About People With Same-Sex Orientation
As a child, adolescent and adult I have had isolated and unwanted homosexual advances made towards me. These encounters made me uncomfortable, but did not seem to raise sexual identity doubts.
As a teacher, counselor, and administrator I have had a small but significant number of cases (males and females) whose life concerns and behaviors involved their sexual identities. As an ordained and professionally supervised Mennonite pastor I have continued a small but significant counseling practice which included a few persons with strong same-sex attraction.
My work has included some who were sexually abused or who themselves were abusers. Most were heterosexual and a few were homosexual in orientation.
With other clergy and therapists I participated in an intensive weekend retreat with parents, siblings, and persons of same-sex orientation. We observed loving, healthy family relationships, uncommonly high ethical standards, and universal pain in church relationships.
For over a year I participated in a powerful 12-Step sexual addiction group and observed men and women of both same-sex and opposite-sex attraction struggle toward health, responsibility and covenant relationship. The group included people of strong Christian faith and a wide range of professional careers.
My professional work has included some persons obsessed with sex. They were addictive, predatory, and seemed incapable of creating or sustaining much human intimacy, hardly knowing what they were needing and seeking. Almost all were heterosexual and very religious.
I have read about recovery programs whose participants witness to a successful conversion from same-sex orientation to heterosexual practices. I have never met such a person but do not dispute the claims of those who remain liberated. I have, however, known and worked with some for whom such programs did not succeed and who were additionally burdened with their condition because of their failed effort.
I know-from personal observation, client anecdotes and reading-something of the dark underworld of a violent and prostituting homosexual life style where spiritual-psychological-social-physical agony and risk are spelled out in captivities and a futile search for home, safety, intimacy and joy. The believing followers of Christ whom I know and who have been given a same-sex orientation are as far removed from this homosexual life style as any heterosexual disciples of Christ are in separating from the joyless life style of heterosexual addiction, promiscuity and prostitution. Indeed, Christian gays and lesbians often draw the line more clearly than heterosexuals do. The ironic difference is that Christians of same-sex attraction are largely estranged from the body of Christ and are left to finding their own way in secrecy and without the very support they deserve and that the church is called to give, while persons with heterosexual orientation are offered the benefits of unquestioned support. We may ask very gently if we Christians focus on excluding same-sex oriented believers so that we can continue to accommodate our largely unexamined and not so faithful heterosexual habits of thought and action. I think so; and the fingers of responsibility point strongly and firmly also to myself. The righting of one of those wrongs will bring light to the other; wrongful exclusion and wrongful permissiveness are probably connected. We can choose where to start our necessary work.
I do not believe we have a full understanding of how sexual orientations develop. Human sexuality is very complex. Nevertheless, on the incomplete data I do have, I now believe and accept as operable for me the conclusion that five to ten percent of the human population develops a same-sex attraction that is neither self-chosen nor changeable; and that a genetic link is likely. Such sisters and brothers, though in the minority, are God’s beloved daughters and sons no less than I; their sexuality is as much a gift from God as mine is; and the highest ethic found in Christ serves as light and health for them and for me.
About the Living Word of God
For a People of the Book who have for five hundred years turned to the Bible in prayer and deliberation to separate themselves not only from a sinful, unregenerate secular society but also from an accommodating and compromising religious system, no solution to our current impasse over justice and purity can merit serious consideration if it does not pass through the Bible, if it does not glow with an enduring biblical light.
The Bible is God’s Word to humanity inspired with living, dynamic truth by the Holy Spirit working in and through human lives lived in a specific Near East culture over a period of more than two thousand years. Scripture that is heard by a seeking person brings the hearer into relationship with God by the power of the Holy Spirit. The salvation story of God’s people becomes the lively personal salvation story of that beloved one who reaches out in faith. The Bible is our primary source of knowledge about Jesus Christ. The written Word is understood through the Word-made-flesh, Jesus Christ. The Bible reveals Christ, but just as importantly, Christ illuminates the Bible and shines as the light of the world.
There are many different kinds of writing in the Bible: oral traditions written down, wonderfully crafted myths and legends that express and evoke faith, genealogies, prayers, songs, proverbs, prophetic oracles, dirges, eye-witness news accounts, biographies, chronicles of historical events, letters, lists, laws, systematic theology, dreams and interpretations.
Although the Bible proclaims the God who creates and sustains the universe, it is not a book about science, but about faith. Although the Bible reveals the God of time and space, the Bible is not a history of the world but a book about faith whose truth lies far beyond scientific and historical fact, far beyond the culture in which the Bible was formed. The Bible has universal and abiding meaning, but it is culture-specific throughout and is understood and interpreted contextually. Its teachings show the way to God within the world view and science of its day. We should and we do interpret the Bible by asking how faithful living in the ancient times can tell us how to live faithfully in our culture.
We can not force ourselves to believe what our experiences and knowledge refute. Faith is always an extension that reaches beyond what we know. For example, Genesis 1-11 is a majestic, life-giving, awe-inspiring, faith-evoking account that superlatively points to a loving, caring, creator God who is interested in his creation and especially in human beings whom he created in the Divine image for fellowship by having given them freedom and responsibility to choose. If I look with faith, trust, and curiosity toward the God who is pointed to in this spiritual treasure I will indeed live and grow with my Creator. I will find the Bible to be wonderfully alive and effective.
I know of no one who lives as though she/he believes all of the scriptures apply literally. A few examples make this clear: No one supports or offers animal sacrifices. We do not stone adulterers or observe ceremonial washing ordinances. We do not stone our children for disobedience nor a man who refuses to have children by his deceased brother’s wife. The list could go on. The point is, all of us believe and act as though the word of God were a dynamic Word, a living Word, not a static document. Every person of faith responds to a living God, always interpreted within the culture and circumstance of the believer. If we honor this truth, we will share wonderful experiences of salvation and find God’s Word an unending treasure for ethical choices and spiritual enrichment.
Reading the Bible is a form of praying. By bringing myself to the text I am offering my story to be interwoven with the written word and transformed into His Story. I release my care and become empty before God and the Word. The Holy Spirit is in charge: “Bring me everything so you can become empty and silent, ready to be refilled with your transformed story, your treasure from above.”
We enter the text personally to become author, audience, teacher, and all the characters-including God and Jesus Christ. By living in each character, I open wide my life and let God’s Spirit enter into me. Nouwen has perfected this in The Return of the Prodigal Son. To enter into the heart of God and live the words and actions of God in the text is to join God in deep companionship-the most ecstatic event possible for a human! I believe this is what Jesus was always doing and what he invites and authorizes us to do. It is lively, surprising, dynamic, breaking old stereotypes, creating again and again a new creation (II Cor. 5:17).
The ethical principles and laws featured in the Bible are “means of grace” which summarize and represent my relationships to God, family, neighbor, stranger, the earth and my own self. Jesus reinforced the whole of this law by summarizing: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind; and your neighbor as yourself. On this hang all the law and the prophets.” All other laws and principles are developed in culture specific contexts. We humans who seek God’s face and follow Christ, who open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, must still make our ethical choices-always in the light we have been given. This responsibility to choose and interpret in our context can never be avoided.
Jesus once said (Matthew 5:18) that he came to fulfill the law-every word and even every punctuation mark! But Jesus violated the Leviticus code about working on Sundays and blithely justified it with a reference to David and his soldiers eating the ceremonial show bread which was strictly forbidden (Matthew 12:4). Apparently Jesus assumed, taught and demonstrated that a higher principle of ethics-the law of love-is the only way to fulfill the entire law. Jesus looked beyond the law into the face of God and saw there what love demands. Jesus bids us follow.
About Confessions of Faith
The discussion above introduces a major question emerging in our denomination as we pray for merger events: shall our well-written, widely-accepted Confession of Faith be used descriptively and educationally or is it to be used prescriptively and *legally*as a tool for authoritarian management? Shall it be made available for information or be put into the service of conformation? Its intended use for the former is compromised by every effort to use it for the latter.
All valid laws, covenants, principles and doctrines point to relationships and serve to help individuals maintain the common-unity, the common-wealth. They are valuable in helping us live responsibly by providing a fast short-cut through the immense responsibility of deciding moment by moment how to live ethically. Laws and interpretations are secondary to and derive their validity entirely from the relationships they point to. If we focus our lives on the agreements we generate and not on God, we will inevitably become conformists losing our humanity and violating the very relationships we are trying to nurture.
