As some of you may know, there’s a move in North Carolina to amend the state constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. There is already a law on the books to this effect in North Carolina, and this new effort is, as I understand it, to ensure state lawmakers don’t do what New York’s legislators did in reversing anti-gay marriage laws. Anyway, the Charlotte Observer on Monday reported on a couple of Charlotte Baptist pastors who took up the matter in their Sunday sermons this week. You can read the full article here.
Michael Gordon of the Observer writes,
“At Myers Park Baptist, the Rev. Steve Shoemaker gave a sermon he called ‘The Opposite of Love.’ In it, he urged his congregation to vote down the amendment, calling it an affront to the Bill of Rights and the Golden Rule.
Meanwhile, Mark Harris, senior pastor at First Baptist of Charlotte and president of the Baptist State Convention, announced further plans to get the amendment passed May 8. The convention represents about 4,300 churches and about 1.3 million members.
Interviewed a few hours after his own church service, Harris repeated his belief that homosexuality is condemned in the Bible, that same-sex unions threaten traditional marriage, and that a link between the laws of God and man has long been the basis of the country’s – and the state’s – legal system.”
The article quotes Mr. Harris as saying, “Government doesn’t regulate friendship. It doesn’t regulate dating. You can have sexually intimate relations without any government involvement. But marriage is a special relationship reserved exclusively for heterosexuals for one reason. Only intimate relations between men and women have the ability to produce children.”
For one reason, huh? The ability to produce children. What about the elderly who are past child bearing age, or couples who know they are infertile? Should they be denied marriage because they cannot procreate? I suppose in some bizarre sense their copulation might be potentially procreative if some miracle occurred. But if we’re counting on a miracle, how does that exclude gay couples?
What about men who undergo the “snip, snip” or women who have their tubes tied, deliberately thwarting the procreative process so that they may enjoy sex without the consequence of conception? Should we outlaw this too? Should we nullify the marriages of folks who have these operations? I know pastors who’ve had a vasectomy. Should they step down in scandal? Be forced to divorce because they willfully made their “intimate relations” no longer procreative? I wonder if the Reverend Mr. Harris has gone under the knife, himself, and why the Observer’s reporter didn’t ask.
Think I’m being silly? Back in the early church days, the first few centuries after Christ, there was serious discussion among Christian leaders about what sex was appropriate for the faithful and what sex was “contrary to nature” (the phrase Paul uses in Romans 1, where we’re headed soon). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 AD – c. 215 AD) is quoted as saying, “It is clear that we should reject sex between men, sex with the infertile, anal sex with women, and sex with the androgynous.”
“It is clear.” Heard that before. No sex among men, of course, but also no sex with the infertile and inter-sexed. Thankfully, good sense and compassion won out over the centuries so that we no longer forbid intimacy among these people, but this was once a very serious matter, as is gay sex for many people in the church today. I guess I just wonder when or if compassion wins out in this situation.
To be fair to what Mark Harris said, in his mind government should not forbid these people to have sex; government should simply deny them marriage. I’m not even sure ol’ Clement would have said the government should get involved in what is a matter of theology. Maybe he would have. Who knows? But seriously, can the Reverend Mr. Harris and his congregation find nothing better to do in their community than oppose the relatively few gay people seeking marriage so that they can benefit legally from their relationship with one another, help each other decide health matters if they are in the hospital, and so forth? Is it at all of Jesus Christ to interfere with this, or to, as in the case here, directly oppose it? Would Jesus, were he walking around on earth today, be spending his time trying to amend a state constitution to prevent gays from marrying? Because Jesus is walking around on earth today … in us.
I don’t believe for a second Mr. Harris’ real concern is the lack of procreative potential from homosexual coitus. I suspect his real problem is that he simply doesn’t approve of homosexuality, period. He doesn’t like it, is probably repulsed by it, so he wants to outlaw the state’s recognition of gay unions. He wants to legislate his ideas about right and wrong. What damage is this man doing to the reputation of Christ among gay people so that he can have his moral sensibilities inscribed in law?
You’ve no doubt heard these verses in one translation or another (here I use the NIV, for no particular reason):
“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (Leviticus 18:22).
“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).
Those verses sound clear enough, but it’s everything around those verses that makes knowing what to do with them confusing, to say the least. Leviticus 18 – 20 are three chapters of laws (and consequences for breaking them) that are intended to distinguish the Israelite people from the pagan nations they are displacing. “Do not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you” (Lev. 18:3), God tells Moses. The people in Canaan and surrounding areas were polytheistic, and in the pursuit of their religions, they did many things God found unacceptable.
