It was a deep blessing to be invited back to Church in Bethesda this past Sunday morning to bring a message during worship. I’m dropping the transcript of the sermon, below. I share this realizing that choosing wholeness and achieving wholeness are often two very different things, but I do believe we begin with the choice. Cheers!
Our text is Matthew 6:26-34 from The Inclusive Bible:
26 “Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet our God in heaven feeds them. Aren’t you more important than they?
27 Which of you by worrying can add a moment to your lifespan? 28 And why be anxious about clothing? Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow. They don’t work; they don’t spin. 29 Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in full splendor was arrayed like one of these.
30 If God can clothe in such splendor the grasses of the field, which bloom today and are thrown on the fire tomorrow, won’t God do so much more for you—you who have so little faith? 31 “Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, ‘What are we to eat,’ or ‘what are we to drink,’ or ‘what are we to wear?’ 32 Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. 33 Seek first God’s reign, and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.
34 Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own.
Good morning, everyone. I come to you in the name of the God who dresses wildflowers in their bold colors and striking style, who sees each individual in the vast clouds of birds which crisscross our skies, and who sends us to seek and make justice in our world. Let us pray…
“Saving God, may we seek you and your justice, trust you deeply and move into this world as your agents of peace, and kindness, trendsetting only when showing the great glory of your mercy and grace. May the words of our mouths and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.”
It was an interesting experience to put our passage from Matthew 6 out on Facebook this week as our text for today, and immediately hear from multiple people something like, “Oh that’s my favorite text!” The longer I live, the more I fall in love with our diversity as human beings and people of faith. I did not choose the text for today because it’s one of my favorites, in fact, I chose it because it holds a message with which I struggle. An opportunity to speak to you is a chance, perhaps selfishly, for me to dig into a passage and grow.
You see, I’m good at worrying, it’s always been one of my special gifts. I’m not only kinda good at worrying, I’m also good to planning what I’m going to wear and especially what I’d like to eat. Just to illuminate that: When we lived Africa we had a professor from our seminary come and visit us, and I was so excited for us take him out and show him some the places where we were planting churches. As we drove through the rural areas I would often point to places along the road and say, “That’s a nice place to stop on the way home for some beans and rice. Oh, sometimes I like to stop over there because they have really good chicken. Sometimes I’ll go down here to the edge lake because companies bring ice to pack the day’s catch of fish in, and they use the ice to have cold Cokes!” He finally laughs and asks me, “Todd, are all your landmarks in life places to eat?” Yeah. They kinda were. Anyone with me on that way of mapping life?
I’m also paradoxically really good at procrastinating, even though my whole life I’ve tried not to procrastinate as much. Anyone else good at putting things off and feeling bad while doing it? Anyone else with me in wishing they didn’t put things off as much as we do? I’m a conflicted guy sometimes, making all these great plans and worrying, just to put off following the plans.
And in one little passage Jesus comes in and threatens my whole house of cards, to topple both my comfortable worrying and my comfortable guilt over procrastination: he says, “Don’t worry about anything, just put it off until tomorrow.”
What? Am I to really do that? Doesn’t Jesus know we’ve invented some of our own proverbs over the years, proverbs about doing. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Anyone ever try to find that one in scripture? It’s not there, but it does very aptly capture one of our societal and religious preoccupations, huh? And more to the point, we have often quoted and canonized a “verse” that’s not even in scripture: “God helps those who help themselves.” That is exactly opposite of what Jesus just said!
I remember hearing this passage as a young Christian and being mortified… Jesus just told me to goof off. Every other teacher I’ve ever had has told me the opposite. Because at a glance, in English, this looks to be a debate about goofing off, when it really it’s more a text about wholeness.
