Recently, I’ve been having a debate about why I think that God is okay with homosexuality. The debate has been often rather circular, so in order to aid that debate I thought I would outline my thoughts in a post that might help people understand my perspective, and along the way deal with any criticisms that may crop up.
Reading The Bible
The first that that has to be dealt with is how I read the Bible. This is the first thing, in my opinion, that needs to be dealt with whenever such debates are entered into. Most people are not aware that they are reading the Bible in a particular way, but the way in which someone approaches the Bible will inevitably affect the way this debate proceeds.
Roughly, there are two major camps:
1. Literal Readings : This position suggests that every word in the Bible is literally true. Thus, Genesis 1 and 2 do not contradict each other, but are clarifications of one another. The World was literally created in 7 days.
2. Interpretive Readings : These positions says that the Bible is a complex book, and needs to be read with different kinds of tools, such as context, general knowledge, and so on.
First, let me say that the above two camps are of course the extreme ends. There are nuances and mixtures to the two approaches. Generally, the more ‘literal’ approach denies that there is any form of interpretation, though the further you move from every word being literally true, the more interpretation there is.
Interpretation is NOT a bad thing. The Bible spans at least 500 years, if not 1500+. It contains stories that have been re-written and edited as context and understandings changed. It is the story of a people who have, literarily, wrestled with what God has wanted from them. From my perspective, if you begin with a form of interpretation, then you need to know what framework you’re using for that interpretation.
I begin with a rather simple phrase: God is love. This means that somewhere in the stories is an understanding that there is an expression of God’s love. This can be sometimes very difficult to find, especially in some of the stories from the book of Joshua. Exploring that line of thought, however, is beyond this post.
Sin and the Old Testament
At some point this discussion is going to need a conversation about sin, and what exactly it is. The Bible is staggeringly unhelpful when trying to define sin. Despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot of time talking about it, explanation of what it actually is is simply not there. Genesis introduces the idea of sin in the story of Cain and Abel.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it. “Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[a] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
It seems that Cain didn’t manage to master his sin. Here we see it being personified, something that can lurk, and needs to be mastered. However, this introduction is unhelpful in working out what sin actually is. It’s introduction in this way would suggest that sin had some form of cultural understanding, that it was a concept that was well-understood*. In Leviticus (4:1-4) we see the idea that sin is linked with God’s commandments :
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, saying: When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them: If it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the Lord. He shall bring the bull to the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord and lay his hand on the head of the bull; the bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord.
So, here we have the idea that there are commandments, and breaking them is a sin. That’s helpful, so we should get ahold of the list of the commandments, and we get our answer. There are over 600 of them in Leviticus, but presumably we’re here on very safe ground. Except that we’re not. The second set of laws (Deuteronomy) happens to contradict Leviticus in a few places. Let us look at just one.
If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves. They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers. They shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. Then they and their children with them shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property. For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold. You shall not rule over them with harshness, but shall fear your God.
If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. But if he says to you, “I will not go out from you,” because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever.You shall do the same with regard to your female slave. Do not consider it a hardship when you send them out from you free persons, because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers; and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.
When you take a look at these passages, they appear, on first glance to be identical. However, take a second look at Deuteronomy. What’s missing from here is the prohibition that they be slaves (as you can see in Leviticus). It is possible to argue that Leviticus, then, is a clarification of Deuteronomy. This then means that the Bible is, in places, self-consciously aware that the rules of Deuteronomy need clarification. Of course, the clarifications in Leviticus are then, themselves, clarified in the book of Numbers. For example, in Leviticus the sacrifice for accidental sin is a bull. In Numbers, the price has risen to a bull and a young goat. I guess that’s sacrificial inflation for you. We can, of course, play the contradiction game all day (and if your so minded, you can find them handily listed on the Skeptics Bible). The point being, this shows us that finding what commandments we’re meant to be following is quite complicated. Is it sin if I only sacrifice a bull, rather than a bull and a goat? (As that’s a thing that I didn’t do from God’s commandments). How do we know which book came last? That is, what is the commandment that we should be following?
The problem is, that it’s not clear at all which is the main set of commandments. Perhaps things will become clearer if we just look at the commandment that we are here interested in.
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
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.
This seems pretty clear. They are not contradicted by other Old Testament books (nor indeed is it mentioned in other Old Testament books). So it’s cut and dry then. (Well, at least, it would be if the Old Testament law still had that kind of weight.)
The New Testament Sin Lists
When it comes to the Old Testament law, using it as a Christian means you have to be very careful(This argument is covered in more detail here). St. Paul offers the argument that if you live by the law, then you have to live under the law. All of it. If you don’t live under the law, then you live under grace (Galations 3:10).
The New Testament does have some lists of what counts as sin.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching
1 Timothy 1:9-10
The problem 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is that it ends with those helpful words “and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching”, which doesn’t help us work out what else isn’t in the list that we might need. The problem with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is that, if we assume that’s a complete list, it’s relatively simple to think of sins that are not on the list.
Of course, that assumes that these lines do in fact, refer to homosexuality. Rather than chase that debate, we can simply skip right to the part that isn’t under contention, and talk about Romans 1.
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,[f] 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.