So we should just not do those things either, right? Surely what God finds abominable or detestable doesn’t change, right? After all, he doesn’t change. Except that we find throughout Scripture that many of his thoughts on apparently hard and fast rules do change. Violating the Sabbath could bring the death penalty in the Old Testament. But Jesus later defends his disciples’ Sabbath law-breaking by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Not so hard and fast after all. If the Law makes life worse, not better, maybe it’s okay to suspend it? Then there were all the food restrictions. Those were lifted in the book of Acts by divine revelation to Peter, who classically tried to argue with God in favor of keeping the laws. And who could blame him? The foods that appeared to Peter in the vision were supposedly detestable to God. Could an unchangeable God have such a sudden change of appetite?
It doesn’t take long for the obvious question to arise: what Old Testament laws are we to keep as Christians, and which are we to set aside? This gets into a much larger discussion of what role the Law should play in the life of a Christian–a discussion we’ll have to table till another time. But most churches pick and choose what they’ll follow from the Old Testament, with seldom a consistent ethic guiding them. Occasionally you’ll come across a church that says, “The whole thing still applies. It’s God’s eternal word.” And occasionally you’ll hear of a church that sets the entire Law aside because Christ is the end of the Law for obtaining righteousness for those who believe in him (Romans 10:4). More often than not, though, you find churches holding to some of the laws, but dismissing others. Example: Some pastors preach against tattoos; other pastors are decorated with them.
Some churches divide the Old Testament restrictions into two categories: moral and cultural. The cultural laws they set aside, the moral they keep. But how do they determine what is cultural and what is moral? The Bible offers no clues because such a division is a contemporary one. We do not know if the Israelites distinguished between the two. Maybe we should just keep all the sex laws, then, because those seem pretty important. I agree that sex is important, but one of the laws contained within Leviticus 18 – 20 is not having sex with a woman during her period, the penalty for which was excommunication from the community of Israel for both the man and woman involved. Should we continue kicking out people today for such an infraction of the Law? “Well,” you say, “that’s obviously cultural.” Why?
And why not the laws concerning homosexuality? There is almost certainly a cultural component to them. Even Bible professor Robert Gagnon, one of homosexuality’s fiercest modern day critics, acknowledges that the Levitical prohibitions concerning gay sex probably were at least partially in response to pagan worship practices which involved male shrine prostitutes who had sex with men. Since that obviously isn’t happening in our culture today, do we set those laws aside as no longer binding? “Well, no!” Why not? “Because it’s homosexuality!” That seems to be the logic for many people. Obviously we keep Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 because it’s about gay sex, for crying out loud! But why do these same folks not also advocate the Old Testament penalty for gay sex, which is death? If we’re going to obey God’s word in the Old Testament Law, and if homosexuality is against that Law, shouldn’t we also invoke the Law-mandated death penalty for all gay offenders? Thankfully, few churches would argue so, but without (I think) a good explanation as to why not.
Take a step back from all this random selection, and one quickly gets the sense that some churches are not so much defending and teaching God’s values as they are using God’s word to teach and defend their own. I would just simply say that if you want to make a convincing case from Leviticus for why modern day, monogamous, loving, gay relationships should be considered abominable to God, you’re going to have to present a consistent rule for determining which laws of the Old Testament to keep and which to set aside, for in the same chapters in question here, Leviticus 18 – 20, we find the following all forbidden: Sex with animals, tattoos, child sacrifice, poly/cotton blends (seriously, see Leviticus 19:19), sex with your mom, sowing two different kinds of seeds in the same field, and, of course, men having sex with men. Which do we keep, and which do we set aside? “Well, keep the ones where someone else is getting hurt by your actions.” Okay, men having sex with men? May not sound like a good time to you, but how is it hurting anyone?
Some have suggested that if we see a command of the Old Testament reaffirmed in the New, we should keep it, so, we’ll be off to the New Testament soon. (Yes, we’ve exhausted the Old Testament’s instruction concerning homosexuality–all two verses of it.) But let’s not leave this subject of the Old Testament Law too quickly. Read through Leviticus 18 -20, and, recognizing that these were restrictions meant to draw a distinction between Israel and their pagan neighbors to keep them separate, and recognizing that the sex between men that is proscribed is likely male-male shrine prostitution, decide if and how you can make a case against modern gay relationships based on the Levitical verses alone.
Maybe I shouldn’t post when I’m angry, but I think the anger is under my control at the moment, and I think the anger is fair and worth sharing. I just received a message from an old college friend:
“You can delete this if you want. You’re trying really hard to justify your sin using Scripture. When you’re done, please tell me how I can justify my lust because that’s easier than repenting.”
I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, justifying my sin. I thought I was asking some fair, legitimate questions, none of which my friend has offered to answer. This is so typical of the hyper-conservative church background I once swam in. When someone challenges dearly held convictions, do not attempt to respond rationally, intelligently, and gently. Just attack, attack, attack. Make accusations that the weak of heart will crumble under. Tell them they’re sinning. Tell them they’re justifying their sin. And of course, do not question your own motives and positions, for surely you are on the side of righteousness.
I can get angry about this stuff, but I cannot judge, for I used to do the same thing. Until it was done to me.
