Torn, Chapters 12-13: Back to the Bible

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today we continue our discussion of Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. This has been one of our most popular book discussions, so I’m sad to say we’ll be wrapping it up on Monday with a final installment. But never fear! After that, it’s on to a shorter, 2-3 week discussion of Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill.

I apologize for the irregular posting pattern. (We usually have these discussions on Monday, but my travel load makes it hard to stick with a schedule.) But today’s chapters are just too important to rush through, as they focus on Justin’s wrestling with biblical texts that relate to homosexuality.

Chapter 12: “Back to the Bible”

“From the moment I knew I was gay,” writes Justin, “one question had hung over me like a storm cloud: How did God want me to live?” (p. 168)

Justin said he combed through multiple books and commentaries, struggling to discern what, if anything, the Bible said about people like him—people who did no wish or plan to be gay, people who couldn’t change their same-sex attraction through prayer or counseling, people who wanted to faithfully follow Jesus no matter what.  So Justin went on a quest: to reexamine the biblical passages that relate to homosexuality to see what they might teach him about how God wanted him to live.

For many who have already studied the subject, Justin’s thoughts on the various biblical passages related to homosexuality will perhaps be something of a repeat. The primary focus and function of Justin’s book is his personal journey, not detailed biblical exegesis, so his analysis here is brief but dense. Rest assured, we will be discussing these passages in more depth in the future; but for now, Chapter 12 of Torn serves as a perfect introduction.

The Sodom Story...

A common point of reference for those who say the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality is the Sodom story found in Genesis 19. The assumption among many is that God destroyed the city because it was full of gay people.

Justin points out that it’s not that clear.

[To brush up on the story, read Genesis 19.]

First of all, the Bible reports that “every man in the entire city” surrounded the house and threatened the angels with gang rape, and it is unlikely that every man in the city was gay.  Second, the story of Genesis 19 is eerily similar to a story found in Judges 19 about a male traveler who is threatened with gang rape by an entire city and who throws his concubine to the crowd. (I wrote about that troubling story in A Year of Biblical Womanhood.) Both stories appear to serve as commentaries on the ancient Near Eastern concept of hospitality. Justin points out that “rape had been used at times a s a symbol of domination, with armies raping the (male) leader of a conquered enemy…Clearly, in some cultures and contexts—whether in ancient times or in modern-day prisons—male-male rape had been used or threatened as a method of violent humiliation and domination.”  Thirdly, in Ezekiel 16:49-50, God identifies the sins of Sodom through the prophet Ezekial and says, “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.” No specific mention of homosexuality.

 “Clues like these,” writes Justin, “combined with the Gibeah story, made it seem likely to me that this was a story about a violent threat, not a story about a gay city. It certainly wasn’t a story about consensual relationships.” (p. 172)

Leviticus 18...

Justin then moves to Leviticus 18:22, which says, “Don’t lie with a man as with a woman.” As others have noted, Leviticus 18-20 also condemns shaving, wearing mixed fabrics, getting tattoos, sowing different crops in the same field, and sexual activity during a woman’s period (back to A Year of Biblical Womanhood!) so “clearly, just because something was condemned for the Israelites in Moses’ day didn’t mean it was likewise condemned for Christians today.” Justin cites scholars who believe this instruction likely had something to do with cult prostitution, especially given the fact that the rest of the passage is about keeping the Israelites separate from polytheistic cultures.

Justin notes that even Robert Gagnon, one of the foremost Bible scholars to argue for the traditional view (that gay sex is always a sin) agrees. In The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, Gagnon writes:

I do not doubt that the circles out of which Leviticus 18:22 was produced had in view homosexual cult prostitution, at least partly. Homosexual cult prostitution appears to have been the primary form in which homosexual intercourse was practiced in Israel.

