Introduction: A Hyperbolized Moment
A few months ago I was visiting my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I attended a local church on a Sunday night. This church helps a lot of people, and the messages there have often inspired me during crucial periods of my life. This particular night was only about one week after the historic Supreme Court ruling that finally granted gay people the equal right to marry, something that should be an obvious option in a secular democracy. I was feeling somewhat down that day, and I expected to hear an inspirational sermon.
What I actually sat through was a 50-minute rant from a constitutional “expert” the church hired to speak. He outlined how America had entered an age of destruction typified by the Supreme Court’s “disastrous” decision. I won’t get into his political arguments here, but I will share how he dramatically ended his sermon: in one hand he held up the Bible, and in the other hand he held up the Supreme Court ruling. With a gesture of passionate defiance, he threw down the ruling, and lifted high the Bible to the rapturous cheers of the audience.
I was both shocked and intellectually intrigued. I thought, “Does he not see that the very same freedom gay people now have to express themselves without state interference gives him the right to hold up his Bible?” The irony of his gesture was almost unbearable. But behind my astonishment was the sadness of someone who deeply values the Christian community and the teachings of Jesus, but now feels alienated from the church of my youth. I was reassured, however, when I remembered that, in reality, there is really no such thing as “Christianity,” but rather hundreds of unique interpretations of the Bible. Episcopalism, for instance, now allows gay clergy, and each denomination has its own unique way of relating to the scripture. Yet despite this reality, I also felt the growing need to challenge the exclusionary idea that being gay prevents one from fully participating in Christianity.
I myself am not gay, but I thought of my gay friends, and how they would feel watching this dramatic gesture, and the cheers it evoked. To me, the speaker’s emotional gesture hyperbolized the way that the dialogue around homosexuality in the Christian community is often monopolized by loud voices with weak arguments. But this wasn’t just a moment of political disagreement; it was a personal realization that my understanding of Christianity had diverged from the evangelical Christian community of my childhood in a way that seemed increasingly irreconcilable.
Every now and then, a social issue arises of such national importance that churches cannot avoid taking a stance. The obvious question now posed to all Christian churches and denominations is, “Is homosexuality wrong?” and “Can one be gay and be a Christian?” In this post I’ll share my thoughts on the theological dimensions of this debate, and also what I consider to be its wider implications for religion in general. This is not a political post; the question of whether a gay person has the right to get married in a secular democracy seems self-evident to me, and is a totally different conversation. I am rather exploring the question, “Can a Christian be gay?” In a wider sense, I am questioning, “What is a Christian” and, “Who gets to define what a Christian is?”
This post is not advocacy for Christianity. Although I affirm the reality of God, I myself officially ascribe to no organized religion. I am rather casting this debate within Christianity as an example of how I feel religion in the 21st century must evolve. I feel that the way churches are responding to the homosexuality question reveals a deeper trend at the heart of Christianity itself, a trend moving away from literalism toward a more historically contextual and allegorical understanding of scripture. I also feel this debate reveals an evolutionary shift taking place in our major religions as a whole, a shift that is inevitable as our ancient texts continue collide with our 21st century sensibilities.
Two Short Verses from the Bible as a Point of Reference
For the sake of space, I will only mention two places homosexuality is mentioned explicitly in the Bible: one in the Old, and one in the New Testament. These verses make it clear to me that Moses and Paul believed that gay and lesbian relations – and therefore relationships – are wrong. There are certainly other verses in the Bible dealing with homosexuality, but not a single one either permits it, or paints it in anything but a negative light. This post as a whole is not a dissection of individual verses, but rather argues for a general attitude we should take toward scripture in general.
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” – (Leviticus 18) NJKV
“That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” (Romans 1) NKJV
Three Possible Reactions to what the Bible says about Homosexuality: Literalism, Theological Gymnastics, and Progressivism
Although language scholars are revealing some important subtleties in the Greek and Hebrew word selections for homosexual behavior, it seems clear to me that, at the very least, the Bible casts homosexuality in an extremely negative light. Every time it is mentioned, it is either called an overt sin or is identified with wanton pagan lust. And never once is it affirmed or claimed to be a legitimate option for a Jew or Christian, a fact that the authors could not possibly have overlooked if they indeed supported it. In my opinion, there are three possible reactions to this state of affairs for Christians: literalism, theological gymnastics, and progressivism. Before beginning, I must say that my views on this topic are not about people, but ideas.
