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 09, 2007

The Bible, Gays and Lesbians

In my last series of posts about Barclay and the Bible I related the story that he tells about an old and illiterate Friend who heard someone making an argument from the Bible and who responded with words to the effect of “God never said that.” Barclay then went back and looked at the passage in question and found that it was mistranslated in the English Bible. This is one of my favorite stories from Barclay. That isn't saying a whole lot since Barclay was not one for telling stories. When I am leading a workshop, I often follow this up with a challenge to modern Friends, “Do we know the voice of God so well that we can tell when God is being misquoted?”

I had a similar experience some 25 years ago now, I would guess. I was attending Cambridge Meeting at the time and one day during worship, a woman rose and gave a message about how homosexuality was a sin because it was prohibited in Leviticus. At the time I was not as familiar with the Bible as I am now but her message did not ring true with what I had experienced of God. When I got home I looked in Leviticus and was surprised to find that she was at least correct in her Biblical citation. This was one of the things that prompted me to start reading and studying the Bible more. I also began reading what other people had written about homosexuality and the Bible. Unlike Barclay, I do not know Greek, Latin and Hebrew so I have had to rely on the scholarship of others. While preparing this material I have relied in particular on two books to provide references for the meanings of the Greek and for the cultural background of the first century Middle East. These books are Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell and The Children are Free by Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley. I have read many of the books that take a liberal view on the subject. I am open to further suggestions on what I might read, especially if it presents a different perspective.

Barclay stresses that one way to test whether a revelation is from God is to see whether it is in accord with Scripture. If this test of revelation is true, and if God indeed does want us to extend our love and the bounds of our community to include, without reservation, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, as I believe God does, than we should be able to find a scriptural basis for this. So in the interest of intellectual and spiritual honesty I will try to lay out just such a scriptural case. I do not expect that this exercise will resolve the issue any more than Margaret Fell's Women's Speaking Justified resolved the role of women in the Church. I offer this instead as a response to the Friends in FUM who have said that when they hear liberal Friends advocating for acceptance of gays and lesbians, they hear a request that they give up the Biblical foundation of their faith. I propose this as a way of seeing scripture in a new light, a way of seeing what was there in Scripture but hidden, just as the Quaker understanding was there but unseen until George Fox and others had it opened to them.

In this endeavor I will follow the pattern of Barclay. I will lay out the positive case as I see it and then I will address the objections in the forms of the various passages that are cited to show that homosexual sex is sinful. I will break this up into a series of posts. I often push the limits of what makes for a readable post as it is. This may allow time for discussion as we go along.

I will also be clear about an underlying assumption of mine, which is that homosexual orientation is something that one has. It is not a choice. Whether or not it is genetic, hormonal, environmental or just the way God made us is beside the point. It is the way we are. I base this assumption on my own experience. As long as I have been aware of such things, I have always had a heterosexual orientation. I never chose to be heterosexual. I have heard my gay and lesbian friends tell about their stories of how they came to realize that they were homosexual and for them it was not a matter of choice but of coming to recognize who they were, even in the face of social disapproval. Since I never experienced a choice I accept their testimony that they did not experience a choice either. I also recognize that if you make the assumption that homosexuality is a choice then it can color how you understand and interpret scripture. If our disagreements are not about the words of scripture but the assumptions we bring with us as we read scripture, we can still perhaps resolve our differences but we have moved beyond the realm of Biblical study.

One last note. I have been pleased with the way discussions here have gone. We have managed, in most part, to discuss our disagreements without being disagreeable. This is certainly a hot-button topic and I hope that we can continue to be respectful of each other, even as we explore areas in which we may be in passionate disagreement.

Blessings to all,


Next: The Biblical case for accepting gays and lesbians


Blogger Liz in the Mist said...

Interested to see the next post! As one who was brought up FGC and currently attends an FUM/EFI church--I feel I do not fit into a Quaker box. While my theology may fit more in the FUM lines, my social and political leanings are more FGC and I am struggling to find a balance/further define my Quaker idenity.

So I look forward to seeing what you have on this matter!

July 10, 2007 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it would help the cause of equal justice for every gay or lesbian or transgendered person to tell what the closet is like, and how freeing it is to be out of the closet. My own story is deeply involved with my religious faith, since I was raised in a very religious environment.

When I was a about 8 or 9 years old, we got a TV (this would have been in 1958, I think). There were certain programs that the family watched regularly. Among these were Wyatt Earp, Rawhide, and Cheyenne. I’m not sure why the rest of the family watched these programs, but my reason was this: I thought Hugh O’Brien, Clint Eastwood, and Clint Walker were very good-looking. Now, that is not to say that I understood about sexual orientation, or sexual behavior, or anything like that. I just knew that I enjoyed watching them, would have liked to be near them, to touch them (in some manner).

