Tackling the Hard Questions

YOU CAN'T TURN AROUND these days in Christian circles without bumping into questions around gays and lesbians and the church. It has become the hottest of all hot potatoes in evangelical Christianity, as it has in much of U.S. and global culture.

Long-term consensus evangelical positions and practices on various aspects of “the gay issue” are being challenged at every turn. Indeed, some have already given way.

It used to be that anyone with same-sex desires was considered willfully perverse; but now many evangelicals acknowledge the clinically/medically recognized category of same-sex attraction (SSA), or sexual orientation, as a mysterious but globally recurring pattern among 3 to 5 percent of the human family.

It used to be that LGBT people were frequent targets of derogatory preaching and teaching, often so fierce that some church folks were motivated in the direction of hatred, contempt, and bullying; but now more and more preachers and teachers are moderating their language so as not to do harm.

It used to be that evangelicals sent those with SSA off to “reparative” or “ex-gay” therapies; but now those harmful and futile “treatments” have been discredited and are fading fast, as evidenced for example by Exodus International’s closure and apology in 2013 and its leader Alan Chambers’ statement that “99.9 percent” of the people they had tried to help had not experienced a change in their sexual orientation. More evangelicals are recognizing the importance of not harming their own gay and lesbian adolescents and family members. Family acceptance and suicide prevention are becoming important concerns.

It used to be that evangelicals rejected from church membership anyone who experienced same-sex attraction or claimed a gay or lesbian identity; but now more and more evangelicals are at least opening their doors to LGBT visitors and members—even if they hesitate to go further than that.

The current frontier on this issue is whether evangelicals will come to terms with how to respect, accept, and even offer support for covenantal same-sex relationships being undertaken by their gay and lesbian minority. This is to be distinguished from how churches are to relate to the sweeping social change now taking place in U.S. marriage law, with gay marriage rapidly becoming legalized all over the country. Some evangelicals have already arrived at a position of support for civil-marriage equality based on constitutional principles such as equal protection, even where they hesitate before the concept of the church blessing marital or marriage-like unions of gay couples. There are fine Christians on both sides, and civil dialogue about such matters, in the spirit of Romans 14, is absolutely essential, and all too rare.

CERTAINLY THIS ISSUE is affecting the vitality and mission of the church, and exposing profound generational differences. What survives of the “evangelical consensus” is not fully persuading the youth-group kids and Christian college students who populate our grassroots. Many of these young people have made clear to pollsters and anyone else who is listening that they find the traditional Christian treatment of, and views about, gays and lesbians a problem for their faith and for their relationships with people they care about, including gay and lesbian friends.

Many are leaving the church, or at least evangelicalism, over these matters. According to Public Religion Research, 70 percent of America’s most unchurched generation, the Millennials, say that “religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues,” and 31 percent of those millennials who have left the church say this was an important factor in why they left. Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman reported the problem as far back as their 2007 book unChristian, in which an overwhelming number of respondents identified the term “Christian” with “anti-gay.”

Most dissenting Christians and ex-Christians have not come up with a biblical or theological alternative to traditionalist views of LGBT people and their relationships. But they are not satisfied at all with the status quo. And they sure want to be able to talk about these questions in some fresh ways and in open, uncensored spaces. Anyone who works with young Christians has encountered these concerns. I see them every day in my work as a college and seminary professor.

These believers are not interested in just going along to get along with culture. But they sense that there is something very wrong with the church’s rejection and mistreatment of their friends. They don’t want a culturally libertine “anything goes” sexual ethic. They don’t like the collapsing families that have hurt them too. But they don’t really see how offering a more loving welcome to LGBT Christians has anything to do with those deeper problems.

SOME OF US in Christian work, like me in my work as a pastor and professor, have now come to know gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians—committed, believing, baptized, morally serious followers of Jesus. There are millions of such “sexual other” Christians in the U.S. alone, and millions more around the world.

These Christians have been there all along. Until I began meeting them, I did not know that these gay and lesbian believers were already a part of the Christian community. That contributed to my total neglect of their suffering, which today I profoundly regret. Certainly their testimony is that they have been badly hurt.

