One of the biggest struggles we’ve faced even with Side A people who are affirming is the often said sentiment of, “You know, I know what the Bible says, but I just can’t not love everybody.” Or, “I know what the Bible says but I’m willing to look the other way, cuz hey, we all are sinners.” Or, “I know it’s a sin, but…” You fill in the blank. This thought process is not exactly the most affirming, though I get the sentiment.
What I’m going to write today might seem heretical and just down right blasphemous, but I’m not intending that. I’m hoping to point out that aside from this issue (well I am sure there are other issues that we Christians stubbornly cling to as Gospel truth so to speak), most of us naturally can work our away around tough biblical concepts, issues, and stories with a whole lot of justification, filters, and questions, and, the word of the day, INTERPRETATION. We choose on this topic of “homosexuality” to become suddenly fundamentalist in our reading of scripture when the rest of the time we can clearly see all 50 shades of grey.
While I believe that the Bible is God-breathed, God-inspired, and God’s “special revelation” giving us a mere tiny sliver-glimpse into who He is, the Bible is an extremely complex compilation of stories, thoughts, ideas, and history put together over time and over many authors. It is a living, breathing work that seems to transcend time while at the same time be rooted in cultural context. Jewish rabbis had the enormous task of interpreting the first 5 books of the bible, which they dedicated their entire lives to. These 5 books are some of the most straightforward “rules” in which to live by, many handed down or spoken down directly by God himself. Yet centuries later, rabbis continue to spend their days discussing, interpreting, and challenging the interpretation of this Holy Scripture. I guess what I’m getting at is while it is inerrant in what God is revealing to us, the interpretation of it is NOT inerrant.
Take the entire Bible, and every single word is subject to interpretation. No way around it. It was neither written in English, written in 2019, nor are the authors around today to ask. And just as unfortunate, God has not stepped in to clarify anything recently. We interpret every word in it as best the experts can, but even a simple word like “gazelle” is subject to interpretation. There are many words in the Bible that are not found elsewhere, and we can only surmise what the interpretation can be. Some words, phrases, and stories cannot be accurately converted into language that we can understand while maintaining accuracy. We understand this for the most part, and much of the Bible can still be understood generally without obtaining this precise interpretation, as it can flow under the general overarching storyline of the Gospel. (We have freedom in believing in Christ, and our job is to worship God, spread the Good News, and Love our neighbors). However, there are certain things in which interpretation can be a really big deal. Can mean literal and spiritual life and death. We have come to believe that the gay “issue” is one of those. Not only that it has become SO important that we are personally deciding whether gay people are Christians or not, whether gay people will go to heaven or not, whether gay people can be called to follow Jesus or not, whether gay people can have spiritual gifts of not, but we feel the need to go to the level of dissecting word for word what 8 scriptural references, “the clobber passages” may mean. We have put such a tremendous weight to these select words that lives are hanging in the balance. That people commit suicide because of them. That people have turned away from God because of the assumed interpretation and the conclusion of the interpretation of them. That people may not be baptized or be members of a church because of them.
We put so much weight on these few words, the first question we should be asking, instead of what we have been asking like, “Will gays go to heaven? Do we need to love gays? How do we figure out a nice way to tell gays they are sinning?” and so on, is actually, “Can we be SURE we are interpreting these scriptures accurately? If we can’t be sure, what’s the Plan B? If we are sure, what is the actual consequence to this interpretation? Can we be sure of that as well? Should we be acting so confidently? What is at risk?”
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not as cut and dried as we would assume or have been told.