This one is pretty clear on what St. Paul thinks of as an abomination. It does raise the awkward question as to why God would curse people with homosexuality (Romans 1:26)**.
The Summary of Homosexuality as a Sin
On this whistle-stop tour I’ve tried to show two things.
1. That the full meaning of “sin” is absent, or difficult to find in the bible.
2. That homosexuality is really only mentioned in one place as an “abomination” that matters to Christians.
This leaves us with the task of finding out how we, as Christians, are to know what is a sin, and what isn’t.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
Or, more famously
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
This “greatest commandment” offers a way of understanding when it that we break the commandments of God. The first, and most important, is that we love God with all our hearts, minds and souls. Anything that gets in the way of this breaks the commandment and, in this understanding, is a sin. If you make something an idol, and gets in the way of God, then you are falling into sin. For example, liking sports is fine, but spending all your time watching sports and never praying to God, or thinking about Him, would make it a sin. It’s about degrees.
The second part of it comes down to our interaction with other people. If we do anything that could be considered not “loving our neighbour” or “loving ourselves” then we, again, are falling into sin. Let us take the physical act of adultery. Adultery is breaking this rule in all kinds of ways. This is happening behind the back of a (for the purpose of this argument) husband or wife, which means you are not showing love to them.
This handy little lens, given to us by Jesus himself, allows us to approach the law with the eyes of the Spirit. The aim of this law is to ensure that love is abound, as God loved us, so we should love the world.
Love and Homosexuality
So, now we get to our final point. Is homosexuality a sin?
In short, no. It’s not.
Homosexuality doesn’t get between a person and God. It doesn’t stop them loving God with all their hearts, and minds and souls. Of course, like all relationships, gay, straight or otherwise, they can be abusive, or over-lustful, but this has nothing to do with whether or not they are gay or straight. They do not, intrinsically, get in the way.
Homosexuality doesn’t in any way break the love of neighbour. They are not forcing someone to take part. It is happening between two consenting people.
Does it, then, fall foul of not loving oneself? It would be possible to argue that because homosexuality is called an abomination by St. Paul that to take part is to not loving oneself. However, why would we not wish for others to experience love? Why would God not want others to experience love? Why is God obsessed with anal? To want to experience life and love in all it’s fullness, being able to love as God has loved us is surely the more God-like expression of this last part. To love oneself, is to be willing and honest enough to be loved. To be loved by God is to be able to experience love, both from God, and from another.
God wrote the law on our hearts.
All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
Here St. Paul makes the point that it is our conscience which also bears witness. He even makes the point that it is possible that being conflicted and doing our best anyway may just excuse us on the day of reckoning.
Faith in Jesus Christ is a path of Grace. Not grace that we have earned, or done something to deserve, but something that is poured abundantly on us:
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
It seems then, that based on what St. Paul argues in Romans (when the argument is read), and what Jesus offers us in the Golden Rule, that we are to approach these problems using all the faculties that we are given, and the handy rubric to make sure that we’re not going off on our own tangent. If it doesn’t break the golden rule, we’re probably okay. And if we’re wrong, but we’re doing our best, and holding fast to that grace, we’re also probably okay.
Which I find a relief for the rest of us.
If you have made it this far and don’t find the argument persuasive, then the only thing that I can do is leave you with some questions:
1. Why does God want homosexuals to suffer without love?
2. Being as it’s in Romans, the book that says that we are all sinners just as grave as the homosexuals, yet are saved by grace, why are the homosexuals excepted from that grace?
3. What does it say about God?
Addendum: Jesus and Marriage – Can it be Adam and Steve?
Other opponents to the idea of gay marriage often quote Jesus’ words about marriage:
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”[a]
10 His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12 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.”
They point in this passage to the fact that Jesus doesn’t eschew the gender binary form or marriage, and in facts quotes Genesis to make his point. Here Jesus is applying his own golden rule to the ancient idea of Israelite marriage, which, remember, had only recently (historically speaking) become one man and one woman, rather than one man and many women. His primary focus here is the fact that they were being hard-hearted. Many people have rehearsed the arguments that say that the place of women was essentially that of a commodity to be traded, and divorced women were likely to find their lives incredibly tough, with no income and nowhere to live. That aspect entirely breaks the “love your neighbour” part of what we’ve been talking about.
Here, of course, I don’t think that Jesus mentioned gay people because he wasn’t aiming his points AT gay people. He was talking to the Pharisees about a non-loving action that was causing hardship to women. Some argue that because Jesus didn’t specifically bless gay marriage (and he had the opportunity to do so on this part), that it means he didn’t want it. The problem with that, of course, is that there are lots of things that Jesus didn’t mention. It’s why he gave us the Golden Rule, so that when we found things that weren’t in the Bible we would still be able to keep our Godward focus.
All passages taken from the NRSV Bible.
* Note: Genesis is not the oldest book in the Bible, and it is only the first because it speaks of that point in the Biblical understanding of history. There is a a big debate about the dating of the Bible, which again is beyond the scope of this post.
** Note 2: Personally I think that this is Paul being more annoyed with an early form of gnostic heracy that assumed that you could do what you liked, so long as you asked forgiveness. I don’t really have an answer to why St. Paul really throws the book at these people, or why he thinks that it was God that did it to them.