Then there was the Sears catalogue. Whenever it came, I would pore through it, looking at toys I would like to have, at all of the fancy appliances, at the camping equipment, at the mysterious power tools. In particular, however, I enjoyed looking at the advertisements for men’s swimsuits and underwear, because the models were so attractive. I skipped over the sections on women’s swimsuits and underwear, because they were of no interest to me.

There was also a particular trip to my uncle’s farm one summer. One afternoon, Kenny and a few of the other guys and I were upstairs, and one of them pulled out a copy of Playboy magazine. They were going ga-ga over the pictures of nude women. I was puzzled, because apparently they were experiencing something which I was totally missing. I knew better than to ask them what was the big deal, because they would probably ridicule me for not getting the point. (I was used to being insulted by others by that time, because I had no interest in team sports, and hated playing. I couldn’t relate to the competitiveness that seemed to be so much a part of team sports).

Then there was the time when I was fourteen and first discovered what the word “queer” meant. This experience is indelibly printed on my memory as though it had happened just yesterday. I had heard some peers (ninth grade) at school using the word, in what seemed to be a way of insulting people. I asked my brother about it one morning while I helped him deliver newspapers. Fortunately the hour was early, so that he maybe didn’t notice my shock at his answer. First, he said that it was the worst thing you could call anybody. Then he told me it referred to a “boy who liked other boys instead of girls.”

This was the beginning of 12 years of fear and emotional isolation for me, as I struggled to understand the whys and wherefores of my sexual orientation, while at the same time trying to carefully hide from other people. Thinking back now, I realize that I was not as concealed as I believed; there were people who suspected. Fortunately for me at the time, I believed I was well-hidden. On some afternoons after school, I would walk over to the public library and look for psychology books that might explain homosexuality to me. I found books that talked about homosexuality, but they did not seem to relate to me. The authors said things about gay people which I knew not to be true about myself, such as the assertion that a homosexual male actually wanted to be a woman. I began to realize that some people who claimed to be authorities on the subject actually knew less than I did. Aside from those books, however, I had few resources for trying to understanding the whys and wherefores of sexual orientation and the anti-gay hostility that I found around me. For those years, so far as I knew, I was the only gay person in my hometown. It is still painful that I never had the opportunity to date while I was an adolescent – it was simply too dangerous to try.

After a struggle of six years, I reached bottom emotionally, nearly flunking out of college in my sophomore year. At the lowest point of my life (January, 1970), I came to the understanding that God loved me, regardless of what anyone else thought (the thorough training in the Bible from my Baptist upbringing broke through, despite the prejudices of the church). I came to the conclusion that what I had been taught – that homosexuality is sin – could not possibly be correct, because if it were correct, it would mean that the Creator of the universe is a sadistic tyrant.

Unfortunately, I was still alone with my fears of my family, my church members, my peers, etc. I began an intensive study of the Bible to discover what I believed, and what God’s will was for me.

Four years later the preacher at my church gave a sermon in which he made disparaging remarks about sexual minorities. I left the church in disgust and never went back. For two years I was unchurched, until I found that there was an M.C.C. (Metropolitan Community Church) congregation in my hometown. I walked into that church, for the first time disclosing to another human being that I was gay; it felt as though the weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders. I discovered that there were actually thousands of other gay and lesbian people right there in my hometown; they had also been hiding in fear when they were younger. Shortly thereafter I began my first explorations of my sexuality with another human being. Some of the things that I did in the several years after that I’m not proud of. I was rather like a kid in a candy store, and did not sufficiently take others’ feelings into account, but that was part of the growing process, and I have God’s forgiveness for these things. Thanks to the forbearance and support of my gay and lesbian friends, and many years of counseling, I was able to grow beyond many of these shortcomings.

One other thing about my coming-out process: for years before I came out, I was in deep depression, so much so that I was incapable of finishing graduate school and getting the doctorate in physics which I wanted. There were many days when I would go to the library at the university intending to study, and would find myself sitting and staring at the book, reading the same sentence or paragraph over and over, without really seeing it. I managed to hang on long enough to get the masters degree, but it would take me many years of emotional healing before I could deal with returning to graduate school and finishing my education. I still grieve the loss of that first career.

Several years later, I realized that M.C.C. could not be my spiritual home. There were too many ways in which I disagreed with church doctrine, although I still have friends who are in M.C.C. In 1979, I found the local Quaker meeting, and am now a member, along with Mike (we've been a couple since May, 1985). We were married under the care of the meeting in 1994 – the first time that a gay couple had celebrated their marriage under the care of that meeting.

