Live and learn. Here is an excellent article that discusses conservative and liberal positions. There is more support for the other side than I had thought, but again, Jesus is silent on the issue.
“What does the Bible say about homosexuality? Church people of differing beliefs debate the words — and their meaning then and now.”
Fred Tasker, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1997-JUL-13
The homosexuality issue is a raw wound on the body of Christianity, a source of anguish that seems to increase as gays become more vocal and visible in modern society.
The Southern Baptist Convention was the latest to weigh in, launching a high-profile boycott last month against all things Disney, largely in the belief that the media company supports gay lifestyles. The issue is also causing tumult in the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church U.S.A., whose triennial General Convention in Philadelphia July 16-25 will vote on whether to ordain active homosexuals and bless gay unions.
The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the United Methodist Church have also struggled with the morality of homosexuality in the last year, and the issue has vexed school boards and government bodies nationwide, including Philadelphia’s City Council.
Gay-rights opponents often cite the Bible. So what, exactly, does the Bible say about homosexuality? And how do the faithful of various beliefs and approaches to the Bible understand what it says?
The Miami Herald interviewed a mix of theologians and religious leaders about their readings of Scripture. They are:
- David Bartlett, professor of divinity at Yale Divinity School.
- The Rev. Timothy Crater of the National Association of Evangelicals, which comprises more than 300 conservative denominations and churches.
- Reuven Kimelman, professor of near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University.
- R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
- The Rev. Jill Nelson, associate pastor of the Sunshine Cathedral Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which ministers to a largely gay congregation.
The first passage is from Genesis, part of the Bible’s lyrical opening narrative about the creation of the universe. It’s a story about two male angels visiting the iniquitous city of Sodom and spending the night as guests in the house of Lot. (All Bible verses are from the Revised Standard Version.)
- Genesis 19:4-6:
- “. . . the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.’ Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.'”
Says Mohler: “The Genesis passage is very clear, that the sin of Sodom that brought on the destruction of the city was indeed linked to homosexuality.”
Says Stendahl: “It’s a folk story. It even has a little black humor, in the fact that he [ Lot ] is so anxious to protect his guests that he’s willing to sacrifice his daughters. To make a biblical ethics story out of it is not very wise.”
Says Bartlett: “Many of the Bible’s stories don’t mean what they seem on their face. Many mainstream scholars say it [ the Genesis passage ] is about hospitality and how to deal with the messengers of God. If it does refer to homosexual behavior, it’s homosexual rape. They don’t just want to lie down with them voluntarily; they want to rape the angels.”
Says Kimelman: “In the Mideast then, once a man has entered into your home, your responsibility to his protection is your primary moral obligation, even if it’s at the expense of your own daughters. The Bible is recording a story; it is not mandating behavior.”
Says Ms. Nelson: “If you read it literally, in its English translation, without considering its context, one could say the Bible condemns homosexual activities. When we look at the Bible and try to draw moral rules for living, but we take it out of the context of the time when they were written, we do them a great injustice.”
Says Mr. Crater: “It’s a sexual gratification offer. Lot obviously understood it that way, and he offers his daughters in place of his male visitors. It’s clear the mob intended to have sex with them.”
A second Old Testament passage contains stronger language:
- Leviticus 20:13:
- “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.”
She says the rules of behavior put forth in Leviticus are not part of the Ten Commandments, with the commandments’ overwhelming moral force, but merely part of 600 additional rules put forth via Israel’s leaders.
Mr. Crater responds: “So you can ignore them because they came from man? That would mean you can pick and choose what you want to obey.”
Another issue is the demand in Leviticus that violators be put to death.
Says Bartlett: “Nobody I know, even the most conservative, is saying homosexuals should be executed. I think people who think they take the Bible literally don’t take it so literally as to want to execute people.”
Says Stendahl: “If you look at the whole chapter, a lot of things come in for capital punishment that no Southern Baptist would argue that capital punishment is appropriate for. So their reading is a little selective.”
