Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Scriptural objections to accepting gays and lesbians

There are people who might raise objections based on a number of passages. I will finish this examination of the Biblical basis for accepting gays and lesbians by looking at these passages.

Romans 1:18-32

For those who would object to homosexuality in the church, the core of this passage is verses 26 and 27. “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.”

To see this as a blanket ban on homosexuality ignores the context in which the passage occurs. The longer passage begins at verse 18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” Paul is here talking about Gentiles and how the Truth of God is available to them in their hearts but they ignore it. Because they did not acknowledge, honor or give thanks to God, their minds were darkened and their thinking futile and so they turned to idolatry. This was the reason God gave them up to the “degrading passions.” This also lead to a whole list of other sins listed in verses 29-31. This is not a talk about homosexuality in general, but about the effects of idolatry. Some people interpret this passage to refer to ritual prostitution as practiced by some of the religions at the time. Even if you discard the ritual prostitution argument, it is a stretch to make this cover all gays and lesbians. The clear meaning of this passage is that some people rejected the voice of God in their hearts, turned to idolatry and then, not being satisfied with following their natural sexual inclinations, turned to other ways of finding sexual pleasure. This may be true of some people in the first century CE and it may be true of some people today. It does not address those people who are not idolaters, who are faithful Christians, who are engaged in a life of seeking faithfulness to the promptings of God in their heart and who are also gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

If anyone is tempted by this passage to condemn anyone for any of the failings mentioned in these passages, and this is not just “degrading passions” but also being “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless,” Paul pulls them up short. His next words in Chapter 2, verse 1 are: “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 same things.” We have the word of scripture explicitly saying, do not use Romans 1:18-32 to judge anyone or you will come under judgment. So we have both the clear reading of the words in their context and the direct word of Scripture to say that this should not be used to condemn gays and lesbians. But also the whole thrust of the first 3 chapters of Romans is the futility of the outward law so it is ironic to see it being used to recreate a Law of Paul instead of looking to the freedom of the Gospel that Paul advocated.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
NRSV

The context of this statement is a criticism of the Christians in Corinth for taking one another to court. Paul says the saints are to judge the world and angels, so why are they taking their disputes to unbelievers. Is there no believer who can help settle the dispute? Why not rather be wronged or defrauded than bring a suit? Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do you not know that God will handle it? So once again we have the irony of a passage that is saying “do not judge, leave the judgment to God,” being used as a basis of issuing judgment.

The Greek word malakoi, translated here as male prostitutes and translated in the King James as “the effeminate,” literally means soft. In a moral context it implied general moral laxness or self indulgence. This word was understood through most of the history of the Church to refer to masturbation. Recent scholarship has favored applying this to mean male prostitutes. Whatever it's meaning it does not refer to homosexuals in any general sense of the word. After all, we do not understand condemnation of female prostitution to be condemnation of heterosexuality.

The Greek word here translated as sodomite is arsenokoitai. It is rendered by the King James translators of “abusers of themselves with mankind” and by the New International Version as “homosexual offenders” This letter is the first time the word appears in Greek. It does not appear in any of the discussions of homosexuality in Greek from the first several centuries of the Common Era. It is mostly found in similar lists of sins, many of which may be quotes of Paul. There were other words Paul could have used to unequivocally to refer to homosexual behavior. The fact that he did not use them would indicate that he might have had something else in mind. One of the few places where this word appears in a different context is in reference to the rape of Ganymede by Zeus. This causes some people to think that it refers to men who take sexual advantage of other men. The placement of this word in the list at the juncture between sexual sins and economic ones leads some people to conclude that it refers to men who frequent prostitutes. If that is the case, this passage could be referring to male prostitutes and their customers. In any case, the meaning is ambiguous but it does not appear to be a blanket condemnation of homosexuality. Even if the words supported such a condemnation, the context of the passage is that such a judgment should be left to God.

Timothy 1:8-10.

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.” NRSV.

Here again the word translated as sodomite by the NRSV is arsenokoitai. The New International Version here renders it as perverts. This merely highlights the ambiguousness of the word. Perversion only exists relative to some accepted norms and it can cover any number things. The location of the word fits with the idea of men who frequent prostitutes. Neither the word nor the usage here supports a blanket condemnation of gays and lesbians.

Sodom and Gomorrah

These cities have become so associated with homosexual sin in the common mind that the word sodomite has come to refer to one who practices homosexual sex. As common as this view is, it is not the biblical view of the sin of Sodom. In Ezekiel 16:49, the sin is specified as: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” In Isaiah 1:10, the prophet speaks to the leaders of Judah and refers to them as rulers of Sodom. Later, in verses 16 and 17 he lays out what the have to do to repent, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This again implies economic sins and a lack of justice and not sexual sins.

