This blog post will also specifically discuss 1 Timothy 1:10 and the challenge of interpretation.
People, Not Issues
I cringe when I use the word issues, because we’re talking about people. We’re talking about valuable, beautiful people made in God’s image. People are not issues, but the word fits the way we have approached the question of understanding sexual orientation in light of the scriptural witness. We’ve tackled the question like we would proof-text a sermon on tithing, murder or not telling lies. But, we’re talking about people here, and the way they experience life at the deepest levels of being; we’re talking about who they are.
If we recognize that we are talking about people, then we are rightly reminded to move with the utmost grace, mercy and care. As we talk about people we need to be aware that the zinger passages used to so quickly condemn our LGBTQ neighbors for their same sex orientation or their committed relationships are not as crystal clear in the language or context of scripture as they might appear at times in our English translations.
For years it seemed unfair to me that scriptural writers, mostly Paul, would build “sin lists” that were composed of naughty things almost anyone could do, sinful acts, like rage, drunkenness and envy, or even biggies like murder and slave trading, but also include something that is who a person is, and not what they do. Anyone and everyone has the potential to choose or not to choose the listed bad actions at various times in life, including slave trading until very recently in history, except for the being gay part. I would see the word homosexual in an English translation or sodomites and a chill would run down my spine. We seemed to make a shift there in an important way from what some people did wrong to a way to essentially be wrong.
An oft quoted passage in this respect is 1 Timothy 1:10 and it’s surrounding context. It’s one of the places that translators have sometimes used the English word homosexual and historically have often used the very problematic word sodomites. We’ll take a few minutes to look at the ways that verse is translated and what challenges we face in interpreting the verse.
The Distinction of Doing and Being
I’m not the first to worry about a shift in wording from bad acts to bad people, from doing to being. We can sometimes see an English translation trying to make this very point by changing their words to read “practicing homosexuals” instead of just homosexuals, such as the change from NIV (perverts) to TNIV (those practicing homosexuality) or in the ESV. It’s terribly important to wrestle with verses like 1 Timothy 1:10. I believe this shift in some translations also highlights that many interpreters are realizing that they can’t assume gay people have all made the conscious decision to be gay in rebellion against God. Gay Christians have started telling their stories more freely and it’s often the case that they spent years not wanting to be gay, in direct conflict with the moralizing arguments of straight Christians that they are simply being obstinate. If they didn’t choose to be gay, and we still don’t want to be affirming, then we lose some validity in interpreting verses like 1 Timothy 1:10 as a condemnation of being gay and are forced to fall back on specifically condemning gay sexual activity. That is a problematic shift that we’ll talk about more in another post; the idea that a Christian might be gay other than by conscious choice, and therefore must also be forced into celibacy or forced into normative heterosexual behavior is a very disturbing idea, especially if we say it’s God’s idea.
The range of ways a single word in 1 Timothy 1:10 might be translated should give even a casual reader of the Bible some pause. A quick Googling of the word arsenokoitais shows the far ranging disparity of our understanding and the depth of our heated debate over the word. Here’s a sampling of our struggle to make sense of this passage in the way some of our English Bibles translate and interpret the Greek word arsenokoitais.
Arsenokoitais in 1 Timothy 1:10
them that defile themselves with mankind, King James Version
homosexuals, New American Standard Bible
homosexuals, New Living Translation
homosexuals, The Voice
perverts, New International Version
sexual perverts, Good News Translation
those who have a twisted view of sex, New International Reader’s Version
those practicing homosexuality, Today’s New International Version
men who practice homosexuality, English Standard Version
sodomites, New King James Version
sodomites, Revised Standard Version
sodomites, New Revised Standard Version
“Sodomites” sounds pretty straightforward, because Sodom was destroyed over their sin of homosexuality, right? I was taught this and you probably have been taught it, too. The problem is that we don’t have any scriptural witness that Sodom’s destruction and homosexuality are linked. Except for the horrific attempted homosexual rape detailed in Genesis 19 biblical writers point instead to the people’s neglect of the poor, general sexual depravity, pride and arrogance for their destruction. We associate homosexuality with Sodom because of the attempted homosexual rape of the angelic visitors in Genesis 19. This has become our habit, but is not necessarily justifiable. Equating all homosexual activity with homosexual rape is about as nonsensical and fair as equating all heterosexual activity with heterosexual rape. Sodomy is a fairly recent word on the world stage being coined in the 11th Century. The word homosexual only came into being in the last Century, a bit over 100 years old. Nether should be used in English translations.
We should be very interested in stopping the use of the words sodomy and sodomites, especially in our English translations of the scriptures. The inception and subsequent use of these words has created and bolstered a false perception of why Sodom was destroyed and unjustly links people who feel same sex attraction to same sex rape and Sodom’s demise.
Why was Sodom destroyed?
Sodom as mentioned before its destruction…
- Genesis 13:13, they were non-specifically “wicked, great sinners”
- Genesis 18:20, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin.” No mention here of sexual sins, even without specificity.
The story of Sodom’s destruction…
- Genesis 19:4-5, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” This is the infamous attempted homosexual rape that was a moment of tangible proof to the angels of the previously mentioned depravity of Sodom.
