We’ve been talking here at Calvary for some time—it has been years, actually, that this conversation has been going on—about how we, as the community of Christ at Calvary Baptist Church will institutionally deal with the issue of homosexuality in the church . . . in our church.
For those of you who are visiting today, you should know this is not our normal worship fare; this sermon is part of an ongoing discernment process within our community, and the deacons have asked me to address the issue from the pulpit.
At first thought the task seemed a little, well, distasteful to me. Frankly, nobody likes to talk about sex in church anyway, but preparing a sermon from a topical starting place is not my normal style. See, as a preacher my discipline is to open the texts assigned for the week and to mine them for a word from God.
And yet, I have to say I think our deacons are correct. It’s time for us, if we say we are serious about following Jesus, to look hard at how we are going to deal with this issue that is dividing almost every Christian denomination today.
I am not talking about the question of whether or not we welcome gay people to worship with us . . . as far as I can tell that is not a question here at Calvary; we’re pretty insistent here about welcoming everyone who seeks relationship with Jesus Christ.
No, I am talking today about the full integration of our homosexual brothers and sisters in Christ into our community of faith on every level of expression. That is, those who live and serve and worship among us, recognized in the full expression of who they are, of who God created them to be.
This issue is a hot-button issue, you can’t deny it. Even those who haven’t cracked open a Bible in years can tell you that tradition, conventional wisdom, everything they ever learned at church makes them think that homosexuality is really bad—in fact, it’s one of the worst sins a person could commit, right? . . . And that when we accept homosexual persons into full expression of life and faith in our community, well, we’re violating certain standards for Christian behavior.
The problem for those of us bound and determined to follow Jesus is that what he asked of us runs head on into this strict exclusion of people. Jesus, as you know, was a radical INCLUDER. Truth be told, a dissonance like this one is uncomfortable, and it calls us to look deeper. So, as we struggle, it’s best for us to start by looking at what the Bible says. If you’d like, take out your Bibles or the pew Bibles and let’s take a look together.
While different scholars hold different views and interpretations, it’s pretty widely agreed upon that there is a total of six passages in the Bible that address homosexuality.
Of the four passages in the Hebrew scripture, two are stories of destruction that include horrifying, brutal sexual violation, some of it homosexual. These passages, Genesis 19:1-29 and Judges 19:1-30, are two of several “texts of terror” (as theologian Phyllis Trible would call them), biblical stories of human evil lived out to its devastating extreme. Honestly, reading these texts is not a happy experience. They detail horrific events, but what they don’t do . . . not at all . . . is address the issue of sexual identity, as some claim that they do. Violence, evil, human pain—yes, they cover those. But they do not sexual identity, heterosexual, homosexual or otherwise.
The third and fourth mentions of homosexuality in the Hebrew scripture are found in the Levitical code, specifically in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Here we must note, before we start looking at these passages, that as many have pointed out, it is an irresponsible hermeneutic to look at the Levitical code and insist on its compliance . . . if you’re going to comply selectively.
In other words, if you’re going to take one rule as essential, well, you’d better be ready to take the rest on, too. When you read the Levitical law you will see that these passages in Leviticus state clearly that homosexual activity is punishable by death. They are, however, right smack in the middle of other rules—even other sexual guidelines. For example, the Levitical code calls for a man to take several wives, but not to marry two sisters at the same time. A man can get in a lot of trouble if he happens to talk with a woman how is having a menstrual cycle, and the cutting of facial hair—a man’s beard—is strictly prohibited. The consumption of foods like shrimp and pork is forbidden, and the code declares abhorrent the wearing of clothing made of any kind of mixed fibers.
The truth of the matter is that, in the time the Levitical code was adopted, the future of the Jewish people was dependent on vigorous procreation. While homosexual behavior existed, of course, there was no concept of what we know to be valid today: homosexual orientation. Frankly, the luxury of discerning sexual orientation did not exist. The four passages in the Hebrew scripture addressing homosexuality do not address orientation and we should be very careful about selective application of ancient laws to a modern context.
This all seems a little silly, and in a way it is: Christians do not and have not ever accepted adherence to Levitical law as requirement for Christian faith. It seems quite an irresponsible and even dishonest handling of the Hebrew text to pick and choose and apply selectively. And so, looking at all the evidence, it seems to me that Hebrew scripture does not provide any easy answers for us.
And so we turn to the New Testament, the revelation of Jesus Christ whom we claim to follow, for more guidance. It seems like the most prudent way to explore this topic in the New Testament is to start with the Gospels, with the witness of Jesus. When we do that we quickly note that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. Not one thing.
Jesus, as you know, was no shrinking violet. He spoke out vehemently and repeatedly against what he perceived were the evils of his day. He blasted the Pharisees and called for relief for the poor. He overturned convention—even Jewish law—and welcomed women into his inner circle. He reached out to touch and to heal those who were untouchables. Jesus, as you know, was a radical who was not afraid to call a spade a spade. And he said nothing about what so many have determined to be the most heinous of sins—homosexuality.
But Jesus’ silence, though notable, is not the only New Testament evidence on the matter. Because Jesus never mentions it, the total New Testament witness on the subject of homosexuality is found in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Romans 1:18-29.
In the 1 Corinthians passage Paul lists a whole litany of sexual sins, including what many translators have called “homosexual offenders.” Here Paul lists, along with other sexual violations, the act of homosexual prostitution, clearly an act that debases human value as do all the other acts of sexual violation listed here, among them heterosexual prostitution and adultery. I think we can all agree that sexual violation of any sort is sinful . . . at best . . . so, in fact, we are in agreement with Paul here.
The Romans passage is the one that is most frequently quoted when the issue of homosexuality is raised.
Again, the homosexuality Paul makes reference to here is wanton, irresponsible behavior of pagan temple prostitutes, behavior described as “burning with lust.” We read this passage honoring the historical context in which it was written. And we compare Paul’s words to what we know of our homosexual brothers and sisters who labor alongside us in the work of the Gospel, who live peaceful, committed and loving lives, who most certainly are not running around behaving in ways that “burn with lust” or that violate other people.
Again, Paul is talking about temple prostitution, a part of society that is totally foreign to you and me, in much the same way that loving, committed relationship between two persons of homosexual orientation was totally foreign to Paul.
So. What I’ve just recounted here is the total biblical witness on the topic of homosexuality. With careful study it’s clear that these six passages either address cultural and historical situations that differ from our own or their translation and meaning are ambiguous at best. The bottom line is this: we do scripture a disservice when we use it to address issues it was not written to address. And I would even go so far as to say that we use the Bible irresponsibly when we ask it for answers to questions about sexual orientation or loving same-sex relationships. The Bible does not address this topic at all, other than to hold up for us God’s high standard of radical love expected from all people.
As people of faith, when we tackle a hard issue like this one, we want to be very careful to look closely and prayerfully at the scriptural witness. And we also want to be careful that we don’t use scripture to defend a position we hold because it’s a position we’ve always been taught.
Today we’re being asked to recognize those qualities of faith in the most unlikely places . . . and to open our hands and our hearts to conversion, so that we might live out the radically inclusive love of God that gathers all sorts of people to the table of Christ.
It’s at that table, you see, seated right next to all kinds of unlikely Christ-followers, where we are cleansed and nourished, then sent out again to live into the standards God expects from us: to live justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with the God who has set a place at the table for everyone. In fact, God has even set a place for you and me. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Amy Butler is the senior pastor at Cavalry Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.