Many years ago I was wrestling with the idea of predesitination. Some friends told me that I was depending on human good works for salvation because I believed that human beings had to choose to follow Christ, that we weren’t simply zapped by sovereignty into faith. I said, “No, I believe we are saved by grace through faith alone, not by our good works.” I was then told that even the choice to have faith in Christ was a work, and therefore I was counting on good works to get me to heaven. One guy even said, “Only an unregenerate heart could believe such a thing.” I was depressed at the time and full of questions about my faith, so of course hearing that I might be hell-bound sent me spiraling. I’m wise enough now, and I’ve experienced these people enough by now, that my intellect kicks in when the accusations start. I’m able to say, “Objectively, is that really true?” (This is something my old therapist taught me to do, for which I am grateful.)
Is it true that I’m just trying really hard to justify my sin, or is it more likely that I’m trying to honestly understand the Scriptures and what they say to gay people like me? I think the latter is more likely. Nonethess, when the accusations start, I’m gripped with a moment of paralyzing fear. What if they’re right? What if I am only justifying my sin? What if I’m using God’s holy word to do so? What if God’s really, really angry with me right now? But if that were true, would I even consider the possibility? Would I even analyze my motives to see if they are upright?
My friend, in judging my motives in writing these posts on homosexuality, has reminded me of song lyrics I heard years ago. I hope he’ll ponder them. I suspect he won’t.
You find this situation just a bit uncomfortable;
You’d rather stay far away from reality.
For you to understand would be clearly impossible;
So you shut your eyes and swear you can see.
Claiming there is a god, but does that mean anything?
So condescending to those that you don’t understand;
Just too easy to make them your enemies.
Like an ostrich, you bury your head in the sand,
And then shout about all the things you believe.
But if there is a god, don’t you think he can see
What you really mean? what you’re doing?
You can’t find the answers
Till you learn to question;
You won’t appear stupid
Just ask for direction.
You’re insecure and it clouds your perception
So stop and listen
And learn a lesson in love without condition.
So place all the souls that you know
In their own little box;
Quite convenient to handle them that way;
You’re the only one you know who carries a cross
You don’t care what they care about anyway.
You talk to your god,
Prayin’ for those who sin,
For their eyes to be opened.
- Ginny Owens “Without Condition”
Judges 19 contains a story so similar to the Sodom account in Genesis 18 that some scholars have argued it is in fact the same story retold with different details. There’s no way to know for sure if this is so, but the theory makes some sense. After all, the four Gospels often recount the same event with slightly differing details. Regardless, it’s curious to me, given how similar the two stories are, that almost no one suggests Judges 19 reflects God’s hatred of homosexuality, even though you have here again (a) a male visitor who comes to town, who (b) plans to spend the night in the town square, (c) is taken in by a total stranger, and (d) is threatened at night by an angry mob who (e) wants to have sex with him.
20 “You are welcome at my house,” the old man said. “Let me supply whatever you need. Only don’t spend the night in the square.” 21 So he took him into his house and fed his donkeys. After they had washed their feet, they had something to eat and drink.
22 While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”
23 The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. 24 Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”
Sure sounds like some dirty homosexuals are up to no good again. Fascinating then how almost none of the folks who argue Genesis 18 is about gay sex argue the same about Judges 19, no doubt because of what comes next in the story:
25 But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. 26 At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.
Clearly the intent of this mob is not gay sexual gratification. It is sexual intimidation. It is inhospitality of the most egregious kind toward foreigners. The Israelites, the people who were to be a blessing to the nations, those who were to represent the kindness of God to the world, are instead sexually assaulting it in a display of awful domination. I would argue the same is true of Genesis 18. The only reason people get away with making Sodom about God’s hatred for gay sex is that the angry mob in that story doesn’t rape Lot’s daughters as the mob manages to rape the concubine in Judges 19, but clearly Lot knew those men weren’t any more gay than the mob of Judges 19, or else he would not have offered up his daughters.
I don’t mean to keep picking on my friend who said the Sodom story is about condemnation for homosexuality, but it’s important that we bring up the email one more time. She writes, “God is very clear in His Word … It is clear that [homosexuality is] an abomination to God. This is so in both the Old and New Testaments. Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18 is only one of many examples of God’s view on homosexuality.”
I ask you, is she correct? Is it clear that Genesis 18 is about homosexuality? Very clear? Clear enough to invoke God’s name? Clear enough to say “God says so”? Because if not, you are suggesting God has said something that he has in fact possibly (I would argue probably) not said, and isn’t there something evil about that when the “something” you’re suggesting God is “clearly” saying is being used to subjugate a vulnerable minority of people who happen to be gay? Every day, millions of people are told that God hates a significant part of themselves because of a likely misinterpretation of Scripture. The emotional damage, beginning from a very early age, can (and surely does) lead to all sorts of problems later in life, including a general sense of self-hatred.