The first possible reaction is literalism, and the typical evangelical response to these verses is to take them literally at face value. To a literalist, the Bible is not over 60 distinct books written in vastly different cultures/time periods, by inspired writers with vastly different worldviews, which was arbitrarily compiled at the council of Nicaea. Rather, it is a totally unified and infallible decree from God Himself. While I emotionally sympathize with this view, it is admittedly difficult to sustain for anyone who researches the history of the Bible and how it was compiled. But the reality of this view is that even the people who claim to take the Bible 100 percent literally never actually do.
In reality, they cherry pick. They’ll say homosexuality is an abomination, but then they will allow women to preach in their churches (Something the Apostle Paul explicitly forbids in one famous case. The church I talked about above had a female head pastor at the time). Jesus also taught in Matthew that “every jot and tittle” (or vowel and consonant) of the Torah is still valid for his followers. Do they keep the Sabbath, something clearly required by the Torah, and therefore implicitly advised by Jesus? Do they stone people who commit adultery? Do they practice the polygamy of Jacob? Do they intellectually permit slavery, as the Apostle Paul did? It is clear that some passages they view in a historical context, and some passages they take literally, even though they would vehemently deny this fact. Nevertheless, they believe that you cannot be gay and be a Christian, for to them the above verses, and others, make it clear that the two are incompatible.
The second way to address these verses is what I like to call theological gymnastics. Scholars have indeed done some very interesting research into the Greek and Hebrew terms commonly thought to be referring to homosexuality in the Bible. One of Paul’s uses, for instance, may be referring exclusively to pedophilia. Nevertheless, when this strategy is viewed as a solution to the problem, its adherents miss the point. For despite a few ambiguous words, it still seems overwhelmingly clear that the Bible generally is against homosexuality, and certainly never once sanctions it. It’s fine to explore the subtleties of the language, and this type of work is very important – in fact, Judaism and Christianity is largely unintelligible without such work. But at some point the Christian world must face the fact that some verses in the Bible are simply not relevant for modern believers. My term “theological gymnastics” does not refer to Biblical scholarly work in general, but only to scholarship that attempts to make the Bible say something it does not say, or that uses rhetoric to avoid the reality that some parts of the Bible are simply incompatible with modern society.
Some believe every verse in the Bible is God’s perfect Word, but also believe you can be a gay Christian. I admire their courage, but the truth is that they want the Bible to say something it simply does not say. They scrupulously analyze the Greek and Hebrew of the text, and often interpret it to fit their 21st century mindset. But we cannot wish verses away or do theological magic tricks to change their meaning. Some people simply cannot tolerate the idea that we could simply discard a verse, and then move on. This is an easy solution when we see that the eternal essence of the Bible be something different than its literal content.
Some people want to make the Bible say what it does not say. But the day will come when the entire Christian world will finally realize this fact: that modern social equality is simply incompatible with the view that the Bible is God’s perfect Word. Remember: this is coming from someone who loves the Bible, believes its contents were inspired by God, and reads it on a regular basis for spiritual inspiration. I recognize, however, that the Bible contains verses about homosexuality that reflect ancient ignorance, and these verses should simply be ignored by people today. The social programs of Moses and Paul were indeed massive steps forward for their respective historical epochs. But God has not stopped taking steps!
The third approach is what I consider to be the solution for Christians who are progressive, and factor humanity’s social, political, and scientific evolution of the previous 2,000 years into their theological views. A religious progressive values the Bible as an inspired document whose essence is distinct form its literal content. The Bible contains profound revelations about the nature of God. But some things in the Bible reflect the social biases of ancient times, and some verses were meant for those time periods exclusively. This fact does not negate the power of the Bible as a whole for, in reality, only a very small portion of the Bible contains commentary on social issues like homosexuality.
The Bible beautifully explores the reality of God, the mystery of faith, the transforming power of love, the duality of the human condition, and other similar spiritual concepts in brilliant symbolic and philosophical ways. Nevertheless, we must accept that it was created at a time vastly different from our own. To be a Jew, you do not need to copy Moses’ practices of animal sacrifice. To be a Buddhist, you do not need to copy the Buddha’s misogynist view about women (which were actually quite progressive for his time). And to be a Christian, we do not need to affirm the apostle Paul’s thoughts on homosexuality. The eternal essence of these respective religions transcends the time-bound lives of their long dead founders.
This ability to affirm the essence of a scripture but ignore historically obsolete verses is not “watered down,” but actually is in harmony with the spirit of religion as displayed in the creative life of Jesus.
