'God and the Gay Christian' Discussion, Week 3

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1 & Part 2.)

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

Today we finally begin our discussion of those biblical texts often used to condemn same-sex relationships. These six passages (a remarkably small percentage of Scripture as a whole) are sometimes referred to as “clobber passages.” Drawing from the work of biblical scholars, most notably James Brownson, Matthew looks at the context, language, and historical background of these passages to conclude that the Bible does not directly address the issue of same-sex orientation or the expression of that orientation. “While is six references to same-sex behavior are negative,” writes Matthew, “the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation” and so these passages do not apply to gay, lesbian, or bisexual Christians in committed same-sex relationships.  Our focus for this discussion is on the Old Testament texts. Next week we will move on to the New Testament texts. 

The Real Sin of Sodom 

Given the vast and obvious disparity between the gang rape scene of Genesis 19 and those gay, lesbian, and bisexual people seeking to enter into committed, sacrificial relationships with one another, it still surprises me that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is used to condemn same-sex orientation and relationships. And yet it remains a favorite among those who protest against “Sodomites” outside courthouses and even churches these days. 

If you are unfamiliar with the story, check out Genesis 18 and Genesis 19 (and prepare for a potential faith crisis—there’s a very weird bit about a pillar of salt which, as a child, left me frightened to look out the back window of our car lest I share the fate of Lot’s wife). Matthew wisely includes Genesis 18 in his analysis because the story of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the mysterious strangers into their home is meant to stand in contrast to the actions of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who rather than welcoming the mysterious strangers, threatened to gang rape them. The author of Hebrews makes the connection, writing “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). 

“The sin of Sodom,” writes Matthew, “had far more to do with a lack of hospitality and a bent toward violence than with any sexual designs the men had on Lot’s visitors.”  

Throughout Hebrew Scripture, and particularly in the prophets, the evils of Sodom are referenced as a way of reminding the people of Israel to avoid falling into the same ways. (If you’re reading Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So right now, you’re probably making some fun connections here.) The prophet Ezekiel offers the most detailed description of the city’s sins, declaring, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me…” (Ezekiel 16:49-50, emphasis mine). 

When was the last time you heard the “Sodomite” slur hurled at someone for overeating, indulgence, arrogance, and disregard for the poor? Hits a bit too close to home for most Christians, I guess. 

Sexuality goes unmentioned, both in the Ezekiel passage and in every other Old Testament reference to Sodom following Genesis 19. “If Sodom’s sin had indeed been homosexuality,” writes Matthew, “it is highly unlikely that every written discussion of the city for centuries following its destruction would fail to mention that fact.”  This is true for other ancient Jewish literature as well, he argues, where Sodom’s sins are identified as arrogance, indulgence, and lack of hospitality. 

So what about the men of Sodom’s threats to gang rape Lot’s guests? 

As Matthew points out, this has nothing to do with sexual orientation or an expression of sexual desire. In the ancient world, for a man to be raped was considered the ultimate degradation, a sign of total defeat. Warriors who wanted to shame their conquered foes often raped them in order to humiliate them. “Aggression and dominance were the motives in these situations,” writes Matthew, “not sexual attraction.” 

Here Matthew compares this passage to Judges 19, where we find the gruesome and troubling story of the raped and dismembered concubine, who served as a substitute for the men of Gibeah who wanted to rape an old man’s houseguests. In both stories, hosts wishing to protect the male guests offer women—essentially considered property at the time—to the mob instead, which goes to show that this was not about sexual preference, but about violence and domination. It also goes to show how badly women suffered in this patriarchal culture. Notes Matthew: “Neither Lot nor the old man of Gibeah said, ‘Don’t do anything to these men, because that would be a same-sex act.’ Instead, they both expressed concern that the visitors had come under the protection of their homes. The men were their guests and the ‘sacred duty’ of hospitality…was paramount.” 