Again, I’m not picking on my friend. (I’ve done all I can to mask this person’s identity.) The point is not her. The point is us. It’s me. I have said some of the same things in the past. I have used the Lord’s name to further ideas I thought were his, which, in retrospect, I would disavow. I suspect all of us who follow Christ have done this at one point or another. My point is not to condemn any of us, but to ask that we be more careful with our words and proclamations. To declare, “Thus says the LORD,” is a serious thing, more serious than I suspect some of us really believe.
I once read a book with which I completely disagreed. The author did use a phrase, however, that has stuck with me over the years. He said some Christians act as “peddlers of certainty.” For whatever reason, some of us like to overstate the likelihood of our correctness about any number of beliefs. Maybe we’re insecure and trying to convince ourselves. Maybe we just think that with the stakes as high as heaven and hell, everything we believe ought to be unquestionable. At any rate, I can easily become a peddler of certainty, expressing more confidence in what I am saying than is truly warranted. With that in mind, I commit in these posts not to overreach in my attempts to persuade. I’m just going to put down what I’ve learned from the past two years of study. You can then make up your own mind.
That being said, my confidence level is honestly pretty high that the Sodom story is not about God’s feelings toward homosexuality. I have more confidence in this than I have in the Warren Commission’s report. And Elvis might be alive, but Genesis 19 is not about homosexuality, despite my friend’s confident (overly confident?) assertion that it is. She says, “God is very clear in His Word … It is clear that [homosexuality is] an abomination to God. This is so in both the Old and New Testaments. Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is only one of many examples of God’s view on homosexuality.”
Well, let’s look at the story. The Scripture text is in italics. My thoughts are interspersed throughout.
1 The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2 “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”
“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”
3 But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate.
Wow, Lot sure is friendly with total strangers! The modern reader might miss it, but this is actually how the author of this passage lets us know that Lot was a righteous man (though his morality is more than a little questionable later on). In those days, traveling was very dangerous. Cities were not what they are today, and there were no interstates with a Holiday Inn Express at your nearest exit. If you took a long journey, you depended on the hospitality of strangers along the way. To “spend the night in the square,” as the pair of travelers in this passage plan to do, would be to place yourself at considerable risk to thieves and thugs. Lot rightly offers to take the vulnerable in.
4 Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. 5 They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”
6 Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7 and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing.
Folks in Sodom have heard that a couple foreigners are in town, and apparently the townspeople don’t like it. They surround Lot’s house. Notice, this mob isn’t gay, even though they want to “have sex with” the travelers. The text says, “All the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house.” Are we to suppose every man in town was gay? It defies belief. As a friend of mine pointed out to me once, even in our era of easy air travel, no town in America is anywhere near a hundred percent gay, even though gays could easily accomplish this if they wanted to. So it’s almost inconceivable that this mob in Sodom is gay. More likely, these are straight men who intend to violate and intimidate the visitors rather than show any hospitality as Lot has. Men gang raping men has often been a form of humiliation throughout history for the defeated in battle (or in prison).
Lot is incensed. “Don’t do this wicked thing,” he says. My friend who sent me the email would no doubt say the “wicked thing” here is homosexual sex. But the very next verse seems to argue otherwise. Lot says,
8 Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
Man, ol’ righteous Lot is not so righteous anymore. Take my daughters and “do what you like with them”? Dang. But this should underscore how serious this idea of hospitality was. Lot says, look, take my daughters—also a clear sign that Lot knew these men were not gay—but he says, “don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Notice, he doesn’t say not to have sex with these men because that would be gay, and God hates homosexuality. He says, don’t do anything to these men because they are guests who have come under his protection, and that would be wrong. Seems to me the “wicked thing” here is not gay sex, but mistreatment of the extremely vulnerable. It’s interesting to me too how people who want to make this passage about homosexuality see no problem with Lot offering his daughters to be gang raped, just as long as those dirty homosexuals don’t get their penises anywhere near the male guests (which no one seems aware yet are angels).
Well, the story continues. The angels blind the evil men of the town, rescue Lot and his daughters, and soon the town is a pile of ash. Bye-bye Sodom.
So is this passage about God’s hatred of homosexuality? The passage itself and the slightest understanding of the culture back then seem to strongly suggest otherwise. Plus, no other reference to Sodom in the Bible makes any mention of homosexuality having been the cause of its destruction.
But there’s also a curiously similar story in Judges 18 we can examine. We’ll head there next.
Remember, please, no comments, pro or con, on my Facebook page. You may email me through the “Contact” page of this website, but I cannot guarantee a response.
For years, I didn’t bother reading the pro-gay biblical perspectives that exist because, until quite recently, many of them were written by scholars who were themselves gay. I wrote them off as biased: “Well, of course they would come to that conclusion! Of course they’d find support for their lifestyle in the Bible. They’re gay!” I guess I considered myself more objective since I was also gay but of the opinion the Bible was clear in its condemnation of all homosexual behavior. And somehow it didn’t occur to me that a heterosexual biblical scholar might be equally as biased as one that was gay. Having now read many positions on both sides of the gay debate, I’ve come to believe we’re all pretty terribly biased.