I have heard so many stories by now. One of the most harrowing was told by a friend of mine I will call William. When this deeply devout evangelical Christian came out as gay, his father and five of his six siblings rejected ever knowing him. When William sought to visit his father in the hospital while he lay dying, his father called out from the bed these pulverizing words: “I don’t have a son named William.” Brothers and sisters, how does one ever recover from that?

So LGBT people have a problem with the church. And those who love them have a problem with the church that is at least as intense. This is not a perception problem, solvable by a rebranding campaign and a PR firm. This is a human suffering problem within the very heart of the church. And many of those sufferers are very young. They are adolescents and young adults just now coming to terms with their sexuality. They are very badly wounded. Some have been kicked out of their homes or fled, joining a rapidly rising, young, hugely vulnerable homeless population in our cities. My own Atlanta has recently seen the birth of a shelter called Lost-n-Found Youth, just for the LGBT homeless. It is hard to picture a population more appropriately designated as among “the least of these” Jesus calls us to love and serve.

I AM ASKING whether the church should change our mind and our practices in relation to Christian LGBT persons and their relationships—not because we are under pressure from a hostile culture to do so, but because within the terms of our own faith we might now conclude that this is one of those cases in 2,000 years of Christian history where we have gotten some things wrong.

To transform how LGBT people are treated by and in the church is to change our attitude and practice in a manner fully consistent with historic Christian convictions about the gospel and the church. A church that offers hospitable welcome to gay people, lesbian people, and other “sexual others” as grateful recipients of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ is in fact a church faithful to the gospel and what it means to be the church. Much needed change can take place without reconsidering the sexual ethics issues at all.

THE PAST DECADE has seen a dramatic shift in the intellectual and ecclesial terrain. A substantial body of scholarly and popular literature is developing—not just in the older ecumenical/liberal conversation (three decades old at least), but also in the evangelical/conservative precincts of American Christianity.

Notably, evangelical Christianity is producing a first generation of fresh thinking, much of it popular and a bit of it by scholars, some of it written by self-identified LGBT evangelicals (see “Disputable Matters,” page 22).

The fact that gay people—indeed, gay evangelical Christians—are no longer just being talked about but are finding their own voices and making scriptural, theological, and ethical arguments for themselves, inevitably changes the nature of the conversation—if we are willing to have a conversation. It is harder to simply dehumanize and dismiss a flesh-and-blood human being with a name and a family and a history of serving Christ in the local church.

And some of what this literature is questioning is how the Bible has been interpreted.

PROTESTANT TRADITIONALISTS, who stake their knowledge claims on biblical inspiration and authority, generally express strong certainty that the Bible clearly teaches that there can be no morally legitimate same-sex (sexual-romantic) relationships, and this conviction often trickles backward to the implicit or explicit conclusion that one cannot be both gay and Christian. This then leads to the rejection of an entire slice of the human community as one finds it in Christian families and churches.

These passages are a scorched-earth zone by now: Genesis 1-2, Genesis 19, Leviticus 18/20, 1 Corinthians 6:9/1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:18-32. In my new book, Changing Our Mind, I devote careful consideration to each of these passages, their literary and historical contexts, and the application of them to Christian life today. My conclusion is that they do not offer open-and-shut evidence that covenantal lifetime relationships that correspond to one’s actual sexual orientation—even when it is gay or lesbian—must be ruled out. At least, we ought to be able to have the conversation. Here’s why:

Genesis 1-2 says many awesomely important things, including that human beings are made male and female in the image of God, that it is not good to be alone, and that God made the woman for the man and gave her to him as a helper-partner. Perhaps this establishes that God’s pre-Fall design for sexuality was exclusively male-female, though of course the text does not comment on an alternative. And evangelicals believe we live in a fallen world, a Genesis 3 world, not just a Genesis 1-2 world. So everyone’s sexuality is affected, and the best any of us can do in biblical terms is to strive to make and keep faithful covenant marriages. If we acknowledge such a thing as SSA, and if we don’t ask gay and lesbian people to try to fake marriages with opposite-sex people to whom they have no attraction, what exactly are they supposed to do with their sexuality? Does a reading of Genesis really settle that question? Might they be invited into the same moral standard we require of straight believers?

