Scripture Is Important

In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I have been leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our second class on Sunday, and having already unpacked all of the letters of the acronym LGBTQIA, we jumped into the Bible to examine all five times that homosexuality is referenced. 

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Considering the fact that many people in the room were shocked to discover how minor of a topic homosexuality is in the Bible, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find the passages in question (all from the NRSV) and some of my thoughts regarding exegesis and interpretation.

This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding homosexuality and the Bible, but merely as a brief reflection. 

Homosexuality And The Bible

The Bible hardly ever discuss homosexual behavior. In terms of emphasis, it is a minor concern when compared with other moral or ethical concerns such as economic injustice, adultery, slavery, and divorce. There are only five direct references to homosexuality in the entirety of the Bible – two in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Though, specifically, the references are only found in Leviticus and in the Pauline corpus.

Leviticus 18.22

“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”

Interesting, the holiness code in Leviticus only prohibits male homosexual intercourse. This is not to say that females were not engaging in homosexual relationships, or weren’t being persecuted for homosexual relationships, its just not mentioned. The holiness code contains a great number of specific prohibitions though later we find the listed punishment for such behavior.

Leviticus 20.13

“If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

Here we discover the punishment for male homosexual relations: death. However, this is not the only behavior that caries the weight of such a stiff penalty – Adultery, incest, and bestiality were also treated with the same and ultimate punishment. 

Regarding the two references in the Old Testament, quoting two verses from Leviticus does not necessarily settle the question for Christians today. There are a great number of laws, commandments, and expectations made of God’s people that were disregarded even by the first century in the Christian church. These include such things as circumcision and dietary practices. Some will make the case that the argument against homosexuality should be similarly abandoned because the are part of a purity rule and culture that is no longer morally relevant today. And that leads us to the New Testament…

1 Corinthians 6.9-10

“Do you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The two parts of significance, in NRSV English, are male prostitutes and sodomites. Which come from the Greek MALAKOI and ARSENOKOITAI respectively. Different translations offer additional interpretative moves, but for the de facto translation in the UMC, the New Revised Standard Version, MALAKOI (male prostitutes) is not a technical term that literally means homosexual. When it does appear in Greek writing from around the time 1 Corinthians was written, in was used as a slang term to refer to the passive partner, often young boys, in homosexual activity. Which raises the question about agency in terms of whether or not these types of relationship were willful, or if they were forced upon a young and therefore powerless boy. Or, to put it another way, there is certainly a question about whether it’s the homosexual behavior or the rape involved that Paul is drawing attention to. 

Interestingly, ARSENKOITAI (sodomite) is not found in any Greek text outside the Bible earlier than 1 Corinthians. Though there are some connections with the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) when homosexual behavior is mentioned in the previous passages from Leviticus. The English rendering of “sodomites” is particularly striking because it can refer to homosexual acts, but it also used to refer to oral sex which also takes place between heterosexuals.

1 Timothy 1.8-11

“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and the sinful, for the unholy and the profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

ARSENKOITAI (sodomites) appears again in this list of prohibited vices that include everything from lying to slave trading to murder. Which, coming from Paul, is interesting considering the fact that he was murdering Christians prior to his Damascus road experience. Moreover, when compared with other items listed, Paul considers the act of lying to be equally bad with homosexual behavior which I have yet to hear ever mentioned during conversation in the UMC about the incompatibility of individual Christians. 

Romans 1.26-27

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received their own persons the due penalty of their error.”

This is the only passage in the entirety of the Biblical witness that refers to lesbian sexual interactions and other that Leviticus is the passage most often cited when the debate about homosexuality is raised in the church. In Romans 1 Paul is not setting out to establish a new holiness code, or a new sexual ethic, nor is Paul warning the Christians in Rome about God’s judgment of those who engage in particular behaviors. Instead, Paul is assessing the disorder of humanity – at the root of Sin is a refusal to be grateful for God. 