The Greek word for anxious here is merimnaó, “a piece instead of a whole.” Jesus says not to let ourselves get pulled to pieces by life, taken apart by cares and concerns over small stuff, but as whole people seek the greatest things, and remain whole people by focusing on the greatest things: God’s reign, God’s justice. Hear the passage again, but paraphrased a bit with this drive for wholeness woven into the text…
Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t work like we do to buy the stuff we buy, yet God’s birds have all they need. Aren’t you smarter than birds, who just go be the birds they were made to be without worrying if they’re bird enough? Which of you by falling apart over the small stuff can add a moment of meaning to your life? Why lose your bearings in life over clothing and fashion? Really? Learn a lesson from the way the wildest flowers of the field grow. They don’t work. They don’t shop. Yet not even King Solomon in his fullest splendor was as amazing a sight as one of these delicate marvels. In God’s world outward adornment is casually lavished on the unplanned growth of the fields, which measure so small against your value – you have been made even more wonderfully. You don’t need a bunch of other adornment to be the beautiful creation God intended you to be.
So, decide today that you’re not going to keep falling apart and losing yourself in addictions to food and fashion. You are so much more those things, made to be so much more. Anyone can dress, and anyone can eat, and everyone does. God knows you. God loves you. So, live to see God’s glorious peace in this world, first in your own life and then multiplied around you. Live to see God’s justice made real in this world, first in you, and then multiplying in the world around you. Enough falling apart over the junk that doesn’t really make us happy or fulfilled… that stuff steals from us our today and promises us a false tomorrow! There’s enough need for justice today to keep us busy. Tomorrow will present opportunities for action and justice all its own.
Folks, I’m still going to do my laundry. Jesus wasn’t saying I have permission to stop doing my chores. I’m still going to eat, and Asian foods like Phó and Bulgogi will still be some of my most favorites. I plan to eat them some more. But I’m also going to hold extra tight to the truth that no matter how well I dress, someone, honestly a bunch of someones, will be dressed better. No matter how well I wear my clothes, there’s always some who will wear them better. And no matter what I eat, my favorite foods or not, it is still fuel for the meaning, it is the energy for what matters: God’s will and God’s reign in me and God’s justice for those who most need it.
May we never lose sight, that after the food is done, the clothes have faded, and all that we thought was so important has vanished from memory like last year’s whithered flowers, God’s justice and the hope that God’s justice engenders in us and the world, that is our tomorrow.
It’s no wonder that this passage drops into it’s context as it does, caught between the discussions of heavenly treasures and not judging. This passage is a natural extension of putting our focus on heavenly values, the things worth treasuring, and it’s a perfect prelude to a warning about judging people around us or succumbing to that judgement.
Wholeness is the opposite of judgment. Wholeness is a refutation of life lived as critical competitors focused on the flaws of others. Wholeness is freeing for us and the world around us.
No, Jesus isn’t writing us a life-long hall pass to skip class and goof off from our responsibilities. Jesus is reminding us that God is involved here, and even if the clothes fade and the flowers whither, there is justice, there is peace, and there is life infused with meaning, the kind of meaning that lasts.
So, fly. The God of the Birds has also given you wings. And smile. Enrich this world, for the God of Flowers has also made you beautiful and amazing. This is our gospel, our Good News. Amen.
Thanks, everyone at CiB, for a blessed morning together!
Here’s a link to CIB’s post about our visit with a few more pictures: https://www.churchinbethesda.com/single-post/2017/07/06/Thank-you-Todd-and-Teresa-Thomas
If you’ve been around me much you may know of my affection for the Book of Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal book not always included in English translations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a very practical book of wisdom, one ancient mind’s interpretation of Hebrew Law and faith for those outside of Israel or those within who wish to study deeper into God’s instruction.
As an ancient book and being set entirely in an ancient worldview and mindset, there are many things which do not immediately resonate with us. But even across the thousands of years, there is so much to learn from these words. In the passage we’re reading today the writer of Sirach prepares us to gossip less, be more forgiving and less judgmental, and to seek truth in our relationships, to give the benefit of the doubt and to extend grace to others. Check it out…
4 One who trusts others too quickly has a shallow mind,
and one who sins does wrong to himself.
5 One who rejoices in wickedness will be condemned,
6 but one who hates gossip has less evil.
7 Never repeat a conversation,
and you will lose nothing at all.
8 With friend or foe do not report it,
and unless it would be a sin for you, do not reveal it;
9 for someone may have heard you and watched you,
and in time will hate you.
10 Have you heard something? Let it die with you.
Be brave, it will not make you burst!
11 Having heard something, the fool suffers birth pangs
like a woman in labor with a child.