The Sodom and Gomorrah story (Genesis 19) offers a harrowing tale of  judgment on a wicked city, despite Abraham’s intervention. But there is no reason to think that the wickedness of the city should be identified with “homosexuality.” Despite abundant references to Sodom elsewhere in the Bible, never is its sin described as homosexuality or even sexual. The story is about violence to strangers in the form of attempted gang rape. It’s more like a prison rape text than a sexual ethics text.

The Leviticus passages in chapters 18 and 20 appear to ban male same-sex acts. But they don’t say why. The speculations of scholars range from concerns over remaining distinct from the (cultic?) practices of pagan neighbors, confusion of male and female gender roles and thus the shaming of men, associations with rape, and procreation (e.g., sex should be procreative). These have limited relevance to the contemporary discussion of loving, covenantal same-sex relationships. And how often do Christians cite Leviticus today about anything else?

The interpretations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 hinge on the reading of two obscure Greek words (malakoi and arsenokoitai), either individually or in combination, placed in long vice lists with little obvious context. Translations of these terms have varied so widely for a good reason. Unfortunately, because 1 Corinthians 6 consigns everyone practicing this list of vices to exile from the kingdom of God, this has made “you are going to hell” a typical response to an adolescent’s admission of same-sex desires. Evangelical scholar James Brownson’s close study of the terms used in these two passages leads him to suggest that they may well refer to those involved in exploiting the vulnerable for sex, including what today we would call sexual traffickers, pimps, johns, predators, and abusers. How might the history of Christian treatment of gays and lesbians have been different if these words had been translated “sex traffickers” or “sexual exploiters” or “rapists” or “sexual predators” or “pimps”?

THE BIG KAHUNA is, of course, Romans 1:26-27. Traditionalists have understood this scripture (and its complex broader text, Romans 1:18-32) as establishing the illegitimacy of same-sex relationships and, indeed, their gross perversity. The text is so strongly worded as to have contributed to a great deal of Christian contempt for gay and lesbian people.

Scholars historically have agreed that Paul’s purpose in Romans 1-3 is to paint a theological picture of the world leading to the conclusion that every human being desperately needs the salvation offered by God through Jesus Christ. After celebrating the gospel that saves both Jew and Greek, in Romans 1:18-32 Paul points his indictment primarily toward the characteristic sins of the pagan Gentile population. Paul indicts those who dishonor God by engaging in the futile practices of idol worship. In response, aggrieved God’s punishment is that God “gave them up” to the dishonorable/shameful lusts, impurity, and degrading passions that they now desire (Romans 1:24-26). Their consequent spiral downward into moral debasement is then illustrated by a list of 22 types of vice (1:26-32) including (vv. 29-31) “every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice ... envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”

But, fatefully, the one issue Paul singles out for more extended treatment in this passage is same-sex intercourse. Romans 1:26-27 is the most widely cited passage in the entire LGBT debate: “For this reason 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.”

The massive scholarly literature about this text flows in a number of directions. William Loader suggests that Paul may be attempting to integrate a conservative strand of Greco-Roman intellectual and moral thinking related to the “natural” and universal access to knowledge of the natural. And any review of what is known of Roman sexual practices and norms, including the wide acceptance of same-sex acts in various circumstances, including by married men, demonstrates their dramatic variance from traditional Jewish sexual ethics.

Loader further suggests cultural themes that might have affected Paul and would actually serve to raise strong questions about the applicability of this text to many Christians who are committed to women’s equality and to social justice. One of these is that same honor/shame concern mentioned in Leviticus 18/20, which held that it was wrong for men to give up their superior, active role in sex and allow themselves to be “treated like women.” Another is the common association of male-male sex with humiliating, violent rape, often in war, which so often happened in the ancient world, as in Genesis 19. As for women, their presumed designed/natural passivity as the recipient of male desire in sex would be shockingly overridden in volitional same-sex acts, if this is what Paul’s reference here is even about. It would be a disturbing expression of women’s agency in a patriarchal society, and thus viewed as unnatural, and certainly as a threat to male power. Probably most readers of this essay would not find any of these concerns especially persuasive today.

