Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Bible and Homosexuality Today

By Peter Moore

Since the hermenutical and theological issues surrounding homosexuality will no doubt be bantered about with increasing shrillness in coming days, I will be posting some of the best material on the subject. This is an excellant example from an evangelical Episcopalian point of view. --Glenn Layne

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis depicts a saintly lady and her husband having a conversation somewhere just beyond death, but not quite in Heaven. The lady is an ordinary woman named Sarah Smith from Golders Green. She stumbles upon her husband Frank, who presumably has just died, and is on his way either to Heaven or Hell. As the two talk, Sarah tries to put right what was obviously wrong in their marital relationship. She also urges Frank to join her back in Heaven.

Frank is not so sure. Or at least the ghost he is connected to is not so sure. You see, attached to Frank by a chain is a grotesquely comic creature Lewis calls "the Tragedian." This is Frank's alter ego, and he has Frank securely in his grasp. The last thing he wants is for Frank to give him up and follow Sarah to Heaven.

The Tragedian's answer

While Sarah talks only to Frank, the Tragedian tries to answer for both himself and his captive creature. At first, thanks to Sarah's love, Frank begins to grow from his small monkey-on-a-chain size, to a more normal human size. As he does, the Tragedian shrinks. Eventually, however, the Tragedian takes over the conversation, and Frank shrinks into virtual

The heart of the struggle that is going on inside Frank is a tug-of-war between joy and pity. He is drawn by Sarah's evident joy; but he has succumbed most of his life to self-pity. He doesn't really believe that Sarah ever loved him, and now that Sarah's love for him is no longer based on a need for him, he takes double offence. Sarah appeals to Frank to let the Tragedian go; but he has too firm a grip on Frank. Sarah finally says:

Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the other way round, Frank. It can be used for a kind of blackmail. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity. You see, I know now. Even as a child you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic . . . because you knew that sooner or later one of your sisters would say, 'I can't bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.

In this analysis of the structure of sin, Lewis gives us a parable. It is not about homosexuality or heterosexuality. It is about God's summons to joy, to healing and wholeness, and the many reasons why people like you and me prefer to hold onto a past that is slowly destroying us. The Tragedian is our "old nature" in Pauline terms; and it is at war with our
new one (Romans 6). Which will win out?

Lewis has also given us a picture of how a good value, pity, can be misused. The pitied can use the misery it feels not as a spur to get help, but as blackmail — as a way of holding joy up to ransom. This, I think, does speak to the issue we are dealing with this afternoon. If joy is the wholeness to which God calls us, a joy in which all our selfish disorders are redeemed, can we allow pity to hold it ransom? Out of pity, will we surrender our desire to see people who are caught in sexual sin of whatever kind really brought into the freedom of the children of God?
And, finally, Lewis has constructed a pastoral situation for us to ponder. A woman very much aware of her own failings, pleading with a broken man to go free. She is not superior to him in rectitude. She comes alongside him and urges him to give up his bondage. It reminded me of the fact that only those who have pastorally ministered to people in their brokenness, and sought to understand their struggle, have earned the right to speak to the broader moral issues connected with their behavior.

An assumption

Of course, by saying all this, I am assuming that certain types of sexual behavior are sin; and that's the issue that has brought us all here today.

Presumably, we all believe that certain forms of sexual behavior are sin. Fathers should not have sex with their daughters, brothers should not have sex with their sisters, shepherds should not have sex with their lambs, nor husbands with the wives of their best friends. Most of us don't believe that our teen aged daughters should have sex with our neighbor's teen-aged sons.

But what of homosexuality? Here we are divided. Some would say that all homosexual relations are good, as long as they are mutual, and not abusive, risk-taking, or promiscuous. Others would not go that far, but say that lifelong, committed, monogamous homosexual relations are good. Still others would say that homosexual relations are fundamentally disordered, but must be tolerated in the Church and in society. And still others would say that under all circumstances homosexual relations are contrary to God's will for us. I'm in this latter group; but not perhaps for the reasons that some might suppose.