Or, to put it differently, here and elsewhere in the Pauline letters, homosexual acts are no worse than other examples of whatever Paul might deem unrighteousness. It is to be regarded similarly with coveting, gossiping, or even disrespecting one’s parents.

In all of these references in scripture, they are almost always read in isolation and are used in a proof-texting manner; someone will lift the verse out of context and apply it in any way they see fit. This is no more striking that in Romans 1 which is often raised without reading into the first verse of chapter 2. It’s like Paul is pushing all the buttons to get everyone’s attention and then the real zinger comes with Romans 2.1 but we forget to read that far:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things!”

Therefore, for Paul, the self-righteous judgment against homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself.

There is no easy path forward for the United Methodist Church, but I believe Paul’s witness about our own self-righteousness is a cautionary word toward anyone who believe they know who is, or who is not, compatible with Christian teaching, whatever that means.

Or, to quote Jesus (who incidentally has nothing to say about homosexuality):

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”

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The End of Questions

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Deuteronomy 34.1-12, Leviticus 19.1-2, 15-18, 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8, Matthew 22.34-46). Ken pastors the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan and is a good friend of the podcast. The conversation covers a range of topics including the role of the theologian-pastor, why we should think about Moses when we think about MLK Jr., thoughts on the awesomeness of the BCP, and why we should spend less time trying to please people. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The End of Questions

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Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

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Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

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We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?

On Homosexuality

Leviticus 20.13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Colossians 3.12-15

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

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Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series has been different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of the sanctuary, we have confronted some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I have said something from this pulpit during the series that you don’t agree with, and I am thankful for the vulnerability and honesty that has been present in our conversations following worship. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we conclude the series with the topic of Homosexuality.

 

When someone rings the doorbell at St. John’s, you can hear it throughout the entire building. More often than not our wonderful church secretary will answer the door with a smile on her face and direct the person to their particular destination. We regularly have people down on their luck knock on our door looking for a little bit of financial help, sometimes we have people in the midst of a crisis who want to speak with a pastor, and every once in a while we have someone who is just interested in learning more about the church.

A couple months ago I was sitting in my office working diligently when the doorbell rang. I listened for the echoes down the hallway to discern what kind of interaction I was about to have when the secretary called my office and said, “Someone needs to talk to you.”

The visitor was an older woman, recently to Staunton, dressed to the nines with a gold cross hanging across her neck. When she offered her hand in order to introduce herself she had a subtle grandmotherly smell about her that immediately elicited visions of old books with tattered dust covers, prescription pill dispensers, and Vicks VapoRub.

She said, “I’m a United Methodist.”

            I said, “How wonderful, so am I.”

            She said, “I’m new to town, and I was just driving by and saw the sign out front and I thought I’d like to know more about the church.”

For the next thirty minutes we sat in the front pews of the sanctuary and I gave her the elongated elevator speech about St. John’s UMC. I pointed to the particularly pertinent aspects of our Christian architecture here in the sanctuary. I shared with her about the hilarity and joy of our Preschool that meets in the basement. I offered her reflective stories about the intellect of our Circle group of youth who are regularly more faithful than their pastor. I talked about our lectionary bible study that meets on Thursdays and how they contribute more to the sermon on Sunday mornings than they get credit for. And then I started to tell her about how we worship, how we let the Lord speak to us through scripture, hymns, prayers, and even sometimes the sermon.

When she asked about our attendance and giving, I proudly proclaimed our Sunday average and told her that we are about to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row. When she asked about the kind of people who participate in the life of the church, I told her the truth: that on Sunday mornings this placed is filled with the most beautiful and brilliant people Staunton has to offer.

For thirty minutes we discussed the ins and outs of the church, and for thirty minutes I watched her fall in love with the descriptions I shared. With every anecdote and short story I could see her seeing herself becoming a vital part of our worshipping community. Honestly, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while and when it ended she said that she was eager and excited to join us in worship on Sunday morning.

