I posted the following Facebook message on my personal page yesterday morning.
Good morning! It’s National Coming Out Day. Let’s affirm people who require unbelievable courage just to say out loud who and what they are. And if you are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, intersexual or still looking for your own identity on the list, know that you have a supporter in me.
I realize that not all Christians are in the same place on this one. So I had an email conversation with a generous and kind Christian person from another congregation, who disagrees with me. Let’s acknowledge that email is a poor way to have a conversation. On the other hand, it gives us time to breathe between responses, and that can be helpful. So wherever you are on this, I do encourage time, careful study, and honest self-examination. Some of the things we think we know, we don’t really know. I need to admit that for myself. Here’s my long email from that conversation. It is addressed to someone who believes that the Bible provides a clear and absolute answer about sexuality. If you’re not there, then you may feel that you’re reading another language as you read my email:
First, I have to say that it has taken me a long time and lot of prayer and learning to get to how I think about gender and sexual issues now, from where I used to be [decades ago now]. So I don’t expect anyone else to get to this place in one conversation! I’d be glad to point you to a couple of books that spell this out way better than I can. But here’s the (not very) short version:
1) The Bible is not law for Christians. We don’t, and we shouldn’t, take all the six hundred laws in the Bible and try to follow them all. Christ set us free from the Law. We don’t worry about keeping milk separate from meat, or keeping our wool and cotton separate from each other, and we don’t go to the priest to verify that we’re allowed back into the community. Neither do we own slaves, marry off women to their rapists, or sacrifice cows at the Temple. We don’t require a woman to marry the brother of her dead husband, as in the cases of Ruth and Tamar. Instead, we follow the “Law of Love,” that Jesus taught us. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else we do comes from that.
2) The New Testament isn’t law either, but there are three passages from Paul that are quoted having to do with homosexuality: Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, and 1 Timothy 1:9–10. Jesus didn’t say anything about the subject, as far as we know.
a) The Romans passage is talking about something that Greek writers complained about as well: that married men were so overcome by their sex drives that they went beyond the boundaries of marriage to also have sex with men. The main issue seems to be that their passions are unreasonable and out of control. The secondary issue is that they’re cheating on their wives. In our times, people have decided that these are not important, but that the thing that matters is that their extramarital sex is with men. It may also be that the particular male-male sex that he talks about is not between two consenting adults, but is with young boys, forced into prostitution. That would be wrong for a whole different reason. I don’t believe that’s a direct enough statement about homosexual activity to help us make a rule.
b) The 1 Corinthians passage seems to refer NOT to to all homosexual people, but to two specific kinds of people: homosexual prostitutes (which were common in several ancient religious temples) and those who use those prostitutes. People at that time did not really have a way to talk about two men (or women) who choose to commit to one another as equals. So once again, we don’t have a clear and general statement about what we would today call “gay” or “lesbian.” There are several ways to understand the Greek words of the passage.
c) The 1 Timothy passage is difficult because the Greek word that Paul uses, that is translated as “homosexual” or another word, depending on your translation, is a really rare word. In fact, we have no record of anyone ever using that word before this passage was written. So we don’t really know whether it refers to any man who sleeps with another man, or to someone who abuses boys, or who pays for prostitutes, or who rapes men as a way of showing power (like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah). Some scholars have said that it is a slang word that really refers to ripping people off. We have a similar phrase in English, that I won’t use!
So here’s the short answer: Paul’s letters are not a new Law for Christians. He would be appalled at the idea that we have traded freedom for Law. And even if they were a law, we really don’t have a crystal clear understanding of the words and what he meant by them, to apply them.
3) We know things that people didn’t know back then. For one thing, we know today that some people are born physically different from others. Gay men have genetic differences from straight men. Gay women have genetic differences from straight women. And that means that God made them that way. Knowing that God has made us different, it wouldn’t be right to make us all pretend that we were the same. I am personally persuaded that this is true, and if it is true, then it’s what I have to teach. I have to be careful with the Bible, and not use it to abuse people, the way the Bible has been used to keep women from owning property, to keep whole peoples in slavery, and to wage war. Instead, I have to make sure that when I read the Bible, I always pay attention to the rule of Love that Jesus taught.
I don’t suppose this will persuade you, but I certainly owe you as faithful an answer as I can write on short notice!
The conversation is not over. Here’s another message I wrote last night, a little more concise than the previous one:
I think of Paul, arguing with Peter, saying that the gentiles should be included in the gospel. Peter and the Jerusalem leaders insisted that first they had to follow the Law of the Old Testament. But Paul stuck to his word from God. Include them all, and don’t make them follow the Law, because Christ sets us free. The Church has been filled with arguments from the beginning about who can be included, and what is required of them. I take Paul’s side.