That is how I came to my beliefs. Now, as to what those beliefs are: I know what is in the Bible and I want it to be known; however, trying to make every verse in the Bible be God’s truth is both unprofitable and impossible. Humans may have been inspired to write the various pieces of the Bible, but humans are fallible, and often fail to hear or understand God clearly. I can only read the Bible and discover its meaning based on my own understanding and experience. I don’t possess the understanding and experience of someone else, because I’m not someone else. By this I do not mean that “anyone can interpret the Bible how he or she feels fit,” although each person does such individual interpretation. For example, I believe “Thou shalt not steal,” but how many people actually believe “Neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee” (Leviticus 19:19)? How many people agree with “Both thy male and female slaves, whom thou shalt have, shall be of the nations that are round about you; of them shall ye buy male and female slaves” (Leviticus 25:44)?

We do not, however, have only a book to depend on. We have the capacity to listen directly to God to lead us to truth. The Holy Spirit takes precedence over the written word as authority for our faith. As George Fox, an early leader of the Society of Friends (Quakers) said, “...what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth?” (Journal of George Fox).

I test what I read in the Bible against personal experience and seek God’s guidance and the guidance of other seekers, especially those in my Quaker Meeting. Consequently, what I believe at this point in my life may change later. This is not to say that my spirituality is unstable; it would take a lot of experience and subsequent meditation, prayer, study and discussion for me to change my beliefs. However, I'm not afraid of such changes; I have made changes in the past, and may make more in the future. From this perspective, Quaker worship is a jazz performance, with each worshipper providing insights and accounts of personal experiences which may enhance the worship experience of others.

Currently my basic beliefs are these:

1) I believe that every human being is created in the image of God (Friends say that there is that of God in everyone). I take this to mean that each of us is capable of experiencing the "still, small voice" directly and of being used as a messenger of God to provide spiritual inspiration for others.
2) I believe that the basic will of God for me is that I treat others as I would like them to treat me – this principle is the basis for moral behavior.
3) I believe that in order to fulfill the first two basic beliefs, I need to maintain mindfulness of the potential consequences of my actions, to other people as well as to myself.
These three statements seem to me to summarize the teachings of Jesus.

July 11, 2007 8:46 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

the next part is coming soon. I won't leave you in suspense for too long.

Thank you for your testimony. I agree with you, a large part of the journey to unity will be through telling our stories in honesty, courage and humility. You have presented a wonderful example.


July 11, 2007 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Will, I am just tickled pink to see you approaching this hot-button issue in the Barclayan manner!

July 12, 2007 6:15 AM  
Blogger Kim Ranger said...

I too will be interested to see your next post--I learn a lot from your posts. As a liberal Friend, I addressed the texts cited by Seventh-day Adventists on homosexuality when I was studying with them, but just posted the essay to my blog today (

July 12, 2007 12:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

You state:
"I will also be clear about an underlying assumption of mine, which is that homosexual orientation is something that one has. It is not a choice. Whether or not it is genetic, hormonal, environmental or just the way God made us is beside the point. It is the way we are. I base this assumption on my own experience. As long as I have been aware of such things, I have always had a heterosexual orientation. I never chose to be heterosexual. I have heard my gay and lesbian friends tell about their stories of how they came to realize that they were homosexual and for them it was not a matter of choice but of coming to recognize who they were, even in the face of social disapproval. Since I never experienced a choice I accept their testimony that they did not experience a choice either. I also recognize that if you make the assumption that homosexuality is a choice then it can color how you understand and interpret scripture. If our disagreements are not about the words of scripture but the assumptions we bring with us as we read scripture, we can still perhaps resolve our differences but we have moved beyond the realm of Biblical study."

I have some difficulties with this assumption. While some homosexuals seem to have an intrinsic sexual orientation, others do not. Particularly among lesbians, perhaps a majority report that they had some, if not complete choice in there sexual identity. See
Biological Research on Women's Sexual Orientations: Evaluating the Scientific Evidence. There is a philosophy of Lesbian Feminism which posits that a woman cannot truly be a feminist unless she is a lesbian, and many of these women are quite clear that their decision to be a lesbian was a political statement and not some intrinsic sexual orientation. They are not sleeping with the enemy.

Among men, "situational homosexuality" seems to be common in prisons and other similar circumstances. In fact, your inclusion of the bisexuals seems to argue that for many, homosexuality activity is a choice.