By using the language of “exchanging” or “giving up” “natural” for “unnatural” intercourse, Paul may be saying that he thinks those engaging in same-sex intercourse were capable of “normal,” “natural” heterosexual relations but perversely chose same-sex. Empirically speaking, this was sometimes true then, as it is now. But we now know that a small sexual minority is not at all capable of heterosexual attraction or relations. It does not seem that they can be fairly described as “exchanging” or “giving up” natural for unnatural sex. This raises reasonable questions about the fairness of applying this description to that part of the human community today.

Same-sex behavior in the Greco-Roman world very often, though not always, looked like pederasty, prostitution, and master-slave sex, and these were criticized by pagan moralists and not just Christians. These were primarily indulgences of privileged men who had the power to take and use other people’s bodies for pleasure, and the luxury to spend a fair amount of time messing around with all different kinds of sex. For these men, a wife alone was not enough. They wanted novelty, excess, pleasures of ever more exotic kinds. Some argue that Paul is reacting to this culture of sexual excess, selfishness, and sanctioned adultery in Romans 1, and that the same-sex part of the problem was incidental rather than central.

Harvard-trained classicist Sarah Ruden, in her widely praised book Paul Among the People, describes widespread and quite vile Greco-Roman cultural practices authorizing often violent anal rape of powerless young men, especially slaves, but really anybody of lower social status. She documents how young boys had to be very carefully protected from sexual attacks, which could happen at any time, humiliating them emotionally and perhaps destroying them physically. Ruden is convinced that this is what Paul had in mind when he thought about same-sex interest and activity, and this is why he links it to other vices of excess and debauchery in Romans 1. She claims Paul’s teachings on sexuality are in large part reflective of revulsion at this kind of cultural depravity, his desire to protect the bodies and souls of the innocent, and his commitment to discipling young Christians who would not participate in this vicious and widespread behavior. If this was his goal, no one could have a dispute with Paul. We could all agree that a culture like this is depraved.

Paul was writing to Roman Christians, some of whom had connections in the Roman imperial court, and all of whom would be familiar with the evil and craziness there. The violence, carousing, and orgiastic sexuality of that court, including Gaius Caligula’s many depravities and Nero’s own same-sex relations, were legendary. If Paul had the imperial court in mind while painting his broad brushstrokes about the idolatrous debauchery of the Gentile world, that would mean that Romans 1:18-32 might have functioned as a highly evocative, deeply contextual, thinly veiled depiction of the Roman imperial court as a macabre worst-case symbol of Gentile depravity. This connects to a broader theme in recent Pauline scholarship about Paul’s defiance of the Roman Empire in the name of the one Lord, Jesus Christ. This really important discovery would limit the applicability of this text for contemporary circumstances that are far different from the Roman court. Those attending to the issue of empire today might find resonances here.

Perhaps one can see how it is reasonable to suggest that Paul’s theological purpose in Romans 1, and the religious and cultural context that he swam in when he wrote it, precluded him from speaking sympathetically about any kind of same-sex relationships. The “subject” may seem to be the same, but the context is so different that Paul’s words may be of little relevance to the question of covenanted same-sex relations among devoted Christians.

It is appropriate to wonder whether what Paul is so harshly condemning in Romans 1 has much if anything to do with that devout, loving, lesbian couple who have been together 20 years and sit in the third row at church. Their lives do not at all look like the overall picture of depravity offered in Romans 1:18-32. You certainly wonder about this when you know that couple—or when you are that couple.

THE LGBT ISSUE is not going away. The churches will not likely find agreement on every aspect of these matters anytime soon. A new evangelical conversation should begin with Christian love and pastoral concern for all people, especially our own closeted adolescents and wounded exiles. We must pay attention to serious clinical and medical findings about the nature of sexual orientation and gender identity. We must help families and churches come to full acceptance and loving responsiveness to their own young people who come out as LGBT. Together, with a commitment to loving every neighbor as Christ does, we can tackle the rest of the hard questions before us. Together. All of us. 

David P. Gushee, the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, is author of 20 books on Christian ethics and a Sojourners contributing editor. This article is adapted with permission from his new book Changing Our Mind: A call from America’s leading evangelical ethics scholar for full acceptance of LGBT Christians in the church (Read the Spirit, 2014).