[Pause here to consider the wisdom of appealing to any of these stories for our sexual ethics…Sorry. Couldn’t help it. Carry on. ]

But what about New Testament references to Sodom in Matthew 10:15, Luke 10:10-12, 2 Peter 2:7, and Jude 7? 

Only the latter two passages make reference to Sodom’s sexual sins. Jude 7 says the people of Sodom and Gomorrah “indulged in gross immorality and went after stranger flesh.” But rather than referring to same-sex relationships, the phrase “strange flesh” seems to refer to the attempts to rape angels instead of humans. Jude 6 supports this connection by comparing Sodom’s transgressions with the unusual sins described in Genesis 6 where angels mate with human women. 

It was the Jewish philosopher Philo who first explicitly linked Sodom’s sins to same-sex behavior, and his idea caught on. But Philo was operating from ancient assumptions regarding same-sex behavior, Matthew argues, and therefore condemning the actions of the men of Sodom as the excessive pleasure-seeking of men who could also be satisfied with women. “He was not taking a position on the issue we are facing today,” writes Matthew, “gay people and their committed relationships.” 

The Abominations of Leviticus 

Even though it was decided in the Council of Jerusalem that Gentile Christians are not bound to Scripture’s Levitical law, discussions continue to this day regarding how those texts apply to followers of Jesus. Often cited in the discussion regarding same-sex relationships are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which describe same-sex behavior between males as an “abomination” punishable by death.  

It’s easy to forget just how many of these laws are disregarded by Christians without much thought. Leviticus 3 and 11, for example, forbid eating animal fat or blood, shellfish, and animals that walk on all fours and have paws—all of which are denounced as “abominations,” along with having sexual relations during a woman’s period, and charging interest on loans. 

As Matthew points out, in the vast majority of cases, the word “abomination” (typically the Hebrew, toevah, which is used in Leviticus 18 and 20) refers to what the Israelites associated with the idolatrous practices of the Gentiles, leading Old Testament scholar Phyllis Bird to conclude that “it is not an ethical term, but a term for boundary making,” with “a basic sense of taboo.” Many other biblical scholars share this view, which helps make sense out of why eating shellfish and charing interest on loans might have been considered taboo to the ancient Israelites, but not Christians today. “So while ‘abomination’ is a negative word,” Matthew says, “it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin.” 

Furthermore, you can’t get very far in reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy before you notice laws regarding rape, marriage, menstruation, and women-as-property make it very hard to argue that while Old Testament laws related to diet no longer apply, Old Testament laws regarding sexuality do.  In addition, there are no condemnations of either polygamy or concubinage, which are in fact assumed within the text. 

Another argument that falls short is the argument that the severe punishment for male same sex behavior—the death penalty—suggests it was and is a more serious sin. We can’t forget that disobedient children were also to be stoned, along with a people who used the Lord’s name in vain and those who violated the Sabbath. Daughters of priests who fell into prostitution were to be burned alive, and in Exekiel 18:13, the death penalty is applied to anyone who charges interest on a loan.

Gender Complementarity 

But the most important point Matthew makes in these two chapter isn’t about Old Testament law and its many abominations. His most important point concerns gender complementarity: 

“Non-affirming Christians who want to make the most persuasive arguments ground their case in the idea that Leviticus banned male same-sex relations because same-sex unions violate gender complementarity…So as we read these ancient texts, we need to keep this question in mind: Do these writings suggest that same-sex unions are wrong because of the anatomical ‘sameness’ of the partners involved? Or is the primary concern a different issue?"

Here Matthew points again to the work of Philo, whose views on sexuality reflect how it was understood in his time. According to Philo, the great crime of male same-sex behavior—pederasty, specifically—was that males would “suffer the affliction of being treated like a women” which Philo referred to as “the greatest of evils, unmanliness and effeminacy.” This posture is reflected widely in many of the writings from the world from which Scripture emerged. 