Now, I'm not arguing that homosexuality is wrong, or that we should extend an acceptance of it to just those for whom it is some sort of innate sexuality (as if we could actually determine this.) I'm just pointing out that the position seems intellectually dishonest. In talking to people who are against the acceptance of homosexuality, this is the most common criticism I hear of the progressive position, and I can't help but agree with them. If the acceptance of homosexuality rests on the claim that they have no choice, I'm afraid that it fails.

I'm also have a strong aversion to the idea implicit in this assumption that we have no free choice and no responsibility for our actions. There is a rather Calvinistic premise in this position which states that God made us the way we are and we have no free will.

July 21, 2007 5:01 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Sexuality is so complicated. I am afraid that I oversimplified some things. The point I was trying to make about choice was that my experience was that I didn't make a choice. Based on that experience, I believe gays and lesbians who say that they did not experience a choice either. I did not mean to imply that some people had experienced a choice. It do not rule out that there is a range of experience, with either end being represented by heterosexuals and homosexuals who did not experience any choice and there being a range of people in the middle who had experienced some degree of choice. But that is not my experience and I have not made enough of a study to have an informed opinion, about the choices in the middle. I was trying to make a point that it is intellectually dishonest to claim to be in a favored group that you did not choose and anyone in the other group must have made a choice so that it is their own fault for being in the disadvantaged group.

As for situational homosexual activity, that just indicates that when put into a situation where the choices are homosexual activity and celibacy, some people will choose homosexual activity. I think that Jesus had a fair amount to say about people in positions of privilege and comfort passing judgment on those who lacked privilege and were in difficult situations. Usually the statements began "Woe unto you...."

Finally, I do not say that we have no free will or responsibility for our choices. But before we go about assigning responsibility, we need to know that it was a matter of choice. This is not Calvinism. In fact it is just the opposite. My point is that we should not condemn people for being the way God created them.

Thank you for your comments.


July 21, 2007 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

I'm certainly not saying that there are not people like Jim, or you, whose sexual orientation is not a choice. Nor am I saying that I or we should condemn anyone.

I just think we should be clear as to what we are saying. Are we saying that homosexual activity is inherently wrong but there are some who have no choice and therefore get a special dispensation? Are we saying that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality and that it is just another lifestyle choice. Are we saying that whatever goes on behind closed doors among consenting adults is none of our business?

I'm not sure what the liberal Quaker position is, and I'm sure this list isn't comprehensive, but I don't think it's the first option I gave above.

I'm aware that this discussion is in the context of FUM's employment policy and we are asking them to change it. If we ask them to make a special dispensation for gay and lesbian employees now, are we going to be coming back in another year or two when a bisexual employee in a homosexual relationship is refused employment? And I'm afraid this is just a start. Try googling "quaker polyamory".

I believe it is important that we are clear and open with the other yearly meetings in FUM as to just what it is we are asking them to accept.

Oh, and thanks for working on this!

July 23, 2007 3:43 AM  
Blogger Will T said...

I cannot speak for all liberal Friends. What I would ask for, at least for a start, is that all people be held to the same standard of sexual morality, regardless of sexual orientations. That is to say that if monogamy is required of heterosexuals it is required of homosexuals. If sex outside of a committed relationship is permitted for heterosexuals, it is permitted for homosexuals, and vice-versa. What is unacceptable is to say that sex is only permitted inside of marriage if you deny marriage to homosexuals. Likewise, for every heterosexual marriage clearness committee I have served on, the couple has already been living together. I feel that it is hypocritical to hold homosexuals to a different standard than we hold our heterosexual sons and daughters. Does that clarify where I stand?


July 24, 2007 9:25 PM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

I appreciate your openness to other sources, including ones that have a different viewpoint. One I would recommend is The Sexual Christian, by Tim Stafford.

August 03, 2007 10:11 PM  
Blogger Renato L said...

Dear Friends,
My name is Renato, I am a Danish Quaker living in Copenhagen. Professionally I am a translator/ interpreter and more recently I have gained a PhD in theology. I have been fascinated by the "Barclayan" approach to scripture in the realm of sexuality as suggested by Will T.

Following many years of struggle and detailed research, I no longer find any contradiction between my love of the Bible and the gay side of my personality. It is important for me to highlight that the Bible is far more sophisticated than it has been made out to be.

If anyone is interested, you are warmly invited to read my reflections on biblical interpretation on my website: More specifically, I apply a fresh approach to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In my view, this text does not focus on people's sexuality but is rather a passionate contribution to a long biblical debate about social justice, particularly the vulnerability of immigrants.

In Peace and Friendship,
Renato L.

October 20, 2007 4:58 PM  

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