What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Not the Right Question

It occurs to me now, at the end of this series, that the title I have given to these blogs is probably misleading.  After all, if the question was, simply, “What does the Bible say about homosexuality,” this would have been a very short conversation:  “Are there passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality?”  “Yes, there are.”

But what the Bible says and what those passages mean for our life of faith are two different questions.  “Because the Bible says so” has never been enough–not for any of us.  All of us, without exception, are selective in our application of Scripture.  If we worship on Sunday and do yard work on Saturday, we violate Sabbath law.  If we enjoy ham and crab cakes, we violate dietary law.  If we accept or charge interest, we violate the economic principles of the Scriptures.  Should we Christians say that that is all Old Testament stuff, and that we live by the New Testament, we are even more caught in a bind!  The Gospels advocate a lifestyle of radical renunciation of the world–how many of us are prepared to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor” (Matt 19:21)?  Jesus explicitly condemns divorce and re-marriage. But how many of us truly believe that all divorced and remarried people are living in sin?

United Methodist preacher and author Adam Hamilton advocates a “three buckets” approach to reading Scripture:

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

Into the first bucket go “passages like the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. . . passages that call us to ‘do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God,’ and to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”  Hamilton is persuaded that  “Most of the Bible fits into this category.”

Into the second bucket go, for example, the ritual laws of ancient Israel: “the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.”

The very idea of a third bucket, Hamilton recognizes, may be threatening.  However, he writes,

Here are a few examples of scripture I don’t believe ever accurately captured God’s heart, character, or will:  Leviticus 21:9 requires that if the daughter of a priest becomes a prostitute she must be burned to death.  In Exodus 21:20-21, God permits slave-owners to beat their slaves with rods provided they don’t die within the first 48 hours after the beating “for the slave is his property.”  God commands the destruction of every man, woman, and child in 31 Canaanite cities and later kills 70,000 Israelites in punishment for David taking a census. These passages seem to me to be completely inconsistent with the God revealed in Jesus Christ who cared for prostitutes, commanded that we love our enemies, and gave his life to save sinners.

The problem with Adam Hamilton’s “three buckets” approach is, how are we to know what goes into which bucket?  Further, we might wonder why a God of wisdom and love would even reveal the material in buckets two and three.

Perhaps a better approach is to ask a very fundamental question: what is the Bible?  We may answer, “The Bible is the word of God.”  But what does that confession mean?  Do we mean that God WROTE the Bible?  But then, shouldn’t the Bible be unified, in language, style and theme–in the way that, say, Charles Dickens always sounds like Dickens, or John Steinbeck always sounds like Steinbeck? The Bible, however, does not present itself in a unified style, characteristic vocabulary, or even a common language. Deuteronomy does not sound like Leviticus; Amos does not sound like Isaiah; Matthew does not sound like John; Paul does not sound like James.  Plainly, the various authors of Scripture are not taking dictation from the one Author.  Nor are the individual identities of these persons overwhelmed by the inspiring Spirit–the distinctive personalities of the apostles and prophets still shine through!

If we try to make Scripture into an argument, or a series of logical propositions, then the Bible becomes a book about God rather than an invitation to relationship with God.  Faith becomes, not an orientation of the entire self to God (see Galatians 2:20), but belief: holding the right ideas and opinions about God.  This approach is fraught with problems, however, because the Bible is not uniform or univocal–that is, it does not speak with one voice.  Inevitably, by this reading, we adopt (whether we acknowledge it or not), Adam Hamilton’s “bucket” approach–also sometimes called a “canon within the canon”–prompting us to impose on Scripture the uniformity that it lacks by emphasizing some texts, and de-emphasizing others.

Perhaps the best way to approach the Bible as Scripture is to acknowledge that it is at one and the same time human, historically conditioned word and the Word of God–in the same way that Christians confess Jesus as both fully human and fully Divine. Every word of Scripture is human word, expressing the encounters of women and men with God, in a bewildering variety of circumstances and over an immensely long period of time.  Therefore, every word of Scripture bears the hallmark, and carries the limitations, of its particular context in time and space. However, as every word of Scripture speaks out of an encounter with God, every word also has the potential to become again transparent to God’s presence.  To put this another way, God meets us in the Bible.

Bono, lead singer for U2 and an unapologetic witness for Christ, speaks powerfully on God’s love and grace: 

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people. . .Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

I propose that the Bible is a love letter from God–an invitation to relationship calling for our commitment, not a list of propositions requiring our assent.  This reading of Scripture has its problems, too–in particular, one might argue that if the Bible is not a rule book, then we have no basis for any rules: the only alternative is an “anything-goes” morality.  I do not accept that conclusion.  As we come into relationship with the God revealed in Scripture, we grow into God’s love, and desire more and more to live in accordance with that love: that is, to love what God loves, and as God loves.  This, as we have seen, is a golden thread woven through the many threads in Scripture, upheld by the Torah, by Jesus, and by Paul.