Our day today has been structured in such a way that our conversation centers around the Bible and how we read it — that is, how we interpret it, and what authority we give to it. And while I do want to talk about the Bible, I want to say two things right off:

First, what the Bible says about homosexuality is not the only basis on which I believe moral judgements should be made. There are biological, sociological, psychological, and medical reasons that come into consideration, and I want to touch on them too.

And, second, not all people who come to the conclusion I have come to, read the Bible exactly as I do. There are Fundamentalists for whom the issue is settled by a verse or two, perhaps taken out of context. There are traditionalists who put Scripture and Tradition on the same level. For them, natural law often come into play. There are some who take a canonical approach to the Bible, and read it through the eyes of the historical community in which it has been received. There are some who read the Bible with a much more liberal attitude than I might have. Some of them have ended up at the same place as I. And, of course, there are some outside the Christian tradition completely, Jews for example, who bring their own historical perspective to bear and come to the same conclusion also.

Bearing these two caveats in mind, then, how does the Bible speak to the issue of homosexuality?

The classical texts

The classical texts are Genesis 19 (Sodom and Gomorrah); Judges 19 (the rape of the Levite's concubine); Leviticus 18 and 20 (the Holiness Code); Romans 1; I Corinthians 6; and I Timothy 1. But they must be placed within the larger context of the biblical writings as a whole, particularly as they touch on God's will for human sexuality.

Sex permeated the ancient world, connecting the fertility cycles of nature with the gods above who were themselves sexual. In this ancient context certain forms of homosexuality were tolerated. But, while Israel was continually tempted to fall into this sexualized view of the universe, the biblical writers instituted a sexual revolution. Marriage was to be the context in which sex found its fulfillment. Homosexuality was not to be tolerated, indeed it was particularly abhorrent. God had made woman for man, and man for woman.

In Genesis 2, sex is so connected to our creative purpose, that marriage becomes the re-unifying of two different people, a man and a woman, neither of whom separately can reflect the image of God. The image of God is in our maleness and femaleness, according to Genesis 1:27.

As one Old Testament scholar put it: "woman was created from the rib of man not to indicate submission. Rather, since the rib protects the essential organs of heart and lungs, and the muscles of the diaphragm, the rib can be seen as the bone that draws breath." Therefore, the creation of Eve establishes an "intimate, life-giving, and lively reciprocity between man and woman."

So important was marriage to Jewish life that the prophets continually linked it to the divine covenant. There were concessions to the polygamy of the ancient world. But they weren't the norm, at least according to Jesus (Matthew 19:5,6). Indeed in the Old Testament, the family was the basic unit of society, not the nation or the individual. And within this family context, the dignity of women rose, as might be expected. For where homosexuality flourishes, as it did in ancient Greece, the role of women declines, and an idealized concept of man becomes the focus of intellectual and physical activity.

As for the classical texts, I believe that in Genesis 19 where it says that the men of Sodom wanted "to know" Lot's visitors, it refers to homosexual activity, and that the "abomination" in Sodom, to which Genesis, Ezekiel (16:49-50), and Jude (7) refer, was not just a breach of hospitality, nor just an act of rape, but same-sex intercourse which was considered immoral.

We're told that the two texts in the Leviticus Holiness Code don't apply to us any more because they forbid, among other things, sex during menstruation (15:24, 18:19), eating meat with blood, tattooing (19:28), and making cloth out of wool and cotton together (19:19) — things that were clearly ceremonial in nature.

But I am impressed with the fact that there are many things in Leviticus that are not merely ceremonial, nor have only to do with ritual purity. For example, these same passages forbid incest, bestiality, stealing, lying, taking vengeance, defrauding hired servants, and using slander.

Furthermore, it is in these same passages that we read we are "to love our neighbor as ourselves" (19:18). Clearly these injunctions are part of the enduring moral law. So why should we not see the prohibitions against "lying with a man as with a woman" as part of that same enduring moral law?

It is argued that the brutality of the punishments meted out for sins in those days means that we can sit loose to the sins themselves. You were supposed to stone rebellious children, according to Deuteronomy 21:21. We dismiss such extreme measures today. You were supposed to kill those who performed same sex intercourse then. Again, it is said, we can dismiss that prohibition.

