Often in my teaching, I will say that every time I open the Bible I am struck by something in a different way or something takes on a new meaning that I hadn’t noticed or thought of before. Also, the insights of biblical scholarship help bring out the meaning of the text in a way that helps apply it in our lives today.
As Methodists, we often refer to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It is a way of approaching matters of theology and practice that is fourfold: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. You can read more about that here. All of these inform us in our study and in thinking through the questions of the day.
Through the years, I have changed in my understanding in a number of areas of life and theology. As I reflect on those changes, I am aware that in some cases what first drove me to a deeper study of scripture was something I experienced as a pastor.
In relation to the topic of this article, it has been the experience of being a pastor to and in ministry with deeply committed, gifted, and called LGBTQ+ people and their parents, grandparents, and other family members and friends. I did not come to the place of believing in and advocating for full inclusion overnight. It was a process for me that involved learning about sexual orientation and gender identity. But, even more important was getting to know actual people and their experience.
In this relatively brief article, I would like to show you how someone can have both a high view of scriptural authority while at the same time believing that LGBTQ+ people and their relationships can be in harmony with God’s purposes for human sexuality. That may not be where you are in this, but I hope to help you see how others come to a different conclusion.
There are only six verses in the Bible that seem to address homosexuality. Sometimes these six verses used to defend the “traditional” view on homosexuality are called “clobber verses,” or as Steve Chalke, a British Baptist minister and theologian, calls them, “the six bullets in the gun.” Such descriptions of these verses speak to the pain our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters report experiencing when fellow Christians use these verses in a way that feels condemning.
So, my goal in this article is simply to take a look at these verses, bringing to bear the tools of biblical interpretation that we use everywhere else in scripture. As we do with any other passages of scripture we study, we look at historical context, the culture of the biblical writers, textual issues, like translation, along with our best current understanding of science and human nature. In any case, I hope and pray that we can stop using the Bible in a way that feels like a weapon.
Context Holds the Keys to Understanding
In the area of context, most of the references in the six verses people tend to cite to condemn homosexuality are, while somewhat sexual in nature, actually more about idolatry, lust, abuse of power, and dominance — more akin to the dynamics of rape than about homosexuality itself:
- Genesis 19:5, the infamous “Sodom & Gomorrah passage,” when considered against the earlier reference to these “sister cities” in Genesis 13:13, we remember that the people of Sodom were called “wicked, great sinners against the Lord.”
But what exactly was the source of their wickedness? Was it what we’ve been led to believe it was? Not really. In fact, the description of their guilt hits way too close to home: Ezekiel 16:49, 50 spells their “wickedness” out quite clearly: “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.”
So, they were prideful, prosperous, lived lives of ease, had more than enough and ignored the needs of the poor. In fact, this abominable behavior was so rampant in these cities that Jesus used “the land of Sodom” as an example when he condemned the indifference of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. He said, “But I say to you that it will be better for the land of Sodom on the Judgment Day than it will be for you.” (Matthew 11:24)
This story of Sodom in Genesis 19 in reality is more about rape — sexual violence — than about homosexuality. In that truly horrific story, the men of Sodom demand that Lot send out his guests — messengers of God — so that they can rape them. That’s terrible, but even more horrific is Lot offering up his two virgin daughters to be raped instead. A plain reading of the story in no way condemns a loving, consensual, committed relationship between two adults.
- Next we come to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, in which “Levitical Laws” that were written for a people struggling for survival (they were literally running for their lives out of Egypt) are selectively chosen for their references to “lying with a male as with a woman” to shore up a belief that homosexuality is an “abomination” punishable by death.
In the context of the time and circumstance it was written, this reference many people stand upon as irrefutable Biblical evidence against homosexuality isn’t as much about being gay or about homosexual love as it is about Israel being different from the surrounding nations. Levitical laws were written by priests for the nation of Israel to make Jews different from other nations whose lands they were about to take over. There was certainly no understanding of orientation or of the possibility of a loving, committed same-sex relationship.
Today we ignore most of these Levitical laws. Otherwise, you won’t eat shrimp (Leviticus 11:10), you won’t wear garments that are blends of two different fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), and you won’t get that tattoo. (Leviticus 19:28). One wonders then why this one law gets elevated as it does in this conversation.
- Romans 1. This brings us to Paul’s reference to same-sex behavior in Romans: 1:27. Going back to the context of that time, we’re talking about a period of extreme Roman indulgence of every kind, demonstrated most keenly by Gaius Caligula, the Roman emperor in power just before Paul wrote this text.
In fact, noted theologian Dr. Neil Elliott calls Gaius, “‘Exhibit A’ for out-of-control lust.” Gaius was also known to be violent, vindictive, and cruel, known for his countless instances of incest, sexual abuse and humiliation of both men and women, even including his own sisters. It’s no wonder then, that there was a conspiracy to murder him; he was, in fact, stabbed through his genitals.
