Homosexuality is a volatile topic to write on, and I never dreamed of becoming somewhat of an expert on it. (Expert is too bold, actually. Let’s just say student.) And yet — here I stand. Another Christian theologian trying to make sense of what has become the most pressing ethical question facing the church since slavery: Can same-sex relationships be included in the church’s definition of marriage?
When I began researching this “issue” (more on that below), I treated it as just another exercise in biblical ethics. I had tackled other controversial topics in the past, such as hell and violence, so I was familiar with how to engage such debates. I studiously combed through all the relevant scholarly and popular books on the topic in order to present the most compelling analytical argument for my view.
Ah yes. My view. What is my view? Like most evangelical Christians, I grew up with a prepackaged view of homosexuality handed down to me through the halls of fundamentalist Christianity. It claimed to be “biblical.” Perhaps it was. But it was also profoundly homophobic, unthoughtful, and, in many ways, destructive. Homosexuality is wrong, I was told. It’s sinful and horrible and an abomination before God — even though I wasn’t clear on what exactly “it” (homosexuality) even meant.
I mean no offence toward my more conservative friends, but I no longer identify with, or even have much respect for, this tradition. It’s a tradition that claims to be biblical and reformed, yet elevates its assumptions far above the biblical text it claims to follow. It lacks the courage to actually go where the text leads, especially when it leads us away from the traditions of American fundamentalism.
Knowing my allergic reaction to right wing Christianity, I engaged my study of sexuality with a commitment to actually go where the text leads. I would let the word of God, and the Word of God to whom Scripture points, challenge my assumptions and biases, and I can say before God that I was genuinely open to a different perspective on questions related to homosexuality.
I then did something that would forever shape me as a Christian. I got my head out of the books and started befriending LGBTQ people. “Can I buy you lunch and listen to your story?” I would ask. And that’s what I did. Over and over and over. I listened, asked questions, listened more, and began to enter into the lives of LGBTQ people. Stereotypes were shattered. Presuppositions were challenged. And my heart was constantly ripped out of my chest as I listened to story after story of how these beautiful people were dehumanized and shamed by the evangelical church. These people — my new friends — were not issues.
So here you have the perfect storm. On the one hand, I’m eager to shake the dust off my feet of thoughtless conservatism. And on the same hand, I’m distraught over how my LGBTQ friends have been mistreated by graceless Christians. As I was blogging about my journey in real time, let’s just say my conservative friends were getting pretty nervous with all my talk about love, and grace, and acceptance. It’s funny how the values of Christ can make Christians so darn mad.
The view I forged from my journey, however, was different than what some of my onlookers expected. Even though I read piles of literature from Greco-Roman and ancient Near Eastern sources, many memoirs from LGBTQ people, and virtually every single theologically affirming scholar in biblical studies, theology, and history, and gave it all as fair of a reading as I possibly could — in some ways hoping I could drive one more nail into the coffin of my fundy upbringing (#NeverTrump) — I was still unconvinced that the traditional view of marriage should be expanded. No matter how many times I considered, and wanted to believe, the arguments offered by the best affirming scholars and writers, I still endorse a traditional view of marriage. God designed marriage and sex to be between one man and one woman from different families. I don’t believe this because it’s simply traditional. I believe it because it makes the most sense of the biblical, ethical, theological, and historical evidence.
The fruit of my study is captured in two books I published last year with Zondervan: People to Be Loved (Zondervan, 2015) and Living in a Gray World (Zondervan, 2015). Both books wrestle with the tension I live with every day. I still hold to a traditional view of marriage, and yet I believe the evangelical church culture is responsible for an excruciating amount of damage done to LGBTQ people. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, books have not resonated with people on the far ends of conservative and progressive Christianity.
Not everyone who’s read my work agrees with what I say (no major news flash there). But nearly everyone says that I’ve given the evidence a fair reading. Readers and reviewers who are open and affirming often say that I’m one of the only “conservatives” (I still despise the term, but it is what it is) who has taken the time to actually wrestle with and consider the affirming arguments. They say I’ve given them a fair and generous reading, even though they end up disagreeing with my theological conclusion.
So why didn’t I end up expanding the historic Christian view of marriage to include same-sex couples?
The question really comes down to whether exceptions should be made to God’s vision of opposite-sex marriage assumed and prescribed in the Bible. Put differently, do the biblical prohibitions against same-sex relations apply to consensual, monogamous, lifelong same-sex marriages today? The more I studied, listened to, and considered the best affirming arguments, the more I was convinced that the traditionalist’s arguments better represent the biblical and theological evidence.
