Speaking of tough texts… Homosexuality and the Bible?

September 21, 2009

One of you asked about a couple of tough texts: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:25-27. These are two proof-texts often used to condemn homosexual conduct. I thought about preaching on one of these texts for this sermon series, but doing so probably wouldn’t be “family-friendly” enough for a Sunday morning sermon. But that’s exactly what this blog is for! What follows is my response to the question. For the record, the United Methodist Church’s position on homosexuality probably makes people on both sides of the issue unhappy. Gays and lesbians are people of “sacred worth,” fully welcome and eligible to participate in every aspect of church life as laypeople. Homosexual practice, however, is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Nevertheless, homosexuals who are celibate may be eligible for ordination. We Methodist clergy may not preside over a homosexual wedding or union ceremony.

This issue of homosexuality is incredibly difficult because we all have friends and family members who are gay. It’s one thing to discuss this issue in the abstract and quite another when we’re face to face with someone we love who is a good and loving person, similar to us in so many ways, except that they happen to be gay. Regardless how or when sexual orientation is formed, I think everyone agrees that it becomes relatively fixed and difficult to change. To my knowledge I never chose to be straight, and I doubt I could choose to be gay even if I wanted. Why should I assume that my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters had a choice that I never had?* [See footnote below.]

I think your questions strike at the heart of the issue for Christians: “Are they to deny their own heart and live a lonely life void of intimacy because the love they feel for someone is considered sinful? Is monogamous, consensual love between two adults a sin? Is this what really was meant by these passages?” Sexuality is surely one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity. Sexuality helps to define who we are; we almost can’t exaggerate how important it is to our identity.

So, regardless of our position on gay equality within the church, let’s feel the very real tension here: The church often tells gay and lesbian Christians that in order to be faithful to Christ they have to abstain from enjoying this gift of sexuality and deny this incredibly important part of their identity. And, no, it’s not helpful for the church to simply say, “Well, you can just be straight.” As I implied earlier, if someone told me I had to be gay, I would be in a bind! I wouldn’t know how to do that. All this to say that at the very least—regardless of one’s position on the subject—we ought to acknowledge the unfairness of this problem and feel great compassion for our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with sexual orientation. Can’t everyone agree on that?

Another thing that the church sometimes says is, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” I don’t know how to do that, either. I do feel hatred toward plenty of sins, but I can’t work up any special anger or resentment toward two adults in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship. If this is a moral failure on their part, it would rank very low on my list of problems in the world. When I hear some Christians argue against homosexuality and say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” I wonder if they’re not “hating the sinner,” too. I suspect a lot of these same people would be passionately opposed to homosexuality if the Bible were silent on the subject because it’s personally distasteful to them.

But the Bible isn’t silent on the subject of same-sex sexual relationships, so we have to deal with it. But we also have to understand what the Bible says in context. The first and most important point is that there was no such thing as “homosexuality” in the first century (or before). Homosexuality, from what I understand, is a recent concept to describe same-sex attraction as a relatively fixed orientation. In the world of the Bible, even people who engaged in what we would regard as homosexual conduct did so as straight people (if that makes any sense at all). In Romans 1, for example, Paul understands homosexual conduct as a problem of excessive sexual desire. Men and women who engage in this conduct have a natural desire for people of the opposite sex, but their lust is so great that they’ve moved beyond heterosexual desire. Paul views homosexual behavior like a river that has overflowed its banks. It has, in Paul’s view, become idolatrous. (Idolatry is the important context of this discussion.)

Homosexuals today would say, of course, that this is not at all what their experience of sexuality is like—and I’m sure the social sciences would agree with them. People understood the world very differently in the first century. Let’s not judge them. I’m sure people in future centuries will think we people of the 21st really got it wrong, too. Regardless, Paul is not speaking about the monogamous, committed relationship you mention. He knows nothing of it. That doesn’t mean that this scripture doesn’t apply to them. It just wasn’t a question that Paul answered. The questions facing him and his contemporaries were very different from the ones facing us. So when we apply this scripture to new questions, let’s wield it more like a surgeon’s scalpel than a sledgehammer. OK?

Does our sex-worshiping culture commit idolatry—even if we understand sexuality differently today? Is it possible for gay and lesbian Christians to affirm the truth of this scripture (and others) if they are in a loving, committed, monogamous relationship? What changes do all of us—gay and straight—need to make in our lives in order that our sexual conduct not become destructive, idolatrous, and life-denying?

We have to answer these questions for ourselves. I’m open to hearing different arguments. But you’re right: we make a grave mistake if we single out homosexual conduct in some special category of sin. What does Paul say in Romans 2:1, just a few verses later? “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

*One of you asked a question about choice. I raised the issue because most gays I’ve known have said that they had no choice. My point above is that based on my own experience of being straight, I have no reason to doubt them. I simply wanted to underline the difficulty faced by gay Christians, many of whom try and fail to be straight. Regardless, the question of whether homosexual practice is a sin is independent of whether people choose to be gay. First, we don’t have to consciously choose something in order for that thing to be sinful. Sin has a terrible way of finding us whether we choose it or not. We often sin unconsciously. Second, the UMC, along with the Catholic Church, does not say that the orientation is sinful, only the practice.

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