12 Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh,
so is gossip inside a fool.
13 Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it;
or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
14 Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it;
or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.
15 Question a friend, for often it is slander;
so do not believe everything you hear.
16 A person may make a slip without intending it.
Who has not sinned with his tongue?
17 Question your neighbor before you threaten him;
and let the law of the Most High take its course.
As we move into 2017 this can become a worthy intention for us all, especially in this day of social media and internet driven false-news. When inflammatory things are said of anyone, give the benefit of the doubt. This is a faithful and graceful practice for our immediate neighbors as well as those in public office and service. Can you relate to the metaphor of a fool hearing some juicy gossip and suffering birth pangs until it’s repeated? I can.
I believe 2017 needs just a bit more chilling out and listening and a lot less freaking out and screaming from me and from you, from all of us. Because, as this ancient writer reminds us, we can all make mistakes, often without even realizing it.
I’m on a Sirach kick again, as happens every couple of years. I have a deep affinity with the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus. It might also be called Ben Sira. Fun, huh? It’s a unique kind of book among the Apocrypha and scripture in general as the work of a proud grandson, an interpretation out of Hebrew of his grandfather’s acquired knowledge and wisdom.
Pressing Down. As a young Christian I was taught to primarily read scripture in a transactional way: do this and get this, don’t do this and don’t get this. Life was a cosmic vending machine and God was the correct change. Most things in life were a linear transaction of cause and effect, and the scriptures were a guidebook for making the best transactions. While many passages seem to support this way of reading scripture, there’s much more to be experienced. Pressing down into the way of a passage can remake us into new people, whole new communities.
Ecclesiasticus looks very much like the guidebook to end all guidebooks. However, like shifting one’s focus from the nearest trees to the farthest, we can press deeper and farther. Rather than take the transactional sounding statements as the product, let’s view them as the tools to create something bigger: a more just and blessed world.
and do not keep needy eyes waiting.
or delay giving to the needy.
or turn your face away from the poor.
and give no one reason to curse you;
their Creator will hear their prayer.
bow your head low to the great.
and return their greeting politely.
and do not be hesitant in giving a verdict.
and be like a husband to their mother;
you will then be like a son of the Most High,
and he will love you more than does your mother.
Sunday afternoon Teresa and I asked Isaac what they had studied in youth group class that morning. He said they had talked about “rules” and done some reading in Leviticus. If I recall correctly he said something along the lines of “Man, there’s some crazy stuff in Leviticus.”
First, let me simply concur. There are many things in the scriptural book of Leviticus that seem quite crazy to us, today. As a few examples, we have to stop enjoying our bacon, but even more than just bacon, no fat! (Leviticus 11 & 3). We also find ourselves in a Hipster paradise with no rounded beards… all squares and angles, baby. (Leviticus 19) And sorry, Maryland, no more of the planet’s best crabcakes! (Leviticus 11)
On a far less humorous note, verses from Leviticus that proscribed certain sexual activities are used today to condemn and promote hatred toward our valuable LGBTQ neighbors, friends and family. (Leviticus 18 & 20) Not awesome.
It was a great conversation starter with our son to share an important principle: I love and revere our scriptures, and showing them the utmost respect often means knowing when not to quote them. Those verses from Leviticus seem crazy to us mostly because they are from a far away place, far away time and for a far away audience. As a white, GenX, Texas raised Evangelical turned Episcopalian, I could hardly be further from the context and time of the Levitical audience. We’re separated by time, geography, culture and we’re even different religions.
There’s nothing respectful about quoting and handling scripture as though we aren’t in a different time and place. In fact, for scriptures to be most understood and beneficial to us today, we have to be aware and accepting of our own time and place. This way we let the message for that time be what it was, and we trust in God to help us understand the message for this day and time. Some of those messages may be the same. Some will not.
When it comes time to quote something, let’s hold tight to the timeless values and ideas that transcend and permeate our scriptures from beginning to end, as summarized by our Sovereign: 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40 If we’re serious about finding an application for the verses from Leviticus in life today, we’ll do so within the love Jesus points us toward. Any application or understanding of the Law will be upheld by or be removed by that love.
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.
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.