Mr. Crater argues that the Old Testament is a covenant between God and Israel, which also set up a civil state and decreed its laws, The New Testament, he says, is an agreement “between God and a multinational body called the church. It is not a state, so it doesn’t engage in state functions like capital punishment.”
In the New Testament, an important passage is the Letter of Paul to the Romans, in which the apostle writes in preparation for a visit to them. The letter is addressed to “all God’s beloved in Rome.” But footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible say Paul makes it clear that his criticism is directed at all people, Jews, Greeks and Romans alike:
- Romans 1:26:
- “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Says Ms. Nelson: “Paul didn’t write it as a condemnation of homosexuality, but as a criticism of Greek behavior in temple worship. Greeks often incorporated sexual behavior in temple worship. Paul says we all fall short of the glory of God. You don’t find Paul saying that all homosexuals are going to hell; he says nobody has it right.”
Says Bartlett: “This is the tough one. I think one doesn’t get around this. It’s the only place in the New Testament where there’s any extensive discussion of homosexual relations. In Romans, there’s no question that Paul thinks certain kinds of homosexual behavior are a result of the idolatry of the pagan world.”
In another New Testament book, the Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, it is the apostle again, writing a letter to the church in Corinth, an important Greek city. Paul founded the church there, but later had a troubled relationship with it, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible. He wrote about discord and disorders in the Corinthian community.
- 1 Corinthians 6:9:
- “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Ms. Nelson: “Paul used the Greek word malakoi. They translate it as effeminate and so on. It could mean that; it might not. It can mean soft. Paul was a Jewish theologian. Someone from a Jewish background would consider that behavior unacceptable. Many Greeks did not. Some parts of Greek culture thought [ homosexuality ] was the highest level of culture, because men were superior, so it was better to make love to a man than a woman.”
Says Bartlett: “There’s considerable debate over what the Greek words mean. We just don’t know. I’ve read most of the debate, and I don’t know.”
Mohler: “I believe it explicitly relates to homosexuality. It has been understood that way in the Christian Church from the earliest era.”
Mr. Crater: “It [ malakoi ] can have a meaning that’s not carnal. But the way it’s used — it’s embedded in the same context with adultery — it’s pretty clear what the meaning is.”
Stendahl: “I don’t deny that Paul is speaking about sexual eroticism. What he doesn’t have is an understanding of a certain number of people being actually, by nature, homosexual. If somebody is so made, so created by God, then we have to understand and respect that.”
Given the conflicting views, the debate is not likely to ebb.
Says Mohler: “If there’s any one moral issue on which most Southern Baptists stand together, it would be homosexuality. In a domain of some 15 million people, one can of course find isolated exceptions, but it is not only the vast mainstream but virtually the universal understanding among active Southern Baptists that homosexuality is inherently sinful.”
Says Bartlett: “I think the church needs to be more open to gays and lesbians. I start by saying I’m not a biblical literalist. Paul also says women should be quiet in church, and slaves should obey their masters. I’m one of the faithful, but I never think everything Paul says is the final word. In the larger context, people are saved by faith, not lifestyle.”
Says Mr. Crater: “A hallmark of evangelicals is that we take a literal, normal, face-value interpretation of the Bible. Some people attempt to keep some form of Christianity and hold on to homosexuality, too. It leads to strange interpretations of the Bible.”
Says Ms. Nelson: “Don’t think I condone all same-sex behavior — not infidelity, not people in casual sexual encounters. I think that’s what the Bible was getting at. The mistake fundamentalists make is in condemning a behavior they don’t understand.”
Says Stendahl: “When people come to me — deeply Christian people — and say, ‘This is the way I am created. This is how God made me, how He makes me feel love,’ I have to respect that. We know many things people did not know at that time. One should read the Bible with some kind of reason.”
A final point of agreement: Nowhere, in the entire New Testament, does Jesus ever mention homosexuality.
“You’d like to know,” muses Stendahl. “What would He have said?”