over the last year especially, both me as an individual and my church (missiongathering) have received several inquiries about our understanding of what the Bible really has to say about homosexuality. most of the inquiries came during and after prop 8, especially when we posted our apology billboards. we have typically been pointing people toward our sermon series that we did in the fall of 2008 called “spirituality & sexuality.” my message dealing with the apostle paul’s writings in the New Testament, sadly, got erased immediately after the gathering…and i’ve still been putting off re-recording it. in an effort to provide some response to the many inquiries, i’ve been planning to write a “statement on the Bible & homosexuality,” but every time i have started, something comes up or the task seems to daunting.
last week we received another such request, so finally today i sat down and drafted an email that is a first attempt at such a statement. the reality is that the emotions, passions, scholarship, theologies, and people are so varied and intense, there are volumes written on both sides trying to come to an understanding. i realize that so much more can be said, but as a starting point, this is what i have come up with. here is the email response:
My name is Alex Roller, and I am the Spiritual Formation Pastor at Missiongathering. I received your email inquiry and am happy to attempt a brief answer via email. In general I have discovered that this conversation is much bigger than an email can handle, and is generally better in person. If you’d like to meet for coffee or something sometime to talk more, I’d be happy to do so. You can also get a sense of our understanding of this issues by listening to the podcasts from our series “Spirituality & Sexuality” from last fall (August-September 2008, to be more specific).
We are a Jesus-centered church that believes, lives (as best we can), and preaches God’s message of grace that we see told throughout the Bible and exemplified in the life of Jesus. We are an evangelical church that believes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Just wanted to give a bit of that background.
Now to your inquiry… As for the Old Testament, the story of Sodom & Gomorrah is an issue of hospitality – according the Bible itself (Judges); plus if homosexuality was the issue, it wouldn’t have been ALL the men of the town trying to have sex with the men/angels. Another example of this culturally is that a common military practice was for the victorious soldiers to rape the surviving soldiers as further humiliation/dominance in the wake of their defeat. When it comes to the Levitical laws, we have picked & chosen so much of those, that logic makes no sense to hold those as valid points in the argument. We could talk more about the anthropological/historical issues there as well. As for the New Testament, academically our understanding of the issue as typically talked about in the NT comes down to a cultural and contextual understanding of the words “arsenokoites” and “malakos,” the two words in the NT that have now been translated “homosexuality” or “homosexual activity.” (Romans, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy) The use of those words in translations actually didn’t appear until the mid-late 20th century.
“Arsenokoites” is a Greek word that Paul may have made up: “arsen” is “man”, “koitos” is bed – and meant culturally/contextually and act of injustice and/or aggression. We only have 80 or so known uses of this word in literature from the time that has been recovered. In extra-Biblical texts this word is used among lists of vices, but not used in the lists of sexual vices. Instead it is found in lists of vices dealing with exploitation, power, and economics – slavery, dominance, prostitution, etc. The other word, “malakos,” is found hundreds of times in Greek literature. It’s contextual & cultural meaning was about valuing the pleasures of the world – fine clothes, wine, food, leisure – than the virtues of courage & victory in battle, etc.; the idea of being “soft.” In plays, literature, etc., men who were described as “malakos” were sought after by women to do very heterosexual things with them (sorry if that seems vulgar or crass).
The root issues are two-fold at the heart of the NT passages (Romans 1, 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 1 Tim. 1:8-10): idolatry and injustice. Romans 1 is a list of vices that Paul sums up as idolatry. When God “gave them over” to their desires – Greek paradoken – it was not to condemn but to save them. They were so lost in their perspective, which included greed, gossip, lying, murder, etc., that they had completely lost sight of what was true – “traded truth for a lie.” The meaning of the word is “to deliver” and is used elsewhere in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim. to mean exactly that. They were in such a search for pleasure, absorbed in their own selfishness, and inattentive to the reality and needs of others that they lost sight of God. The context of the church in Rome were a lot of gentiles, heathens, and pagans becoming and interacting with new Christians who were more interested in earthly pursuits than spiritual ones. We see here in the idols they worshipped and the actions those led to also the idea of injustice that is the list of “sins” in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, which are acts that violate the lives of others. The Hebrew word for those actions of injustice, violating the lives of others is “hamas,” which is the root issue that caused God to send the flood in Genesis 6-9. The sin is that the acts were used to dominate, exploit, or control others, violating their lives as human beings.
As a church, we believe that the same healthy principles apply to all human beings, and we desire for all people in our congregation who are entering into relationship with another person to have healthy relationships – committed, loving, faithful, honest, Christ-centered relationships. The Bible doesn’t directly address committed same-sex relationships as it does heterosexual relationships, but we can apply the same healthy principles to same-sex relationships too. Some scholars believe that there are, in fact, loving same-sex relationships portrayed in the Bible, including one who Jesus interacted with (the Roman Centurian and the healing of his beloved servant). Jesus Himself never talks about it, but does in fact go to the marginalized and the outcast with a message of inclusion, grace, and love, calling all of God’s creation and people to live lives in greater pursuit of the heart of God – loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. After thousands of years of God journeying with humanity, God boils it down to those 2 commands which have at the heart of both the issue of love.
There is MUCH more than can be discussed, I know. Believe me, I’ve been immersed in this for a long time. But this is a basic beginning of where we are coming from. I hope that it helps in some way. Let me know if you’d like to talk further (preferably in person) about our understanding from an academic perspective and also from the understanding brought to us on this topic through MUCH prayer and meditation with God and the Holy Spirit.
i hope that this “statement” will at least serve as a foundation for understanding and dialogue around this topic. for other of my thoughts on this topic, search anything in the “social justice” category, and especially those in the “a new civil rights movement” series. may God continue to bring understanding and most of all GRACE in the midst of our journeys. ~aroll