How biblical writers spoke of Sodom after its destruction…
- Deuteronomy 32:28-34, sins associated with Sodom & Gomorrah are having a “void of sense” and “cruelty.”
- Isaiah 1:8-25, the sins associated with Sodom & Gomorrah are many, but not anything about same sex rape or relations. The faithful have become a “whore” by their lack of justice, murder and oppression.
- Jeremiah 23:12-14, associated with adultery and lies.
- Ezekiel 16:44-58, the sins of Sodom are arrogance, overindulgence, ignoring the plight of the poor and doing detestable things in the sight of God, none of which is in language pointing to any specific same sex activity, and this language may or may not reference the attempted rape of the angelic quests of Lot. In this passage God also accuses Israel of practicing the sins of Sodom and even doing more, which has interesting implications if we choose to make homosexuality or homosexual acts to be Sodom’s great sin.
- 2 Peter 2:1-14, there are a lot of things mentioned in this passage, and by association we can attribute sexual depravity to the people of Sodom, though nothing in the passage points to same sex relations or activities. The sexual sinfulness listed is nonspecific sensuality, along with lawlessness. Nothing specifically points to same-sex activities.
- Jude 1:7, This passage again associates nonspecific sexual sin with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The sexual immorality mentioned is ekporneusasai, or unchasteness. The other sexual sin is yearning for sarkos heteros, or strange flesh. You can recognize the root there of our word heterosexual, one who is sexually attracted to the opposite gender. It’s a huge stretch to make sarkos heteros a same-sex attraction or activity, and in fact it seems more likely to tie into the presence of angelic beings in the chapter, maybe the attempted rape of the angelic visitors in Genesis? It’s hard to imagine strange flesh being a description of same sex attraction.
Surprised that homosexuality is not the sin that destroyed Sodom?
Does it shock you that we have been taught something for so long and with such conviction that ends up being a total conjecture without a strong base in the scriptures? Are you surprised that we have developed language and continue to use words that make a connection between homosexuality and Sodom that is not at all supported in scripture? The attempted rape in Genesis 19 hardly seems to be remembered at all by biblical writers who focus on other aspects of Sodom’s general sexual sins and rebellion against God and their subsequent sudden destruction.
Not only is homosexuality not the point of Sodom’s punishment, but in trying to make that case we completely miss the strongest points made by biblical writers that Sodom’s punishment is an example for the totality and completeness of God’s punishment against a people’s rejection of justice and their practice of exploitation against other people. Jesus will use Sodom as a example of God’s anger against places that reject the apostles and himself as Lord in Matthew 10 (parallel in Luke 10) and he’ll mention Sodom again in Matthew 11 as a people who would have repented and been saved had they seen his miracles. Another time that Jesus mentions Sodom (Luke 17) it is in reference to the suddenness of the final day of judgement for the world. Jesus does not associate any sexual sin to Sodom in his teachings.
Let’s stop using the words sodomy and sodomites. The words are a misappropriation of Sodom’s story and create a mistaken association between homosexual orientation and the story of Sodom’s sin and destruction. This is an appeal to be more respectful in our handling of scripture. I would almost be OK with using the word sodomy if it was exclusively meant to denote homosexual rape, but even that use that would deny the fact that saying sodomy could just as legitimately denote arrogance or neglect of the poor, according to scriptural witness. Best to leave the words behind.
Male Bedder, One Who Beds a Male
Even if we can agree to stop using sodomites in translating 1 Timothy 1:10, we still have to talk about the problem with interpreting the word arsenokoitais as homosexual. The word might be literally translated male-bedder or a male who beds a male, leaving quite a bit of room for interpretation. Is it all same sex activity? Is it only male same sex activity? We have to think about how Paul uses the word and other words around it in context.
We need to have to have a discussion of the choices we make in interpreting certain Greek words into English. Arsenokoitais is a rare word in Greek, without the breadth of use and record that many Greek words have to help us understand it and how to use it in translations. Because it is a contraction, using the Greek words for male and bedding (the act of sexual intercourse), it opens the question to which bedding of a male Paul is referencing. If Paul meant a sweeping statement against all homosexuality, why this choice of words, indeed why create a word contraction, that only speaks of bedding males?
The Septuagint Argument. Some will argue that Paul is making a contraction of the words used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament at the prohibition against one male bedding another male in Leviticus 18:22 & 20:23, and therefore he means a blanket and total rejection of any and all male same-sex intercourse. This interpretation raises a lot of questions in my mind.
Do all of the Levitical proscriptions, from that passage and others, then hold as valid for his audience and for us? It’s a fair question. If Paul’s intention was to bind specifically the Levitical proscription on males bedding other males upon the Christian community, then should we also impose the banishment and/or death sentences prescribed in those passages for transgressors? If not, why not? Does he do this with other words and Old Testament proscriptions? Why not just quote the passage or throw in an “as it is written” to help us and his audience know what he’s doing?