But two things make me pause. First, there is no evidence that these severe punishments were actually carried out. And, second, as Christians we don't live under a theocracy, as ancient Israel did. So the particular punishments no longer apply. But does this mean that in God's eyes these sins don't matter? If, for example, in the Old Testament the sin for incest was death (Leviticus 20:11), but in the New Testament it's "delivering a man to Satan," wouldn't it seem that the New Testament, if anything, strengthens rather than weakens the punishment?

No, it would seem that the New Testament draws much of its opposition to same-sex intercourse from Leviticus, and Leviticus is itself was an expanded commentary on the Ten Commandments (with its prohibitions against idolatry, witchcraft, stealing, lying, adultery and incest).

St. Paul's teaching

So then what of St. Paul? Amazing that he is so often depicted as an uncompromising mysoginist! Given where the ancient world was on the place of women, Paul's view was actually a great advancement.

Furthermore, Paul showed a remarkably tender attitude towards some moral failings. For example, when the incestuous man of I Corinthians 5 showed signs of repentance, Paul urged the fellowship to receive him
back (2 Corinthians 2:7).

But my reading of Paul, especially in Romans 1, where homosexuality and lesbianism are stated to be "against nature," shows that Paul believed same-sex intercourse to be against God's creative plan. The "nature" Paul speaks of is not our natural inclinations, but the nature of how we are made, of how we ought to be. The parallel between idolatry in the early part of Romans 1 and homosexuality at the end of the chapter, shows that Paul was thinking both vertically and horizontally.

Both idolatry (the vertical) and homosexuality (the horizontal) were contrary to the way things were created by God. And just as idolatry was a deliberate suppression of the truth available even to pagans, so too was same sex intercourse. Why? Because of the anatomical complementarity of male and female.

Robert Gagnon, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary whose recent studyThe Bible and Homosexual Practice, just published by Abingdon, is the most comprehensive survey yet, argues that the male and female bodies are constructed in such a way as to give us clues to the complementarity God intended. "This is a complementarity that enables procreation and the capacity for mutual and pleasurable stimulation.

These clues make clear that neither the orifice for excreting waste products, nor the orifice for taking in food, are complimentary orifices for the male member. For Paul it was a commonsense observation of human anatomy and procreative function. Even pagans, who were oblivious to God's direct revelation in the Bible, had no excuse for not knowing this" (p. 256).

In later Pauline passages (I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1), there are three Greek words for homosexual intercourse: malakoi, arsenokoitai, and pornoi. Malakoi, literally soft ones, seem to refer to the passive partners in homosexual intercourse — not as some have tried to make the word, a reference to prostituting males. The Jewish writer Philo clearly uses malakoi to refer to the passive partner. Arsenokoitai, literally "one who lies with men," was a neologism occurring only here and in I Timothy 1:10. Some writers want to make this refer only to exploitative or commercial sex. But it appears to refer to the active partner in homosexual sex. Porneia is a catch-all phrase referring to all kinds of sexual immorality.

But why was Paul so adamant about this? Not just because he tied sex to procreation. Nor just because he found sex, or homosexuality, unclean, nor just because in the ancient world it was often exploitative, or connected with idolatry. But rather Paul rejected homosexuality because it turned males into females, violating the male-female anatomical complementarity. Furthermore, it went against both the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and the Levitical prohibitions.

Jesus' teaching

What about Jesus? Some take comfort in the fact that Jesus never seemed to mention homosexuality. Moreover, he treated people who had failed sexually with unusual compassion. So some surmise that he would take a tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. But I find little reason to believe that Jesus shared any different attitude towards this sin than was current in the Judaism of his day. I think his treatment of homosexual persons would have paralleled his treatment of the woman taken in adultery in John 8.

But what of the argument that in Paul the Law was rendered null and void, and the Gospel replaced it as the believer's new internal monitoring system? It's true that in terms of justification, the law was powerless.

Moreover, the ceremonial law had been superceded by Christ's sacrifice, and the juridical law no longer applied to the new international community of believers. But the moral law still held. Why would Paul base so much of his ethical teaching on it; and why would Jesus say that "not one jot or tittle" of the law would pass? Clearly, they saw a continuing place for the law in the life of believers.