In our current struggle for both *justice and purity*we are challenged to include as members of our very own body, people who are gifted differently than we are. Excluding anyone based on the way God’s “natural law” created and developed them undermines all relationships in the system and endangers the health of all. When we create rules to sever part of our own body from us we are in dis-relationship not only to the member severed but to the rest of our body and to our creator. Or, if we establish interpretations, habits, policies and conventions which result in cutting off circulation to a member of the body-denying that member the right of and the access to food, safety, love, esteem, self-identity and opportunity-we are thereby inducing hazard and illness in the whole body.
Of course, this metaphoric body language (Jesus and Paul both used it extensively) argues just as powerfully and logically in favor of cutting off a leg when gangrene signals that circulation has already been cut off and death is encroaching. The body must sever itself from such pernicious destruction and it does so in honor of its health and in profound relationship to the creator of the body. The Bible leaves no doubt about the obligation of the body of Christ to renounce evil and to stop the nurture and justification of iniquity. The body of Christ should most assuredly be vigilant in detecting, diagnosing and treating the infection of sin.
The sharp juxtaposition of the last two paragraphs points to the dilemma of the church. I am confident that we are in strong agreement about the truth in both. Our convictions diverge in our definitions of same-sex orientation as sin (a self-chosen and rebellious identity in disrelation to the creator) or as gift (a condition given by God’s natural laws including heredity and environment) and accepted by the beloved in relationship to the creator.
I have declared my conviction that same-sex attraction is a gift. But all behavior is a choice. In that truth we stand together. Very important ethical work lies before us as we live together in the body of Christ. All systematic theology is important and useful as an aid to our thinking, choosing and behaving consistently. When we “try on” these doctrinal “tools” and the scriptures from which those doctrines were developed, we learn much. We are putting ourselves and each other into the hands of God. When we use the doctrinal structures to turn our eyes in faith toward God they help to unite us. When we use such summaries to help us share our own spiritual journeys they help to make us one in Christ and create salvation history. But when we treat our Confession of Faith like laws and put them into the service of imposing conformity, we have transferred them from the domain of love, truth, inquiry, prayer, mutual submission and fellowship into the kingdom of fear, power, control, defense, and authoritarianism. However truthful, good, biblical, insightful, systematic and endurable those doctrines may be, their use as power changes the dynamics utterly and eventuates in division, disconnection, the undermining of faith, injustice, bigotry, hatred and violence-even though sanctified with biblical references and religious language.
Exactly this is one of the choices Jesus refused in the wilderness and on the cross. Jesus looked far down the logic of Satan’s suggestions and saw that they would result in worshipping the law, the doctrine, the Bible-and that such worship is always idolatry.
I will help my church take seriously the Confession of Faith and other approved statements. But I resist their authoritarian use to achieve conformity with all the zeal and skill I can apply. Our unity in Christ is of a different world than conformity will ever know. (Romans 12.)
About Freedom and Responsibility
If we as a Spirit-led church are to resolve our impasse over justice (inclusion) and purity (exclusion), my friends on the right shore will need to come over and help us on their distant left find ways to use their call to purity to help us answer our primary call to justice. And we on the left shore will need to carry to the church on the right shore our call to justice to help them fulfill their primary call to purity. On both shores we have critical work to do to honor our respective primary calls whose dark shadows are the other side’s primary calling. Always the not-to-be-ignored shadow of exclusion is its potential for injustice; and always the shadow of inclusion is its potential for self-justification and lack of accountability. The full-of-faith followers of Jesus are resolute in dispelling both shadows and embracing both elements as necessary for Truth and Light to flourish as the singularity of Love. Love is indeed both pure and just. Therefore, we should be optimistic about our work.
Freedom and responsibility are one. The interpretation of Adam and Eve at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is not limited to being a test of obedience to a don’t-eat rule. To do so is to say that companionship with God is automaton conformity, and that law defines the relationship. In that case none of us could call God Our Father, for no parent I know of is content to have a relationship defined-confined to law and obedience. No, the test is about matching freedom with responsibility, about choosing and being responsible for our choices.
Paul devotes all of Galatians to this topic by my reckoning. In Christ, freedom is responsibility and responsibility is freedom. The trouble always arrives quickly on the left shores of our current malaise when we push for inclusion under the banners of justice and freedom but discount accountability and consequences. And trouble always boils over in the church of the right shores when obedience and conformity become the gold standard of spirituality.
Lawrence Kohlberg spent a career researching the development of moral reasoning in several different cultures and found a remarkable consistency in the developmental progression of moral reasoning which he described in six stages. The first two are self-centered, pleasure-oriented and at best only reciprocal-an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you’ll-scratch-mine arrangement. The middle two are about the emergence of law and the development of binding agreements, consequences and rituals in which relationships are maintained by definitions, prescriptions and requirements. The sixth stage describes moral relationship as anchored in doing unilaterally what love requires, without reciprocity and without demand or constraint. This progression of moral reasoning is seen in the broad sweep of the biblical record and fairly leaps out in the teachings of Jesus and the theology of Paul in Romans and Galatians.
Jesus-on-the-cross is not only effecting pardon for us and covering all the bases that are conceivably connected to the requirements of stage 3-4 law with its punishments for sin and disobedience. Jesus-on-the-cross is also living out the divine truth of unilateral love. We may address Jesus as *Savior*based on trusting him to cover our sins and pay the penalty, but I do not properly address him as Lord until I accept the invitation to a voluntary, one-sided love that is far beyond a kingdom of laws.
I am sure that my friends on the distant right are deeply touched by a Jesus who is more than a payer-of-penalties. They too know Jesus as Lord and seek the highest ethic of love and realize at some deep level that their awe and worship is all about the unilateral love that utterly exceeds the righteousness of stage 3-4 moral reasoning based on law. Yet, when my friends on the right turn uncritically to the Bible’s laws and rules as their warrant for relationships in the body of Jesus Christ, are they not canceling the cross and diminishing the gospel? I think Paul says so, and I do too. I plead for the church to understand that laws and rules, with consequences, are appropriate for stage 3-4 moral reasoning and to recognize that many people are just entering into such accountability and need those provisions. But with equal passion I plead for us not to foreclose on the beautiful ethic of stage 6 moral reasoning which Jesus Christ incarnated and invites us to imitate. What the Bible offers for stage 3-4 moral reasoning has little distinctive Christian quality. The distinction is in Christ on the cross, and that is truly stage 5-6 moral reasoning.
There is arrogance in talking this way about superior moral reasoning, yet I do know that I want to meet my brothers and sisters both from the right and from the left in the arms of the Holy One whose justice is love and whose love is justice. My witness is that a few sisters and brothers who are same-sex gifted have taught me more about such love and ethics than a thousand co-Christians who use the Bible to exclude people whom they fear.
My passion for understanding and advancing the high call of a love that is just and a righteousness that exceeds obedience is not only theological but also social and psychological. Fromm’s Escape from Freedom examines and reveals the tragic faultiness of the authoritarianism that eventuated in Nazism and the holocaust, Christian believers mostly assenting blindly. My conservative friends on the right shore may forsake not only our gospel but also endanger our society when they turn too easily to laws, rules, punishments and rewards as the basis for Christian unity and human community. Then there is no distinctive Christian ethic.
Conversely, we liberal friends on the left shore cheapen our gospel, invite offense, fuel a legalistic reaction of fear and derision, and undermine the fabric of our social order when we spurn accountability. The alternative to authoritarianism is not lawlessness, permissiveness, nor even vaulted human rights with their constitutional and legislative provisions, but rather a profoundly rooted and radical spirituality of unilateral, unlegislatable love. That is how Jesus sums up the law and the prophets; that is the biblical fly-over of human history.
About Jesus and the Bible
Violent homosexual behavior is at the center of the story of Sodom’s destruction in Genesis 18-19 and this story is very similar to Judges 19. Homosexual acts are specifically forbidden for males in Leviticus 18, carrying the penalty of death. In Romans 1 Paul specifies male and female homosexual behavior in a list of human corruptions which escalate and destroy the human spirit. In I Corinthians 6 Paul includes male prostitutes and sodomites in a list of vice-ridden, depraved persons spawned by the licentious culture of Corinth. In I Timothy, the writer includes sodomites in a list of lawless, disobedient persons whose behaviors consume them and alienate them from God. Jude warns against false teachers who pervert and deny Christ, reminding his readers that Sodom (and Gomorrah) were destroyed by fire because of unnatural and immoral sexual behaviors.