Jesus’ Relationship to the Torah as an Example of how we can Relate to Scripture Today
In the life of Jesus, we find a man who embodies these seeming opposites: he constantly extolls the value of the Torah, and simultaneously seems to ignore, or even outright disobey, some of its very clear verses. To Jesus, religion was not a static, but a dynamic process. It was a revelation in time which built upon itself, and which every generation of believers is called upon to further perfect. The literalists will undoubtedly argue that when we begin ignoring single verses, we will inevitably lose the essence of the Bible through a “slippery slope.” I find a perfect refutation of this argument in the life of Jesus himself, and in his willingness to modify the Torah in the context of his own society.
Most of us know the story of Jesus and the women who was caught in the act of adultery. In John 8, some men caught a woman in the act of adultery, and, to test his obedience to the law of Moses, asked Jesus if the woman should be stoned. Now, in the law of Moses it clearly says, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10). A literal understanding of the Torah makes it abundantly clear that, regardless of Jesus’ compassion, she must “surely” die according to God’s law.
Now most of us already know the famous words Jesus then spoke: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He then forgave the woman, spared her life, and said, “go and sin no more.” This story contains powerful ideas about God’s forgiveness, unconditional love, and the restoration He can bring to our lives. Yet this verse is relevant to the homosexuality debate because it reveals Jesus’ revolutionary relationship to the Torah as a Jew, a prototype for how Christians should relate the Bible today.
It is easy to take the view that Jesus simply “replaced” the Torah with his own authority, but this is obviously not the case. If the gospel of Matthew has any validity, it is clear that Jesus honored the Torah as a revelation from God. He quotes the Torah constantly; he declares to a challenging scribe that the eternal essence of the Torah, which he directly quotes, is to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Lastly, and most importantly, Jesus extolls the Torah in words that could not possibly be stronger: “For verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). I’m pretty sure heaven and earth have not yet passed away, so according to Jesus the Torah is still theologically binding for both Jews and Christians.
If Jesus considered the Torah to be the inspired word of God, why did he not stone the adulterous woman when the Torah clearly commanded him to? He obviously believed that adultery was wrong, but the point here is that he directly ignored a verse because he considered its advice to be historically obsolete. Jesus understood that the essence of the Torah was distinct from its literal content. Living over a millennium after the Torah was revealed, Jesus also understood that not every verse in the Torah was meant to be literally implemented in later historical ages. As a spiritual master who experienced That which the Torah merely points to, Jesus took the liberty to decide for himself how to embody the essence of the Torah in his own culture. Unlike the scribes, Jesus lived the Spirit of the Torah, a fact that ironically sometimes contradicted the letter of the written Torah itself.
What can this revolutionary instance teach us about homosexuality and Christianity? To me, it reveals how a spiritually illumined Christian should relate to their holy texts. Jesus lived his life as an expression of the Torah’s deepest truth, yet he also obviously did not always take it literally, and showed through his unwillingness to stone the adulterous woman that certain verses can be legitimately ignored. This says to me that, like Jesus, a Jew or a Christian can take liberties to ignore certain social edicts from their own scripture that are no longer historically relevant. Like Jesus, we are called to find the essence of the Gospel in this generation, a quest that might ironically force us to defy certain fringe elements of the New and Old Testament.
To conclude, a gay person may not be obeying the literal words of Leviticus or the New Testament, but they can indeed embody the two great commandments, and be a sincere follower of Christ. They can also rest assured in the fact that Moses and Paul, men who lived thousands of years ago, did not have access to our modern understanding of human sexuality, not to mention the fact that Jesus himself never commented on this issue. The idea that the words of Jesus himself and Paul’s interpretive letters are authoritatively equal is another historical construction that most Christians conveniently overlook, but that is for another post.
Can a Christian be Gay? Who gets to Define what a Christian is?
So, can one be a Christian and be gay? I say absolutely. A Christian is a follower of “Christ,” and what this means is anyone’s guess. To me, a “Christ”- ian is a person who communes with the universal Christ-Consciousness that is manifesting the entire universe, that alone exists, and that cherishes all beings as Its own Self. A Christian is also a person who affirms the teachings of Jesus, the Jewish embodiment of the Torah and spiritual master in general. Can one affirm the above statements and still be gay? Certainly.
Was the original Christian community an infallible representation of perfect human beings for all of time? No. Is the Apostle Paul’s highly controversial interpretation of Christianity the only valid expression of Christianity? No. What a Christian looks like in the year 2015 is inevitably going to be far different than it did in the year 30 AD, for the evolution of a religion is a dynamic evolutionary process. Jesus and Paul “got the ball rolling,” but we have to keep it rolling.
