Christianity & Homosexuality

Written as a personal email to a Christian friend who is struggling with his sexuality, the following is an informal, conversational examination of what the Bible says about homosexuality, and whether or not it’s possible to be both gay and Christian. In honor of Paul’s epistles, I begin the letter with a personal greeting before going deeper into the issue.

Subject: Re: Does God hate how I love?

I’m honored that you trust me enough to discuss this incredibly personal – and incredibly important – topic of whether it’s possible to be gay and Christian at the same time. But before I put on my more formal scholar cap and discuss the Bible more specifically, I feel like I should be open about my personal stance. After all, you’ve always been honest with me, so I’d like to show you the same respect, even at the risk of being a bit too blunt.

Since we’ve discussed what the Bible seems to say about slavery before, you might remember the quote of an abolitionist: “Prove to me from the Bible that slavery is to be tolerated, and I will trample your Bible under my feet, as I would the vilest reptile in the face of the earth.” In the same way – from my perspective, at least – I personally find it easier to reject the Bible because of its homophobia (or what I interpret as homophobia, but I’ll go more into that later), rather than try to reconcile the idea of a ‘loving’ God with a homophobic God. And I’m not alone on this, a Public Religion Research Institute survey earlier this year found that nearly one-third of Millennials (ages 18-33-years old) who left their faith cited “negative teachings” or “negative treatment” of the LGBTQ community as a significant factor in their decision to leave organized faith. Additionally, the survey found that 58% of Americans – and 70% of Millennials – said that religious groups are “alienating young adults by being too judgmental on gay and lesbian issues.” Even without facing the struggle that you’re going through, I’ve come to terms with my lack of faith, and I have no doubt that you could find such comfort as well.

Again, I don’t think you should feel obligated to hold your faith if you don’t feel your religion accepts who you are as a person. After all, religion is much more of a choice than sexuality. However, I understand that that’s simply not the case for everybody, as I understand and respect how important your faith has been to you.

With that said, I’d like to discuss what exactly the Bible says about homosexuality, why some people think you cannot be both gay and Christian, why some people think you can be both gay and Christian, and, in the end, why it’s your decision more than anything else.

For all the attention and controversy surrounding Christianity and homosexuality, the Bible, perhaps surprisingly, rarely discusses homosexuality, only mentioning the topic in fewer than ten passages. Additionally, given the time when the Bible was written, the Good Book has many questionable (to say the least) ideas about sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., so we shouldn’t take the passages about homosexuality without thinking about them critically. But, yes, at face value at least, the Bible seems to consider homosexual actions to be sinful; homosexuality as a sexual orientation (as we understand it today) isn’t discussed in the Bible.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19 in the Old Testament is sometimes cited as an indication that God condemns homosexual activity. Specifically in Genesis 19:5, the men of Sodom demanded Lot to “Bring them [the male angels] out to us, so that we may know them.” In that context, “to know” means “to have sex.” Later in the chapter (Genesis 19:24-25), “the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.” It seems clear that God wasn’t happy with them. Many have interpreted God’s actions as a result of their homosexual activity. Even in today’s world (although the term is fading), non-procreative sexual activity is often negatively referred to as “sodomy.” Furthermore, while noting that it’s “deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action,” then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in 1986, “There can be no doubt of the moral judgment made there [in Genesis 19:1-11] against homosexual relations.” However, a few things should be noted when discussing this passage. First off, even if you believe that God condemned the cities because of homosexual activity, it’s important to understand that their actions are not the same actions as the way that most people practice homosexuality today. In contrast with today’s world, sex in Biblical times was usually for procreation or to show dominance over another person. Far from looking for a consensual and meaningful relationship that happens to be between people of the same sex, homosexual acts during the time period, such as the intended gang rape in the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, were often intended as a way to humiliate and dominate another man. Additionally, not all scholars even agree that it was the homosexual actions that led to the cities’ downfall. Some, such as Jennifer Wright Knust, claim that the intended homosexual gang rape was one of Sodom’s many sins – such as pride, hatred, injustice, oppression, inhospitality, etc.

In Leviticus 18-20, also in the Old Testament, homosexuality seems to be denounced even more explicitly than in Genesis. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And Leviticus 20:13 says, “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.” As if the verses alone aren’t clear enough in their disapproval of homosexual actions, such verses are seamlessly intertwined with verses denouncing other sexual interactions, such as prohibiting sexual relations with any animal – a comparison that’s often made today (unfortunately). However, while the verses about homosexuality seem pretty clear, other Leviticus verses, which we often reject, seem pretty clear as well. For example, Leviticus 20:9 says, “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death,” and luckily I don’t know of any Christians who suggest the death penalty for disrespectful children. Later passages in Leviticus seem to condone slavery, such as Leviticus 25, yet we’ve blatantly rejected that as a society anyway. Furthermore, thinking more critically about the rules laid out in Leviticus, recognizing that the Jews were a relatively small group, it would make sense for them to condemn non-procreative sex in order to promote a higher birth rate, especially with the high infant mortality rates.

