Open and Affirming to the LGBTQ+ Community
In our “Glad You Asked” sermon series, we preach on topics you indicated you wanted to hear more about in a recent sermon survey. The inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community ranked amongst the most frequently requested topics. Two weeks ago I talked about how we will approach social issues. They are to be the first word in a conversation, not the final word on a subject. So today, I will share my journey of discovery about the Bible and how I understand that God works in hopes that it may give you some things to think about and resources that may help your conversations.
My Story of Misusing the Bible
My story is that I grew up in the Midwest without knowing anyone in the LGBTQ+ community—or so I thought. We grew up calling each other slurs and maligning any male who appeared effeminate. As an evangelical in high school, I sensed a call to ministry. I learned that the Bible said homosexuality is a sin. So, in 1983, when my little brother came out, I was flabbergasted, angry, cruel. “You are an abomination going to hell.” I pronounced and wouldn’t have anything to do with him until he “got over” what I assumed was another of his phases.
There’s me, studying to be a minister acting judgy and hateful. There he was, writing off Christianity based on my reaction. Guess what he did? He behaved more Christian than me and forgave me. My whole perspective shifted. I listened to his story and his desperate attempts to change. I didn’t want to throw away my relationship with my only sibling. At first, I tried “hating the sin and loving the sinner.” But I think whenever we introduce hate into the equation inevitably it splashes out of its container and burns someone worse than acid.
I thought if I can love and accept that this is who Ricky is, surely God can too. So, I focused on the other parts of the Bible about not judging, accepting all, treating everyone with love. I found refuge in Psalm 139 that says each of us is wonderfully created in God’s image.
What Does the Bible Say about Homosexuality?
I vowed to my brother that I would accept and affirm the LGBTQ+ community foundational in my ministry. But to do that, I needed to understand better what the Bible said about the subject. In seminary, I learned Greek and Hebrew, contexts in which authors composed each part. We learned about how surrounding cultures influenced biblical authors. Over the years, I’ve read countless books and scholarly articles from all perspectives on the relevant passages. What follows is a summary of what I’ve discovered and have come to believe.
The shocking truth is the Bible has very little to say about same-sex relationships, and what it says is ambiguous and almost always taken out of context. Did you know that there are only six verses that mention it? It is never in a section talked about on its own; it gets included in general lists of things people of the time assumed were wrong. What did Jesus say about homosexuality? Jesus had zero to say on the subject. Six verses. There are 50 verses about not lending money, 2000+ about treating the poor and immigrants better. One hundred thirty-three verses condemn gossip, yet we make all this fuss over six verses out of 31,102 biblical verses.
Several times, especially in Matthew 23, Jesus criticized religious leaders of his day for picking out the most minor commandments to judge others while ignoring the weightier matters of faith such as justice, mercy, and faith. Only .001% of all of the verses in the Bible are related to our subject. But huge chunks of texts echo what Jesus said is most important, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Shouldn’t we follow Jesus and keep our focus on the love stuff and not get distracted by the more minor and less important topics?
Clobber Passages against LGBTQ+ Individuals
A mother once questioned why I was used the Bible in youth group. As a lesbian, her alarm bells went off because people had beaten her over the head with the Bible. Tragically, many have abandoned the Bible and faith because of these six verses, often called “The Clobber Passages,” because of how they are used to hurt people. The first thing to notice is these passages weren’t talking about loving, same-gendered relationships based on equality. That’s a notion foreign to the biblical period, so we need to see exactly what they were describing.
Sodom and Gomorrah is about Hospitality not Sexuality
First, in Genesis 19, we have the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Two strangers visit a town and find hospitality with a man named Lot. All the males in town, from the youngest to the oldest, go to Lot’s house and demand that Lot send out the strangers so that they might have sex with them. This is not about loving relationships. It’s about ancient cultural practices to dominate and abuse outsiders. It’s to send a warning message to their home country: Don’t mess with us. Genesis 19 describes not a loving relationship but a gang assault. Furthermore, we know it wasn’t about sexual orientation because all the males were present. Surely, they weren’t all gay.
The Bible itself tells us that the point of the story isn’t about homosexuality. God reflects on the scene in Ezekiel 16:49, identifying the problem as the city being “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” In Matthew 10, Jesus associated Sodom and Gomorrah as being about lack of hospitality, not sex. Even conservative modern commentators admit that this passage is not about same-gendered relationships.
If you want to apply this passage to this conversation, then realize that the church has used it for centuries as a justification to be inhospitable to the queer community. It is the church that stands condemned by this passage, not the queer community. What if we decided, “Yeah, let’s take this story seriously and figure out how we can offer extraordinary hospitality to the LGBTQ+ community and all who have felt excluded by the church.
Leviticus Passages Mistranslated
There are only two other Old Testament verses found in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Leviticus contains long lists of rules intended initially as guidelines for priests of the tribe of Levi, not a universal application to everyone. Leviticus gives the context of these passages by saying that now that the people had crossed into the promised land, here are the ways of distinguishing yourselves from the Egyptians and Canaanites who surrounded you. They felt God called the Hebrews to be culturally distinct. We find lists of distinctions based on your clothing, the food you ate, your family configuration, and a substantial amount of stuff about what you do with your ox. These guidelines weren’t talking about what is eternally sinful but about shaping a culture distinct from their surrounding neighbors.
So that is the context. The passage calls a man lying with a man an “abomination.” But abomination, in the way that we think of it, is not a fair translation. No one translated it that way until the late 1500s. We think abomination is sinful, monstrous, evil. The Hebrew word is not an abomination, but toeveh. Throughout the Old Testament is used in a way that does not imply a sinful nature. Genesis, for example, says Egyptians considered shepherds toeveh. In Leviticus, it is toeveh if your ox tramples your corn.