In the ancient world, deeply misogynistic attitudes were the norm. Same-sex behavior between males was rejected because women were considered inferior to men and it was considered degrading for a man to be “treated” like a woman.  In addition, it was believed that men who engaged in same-sex behavior did so out of an abundance of out-of-control passions, not because of fixed sexual orientation. 

This understanding sheds light on why Leviticus contains no parallel prohibition of female same-sex relations. “If the issue were anatomical complementarity,” Matthew argues, “female same-sex relations should be condemned on an equal basis. And yet, the text is silent on this matter…The entire question of how bodies fit together doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The concern we see is centered around the proper ordering of gender roles in a patriarchal society.” 

In light of this reality regarding patriarchy, Matthew advocates what some might call a “redemptive movement hermeneutic” regarding gender, suggesting that while Scripture reflects a patriarchal culture, it still grants women more honor and value than many of Israel’s counterparts and ultimately points to gender mutuality through the redemptive work of Christ.  In other words, we can accept Scripture as authoritative and true without accepting the patriarchal assumptions of the culture from which the Bible emerged. 

Frankly, I’ve never found arguments against same-sex relationships from these Old Testament texts particularly persuasive, and I suspect that if these were the only passages in question, there might be more unity of thought within the Christian community. What seems to trip most people up are references to same-sex behavior in the New Testament, to which we will turn our conversation next week.

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Also, if you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.

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Questions for Discussion 

1.    How have these texts—the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the laws of Leviticus—affected your understanding of the Bible and same-sex relationships? Do they factor in to your understanding or are the New Testament texts your focus? What do you think of Matthew’s argument? 

2. Throughout God and the Gay Christian we see how patriarchy and ancient understandings of gender roles affected how same-sex behavior is referenced in Scripture. How does this affect your overall view of Scripture and how it should be interpreted regarding gender and sexuality?

I will be monitoring the comment section closely over the next 24 hours, after which the thread will be closed. Thanks for your participation!  

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In praise of the spiritual memoir (and specifically “Tables in the Wilderness”) + an art giveaway

Despite facing some recent (and valid) criticism, the spiritual memoir remains beloved among many people of faith, as it has been since St. Augustine first invented the genre. And while I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of mediocre memoirs through the years, when I think of the books that most influenced my faith, many are shelved in the spiritual memoir section of my library: Take This Bread by Sara Miles, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lit by Mary Karr. What makes a memoir worth reading isn’t so much the story the author tells, but how she tells it. Like good poetry, a good spiritual memoir excavates everyday life for beauty and truth, grabs the reader by the shoulders and says, “Pay attention! This is for you!” 

To this genre, my friend Preston Yancey has added a delightful entry with Tables in the Wilderness, which releases today. At just 25, Preston really shouldn’t be allowed to write this wisely or skillfully, and yet over and over again he surprised me with his insight, talent, and brilliant integration of literary classics into his own story.  (The “Suggested Reading” list at the end is worth the price of the book.) Tables in the Wilderness follows Preston through his college experience at Baylor University, so fans of Donald Miller’s early work will especially resonate as much of the story deals with school, relationships, and all the beauty and angst of finding one’s way in the Church these days.

To mark today’s release, Preston has shared with us an excerpt, as well as the opportunity for one reader to win an original painting made by Preston himself. (See details below.) I specifically asked Preston for this excerpt because it was these paragraphs—the first six of the book—what pulled me into the story. Enjoy! 

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Silence 

by Preston Yancey
(excerpted from Tables in the Wilderness

When you grow up evangelical in the South, you hear God speak all the time.

Over the mashed potatoes, under the watch of the calligraphic Scriptures on the walls, in Carl Kasell’s voice over the radio on your way to school. You invite God to coffee to study the Bible with you, and God sits beside you on the bus to church camp and laughs at all your jokes. You hear God that night on the jungle gym and that time you stood at the corner downtown with a sandwich in your hand wondering why you got up in the middle of the Ash Wednesday service and fled. And you keep hearing, years on end, even on thatSunday you sit in the parking lot of the small Episcopal church after the Baptist-based ministry you felt God call you to do has crumbled, and you are so vacant and so wavering that you tell God you’re done, you’re empty, and God tells you to walk into church.