Before everyone gets their underwear all in a bunch and starts freaking out about literal vs. figurative interpretations, I would like to point out much lesser weighted words have split churches down the middle in virtually every denomination, every culture, and every generation since the original church. Some divides seem important, and some are downright silly. Did you know that churches have divided on which books of the Bible should be in the Bible, predestination, women in ministry, following Old Testament Law, grace or punishment, who’s holy, who’s not, etc.? These are some of the bigger ones. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time in Religion classes trying to ferret out whether the denomination that believes communion is the actual body and blood of Christ is right or the denomination that believes communion is the representation of the body and blood of Christ is correct. I bet there are people reading this that are immediately thinking, “Um, duh! It’s obviously the actual. Case closed.” Or vise-versa. But scholars will never agree on which interpretation is correct. The people that have literally divided their church into separate denominations will try to convince you that the interpretation of this is so important to know that spiritual lives are in the balance. And we aren’t talking average joes like you and me trying to figure out which interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said, “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you.” We’re talking scholars pitted against scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to the interpretation of Jesus’ words in that one sentence. I mean, really, Jesus SAID, “THIS IS MY BODY”. Pretty clear, huh? So do the bread and wine transform into Christ’s actual body when we take communion? That’s what he said, isn’t it? Or is it a common sense, “This bread is a representation of my body?” Huh. This isn’t even a sentence of scripture that is about how we interpret a word we aren’t sure about into a different language. You can see where I’m going with this, right? A straightforward quote from Jesus can be read a few different ways.
But when it comes to what the Bible says or doesn’t say about gays, we are all suddenly fundamental experts. So the first question should be, “Are we in agreement that the Bible is clear on what we think it’s saying?” And this is where the actual debate can begin. No, scholars are not at all clear that the Bible is clear in the interpretations. And they never may be in agreement. That’s OK, but I’m just here to tell you there is more than 1 plausible, valid, and legitimate possible interpretation to these scriptures.
There are now entire books written on the interpretation of the select wording of the “clobber passages.” I can’t cover it all but I can hit on some highlights to mostly open a new door to different ways of thinking. You can explore scriptural interpretations more in depth on your own.
First of all, we need to look at overarching scripture instead plucking passages out of their context and studying them on their own, picking about each word as “stand-alones”: When we start “proof texting” sentences in the bible, we run the very real risk of taking things out of context. The clobber passages are typically taken out of context and the culture and historical settings are ignored, as well as the text surrounding the passages.
So this is going to be both a quick down and dirty, and probably boringly dry portion of the blog but here we go:
In general, many of the clobber passages are actually an affront to how they viewed women, and not so much an “abomination” of same-sex relationships. Not only were the authors referring to pagan rituals, Greek and Roman cultural practice of taking on young boys as sexual targets as a “release” of sexual tension, but even more so, it was more addressing the horror of a man being treated like a woman. As in, it was an abomination to lay there and take it like a woman, who was considered property.
The “Historic Christian Sexual Ethic” view on the clobber passages may actually avoid using the clobber passages because they understand that they are being proof texted and certain words have different meanings. Both sides have had to go back to the original texts (If anyone tells you the bible clearly talks about homosexuals, note that the word homosexual only made it into the bible as recently as 1969). There is much debate as to these words, and it becomes murky when we take them as separate passages because it indeed ignores the culture and times. The HCSE would put more stock into the “traditional” mention of marriage between Man and Woman, Genesis, and Jesus mentioning marriage, and the main argument being “If the bible didn’t mention same-sex marriages or committed relationships, that means that it’s exclusive.”
In an effort to not reinvent the wheel I am going to re-type some excerpts from the book, “A Time to Embrace” by William Stacy Johnson, mainly found in the chapter, “The Consecration of Same-Gender Love.” I encourage anyone who wants to dive into the 7 different views of gays and the church, read Johnson’s book. He does an excellent, in-depth, scholarly writing. First he addresses the HCSE argument that there is an “order of creation”, and that by NOT mentioning same-sex marriage it proves that it is prohibited. However, Johnson believes that two people of the same gender that want to enter into a covenant with another is actually more in line with the message of the Bible, and that is how we are “made in God’s image.” He also believes the best way to support Christian Gays is to become affirming of their desire to be committed and have their unions consecrated. He believes:
“Supporting exclusively committed gay unions represents not a departure from our biblical and theological traditions but rather a deepening of them…
“Unfortunately the plain fact is that nowhere does Scripture explicitly address the question of mutually committed same-gender unions…When we demand of it to answer questions its writers never anticipated, as we are doing here, we must approach it with a special measure of wisdom and grace.