We shook hands and said goodbye, but right before she made it to the door she turned around and said, “Just one more question… What do you think we should do about the gays?”

            Without hesitation I said, “I think we should love them.”

            “Well then,” she said with a sigh, “I won’t be coming back.”

Human sexuality, and in particular homosexuality, is one of the most polarizing issues in the United Methodist Church today. Like all of the controversies we have confronted over the last month and a half, it requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability and patience whenever it is discussed.

The controversy regarding homosexuality and the church is made manifest in a number of ways. For many, like the woman I met in the sanctuary, it is the defining question that determines whether someone joins a church or not. That specific conversation is not the only time I have been asked about the church’s stance on homosexuality in the middle of a conversation about joining or participating in the life of the church. In fact, during my second week at St. John’s, I received a phone call from the Newsleader inquiring whether or not I, as the pastor, offer sessions to counsel individuals out of their gayness. Which is to say, our local newspaper wanted to know if I could turn a homosexual into a heterosexual.

            But beyond church participation and local media questions, the controversy is one at the heart of what it means to wrestle with being a Christian today.

The United Methodist Church has a governing document called The Book of Discipline that is edited and republished every four years. In it we receive our organizational structure, the means by which individuals can become ordained clergy, and a host of other relevant church matters. In that book you can find the following statement regarding homosexuality: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The language in the Book of Discipline about the incompatibility of homosexuality has led the church to also assert that any bishop, clergy member, or local pastor may be tried (as in a church trial) when charged with the following offenses: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same sex wedding ceremonies.

So, to summarize, according to the United Methodist Church to be gay is to be incompatible with Christian teaching; you cannot be a clergy person if you are in a gay relationship, and clergy can be punished for marrying a gay couple.

When it comes to the bible, the witness of scripture is explicit regarding homosexuality. In Leviticus, God proclaims that anyone engaged in homosexual behavior is an abomination and should be put to death. In Paul’s letters, the sin of homosexuality is listed along the likes of envy, murder, deceit, gossip, slander, and faithlessness.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the United Methodist Church has taken the stance it has, and that many a preacher proclaim the incapability of homosexuality from the pulpits in the churches they serve.

At this point, I could point out that the few texts that do speak about homosexuality in scripture have been overly emphasized again and again whereas other biblically prohibited behaviors are tolerated. For instance, some of us like to eat shellfish, some of us have tattoos on our bodies, and some us have let our hair become unkempt (all worth punishment in scripture).

Or I could talk about how our country guarantees the rights of its citizens to not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, and how it has affirmed the constitutional right of its gay citizens to be married.

Or I could mention how many scientists and geneticists believe that one’s sexual identity is not a choice and is instead fundamentally wired into who they are through a particular gene.

Or I could bring up the fact that God, rather than condemning the marginalized and calling them incompatible, commands us to go to those on the fringes of society to be present with and for them.

Or I could make mention of the fact that Jesus [remember him?] says absolutely nothing about homosexuality in any of the four gospels.

But I won’t talk about that.

            Instead, I want to talk about repentance. Not the repentance the church thinks someone from the LGBTQ community should confess because of their identity. But the repentance the church desperately needs for singling out a particular community and denigrating them for decades.

175 years ago, many pastors across the United States preached sermons from their pulpits about how the bible reveals a divine sanction of slavery. There are plenty of verses in the Old and New Testaments that seem to affirm the subjugation of one people by another. We, as a church, were wrong.

60 years ago, many churches across the United States believed that scripture makes it clear that white churches should remain white. There are scriptures in the Old and New Testaments that can be interpreted to proclaim that society needs to be segregated and that birds of a different feather are not supposed to flock together. We, as a church, were wrong.

50 years ago, and still today, many Christians throughout the country believe that a literal reading of the bible makes plain God’s design for women to be submissive toward men. There are verses from the Old and New Testaments that can be understood to advocate for women to not have the same rights as men. We, as a church, were wrong.

