This challenging question started a new thread recently on the Changing Attitude Facebook page. The person who asked the question said:
“I’m fairly new to Christianity, so I lack a great knowledge of theology and Scripture. We hear all the time about those scriptures which condemn homosexuality and the problem I have is that I really struggle with the idea of just discounting them as we would other things, like some of the silly laws in Leviticus or arguing that the Bible approves of slavery and therefore we don’t have to follow everything it says. And whilst I’m no evangelical, I wonder if we start to throw things in the Bible out, where does it end? At what point do we just say that there’s no point in following the Bible and get rid of anything we don’t like? Note, this is not about whether gay people should be accepted (or at least not persecuted), I think that’s made perfectly clear. But why, when the Bible says otherwise, should we believe that homosexual acts are not sinful?”
Bishop Alan Wilson offered his thoughts:
“I don’t think anyone should simply discount what’s in the Bible. But when one looks at the very small amount of material that has any bearing on the question (6 verses out of 32,000) it needs to be understood in context, before it can be applied to the real world as it is.
“Looking at the Sodom texts you need to compare and contrast the Judges text (in which there is no homosexual activity), and interpret it as being about hospitality as did the minor prophets and Origen (in the second century) rather than amplify and extract the fact that the rape involved was homosexual — an aspect of the matter about which the text is actually neutral.
“On Leviticus, you need to read the narratives as whole. The view of sex there is very different from any we know — for example that women don’t have any role in initiating sexual behaviour (thus there are no condemnations against lesbianism). You have to work out what “the lyings of a woman” are, and you need to find a consistent way of applying Leviticus 20:13 and, say, Leviticus 20:18. To clip out one verse and absolutise it in a way you don’t the others is weird. It all needs to be treated consistently as a whole.
“Finally in Romans you have to ask how what Paul actually is talking about (men who give up desire for women and desire men instead) applies to men who have never desired women, try as they might. You also have to remember that in Paul’s mental world (where women should not cut their hair because it defiles their glory, and all Cretans are liars) the gay desire (if that’s what it is) is the punishment, not the crime. The Crime is idolatry, and the whole section strips away all human claim on the mercy of God. It does not single out gay sex for any other reason. I hope these very superficial reflections help — there’s plenty of literature out there that takes the Bible very seriously rather than discounting it, especially books by Jack Rogers and Tobias Haller.”
There is indeed a huge amount of literature and theology, and many books are listed in the bookshop on the CA website. Keith Sharpe, a CA trustee, has contributed The Gay Gospels: good news for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
Despite the amount of theological and Biblical research and writing, people like the person who asked the question remain very uncertain about where the authoritative answer lies. It is by no means obvious, and the changed attitude in Western Societies has come about because governments and people have worked out for themselves that LGB&T people are, in essentials, no different from the majority.
There are many reasons why Christianity has such difficulty understanding how in the West LGB&T people have been granted equality in law and legal protection where necessary. It’s obvious to the majority that Bishop Alan’s placing of the 6 key verses in the context of the Bible as a whole and the attitudes prevailing at the time mean they are not applicable to lesbian and gay people today, adults who form relationships that are the equal of straight couples – just as faith and just as dysfunctional!
But it isn’t easy to explain theologically, in response to the opening question, why the clobber passages which are used to condemn homosexuality don’t actually condemn lesbian and gay people or prohibit same-sex relationships. It isn’t easy for academic theologians to explain this concisely and simply. You need to know Hebrew and Greek. You need to have a wide-ranging knowledge of the Bible and to keep multiple themes in mind. You need to have read widely, and know something of the cultural backgrounds to the Old and New Testaments. It aint easy.
But conservatives are afraid, afraid that their faith is going to be taken from them, and that God is going to be angry with the world and disappointed with those who believe they are appointed to defend and protect God’s unchanging truth. Their knowledge of scripture is often detailed but their ability to see the big Biblical picture from a Christ-like perspective is tragically flawed. They are insecure in their faith and in their relationship with God.
The Church of England is a complex institution. Someone in a comment on Thinking Anglicans pointed out that:
. . . “the Church” is an organisation with a very fuzzy structure – it isn’t just the Bishops, just the Synod, just the people at Church House, or just the people in the pews, and throughout this debate there have been people in every part of the church advocating for and believing in the rightness of equal marriage. My experience is that even when they have spoken out, their voices have often not been heard or reported.
. . . the recent trend for unattributed documents to be issued giving “the Church’s” position on this or that is very regrettable, partly because it gives the impression that we are a top-down organisation with a monolithic view, and some sort of “head office” which can dictate “company policy”. Those involved in the C of E know that this isn’t so, and every time such a document is issued the chorus arises “not in my name”
The “Church” in all its diverse complexity is slowly edging towards a re-evaluation of Christian and Biblical attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Here’s my stab at an answer to the original question. I don’t think it’s really to do with the Biblical texts any longer. It’s obvious they are not relevant. Every time I read Romans 1 now I’m amazed that anyone could think that what Paul says is applicable to me.
The problem now isn’t the Bible or the texts. The problem lies in the emotions, fears, defenses, anxieties, assumptions, and projections of those whose insecure faith is being challenged and questioned. The majority in UK society have got there. The majority in African societies haven’t begun to get there. In British Christian society, the majority are there, but those controlling the process of change haven’t yet got there in terms of their conviction and confidence that change is right and necessary.
As a result the same territory is disputed over and over again. It’s tedious, frustrating, and now irrelevant to those of us who from the first dawning of desire and sexual awareness realized that this is the way we are and we, as LGB&T people, are just fine in the presence of God (except that the journey to adult confidence in our identity was often quite perilous!).