“Not only does God delight in us, but God has determined to remain committed to us through thick and thin. Both this delight and this divine dedication are symbolized for human experience in the love between spouses. Marriage is born of two people knowing themselves as desired by one another and determining to stand by one another for better or worse.
“The desire to enter into an exclusive bond with a significant other is a powerful feature of human experience, which is affirmed in the biblical story of creation…This all too human desire is both biological and cultural, and it is a mistake to reduce it to one or the other.
“One of the major self-deceptions engaged in by those who opposed marriage equality for gay couples is the assertion that marriage is an institution that has remained the same for millennia. This is simply not true…In biblical times, when a man wanted to “marry” a woman, he did so simply by “taking”(laqah) her. This “taking” of a woman connoted male initiative, dominance, supremacy, and possession.
“Traditional prohibitionist readings of these early texts (Genesis 1 and 2) see them as laying down a fixed and unalterable structure of heterosexual marriage, ruling out any form of sexuality that does not comply with that structure….What we need to consider is whether the attention given to heterosexual marriage in Scripture sets up an absolute prohibition against same-gender couples…If gay people are giving themselves to one another in marriage-like commitments, are they not embodying the very act of self-giving for the other that lies at the heart of biblical religion?
“By sheer virtue of being human, so Genesis proclaims, we are loved by God. Second, in telling us that human beings are created in God’s image, the verse does not spell out precisely what the “image” means. Perhaps being in the image of God means…something that is central to the biblical narrative itself, namely, the capacity and desire to enter into deep and enduring relationships—both with one another and with God. In other words, the desire for intimate companionship that all of us feel so deeply, whether we are gay or straight, is an important part of our humanity. The nurturing and ordering of this desire is what marriage seeks to accomplish.
“Not only are human beings made in God’s image, but the image includes ‘both male and female.’ Some interpreters have suggested that the phrase ‘male and female’ refers to that anatomical ‘fit’ between male and female body parts. In this view, a certain understanding of body parts becomes the bedrock reason for rejecting same-gender relationships. But this is not a claim that has any explicit grounding in Genesis or anywhere else in Scripture. For that matter, biblical Hebrew does not even have specific words for genitalia. It is true that the passage goes on to urge human beings to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, a fact that obviously contemplates sexual intercourse. Yet this is a commandment that belongs to the species as a whole, not to each individual. The phrase ‘male and female’ sits in apposition to the phrase ‘in the image of God.’ It is telling us that we should equate both male and female with the image of God. They were all created in God’s image regardless of gender, gender orientation, or any other condition which might choose to lessen their humanity.
“In summary, therefore, the first creation account in Genesis underscores not the peculiarities of anatomy, or the wonders of gender complementarity, but the comprehensiveness and communal character of all humanity being created in God’s image.”
Another Historic Christian Sexual Ethic argument is about “the order of creation”. Johnson goes on to point out about Genesis 2, “…In this biblical narrative not only does God recognize the human need for companionship, but God also responds….Even God is not satisfied with creation, ‘as it is’ as a basis for ordering human existence. The need to redeem creation, the need for a better world, appears in the very first verses of the Bible, even before recording human sin. God sees the need for a suitable companion, and God provides.
“So then what kind of suitable, redemptive companion is appropriate for a gay or lesbian? Does it not make sense for a gay or lesbian person to find a companion suitable to his or her own sexual orientation? The argument against this of course is that it denies the traditional understanding of marriage as a divinely established “order of creation.” There are serious problems with this idea. To claim that there is only one divinely ordained structure for government, family, and the economy is to ignore the diversity in these structures that Christians themselves have advocated over the centuries. For example, the domination of men over women, of whites over blacks, of certain nations over others. We can see that such notions are especially dangerous when they have been used in the twentieth century to support Hitler’s racist ideologies in Nazi Germany and the decades of apartheid in South Africa.
