Some Biblical Arguments for Inclusion

John Linscheid

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The following was originally written on January 27, 1998, as part of an online discussion on MennoLink.  It has been lightly edited.

What follows are some thoughts in response to the question of whether I could justify biblically my argument that the Mennonite churches should move toward a more inclusive stance toward gay and lesbian Christians.  Here I simply outline some elements in what we could call a biblical theology of inclusion.  I do not attempt to justify points in detail but rather to sketch some points in an argument.

  1. All people are formed in the image of God (Genesis 1).  In many ancient near eastern cultures the ruler was the “image of God” but the Torah announces that all people, male and female (i.e., without exception) reflect the image of God.  This means that any system of morality must affirm the way the image of God is reflected in glbt people as well as heterosexual people.  Any theology which dehumanizes a portion of the population is inherently in conflict with this.  Theories that glbt people are more promiscuous or less healthy than heterosexual people impose an unbiblical hierarchy that values one group of people over another based on prejudices rather than the inherent nature of the relationships involved.  Thus, any theory addressing oppressed people must begin from a premise that so reinforces their creation in the image of God as to militate against all bigotries and prejudices against them.  Whoever wants to justify discrimination against glbt people must show how, in real life, discrimination will enhance their relationship to God, their service of God, their love of God, and the reflection of God’s image within them.  I.e., they must propose a glbt-positive ethic as the basis for denying loving, mutual, committed, same-sex relationships to glbt people.

  2. Genesis 2 reports that God brought many creatures to Adam as possible companions but none were suitable.  Only a second human person, made of the rib of Adam, was a suitable companion.  The compatibility between the two was not based on gender but on mutual humanity.  It is the similarity between the two which Adam seizes upon, not their difference.  Upon seeing the second person, Adam immediately recognized “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”  (One could argue that same-sex relationships actually reflect this bone-of-bone and flesh-of-flesh compatibility more than do heterosexual couples.)  Something in the nature of humanity recognizes “bone of bone and flesh of flesh.”  When glbt people recognize such companionship in a person of the same sex they are responding to God’s design for companionship.  There is nothing in the companionship and mutual humanity of the two, prior to “the fall” that is inherent in different-sex relationships as opposed to same-sex relationships.  The issue is relationship, not gender.  Gender roles, oppression of woman by man, even burdening women with desire for men who will oppress them is depicted as a consequence of the sin of the first couple.  Much of the prejudice against glbt people is rooted in assumptions about gender roles and boundaries, thus the prejudice is a consequence of “the fall.”

  3. One way the law establishes identity for the people of Israel is by demanding that they separate themselves from the surrounding (idolatrous?) cultures through specific ordering of relationships both human and nonhuman.  Thus behavior that is perceived as crossing gender boundaries is prohibited (“lying with a male as with a female;” cross-dressing) as is behavior that crosses other identity boundaries (mixing types of fabric, cross-breeding animals, mixing types of crops in a field).  This may have been compounded by the perception that it is shameful for men to “lower themselves” to positions occupied by women.  One way that Christians deal with this is by arbitrarily labeling anything we no longer find culturally significant as “cultic” and therefore superseded by faith in Christ.  In the same way, we continue to adhere to those things that still fit our biases.  (So many identify the laws regarding sexual relationships as “moral” as opposed to “cultic.”)  This is not inherent in the law which does not distinguish between cultic and moral law.  So how do we determine what is important here?  The bottom line seems to be maintaining one’s identity as a people of God and a relationship with God as well as maintaining relationships of justice within the community.  So the prophets, for example, question the significance of sacrifice when relationships of justice are not being met.  Similarly, while the strict letter of the law would appear to exclude all foreigners, Moabites, and eunuchs from God’s assembly, oral tradition, scripture (outside of Torah), and the prophets make provisions for inclusion of individuals who are dedicated to serving God despite these apparent barriers.  The story of Ruth reports that David’s ancestry includes Moabites.  The story of Jericho lauds a foreign prostitute.  Isaiah tells the foreigner and the eunuch not to consider themselves excluded despite clear statements in the law that could be used to justify excluding them.  Thus the thrust seems to be to maintain the identity of the people of God and to move toward inclusion of formerly excluded people.

  4. The relationship of David and Jonathan “surpassed the love of women” and Saul saw their bonding as a threat to the family dynasty.  In fact, Saul scorned the relationship as “shaming your mother’s nakedness” which is a phrase often used to condemn sexual relationships outside certain boundaries.  Gay and lesbian relationships often have a similar character of bonding and love.