These are the primary texts. All condemn homosexual behavior and I know of no biblical texts that approve homosexual behavior. No texts I know of imply the concept of homosexuality as a *given orientation*in contrast to homosexuality as a behavior.
We who advocate accepting same-sex attraction as a gift from God rather than to see it as a personal choice of abominable corrupting behavior will have to build our case by placing a Christological interpretation on the whole Bible with an understanding given by the Holy Spirit and tested in the Body of Christ. We will need to show how our reading the Bible supports an interpretation that the face value of these texts does not immediately or easily support. We do not dismiss or trivialize the convictions of sisters and brothers who read the Bible as unequivocally condemning all homosexual behaviors. But we do invite them to be curious about how we treat the texts.
Jesus is silent about homosexuality in the gospels. But he is powerful and consistent in calling us all to the highest ethical-moral principles grounded in love. Although I am forming my position about persons with same-sex attraction on the best understanding I have of Jesus’ life and of his interpretation of the scriptures following the trajectory of God’s love, I do not dismiss Paul and the apostles.
Therefore, before discussing the explicit “homosexual” texts, I visit Mark 4:35-5:20; Acts 10; Romans 12; and Colossians 1:15-20 to focus on a Christological method for interpretation.
Mark 4:35-5:20. Jesus calms the night-time storm at sea and on the other side heals the Gerasene of his many demons. These two events are powerful in shaping a Christology to think about homosexuality.
- “Evening” in the ancient times is always a time for the spirit world where evil lurks and engages humankind. Jesus boldly enters into the night, into the fear that keeps us hostage. (Echoes of Jacob in Genesis 32, Jesus in Gethsemane.) The night has come and we join Jesus.
- “Crossing over” is a cue about spanning chasms and divisions, about leaving the safety of our Galilean homeland to enter the space, the culture, the kingdom of the “other.” When Jesus says, “Let us go across to the other side,” he is inviting us to go with him in creating relationships with people who are different from ourselves. Christ transforms cultures by honoring them and connecting them. The language reflects Genesis 32 and anticipates Acts 2, Acts 10 and Revelation 21. In Christ, God has crossed over from beyond space to join us. Crossing over is our conversion, a decision to join the Christ who has crossed over to us. It is symbolic language also for some people of same-sex orientation.
- “Leaving the crowd behind him” is unmistakably differentiation language. Jesus is not fused and bound by his Galilean family and culture, nor by his Jewish heritage. He defines himself in and through his vocation of connecting, bridging, healing and transforming. To accept same-sex orientation as a gift is such a leaving-the-crowd-behind.
- “Just as he was” (8:36) is an interesting and uncommon phrase. It implies integrity, responsibility, accountability and identifiability-the opposites of secrecy, anonymity, duplicity, pretense or concern for appearance and conformity. (Echoes of “Just As I Am.”)
- Water in ancient writing suggests the unfathomable mystery and source of life. It sustains us but is beyond our control. The water can stand for the mystery of human sexuality and our struggles with “knowing” (sexual relations) and being responsible.
- The boat is a symbol for the church-for the legends, lore, history, rules, rituals, doctrines, agreements and relationships that provide identity, safety, stimulation and well-being for the community of faith. It enables us to embark on the unknown and to make our way from life to life, from cradle to grave. If, as in point 5 above, we choose to interpret the water as the dangerous, luring, mysterious reality of human sexuality, then the boat represents the doctrines, teachings, and interpretive methods that the church combines in order to help us cross the vast ocean of our sexuality from our innocence to knowledge, accountability, and fruitfulness.
- The sudden windstorm-fierce gales and life-threatening waves-symbolize the suddenly awakened, uninvited, capricious events of change that threaten to break and to swamp the boat. In our present case the fierce storm in the emerging Mennonite Church USA is the combination of (a) evil and corruption in our larger social order, (b) the expulsion of some churches from their conferences, and © the “Welcome Letter” with all of its dynamics. No doubt, a real chaotic, threatening storm! Will our church survive to support our passages?
- Jesus is in the boat-asleep! Apparently he is oblivious to our danger. So sure is he of God’s love and presence, so certain is he that water, boat, wind and we are in God’s hand that he rocks at peace. Jesus is in the boat (church) with us and has not abandoned any one of us in our threatening splinters and divisions. God is still on the throne!
- But we are afraid and cry to awaken Christ in our church. We cannot figure out why he is so weary or indifferent or bored with us as to fall asleep! Does he not care that we are being swamped and about to go under, clinging desperately to the threatened timbers of our doctrines, confessions, rituals and traditions? Does he not realize that we’ll never preach to the sinners on the other shore if we lose this boat? Does he not know that if our boat sinks he’s gone too? We may be short of faith, but there’s wisdom in our calling May day! May day! to awaken Jesus in our hour of acute danger. Lord, save us!
- And Jesus does come to our rescue in a powerful and astonishing way: “Peace! Be still!” Apparently there is a meaning, a force or way of being, that is stronger even than the winds of change, stronger than the turmoil of human sexuality, stronger than the church’s fear, and stronger than nature itself. It holds steady in love even while we quarrel about what is best to do-a power streaming towards us from beyond our Time and Space. In the remarkable calm of the night and the stillness of the sea we are silenced and awed into worship, invited to reach both beyond ourselves and deeply into ourselves to The Original in which everything consists, in whom we have our being.
- After worship Jesus calls us together to debrief the essentials of our voyage so far: the boat, the storm and the Christ-event. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The Lord of wind and sea, of people and boat, of sexual responsibility, of chart and compass asks us bluntly with the fine authority of a best friend whether our faith is really in our theological systems, doctrines, rituals and interpretations. He wants to know whether we understand now that the church structures-however useful, important and inspired-are not to be worshipped as Lord but rather to help us place each other into the presence of the Lord. All are means, but not the grace. Faith in beliefs (the boat) is not at all the same as faith in God, the Lord of the boat.
- We are reluctant to talk after this holy Christ-event and its searching question, but finally we exclaim to each other: “Who is this that even wind and sea obey his voice?” This is the language of true worship. In that moment we connect to each other, to God, to the universe, and to a weary, troubled world. We know that the “other side” belongs to God as surely as “our side.” We do not in this healing moment argue the fine points of doctrine or vie with each other over the right to be in the boat. For a while at least we are given respite from our pride and from our fears-those two faces of our lovelessness. Awe gently brushes away all that is secondary and transitory, making room for the dawn of redeeming grace.
- When Jesus does reach the “other side” he is drawn with profound compassion to the Gerasene suffering under the burden of a legion of invading demons. This marvelously open-ended and powerful story invites an almost endless variety of symbolic applications. I can imagine interpreting the Gerasene to be a Pagan bound by superstitions; or a cult member bound by secrets, mind-control tactics and syllogisms that are false; or an alcoholic who has tried many programs and treatments all of which fail. In a nod to all the above, and in the center of the need that drives my writing this paper, I see Legion as a person of same-sex orientation whose demons are the failed hedonism of the sex industry and the failed fear industry of religious fundamentalism. Both industries contribute to the real sin, the real problem: Unwillingness to be responsible as a beloved child of God. Abandoned, cut off, denied basic human needs, feared, vilified, the Gerasene is de-formed into a sub-human being, a tormented captive. And the villagers of the Decapolis, are they not also captive to the one whom they hold captive with their rejection, abandonment, dehumanization and consignment to hell-whether by their permissiveness or by their fear-driven law-based message and exclusion? We see clearly the parallels in our society: a population of our children, neighbors, and co-believers in Christ denied the right to respect, dignity, intimacy, safety and opportunity because of a human condition they did not choose; consigned to dark human ghettos of sorrow, sin, abuse and despair; cut off from their own rightful spiritual heritage as beloved sons and daughters of the living God; Anabaptist followers of the Prince of Peace who are denied fellowship and communion. The village (the church) is captive to its own fears and hostage to its own injustices, entangled by its complicity with evil so long as it offers no alternative to license on the one hand and fear on the other.