This is disturbing, to say the least, but important because it indeed adds a little more context to Paul’s writing in Romans 1:27: “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own person the due penalty for their error.”
John Wesley, in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, says of 1:26 concerning the “vile affections” (KJV): “To which the heathen Romans were then abandoned to the last degree; and none more than the emperors themselves.”
Paul is writing to the church in Rome. Though Paul had never visited the church there, there were apparently some Christians in the church who had fallen back into their worship of pagan gods, which involved sexual acts as part of the pagan worship with male and female prostitutes during religious festival and rituals.
So, this passage isn’t about homosexual orientation — they had no such understanding at that time—or a committed, loving same-gender relationship. Rather it refers to idolatry, insatiable lust, abuse of power, the abuse of people for one’s own gratification, and the lowest forms of depravity.
Again quoting Steve Chalke, in this passage, “Idolatry, promiscuity and shrine prostitution are what Paul is addressing — not same-sex relationships between faithful and committed partners.”
- Now we come to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, which is perhaps the most objectionable misuse of the scripture most commonly used to condemn LGBTQ+ people. It is also the scripture most correlated to the rise in gay suicide — especially among young people. And all of this is because of a fundamental translation misunderstanding of two words in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. If you compare translations side-by-side, you can see how widely they vary.
The first word, malakoi, is translated as “effeminate” in the King James version. However, going back to its original Greek, it actually means “soft,” and was used in this way to describe fine clothing in several other places in the Bible. Putting this translation into context, what it really means is weak, spineless, lazy, or unable to stand up against injustice or something that truly matters.
The second word, arsenkoitai, is an unusual word in Greek. It is a compound word that has been translated in a number of ways — sometimes simply translated as “sodomites,” which is doubly misleading. The word roughly translates as “male-bedders.”
Because this translation most likely refers to temple prostitution or to the heinous practice of keeping young boys as sex slaves, none of it has anything to do with homosexuality as we understand it today or our LGBTQ+ friends, neighbors, loved ones, and colleagues seeking to live in a committed relationship and be good neighbors and faithful members of our faith community.
Perhaps The Message translation best captures Paul’s meaning: “Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.”
- Finally, there’s 1 Timothy 1:9-10, in which the word, arsenkoitai, is used again, and talks of the “lawless and disobedient,” “godless and sinful,” “unholy and profane.” Once again, we’re talking about all manner of violent and abusive behavior — which aligns much more with the translation of arsenkoitai as referring more to abuse of power, harm, and exploitation of others.
Again, The Message translation may capture it best: “It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the law code isn’t primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!”
Just as I pointed out in the discussion of Levitical law, we also have interpreted New Testament passages for our time and understand them as relevant in their context, but not in ours. For example, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 says, “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
In the past, the passage was used in the Methodist Church to keep women from being ordained. How many gifted women whom God called to ministry never had their call examined and affirmed by the church because of the lack of interpretation of the passage in the context of what was going on in the church in Corinth? We know better now.
There are other passages that we understand in context and do not follow: We wear jewelry, braid hair, and wear some pretty fine clothing, even though 1 Peter 3:3 says, “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing.” We have our savings accounts, our investments, our 401K’s, even though Jesus said in Matthew 6:19, “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.”
We love our families, but we are confronted by Jesus’ words in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple.” And, what do we do with these words of Jesus in Luke 14:33? “…those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” My point is that scripture must always be interpreted in every time and every place.
There are, of course, reams of research and writings and opinions on this topic, but more important, there are a lot of people who have been unnecessarily hurt by the misuse of scripture to condemn who they are.
I don’t believe that most people who understand scripture in a different way and believe that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” are hateful. I don’t believe that they intend to harm anyone. At the same time, as a pastor I have heard from others their expressions of pain and the feelings of being considered as a person to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
As we study and discern, we cannot lose sight of other really important matters on which we surely all agree. There are more than 2000 scriptures that deal with poverty — the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. Jesus continues to call us — as he did the religious people of his day — to pay attention to “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
Our Lord summed up all the scriptures with just two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
To begin or further your examination of these passages and engage in an open, safe, and supportive conversation with others, I urge you to attend Rev. Zhenya Gurina-Rodruiguez’s one-session class, offered starting this week on Sunday mornings at 9:30 and 11:00 am, and will likely be offered weekdays on upcoming dates.
Zhenya is TCU Brite Divinity School PhD candidate in New Testament, and she will be leading this class with Eric Bembenek, MA, LPC, a member of our church. In this one-hour class you’ll have opportunity to study with a New Testament scholar the Bible verses most often cited in our conversations about LGBTQ+ people, and then discuss the most recent research on gender and sexual orientation.
Grace and Peace,
Dr. Tim Bruster