Jude 7 is sometimes used as an indictment of homosexuality. It says, “Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” There are many who contend that this “unnatural lust,” or what the King James referred to as “going after strange flesh,” referred not to homosexual acts but to having sexual relations with angels. There was a common belief at the time the letter of Jude was written that the women of Sodom and Gomorrah had sought to have sex with angels, just as had happened before the Flood. This view is reinforced by the context where. The preceding verse says, “And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great Day.” So this looks like a balanced reference to the angels and the humans who would have sought to have sexual relations. It should also be remembered in this light, that Lot's guests, as described in Genesis 19, were not men but angels.

Conclusion

My goal in these last three posts was to provide a Biblically based argument in favor of providing full acceptance to gays and lesbians among all branches of Friends. I wanted to provide a framework that would allow people to change their view of the place of gays and lesbians in the church without having to give up the Biblical basis of their faith. I also wanted to provide a framework whereby the acceptance of gays and lesbians fits the requirement that new revelation not contradict scripture. I have given very short accounts of some of the arguments here. I do not follow Barclay in that regard. He would have gone on much longer. I do not expect anyone to change their mind just by reading this. I do hope that it causes people to think more about the issues raised and to see where God leads them.

Blessings to all,

Will

4 Comments:

Blogger Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Thank you for posting this series, Will. I am one of those who have a very hard time accepting the Bible at all--so often it has seemed to me to be a source of intolerance and hate in the world. I know it was not your intent to allow me to be more open to the Bible, but that has been one effect of your writing these posts.

I cannot believe in a God less loving than the loving humans I know, or less forgiving and kind than those humans. It is good to see that the God I can believe in is not so hard to reconcile with the Bible as I might have thought.

Thanks again.

July 17, 2007 7:39 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Cat,
I am glad that these posts have been useful to you. But I think that you or God who were responsible for allowing you to be more open. One of the mysteries and miracles of the Bible and, in fact, of the entire Christian tradition, is how the story of the love of God and the indwelling guidance of the Spirit have been carried forward and preserved, even by people who have not always embodied those virtues. God does work in mysterious ways.

Blessings,
Will

July 17, 2007 11:18 PM  
Blogger Zach A said...

(Just pointed this way by Frederick.)

Will,
I appreciate what you're trying to do here; I did it myself for several years at college though in a more journalistic and less scholarly way. I think you successfully debunk most of the passages you discuss here, and that shouldn't be minimized, because they make for a Bible that is drastically less homophobic than it might seem at first.

But I don't think anyone can get from "less" to "not at all." Because I don't think you can really get around Romans.

It's true that it's not a "blanket condemnation of homosexuality". Like Leviticus, it doesn't even mention lesbianism, and perhaps it's a small victory to point that out. But it does seem like a condemnation of male homosexuality.

It's also true that Paul's intent wasn't to discuss homosexuality, and that he was doing something closer to simply using it as an illustration. But to risk stating the obvious, however "en passant" the reference is, he's still using it as an example of the degeneracy that happens to those who reject God's truth. When someone puts something in the same class as wickedness, evil, envy, malice, and so on, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they in fact see all those things as sinful.

And finally, it's true that his larger point is "don't judge, or you will be judged." But it seems more natural to interpret this as meaning "don't look down on others for their sins, because you have yours as well" -- a counsel of humility. It would be absurd to read it as "don't regard any of these things as sins."

And in fact there are many Christians, many of whom attended or taught at my college, who take this text in precisely that humble spirit -- expressing their love for LGBT people, their regret for the overharsh condemnations they've often received, their condemnation of homophobia, their belief that it's not especially worse than any other sin. But humble (even reluctant!) heterosexism is still heterosexism.

In the end, I think people have to chose which master they serve on this one -- the Bible, or the promptings of love and truth.

August 15, 2007 9:39 PM  
Blogger christina said...

Zach,
The way I have discussed Paul's words in Romans with people in my Meeting is this:

We know from Paul's own words in first Corinthians (when he was asked advice concerning the unmarried) that even when he did not have words from the Holy Spirit, he would at times offer his own opinion "as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy." It would have been helpful if Paul in his letters had always identified each statement he made from his own intelligence, as he did in first Corinthians -- helpful because human intelligence CAN and often does result in error.

