I love stories.
It’s the best part of being a chaplain, getting to hear people’s stories every day. And it’s what I love most about the Bible – it’s an amazing collection of stories, poetry, letters, and more. That’s how I was introduced to the Bible as a child … the “Good Samaritan” who rescued a man beaten by robbers when the priests wouldn’t help. Zaccheus, the vertically challenged tax collector, who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus and ended up having dinner with him. Little David defeating the giant Goliath with his slingshot. The servant girl whose advice leads a military officer with leprosy to be healed.
Unfortunately, many of us have experienced the Bible primarily as a weapon. It’s been used to tell us that our loving is sinful, that we ourselves are “an abomination.” And yet, I would bet that many of us really don’t know what the Bible says about sexuality or homosexuality (and that’s probably also true for those who condemn us).
But first, before we even look at what the Bible says, it’s important to realize that we all read the Bible (or anything, for that matter) through a particular lens. We all bring a perspective, that has to do with our culture, background, upbringing, education, etc. Some of those things we’re aware of, others, not so much. In my own Lutheran tradition, the ELCA website says this:
As Lutherans, ELCA members believe that the Bible is the written Word of God. It creates and nurtures faith through the work of the Holy Spirit and points us to Jesus Christ, the living Word and center of our faith. And in reading the Bible, we are invited into a relationship with God that both challenges us and promises us new life.
Martin Luther was very critical of parts of the Bible. What mattered most to him was “whether or not they preach Christ.” He also says this:
“One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day.”
As I look at the Bible, I deeply appreciate the words of Rev. Victoria Cortez, a Lutheran pastor I met in Nicaragua, who said,
“The Word has to be a liberating Word, not an oppressive Word. If it becomes an oppressive Word, it is not the Word of God.”
So let’s look at the Bible. Jesus says nothing about homosexuality. Nothing. At most, I count eight verses in the Bible that could be interpreted as referring to sexual activity between people of the same gender. In contrast, there are hundreds of verses that talk about money and wealth and how we should live in relationship with our financial resources.
What strikes me most when I look at those few verses is how much they strongly reflect the highly misogynistic and patriarchal culture in which they were written, a culture in which a mutually supportive, committed relationship between two consenting (same gender) adults of equal status wasn’t even a concept.
For example, two of those references, Genesis 19:1-29 and Judges 19-21 tell the tragic stories of attempted gang rape. As Walter Wink puts it, this is “a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them ‘like women,’ thus demasculinizing them.” That brutality has nothing to do with a relationship between mature, consenting adults. Likewise, Deuteronomy 23:17-18 refers to prostitution.
1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 refer to “sodomites” in lists of wrongdoers; however, there is much scholarly debate about the meaning of the original Greek words used here (arsenokoitai and malakoi). I recommend Daniel A. Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality for a more in-depth discussion. His conclusion is that these passages condemn exploitative sex, not homosexuality.
That leaves two passages in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13), both of which specifically refer to male same gender behavior. Same gender sexual activity (between men) is clearly condemned in these passages. But again, to some extent, this also reflects the cultural understanding of the day, which saw men “acting like women sexually” as degrading and shameful. There are also many prohibitions in Leviticus that most of us don’t observe: eating pork or shellfish, “sowing your field with two different kinds of seed or putting on a garment made of two different materials,” being some of the more striking examples.
Finally, Romans 1:26-27 is the only Biblical passage that speaks against same-gender sexual activity between men AND between women. When I read this section of scripture (not just these two verses), what strikes me is that the primary sin being called out is placing oneself, material things, even the keeping of religious laws, above faith in God, above relationship with God. The conclusion is that we all fall short, and must rely on grace.
So what does it all mean? In the end, we won’t find Biblical passages that celebrate same gender sexual activity. But we also must remember the cultural context in which these passages were written (a context which spans centuries and nations and many different authors), which is significantly different from our current context. Keeping slaves, or selling young girls off as property to their husbands are no longer generally acceptable social norms. There’s far more to be said about this topic than this blog allows … a couple of my favorite books are Daniel A. Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, and Walter Wink’s essay “Homosexuality and the Bible” in Homosexuality and Christian Faith.
But there are also MANY reasons why I do keep coming back to the Bible (again, far more than I can say in this particular blog post). For example,
♦ The “Great Commandment,” essentially to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39)
♦ The many, many, many ways God works through outsiders – Tamar (one of Jesus’ ancestors, Genesis 38), Ruth and Naomi (Ruth, a foreigner (also prohibited) follows her mother-in-law out of love to a new land, and becomes one of Jesus’ ancestors), Hagar (another outsider, who sees God and is blessed through Ishmael (Gen. 21), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and on and on.
♦ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10)
♦ …what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, an dto walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
And story after story that tells me of a love that is creative, breaks boundaries, inspires, encourages, brings life. Stories that encourage me to continue working for justice and caring for the oppressed. Stories that remind me that there is hope in the darkest days, and that life is stronger than death.
What are the stories that encourage you?
About me: Susan is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, serving as a hospital chaplain, and has mostly gotten used to being the “lesbian poster child” in her church. She finds the Sacred all kinds of places — in the mountains, in church, at a hospital bedside, in the midst of a heartfelt conversation, running along the coastal trail, in music that makes her cry and stories that make her laugh.