In spite of this evidence, Justin continued to wrestle with the text: “If gay sex was being condemned for its connection to idolatry and cult prostitution, that would explain the harsh punishment and the description of it as ‘abomination,’ and it wouldn’t apply to modern-day relationships at all. But if gay sex was being condemned because gay sex is inherently sinful in all situations, then that condemnation would still apply today, even in a committed relationship….I wasn’t going to solve this by looking at Leviticus in isolation. I had to consider it in light of the New Testament.” (p. 178)

Romans 1...

Before we discuss Romans 1:18-32, I highly recommend reading it again in its full context or else our conversation here won’t make much sense.

Justin acknowledges that “this passages was one of the few passages in the New Testament to mention homosexuality, and it did so in a very negative light.” It described people who had turned from God, refusing to give God honor or thanks, choosing instead to worship idols. “God had responded by giving them over to sexual immorality, resulting in their abandoning ‘natural’ (heterosexual?) sex in favor of committing ‘shameless’ acts with each other. At the end of the passage, Paul listed some of the many sins these people were involved in,” which include gossip, slander, envy, hate, disobedience to parents, etc. (p. 179)

Once again, the context of this passage is paganism and idol worship.  In his research, Justin found that “in Paul’s day, as in the time of Leviticus, some idol-worshiping cults included sex (in some bizarre ways) as part of their worship rituals. Cult temple prostitution, castration, and same-sex sex rites in honor of popular goddesses were well-known practices at the time.” (p. 182) These sort of practices, Justin notes, bear little resemblance to the committed same-sex relationships being discussed and debated in the Church today.

Justin notes that Paul’s rhetorical strategy here is to begin by talking about wicked people who had turned from God and gotten caught up in all kinds of sins, only to turn the argument on his readers by declaring, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same thing” ( Romans 2:1).

Justin concludes that “Paul’s entire point in this passage was to show his audience that all of us are sinners in need of a Savior. The idolaters who engaged in shameful sex rites were a perfect illustration for the seriousness of turning from God, a way to get his audience agreeing with him before he unexpectedly turned the tables on them.” (p. 183)

The struggle continued: “If this was about sex rites during idol worship,” Justin writes, “that didn’t seem to have anything to do with committed gay relationships. Even so, Paul’s view toward the same-sex aspect of those rites didn’t seem very positive at all, and he did call the sex acts (as the NIV put it) ‘shameful’ and ‘unnatural.’ Perhaps he would have condemned the gay sex even if it weren’t in the context of idolatry…Then again, Paul also calls it ‘shameful’ and ‘unnatural’—using the same Greek words—for a man to have long hair (1 Corinthians 11:14). Most Christians today understand that passage as referring to the cultural standards of that passage as referring to the cultural standards of the time, and it has far fewer cultural references that the Roman passage does. I could argue this either way, but the bottom line was that this passage didn’t give me much guidance about how to live as a gay Christian.”

I Corinthians 6...

The final passage to address some form of homosexuality is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Again, I recommend reading this passage in its entirety before continuing.

In the passage, “homosexual offenders” are listed along with idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Justin notes that “searches through several reference books taught me that ‘homosexual offenders’ was a translation of the Greek word arsenokoitai,” a word whose meaning is hotly debated among scholars. “Normally, scholars researching the meaning of a word in a particular passage look to other uses of the same word in other writings from that era. In this case, there are no other writings that use this word in Paul’s day or before Paul.” Some scholars believe the passage refers to the Leviticus passage mentioned before. Others believe the word arsenokoitai refers to adult males who had sex with young boys—a common practice in Greek culture. Still others believe it must refer to any gay sex whatsoever.