What would an ethic of love look like?  Poet, theologian, and agrarian reformer Wendell Berry wades boldly into the cultural divide between “liberals” and “conservatives” on the issue of homosexual marriage, with little patience for either “side”:

The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their religion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for some restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to homes that are empty all day every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that cannot be compromised.

Berry proposes that we need to take people more seriously than faceless absolutes.

Oversimplified moral certainties—always requiring hostility, always potentially violent—isolate us from mercy, pity, peace and love and leave us lonely and dangerous in our misery. The only perfect laws are absolute, but perfect laws are only approximately fitted to imperfect humans. That is why we have needed to think of mercy, and of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of the law. 

The challenge is for us to relate to one another, not as categories (white/black, liberal/conservative, male/female, homosexual/heterosexual), but as people:

Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob, which makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob overflowing with righteousness, as there was at the crucifixion and has been before and since. This mob violence can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to heretics, foreigners, enemies, or any other group different from ourselves.

Finally, Berry observes, no marriage is “made” by church or state; rather, any real marriage is forged by the commitment of a couple, each to the other.  The freedom to take and make personal vows of commitment and faithfulness cannot be either enforced or restricted:

No church can make a homosexual marriage, because it cannot make any marriage, nor can it withhold any degree of blessedness or sanctity from any pledged couple striving day by day to be at one. If I were one of a homosexual couple, the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple, I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians.

The commitment to an ethic of love does not mean that “anything goes.”  Indeed, to affirm same-sex marriage is to affirm the virtues of commitment or fidelity at the heart of any marriage.

I hope that these posts have made clear why I, a Bible-believing Christian, urge my church to fully include LGBTQ people.  I have not always thought in this way: I wince and cringe as I replay in my memory jokes I told in college and in seminary–not knowing that some of my dear Christian friends were LGBTQ. My mind was changed by many things, but first and foremost, it was changed by Bible study.  

Early in my ministry, I was approached by an Evangelical Christian brother struggling with same-sex attraction, who asked me what the Bible said on this issue.  I set out to discover what I could learn. I still have those notes–they cover some of the same ground we have covered in these last few weeks.  My study led me to realize that the biblical case against homosexuality was not strong–certainly, not so strong as I had thought that it was.  Still the argument from creation seemed to me sufficiently strong that the most I could then say (reading from those old hand-written notes) was, “Homosexuality not an evil, but not a good.  God has a better plan.”  Later, as I came to know more and more gay and lesbian students and colleagues, some in long term, committed relationships, I realized that I could no longer, on biblical grounds, regard their relationships as intrinsically immoral–any more than heterosexual relationships are intrinsically moral.  My mind had been changed.

To all who have come with me on this pilgrimage: thank you.  Perhaps you have found validation here for your own beliefs; or perhaps your mind has been changed through this study, as mine was.  Then again, perhaps this study leaves you committed to the traditional view of marriage and sexuality.  If so, I ask you to remember that we who think differently on this issue may do so, not despite the Bible, but because of the Bible.

In his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” John Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15: “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? And Jehonadab answered, It is. If it be, give me thine hand. And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.”  Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: 

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

May I extend that same invitation, brothers and sisters?  Can we affirm our fellowship in Christ despite our differences?  “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? . . . If it be, give me thine hand.”



5 thoughts on “What the Bible Says About Homosexuality: Not the Right Question

  1. A very thoughtful essay. I’m planning to share it with a number of people. Thanks for posting it.

    By the way, I’m serving at the Medina Presbyterian Church. Please be in touch if you’re ever out this way.

  2. Thanks for this series Dr. Tuell. It’s been a joy to walk the path with you. Thanks for your work.

  3. What a thoughtful and well-studied series! I had a bad taste in my heart from reading a rather judgmental blog on this subject earlier, and thought that perhaps your blog on the subject might be a good “palate cleanser”. Thank you for lifting my heart once again! 🙂

  4. Weak Sauce. If a man stands for nothing, he falls for everything. Your essay misses Paul’s discourse in Romans 1 on the reprobate mind and also God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. The Holiness code of Leviticus forever puts God’s position forward on Homosexual sin. Deism is the attempt to shape God into man’s image. With regard to political correctness and postmodern Woodstock values, your essay identifies you as a Deist. BTW, John Wesley would kick you out of the Holiness Club for your unwillingness to name sin for what it is: Transgression of the Law.

    • Dwight, please check out my earlier blogs on Sodom and on the Leviticus passages. I do not ignore these texts, I just didn’t treat them here. As for my being a Deist–they’d definitely kick me out for loving Jesus and the church!

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