One Reply to “worth your time”

  1. What follows is the body of my response to a friend who asked about my own take on some of the issues involved here:

    I can’t say that I’ve got any clear answers on this issue, and I find that I have developed a pretty strong uneasiness about anyone who thinks that there is a plain and simple, black and white way through the thorny nest of issues that are all tangled up here. I don’t want that uneasiness to provide a way for me to hide from difficult decisions by taking refuge in purportedly “grey” areas, but I am convinced that “hard truths” on this issue are more often touted than supported well.

    I think that you represent the traditional teaching of most mainline churches pretty well. Scripture forbids homosexual intercourse, so persons with overwhelmingly homosexual desires should remain celibate. As you say, this is a tough line to draw—especially in Protestant churches where our ministers aren’t ALL expected to be celibate, as is the case in the Catholic church (with questionable success).

    One move that is often made, and I think is important to note even though it is tangential (and therefore something of a distraction in this argument, not a real solution) is to point out all the other forms of seemingly intolerable hypocrisy that our contemporary churches have made peace with. E.g.: Why do we tolerate a dangerous accumulation of wealth among both clergy and laity in a world where there is so much economic injustice, when there are so many injunctions against neglect of the poor and so many warnings about the hazards of wealth? The value in this sort of question is to expose the arbitrariness of our fixation on a certain kind of sin as a boundary marker, when we are willing to ignore so many others that Scripture marks as at least as heinous. But as I said, this reply can be something of a red herring, a way to avoid dealing with the issue.

    I wonder if the Scriptural case against homosexuality as we know it is quite as strong as the people who argue it most vehemently think it is. I’m not willing to argue that scripture endorses homosexual intercourse, but I think that there are a lot of mitigating factors that are often ignored in this conversation. To save time/space/energy I’ll list them here without much development, ask me for more if you’d like.

    1) Scripture doesn’t speak, anywhere that I know of, of homosexual orientation (as opposed to intercourse). This is partly because the way human beings think about both gender and sexuality are partly constructed by the culture they live in. The cultures in which Scripture was written did not operate with any notion of sexual orientation (as we think about it), so it simply wasn’t an concept that they [Scripture’s human authors] could condemn or endorse. For one example, while we tend to define a “man” biologically by reference to genitilia, in ancient Greek culture, a man was someone who owned property (i.e. a male slave could not be a man). Additionally, sexual desire was thought of more in terms of a general desire for human beauty (undifferentiated by biological sex), less in terms of reciprocal desire neatly divided along the lines of biological sex (and normalized as such). The way in which ideas about sex and gender can be seen to shift pretty significantly through history suggests to me that we should be really careful when we presume that our understanding is natural, God-ordained, and the plain meaning of Scripture. Because they are so familiar, we are awfully quick to make interpretive bridges across huge cultural/historical gaps when it comes to the texts of Scripture that we would never make with other texts written at the same time. This is simply an argument for the continuing value of more very careful, minimally-biased historical work.

    2) Old Testament condemnations of homosexual intercourse are found alongside with any number of very strict, very specific prohibitions which have been almost universally disregarded. I don’t think that the argument can be decided in Leviticus.

    3) There is so much heinous misbehaviour going on in Sodom that to fixate on the homosexual desire of the crowd at Lot’s door as the paradigmatic sin of the city seems to beg the question of what makes that town a prime example of sinfulness throughout the rest of scripture.

    3) Romans 1, as I understand it, uses homosexual intercourse as an example of what idolatry leads to. In this passage Paul is certainly very negative about homosexual behavior, but it’s not actually his main point. He’s really warning against idolatry and stressing the importance of coming to know and worship God. So… that being the main point, if we encounter people who engage in homosexual activity but are not (so far as we can tell) idolaters, people whose lives and ministry seem to be bearing the fruit of the Spirit, can this passage serve as their condemnation? I’m not sure.

    4) To my knowledge, that leaves a few of Paul’s sin lists (I don’t have references right at hand, but I could find them) that serve as the strongest case for an unambiguous condemnation of homosexual activity in the Christian Scriptures. Even there, things turn on the definition of a particular word without much context (simply because of the nature of lists) for coming to grips with how Paul is using the term or what he understands by it.

    I don’t want to explain the Scriptural argument against homosexual behaviour away, but I do want to be careful about reconfirming a traditional position simply because it’s traditional. It’s too easy to read Scripture in ways that confirm what we already believe. I think that the church has been wrong for nearly 2000 years about women ministering in churches, and I’m glad that many churches have taken another look at what they presumed to be “natural” and the “plain meaning” of Scripture.

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