My reason for suspecting that Paul's own outlook, and not the Holy Spirit, informed his heated remarks about "unnatural passions" in his letter to the Romans is simply that homosexuality, while freely and frequently CALLED unnatural, is in fact not unnatural. Read a book called "Biological Exuberance" for an extensive catalog of observations by scientists of homosexuality and other forms of nonreproductive sexual expression within the animal kingdom.

My first career was as a wildlife biologist, and in graduate school we were taught not to assume the sex of animals based on their observed sexual behavior combined with an assumption that they are relating heterosexually. For years, observers thought they could guess which animals were male and which female by relying on just such assumptions. When genetic tests became available however, the scientific community learned to its dismay that its previous guesses had at times been seriously off-base.

The classic wake-up call cited in textbooks is the realization (please look this up for accuracy, I'm going from memory here) that 10% to 15% of seagull nests belong not to opposite sex mates but to female-female pairs. The existence of super-clutches (twice the normal number of eggs) should have been an obvious tip-off to scientists that a nesting pair included two females, yet the scientists' cultural assumption that animals are always heterosexual warped their objectivity. This pattern of mistaken perception long delayed today's recognition of how frequently homosexuality occurs among non-human animals.

I doubt Paul ever studied wildlife, so what check would he have had on mental constructs he had absorbed during his decades of study (as a Pharisee) of Leviticus and other Old Testament passages? As a scholar, I doubt he spent very much time around farm animals either. By contrast, many of us have spent time watching domesticated animals. When I worked on a farm, I occasionally saw dairy cows mount other cows. It could not escape my attention that neither animal was a bull, yet they were engaging in sexual contact. (I have also witnessed homosexual penetration of one male pig by another.)

From personal experience, I know Paul's use of the term "unnatural" does not apply (accurately) to homosexuality per se. Others have told me "unnatural" is merely a metaphor indicating that a thing is unacceptable, and was never intended in Romans to be a naturalistic descriptor. I am not sure what Greek word is being translated as "unnatural," but certainly if any reference to nature -- to the animal kingdom -- was intended, then Paul was recording a mistaken impression of his own, not Truth.

When Paul was teaching the Gospel of Jesus, he was brilliant. Unfortunately he sometimes taught other things ... his own biases ... whether knowingly or unwittingly. Sometimes these teachings -- which did not derive from Jesus --produced unfortunate and long-lasting negative effects: the silencing of women, violent prejudice against Jews, the oppression of homosexuals.

To Paul, I am grateful for his great service as a messenger of the gospel, yet I do not see him as a perfect and unflawed conduit. Rather, I understand Paul as a fallible man, one who apparently retained (and spread) certain attitudes against others that were implanted in him long before his encounter on the road to Damascus.

Paul's words of wisdom in carrying forth Jesus' message can be taken to heart without uncritically swallowing any folly and sentiments of animosity or judgement that Jesus himself would not have uttered or condoned.


I support same-sex marriage, which would provide a single, unified moral standard for marriage partners, regardless of their sexual orientation. I perceive a number of aspects to marriage: the legal arrangement, the social status as a recognized couple, and/or a holy union of two people in the eyes of God.

Years ago, I lived in Massachusetts in the days before same-sex marriage was legalized there. At that time, I knew many loving and faithfully bonded same-sex couples. Three lesbian couples I knew were raising children (1 by adoption, 1 conceived with semen from a sperm bank, and 1 conceived with semen donated by a trusted male friend). Legal marriage is a civil rights issue, and I feel legal equality can be supported even by people who might feel homosexuality is a sin.

Granting social recognition to marriages between same-sex partners is something for each person to grapple with. For me, it is a matter of treating others as one would wish to be treated.

As for the question of whether homosexual as well as heterosexual marriages can be holy unions entered into before God, this is a question for churches and for believing individuals everywhere to grapple with. I will say that people who have loved one another as spouses ALWAYS HAVE married one another privately, whether a church or a government or a family could be found that would bless them. I believe when people do so, God witnesses their pledge or love and seals them to one another.

I hope Christians don't ask themselves simply what did Paul think? and stop there. Did Jesus himself condemn homosexuality? Would he do so? Please consider carefully whether you are certain.

I agree with whichever blogger made the point (was it Will?) that in Acts, the disciples agreed not to create hurdles for Gentile converts by demanding they adhere to complex, and sometimes morally questionable, ordinances of ancient Israel.

Beyond a few simple rules of upright conduct, the spirit of love Jesus demonstrated and urged was to be the guide for true Christians. Love one another, as I have loved you, Jesus told all who would follow him.

By the way, I am blessed with an ability to love a man or a woman. My marriage partner, the father of my child, is a man.

Christina

January 16, 2008 12:10 AM  

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