In the past couple of months I have found myself involved in many discussions around a biblical approach to same-sex relationships. Not only is our Parliament to debate same-sex marriage, but some prominent Christian leaders, including Steve Chalke, Tony Campolo, and ethicist David Gushee have called for the church to change its mind on homosexuality. At the moment those calling for a change are a small group in the evangelical world, but I suspect it is only a matter of time until we will be debating the issues they raise.
So what are Christians saying? Volumes have been written, but I’ve rushed in where angels fear to tread by attempting to diagram the major perspectives. The diagram should be read from the top down, beginning with a summary statement of what Christians on all sides of the discussion agree upon, then moving into two branches. The branch on the left reflects interpretations that would be held by the large majority of evangelicals and itself breaks down into three quite different approaches to how the biblical teaching should be applied. The branch on the right represents interpretations that are offered by a growing minority. Of course, a diagram can’t catch every nuance, but hopefully is a helpful guide.
Five questions are critical:
1. Will we find the humility and grace required for us to genuinely consider this issue?
Many of us will be sorely tempted to declare that the Bible is clear and shut down the debate before it even occurs. But what if the Bible is not so clear? We once thought it was clear that slave owners had a right to hold slaves; clear that women be silent in the church; clear in justifying the oppressive rule of Kings over against democratic movements to unseat them; clear in forbidding even husband-and-wife to have sexual relations that were not procreative; clear that remarriage after divorce was adultery. In each of these instances a time arrived when we felt we had to take a fresh look and our long held consensus was overturned. The time is upon us when we need to re-examine our stance on homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality. Too many questions are being raised by our culture, by biblical scholars and by everyday Christians, and the legacy of centuries of often violent and emotionally abusive bigotry against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people too evident for us to simply restate our tradition. We may very well examine this issue afresh and conclude that we should continue to affirm the exclusivity of male-female marriage as the appropriate context for sexually intimate relationships. But we must also be open to the genuine possibility that we have got it wrong.
2. Does the Bible see sexual differentiation as normative for sexually intimate relationships?
The Bible provides strong support for and protection of the marriages of men and women. Over against the easy divorce culture of the Pharisees, for example, Jesus endorsed the maintaining of one’s commitment to one’s partner on the grounds that God instituted marriage in Genesis 2. But does this strong endorsement of male-female marriage carry with it a theological disendorsement of other sexually intimate relationships? Genesis 2 describes God placing the first human being in the Garden of Eden to till and keep it. It soon becomes apparent that “it is not good for the man to be alone”. God brings the animals before the man but none is a suitable partner, so God creates a second human, sexually differentiated from the man, to be the partner he needed. Is the point of the story that we need another like us, i.e. human, in order to overcome our aloneness? Or is the point that we need another not only like us but sexually differentiated from us? Those on the left side of the diagram argue that sexual differentiation is critical, while those on the right side of the diagram argue that it is the common humanity that is critical.
3. On what grounds do the biblical texts that speak to same sex intercourse reject it?
The Bible speaks directly about same-sex intercourse on only a few occasions, but always to make clear that it is not acceptable. But why do these texts reject it? Those on the right side of the diagram argue that same-sex intercourse is rejected not because it is same-sex per se, but because its practice in the ancient Mediterranean was tied up with ungodliness. Some suggest that the problem was sex with male prostitutes that occurred during the worship of pagan gods. Others point out that in the ancient Mediterranean it was acceptable for a male to penetrate another male but shameful to be penetrated. As a result, same-sex behaviour typically involved an asymmetric power relationship in which a free adult male satisfied himself sexually by shaming someone over whom he had power, typically his slave, male prostitutes, or young men who had reached puberty but had yet to grow a beard. The bible writers reject this because it is such a gross violation of God’s call for us to engage in love.
Those on the left side of the diagram may well agree that these interpretations are in some instances partially correct, but argue that the primary reason for the rejection of same-sex intercourse is that it violates the creation purpose of God. God created humankind sexually differentiated but complementary to one another and authorized sexual intimacy in no other relationship than that of a marriage between a man and a woman.
4. How is the Bible’s teaching to be applied?
Those on the left side of the diagram agree that God’s creation purpose for humankind is for sexual relationships to be reserved for the relationship of a husband-and-wife. They disagree profoundly on how we apply that today, though it is fair to say that position in box 5 appears to be the one most commonly held by evangelical scholars. Those on the right side of the diagram argue that we should reject abusive, violent, sexual engagements and welcome sexual engagement marked by commitment, faithfulness, and love, whether they be same-sex or opposite sex.
5. How well will we love one another?
Like most debates over ethical issues this one will be contentious and surrounded by strong emotions. Remembering Jesus said the world will know us by our love, we must find a way to love one another even though we disagree strongly. Moreover how do we who are part of the heterosexual majority love those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual? For those on the left side of the diagram, the challenge will be to figure out how to be genuinely welcoming but not affirming of same-sex partnerships, and how to support LGBT believers who take on board the difficult journey of celibacy, while for those on the right the challenge will be how to gracefully disagree with their fellow believers at the same time that they are welcoming and affirming of those in same-sex partnerships.