In the New Testament, Romans 1-2 have often been cited to support homophobic interpretations of the Bible. Specifically in Romans 1:26-27, Paul seems to suggest that, as a punishment for worshipping idols, “God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” To some, this passage is clear; Dale Martin quotes Robert Gagnon who claims that Romans 1 “makes an explicit statement not only about same-sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism.” However, as Martin notes, this passage, while seemingly a denunciation of homosexuality to some, seems to suggest that said homosexual actions were not deliberate choices, but punishment from God for their idolatry.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, also in the New Testament, Paul writes, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Even if you do think that homosexuality is a sin, it seems extremely unreasonable and unfair to lump “sodomites” together with “thieves” and “robbers.”  While there are questions over the translations of “male prostitutes” and “sodomites,” I don’t think any interpretation of this passage can justify its flaws.  For example, Martin argues that malakos, translated above as “sodomites,” actually has various meanings, and arguably refers most widely to the “entire complex of femininity.” Taking the phrase this way, rather than simply condemning homosexuals, it would seem to condemn “effeminate” males; and considering how the Bible, especially Paul’s letters, seem to portray women, this would seem to be a blatantly sexist insult. Additionally, the following verse, 1 Corinthians 6:11, has been used to justify “ex-gay” “conversion” therapy, which aims to ‘free’ people from their homosexual desires – which many professionals consider to be extremely demeaning and harmful. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, used the idea that despite “what some of you used to be,” such as a homosexual, you can be “washed” and “sanctified” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the spirit of our God.” Having interviewed multiple people who went through various ‘pray the gay away’ programs, some of what they went through is absolutely horrifying.

To be clear, no one has the right to tell you what you can or can’t consider yourself. If, after examining the various arguments, you do consider homosexual actions to be immoral, some people would suggest simply remaining celibate. After all, the Bible does seem to denounce homosexual actions, but homosexual attractions wouldn’t seem to be any more ‘sinful’ than heterosexual lust, which is also denounced in the Bible. It’s also extremely important to recognize that the Bible’s discussion of homosexuality doesn’t even touch on the possibility of a consensual, loving and supportive homosexual relationship, so it’s quite possible that you could remain a Christian even while living “a homosexual lifestyle,” as many gay Christians do today. As I’ve told you before, while writing about a variety of Dallas-Forth Worth churches last summer for the Dallas Observer, the church that I thought was truly the most “Christ-like” was the Cathedral of Hope, which is one of the largest LGBTQ-inclusive churches in the world, with thousands of members and almost 80-90% of their congregation identifying as LGBTQ. In the end, it comes down to whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.

No matter what you decide, know that I will support your decision, and I’m always here to help if you need me.

Sincerely,

Mac McCann

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What does the Bible say about slavery?

Today, the institution of slavery is almost universally rejected. However, that wasn’t the case for most of Christianity’s history, or for most of civilization’s history either. The discussion of slavery in the Bible, often cited as the moral authority for Christians, is often controversial for many Christians today, especially since both slavery advocates and slavery opponents have used the book to support their opinions. In this essay, I will discuss the relationship between slavery and the Bible by first examining the Old Testament, then the New Testament, then reactions to the Biblical mentions of slavery, before concluding.

To put it briefly, T. David Curp, a history professor at Ohio University, wrote, “Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, but there’s no sense therein that God disapproves of the institution per se.”

The Old Testament provides multiple Mosaic laws regulating Hebrews owning other Hebrews – but, to be clear, it in no way seems to have an issue with slavery in and of itself. For example, Exodus 21 lays out rather specific rules for buying “a male Hebrew slave” and how to treat them. While male Hebrew slaves can “go out a free person, without debt” after serving for six years, when a daughter is sold into slavery, “she shall not go out as the male slaves do” (Exodus 21:7).

However, not all mentions of slavery in the Old Testament are in complete agreement; Deuteronomy 15:12, for example, says, “If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free.” So while this verse advocates treating a Hebrew woman similarly to a Hebrew man (in contrast to the distinctions in Exodus 21), it’s still okay with the institution itself.

Although the Hebrew Bible promotes preferred treatment for fellow Israelite slaves, foreigners were not granted the same protections. In Leviticus 25, after advocating against treating “any of your fellow Israelites … with harshness,” Leviticus 25:44 clarifies that “it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves” and even treat them “as property” that your children can inherit.

Throughout the Old Testament, slavery seems to be acceptable to God, since slaveholders like Abraham and others (whom God seemed to bless) were never condemned for having slaves. The Old Testament, it seems, does advocate certain protections for Hebrew/Israelite slaves, but has no problem with foreign slaves, or slavery as a system in and of itself.