I’m gay, so I stand to benefit from a theology that allows for gay relationships. No matter how objective I might try to be—and I certainly do try—in my study of the Bible, I cannot remove this obvious bias. On the other hand, I grew up during a time in our country when the culture was decidedly less accepting of gays. Moreover, I grew up in the south and went to public school in one of the most conservative states in America where I heard all manner of slurs against “queers.” I cannot erase how that informed my view of myself and others who happen to be gay. And of course, all of my church experiences around the time I became a Christian at age 15 were in communities entirely and quite vocally opposed to homosexuality. So when I go to the Scriptures, as hard as I may work to read and understand them clearly, to see them through the fog of my past influences, I have to accept that I go to them with a certain degree of (a) learned self-hatred for being gay, and (b) hope that gay might after all be okay.
It is no easier for the straight man or woman, though I suspect he or she often doesn’t really believe this. I think many heterosexual people would say they have less of a bias problem when approaching the Bible about this topic because they do not stand to gain or lose from whatever the Bible says about homosexuality. But the fact is, anyone over the age of 30 who grew up in the US, particularly in the south, grew up hearing and having reinforced the idea that gay is bad. No man wanted to be called queer. That was dirty. Sick. Disgusting. Weird. Maybe criminal. “Homos” were often akin to child molesters. Hard as one might try, a heterosexual person cannot erase this deeply ingrained predisposition to view gay people (or at least what one imagines they do in bed) in a negative light.
Neither can you, if you are straight, remove the incredible gap of understanding between your experience as a heterosexual person and my experience as a gay man. You who have never felt romantic or sexual longings for the same sex can no more fully understand why or how I could than I can understand how or why you feel what you do for the opposite sex. I can imagine that what straight men feel for women is similar to what I feel for men, but neither of us can truly understand why each other doesn’t share the same object of attraction. That creates a huge bias for straight people who find themselves in the most extreme of majorities. If current estimates are correct, only three to six percent of the US population is gay. How could a straight person who (a) shares the same sexual thoughts and feelings as possibly 97 percent of the country, (b) has never shared the same sexual thoughts and feelings as the remaining minority of people, (c) came of age during a time when gay was definitely not ok, (d) probably went to an anti-gay-relationships church for at least some of his or her childhood, and (e) took in countless gay slurs before age 18—how could that person not be biased to view the Scriptures in the traditional light in which they’ve been taught? Of course such a person is biased!
As we go the Scriptures, remember: we’re all biased by any number of influences, some of which we may not even be aware of. The best we can do is try to limit the effect our biases have on us as we wrestle with what the Bible actually says. But we cannot remove our biases entirely. None of us can. Not even my friend who so boldly proclaimed in her email to me, “God is very clear in His Word … It is clear that [homosexuality is] an abomination to God. This is so in both the Old and New Testaments. Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is only one of many examples of God’s view on homosexuality.”
My friend, no doubt due in large part to her many predisposing influences, seems unaware that very few scholars today believe the Sodom story has anything to do with God’s judgment on homosexuality. Even most conservatives have dismissed my friend’s view. But she is either unaware of this or incapable of seeing beyond all the teaching she’s heard over the years. So it is to this story that we turn next.
I promise we’ll get into the Scriptures soon, but you should know I’ll probably be all over the place from day to day as to what I want to talk about. I’m not following any outline. Just blogging as stuff comes to mind and seems relevant.
This morning I’ve been thinking about why so many outside the world of conservative Christendom look on that faction of the church as ignorant and simple-minded. After all, I know many people who would fit the title, “conservative Christian,” and I know them to be quite intelligent, thoughtful people. My guess is, it’s like many stereotypes. When you look at the population as a whole and listen to their discourse from a distance, you develop ideas about the lot that may not be true to the specific individuals within. When people listen to conservative Christians talk about sex, what do they hear? Often, not much of substance. Pretty shallow waters. People outside the church–or at least outside that element of the church–want to hear deeper questions. They want to sense that the church is dealing in reality, that their discussions match the complexity of what we know today about human sexuality. Instead, what we often get is, well, what I got in the last email I quoted a couple posts back: “Gay is not who you are … it’s who you’ve decided to be.”
We need to be asking better questions. Regardless the conclusions we come to, people need to see that you and I are willing to take a long, hard look at the world as it truly is and then wrestle with the difficult questions that arise.
What, for instance, would the apostle Paul say to an intersexed person in the church, a person who has some degree of both sets of genitals? Would he tell them to remain celibate since we’re not sure which sex God intended they be? Would he tell them to pick the one they felt most like and go for it, but once they’ve chosen, they’re stuck with that sex? Would he say they can date whomever they want because God made them with both sets of genitals, so it’s not a big deal either way?
