License to interpret: the Bible and same-sex relationships

It will be four years this June since the Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in the United States. This post might feel a little behind the times given all the societal changes going on already. But as many of you know all too well, the church often drags its feet when it comes to change, coming kicking and screaming into relevance — if it isn’t already too late when it gets there.

Today’s post is a follow-up to the one entitled “Why I specify LGBT friendly on my counseling profile.” It will go through some of the passages used to condemn same-sex relations and talk about why we have the freedom to interpret them in a new way.

Just a little dose of humor… “Bible-thumper,” get it??
From http://www.brainlesstales.com/2012-03-16/bible-thumper

There are 6-7 main verses that are used in support of “traditional marriage” and against homosexuality. And for perspective: When we compare that to the amount of verses that talk about the poor, wealth / poverty, and economic justice issues: well, it’s miniscule. Jim Wallis and his peers created a “holey” (haha) Bible when they cut out all verses about the poor: 2000 verses on poverty and justice as opposed to just a handful about same-sex relations. (I got some great info from a guy who already wrote this post I’m writing: here’s his link if you’d like to check it out!). I won’t go through all the verses on same-sex relations – just read his article, after you get through reading mine!

The Old Testament

The first stop on our tour is the Old Testament Levitical laws. Some Christians use verses from the Old Testament to support their traditional marriage approach, such as Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). Levitical prohibitions are included as part of “purity code” law. These codes are intended to set the Israelites apart from other people groups, to preserve their identity. Most Christians today don’t have any issues mixing their fabrics (Deut. 22:11, Lev. 19:19, etc), and unless allergic or vegetarian, are willing to eat shellfish (Lev. 11:10); we no longer refer to women’s menstrual cycles as their “sickness” (Lev 20:18, NRSV), and except for in the Handmaid’s Tale, don’t stone both parties when a man rapes a woman who is engaged to (and thus the property of) someone else.

Please, no. Gilead is not a society I want to exist in!
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Stewart Cook/REX/Shutterstock (9637472bd) Handmaids ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA – 19 Apr 2018

Okay, fair enough. Sounding a little antiquated already. Later on in the New Testament, Peter has a vision where all the animals are spread out on a sheet together, and he hears that all is allowable for eating. The old Levitical laws don’t seem to matter so much when all they cause is discord between Jews and Gentiles. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15) is what the passage says.

This is an important idea. We will come back to it later: and not just in regards to food and Levitical laws.

One last stop in the Old Testament: Sodom and Gomorrah. Modern-day fundamentalists worry America is turning into a modern-day equivalent, with moral licentiousness, depravity, and excess. I mean, I might agree with them on some points – but not quite the way they are thinking, and probably closer to the real meaning of the story.

A rather dismal situation, right? Glad I wasn’t there…
(retrieved from here)

Honestly, when I read the Sodom and Gomorrah passage just now in my NRSV (Genesis chapter 19), I had to go consult the internet for why this is used as an anti-homosexuality prooftext (prooftext = passage, often taken out of context, to support a belief the reader holds). In the story, Abraham is basically talking God down from utterly destroying the city of Sodom. First, if you believe in a God who is all-knowing and unchangeable, realize you are also probably not reading this passage “literally” as Abraham appears to literally be negotiating with God. But I digress.

So what is the point of the story? Scholars say the story is about God testing Abraham (making sure he’s the guy he’s cracked up to be) and finding him to be noble, ethical, and worthy. God is able to be argued out of wholesale destroying the city and agrees to save it (temporarily) for the sake of ten good people.

The next part of the story is really disturbing. Lot is now the main character, and he is hosting some angels in his home (like you do) when some evil men (from S & G) come to his door sounding like they are demanding sexual relations – aka RAPE – of the male angels in the home. Instead of his guests being dishonored in such a terrible way, Lot offers his virgin female daughters for the men to rape. WHOA! Call the cops!! And I’m sorry: did you want to make the main point of this story that being gay is wrong? It seems to me the obvious message has more to do with sexual violence, lust and power, and inhumane treatment of others, far more than the particular genders of who is mistreating whom.