And for all the wrongs we have committed, we confess and repent. We look back on the days long gone and shake our heads about how foolish we once were. We dig up old dusty sermons and can’t believe that a pastor would be so filled with hatred to single out a particular group of people and label them as property, or unworthy, or subordinate, or incompatible. We see the scars that are still very present in our society because of what the church once believed and for that we pray for God’s forgiveness.

            And we need to do it again today.

For too long, the church has abused its power to dominate and condemn particular people out of fear and bigotry. Pastors all across this land use pulpits like this one to isolate the LGBTQ community and tell them they are incompatible, they have no worth, and they have no value.

            Can you imagine what it would feel like to bravely take a step in faith to attend a Sunday worship service at a church only to hear that you are incompatible with Christian teaching?

Can you picture the pain and agony that would come if you felt God calling you to ordained ministry and the church said you’re wrong because of who you are?

Can you imagine the anger that would percolate inside you if you found someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with and the church told you it would not be a part of your wedding?

If we’re honest, our answer is probably “no, we can’t imagine.” We can’t imagine what it would be like because we sit comfortably in our ivory towers of heteronormativity, assuming that the world would be a better place if other people looked like us, thought like us, and acted like us. But the beautiful and wonderful diversity of humanity is part of God’s divinely created order, and it is one that we foolishly try to fix on a regular basis.

Months ago, a woman wandered into this sanctuary to ask about the church, but what she really wanted to know was what we should do about the LGBTQ community. In her question, and response, I experienced the fear and loathing that is fundamentally disconnected from the love and grace and mercy of the living God. And I wish could go back and change my answer. Not because the answer I gave her was wrong, but there’s a better one.

“What do you think we should do about the gays?”

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are supposed to bear with one another and forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven us. Above all, we are called to clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

If can’t agree that the least we can do is love them, then we have no business calling ourselves Christians.

Devotional – Leviticus 19.18

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.18

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. 

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A few weeks ago I found myself sitting at a table in a buffet style restaurant surrounded by other Methodist clergy from the local district. We had been called to meet that morning to discuss challenges facing the local church and a group of us had decided to get lunch immediately following the gathering. With mounds of mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and gravy spread out between us, we began to converse and enjoy one another’s company.

For a little while we talked about the meeting and some of the comments from our peers. Later on we talked about the change in season and how beautiful it was starting to look in the valley. But, as with all clergy gatherings, the conversation moved toward a discussion of metrics:

“How many did you have in worship last Sunday?”

“Is you church paying their apportionments?”

“Are you receiving any new visitors?”

These questions drive me crazy. The commodification of the church is sinful temptation that many Christians, particularly clergy, cannot resist. I was sitting with my peers, fellow shepherds for the kingdom of God, when a string of questions immediately put up divisions between us. Instead of viewing one another as colleagues and peers, we saw competition and comparison. The questions were divisive, but the answers were even worse:

“We hit 130 most Sundays.”

“We’re not even close to paying our apportionments, we can barely keep the lights on.”

“We’ve had a lot of young families start to try out our church.”

We could have spent a wonderful time of food and fellowship discussing different ways to be Christ’s body for the world, we could’ve prayed for our peers and their ministries. However, our lunch was focused on numbers and many of us left either feeling defeated about our dying church, or high and mighty about our growing church.

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For the budding nation of Israel, God was insistent on calling them to work together and not bear grudges against any of the people; “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In a sense they needed to know they they were in this together and to stop putting up walls between themselves. Similarly, we all fall to the temptation of holding grudges against people in our lives, and in particular with those who are closest to us. Clergy often compare their churches and ministries with their peers and forget that they are all working for God’s kingdom. Others will compare their marriages, jobs, children, salaries, families, etc. with the people around them instead of loving their neighbors as themselves.

Who are you holding a grudge against because of numbers? Which neighbor, friend, or family member do you need to start loving as you love yourself?