- All the efforts of society fail to subdue. Shackles and chains are not strong enough. Taboos, rules, regulations, sanctions, punishments, shunnings, disqualification from employment, discrimination in housing, active persecutions, open or anonymous threats of hate campaigns, church doctrines that rule same-sex orientation a sin, church polity that ousts congregations for accepting same-sex persons in a covenant relationship and cancels the licenses of ministers who conduct such covenant rituals, disbarment from governmental service, the live-and-let-live “sloppy Agape” permissiveness of the liberal church which merely dismisses Bible texts that do not seem to apply, and which often does very little to help people make differentiating ethical choices-none of these methods nor even all of them together, are strong enough to control the demons that constitute our complex and evil “homosexuality system.”
- Legion lives among the tombs. It is ironic and prophetic that the outcast is most comfortable living among the tombs of failed social and religious policies and practices. Apparently he finds an unexpected solace in the death of all these systems that fail. Perhaps Legion lives among the tombs to keep solidarity with the spirits of those who come early and unjustly to their grave because of their same-sex attraction. By counting and keeping vigil, Legion extrudes a macabre, resilient strand of faith from the conditions in the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). If the Budget Office of the State fails to count the cost of these failed policies; if the leaders of the emerging church fail to count the cost of a church whose gospel mission is largely stalled, immobilized and darkened by its protracted and unsuccessful efforts to maintain a dead and deadly practice of exclusion (a workable conformity no longer in place), Legion is there howling in lament and bruising himself with stones to mark every unjust death and every failed policy.
- For Jesus to enter the place of the dead is completely in character with his mission and it anticipates the cross and resurrection. Jesus is not afraid but comes along side of us in the place of death. Legion looks up at once, recognizes the divine sonship that not even Jesus’ chosen disciples have as yet recognized or confessed. Legion implores Jesus not to torment him with cunning religious language, empty promises, games of spiritual manipulation or stronger and more strident codes of holiness and death that will also surely fail. In behalf of all people gifted with same-sex orientation, in behalf of a church waiting for truth and light to stream forth, Legion demands that Jesus not play games with him. Jesus invades the place of the dead, and the chief of the dead engages Jesus boldly and passionately. Now here is something new!
- Jesus asks Legion for his name. This is standard form in ancient writings for asking the one addressed to surrender his power. (See Jacob and the agent of God in Genesis 32.) Legion, in the gospel story, answers at once and without hesitation, apparently in beautiful and confident faith in the Holy One who has entered his terrible world and joined him among the tombs: “My name is Legion.” He signifies thus the huge multitude he represents, the huge costs he has accounted, the chronicle of failed policies, and all the fears that have been attached to him. Legion, in faith, brings the entire “homosexual system” with its hedonistic secular and fearful religious components to the feet of Jesus, giving to the Lord of Life the power to exorcise the demons and dispose of the entire system.
- “Where shall we go? Do not try to banish us! Send us into the swine, let us enter them.” Now that Legion has a Trusted Friend and Savior, the two will become companions in making all things new (II Corinthians 5). The herd of swine-apparently so large a number that they are not countable-represents the illicit commerce and wealth of the deadly sex industry. (Port was forbidden to Jews, therefore the business of raising and marketing hogs would be illicit in that culture.) Certainly sex is big business and it flourishes at least in part because of the policies and polities of “Christians” who by their fears have excluded same-sex people and forced them into a dark, violent and death-ridden sub-culture. Moreover, those same fears that drive Christians toward excluding same-sex persons are also subtly at work to prevent the church from talking honestly about sexuality. The result is that the church inadvertently also nurtures secret addictions that are accommodated by the very sex business that the church publicly decries but does not understand. Additionally, there are a myriad of religious agencies and programs in all sorts of media, mostly clever con artists, whose successful commercial enterprises in the name of Christ and truth are to peddle fear and bigotry under the cloak of righteousness. Jesus sends all these demons into the swine-the sex industry *and*the phony Bible-quoting religious prophets counting their profits from their illicit mutually enabling businesses. It is a phony dance of violence between antagonist and protagonists who are married to each other-an on-going morality play with its white and black “hats.” Jesus and the restored human smile as the strange two-sided industry of licentiousness and fear drowns itself in the merciful sea of God’s power, mystery and amazing grace.
- The complaint of the bankers, financiers and religious leaders in the villages is predictable. Such a Jesus is just too much! Go away! The true Spirit of Christ is indeed repeatedly dismissed by respectable people in nice houses and three-piece suits, people who are often supported, consciously or inadvertently, by would-be worshippers in temples with spires. In such temples “inspired, living Word-made-flesh” is often strangely absent-though regularly intoned-because popularity, pleasure and power are the real gods worshipped therein. If Jesus is not there, perhaps he’s back among the tombs bringing the dead to life, transforming people and churches, wrecking havoc with the entire status quo.
Acts 10. The Holy Spirit leads Cornelius and Peter across their boundaries and creates a new world. We know the story well. It opens with Cornelius, a Roman Centurion commanding the Italian Cohort in Caesarea, praying to God at 3:00 in the afternoon. During his prayer he has a vision of an angel of God coming to him with specific instructions to send men to Joppa and bring back Simon Peter.
Before the servants of Cornelius arrive, the angel is preparing Simon Peter who is taking a nap at noon. In the vision, a large sheet comes down from heaven containing all kinds of wild animals that Jews were strictly forbidden to eat. The voice from heaven commands Peter to kill and eat, completely contrary to the Leviticus codes and Jewish traditions. Peter protests very strongly, saying he has never profaned himself. The voice answers: “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” This entire episode happens three times as emphasis and warning. Peter no doubt remembers his three denials of Christ, his three opportunities to repeat “I love you” with three commissions: “Feed my lambs” (John 21). This is high drama. Is the church listening? Understanding?
Both Peter and Cornelius are converted and transformed. The Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household. Old cultural barriers in existence for many centuries are erased. The ritual of baptism at the end of the day confirms the reality of a new life, new arrangements, and new relationships that had not been considered possible by either the Jew or the Greek.
- The initiative for a new era starts with God. The Lord is in charge of the new creation. As a new era of communion is breaking in upon the church, it flows from the heart of God. If the initiative is not born from a union of love and truth it will surely be buried in the tombs of the deathly system Christ visited in the Mark 5 text. If including believers of same-sex orientation is of God, that reality will be confirmed and blessed; if not, it will surely fail.
- Every type of objection we raise to having our church bless and sanctify believers who are gifted with same-sex attraction is raised and overcome in this history-making story of Cornelius and Peter both experiencing the Christ-event and becoming brothers. Mistrust, arrogance, revulsion, ignorance and misinformation about the other characterized the Roman Centurion and the Christian Jew. That also describes fully the church and same-sex population. Eating and fellowshipping with Cornelius-to say nothing of baptizing him!-was certainly as scandalous, scary, and revolutionary to Peter then as fellowship with Christians of same-sex orientation is to us today. We can hardly exaggerate the revulsion between Jew and Greek. Nor should we minimize the fact that the discomfort that people with opposite-sex attraction feel about same-sex intimacy is like the discomfort people of same-sex attraction feel about intimacy with people of opposite gender.
- In baptizing Cornelius, Peter did not irresponsibly baptize every other Roman. Apparently the Holy Spirit is able to differentiate among people of the same culture. Peter probably did not become a zealot for the Roman culture and cause in Jerusalem. One does not have to become an advocate for an evil sex-obsessed culture before one can thoughtfully stop supporting the role of the church in contributing to the evil of the present “homosexuality system.” The new creation is being formed with and through people whose lives are uniting in Christ, not by nationality, language, culture, religion, race, gender, orientation, wealth, age, health conditions, disability or any other of the many ways we divide ourselves.
- Reading on into Acts 11, we learn that the Christ-event in the palace of Cornelius in Caesarea creates a very large stir indeed with the apostles in Jerusalem. Everything had to change as a result of this event. It could not be ignored. Its implications spread through the entire system demanding a revised theology, a revised practice, a revised code of ethics, a revised form of fellowship, a transformed meaning of all the rituals. It is clear that the same jolt runs through the church when slaves are freed, when people of color serve whites communion, when women teach the Word, when African and Latin American Christians dance in our churches, and when the church arises to stand in prayer and solidarity in sacred covenant with same-sex Christian partners. Indeed, we are having our scandalizing Christ-events in our “Caesareas,” and our contemporary “Jerusalem” can not wish them away. If the revolution is of God, Jerusalem’s reluctance will not prevail.
