Over the last few years I have become increasingly disillusioned, and frankly horrified, at how I have seen mainline churches in Northern Ireland treat people who are LGBQT. Inside the church, gay Christians are given the ultimatum of enforced singleness for the rest of their life, or else barred from church membership, participation in sacraments, and volunteering and leadership positions. Outside the church, Christians have put a lot of time, energy, and money into condemning same-sex relationships as sinful, and trying to block equality laws for same-sex couples. I have recently posted several times on social media calling for greater inclusion, and for churches to affirm same-sex marriages. This has been met with mixed responses. The most common objection I have received is that my stance is ‘unbiblical’ and contrary to the ‘Word of God’. I write the following in response.
I would first like to clarify that this is not about trying to win a theological debate or win an argument. This is an issue of human rights, dignity and suffering. Rates of mental ill health and suicide are unacceptably higher in people who are LGBQT. Social discrimination and a sense of inferiority are significant contributing factors, and churches very much bear a large brunt of the responsibility for this. In Matthew ch7 vv15-20 Jesus teaches that you can recognise false teaching by the bad fruit it bears. I find it very hard that anyone could deny that this teaching is bearing bad fruit in the lives of LGBQT people, both within, and outside church communities.
Before I go into the specifics of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality, I would like to take a step back for a paragraph and explore what do we even mean when we use the adjective ‘Biblical’? Do we mean something that is moral and right and absolute truth? There are numerous examples of atrocities recorded in the Bible, and multiple intrinsic contradictions and inconsistencies. Some are fairly minor, some a lot more difficult to reconcile. How for example, can an unchanging God ‘appear’ to command genocide in Numbers and yet be revealed as the peace-seeking Jesus, who taught love of enemy, and died a horrific death himself, rather than practice any form of violence? Genocide, as a concept, is ‘Biblical’ but I do not condone it. The Bible is a divinely inspired conversation about God, written by different authors who often had completely opposing points of view. In my experience, fundamentalist Christians, who hold a literalist view, are forced to pick and choose. They ignore the troubling passages, and if there are contradicting views, they choose the one that fits their own doctrine or worldview. I am not saying that absolute truth does not exist, but that all humans are influenced by their time, culture and bias. That includes the Biblical authors, the translators and editors throughout history, and Christians across the 40,000+ different denominations reading the Bible today. I do not bring this point up to try and disparage the Bible but I also do not think it does any good to bury our heads in the sand either. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says all scripture is God-breathed and useful, and I think there is a lot of wisdom to be gained from wrestling with the more difficult passages, and understanding the context of why they have been included and what we can learn. I also do not think it means we can all do whatever we want. The Bible itself doesn’t claim to be the ‘Word of God’ but points to Jesus who is the living ‘Word’, or revelation, of God, John ch1v1, John ch 5 vv39-40. How did Jesus summarise scriptures and teach us how to interpret them? “Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets”. Matthew ch7 v12 “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and mind, and love your neighbour as yourself, all the law and prophets hang on these two commandments”. Matthew ch22 37-40.
So what does the Bible actually say about Homosexuality? For an issue that has risen to such dominance in churches today, not an awful lot. Out of 31,000 verses in the Bible same-sex behaviour is mentioned 6 times.
Genesis ch19 Sodom and Gomorrah. I’m actually not going to spend a lot of time on this passage because it is fairly clear from simply reading the story, that this is about gang rape against Lot’s visitors and the grave sin of inhospitality. In Middle Eastern cultures inhospitality was so taboo that Lot offered his own virgin daughters to be raped instead rather than have his visitors violated. Jesus himself says that the sin of Sodom was inhospitality Matthew ch10 vv14-15.