But one September morning, when you least expect it, you’re sitting in a friend’s apartment after a belated celebration of your twenty-second birthday the night before — in which you read aloud a short story you wrote about lighthouses and champagne, after which your friend tells you you’re still in love with the girl you broke up with a year ago and you should call her, find out where things stand — and you’re reading the Gospel of Luke when you feel suddenly, keenly, that Christ the Lord is sitting beside you on the couch as you’re reading, his voice almost tangible.

“It’s going to be about trust with you.”

Eight words. Ten syllables.

Then he’s gone. And you stop hearing God speak altogether. It’s just you, the King James, and the Silence. And you think it might be the middle of something, or the end. Eventually, nearly a year later, you see it as a beginning. But the seeing takes time. For a little while, it’s just going to be you and the Silence… 

***

Makes you want to read more, right? 

The original painting Preston is giving away is entitled “Martha of Bethany” and is pictured below.  (I have a companion piece entitled “Mary of Bethany” and it’s just beautiful.) 

Here’s how you can enter to win:  Leave a comment in the comment section that 1) names your favorite spiritual memoir, or 2) tells us what the first line of YOUR spiritual memoir would be, and I’ll randomly choose a winner from the entries. (Be sure to sign into DISQUS in such a way that I have access to your email address so I can contact you if you win and get your mailing address so Preston can send you the painting.) One comment per person, please! 

Note: While I did receive a complimentary copy of this book for review, I was not paid by the publisher or author to review and feature it. 

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New Songs

"You are loved, someone said. Take that
and eat it."

-Mary Karr 

I am folding laundry, its starched, orderly scent a sort of incense, as the hymn rises to my lips. 

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory…” 

I can’t remember the rest of the words exactly, and the tune meanders a bit, so I improvise, prompting Dan to shout from the other room, “Hon?  You okay? You crying about something?” which happens just about every time I burst into spontaneous song because, apparently, my version of a joyful noise remains indistinguishable from a sob. 
    
Still, I sing on. 

“….For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord, you alone are da da da da la la la la.” 

It is a season of new songs. 

It is a season of new people, new prayers, new questions. 

At first, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church captured me with its novelty. The chants and collects, calls and responses were a refreshing departure from the contemporary evangelical worship I’d come to associate with all my evangelical baggage.  I liked confessing and receiving communion each week. I liked reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed together in community. I liked the smells and bells. Each Sunday I’d stuff the sandy-colored bulletin in my purse so I could go home and study the rhythm of this worship, imbibing the poetry of those holy words. 

We didn’t know many people then. I kept my eyes on the floor as I walked away from the Table on Sundays, afraid of exchanging too many warm smiles, afraid of becoming too familiar to these kind, religious people who, like all kind, religious people will inevitably disappoint and be disappointed. The melodies of the hymns remained largely inscrutable to my untrained ears, except for when the director of music, (raised Pentecostal),  threw in an “Amazing Grace” or “Rock of Ages” and I sang loud and badly just to hear my voice grip those solid words again.

But we’ve been showing up for nearly six months now, and so it is a different sort of beauty I encounter on Sunday mornings these days—the beauty of familiarity, of sweet routine.

 I know the order of service now. I know it well enough to have favorite parts, to skim ahead when I’m hungry or restless, to get the songs stuck in my head. And we know the people too, not merely as strange faces gathered around the Table but as the Alabama fan, the new mom, the student who loves talking theology, the quilting club, the recovering fundamentalists, the friends. Yesterday, my eyes clouded with tears as the choir sang “I Shall See,” somehow pulling every frantic, disparate prayer from the week into a single sweet plea. The music director told me  the song made her think of me. 