Justin describes his frustration:

“And so, it seemed, the entire Bible argument came down to this one word. The Leviticus and Romans passages had a clear context of idolatry, not committed relationships. If 1 Corinthians 6:9 was condemning the same things, or something else like pederasty, then the Bible didn’t address committed gay relationships at all, If arsenokoitai, however, was really a reference to all gay sex in every time and place, then it shed light on the other passages as well, and any other interpretation was just looking for loopholes. I realized with frustration that neither answer was entirely satisfactory. I could make a convincing argument for either side, but whatever argument I made, how did I know I was right? If I got this wrong, I’d end up either trying to justify sin or unjustly condemning loving relationships that God never intended to condemn…I built both of these arguments in my mind, arguing them back and forth with each other like Bobby Fischer playing both sides of a chess board. Whichever way I argued, I always seemed to end up in a stalemate. (p. 187)

What I love most about Justin’s book is how relatable it is. And his frustration with the lack of clarity from the biblical texts is perhaps the most relatable part of his journey to me. But for Justin, the implications of this confusion were far more personal and far more pressing.

Chapter 13: “Whatever Commandment There May Be”

In my opinion, this chapter is worth the price of the book. In it, Justin makes the case for a hermeneutic of love as well as anyone I’ve read, and his Christocentric approach to Scripture is one that can benefit all Christians, regardless of how they interpret the passages discussed above and regardless of where they stand on same-sex relationships. So please, even if you disagree with Justin’s opinion on gay marriage, read this chapter for yourself! It will help you work through some of those tricky passages of Scripture related to, for example, slavery and women. 

Justin begins by acknowledging that “virtually all Christians recognize that there are passages in the Bible that can’t be fairly applied with only a superficial reading. We need context and interpretation, and sometimes that means we need historical insight or other kinds of analysis that comes only from a lot of study.” He points to passages like Titus 2:9 (“teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything”), 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“women should remain silent in the churches; they should not speak…”), and 1 Corinthians 11:6 (“if a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved, she should cover her head”).  

So how do we know which passages are limited by their cultures and which ones still apply today?

To answer that question, Justin argues that we have to have “a clear, consistent biblical standard for interpreting the text, a principle we can apply to various passages that will help us to determine, fairly and consistently, how to translate them for our culture…Such a standard would need to be able to differentiate God’s eternal laws—such as those dealing with murder, theft, and adultery—from the cultural biblical rules Christians are no longer obligated to follow—such as those dealing with dietary restrictions and head coverings.” (p. 195)

In search of such a standard, Justin finds Romans 13:8-10, in which the apostle Paul writes this: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (emphasis mine).

Wow. Love is the fulfillment of the law.


This is in perfect keeping with Jesus’ response to the Bible expert who asked him about the greatest commandment. Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (See Matthew 22:34-40). 

Justin asks, “Was Paul [and Jesus] really saying that whatever commandment there may be—every commandment from God, including but not limited to the Big Ten—can be summed up in the rule to love one another? That sounded a little to ‘hippie liberal’ for me. By that logic, couldn’t someone use ‘love’ as an excuse to justify, for instance, cheating on their spouse with someone more attractive?”

But then Justin learns that Paul was using the Greek word agape, a term that connotes selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love, the kind that seeks others’ good before one’s own. “That kind of love is the fulfillment of God’s law, and according to Paul, it can be relied upon in any situation.” (p. 196) Writes Justin: 

“I considered this for a moment. If I truly love someone, and I’m living in love toward that person, I wouldn’t kill them. I don’t need a rule to remind me not to murder the people I love; living out my love for them precludes me from doing it anyway. Similarly, if I’m living out God’s pure agape love toward someone, I wouldn’t steal from them. Stealing is an inherently unloving act. If I’m living in love toward my spouse, I wouldn’t cheat on them. Cheating is selfish and unloving. If I truly love my brothers or sisters, I wouldn’t cover the things they have; I’d be happy for them when good things come their way. That’s what love is. If I were truly filled with God’s perfect agape love, and if I could live that love out in every moment of my life, I wouldn’t need ay other commandments written down, because I’d be automatically doing all the right things. I thought about every example of sin I could come up with. In every single case, Paul was right: Truly living out God’s agape love for others always led to doing the right thing. Sin always resulted from selfish desire in one form or another.” (p. 197)