- We should not under-estimate or under-value that the Christ-event recorded in Acts 10 is not a static story about the ancient history of the church; it is about a dynamic force fully in action today. To choose a living God instead of a static religion is a choice I have made with many others. I think it is the choice Jesus made-and Paul, and Conrad Grebel and Menno Simons too. It is the choice also of my friends on the opposing shore and in choosing the living Christ we shall be made one.
- The Spirit of Christ in Acts 10 is superior in every way to the theology that is revealed in the primitive culture that produced the story of Sodom in Genesis 18-19 or the code of Leviticus 18-20-important, helpful and instructive as they are. And the Christ of 2000 is superior to the Christ that appears to accommodate the human institution of slavery and the fading remnants of women as property owned by men in the first century. (See Ephesians 5 and I Peter 3.) Acts 10 is a most wonderful account of a God who is moving and creating, of a Christ who is in process and can not be contained by yesterday’s doctrines, rules, traditions and understandings. “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!” Is there a trajectory of love and truth that can be charted from fixing the points of Mark 4-5 and Acts 10 on a spiritual graph? To live in Christ is to be with him on this trajectory-a journey into the light.
Romans 12. Qualities of transformative (regenerative) lives. Romans is to the four gospel accounts and Acts what Leviticus and Deuteronomy are to Genesis and Exodus. Paul is continuously comparing and contrasting with, connecting to and differentiating from, the God of the Old Testament scriptures. In doing so Paul is following faithfully in the steps of the Savior, for Jesus often said or implied: “It has been said (accepted, understood, taught), but I say to you.” All arguments for a static unchanging understanding of God wither under consideration of the dynamic, lively process that runs through the whole Bible. Today we are as thrilled to be on the trajectory of the revelation of God as were Jesus and Paul 2000 years ago. I observe that even my most conservative brothers and sisters who make the case for the Bible’s codes as binding and unchanging are themselves on a faith trajectory that is alive, growing and changing.
What Paul does most skillfully in Romans 12 is to move from the theological doctrines he is shaping in the earlier chapters to implications for living daily in the Spirit of Christ. Here we see descriptions and definitions of what a consecrated, transformative life in Christ is to be.
- “By the mercies of God.” Not by the wrath of God, but by and through the grace that shines from beyond time and space into us right now, right here. A transformed life is powered not by fear but by grace.
- “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” The way home on the wings of grace is to accept our bodies as a gift from God who does not make “junk.” God said, “That’s good!” when God created the world and humankind (Genesis 1-2). The clear and wise counsel is to give our bodies as a living present to our creator. That simply can not be done if I am compelled to see my body as a mistake, as a defect to be denied, rejected. The foundation of a consecrated, transformed life is to receive my body as gift and to give it as my gift. On such a foundation I do not build a loathing, abusive relationship to my body. It is extremely significant that Paul starts his spiritual applications not with abstractions but with the human organic body. Spiritual worship begins with accepting and giving my body. This is corrective to all the gnostic heresies.
- Exactly here Paul is harking back to Romans 1 where he has laid the foundation for his whole treatise. There he listed the universally evil consequences that result when human beings worship the creature instead of the creator. Now, in the first sentence of his “therefore” applications and admonitions about how to live as Christians who are redeemed and redeeming, this arresting thought appears: true worship is to give our bodies to God. The implication is that since God has in Christ given himself bodily, organically, humanly to us, we now yield our bodies to God in loving worship. Such a life is the opposite of both body worship and body abuse. It is a continuing practice of love, respect and consecration that is powerful enough to make all things new by the power of the Spirit.
- “Do not be conformed to this world.” This phrase evokes two reflections. First, in this context the word conformity suggests my unexamined, unchallenged compliance out of habit and/or fear. Conformity is my inability and unwillingness to differentiate, preferring to remain imbedded in the authoritarian system of submission and domination in which I do not have to think or to choose. Conformity to this world means the perpetuation of the irresponsibility that marks the “fall of man” in Genesis 3. Conformity to this world is a regular and repeating confirmation of my rejecting the responsibility of companionship with God. Thus I neglect and forfeit my own unique “voice” and despise or worship my body-either of which expresses my failure to worship the creator. Such conformity can never be mistaken for a true discipline that fosters human development and true spirituality. Such true discipline results in self-awareness, self-evaluation, intentionality and responsibility-marks of a differentiating person. Therefore, the kind of conformity that is often mistakenly advocated and rewarded in the church can never produce the unity in Christ that it claims to offer. The focus on conformity to code is locked into the legalism of Leviticus and, at best, Kohlberg’s third stage of moral reasoning. Such conformity falls very far short of the ethics of Jesus. Paul says, do not be conformed. In Galatians Paul asserts dramatically that if a follower of Christ yields in conformity to the law by being circumcised (as demanded by the Judaizers), then he has in that act of conformity nullified Christ! Christ sets us free-to choose and to be responsible. Adam and Eve were free to choose, but they rejected the responsibility of their knowledge of good and evil. The second Adam demonstrates in full both the freedom and the responsibility of being a human being, a beloved one created in God’s image and for God’s companionship. Conformity belongs to a different system than the emerging Kingdom of God; it belongs to the dying system organized around escape from freedom and responsibility (Fromm). Both the one who worships his/her body in self-license and the one who deflects her/his freedom and responsibility by worshipping law in the strictest of obedience reveal their conformity to this world. This is one essential meaning, I think, of the story Jesus tells in Luke 15 about the Father and his two sons-one a licentious prodigal, the other an automaton conformist. Both must learn to enter the Father’s heart of love and be transformed. Rebellion and conformity are on the same tether and both live in the House of Fear.
The second reflection is about the world that lures us powerfully with its offers of pleasure, popularity and power. Conformity to the world is to accept these three offers as the means by which to become a fulfilled human being who is valuable and precious. It was what was offered to Adam and Eve by the tempter in the garden, what was offered to Jesus by Satan in the wilderness as the means and methods for Jesus to save and restore humanity. What the first Adam accepted, the second Adam rejected. And how? By accepting his belovedness (baptism story) as God’s gift already bestowed. I can not earn what I have already received as a gift-my belovedness-from God. I can only respond in gratitude and responsibility.
Unexamined conformity to the doctrines, traditions, interpretations and decisions of the church-local, regional, national-constitutes an inadvertent collusion with the present unworkable, unjust and deathly “homosexual system” that darkens our whole society and impedes the gospel message. Such tragic conformity to this world that Jesus, Paul and the Holy Spirit are passionately pleading with us to reject and to transcend.
- “But be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” This phrase was at least partially understood, articulated and modeled for me in my youth and I am most grateful for the consequence in my life. It meant (and still means) the discipline of looking to God instead of to pleasure, popularity and power. It is saying NO to worldly habits-alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, the whole sordid sex industry, violence, abusive language, sex outside of covenant, business fraud, military might, gossip, abuse of power and authority-bringing all of these captive to the altar. It is saying YES to godly habits-prayer, Bible study, mutual accountability and fellowship with other disciples, confessing faults and failures, worship, using rituals as means of grace, tithing, witnessing to what God is doing for me, helping the person in need, being kind and respecting, and living vocational lives that point to Christ. All these prohibitions and encouragements together constitute a very powerful and dependable way of helping me to make ethical decisions and choices that support and enable transformation to occur. We should assiduously teach and demonstrate these disciplines in the church.
But all these critically important disciplines are not quite enough. To say that they are the essence of the gospel would be to deliver us back to “works” and “laws” and leave us at best near the threshold to God. The real source of transformation and the regenerative way is in our companionship and fellowship with God, for which all the prohibitions and encouragements are only vehicles and instruments of preparedness and readiness. We want to move beyond our porch of sound doctrines into the House of Love, into the very Arms of Christ.
Knowing that authoritarian laws and threats are not enough, much of the modern church in the West has abandoned and/or compromised its doctrines and rituals. But such compromises surely have not yielded new life; rather they contribute heavily to the tragic loss of morality and accountability that is everywhere glaringly apparent. To abandon the “means of grace” (spiritual laws, doctrines, teachings, rituals, etc.) because the “means” are not the “source” is foolish and dangerous.