For instance, one of the first affirming arguments I wrestled with, and still the most popular in some circles, is that adult consensual same-sex relations didn’t exist in the biblical world and therefore the prohibitions in the Bible do not apply to these. As the argument goes, all same-sex relations were exploitative: rape, prostitution, pederasty, and masters having sex with their slaves. These are the things prohibited in the Bible, not two gay men or women falling in love and getting married.
Actually, the methodology of this argument is flawed. Our knowledge of the Greco-Roman world, for instance, comes through the fogged-up lenses of elite men whose writings we glean from to understand the ancient world. Think about it. When we read about ancient sexuality through the writings of Seneca, Cicero, Plato, Rufus, Juvenal, Martial, or others, we’re getting a profoundly biased perspective on the world. We’re getting the view of the 1%, or 5% at best. We’re getting the perspective of the wealthy, the literate, the male, the upper crust of an oppressively classified social system. Yet these are the voices that affirming writers depend on to tell us what life was like on the ground. As it stands, we don’t have access to the sexual desires of slaves, women, teenagers, or the roughly 85% of society that couldn’t read or write. The voices of the marginalized has been muzzled, snuffed out by the perspective of those in power.
Actually, I take that back. We do have some beautiful poetry from a woman named Sappho — one of the only female poets whose writings have been preserved. And Sappho spoke of the beauty of romantic, sexual love between women (see Bernadette J. Brooten, Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism [University of Chicago Press, 1996]).
Asking the elites what sexuality is like for the masses is like asking Donald Trump what life is like for single African American mothers living in Alaska. And I don’t think a phone call to Sarah Palin would give him a better perspective.
But even if we assume that elite ancient male authors are giving us a fair picture of the many layers of society, the picture unearthed is still much more diverse than some affirming writers make it seem. While it’s true that most same-sex relations were exploitative according to the literature handed down to us (that’ll be my last reminder), we still see examples of adult consensual relations in the ancient world (see Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 55-68). In fact, among women, consensual relations were almost exclusively between consensual adults (Brooten, Love between Women).
Unless the biblical writers are clear that they’re only referring to exploitative relations, an honest interpreter has no solid basis in history to assume they are.
In fact, the Bible uses language of mutuality, not exploitative, when it describes same-sex relations. Leviticus says: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Lev 20:13 NRSV), and Paul says that “men … were consumed with passion for one another … and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (Rom 1:27 NRSV). There’s no way Paul or any ancient author would describe, say, an older man and younger boy being “consumed with passion for one another.” Exploitative relationships are a one-way street — a perpetrator and victim. But Paul and others talk about mutual sex.
The mutuality of same-sex relations is confirmed by Paul’s reference to women in Rom 1:26, which he compares to male same-sex relations in 1:27. Again, we have no evidence that women were raping their female slaves or having pederastic relations with teenage girls. The same-sex love we read about in the literature and witness on the sides of vases and other archaeological findings is one of mutual love — even marriages, according to several ancient writers (Sprinkle, People to Be Loved, 63-64).
And plenty of affirming scholars agree. The late Louis Crompton, a gay scholar who wrote a brilliant book titled Homosexuality and Civilization, says:
According to [one] interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at “bona fide” homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian. (Homosexuality and Civilization [Harvard University Press, 2006],114)
Bill Loader is the world’s foremost scholar on sexuality in ancient Christianity and Judaism, publishing thousands of pages in eight books on the topic. Bill is an affirming Christian. Still, he rejects the argument that the only same-sex relationships in the ancient world were exploitative (see his recent essay in Preston M. Sprinkle, ed., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church [Zondervan, 2016]). Bernadette Brooten is a lesbian scholar and an expert on female same-sex relations in the ancient world. She’s also done quite a bit of work on Rom 1. She concludes: “Rom 1:27, like Lev 18:22 and 20:13, condemns all males in male-male relationships regardless of age, making it unlikely that lack of mutuality or concern for the passive boy were Paul’s central concerns” (Love between Women, 253).
My skepticism about the “exploitative only” argument is not just some residue of my fundamentalist past. It is, I believe, a faithful understanding of the historical and biblical evidence.
