For as long as I can remember, I have believed that homosexuality is not a sin. I’ve always been passionate on this topic.
My theological position historically has been something like, “God is love, and that’s what we need to know. Our job is to love people, not to decide whether their lifestyle is ‘good enough.’ And frankly, I think God has bigger fish to fry than who we are and aren’t sleeping with.”
That line, while kind still broadly true for me, is just lazy.
So I’ve been reading and re-reading, and I wanted to share not just where I stand, but why. I don’t flatter myself to think you’re sitting on the edge of your seat to hear my non-ordained opinions, but in this particular climate where so many feel unwelcome in a church I’ve grown up in my whole life, I feel convicted to write on this subject. This is certainly not the entirety of what needs to be said on the subject, and I am a mere lay person, so take it easy on me.
The easiest way for me to talk about where I landed in all this is to walk through the rationale of the author who made it all make sense for me. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist preacher and scholar, lays all this out beautifully in Making Sense of the Bible, a book which aims to dig into tough questions and addresses the gristly, uncomfortable questions we ask in Christianity: is God inherently violent? What about gay people? Is the Bible truly God-breathed? I highly recommend it. It’s so, so smart, so academic, and so generously written. I’m going to cite page numbers so that you can go find it if you buy the book!
Basically, he makes two big points that have really helped me.
Point #1: There are certain passages in the Bible that we can all probably agree are not meant to be taken literally. If that’s true, we have to use prayer and careful study to decide what is an all-time commandment vs. what might be representative of a particular time and place in history.
Point #2: If you look at the verses in scripture which address homosexuality carefully, they may mean something a bit different than what they look like at face value. In fact, they may not actually be referencing homosexual relationships as we understand them today.
Let’s get into Point #1:
You may have read the Point #1 explanation above and thought to yourself, “Mary Catherine, I believe that the Bible is the God-breathed, literal word of the Lord, and that if it’s in the Bible, that’s because God wanted it there. God said it, it made it in, and we are supposed to live accordingly.”
First off, let me say that I’m not here to discount the way anyone reads scripture. It’s deeply personal. To be totally fair, chances are, if you’re a more conservative Christian, you probably grew up with a closer relationship to scripture than I do. So I’m not throwing shade at your interpretation.
In fact, if you’re a person who’s the Bible cover to cover, you already know that there’s more than a handful of scriptures that are violent, that discuss or condone slavery, or that discuss sexual violence in strange and uncomfortably casual way (which Hamilton gets into a little more closely in Point #2).
A great example is in Exodus 21:20-21, which you can read below:
“When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.”
This is a pretty upsetting piece of scripture, and yet, it’s also in the Bible.
My gut impulse when I read a passage like that is to think, “NOPE! Not gonna deal with that. That doesn’t apply to us in 2019, obviously, and so I reject it.”
That response would fall into what many people call “buffet Christianity:” taking what we like and leaving the stuff we don’t want.
But that’s not responsible scholarship, and it’s not a responsible faith practice. If I want to walk with God, it means trudging right up to these problematic pieces and turning them over and over until I land on a thoughtful, prayerful conclusion about why they’re in the Bible.
So what do we do with these verses that are included in the Bible for a reason, but cannot possibly reflect the heart of God?
Adam Hamilton suggests that “there are three broad categories that biblical passages fit into (273, 274):
1. Passages that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings. Ex: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
2. Passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time, but not for all time. Ex: the ritual law of the Old Testament. (*A caveat here that this category can be a little problematic in that Jewish people hold these rituals as sacred and, I believe, Christians should study them as well)
3. Passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written, but never reflected God’s timeless will. Ex: scripture related to slavery.
Not a person reading this believes that homosexuals should be put to death, but that’s exactly what Leviticus 20 suggests (we’ll talk a little more about that in Point #2). It’s in the Bible. So what do you do with that verse?
I’m really asking. What do you do?
Here’s what I do: I decide that it goes in category #3.
The fact that a story makes it into the Bible does not, by default, mean that it reflects the heart of God. There is no world in which I believe God condoned slavery. Ever. Never, ever. There is no world in which I believe God supports our hatred of or violence toward each other. And any scripture that encourages that - those passages about slavery, or the story of Lot offering his daughters to be gang raped (which you’ll read below), or a handful more like that - are included because it reflects the writer’s culture and tradition, but I do not see their inclusion as reflective of who God is.
I think most people I know would agree that a few verses, even if it’s only a handful, belong in that third category.
People I’ve talked to in the past have often expressed the closely-held belief that the entirety of the Bible should be read plainly, memorized, studied, internalized, and lived just the way it is - what you see is what you get. I think that if you’re one of these people, the idea of bucketing scripture into categories, and particularly the idea of putting any scripture into third category, probably makes you feel like you’re disrespecting God’s holy book by using too much of your own authority to decide what’s what.
And that’s where Adam Hamilton gets brilliant on us.
