Lots of people send me angry e-mails about my position – as a Christian – that homosexuality is morally compatible with Christianity and in fact is morally equal to heterosexuality. “Homosexuality is morally wrong in the eyes of God,” recently commented Chris on a post of mine where I asserted otherwise. Chris publishes the blog People, books and the glory of Christ. So what does the Bible actually say about homosexuality?
Walter Wink is Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. He is also the author of many books including Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination and Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. His essay, Homosexuality and the Bible, is a great resource for exploring these issues. He writes:
The debate over homosexuality is a remarkable opportunity, because it raises in an especially acute way how we interpret the Bible, not in this case only, but in numerous others as well. The real issue here, then, is not simply homosexuality, but how Scripture informs our lives today.
Some passages that have been advanced as pertinent to the issue of homosexuality are, in fact, irrelevant. One is the attempted gang rape in Sodom (Gen. 19:1-29). That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them "like women," thus demasculinizing them. (This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same sex is legitimate or not. Likewise Deut. 23:17-18 must be pruned from the list, since it most likely refers to a heterosexual prostitute involved in Canaanite fertility rites that have infiltrated Jewish worship; the King James Version inaccurately labeled him a "sodomite."
Several other texts are ambiguous. It is not clear whether 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 refer to the "passive" and "active" partners in homosexual relationships, or to homosexual and heterosexual male prostitutes. In short, it is unclear whether the issue is homosexuality alone, or promiscuity and "sex-for-hire."
Putting these texts to the side, we are left with three references, all of which unequivocally condemn homosexual behavior. Lev. 18:22 states the principle: "You [masculine] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (NRSV). The second (Lev. 20:13) adds the penalty: "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."
Such an act was regarded as an "abomination" for several reasons. The Hebrew prescientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence the spilling of semen for any nonprocreative purpose--in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation--was considered tantamount to abortion or murder. (Female homosexual acts were consequently not so seriously regarded, and are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament (but see Rom. 1:26). One can appreciate how a tribe struggling to populate a country in which its people were outnumbered would value procreation highly, but such values are rendered questionable in a world facing uncontrolled overpopulation.
In addition, when a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was compromised. It was a degradation, not only in regard to himself, but for every other male. The patriarchalism of Hebrew culture shows its hand in the very formulation of the commandment, since no similar stricture was formulated to forbid homosexual acts between females. And the repugnance felt toward homosexuality was not just that it was deemed unnatural but also that it was considered unJewish, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life. On top of that is the more universal repugnance heterosexuals tend to feel for acts and orientations foreign to them. (Left-handedness has evoked something of the same response in many cultures.)
Whatever the rationale for their formulation, however, the texts leave no room for maneuvering. Persons committing homosexual acts are to be executed. This is the unambiguous command of Scripture. The meaning is clear: anyone who wishes to base his or her beliefs on the witness of the Old Testament must be completely consistent and demand the death penalty for everyone who performs homosexual acts. (That may seem extreme, but there actually are some Christians urging this very thing today.) It is unlikely that any American court will ever again condemn a homosexual to death, even though Scripture clearly commands it.
This is a rather long excerpt from Wink’s essay, but I want to stop here for a moment to relate this last paragraph to a contemporary issue. This past week Southern Baptist leaders re-affirmed their opposition not only to gays and lesbians receiving the civil rights inherent in marriage, but also to legislation designed to protect gays and lesbians from hate crimes. You can really only take such steps if you can devalue the lives of gays and lesbians. Let me return to another section from Wink’s essay:
Old Testament texts have to be weighed against the New. Consequently, Paul's unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior in Rom. 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of any discussion.
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. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seemed to assume that those whom he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, "leaving," "giving up," or "exchanging" their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, "leaving," "giving up" or "exchanging" their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural to them.
My cousin Bryan has written in to comment on this blog several times claiming that gays can be cured. A while back he wrote: “Two good, male and female, friends of mine are recovering homosexuals recently married and looking forward to a long happy marriage in accordance (in their words) to God's Word.” Is recovery from homosexuality possible? I would answer there is nothing to actually recover from. A good site to visit that explores this issue in more detail is Religious Tolerance.
Wink’s article goes on to address some other practices the Bible speaks about and their respective penalties.
The law of Moses allowed for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4); Jesus categorically forbids it (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:9 softens his severity). Yet many Christians, in clear violation of a command of Jesus, have been divorced. Why, then, do some of these very people consider themselves eligible for baptism, church membership, communion, and ordination, but not homosexuals?
The Old and New Testaments both regarded slavery as normal and nowhere categorically condemned it. Part of that heritage was the use of female slaves, concubines and captives as sexual toys, breeding machines, or involuntary wives by their male owners, which 2 Sam. 5:13, Judges 19-21 and Num. 31:18 permitted--and as many American slave owners did some 150 years ago, citing these and numerous other Scripture passages as their justification.
There are plenty of other examples like these in Wink's essay. The point is that how we define moral and normative behavior has changed over time and sometimes those changes are for the better. I would not exclude divorced people from church. Would you? Part of Wink's conclusion deals with the authority of Scripture:
I agree that rules and norms are necessary; that is what sexual mores are. But rules and norms also tend to be impressed into the service of the Domination System, and to serve as a form of crowd control rather than to enhance the fullness of human potential. So we must critique the sexual mores of any given time and clime by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Defining such a love ethic is not complicated. It is non-exploitative (hence no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving. Augustine already dealt with this in his inspired phrase, "Love God, and do as you please."
Our moral task, then, is to apply Jesus' love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn't mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus' love commandment. We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.
Christian morality, after all, is not a iron chastity belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, as for heterosexuals, being moral means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others, and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus.
This is a long post. I’m writing it to hopefully answer (not convert) those who might question why I believe what I believe. I find myself in agreement with Wink’s analysis of the Bible and the related issues of authority. Read Wink's entire essay for yourself and see where it might take you.