A Clergy Responds After a Serious Study of the Scriptural References often Cited to Exclude Homosexuals from Full Participation in the Life of the Church
by Rev. Cari Keith
This paper is the result of a long-term study of Scripture and many group discussions. I believe that in addition to the mounting scientific evidence regarding gender orientation as that which is not chosen, but assigned at birth, there is also a strong scriptural basis for the church to reconsider its formal position regarding full inclusion of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers in faith.
To take Scripture seriously we must honor Scripture with personal time and study. Scripture is a sacred, transformational Word given that each of us might be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1-2). Our Reformed tradition encourages a spirit-led, historical, contextual reading of Scripture in order that we might best understand its intent for our lives, and that we might grow in love and sincerity of faith. I encourage you to read each text carefully and with a prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance. It is important to read entire passages, perhaps even going beyond what is printed in this document, because when single phrases are taken out of context, the original intent can become warped and distorted. Remember the importance of looking for the wide sweep of biblical history, and the transformational way God has worked, and continues to work, among God’s people.
Genesis 19: 1-8: Two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” But Lot urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who come to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
This first story shares in horrific detail, the violently abusive way in which strangers and women are treated in the city. From the story, we know that a gathering of men appear at Lot’s door and, in total disregard of the code of hospitality, demand that the strangers staying with him be brought out to be used and abused. Lot begs them not to act so wickedly and offers his daughters! The resultant destruction of Sodom is clearly a story of God’s anger and response toward those who would behave with gross premeditated violence towards the innocent and vulnerable. Far less clear is the way in which we came to assume that God’s wrath was exclusively directed at those whose gender orientation is homosexual. If we read the story without this assumed bias and with a desire to be true to the text, the word sodomite could only refer to those who perpetrated sexual violence; to those who engaged in gang rape; and to those who transgressed the law of hospitality. When sodomite is used as a synonym for one whose sexual orientation is homosexual, it is a seriously harmful misuse of its scriptural context; a misuse that has led to unrepentant abuse and oppression; a misuse that must be corrected by every serious student of Scripture.
How did I reach this conclusion? As indicated above, by reading Scripture! When we read as if reading the text for the first time and without prejudiced eyes and old misconceptions, we discover that the text says: “The men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house.” The text says every man from the city gathered at Lot’s dwelling – every man! Is it possible that every man living in Sodom was homosexual? A number of studies estimate that the percentage of homosexuality in most cultures in history is between three and ten percent of the population. Using this statistic as a guide, no more than ten percent of the crowd could have been homosexual. Or, to state it another way, 90 to 97 percent of the men at Lot’s door were heterosexual!
Why is it that even serious students of Scripture continue to perpetuate the belief that the sin of Sodom was exclusively perpetrated by homosexual men? Perhaps the simplest response is one of human nature and tendency: we want to believe that we are always right with God; therefore, we cling to stories that blame the other and continue to perpetuate falsehoods rather than to look at our own behavior and complicity in what might lead to divine anger. Ezekiel 16:49-50 clearly tells us why God’s wrath was kindled against Sodom, “This was the sin of Sodom; she had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things (in this case, sexual violence against strangers and the vulnerable) before me; therefore, I removed them when I saw it.” Scripture itself denies the falsehood that God destroyed Sodom because of its homosexual men! Ezekiel tells us that an excess of pride, food and ease, without any desire to share with the needy, as well as violence against the innocent is what led to the downfall of Sodom. How might society be different today if we read Genesis 19 with the information given to us in Ezekiel 16?
Leviticus 18:22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
Leviticus 20:13: 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.
The statements found in both of these passages are clear; what is unclear is their context and intended application for our time. Leviticus is a book of laws and behaviors that were given to Moses by God (Lev. 1:1) in order to guide the new monotheistic community of Israel as they journeyed and lived among polytheistic peoples and cultures. The laws set the Hebrew people apart from their neighbors (Lev.20:22-24), defined new ways of worshipping God, created new approaches to justice and covered all aspects of life lived in community. These laws were variously designated as commandments, prohibitions, and abominations.
It is important to understand the different ways these words are used and I am grateful to those scholars who are more fluent in Hebrew than I am! Linguistically, the word abomination most often referred to any act that was ritually impure rather than a behavior that was intrinsically evil (Gomes, 1996, p155ff). Laws of ritual nature are generally time sensitive and culturally limited; they are more fluid in nature than commandments. For example, in Genesis 46:34 we read that in Egyptian culture shepherds were considered an abomination. In the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus we read that touching unclean things — including touching a woman following the birth of a child (L7:21, 12:2-4,), sex during menstruation (L15:18-21), eating shrimp (L11:9-12), and wearing variant clothing (D22:5) were all behaviors labeled an abomination to the Lord. Today, in our time, culture, and faith communities, men eagerly hug their wives following the joyful birth of a child, women wear blue jeans, and unless we have a shrimp allergy, most of us delight in this delicacy. None of us considers these behaviors sinful or offensive to God.