Leviticus ch18 v22 and ch20 v13. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”. To put this verse in context, Leviticus is a list of purity codes written by the ancient Israelites in the Bronze age, as a way of keeping them set apart from the nations around them. At this time in history the world was flat, and the sun moved around the earth. Knowledge of reproductive biology was also limited. There was no concept of a sperm and ovum and the process of fertilisation. It was thought that the whole of human life was in the man’s seed and women were simply incubators, and if it was spilled it would be wasting human life. Furthermore, this was an extremely patriarchal society. Same-sex male behaviour would also put one of the men into the demeaning, ‘lesser’ female position. To be thought of as feminine would have been shameful and unthinkable in this culture. You will note interestingly, that there is no prohibition of female same-sex acts in these laws because there was no need; females already occupied the lesser position in society . There are also all sorts of other strange laws listed as an ‘abomination’ including sowing a field with two different kinds of seeds, wearing clothes of mixed fabric and eating shellfish and pork, none of which we follow today. Luckily we don’t actually have to pick and choose because as Paul says Christians are no longer under the law so none of this applies Romans ch6 v14.
Now we move onto the New Testament
Paul wrote Romans as a letter to the Jewish Christians, who felt a sense of superiority over the non-Jewish Christians because of their law. In Romans 1, Paul quotes a common stereotype that Jews had of Gentiles to make a point, and references same-sex behaviour in the context of lust and idolatry and shameless acts. Not only is this not particularly relevant to a monogamous same-sex relationship today, but the point of this passage wasn’t actually to condemn the Gentiles for their behaviour. The point of the passage is for the Jews to stop judging. If you actually read on a bit it continues “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment in another you condemn yourself”. Romans ch2 v1
1 Corinthians ch 6 v9, 1 Timothy ch1 v9-10 The Greek word arsenokoitai in these passages has unfortunately been translated as homosexuals in various modern Bible translations today. We don’t know exactly what the word means because Paul made it up. It appears to be some play on words on the Greek translation of Leviticus but we can’t be certain exactly what he was trying to say. If we look at the context in which it is used, it is listed among various other abusive behaviours including adultery, thievery, swindling, murder, slave trading and lying. It is probable that Paul was condemning the extremely common practice in the Greco-Roman culture in which he lived, of married men (who were not necessarily even homosexual) engaging in same-sex behaviours with the young boys they mentored, or with their boy slaves. Arsenokoitai simply cannot be translated as homosexual, because that word only came into existence in the 19th century. Our modern understanding of homosexuality, as a mainly fixed orientation that cannot be consciously changed, has only been discovered through social sciences over the past few hundred years. Just as Paul had no understanding of the concept of the earth revolving around the sun, or of the existence of the country America, he also would have been limited in his understanding of homosexuality and the idea that a same-sex relationship could be equal, monogamous and non-abusive.
The above six passages are all that the Bible actually has to say about same-sex behaviour and none of it is relevant to an equal, loving relationship, or even speaks about same-sex attraction as an orientation. Christians claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and yet he never even mentions it. I have to ask the question of why this is such a massive issue in churches in Northern Ireland today? I have been directed to look to Matthew 19 and Mark 10 and have been told that these passages show that Jesus ‘clearly’ defined marriage as between a man and a woman. However, this is a completely fallacious argument, and it both saddens and angers me, to see Jesus’ teachings being twisted in this way, in order to continue to oppress a minority group. These two passages are about divorce and Jesus giving rights and empowerment to women. In the patriarchal society of his time, men could easily divorce their wives simply because they displeased them in some minor way. As women had no rights this left them homeless, destitute and hungry. Jesus taught that the marriage bond was strong and could only be broken if the wife was unfaithful. Showing commitment to your wife, and seeing her as more than a piece of property that could easily be discarded, was so counter-cultural, that even Jesus’ disciples said “If this is the situation between a husband and wife it is better not to marry”.
Jesus had nothing to say about same-sex behaviour, but he had plenty to say about people who judged other people, he had plenty to say about people who put law over love, he had plenty to say about those who oppressed, and he saved his harshest criticism for the religious gatekeepers of his day who created barriers between God and his people. Again, I have to ask why is this such a dominant issue in churches in Northern Ireland and when will this persecution end? It is not ‘Biblical’, it is not Christlike, it is not loving your neighbour, it is not treating others as you would have them treat yourself. It is creating unnecessary pain, suffering and division. I pray that one day this will end, and I will continue to speak up until people who are LGBQT and loved by God, are given the full dignity, respect and equality they deserve.