What about a transgendered person, someone born one sex who feels like the opposite sex trapped in the wrong sex’s body? Would Paul tell them to accept how they were born, physically, and stop trying to change it? Would he permit surgery to make the body conform to the person’s psyche (a possibility he surely could not have imagined in his own time)? Would he require they remain celibate? What if they became a Christian after having had the surgery? Would that mean they can date and marry in accordance with how their body is post-surgery? Or would Paul say they must now choose celibacy since a part of their repentance and faith is acknowledging that they never should have had the surgery? Or would he simply rejoice that they now feel like their body and psyche are one?
What if a gay couple who is married has a profound encounter with Jesus and begins to follow him as Lord? They come to your church and request baptism and church membership. Do you tell them they must first separate since you don’t recognize gay marriage as legitimate? What if their finances are melded? What if they have a house in both their names? Oh, and they have kids! Do you still tell them, “Sorry, the Bible’s clear. You have to split up your family since it was never a real family anyway”? God has accepted them because of their faith in him. Are you then allowed to set conditions on that? “Well, just don’t have sex.” If you think that’s likely to work, you don’t know the male body or mind very well.
You say, “Well, no married gay couple with kids has ever come to my church.” I say, “Exactly.” And until we do the hard work of wrestling with questions like these, I suspect they never will.
A lesson learned last night: Never check your email right after seeing Madama Butterfly when you’ve been blogging about homosexuality to a largely religious audience. Things don’t end well, for Butterfly or me.
Anyhow, a good night’s sleep can work wonders. Woke up feeling great and even laughed a bit for no particular reason. You ever just feel like laughing? It’s a good feeling. For some reason I also had Jack Nicholson from As Good As It Gets stuck in my head. “Sell crazy some place else! We’re all stocked up here!” So many good one liners in that movie. That quote and the finale to Haydn’s London Symphony were pretty much stuck on repeat till I got to work today.
Before we go any further, a little morning silliness to take care of. “UpChurch” from the comments on these blog posts is not code for anyone I once worked with. That’s a real name. Upchurch. He’s a friend from my Campbell University days. Say “hey,” Jim!
Really, my friends, you have to stop trying to figure out who’s who and divining what former colleagues of mine might or might not think about my posts. They’ve been entirely supportive of me over the years, even when we’ve disagreed on our views. I’m thankful for them and miss them. Stop being mean, and again, if you sent texts or emails to any of them, you need to go to them, fess up, and apologize. Today, preferably.
I spent a bit of time last night and this morning thinking about where to go from here. My old therapist’s voice came back to me. He used to always ask, “Matt, what do you want to do?” He would ask me because I have a need-to-please flaw in my makeup. It’s not that I need people to agree with me, it’s just that I feel like I’ve done something wrong if they don’t. That’s obviously a problem when engaging this topic. As one friend reminded me last night, you can’t walk into a bees’ nest and expect them to offer you honey. So, I’ve tried tuning out everything and everyone on both sides and just asking, “What do I want to do here?”
I once heard a pastor who had a curious giggle say that he always liked to ask himself, “What is the most right thing I can do in this situation?” That question and Jesus’ message that we should do for others what we’d like them to do for us keep rolling around in my mind. I would hope if it was even possible that I was wrong in my thinking, and if that thinking was potentially enslaving others to a law God did not intend they live under, that someone would come forward with information to that effect. And I would hope that I would at least entertain the information humbly, even if in the end I disagreed with what I was hearing. And I would hope that if I was the one actually enslaved, someone would speak up for me, and to me.
The fact is, I’ve read things over the last couple years that most people, Christian and otherwise, have never heard. Things that almost certainly influenced the apostle Paul’s writings. Things that might influence how we interpret what he and others have said regarding homosexuality–if we only knew. Is it right for me not to share them just because some people won’t like or agree with what they hear? Would I want someone else to keep that information from me, especially when that someone once publicly shared an opposing view?
I really can’t see the harm in saying what I’ve read and been thinking about. I can see the harm in not sharing and letting others make up their own minds. So that is what I will do. I won’t do it perfectly. I’ll make mistakes at times as I did yesterday. I’ll overstate a point here, and poorly communicate a point there. So be it. As Annie Dillard told a fellow writer once, God has always known it’s the best we could do. We’re forgiven in advance.
To try to limit the craziness, I’ve gone back to my original idea of allowing no comments, period. So, if I did it right, I’ve turned off the ability to post comments on this website. If you have a question as we go along, you can email me through the contact page on this site, but, honestly, I probably won’t be responding much.
I think that’s it for now. More soon.
I always go into these discussions thinking surely by now we can all be civil in our discourse about this stuff. I mean, this issue has been out there for a while. It’s not new. Surely by now we’ve thrown enough grenades at one another. Apparently, we have a few left in our arsenals. I cannot tell you the nastiness I’ve heard in the last couple days. Well, really just the last 12 hours. Things started out fine, and I thought we were actually going to be able to talk about this sensibly. Guess not. Right now I’d kind of like to exile myself to a tiny island somewhere away from all people and not leave a forwarding address. Seriously, how can people–on both sides of this–be so awful?