He writes that people’s opinions on homosexuality tend not to be a matter of “biblical authority,” but instead are about “biblical interpretation.” In other words, it’s not about whether the Bible is important. We all agree that it is. It’s about what we do with it. How closely we’re paying attention. How thoroughly we’re willing to study.
It’s the difference between being able to quote scripture and actually knowing why that scripture is there in the first place.
Honoring the Bible and all it contains, for me, means studying it beyond a passing Bible study reference. I think scripture is beautiful, and challenging, and true, and I believe the way we please God the most is by using the brains God gave us to really dig in and analyze. That’s the way I learn best.
SO. Are you still with me?? If so, you must like me a lot, because this bad boy is a LONG POST.
Let’s get into Point #2!
It seems to me that scripture doesn’t actually come down on a side regarding homosexuality as we understand it today: close, meaningful relationships with a person of the same sex. But there’s no question that the Bible makes reference to homosexual sex.
There are two instances in the Torah of “men lying with men as with a woman.”
The first big passage and deep Biblical cut we have to grapple with is the story of Lot and his family in Genesis.
The short version is:
Lot, Abraham’s nephew who lives in Sodom, invites two angels to stay with him overnight. Upon hearing there is “new blood” in town, the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand for Lot to turn the men over to them to rape (yikes, I know). Lot walks outside and persuades the men not to rape his houseguests; instead, Lot offers the men his two virgin daughters as an alternative (yikes, part 2!). They don’t take him up on it, but the offer is still made:
“Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come to protection under my roof.” (Genesis 19:4-8).
The question that Hamilton poses in this chapter is what this story is actually about. Is it about homosexuality, or is it about lust, greed, and rage? He writes, “Did the men of Sodom consider themselves homosexual? ...Or was their attack on these strangers a way of demonstrating their power over them...and violently gratifying their own sexual desires?” (268).
The second time same-sex sex is mentioned in the Torah is in that Leviticus verse I mentioned earlier:
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” - Leviticus 20:13
This kind of breaks down into two parts.
1. With the Lot story as the backdrop for the Leviticus reference (which comes later, as Leviticus is a book that comes after Genesis in the Torah), Hamilton writes, “Is it at least possible that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were condemning homosexual rape rather than anything approximating two people sharing their lives in loving relationship?” (269).
In essence, his point is that rather than seeing this verse as something condemning homosexuality, we should consider the possibility that Moses was referring to homosexual rape, and the lust/power dynamics that go along with it in reference to the story of Lot.
2. The idea of “clean vs. unclean;” “normative vs. abnormal.” The concept of something being within the “norm,” or ritually “clean,” is really important in Jewish culture, and comes up a lot in the Torah. Again, Hamilton is suggesting that homosexuality as a lifestyle is very different from something that would’ve simply been outside the cultural norm and therefore deemed abominable.
The tricky thing about leaning on the Leviticus verse in order to condemn a homosexual lifestyle if you are yourself a Christian is that by doing so, you also have to reckon with the rest of the things that are named an abomination according to the Law of Moses: eating pork, seafood, etc. We don’t consider those things to be “unclean” now, because they are culturally “normal.” Because this verse falls within that context, does it deserve a second look? I think Hamilton would argue that we’re too quick to see a verse and jump to conclusions about its meaning without using context or history to help us understand how it fits into a broader narrative.
Apart from those two Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures, as I prefer to call them!) verses, we also have the questions of Jesus’ own words about marriage and whether they come down on a side regarding homosexuality.
In Matthew, Jesus does discuss marriage between a man and a woman.
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” - Matthew 19: 4-6.
I’ve heard this verse a hundred times, and until I started really drilling down into this research, I never realized that this quote comes because Jesus fielding questions about divorce. So fascinating for me to discover, because it’s often used in a vacuum, as though Christ started spontaneously monologuing about the joys of marriage. For me, it doesn’t really ring as an endorsement of marriage so much as a reinforcement of the sanctity of marriage once it is established.
As Hamilton writes, it’s “important, given that Jesus is God’s definitive Word by which all other words about God are judged, that he does not speak to [homosexuality] at all” (271).
That is a whole, WHOLE lot. I know most of you probably started and abandoned this post because of the length and the level of detail. I don’t blame you. It honestly took me about three weeks to research, write, and organize in a way that didn’t make us all want to drive nails into our eyeballs (and some of you still might).
I hope this has been an interesting read. I hope, no matter where you fall along the progressive to conservative spectrum, you were able to take something away that you can use in the future.
If nothing else, I’m in prayer that your heart is open, and that while you ponder the question of your/your church’s particular relationship to homosexuality, you are rooted in the truth that homosexual people are not a problem to be solved; they are a part of the body of Christ deserving of love, respect, and arms thrown around them in acceptance. I have lots more to say about that in a separate post that you can read on Monday.
The Holy Spirit is quite tricky. I pray we all are open to the moments it taps us on the shoulder to teach us something new. You guys teach me new things constantly, and I’m grateful you took the time to read a little about this particularly hot-button issue.
Thanks again, friends.