Scripture itself reinforces the changing nature of what constitutes an abomination. One of the best-known examples is found in Acts 10:9-19. Peter has a vision in which he is commanded to eat a variety of food, including shrimp and pork. The command, as Peter well knew, was in direct contradiction to Levitical law (11:7-8; 12) and eating such food constituted an abomination to the Lord. The command to eat, accompanied by the statement that nothing is impure that has been created by God (Acts 10:15) effectively transformed (not canceled or contradicted, but transformed) the old law into a new way of living and being God’s people in the world. Christians no longer consider eating pork an abomination and throughout Scripture, in both testaments, there are numerous examples of God’s transforming work among God’s people.
Previously stated laws and abominations do not suddenly become wrong or contradictory. Rather, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are transformed. In Isaiah, we read that the law preventing eunuchs from worshipping in the temple (L21:18) is transformed by God’s word to Isaiah (53:3-5) specifically inviting the eunuchs who keep the Sabbath. Deuteronomy 23:2 states: no Moabite is to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, and verse 6 provides added emphasis: You shall never promote their welfare… In the book of Ruth and in Matthew’s Gospel, we read of the law’s transformation – Ruth, the Moabite, becomes the wife of Boaz, and she is included in genealogy of Jesus! It is my belief that God’s transforming work continues today and it is in this context that we need to read the words found in Leviticus 18 and 20. We need to ask ourselves, “Is this the transformative work of God that the church is being called to participate in today?”
A second way to understand the use of the word abomination as it pertains to the prohibition of a man lying with a man is to read it in its historical/scientific context. I am indebted here to Walter Wink who writes, “Hebrew pre-scientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence, the spilling of semen for any non-procreative purpose was considered tantamount to abortion or murder…one can appreciate how a tribe struggling to populate a country in which its people are outnumbered would highly value procreation.” (Wink, 1996, p2)
Today, we know that semen alone does not constitute the fullness of God-created life, and in a world rapidly approaching over-population, procreation is a very different concern for us then it was for ancient Israel. It is my belief that we stand on solid scriptural ground when we choose to read this prohibition as one of the ritual laws that is being transformed over time, especially when it relates to those who engage in relationships built on love and commitment.
When working to discern scriptural intent, the importance of context and word usage cannot be over emphasized. Asking questions of the text and reading from different points of view honors the text and deepens our relationship with God and with Scripture. For example, if we read this text from a justice viewpoint, is it possible that the prohibition of a man lying with a man was originally intended as a law of protection? At the time of its writing, the laws found in Leviticus were culturally unique in the extent of protection offered towards the vulnerable of society, particularly, women, young children and slaves. Is it possible that this particular prohibition might have been written to prevent the common practices of temple prostitution, and of powerful men taking sexual advantage of slaves and less powerful men (Johnson, 2006, p127)? If we read Leviticus in its ancient context, then we must seriously consider that many of the prohibitions and abominations were written to prohibit abusive behaviors and did not speak to, or address, relationships based on mutual love, respect and covenant.
Romans 1:21-27: …for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 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.
It is difficult to miss Paul’s anger in this passage; an anger that is specifically directed at those who knew God, but now chose to ignore God. Paul is angry at those who do not worship God, praise God, serve God and give thanks to God. He is angry at those who need visual images to serve as a god they can physically see and touch. He is angry at the idol makers. In the first century it was common to look for evidence of God’s punishment among those who openly refused to serve and honor God. Paul views the giving up of natural sex for unnatural sex as evidence of God’s displeasure and punishment. Paul is clearly referring here to known heterosexuals (to those who have already had sex with women), for he says, they gave up intercourse with women. It appears that Paul’s disgust is with naturally heterosexual men, who chose to engage in sexual activity with other men – not for relationship, but for the sexual gratification. Paul is egalitarian in this passage for he is just as angry with women who are naturally heterosexual and yet chose to engage in sexual activity with other women.