A few things:
1) The friend whose email I quoted is not a former staff member or congregant of my church in Blacksburg–in fact, they don’t even live in Virginia–so whoever has been sending mean and accusatory emails and texts to staff members at my former church needs to fess up to it. Seriously, you need to go to the people you’ve slandered and apologize. Totally unacceptable behavior. Why would you even assume the person I quoted was a staff member there? I have only good things to say about those folks. They remain my good friends, and I was just up there recently to visit them.
2) The friend whose email I quoted reminded me of something I’d forgotten. In the chain of emails we exchanged, once it was clarified that I was not in a relationship with a man and not pursuing one at the time, the offer of dinner was put back on the table and I declined. I should have made that clear in my post and would have if I’d recalled the email. I should have reread our entire email chain before posting my last website entry. I can totally see how this friend felt I misled folks in the way I wrote my post, and I apologize for that. It certainly was not intentional in any way. I didn’t remember the dinner offer being put back on the table I guess because in my mind at the time, it really didn’t change anything. Dinner was contingent on my agreeing with this friend’s understanding of the Bible. Questioning that understanding was not an option. If at any point in the future I decided I was okay with being in a relationship, which seemed likely, I was going to get the 1 Corinthians 5 card again. Still, this friend’s point is well-taken: I should have included the re-offer of dinner in my post. I regret not having done so.
3) There were many reasons I decided to leave Virginia and return to my old stomping grounds of North Carolina, most of which had nothing to do with this issue. No one at any time, explicitly or implicitly, expressed any desire for me to leave. Anything else you may have heard or dreamt up is wrong.
4) Today, I received the following email, again from someone I know, though a different someone than the someone from before:
Gay is not who you are…it’s who you’ve decided to be. And whether you want to admit it or not, it is in direct opposition to what God says. Your words were “I share my views confidently, having arrived at them through much reading, prayer, and life experience…” I have to ask to whom were you praying? To arrive at the answer you say you’ve received, it must have been to a god of your own understanding, not the One True Jehovah God, Creator of the universe and Sustainer of all that is. God is very clear in His Word. He doesn’t mince words and He doesn’t contradict Himself. There are times, especially when I want to rationalize my own sin, that I wish He were more gray in certain areas but He’s pretty much black and white on most topics. When it comes to sexual sin, ALL sexual sin…not just homosexuality…it is clear that it’s an abomination to God. This is so in both the Old and New Testaments. Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 is only one of many examples of God’s view on
There is so much wrong with that email, it would take a while to address everything in it. I must say, though, after today, I’m not sure I even care to continue this. The whole point of the blogs was just to share with people how my thinking has changed over time. I had no idea it would devolve into this.
Before diving in today, especially if you’re new to this website and these posts, read this: “I’ll probably regret this.”
Done? Ok, here we go …
Since I brought up the subject of gay suicides yesterday, I figured I would share an anecdote from my life that illustrates just how quickly things devolve between some religious folks when someone even questions, let alone rejects, the traditional interpretation of Scripture regarding homosexuality, or any hot button issue. Had I been in a worse place at the time, I might have been one of those suicide headlines. Seriously.
Not so long ago, a friend invited me over for dinner. I put off the invitation as long as I could, knowing this friend to be quite conservative in most matters, especially theology. I figured at some point the gay issue would come up, and I was just tired of talking about it. I’d been reading non-stop about the matter for who knows how long at that point. A year and a half, probably. I’d been through thousands of pages, countless interpretations, and I was simply at my limit. When I could put off the invitation no longer, I sent a “fair warning” email. I said,
“I don’t know whether you’ve heard–can’t keep track of who knows and who doesn’t anymore–I’m gay. Hope that’s not too much of a surprise. Probably not, I suspect. Anyway, I’m working through the implications of that with God and mentors right now, and I’m usually exhausted from thinking about it by the end of the week. I’m really not interested in discussing it further at this point. I don’t mind talking about the personal side of it–how I’m doing, how it affects me, etc.–but I’d rather keep the theological aspect of it off limits for discussion for now … If that’s acceptable, then let’s do dinner.”