The similarity of the language, because he contacts forms of the words used in the Septuagint translation, creates a compelling set of questions. It’s not as cut and dried as it might seem to decide that Paul is simply bringing a Levitical proscription against all same sex orientation or activities into the New Testament, as fully in force and relevant, with this one word.
Since Leviticus is only be speaking to males, does that mean that lesbians are being ignored in that passage, and therefore women are free from any impact of Paul’s masculine language to Timothy as well? I know that you may want to point to Romans 1 here, and we’ll talk about that passage in another blog. What does it mean that the Leviticus proscription speaks only to males, and we have in our tradition of interpretation often used English words in 1 Timothy 1:10 which speak only to males? Why does the this sexual activity call for banishment in Leviticus 18 and then death in Leviticus 20? Why the repeat and harsher punishment? Reading Leviticus into Paul’s wording is problematic.
The Context Argument. Others will point to the surrounding words of Paul’s use of arsenokoitais, both in 1 Timothy 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 to help us find meaning. The sexual words words used in this cluster of sins, in both passages, have to do with issues of prostitution, abuse, slavery and pederasty (sex between an adult male and an adolescent boy). The context might then argue for the idea that Paul is listing the abusive and unjust same-sex practices of his day, often involving the sexual use of children and slaves. Malakoi is a term denoting passivity. Pornoi is a word in its masculine form that refers to sexual immorality, specifically referring to prostitution when it occurs in its feminine form . Andropodistai is translated as save dealer or even kidnapper. In context, as these words are also being used in proximity with murder, lying and perjury. It’s a compelling argument to read arsenokoitais as instances of sexual abuse and coercion against those who cannot give adult consent to the sexual acts (adolescent boys and slaves). In the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9 the sin list including arsenokoitais is a transition moment from specifically talking about lawsuits between Christians to those having sex with prostitutes, neither of which inherently have any direct relation to a person’s sexual orientation but deal with justice and fidelity.
As the practices of both sexually abusing one’s slaves and the pederasty of an adult male having an adolescent or much younger male as a sexual companion alongside his heterosexual marriage would have been practices in existence and holding various levels of acceptance in the Paul’s day, he would have been quite prophetic, counter-cultural and correct to speak against them as outside biblical standards for sexual behavior.
I also find our possible common ground in reading the passage in 1 Timothy 1:10 to be very compelling. We can all agree that abusive sexual practices, like pederasty and the abuse of slaves, along with the sins of murdering parents and committing perjury, are activities we need to vehemently oppose. In the larger context of 1 Timothy 1 we can see that Paul is contrasting a way of teaching which promotes gospel and love against one that promotes divisiveness and distraction. We can all, gay and straight, stand together to affirm the wrongness of sexual coercion against minors and slaves, of prostitution, of kidnapping, of murder and of telling falsehoods.
This is firm ground on which we really have no disagreement. Christians, gay and straight, can affirm Paul’s message of opposing sexual coercion and abuse, both heterosexual abuse and homosexual abuse. Let’s start at our common ground. We can all affirm both the nightmare wrongness of the rape story in Genesis 19 and the many ways that Sodom becomes a warning of pride, arrogance, neglect of the poor and excessive sexuality for all the church as highlighted by the biblical writers in reference to Sodom’s destruction. There are other passages to discuss and many questions to cover, but isn’t it great that we have some strong common ground?
I’m going to wrap up because this has been a long, long post. I’ve been trying to remind us of some important points about our scripture and interpretations on sexual orientation and activities, specifically when we’ve chosen to use the word homosexual or sodomites in translating scripture.
- We need to remember our mandate to speak to and of people with grace, mercy and love. Good teaching can uniquely increase love and break down walls of divisiveness.
- We can often think a passage is clear and unmistakable in its meaning through the choices that have been made by the interpreters and translators, but then can find it’s not so crystal clear when we dig in.
- Our scriptures do not teach that Sodom was destroyed for a conjectured sin of homosexuality and we need to correct our use of the words sodomy and sodomite, and correct our teaching and association of a sexual orientation with the destruction of that city. That association colors the way read passages referring to Sodom and keeps us from engaging those passages in a meaningful way.
- Homosexual is a very new word that defines a person’s sexual orientation and is not a logical equivalent or interpretation of the abusive same sex activities of pederasty and slave abuse that Paul would have seen in his contemporary society and then lists alongside murder and lying in his letter to his friend Timothy.
- Our common ground on reading this passage is compelling! We can all stand together against sexual coercion and abuse, as well as murder and untruth. Christians, gay and straight, can stand together in our desire for faithful covenant, fidelity, mutual support in committed relationships and monogamy within our sexuality and sexual activities. We need to celebrate that common ground.
This is much bigger discussion than just one blog post, and there are many other zinger texts that get thrown around, including the ones we mentioned from Leviticus and Paul’s letter to the Romans. We also did not specifically begin to address the patriarchal worldview which informs this discussion. We’ll have to do that, soon.
I hope that at the beginning of our journey you can see how valuable it is to keep an open mind and active love for all people. Scripture is amazing, and our invitation to journey with it, wrestle with it and live into it is very exciting! We have a long way to go, and I hope we go that way together. God is good.