Compassion and Homosexuality

In 2004 I wrote Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church. I might edit the language some. For instance, I wouldn’t today use what now feels like an outdated and inappropriate term such as “homosexuality.” On pp. 82-87, you will find the following section I wrote:

God’s call to compassion moves me in directions I would not have gone in the past. As a leader in the “older son” community, I confidently taught an interpretation of the scriptures which said that sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender was sinful and unacceptable. I voted for years against every effort to say otherwise. After my “new birth” experience, as I began to grow in the ways of compassion, as I began to listen to the stories of people who are gay and lesbian, the Spirit moved my heart and mind to walk a different path on this journey.

I heard people say consistently that just as I had known from childhood that I was attracted to persons of the opposite gender, they had known they were attracted to persons of the same gender. They had the same desires and feelings I had, but in a different way. My memories of being attracted to a girl go all the way back to first grade, to a little girl who rode the same school bus. In the third grade, I had my first real “love” who I walked with after school. I remember girlfriends in sixth grade, in ninth grade, and on through high school and into college. I even remember some of their names. Other people saw all those relationships as cute when I was younger and acceptable as I grew older.

What must it be like for people whose attraction from those early years is for someone of the same gender if almost no one thinks it’s cute or acceptable? Many of them had learned, as I had, from church and culture that same-gender sexual intimacy (commonly called homosexuality) is sinful. They struggled against their feelings and desires. They felt them as normal for them but were constantly told they were abnormal, even sinful. Many tried to change who they were. They dated and even married in heterosexual relationships and found themselves in despair, for they knew it felt wrong for them.

I wish Jesus had said something about homosexuality, but he did not. In all the Bible, there are only a handful of references. I returned to the scriptures and read books on all sides of the question of whether such relationships are right or wrong. And I have come to an understanding of scripture that God desires love and faithfulness to the other person in a relationship, but that the Bible is silent on whether people of faith can live in a lifelong relationship with a person of the same gender.

The creation stories, in Genesis 1-2, focus on the creation of a man and a woman, made in God’s image and given responsibility for the rest of creation. The necessity of two people being able to “increase in number and fill the earth” requires them to be male and female. Jesus understood this story [see Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12] to mean that God intended two people to continue in a faithful relationship throughout their life together. Jesus was responding to a question, asked out of the hardness of some men’s hearts, about whether men should be allowed to divorce their wives for just any reason. These texts do not speak about homosexuality but about the importance of a mutual and faithful commitment to the other person, just as God is faithful to us.

The story of Sodom [Genesis 19] is often used to condemn homosexuality because the men of the city wanted to have sex with these two angels who looked like men. But sexual orientation is not the issue. Rather the story at that point is about violence and rape, perhaps even about the ancient tradition of hospitality. Then and now, heterosexual men commonly use homosexual rape as a tool for achieving power and dominance over strangers, in war and in prison, for instance. Lot even offered his daughters to the men, believing he could appease their violent lust for power, but the angels prevented that. There is nothing in the story remotely similar to committed gay and lesbian relationships.

Ezekiel 16:49 offers another view that the sin of Sodom was that the people were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned and they did not help the poor and needy. Those are sins prevalent in a heterosexual society and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Prohibitions against homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20 are surrounded by prohibitions against a number of things which are usually accepted today, such as creating hybrid plants, wearing clothing with multiple fabrics, eating steaks cooked “rare,” trimming our hair and beards, and getting tattoos. This “holiness code,” as it is commonly called, also permits some things which are normally condemned today, such as polygamy and slavery. If the scriptures allow us to understand any of these laws to be no longer applicable – such as polygamy and slavery laws – are we not free to reconsider all of them in the same way?

Romans 1:26-27 is the only text to include women in the discussion of same sex relations. The question for us is whether what Paul describes is in any way the same thing as a committed, monogamous relationship between two persons of the same sex. What Paul talks about is how people have refused to glorify God, their Creator, and to be grateful to God, and to worship God. Rather they turned to idols, to “gods” of their own making. In that day people commonly visited temples dedicated to the worship of various gods, and that “worship” often included sexual relations with temple prostitutes, both men and women. In the context of this chapter, many people agree that the sexual relations described here were in the context of idolatrous worship and are not descriptive of committed same-gender relationships.

In the New Testament [1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10], two Greek words at the heart of the current debate probably refer to men who regularly engaged in sex with young boys for their own pleasure. That is pedophilia or pederasty, not just homosexuality, certainly not what gay and lesbian Christians experience. Both verses are in the context of describing how some people continue to abuse other people, to refuse to worship God, to be unfaithful to people and to God, to treat other people and themselves without respect or honor. Gay and lesbian Christians would as quickly condemn such behavior as anyone else.

Given this too brief discussion of these scripture texts, is a person’s sexual orientation even a matter of concern to us in the church? Our concern is to be people who worship God, who are faithful to God and to people, who do not abuse but rather respect and honor other people and themselves. Our concern is to encourage faithful, committed relationships of love and grace and faith. If gay and lesbian persons live such lives, the scriptures seem silent on the question of their sexual orientation.

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