So when you hear the story, what part of the passage do you give the most weight to?

The New Testament

Moving on to the New Testament, which Christians generally give more credence to and really have to consider the weight and meaning of passages. We’re going to spend some time with our dear friend Paul. Paul is so formative for Christianity as a whole. Could it have spread as well as it did without his influence? It seems unlikely. But he can be quite challenging to many progressive-leaning Christians, because he says some pretty uncomfortable, seemingly intolerant things.

The passages often used as prooftexts against homosexuality are Romans 1, 1st Corinthians 6, and 1st Timothy 1. We’ll look at Romans 1:26-27:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”
The context of this passage is that Paul is writing a letter to the Christians in Rome arguing that the Jews and Gentiles all need to be reconciled together under one identity of being in Christ. They are needlessly divided. Part of his argument is pointing out that both groups do the same things, including the above references.

Some people argue that since unity is Paul’s point here (throughout the first couple of chapters of Romans), we can smooth over the rest. I do find that important, but also think we can acknowledge safely that Paul appears to be anti-homosexual here. Some people work through interpretative issues by saying Paul is only talking about uneven power balances of men with young boys. I wouldn’t say that doesn’t influence him and how he views homosexual relations, but I don’t think it’s the full story.

So come on, Paul. Why do you make things hard on your modern-day readers?? I wonder if the answer might be surprising.

Ohhh man.
(Reference: “Cain” by Henri Vidal, 1896.)

For those in the “oh my gawwwd Paul, cut me a break!” crowd because of passages like this and why women should be silent in church, etc, ponder this. Imagine ancient Rome and ancient Jewish culture, round about, oh, 60 CE. Women do not belong to themselves, but are the property either of their male relative, or their husband. They have no rights. The society is very patriarchal, and there is a strong power dynamic of how people relate to one another. And especially in Jewish culture, the shame/honor dynamic is especially prevalent. Presenting the right image to others, and not bringing shame upon oneself or the family, is of ultimate importance. A man had to preserve the image of virility and power, honor and status. Women were protected only by the men in their lives. In their society, a man with a man means one of them is dishonored (in the weaker, un-masculine position). A woman with a woman means no one is protecting them.

And aside from all that, Paul seems to be making an argument for the “natural” way of things to take their course, which to him seems obvious that male and female genitals only belong to each other. I wonder if Paul’s mind might be changed if he knew that the “passions” each sex can experience for its own kind (i.e., same-sex attraction) can be as ingrained as eye color, skin color, temperament. He didn’t have the science we have today. He didn’t have the culture of legal equality among sexes and sexual orientation (equality we’re working on, at least). But you know what? I think Paul would be open to changing his viewpoint if he only knew more. Just think about his conversion experience where his whole life turned upside down.

Let’s go back to the passage where Peter hears, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Peter having his vision.
Retrieved from http://weareisrael.org/clean-foods/peters-dream-in-acts-10/

In our culture today, I think that on the whole Christians get more of a bad rap for narrow views on sexuality (and here I include both sexual orientation and abortion issues). Except, of course, from within certain folds, where those same Christians feel self-righteous for upholding the faith and moral conduct. But society is changing. Gay marriage is becoming more and more normal, and we see these couples living everyday lives like the rest of folks, falling in love, committing to each other in sickness and health, buying homes, having kids.

Do not call impure anything that God has made clean.” Do we not know that God has called all of God’s children clean, and loves them ferociously? Do we not know that when we can live free of shame and guilt and oppression, we are that much more capable of producing goodness, grace, justice, kindness, faithfulness in our world?

It is high time we stop allowing a narrow reading of the Bible to dictate policy, whether in our country or in individual churches. I can’t force change, but my hope is that with some education and the softening of hearts, people will change. With that change, we can look at our lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer siblings in the eyes and say “you are one of us. You belong here. I belong to you. We all belong to each other.” And then they may at last feel the love, and with a love like that, then might you find the answer is “YES.”