Then there's the logical argument: if you throw out some of the Old Testament's sexual prohibitions, such as those on homosexuality, are you left with any firm basis for rejecting the other things the Old Testament prohibits? Like incest, adultery, bestiality, polygamy, paedophilia. Each of these can lay claim to being tender, loving, gentle, even mutual, and therefore acceptable. This is why when I read William Countryman's Dirt, Greed and Sex, I am not surprised that he sees no problem for a Christian committing a little bestiality or polygamy. Countryman's antinomianism demands acceptance of these activities (p. 243-4).

Clearly, the coming of Christ reordered the early church's perception of the place of law-keeping, and brought a whole new dynamic to play. But the moral law as a reflection of God's character, and a litmus test of human behavior, has always been part of our reading of Scripture. And so we say in the Prayer Book, in response to the Decalogue, "Incline our hearts to keep this law."

Some more questions

There is so much more to say. But let me leave the Bible here, and in the remaining minutes, touch on some other areas growing out of my reading of Scripture. I want to put them in terms of questions:

First, must we still hold onto the Bible's view of homosexuality when our view of the role of women, slavery, and divorce have changed over the years?

Well the difference between homosexuality and these issues is that in all three of these issues you see development within Scripture. Scripture moves in the direction of the changes we now take for granted. But there is no such development in the Bible's view of homosexuality. It's view is unremittingly negative.

With respect to women, I have argued in a paper of which I have a few copies here, that there is a trajectory towards a greater and more affirming role for women throughout the Scriptures. From near obscurity in large parts of the Old Testament, they rise to prominence in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles, far beyond what might be expected, given the culture of the day. They are equipped with the Holy Spirit, sent on missions, at the center of congregational life, called to instruct unenlightened preachers, given prophetic messages, and commissioned to be primary witnesses to the resurrection (Matthew 28:7). Paul says that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

With respect to slavery, while it's true that there were slaves in Israel, Israel did not have a slave economy, and the Bible protected slaves by various regulations. It also used the metaphor of gaining freedom from slavery to refer to the act of salvation in both Testaments; and in the case of Onesimus, Paul does everything possible, short of an outright command to Philemon, to free his slave. He tells the Corinthians: "Were you a slave when you were called? Never mind. But if you can, gain your freedom." (I Corinthians 7:21) Why Christians didn't see the trajectory of Scripture on the matter of slavery is a black mark on our history. But the trajectory is there, and many finally saw it.

And, on divorce. While divorce is repugnant to God (Malachi 2:16), there were cases where it was the lesser of two evils. There is the Mosaic permission, "for the hardness of your hearts" (Matthew 19:8), the Matthaean exception, "except for adultery" (Matthew 5:32), and the Pauline consent, "If the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so" (I Corinthians 7:15)

Second, how can we say that homosexuality is wrong if some people are born that way?

This subject could take all afternoon. Suffice it to say that earlier efforts to discover a gay gene have foundered on the hard rocks of statistics. In the year 2000, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Michael Bailey admitted that his former studies with twins were biased and unscientific. If homosexuality were genetic, then there should be a 100% correlation of identical twins. The actual occurrence is about 11%.
This is not to say that there might be some correlation between genetics and sexual orientation; but the facts are just not there. Environment has a lot to do with whether a person develops a homophile orientation or not.

Moreover, some people are born with a predisposition for anger, or violent behavior, or alcoholism. Does this mean that they have no need to bring these unruly emotions under self-control, or that they shouldn't be held responsible for actions that spring from their inclinations? Greenberg, who supports gay rights, has built a strong case against the idea that homosexuality is an immutable, genetic condition. Even feminist scientists react to how Darwinian theory has been used to reinforce prejudices against women, and say that "biological predisposition does not mean biological destiny" (Globe and Mail, 7/2/94, "A Little Elbow Room, Please, Dr. Darwin.")

And Christians have never said that sin must be freely chosen. As Richard Hays argues in his Moral Vision of the New Testament, "the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen. That is what it means to live 'in the flesh' in a fallen creation" (p.390).

Third, what harm is there if people indulge their sexual whims, as long as the context is loving, mutual, and monogamous? Isn't this what heterosexuals have a right to do, so why not homosexuals?