For some Christians, the Old Testament lacks the authority of the New Testament, because the life of Jesus and the rise of Christianity were different in many ways from the teachings of the Old Testament. Unfortunately for abolitionists, the New Testament was a particularly thorny place.

Since the Old Testament is pretty clear regarding slavery, it should be noted that Jesus, according to Matthew 5:17, said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Some could interpret the claim that Jesus didn’t “come to abolish the Law” as an implicit acceptance of the Mosaic Laws, including those regarding slavery.

To be clear, similarly to the Old Testament, “The New Testament, too, is without anything like a formal condemnation,” according to Professor Curp.

Specifically related to slavery, Jesus (according to Luke 7:1-10 as well as Matthew 8:5-13) recognized, applauded, and helped a Roman soldier who was also a slave owner. Far from denouncing the man for owning slaves, Jesus highly praised the soldier’s faith. Far from encouraging the soldier to free his slaves, Jesus rewarded the soldier’s faith by healing the soldier’s slave.

Similarly, in Luke 12:47-48, Jesus seems to be completely fine with a master beating a slave, even if the slave isn’t aware of what he did wrong: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating.”

While Jesus said very little regarding slavery, Paul discusses the institution in various letters, and at times with significant clarity. The Epistle to Philemon in the New Testament, in particular, is considered Paul’s most extensive discussion of slavery. Paul’s letter is written to Philemon regarding his runaway slave, Onesimus. While Paul send Onesimus back to his master Philemon, he seems to at least encourage Philemon to treat Onesimus, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. It could even be argued that Paul implicitly urges (but does not force) Philemon to “do even more than I say,” which arguably means freeing Onesimus (Philemon 1:21). However, while Paul seems to encourage freeing Onesimus, a Christian slave, he clearly doesn’t explicitly reject the institution of slavery as a whole.

In addition to Philemon, Paul seems to accept slavery in multiple other letters. For example, Ephesians 6:5 states, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.” In Colossians 3:22, a similar statement is made.  Additionally, slaves are told to be content with their current position as slaves (1 Corinthians 7:21), and “accept the authority of your masters” even if they “are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18-21).

Arguably the clearest discussion of slavery in the Bible is 1 Timothy 6:1-5. In 1 Timothy 6:1, slaves are encouraged to “regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” While that statement itself isn’t especially unique within the New Testament, it seems to hold more weight since it’s immediately followed by 1 Timothy 6:3-4, which claims that “Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.” So while the statement that slaves should obey their masters (even non-Christian masters) appears in other places, 1 Timothy 6 follows the statement by unquestionably claiming that anyone who teaches otherwise is wrong. Essentially, it would appear, according to 1 Timothy, that if one opposes the idea of a slave obeying his master, they are essentially opposed to God.

After reviewing what the Old and New Testaments say about slavery, it would seem, as Vaughn Roste of the United Church of Canada put it, “If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I’m afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution.”

However, it should be noted that, according to Greg Carey, a professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, “Without exception, biblical societies were slaveholding societies. The Bible engages remarkably diverse cultures — Ethiopian, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman — but in every one of them some people owned the rights to others.” So, although the Bible lacks any clear condemnation of slavery, almost no one during Biblical times rejected slavery as an institution.

Additionally, Carey notes that if Christians openly and actively rejected slavery, it would be extremely problematic for their movement: “[I]dentifying Christianity with slave revolt in the Roman Empire would have been the fast track to corporate suicide.”

It should also be noted that, although the Bible doesn’t reject slavery as a whole, it did promote the radical idea of a spiritual equality. For example, Galatians 3:28 reads, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

As many proslavery authors noted, the verse didn’t literally advocate abolishing slavery, since writing that “there is no longer male and female” didn’t change the fact that the genders were still expected to be treated differently; women were still expected to obey their husbands. Still, for most cultures at the time, slavery was not only a socioeconomic condition, but “a state of absolute spiritual inferiority,” according to Curp.

So while the Bible didn’t free the slaves, it did benefit slaves in some ways, such as Onesimus, who, despite being a slave, was to be treated as a brother in Christ by his master Philemon.

On a larger scale, the abolition movement in the 19th century, led and supported by many Christians, radically changed the way that many people read the Bible. Since the specific texts of the Bible seem to accept slavery, many Christians took a more holistic approach to the Bible that promoted a “Christian ideal” over specific rules. For example, while the Bible seems to accept slavery, Jesus’ message in Matthew 22:39, “love your neighbor as yourself,” could override other verses that accept the institution of slavery, because in order to treat others like we would like to be treated, we wouldn’t enslave them.

In conclusion, although it does suggest treating slaves with kindness and care, the Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – never seems to explicitly reject slavery as an institution.

SHORT STORY– Eventually, Hopefully

I’ve never written a story before. I’ve written articles and speeches.  I’ve tried poems. I’ve even tried rap.  I’ve never written a story before.

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