So now there is a very large, powerful reaction to this dismissal of moral compass and code with its resulting moral relativism. Many people are at work to reinstall standards, rituals and practices in an effort to recover and transform our society, reclaiming it from its captivity to “anything goes” permissiveness. I am one of them, decisively so.
But I am completely convinced that a new legalism will be no better than the old legalism and that a truly transforming “something-more” is needed if we want to avoid an endless ride on the pendulum. Twelve-Step programs regularly reveal that those who become abandoned to their sexual habits and obsessions have almost always despaired and failed if their salvation depended only on their instituting disciplines of regulation. While the program can provide some moments of sanity and sobriety, rules will not keep them safe. Real transformation is pointed to by the regular prayer of one friend in the program: “O God, you are my only hope. Bring me to you and help me to learn in your arms that I am your beloved one in whom you delight.” Clearly restraints are not enough to carry us safely across our human chaos. Transformation is a whole new way of thinking and being-far beyond rules and structures.
Paul was emphatic and systematic about this in Galatians 5:6 where he asserts that neither circumcision (law-centered, rule-centered, constraint-centered and fear-oriented religion) nor uncircumcision (restraint-free, self-centered, self-justifying, self-licensing rejection of religion) avails anything, but only a renewing life in Christ. And to read the gospels and the epistles fills out what this Christological understanding is: accepting human choice and human responsibility as the gift of God and accepting the invitation to live with God in fellowship.
One more reflection about a Christological reading of the Bible: The text (Romans 12:1-2) uses the active, on-going verbal renewing. It denotes a continuous process, a way of living that is dynamic, lively, formative and progressive. It implies the opposite of a fixed, static state; it invites the ecstasy of a vibrant walk with God. For me it means that I am invited to bring my whole life, all my prior experiences, all my biblical understandings and spiritual truths to the Lord in the eager (if sometimes scary) expectation of reconfiguration, transformation and renewal. My experience is that I can trust the Lover of my Soul, the God of Creation, to preserve and deploy in me all of the past and present that I shall need as I walk with God into my tomorrow where the House of Love is being built. This is not nihilism or chaos as I once feared, but rather the joyous adventure of differentiation, the other half of which is always a wider and deeper connection. If I can not give up to the Lord in happy, trustful surrender today’s understandings and interpretations, then there will be no transforming, renewing process and I will become a skeleton on the floor of the Valley of Bones (Ezekiel 37).
It is not possible, I think, to over-emphasize the world of difference that gapes between a fixed, static theology and a walk with a God who is alive, dynamic, and at the very core a continuing, transforming, renewing and creating Being-in-process. To put myself into the arms of such a God in trust and joy and delight is the all important possibility that I see and try to point to as the *third alternative*to swinging on the pendulum between license and legalism.
Colossians 1:15-20. This short text is a rhapsodic celebration of the preeminent Christ who is Lord of the cosmos-superior in every way to all other lords, all other religions, all other philosophies. All things have been created through him and for him. In Christ all things hold together. In him all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell, and through him God is pleased to reconcile to himself the whole creation. This triumphant song of transformation may have been an early hymn of the church.
This exclamatory text demonstrates especially well what is explicit or implicit in all the letters included in the New Testament canon: that the way to understand God and to interpret the rest of the scriptures is to look at Christ and to see through the eyes of Christ. The text implies that our biblical study as “believers” should be Christological. Christ taught and demonstrated a scriptural interpretation symbolized by his words: “It has been said, but I say to you…” (Matthew 5). He asks us to follow him by trusting the Holy Spirit to reveal the Spirit of Christ to us far into the future (John 14:26). This is what I mean when I say that we are invited to follow the trajectory of God’s love incarnated in Christ. The ethic of “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:34-40, Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8) is the highest ethic that we know. Christ taught it, Christ demonstrated it with acts of civil and religious disobedience, and Christ invites us to follow.
Since Jesus Christ did not speak about same-sex orientation or homosexual behaviors, all of us who trust him to be our Savior, Friend and Guide must choose and define our ethical stance of love toward people who have a same-sex orientation and to the God who gave them their bodies. We can not excuse ourselves from choosing (not to choose is choosing) and if we are serious about discipleship we can not avoid choosing what we believe to be an attitude and relationship that love for God and love from God requires. To be a disciple is to obey as fully as we know how, Christ’s unequivocal command to love.
About Embracing the “Homosexual” Texts
Genesis 19 (13-19). The wicked men of Sodom where Lot has chosen to dwell after separating from Abraham, attack Lot’s home and attempt to rape the two messengers of God whom Lot is sheltering. Prehistoric Sodom thus became synonymous with unrestrained sexual debauchery and abuse. The story of Sodom’s destruction by fire became synonymous with God’s wrath and judgement against human evil-the very image of hell that persists in our time. Unlawful, abusive violent homosexual acts are called sodomy to this day. The same story plot-with differences in setting, cast and ending-is told in Judges 19.
In both versions of the story, the strangers who are being threatened and debased are vulnerable wayfarers from afar for whom protection, respect and hospitality are universally required in Near East cultures-3000 years ago and today. Obligatory hospitality denied by the natives is offered by an unlikely (unobligated?) sojourner whose status in the city is marginal. Then the wicked men of that city storm the home of the one who receives strangers as sent from God, threatening the holy guests with violent, abusive, debasing gang rape. In both accounts the host offers a beloved woman (daughters in Sodom, concubine in Gibeah) to the marauders as an effort to save the guests from harm and indignity.
Are these two stories of violence and inhospitality about same-sex attraction and paring? Any more or less than they are about heterosexual attraction and marriage? Or are these stories not only about neglecting the custom of hospitality for strangers, but about blatantly substituting fear, violence, harm and gross insult for kindness and hospitality in the most lawless and insolent manner imaginable? In our own time everyone who is thoughtful and informed recognizes that rape-whether male-female, male-male or female-female-is not about love and affection or even about sexual eroticism. It is all about anger, hatred, power and humiliation-the exact opposites of respect, affection and steadfast love.
Similarly, we do not read the Bible stories about incest, rape, murder to commit adultery, or the tradition of a king’s harem (David, Amnon, Solomon) as stories to ban heterosexual intercourse. No, those stories are about lust, vain glory, abuse of power and most assuredly about a different culture in a different time than ours. We do not read those stories as normative for what responsible biblical heterosexuality should be for us. Why would we read Genesis 18-19 as normative against same-sex covenental relationship?
In the Genesis 13-19 stories about Sodom, and especially chapter 19, God is on the side of righteous Abraham and Lot and against the wickedness of Sodom. If the account is to stand normatively against the sexual ethics of the Sodomites we would expect it to stand normatively as a sexual ethic favoring righteous Lot and Abraham. Yet we are not able to comprehend or support Lot’s offering his daughters-as chattel property at his disposal-to be ravaged by the wicked men in an effort to divert them and save his male guests from savage humiliation. Certainly we do *not*see Lot’s actions as normative for godly heterosexuality in our time!
An important part of the story that rarely receives attention completes Genesis 19. With the miraculous intervention of the strangers (angels?), Lot and his daughters are transplanted to a distant land where the daughters find no suitable mates. They conspire with each other, get their father drunk to overcome his scruples against incest, and are both impregnated by him. Thus the legend ends by accounting for the fiery destruction of Sodom, a city in the valley of the Jordan that is now submerged by the Dead Sea; and also for the origin of the Moabites, who are identified as the children of Lot and his two daughters. The wonderful love story of Ruth continues the Moabite story line. Ruth is ancestor to David; and the gospel genealogists trace Jesus of Nazareth to David and thus to Ruth, to Lot and his daughters, and so to the story of Sodom. The histories of Judaism and Christianity are marvelously interlaced with such re-connecting, re-including, redeeming events and stories which serve both to balance and to amplify the differentiating progression of the faith adventure.
A contemporary responsible Christian ethic of human sexuality cannot be effectively deduced from Genesis 13-19, Judges 19 or the sexual histories of David (a man after God’s own heart!) or of David’s sons Amnon and Solomon. In this we are probably all agreed, on both sides of the homosexual gulf that separates us in our time. We all look to other sources for our ethical standards, as we indeed should.