Before using this text as a Biblical reason for excluding LGBTQ persons in the full service life of the church, a serious student of the Bible will need to note that the cause of Paul’s anger in this passage is not homosexuality, but those who are not serving God or giving thanks to God. A serious student of the Bible will need ponder the fact that Paul’s description of divine punishment refers to heterosexual men and women who are choosing to give up their heterosexual relationships for sex with anyone. Paul goes out of his way to be clear – the people he is angry with are those who are not worshipping God, are not being true to their created selves, and are using other people for the sole purpose of sexual gratification with no promise of love or commitment. We cannot, therefore, conclude from this text that Paul is speaking against those who are naturally homosexual, or against those who engage in sexual behavior within the context of a committed relationship.
One final note on this passage regards the relationship between slaves and masters. In first century Roman-Greco culture, it was not unusual for male and female slaves to be raped by their male masters and forced into the humiliating role of sex slave (Johnson, p132-134). Paul may also have been reinforcing the condemnation of a practice that was prohibited by both the early Christian church and Judaism.
I Corinthians 6:5-11: I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves, wrong and defraud – and you are believers! 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.
As with the passage from Romans, the sexual comment here must be lifted out of context in order for it to used as a proof text for excluding LGBTQ persons from the full life of the church. Paul is angry with believers who bring lawsuits against other believers, and he calls the behavior wrong and fraudulent. He labels the one bringing the lawsuit a “wrongdoer” and adds them to a list of “wrongdoers” that includes: idolaters, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and sodomites! Paul ends by saying that “…none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” By studying the previously explored passages in Ezekiel and Romans, it seems wise not to assume that Paul is using the word sodomite to refer to all homosexuals. Paul, a well educated Roman citizen, as well as a Pharisee who knew his scriptures, might well have used the word sodomite as a description for those who did not share out of their abundance (Ezekiel) or who used and abused others in sexual degrading ways (Romans). We cannot dismiss this possible understanding for it has sound scriptural back-up.
I Timothy 1:5-11: The aim of this instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the thing about which they make assertions. Now, we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God…..
The author of I Timothy is concerned, as we are concerned, with understanding the ways in which Christian community is to live in love and with law. The letter is addressed to those who are teaching the law without understanding that the purpose of the law is to provide a description of behaviors that are contrary to the sound teaching of the gospel, and that keep us from growing in the kind of love that comes from a pure heart and good conscious and sincere faith. He then provides a list of some of those contrary behaviors: “….the godless and sinful, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, fornicators, liars, perjurers, sodomites [remember Paul and Ezekiel here], slave traders.” If we use this passage to unequivocally state that the author of Timothy is referring to all homosexuals and to all homosexual behaviors (including those in committed relationships), then we may, in fact, end up speaking against the sound teaching of this passage, for the author’s concern is clearly with behaviors that are harmful and prevent people from growing in love with sincere faith. Loving, committed relationships enable one to grow in love and can have a profound effect on one’s faith development. A God of love is revealed in loving.
The word homosexual is not an ancient Hebrew or first century Greek word. It was first used in 1869 when it appeared in a German pamphlet arguing against anti-sodomy laws (an inaccurate and derogatory word which should be abolished from our dictionaries). The word homosexual is actually a Greek/Latin fabrication. The word “heterosexual” first appeared in print in 1892 (Kelsey, 1986, p109).
I am grateful to all who took the time to engage these passages and to consider how God might be working among us in the ongoing process of transformation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. I hope this study has been helpful to those who seek to better understand God’s call “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). I pray that neither my words nor the collective action of our churches will result in a stumbling block being placed in the way of another (Romans 14:13).
I am indebted to many books, articles, personal conversations, and to the sources and authors listed below, for sharing their wisdom and for engaging this journey with me. I am profoundly grateful for the work that has helped to enrich my understanding of God’s desire for us to live together in harmony with all of our brothers and sisters in faith; of God’s choice to create in diversity; of God’s wisdom in calling to God’s service the oppressed; and of the extravagant love of God that calls us to love one another in all of love’s marvelous dimensions.
Rev. Cari Keith
Permission is given to use this article for study purposes. No part may be reproduced without the author’s name and permission. Questions and on-going conversation is encouraged and very much appreciated. Please contact Cari Keith at: firstname.lastname@example.org
All Scripture quotes are from the NRSV.
Borg, Marcus. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2003.
Brownson, James V. Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.
Farley, Margaret A. Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2006.
Gomes, Peter. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.
Johnson, William Stacy. A Time to Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006.
Kelsey, Morton and Kelsey, Barbara. Sacrament of Sexuality: The Spirituality and Psychology of Sex. Warwick, NY: Amity House, 1986.
Lee, Justin. Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. New York: Jericho Books, 2012.
Wink, Walter. Homosexuality and the Bible. Nyack, NY: Fellowship of Reconciliation, 1996.