While I was in seminary, my candidacy mentor received an email in which one of his church members revealed that he was gay. He didn’t tell me who it was, but asked me how I would respond. Sometimes he would give me test cases like this—giving me occasional samplings of pastoral life.
I wrote a compassionate response, full of empathy, but also full of Scripture that made the case that the Biblical view of human sexuality was one man and one woman. My mentor thanked me for my work, and said that he’d take it into consideration. He planned to meet the young man in person rather than have the conversation over email. (As I think about this test case six years later, it occurs to me that I never did hear his actual response to the church member. I’ll have to ask…)
My view on this has not changed. The writers of Scripture had no ambiguity about their views—they thought that homosexuality was wrong. I’ve heard people try to wriggle out of the verses in a variety of ways. I’ve read that that David and Jonathan were gay lovers. I’ve read the same thing about Ruth and Naomi. I’ve read that the main sin in Sodom was not that the men wanted to have sex with the angels who had come to Lot’s house, but that they didn’t show them hospitality. I’ve read that the word “homosexuality” is too broadly used in English translations, and that it really refers to sexual slavery or rape.
I’ve never met David or Jonathan or Ruth or Naomi, and I wasn’t there on Lot’s front porch when his neighbors clamored for his guests. I never met Paul, and thus didn’t get to ever ask him about what he really meant when he said that men gave up natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. All we have is the text, and while I don’t fault faithful disciples of Jesus Christ for trying to find a new reading for the verses we don’t like, it just can’t be done on this issue. To say that the writers of Scripture sanctioned anything but heterosexual relationships is simply not a leap that can be made without some of those Flubber shoes from The Absent-Minded Professor. I can find nothing else but this: the Bible says homosexuality is wrong.
That is why Biblical interpretation is not the reason I have changed my mind about how I’d handle that test case now. What the Bible says isn’t really in question. Instead I have reexamined how we use the phrase, “The Bible says.”
There was a time when “what the Bible says” was all that mattered, but we’ve decided over the years that this isn’t good enough. The Bible said that Israel was supposed to annihilate their enemies, killing every man, woman, cow, and donkey. However, leaders who wage war in that way today are tried in the international criminal court for “crimes against humanity.” Times have changed.
The Bible says that slaves should work for their masters as if working for the Lord. However, Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad is a heroic story retold in every American history book as a tale of bravery in the face of the evil of slavery. Times have changed.
The Bible says that women should be silent in church. The Bible says that women have no business teaching men. The Bible says that anyone who touches a dead body is “unclean.” The Bible says that anyone with an infectious skin disease should live isolated from the community until they’re healed. The Bible says that God prevents some women from having children. The Bible says that disobedient children should be stoned to death. The Bible says that if someone rapes a virgin they should financially compensate virgin’s father for the lost potential bride price. Can we safely say that times have changed?
I know that this could be a slippery slope. The fear is that if we change this, what’s next? Will stealing be okay? Lying? Murder? This is a good fear to maintain—it will keep us from being flippant about how we live in response to the revelation of God within its inspired chapters. We must continue to hold each other to high standards of Biblical scholarship.
However, we cannot stick our heads in the sand whenever the march of time yields new discoveries that come into conflict with the Bible. God does not need us to make excuses for Him or His Word. The writers were doing the best they could with what they had at the time, which didn’t include modern medicine, psychology, and sociology. They didn’t have any conception of “sexual orientation.” They were heterosexual and thus couldn’t imagine that homosexual practice was anything other than a deliberate defiance God’s created order. They found it disturbing, and expected everyone to find it as disturbing as they did. How could God create someone who would actually be attracted to someone of their same gender?
They were faithful, heroic, brave; but they lived a long time ago and didn’t have the benefit of the knowledge that we have today, and that is okay–none of the new discoveries have been made over the last 2000 years have been able to push Christianity into extinction. Why do we have such little faith that the Gospel will march on despite new insights, knowledge, or possibilities?
Whether God creates people’s sexual orientation is a topic for another time. The fact is that whether it be genetic or because of psychosocial influences or as a combination of both, there are people who are oriented towards homosexuality. It is not a choice, not an act of defiance. It is their identity.
So what are we to ask of them? That they live a life of singleness because they have same-sex attraction in the same way that heterosexuals are attracted to the opposite sex? Will we treat this attraction as a as a temptation to be resisted? Or, what harm is there in allowing homosexuals to live in a lifetime covenant in the same way that we ask heterosexuals to live? If all we have is “the Bible says so,” well, as in the case of gifted women Bible teachers, genocide, undertakers, slavery, rashes, infertility, disciplining children by killing them, and paying market value for rape—that just isn’t enough.
We in the United Methodist Church are wrestling together these days with this question: Is homosexuality compatible with Christian teaching? Well, there’s a lot of teaching out there that is done by Christians of all kinds, so really, the answer is that it is compatible with some Christian teaching. What I can say is that I am a Christian, and while I will honor my vows as an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and will be obedient to our Book of Discipline in the practice of my ministry, I believe that it is. I invite other Christian teachers to believe likewise, because there are scores of people watching, wondering if the church of Jesus Christ is a place where they fully belong.
I hope someday soon we will all tell them they do.