The passage says nothing about orientation or anything about lesbian sex. Scholars think that some specific type of activity was being denounced, but it’s ambiguous because of how the sentences are phrased. There is a missing preposition that we can only guess at what it was. If you want to say you take the Bible literally, then do it from a direct transposition of the original language. Here is the literal translation: “And-with mankind not you-will-lie ‘lyings-of’ a woman.” Susan Pigott suggests: “And with a male you will not lay (on) the couches/beds of a woman.” It doesn’t even make any sense, let alone be something you can clobber someone with.
We Don’t Take the Other Prohibitions Seriously Today
Also, these references in Leviticus get cherry-picked from a list of other prohibitions we don’t apply today. The list also prohibits you to: eat shellfish, get tattoos, gossip, wear clothes made of two different kinds of fabric, trim your beard, cut your hair, walk by a person in need. According to Leviticus, the worst thing is failing to observe the sabbath, not with whom you sleep.
Romans 1-2 Is About Rejecting Judgmentalism
The New Testament makes clear that in Christ, we are not bound to them. That’s why we don’t keep kosher, why we can celebrate the sabbath on a different day, etc. It’s not about adherence to the law but faith. That is what Paul argues in the book of Romans. But Romans also contains the fourth clobber passage (Romans 1:26-27). Again, it is in a list of things considered vices. The writing style and context of the passage suggest that Paul quotes a well-known list one of the times. He’s taking on the voice of someone else with whom he disagrees for the sake of making a more significant point. It’s similar to how Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say to you..” This is a device Jesus used to say that the old laws and ways of doing things are no longer valid.
In Romans, Paul is trying to unite a community divided between Jewish and non-Jewish identities. He uses a typical list of Jewish complaints about the pagan, over-indulgent Gentile ways of living. Because he focuses on idolatry immediately before he writes about acts between men, he is likely referring to group sex rituals that were part of pagan worship ceremonies and not committed, loving same-sex relationships.
Nevertheless, the point of bringing up the list was to get the Jewish faction to say, “Yeah, those Gentiles are horrible.” Then Paul springs the trap in the very next breath (chapter 2) by saying the Jewish judgyness of the Gentiles is proof that everyone is in the same boat, no one is better than anyone else, so let’s stop judging and condemning and come together. If we want to take the heart of Romans 1 and 2 seriously, we would stop judging and find ways to reconcile.
The Concept of Homosexuality as an Orientation is Foreign to Bible Writers
The last two New Testament passages are 1 Corinthians:9 and I Timothy 1:10. Some translations go as far as using the word homosexual in them, but that is anachronistic. The concept of homosexuality as an orientation didn’t exist in Bible days. There was no Greek word that talks about the same thing that we think of today. According to the scholarship, the passages are talking about the common practice in Roman culture of married men taking on impoverished younger men as on the side lovers. The matter isn’t about orientation as much as it is about exploitation. The passages establish a universal healthy sex ethic, loving and mutual, not predatory nor compulsory.
What Bible Authors Might Say Today
So that’s it. That is all there is in the Bible on the subject. It’s ambiguous at best and never talking about the same thing we talk about in terms of committed, loving relationships. If you traveled back in time and asked the authors if relationships in the same gender are wrong, their knee-jerk reaction would be to say, “Of course.” But after you explained orientation and what has happened to people because of their words, they would be horrified and take it all back. How could they have guessed all of the acts of violence, homicides, cruelty, shaming, families breaking apart that their words would provoke? Or imagine how many people would hate themselves or how many young people would commit suicide because someone called them an abomination rather than a beloved child of God.
If they could see all of this they would take it back in a heartbeat. They knew that Jesus said don’t be the cause for someone to stumble in their faith and that we should love others as Jesus loved us—unconditionally.
The Bible is about Inclusion, not Exclusion
In the end, the Bible has a whole lot more to say about inclusion than exclusion. For example, Pentecost was about the establishment of a church that overcame differences. A significant portion of the New Testament is devoted to overcoming differences between Gentiles and Jews. In Acts 10, they decide that the same laws about diet in Leviticus no longer apply. It’s not those laws that count. It’s faith because Jesus came to set us free from the law. Paul overcomes all divisions in Galatians 3, “There is no longer Greek, and Jew, slave and free, male and female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.” If we applied the lessons from these passages, there is no way we would wind up in an exclusionary system.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
I should also mention that in Acts 8, we find that an Ethiopian eunuch was one of the first people baptized into the church. Eunuchs included a much wider field than those castrated; it also included people not attracted to the opposite sex. In Matthew 19, Jesus said some are eunuchs from birth. Jesus was all about inclusion, especially to people marginalized by the rest of society. Because of the laws in Leviticus, the Ethiopian eunuch was not allowed to enter the Jerusalem temple. But they set all that aside to baptize him despite the Old Testament law.
Being an Open and Affirming Congregation
That’s why we are a church where—as long as I am here—you will never hear exclusivist, judgmental, condemning language from this pulpit. When I apologized to my brother for the things I said, I promised that my ministry would be about inclusion and doing everything I could to make the church a safe place for everyone.
Many churches merely “tolerate” LGBTQ+ people in their congregations but still view them as abominations. Let us instead be not just open, but affirming that every person is created in the image of God and, as our Psalm says, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” May there never be another suicide or act of hatred because people think the Bible says God hates people as they are.
We know better. So let us see the good in everyone, affirm them and encourage everyone to develop God’s gifts to make a positive difference in the world. To do otherwise would be an abomination.