Leviticus 18-20. The holiness code that specifically prohibits homosexual acts. There is little ambiguity in the text itself. The prohibition (18:22) states: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And the penalty (20:13) states: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
At issue is how we read and apply Leviticus and its larger context beginning with Exodus 25 and running through Numbers 10. In the center of the larger “Priests’ Manual” is the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17-26. Since the manual itself teaches, and both Jesus and Paul insist as well, that all of the laws and rules are to be kept by God’s chosen and separated people, we may not selectively pick and choose which prohibitions to hold valid and which to neglect. Nor may we choose a particular prohibition as binding but hold its accompanying penalty to be invalid or modifiable.
I know of no person or culture in human history that has kept all the laws and executed its penalties. Certainly in our own culture and with our Christological understandings we would be violating our country’s laws and our faithfulness to Christ if we were to keep all of the codes. We do not stone adulterers, we do not maintain leper colonies, we do not kill our children when they disobey us, we do not force death on a man who fails to have intercourse with his deceased brother’s wife, and so on.
But having raised these burdensome issues, we do not dismiss the place or significance of the book or of this text.
These scriptures were written to help Israel become a God-worshipping people, a people separated from the other nations and eager to be God’s people in behalf of all the nations. We who follow Christ 3000 years later hear the same summons to be a “royal priesthood, a holy nation” (I Peter 2:9-10) and to be “salt and light” for the world (Matthew 5:13-16).
I read “The Priests’ Manual for a Worshipping Community” as a religious museum featuring “artifact” rules, rituals, protocols and penalties based on the very best knowledge and understanding of physical, emotional, social and spiritual health available in that ancient culture.
While we are neither able nor willing to live under all the provisions of this ancient manual, we should surely be creating and using a “Contemporary Leviticus” in our church communities. There are health habits we should model, teach and uphold in our faith communities, and some of the most important deal with human sexuality.
In our time we will make very little positive impact on the world around us if we reject and exclude those who have a same-sex orientation. We will have mutual gifts of truth, love and health we can make to each other only when we live together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Selecting Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 for a moral compass in our time while discounting most of the other codes is surely most unwise. That policy undermines the very thing that we all believe to be urgently needed: communities of faith that help believers to live responsibly in our culture. I feel convinced that abuses of the ancient scripture cripple us in our quest for holy living.
Romans 1:18-32 (Chapters 1-2). Paul sets the stage for building a structure of Christian doctrines and teachings by indicting the contemporary cultures in which the creature is worshipped rather than the Creator. In 1:24-27 he identifies the escalating licentiousness and degradation of sexual passions that enslave mind and body until life itself is *debased*and the captives have no more sense of identity, honor, boundary, respect or belovedness. His words describe the pagan culture of Rome and echo the depravity of Sodom. Three times Paul says, “Because they did not recognize God, God gave them up.”
God is revealed in nature. Even before hearing about the God of Israel or the Good News of Jesus Christ, humankind was not left without a witness to the Creator. It is our refusal to honor the light given us that leaves us vulnerable to worship ourselves, the creature, instead of the Creator.
Paul makes a special indictment of homosexual practices in his extended list of depravities resulting from a culture that does not worship God. It is likely that he is thinking of the male prostitution featured in the complex systems of temple worship to the Greek gods. If male prostitution were the center of what should be uplifting, inspiring God-seeking times and places, it is apparent that degradation and dehumanization has replaced the worship that points to God and creates space for the Spirit of God to flourish. This is parallel to the men of Sodom (and the Benjamites of Gibeah) forcing violent, abusive, degrading sex on the strangers who were sent by God instead of protecting, honoring and hosting them with warm hospitality. Sin works that way: not only to withhold and refuse the godly thing that builds up humanity and communion, but also to inflict humiliation and degradation instead.
There is very much about the “homosexual system” in our society that is not so different from Sodom or Rome as we understand the homosexuality cults that grew up in those places to extinguish the light and witness of God. I know of no fellow Christian-whether of same-sex orientation or opposite-sex orientation-who advocates what is commonly meant by the phrase “homosexual life style.” The position I advocate-receiving my sexuality as a gift from God, whether same-sex or opposite-sex in orientation-is as far removed from the sex-obsessed, love-less, secretive, exploitive, promiscuous addictive life-style as it possibly can be.
Going one step farther, I am ready to charge the church as having some unrecognized responsibility for the decadent “homosexual system” we so strongly oppose. By shutting out all Christian believers of same-sex attraction and mutual pairing who are living a life of truth, honor, love and service in the spirit of Christ, we help to consign people of same-sex orientation to the system of captivity we decry. We abuse Christ when we make no distinction between orientation and licentious practices.
In Romans 2, Paul establishes that the Law is not powerful enough to usher in God’s Kingdom. He goes on to imply that circumcision as a rite helps to give identity and can be a means of grace, but that it is only a symbol that points to the reality of a life given to God in joyful response to the God who gives life. The ritual-without the spiritual reality-is as dead and powerless as the holiness code. And, he goes on to argue that one who turns her/his face to God and lives a responsible, expectant life is the one who really is “circumcised” in the heart and lives in the presence of God. Paul is very pointed in teaching that the real orientation that matters supremely is an orienting of life toward God through faith in contrast to an orienting toward self-indulgence and self-justification. I believe that the trajectory of faith and righteousness plotted from Moses-Jesus-Paul is neutral about sexual orientation and cultural orientation but most vividly intentional, exclusive and ethical about God-orientation.
At the least, Christians should read Romans 2 as an indictment of our trust in laws, rules, and fears to get us home to God. On that vehicle, none of us will make it. In 2:29 Paul specifically rejects literalism in interpretation of laws and rituals.
I Corinthians 6:5-11 (1-20). Paul speaks plainly to the lively but troubled/troubling church in Corinth. He has invested much of his missionary effort in this city. Following him, others have introduced contradicting teachings of freedom without responsibility. The result is a moral crisis in the church. Divisiveness, disrespect, competition for popularity and power, lack of self-control, selfishness, sexual immorality, permissiveness, licentiousness continue to mar the Corinthian fellowship, undermine their witness to the world, and render them unable to deal with spiritual pathologies. On the one hand, believers are battling out their differences with each other in public lawsuits which poison their relationships, mock their witness to Christ and threaten to throw the church into a legalism that is bankrupt. And on the other hand, believers are flaunting their “Christian freedom,” justifying their carnality and accommodating their sexual desires and practices, profaning marriage, undermining home life and destroying the safety of all.
This description has in it much similarity to the story of Sodom, to the situation inferred in the Romans text, and to the contemporary Christian church in America. It fits our own situation.
We too suffer the effects of our worshipping pleasure, popularity and power. We too suffer from laxity and the loss of boundaries, the inability to confront sin and to be mutually accountable in the body of Christ. We too abuse our freedom in Christ as license rather than as responsibility. And we too are prone to look toward a renewal of laws, rules and consequences-a return to legalism-as the cure-all for our moral and spiritual crisis. In short, our situation is that we too are riding on the pendulum that swings inexorably between right and left, between permissive anti-authoritarianism (anti-law) and authoritarianism with its legalism. In Newton, Winnipeg, Lancaster and Elkhart as in Corinth we fail to grasp the third alternative that is the true life of faith in Christ.
The text indicts sinners: fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-none of whom inherit the kingdom of God. At the head of his list Paul has fornicators, idolaters and adulterers. Two of those are most commonly sins of heterosexual behavior. Male prostitutes and sodomites are sins of homosexual behavior. The text does not mark heterosexual sins or homosexual sins as worse than the other. Both heterosexual and homosexual promiscuity are indicted. I assume that Paul and we know the same truths about Sodom: sexual violence in place of hospitality.
While this text condemns sexual promiscuity and the pursuit of idols (popularity, power, pleasure) that bind and abuse both the weak and the powerful, it is not a strong teaching about sex in covenant relationship for either opposite-sex attraction and pairing or for same-sex attraction and pairing. It does not treat either orientation.