  5. Jesus violates traditional moral and cultural boundaries when he perceives the spirit of the law to demand it.  He is frequently accused of violating the law but appeals to the intent rather than the letter.  So the Sabbath is made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath, laws of cleanliness are not fulfilled by specific patterns of washing but by the character of the individuals involved, etc.  The churches that now “violate” the custom of excluding glbt people from membership do so appealing to standards that are perfectly compatible with the situations in which Jesus violated the letter of the law in order to fulfill the purpose of the law.

  6. Paul and the early church violate boundaries between Jew and Gentile because they see that the gospel demands a move beyond the strict letter of the law and that God breaks down barriers between people rather than raising or justifying barriers.  Exploitative and unequal relationships raise barriers and cause pain and division among people.  So, incest, adultery, and unbridled pursuit of selfish gain at the expense of others are condemned.  But equal and mutual relationships break down barriers by creating relationships of trust between people.  Thus there are clear biblical principles involved, and the celebration of gay/lesbian love does not in any way lead to a similar celebration of pederasty or incest.

  7. Sexual morality in Paul is “relativized” to the service of God and relationships with Christ.  The principle of “better to marry than to burn” is a critical example of this.  There is no logical reason why it is better for heterosexuals to marry than to burn but it is better for gay/lesbian people to burn than to form mutual covenant relationships.  Some may say that Paul does lay down the law absolutely on occasion.  However, I do not see places where Paul does this arbitrarily.  Can any example be given where a non-exploitative, loving, mutual, covenant relationship is prohibited absolutely for no apparent reason?

  8. When I look at the power dynamics and ways of addressing people that Jesus exemplifies, I see in glbt people and those who support our inclusion a reflection of this.  Jesus, for example, cleanses the temple with the statement that God’s house should be a house of prayer “for all people.”  This harkens back to the prophetic inclusion of those who had apparently been excluded from the assembly but who, in the spirit of the law, were included.  The ever-widening circle of grace that is exhibited throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures presents a trajectory that is consistent with the inclusion of glbt people in the church.  It suggests that ethics are not a matter of arbitrary rules without reason but based in relationships with God and other people.  Thus gay and lesbian relationships which are mutual, loving, and just exhibit the very tendencies which lead to biblical changes in the boundaries that formerly excluded women, foreigners, gentiles, the “unclean,” etc.

  9. Probably the main counter-text referred to by many who do not support full inclusion of glbt people in the church is Paul’s alleged condemnation of same-sex relationships in Romans 1.  But the behavior described in Romans is described as a consequence of idolatry.  It is characterized by indiscriminate rule of lust that leads to actions that betray the very nature of the individuals involved.  There is no mention here of love or covenant or self-control as part of these relationships.  Only the non-biblical assumption that “all same-sex acts are the same” regardless of character would lead an interpreter to equate this with relationships of love, mutual support and concern, and covenant commitment.  No verse anywhere says that God condemns same-sex relationships characterized by mutuality, covenant, and love.  Some white people believe that all people of African descent are lazy and stupid and inferior to those of European descent.  One can present the evidence of an African-American with a Ph.D. to such a person and he or she will remain unconvinced because, according to his or her prior assumption, the only evidence that matters is color of skin.  In the same manner, a person who is convinced that the only significant distinction between relationships is the sex of the parties involved will continue to see rape, idolatry, and unrestrained lack of self-control as indistinguishable from loving, mutual, God-fearing relationships if those relationships happen to be between people of the same sex.  Despite all the characteristics inherent in the behavior described in Romans 1, they will continue to insist that the only significant issue is the sex of the parties involved.

Many individuals have carefully shown that the behaviors characterized in Romans 1 do not parallel healthy, loving, gay and lesbian relationships.  Nonetheless, many other people continue to insist, based on their prior assumption, that all gay and lesbian relationships can be lumped into one category and evaluated based on the worst-case scenario.  They assume Paul must have shared their bias that same-sex relationships are all the same.  Nothing in Romans 1 requires one to equate relationships that are out of control as a consequence of idolatry with relationships between faithful, God-fearing people.  Moreover, the thrust of the Romans passage is to heal relationships between groups that despised one another (Christians of Jewish and Gentile origin).  This calls into question any interpretation that is used to further divide the church and is used to judge people one looks down upon.

It is true that I cannot cite a verse that unequivocally says, “Homosexuality is blessed by God.”  There is no such verse, I readily admit.  But this biblical argument demonstrates “briefly” (though not systematically) how one can argue in good faith from biblical principles that people of different sexual orientations may legitimately be included in God’s family and accepted by the church.

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