There’s another affirming argument that’s been around for a while, but is becoming more popular in the last few years. It’s often called the “trajectory” argument. In short, the Bible does indeed condemn all forms of same-sex relations. However, the Bible also supports patriarchy, slavery, and an outdated view of marriage that makes Leave It to Beaver look progressive. Therefore, we need to follow the ethical trajectories within Scripture to their logical conclusion. While the Bible endorses, or at least allows, for slavery, we see clear signs that it’s moving away from slavery. While the Bible makes some demeaning statements toward women, there’s a trajectory toward recognizing the full equality of women. And while the Bible condemns same-sex relations, there’s a trajectory moving towards….
Towards what? Do we actually see a trajectory moving toward affirming same-sex relations into a Christian vision for marriage and sex?
I agree that ethical trajectories exist. I recently argued in my book Fight that we can see an ethical trajectory moving away from violence toward non-violence, which is why God can tell Israel to kill their enemies under the Old Covenant and love them in the New (Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence [David C. Cook, 2013]). But not every ethical norm in Scripture is destined to be shed by Christians living beyond the Bible. No one would argue that we should move beyond the Bible’s concern for the poor and marginalized toward more sympathy for the rich and powerful. The biblical mandate to welcome the stranger and immigrant remains unalterable from Genesis through Revelation. Moreover, trajectories can go both ways, especially when it comes to sexual ethics. When Jesus talks about marriage, divorce, and adultery in the Sermon on the Mount, he tightens the boundaries; he doesn’t expand them. If biblical sexual ethics are on a trajectory, there’s little evidence (I would say no evidence) that the Bible is showing signs of redefining same-sex relations from sexual immorality to righteousness (see William Webb, Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [IVP Academic, 2001]).
Some people try to get there by refracting same-sex prohibitions through Jesus’s ethic of love. But biblical (agape) love must be set alongside, not against, Scripture’s sexual ethic. Jesus loved people who fell short of God’s holiness — and the further away they were, the more Jesus loved them. But the direction of Jesus’s love is always toward holiness, not away from it. Jesus’s love knows no bounds and has no leash. He loved being around people who weren’t living according to his ethical standard. Jesus delighted in scandalously accepting all people — especially the marginalized — and he accepted them into a community seeking holiness through grace and repentance.
Christians will continue to wrestle with the theology of same-sex relations. These are good discussions to have. But theological differences are not usually the main problem. The problem is that LGBTQ people have been treated as mere issues to debate rather than image bearers to delight in.
According to a recent study on the religious background of LGBTQ people — the largest of its kind — 83% of LGBTQ people grew up in the Christian church (for the following, see Andrew Marin, Us vs. Us: The Untold Story of Religion and the LGBT Community [NavPress, 2016). Of these 83%, nearly half (54%) have left the church. When asked about the main reason for leaving, one might think that “theological difference” (i.e., the church said gay sex was sin) was the main reason why they left. But actually, according to the testimony of more than 1,700 LGBTQ people surveyed, only 15% said they left primarily for theological differences. Some of the other reasons for leaving include the following: they didn’t feel safe at church, they experienced a relational disconnect with the leaders, people at church were unwilling to dialogue, or, quite frankly, they were just kicked out. It’s no wonder so many LGBTQ people are fleeing the church in search of love.
According to many of their own testimonies, it’s not a traditional view of marriage that’s driving LGBTQ people away. It’s the church’s inability to love like Jesus.
Given how much damage has been done to LGBTQ people, I was shocked to learn that 76% of those who have left the church would be willing to come back if the church can make some changes. And this is where my conservative sisters and brothers (they hate it when I phrase it that way) dig in their heels and say: we’ll never change our theology just to make LGBTQ people feel comfortable at church! But here’s what’s fascinating. According to the survey, only 8% of LGBTQ who desire to return said the church would have to change its theology from non-affirming to open and affirming for them to return. The other 92% listed “feeling loved,” “given time,” “no attempts to change their sexual orientation,” “authenticity,” and “support of family and friends” — all of which naturally flow from a basic understanding of the gospel — as the things that would need to change for them to return. As one 21-year-old lesbian said in the survey: “All I wanted was to feel loved by those in the church I grew up with…. I don’t have to be right to feel loved. I have to be dignified in our disagreement.”
Traditional churches don’t need to change their theology to love LGBTQ people well. They need to change their posture — and radically so. Because how we hold onto our beliefs is just as important as what we believe. If traditionalists get the Bible right, but get love wrong, they are still wrong.