The harm that homosexuals do is multi-leveled. There is the physical harm that is done to the human body that is not made for anal sex. Study after study demonstrates the medical problems associated with this activity. One statistic says that in any given year approximately 40% of homosexual men get some sexually transmitted disease (Thomas E. Schmidt, p. 118), and the danger of serious illness is constant and cumulative. Life expectancy is seriously shortened, and the rising incidence of AIDS indicates that high risk behavior is once again becoming popular in large sections of the gay community.

Moreover, there is little indication that homosexuals are monogamous, or even want to be. Multiple partners are expected, even among many of those who are in committed relationships (62% according to a Dutch study quoted by Gagnon, p.456), and the contrast between heterosexuals and homosexuals is interesting.

In America 80% of all men and 90% of all women had only one sexual
partner in the preceding year, and 75% of all men and 85% of all women had never had an extramarital affair (The National Health and Social Life Survey, Laumann, et al, 1992). But a book focusing on the sexual habits of "stable" gay couples, indicated that of 156 couples studied, only 7 had remained monogamous, and not one of them had reached the 6-year mark. (McWhirter and Mattison, The Male Couple: How Relationships Develop, 1984)

But why should homosexual couples remain monogamous? At both "Beyond Inclusion" conferences in the Episcopal Church, (1997,1999) speakers argued that the stifling model of heterosexual monogamy should not be foisted on homosexuals. And one seminary professor has argued that the model of monogamous relationships should be replaced by "sexual friendships."

What does this say about male sexuality? It argues that men need to be socialized into enduring, monogamous relationships. Men are easily stimulated and aroused. They need a caring relationship with a woman to bring what is so often an unruly sexual drive into a socially constructive pattern.

Fourth, what about healing for the homosexual?

Some dogmatically say that any such healing is impossible. But they do so in the face of studies and testimonies to the contrary. Not that healings are easy, immediate, or complete. All healing of any kind, this side of death, is temporary, partial, and usually time consuming. Some homosexuals who are highly motivated to change have done so. For some of these change means a reduction in homosexual temptation, for others a change to an exclusively heterosexual orientation. For others it means happy, fulfilling marriages, with children.

Since most psychotherapists say that a 30% success rate is about what you can expect in any treatment — AA has a 25-30% success rate — it's impressive to note that one study of 14 different therapists and therapeutic approaches treating homosexuals, over a 50 year period, showed a 28% change from considerable to complete. (Satinover, p.186-187)

Finally, does it really matter?

I have argued that it matters to God. God has a design for human sexuality.

It matters to people. We all know friends, colleagues, or fellow-Americans who are dying of AIDS. I've walked with parishioners who died of AIDS. Even if a cocktail or a pill were developed tomorrow to stem the tide of this terrible disease, and let's hope one is, homosexual behavior involves serious health risks.

It matters to society. Our society increasingly tolerates homosexuals as people, even though studies show that it consistently disapproves of homosexual conduct. Clearly homosexuals have rights like the rest of us.

My wife and I sold our first home to a homosexual couple. Far too many homosexuals have lived in fear, and know irrational rejection and hatred, including self-hatred. The church needs to minister to them. They need the gospel, and frequently respond to the gospel.

But love involves more than tolerance and acceptance. It involves the kind of deep ministry that will help people of whatever sexual orientation come to terms with the unruly emotions that surround our sexual impulses. It involves caring enough to help people work through the brokenness of past hurts and failures, and to seek the healing that Christ gives. It involves confronting the self-pity that refuses help, and it involves inviting people to experience joy.

The Very Rev. Dr. Peter Moore is dean and president of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. He is the author of the award-winning Disarming the Secular Gods (IVP), One Lord, One Faith (Nelson), and A Church to Believe In (Latimer), and most recently the editor of Can a Bishop Be Wrong?: Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong (Morehouse, 1998).
"The Bible and Homosexuality Today" was given at a "Day of Sacred Dialogue" in the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, on November 3, 2001, sponsored by the diocese's ad hoc committee on human sexuality.

Copyright Peter C. Moore, 2001.

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