Furthermore, we should all feel at liberty to come to our own inner conclusions about the Bible, and develop a creative relationship to it. Many will undoubtedly respond, “Who are youto define what is ‘Christian,’ to say what is and is not obsolete scripture?” I would say, exactly my point. For, in truth, there is no such thing as Christianity. What we have are a collection of ancient documents, and various interpretations of those documents. If you are gay, many churches will tell you that their interpretation of Christianity is Christianity, but this is simply not true. Like Jesus and his relationship with the Torah, we are all free to establish our own understanding of scripture, and live by our own interpretations. In fact, this emphasis on a creative rather than a literal embodiment of scripture’s essence is far more in harmony with the radical life of Jesus, that great spiritual rebel who left his inedible mark on the ages by publicly challenging the religious order of his day.
This debate is not just about homosexuality. Its about who gets to speak for the Christian world. Just because someone has been to seminary or Bible College, or just because they wear a backwards white collar, doesn’t mean they speak for a Jewish peasant named Yehoshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) who lived 2,000 years ago. Like me, you can read the Bible yourself and come to your own conclusions. There is a place for respected and educated opinions; but no one gets to define who is and who is not a Christian. No one has the authority to declare that being gay precludes one from being a part of the Christian community. Many people are all too eager to speak for God… I say: go to God in sincere prayer, study yourself, and come to your own conclusions. For our expression of “Christ”-ianity must come from within ourselves, or else it will become an impotent form of mimicry.
Sexual Moderation vs. Sexual Preference
Before concluding, I want to make the brief point that, to me, sexual moderation is what is important when it comes to living the teachings of Christ. I personally believe that human sexuality is best expressed in the context of committed, long-term relationships. It is also to be engaged in with moderation. Lastly, and most importantly, we should love God more than any human being, and never let a relationship, or sexual desire, become a spiritual idol. The core essence of the Bible – and indeed of all authentic religions – is to love the Divine more than anything else, for the Divine is bliss itself, the key to our happiness. One’s devotion to the Divine, and skillful moderation in sexuality, is what is important to God, not one’s inborn sexual preference.
Conclusion: Implications for Religion in General
The question of whether you can be a gay Christian essentially boils down to our relationship with holy texts. However, this question is about far more than homosexuality. The way we answer this question inevitably will affect our views on race, slavery, the rights of women, etc. It essentially involves the question of whether we want to adopt bronze age social programs for our modern world.
So, should we take our scriptures literally, or allegorically? Should we follow the letter of the law, or its Spirit? Is every word of the Bible infallible, or should some verses be simply ignored? These questions are highly relevant not just for Christianity, but for all religions today. The religious world stands at a crossroads, for the fact is that many things in our holy texts are simply incompatible with modern standards of social decency.
Religious people everywhere have to ask themselves a simple question: what was God’s intention in inspiring holy texts? When the Qur’an was revealed, did God intend to freeze the forward march of history, and make all future societies identical to the tribal culture of 7th century Arabia? When the Torah was revealed, did God intend all future societies to function like a nomadic Near-East tribe of wandering Israelites in 2,000 BC? When Paul wrote his famous letters, did God intend them to be social blueprints for all future ages? When you really think about it, such propositions are utterly absurd! The idea that one document could govern the vast diversity of the human race is simply un-doable.
If this was not the purpose of our holy texts, what is? To me, books like the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Qur’an contain priceless symbolic revelations about the nature of the Divine. Yet they were also written in social contexts that were vastly different from our own. For their time and place, their social ideas a were big step forward. But we must see that God never intended everything said in these books to be relevant for all historical ages. We have evolved, and so too must our relationship with our scriptures.
Like the great master Jesus, every generation must reinterpret its scriptures, and make their eternal essence come alive in a new way that is relevant to the world right now. The eternal commandments of “Love God and Love thy Neighbor” are still and will always be relevant, and are excellent guideposts on the spiritual path. Such revelations are not passive, and we should feel challenged to embody them in this generation, not simply in a way that mindlessly mimics the past.
To conclude, I believe this debate essentially springs from an unrealistic sense of scripture’s place in our lives. Scriptures are valuable, but modern religions in general must relegate scripture to a place of lesser importance if they intend to survive. We must feel the freedom to base our social opinions and theological understanding on our own mystical revelations, and also on the discoveries of science, not merely on books written centuries ago. As the ancient Jewish prophets spoke, the law must be “written on our hearts,” and not on blocks of stone. For in the end, all scripture, religions, rituals, etc., are merely paths to the inexpressible and nameless Bliss of the Divine. All teachings are, as they say in Zen, a “finger pointing to the moon” of the God within you. And when one truly experiences the Love, Bliss, and Peace of that are found in God, all questions vanish.
Thank you for reading! With love,
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