I won’t share the entire response I received—less is more, and the email goes on for a while—and my point here is not to embarrass or attack my friend. I’m being careful here not to give away the identity. I just think it’s important for us to see how swiftly things break down between friends in some churches over this topic:
“No, I wasn’t aware that you are now defining yourself as gay and yes that is surprising to me. I know that you don’t want to talk theology with me, but please at least be sure that you are taking your counsel from the Bible and not from the world. I don’t know about you, but I cannot go before a Holy, all powerful God and tell him what I believe. Rather, I need to devour His Word and be sure that He defines what I believe. If we are defining what we believe on any other basis than God’s Word then we are creating and worshipping a god of our own making …
“As far as dinner, I would still love to have you over. Whether I can have you over depends on where you are with this issue. (1) Do you see homosexuality as a sin that you, as a believer, are battling, or (2) are you, as a believer, embracing this sin and choosing immorality, or (3) are you unsure of your salvation? As much as I love you, I love the Lord more and His Word is clear. According to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, if you are presenting yourself as a believer but are okay with living in immorailty we should not associate with you until you have repented. This is difficult to say, but I don’t want to stand before God one day to find that I created a god of my own making and did not depend on His Word for truth and life. It is easy to live for a god we create, but difficult decisions sometimes need to be made if we are to live our lives for the One True Living God. I hope you understand this. I hope you see that we would love to have you over, if you are either struggling with the Lord to overcome this sin or if you are an unbeliever. Biblically, if you are choosing to embrace this sin then we are not supposed to have you over.”
There is a part of me that respects my friend for doing what I know was hard, telling a friend, “I cannot welcome you into my home,” because of deeply held convictions. At least my friend is consistent and determined to follow what seems right to them. Then again, people flew planes into buildings once because they thought it was right, and I don’t say I respect that, so I’m not sure where I ought to draw the line. All I know is, had I been as depressed as I was in the days I wrote about in Losing God, I might well have “offed” myself. Even still, being in a relatively good place at the time, it took me a couple days to recover from the shock and shame of being rejected by someone who’d been a friend a long time.
We exchanged a few more emails. I explained to my friend that I didn’t see the relevance of 1 Corinthians 5 to my situation. In that letter from the apostle Paul, just before the verses my friend referenced, Paul discusses a church matter that directly leads to his writing the verses my friend used as the reason I might not be welcome for dinner. Paul says, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate” (1 Cor. 5:1). Someone in the church is doing something that even the pagan culture, with all its varied sexual practices, apparently would find atrocious. Turns out, a man is sleeping with his father’s wife. Whether she is this man’s mother, we don’t know. Some Bible translations assume so by the paragraph heading, “A Case of Incest,” but the scripture doesn’t make this clear. What is clear is that the man is having a very public affair with his father’s wife, no doubt hurting his father very much and seriously damaging the reputation of the young church within the city. The man who has done this awful thing, quite far from feeling sorry, is apparently proud of his deed, and the church has done nothing to rebuke him. Paul says to cast out the immoral brother with the hope that he’ll repent and be restored to fellowship within the church, and then he goes on to tell the church to avoid people who call themselves followers of Christ but do not live accordingly.
What had I done that warranted having this scripture passage used against me? I wasn’t in a relationship with anyone. I wasn’t having sex with anyone, let alone with my mom (!) or my “father’s wife.” I was simply questioning a position on an issue. That’s it. That’s all. And whereas in 1 Corinthians the culture seemingly would have been unified in its disapproval of the man’s behavior (remember, he said even the pagans wouldn’t tolerate such sexual behavior), neither the culture nor the church as a whole today is unified in its view of homosexuality, so isn’t it inevitable and good to question our assertions on the matter? How else do we determine what we believe? Yes, the apostle Paul is clear, do not associate with those who call themselves brothers and sisters but live immorally, but that was the whole point of my question: Is homosexuality immoral?
My friend continued in a later email,
“Matt, I love you dearly, but I believe that you are being deceived by a very crafty enemy. I think it is why you are stressing over it and I think it could be the very core of your depression. When we let go and trust the Lord fully, knowing that His plan is best, we can move forward in confidence. When we are in opposition to the Word, it will effect our relationship with the Lord and consequently will cause doubt and depression.”
You can probably guess by this point that dinner never happened.
I’d been in a few churches that took this approach: when someone begins to question deeply held convictions, be afraid. Rather than honor the person and their question as a sign of their really caring to make sure they are correct in what they’re believing and asking others to believe, just fear for their soul and assume the devil is doing his thing, deceiving the questioning believer. This friend, who incidentally had not had a conversation with me in years, felt competent after a few emails to diagnose my depression, identify its probable cause (not trusting God’s way as best), and prescribe a remedy (stop asking questions and trust God’s way as best). But I wasn’t doubting whether God’s way was best. I was doubting whether we were correct in understanding what God’s way was. I wasn’t “in opposition to the Word.” I was trying to understand it. And anyway, my depression was much more a problem in the years before I came out, in the years before I was asking questions.
The terrible irony for my friend is that in not questioning old assumptions and not welcoming a chance to look at things anew, just to see if we might be wrong, might not this friend of mine be the one in actual “opposition to the Word”? That is, after all, one way in which the religious elite of Jesus’ day got off track, but that’s a blog for another day. For now, I’d just like us to consider the damage we sometimes do by overreaching and overreacting when someone questions our most cherished paradigms. Why do we do that? Why do I do that? Why are we so afraid of questions? (These are rhetorical musings meant for private reflection. Please don’t flood my inbox with “answers.” Thank ye.)