Justin also points to Galatians 5:13-14, which reinforces the Christian teaching that followers of Jesus are no longer bound by the Law and says, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“Here Paul exposes two theological extremes,” writes Justin. “First, we are called to be free; we’re not bound by the rules and regulations anymore, so the legalists are wrong. By the same token, we must not use that freedom to indulge our selfish desires—our ‘flesh’—so the hedonists are wrong. The middle way, the way of living out our freedom without sinning, is by serving one another humbly in God’s agape love.” (p. 198)

As an example of this, Justin points to Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, which fulfilled the Law, not through the strict keeping of it, but through love. Jesus, after all, is the example of what the Law—truly  fulfilled—looks like. His example is our clearest guide.

Justin also believes the Holy Spirit helps Christians discern the purpose of God’s laws, guiding us in our interpretation and application of them. For, as Paul put it, “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”

Justin applies this approach to the passages of Scripture that seem to support slavery: “With these standards in mind, it became much easier to interpret Scripture’s difficult passages consistently. Yes, there were slaves in Bible times, but doesn’t selfless agape love demand their freedom? Rules about head coverings and hair length had a purpose in Paul’s culture, but if they have ultimate bearing on our commission to selflessly love God and our neighbors, then, led by the Spirit, we can safely set them aside today.” (p. 205)

Justin’s perspective here lines up beautifully with the themes of many of the New Testament epistles in which the justification for specific instructions (like head coverings and women remaining silent in church, for example) appear to be rooted in practical considerations regarding love for neighbor, considerations that clearly have a cultural context that may not apply today. And so the general rule—“love your neighbor through behavior that will not cause unnecessary strife”—may still apply, while the specifics—“cover your head,” “remain silent”—may not.  (Once again, this is just the sort of ground we cover in A Year of Biblical Womanhood.)

So what did this mean for the question of homosexuality?

“Undeniably, there were many types of homosexual behavior that were driven by selfishness, not by agape love. Behaviors like rape, idolatry, prostitution, and child exploitation were all clear examples of selfish, fleshly motivation, not love for God or others.  They were sinful, and their bad fruit bore that out. But suppose to people loved each other with all their hearts, and they wanted to commit themselves to each other in the sight of God—to love, honor, and cherish; to selflessly serve and encourage one another; to serve God together; to be faithful for the rest of their lives. If they were of opposite sexes, we would call that holy and beautiful and something to celebrate. But if we changed only one thing—the gender of one of those individuals—while still keeping the same love and selflessness and commitment, suddenly many Christians would call it abominable and condemned to hell.” (p. 205)

This approach led Justin to conclude that he could no longer condemn loving, committed, Christ-centered relationships based solely on gender, particularly when he saw good fruit coming from many same-sex relationships.

Justin says that until then, encouraging celibacy had always seemed like the “safest” Christian position. But Pauls’ teachings on circumcision changed that, for according to Paul, if Gentiles let themselves be circumcised out of duty to the law, then “Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2).

“By that standard,” he concludes, “I realized there was no ‘safe side’ on this issue. If I supported gay relationships and was wrong, I could be sinning by encouraging people to do something wrong, but if I opposed gay relationships and was wrong, I would be sinning by putting myself and others back under the law and making Christ ‘of no value.’” (p. 208)


Whew! We’ve covered a lot of ground for one post, so I’ll leave it there. We’ll pick up the conversation in one final installment next week.

In the meantime…your thoughts?

Does Justin make a good biblical case for supporting committed same-sex relationships or does it fall short? Do you think the issue is clear-cut in Scripture or are you frustrated by the ambiguity?

Please keep the conversation civil! 


Update: What a fantastic conversation! I really learned a lot from this week's comments, and just about everyone kept it civil and thoughtful. I went ahead and shut down the thread, just because I can't continue to monitor the comments closely over the weekend. But I am grateful for the conversation, and we'll pick it up again next week. Thank you!

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