It is a season of new songs.

It is a season of receiving, of being loved just for showing up. 

I am holding all these gifts gingerly, like fragile blue eggs I’m afraid to break. I am holding them the way I hold that white wafer in my cupped, open hands—grateful, relieved, and still just a little bit frightened of what will happen when I take it and eat. 

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From the Lectionary: God Out-of-Bounds

I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from Matthew 21:23-32: 

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

You can always pick out John the Baptist from a lineup of saints.

Among the dour, robed patriarchs, he’s the one with wild eyes and tangled hair, ribs protruding through sun-browned skin, hands cradling a staff or a scroll that reads, "‘Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand!” Or sometimes he is depicted munching serenely on locusts and honey, wearing a shaggy vest of camel’s hair. Sometimes it’s just his disembodied head on a platter. 

I’m not sure I’d have believed the guy either. 

The miracle child of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John was probably expected to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a Temple priest. There, he might have assisted faithful Jews as they washed in ceremonial baths to cleanse themselves of impurities. 

But John didn’t stay at the Temple among the baths. John went out to the rivers. 

Calling people to a single, dramatic baptism to symbolize a totally reoriented heart, John declared that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” 

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” he told the people, “make his paths straight.” 

In other words:  God’s on the move. Get out of the way.  For no mountain or hill—no ideology or ritual or requirement or law—can obstruct Him any longer. Temples cannot contain a God who flattens mountains, ceremonial baths a God who flows through rivers. Repentance means leaving the old ways of obstruction behind and joining in the great paving-of-the-path, the making-of-the-way, the demolishing of every man-made impediment between God and God’s people so the whole earth can celebrate God’ uninhibited presence within it and welcome the arrival of the Messiah. 

Not everyone liked this sermon. 

Needless to say, John the Baptist was what you might call a polarizing figure, popular among those who had traditionally been excluded from the faith community and not so popular among those whose reputations and careers depended upon protective walls. 

So when the religious leaders question Jesus’ authority, Jesus made a political statement by reminding them that it was John who had first recognized his authority. Jesus was building a coalition—of tax collectors and prostitutes, of women and Samaritans, of wilderness preachers and leprosy patients, of the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the left-out—and nearly everyone could see that it was prophetic;  it "wasn’t of human origin." 

….Except for those whose power depended on maintaining the status quo. 

…Except for those who expected God to color within the lines. 

This Jesus movement just didn’t sit right with them. 

It’s easy to judge those guys in hindsight. I’d love to believe that, had I lived in first century Palestine, I’d have dropped my fishing nets or water jars and followed Jesus the moment he reached out his hand to me. But on those days when I fold my arms and turn up my nose and declare with total confidence that “this cannot be God here,” and “this cannot be God there”…well, I’m not so sure. We tend to look for God where we expect to find Him, even while God is tapping us on the shoulder and shouting, “Hey! I’m right here! Pay attention!”  I don’t like the idea of God using people and methods I don’t approve of and yet that seems to be God’s favorite way of working in the world—outside my expectations, right where I’m prejudiced, against all my rules.

You would think that after all this time I’d have given up on expecting this river-wild God to fit safely in my categories. 

You know how Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed are those who haven’t seen and still believe”? There are days when I wonder if it’s actually easier to believe from this distance, without seeing, than it would have been to believe up-close, among all those questionable people and amidst all those radical teachings. We’ve sanitized the gospel so well in this culture, we’ve made it more accessible to the powerful than the powerless, more appealing to the cautious than to the troublemakers. 

I am too cautious. I have seen God work beyond my expectations and, like the religious leaders, refused to change my mind. 

God, forgive me. Open my eyes. Tear down the mountains I’ve built of my theology and flatten the walls I’ve constructed of my prejudices. 

Make a straight path right through my stubborn, hardened heart. 

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