But Paul does ever so much more than describe the downward, decadent spiral of corruption that results from the worship of the body and the false teaching of freedom in Christ as freedom from responsibility. With wonderful grace, Paul carries his friends into the arms of the Creator. Speaking authoritatively, lovingly, compassionately the alternative to law on the one hand and license on the other, Paul says to the Corinthians and to us: Your bodies are not your own. They have been bought and redeemed for a price; your bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit; your bodies are the arms, legs and feet of Christ alive in this world reconciling the world and giving life. You are under new management. You do not belong to yourself. God has named you, called you, redeemed you. You are precious. You are beloved.
The alternative to staying on the pendulum of law and license is to live in Christ as the beloved and to accept the obligation of our freedom: responsibility.
Although Paul never directly says so, I confidently believe that his thinking and teaching imply that the original sin in the center of paradise was not primarily disobedience but rather the refusal to be responsible for the knowledge of (intercourse with) good and evil. Obedience implies a relationship of law and conformity between God and the human. Responsibility implies a relationship of mutuality, companionship, intimacy and fellowship with God marked by trust, faith, risk and choice. We human parents are not at all satisfied with a legal relationship to our children, one that is marked by automaton conformity and unexamined obedience. We want our children to become free and responsible-separated from us but connected by choice. I can not imagine a God who wants less than that. I am unable to think of a rightful relationship with God that is defined as mere obedience-stage three in Kohlberg’s six developmental stages of moral reasoning. I hold that Christ, the second Adam, moves far beyond mere obedience and brings us into the realms of freedom and responsibility. Law and license is a monotonous and exhausting dance to the ceaseless tune of obedience. The Prince of this World is content to let us dance on this floor forever. We constitute no threat to his kingdom so long as he can line up rules-keepers on one end and rules-reactors on the other, and then invite us to tango to obedience.
Paul knows and teaches that when we accept our call to be beloved, chosen companions of God, we enter a new world where everything is gift and where I no longer hide from the responsibility of knowing. He condemns the law-or-license life in all its forms, and we must do so too. But Jesus and Paul have a substitute for the old tune. That alternative is to accept our belovedness, to be called by name, and to surrender our whole being to our First Love. From now on we go in and out of the House of Love, free and responsible. Death-meaninglessness-has been abolished forever. The dawn has come.
1 Timothy 1:8-11. This letter is addressed to Timothy, a young pastor who is being mentored and encouraged for the work of leading the church in a time when a variety of speculative and moralistic teachings are threatening the core of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Greek mythologies, pagan mystery religions, meaningless contrived genealogies, ascetic practices and endless intellectual speculations combine with elements of Christian doctrine to form an accommodating syncretism that undermines the sincere faith, purity of heart, ethic of love and good conscience of believers.
Distracted by these dazzling counterfeits, believers are being lured into laxity, self-indulgence, lawlessness and ultimately into profaning the good, so that they can no longer distinguish good from evil. The text does not speak about sexual orientation of either kind but rather lines up against exploitive, manipulative, abusive and violent sex that is pleasure without spiritual and emotional intimacy, and a caricature of freedom because it knows no responsibility. On all accounts it aligns against the great command. It is about behavior, not orientation.
Jude. This very short but oddly far-ranging letter is probably the most obscure writing to be included in the New Testament canon. It seems to belong to the post-apostolic age and purports to be written by Jude (Judas), brother to Jesus and James. The letter is written to warn believers against false teachers who pervert the gospel to mean what they want it to mean and so deny Christ. The result is the same litany of self-justification and licentious behavior that mark all the other “homosexuality texts.” Once a person acts against the light given, to justify indulging the desires of the body, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain sanctity anywhere. Life itself is profaned.
This text, like the preceding ones, properly indicts violent, abusive, insulting exploitive sex. It does not know about or address same-sex orientation or same-sex intimacy in covenanted relationships.
In my case, I have to consider Jude’s important warning against false teachers who pervert the gospel to mean what they want it to mean. In closing my biblical interpretation here, I surrender my thoughts to the Holy Spirit and to the discernment of the church. I would much rather be proven wrong than to pervert the Spirit of Christ. I welcome the test of the Holy Spirit’s fire.
About A Glorious Church, Without Spot or Wrinkle
Soaring in faith, Paul describes Christ’s love for the church, giving himself up for her, “in order to make her holy … so as to present the church to himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle…” (Eph. 5:25-27, NRSV)
What are the marks of a glorious church? Given the light and grace we now have, I offer my responses in faith.
We gratefully accept our bodies and sexuality as a gift from God. We accept responsibility for respecting, treasuring, developing and protecting our bodies; and we offer our bodies to God in true worship.
We will study the Bible and together with other believers we will discern through prayer and honest mutual accountability what we believe to be life-giving choices that promote physical health, spiritual vitality and the self-sacrificing love with which Christ lives for us and in us.
No promiscuity. No sexual abuse or force or violence. No sex outside monogamous covenanted relationship. Covenant for life, in good times and bad. Respect, honor and support the covenant relationships of others. Rear children with respect, as gifts from God entrusted to us. Strengthen family life through involvement in the Church and by committing to an examined life that is accountable and correctable.
The church welcomes all who believe that Jesus Christ has come to save them from sin and condemnation, all who are willing to be discipled as followers of Christ and to honor him as Lord. While everyone brings unique gifts and special needs to the body of Christ, there is no distinction in Jesus Christ based on race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, material wealth, socio-economic status, mental abilities, social abilities, physical abilities, age or any other human distinctions.
About the Error I Choose
We are fully informed about the highest ethic of self-sacrificing unilateral love as vibrantly revealed to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible provides a wonderful and bountiful supply of examples and teachings about what such an ethic implied for daily living in the Near East cultures of two thousand years ago. While the Church of Jesus Christ has shaped its ethics over long usage and through much struggle during the last two thousand years, all of us who believe must make faith choices about ethical standards with the light each of us has. With respect to homosexuality among believers and followers of Christ, there is some uncertainty for most Christians. That uncertainty can be stated as two opposing propositions:
Homosexual attraction and orientation is a fraudulent concept and a cover-up for personal choices and behaviors that are an evil abomination.
Homosexual attraction and orientation is a gift from God for a population of people in the same way heterosexual attraction and orientation is.
Sincere Christians, perhaps a majority, honestly studying the Word of God, believe that the first statement is true. They are willing to establish and maintain church policies and polities to reflect this position, thus choosing purity over justice. They must accept the risk of rejecting a proposition that is in fact true.
By contrast there are Christians, likely in the minority, honestly studying the Word of God, who believe the second proposition is true. They choose the risk of accepting a proposition as true when in fact it is false. Obviously either mistake would carry heavy penalties and cause very real harm to the body of Christ. One important way of thinking is to ask which choice, if correct, carries the greater gain for the kingdom of God, for the health of the body of Christ, for the advance of the gospel. I must also ask which choice if wrong, carries the least prospect of harm.
We cannot over-emphasize that everyone is bin fact* choosing one or the other of these two mistakes as the better one-even if we claim that the Word of God has already made clear what is right and say there is no choice to make.
I have openly decided to take the second risk, the risk of accepting a proposition as true when in fact it is false, for the following reasons:
- God who is love created the world good.
- The justice texts seem to prevail over the purity texts.
- God requires faith and responsibility rather than lawfulness. Obedience is not to static laws but rather to the human condition of responsibility. Sin is refusing to be responsible.
- It is about self-sacrifice and self-control rather than control of others.
- It will enable us to test the truth openly, clearly and accountably.
- It revitalizes my biblical studies, prayer life and compassion.
- It is most consistent with a Christological appropriation of the Bible.
- Finally, if it turns out to be dead wrong, it will have done less harm than the first risk; and if proven correct, it has the power to do the most good.
I intend to live my life in the church by acting as responsibly and faithfully as possible-ready to be accepted or rejected, ready to be corrected when wrong. I hope by God’s grace to remain in communion with those who differ from me in their conviction.
Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace. Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1988.
Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale, PA: Herald, 1996.
James Fowler, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith. San Francisco: Harper and Rowe, 1984.
Walter S. Friesen, “Developmental Stages and Transitions of Spiritual Faith.” A typed manuscript, copies available.
Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom. New York: Holt, 1941 (Owl Book edition 1994).
H. Richard Niebhur, Christ and Culture. New York: Harper, 1951.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Marvin H. Pope, “Homosexuality,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume. Nashville: Abingdon, 1976, pp. 415-417.
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
Walter Wink, Ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999
John H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1972.