“This leads to a final criticism that is perhaps the most telling, namely, that the Bible itself nowhere talks about “orders of creation.” God creates the world, but the creative work of God’s Spirit remains ever at work to transform and renew all things. Indeed, God’s creative work and redemptive work are intimately linked, and the sanctification of human beings is always an act of dynamic new creation.
“The fact that creation is not yet complete is built into the very narrative we are called on to interpret here….(it) suggests that marriage is not merely an order of creation but most especially an order of redemption. To think of one’s spouse as one’s ezer (redemptive presence) is precisely to move beyond the notion of marriage as a fixed order of creation: marriage becomes a vehicle of redemption. When Adam sees Eve, he does not celebrate her otherness but her sameness: what strikes him is that she is “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” If achieving anatomical complementarity were the primary point, then, ironically, Adam would not really need Eve…Reducing what is going on here to a crude theology of ‘parts that fit’ will simply not do. The very fact that we are created in the image of God requires a more human and more holy form of theological thinking….The best way for a gay or lesbian person to find a ‘suitable helper’ is in a committed union with a person of the same gender. There is nothing explicit in Genesis that prohibits this and much there that actually supports it.”
“From the standpoint of biblical religion, the reason we honor the commitment of two spouses is that their commitment serves as a tangible witness to the commitment God makes to God’s own people…Within a Christian context, the commitment a person makes to his or her spouse is meant to be a reflection of God’s own gracious commitment to be for and with humans through Christ. ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ (Eph 5:25) Notice that this text does not invite us to picture the presence or absence of particular kinds of sexual acts between Christ and the church…It is the quality of the commitment—the purity of the love itself—that is elevated to first importance, and this has been true throughout the Christian tradition….Genuine love should be celebrated and supported. That should be the fundamental lens through which we view same-gender commitments. Is there really anything in Scripture that would lead us to think otherwise?”
The Clobber Passages in Leviticus
There are 2 passages in Leviticus that “prohibit homosexual acts.” Even in the Side X or Side B argument it is easy to dismiss Leviticus because we dismiss many other parts. We all enjoy bacon, wear mixed fabrics, cut our hair, don’t wear head coverings, don’t follow the days we are “unclean” to be touched by our spouse, etc. Johnson encourages us not to throw out these passages instantly, however. He claims, “In short, there is no way for those crafting a biblical moral vision to get around the texts of Leviticus. Instead, we must proceed through them.”
But, he wonders, “Why so much selective focus on two texts and so much neglect of all the rest? Some of the admonitions of Leviticus had an obvious purpose in their original context, but thinking through their applicability for today requires cultural discernment. For example, in many ancient societies the penalty for seducing a man’s wife was death. Why? Because it was an affront TO THE HONOR OF THE MAN. By contrast, the act of raping an unmarried woman was punishable by fine. This discrepancy tells us that notions of law, status, gender, and social boundaries intersect in ways that are NOT NEATLY PORTABLE from one society to another.
“One reason for the rule in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is that the act in question was of the kind that a socially superior man usually imposed on a social inferior…he was merely looking for a way to release sexual tension…a form of sexual humiliation…it was an indignity to a man’s masculinity to be sexually penetrated by another man…turning the man who was penetrated and thus become sexually subservient INTO A WOMAN….The silence about what we call lesbianism is telling: it underscores the fact that the concern is with protecting male dignity and not protecting women or any particular marital ideal….The prohibitions were issued to males who exercised authority within the ethos of an extended kindship system. At least some of the men were sexually polygamous: they were men whose sexual partners included not only wives but also concubines and slaves. Incidentally, the very fact that slavery was an accepted institution of the book of Leviticus tells us that we need to do some important interpretive work before we can apply the worldview and laws of Leviticus directly to our life today.
“The best explanation is that Leviticus prohibits powerful men from taking sexual advantage of other men; this prohibition is possibly in support of the commend ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ or to keep Israelites from joining Pagan sexual customs, but primarily to preserve the sense of what it meant to be a man in Israelite society.
“If love must be consecrated to be considered holy, then finding a consecrated context for the love of gays and lesbians should become a moral imperative.”
Note that these passages are actually more concerned with becoming “less” like a man, and more like a woman, which would be undignified since women were more “property” than people. The horror here thus is not focused on gay acts, but either abusing another man who was inferior, or putting yourself in the position that made a man submissive like a woman.
Another HCSE Argument: Jesus only mentioned marriage between a man and a woman
“Jesus reminds his interrogators of the Genesis passage about God having made human beings male and female, and about two spouses coming together to become one family Jesus sites this verse, not to dwell on the sexual complementarity of male and female, but to speak out against the act of breaking one’s family ties through divorce. Breaking a family covenant is serious business, according to Jesus, because being family has implications for both the individual and for the broader community.”
Fascinatingly, Jesus goes on to include eunuchs when he’s discussing divorce. Johnson explains;
“In the conventions of the day, a eunuch was a person who was neither male nor female, and thus excluded from the “male and female” community of Genesis. Because of this perceived lack of purity, such a person was barred from the religious community…robbed of their sexual identity; indeed, their sexuality was often appropriated violently for the benefit of others…not only does He defy convention by including them within the religious community; he also considers them a symbol of the highest and best devotion that individuals in that community could achieve. Second, Jesus implicitly makes good here on a promise that was articulated in Isaiah (56).”
The Clobber passages in the New Testament:
I will quote Johnson’s summary of the chapter “Becoming Family: The Consecration of Same-Gender Love” here for the sake of time:
“In every case, these biblical prohibitions refer to one-sided and exploitative forms of behavior, not to nuptial love. And that is true both for Leviticus and for the teachings of Paul in the New Testament. Paul invites us to consider whether a person’s ethical conduct exhibit’s the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ or whether it more closely resembles the kids of vices Paul calls ‘works of the flesh’…I submit that equating exclusively committed same-gender love with such things as ‘fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry’ and so forth makes neither common sense nor Christian sense. Exclusively committed love between equals, especially when it is a love that reflects Christ’s own self-giving for the other, fits more appropriately under the list of virtues (fruits of the spirit), not the list of vices. Some may object that same-gender love by definition should be in the category of ‘fornication’, which Paul places first in the list of vices in Galatians. But this argument merely begs the question: by definition, fornication is a sexual encounter that falls outside the covenantal context that Jews believed was blessed by God. Yet this is precisely what is in dispute today: may we, or may we not, establish a covenantal context in which same-gender unions may be blessed? The anti-gay argument really boils down to this: ‘You need a covenantal context, but we aren’t going to give you one.’”
To summarize all of this, even if we were to pick apart each and every “clobber passage”, regardless of context, there is definitely disagreement into the interpretation of the meaning of the words contained within them. If we begin to look at these passages within appropriate historic and cultural lenses, many questions arise and interpretation needs to be taken quite seriously. When we take another step out and look at the overarching message not only of what we are called to do with the Gospel but what God is talking about when he refers to us as “in his own image”, whether it’s about our sexual parts or more about our God-like need to be in relationship, we need to weigh this even more seriously.
To say that a gay person craving a covenantal, intimate relationship with another person is unbiblical, sinful, and will prevent the entry into heaven is an extremely serious view that every Christian needs to question. This view is ultimately man playing gatekeeper not only into the church but potentially into heaven as well. When this view is embraced by a church, when gay people who are believers yet committed to a same-sex spouse or searching for one, it is simply and sadly a rejection based on questionable interpretation of God’s word. Man nor church can or should play bouncer into heaven or even into fellowship in a church or service of others. We have other things to focus on, that God clearly is calling Christians to do, and by engaging in this line of prohibition is outside the call of God’s work in the world, a distraction by the evil one, dividing believers and discouraging gay people from seeking the Kingdom of Heaven. Not by virtue of their “acts”, but by an unfortunate misstep by the human part of the church.