By David Gushee
Follow David: @dpgushee
The essentials of the traditionalist reading of scripture on same-sex relationships can be rendered by this formula, though of course there are variations:
Genesis 1-2 + Genesis 19 + Leviticus 18:22/20:13 + Judges 19 + Matthew 19:1-12/Mark 10:2-12 + Romans 1:26-27 + 1 Corinthians 6:9 + 1 Timothy 1:10 [+ all biblical references to sex and marriage assuming or depicting male + female] = a clear biblical ban on same-sex relationships.
Here I summarize these references in as balanced a manner as I can:
• Genesis 1-2 offers creation accounts in which 1) God makes humanity male and female and commands that they be fruitful and multiply and 2) God responds to the man’s loneliness by creating woman, then giving her to the man, with the narrator connecting this to marriage.
• Genesis 19 and Judges 19 both tell stories of perverse local city men seeking to sexually assault male guests receiving hospitality in local households.
• Leviticus 18:22 commands men not to lie with men as with women; Leviticus 20:13 prescribes the death penalty for this offense. The Hebrew word to’evah used in these passages has generally been translated “abomination” to describe the reason for this divine mandate.
• Matthew 19:1-12/Mark 10:2-12 are the main texts depicting Jesus responding to questions about the morality of men divorcing their wives. He appeals to the two creation texts noted above to ground his rigorous response setting strict limits on initiating divorce. A teaching about “eunuchs” is appended to the end of Matthew’s version.
• Romans 1:26-27 is part of an argument Paul is making about why everyone needs the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. In an effort to illustrate the idolatry and sinfulness of the Gentile part of the human community, Paul makes negative reference to same-sex sexual acts on the part of both men and women; later he lists 21 further illustrations.
• 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 both offer vice lists as part of moral exhortations to Christian living. The Greek words malakoi and especially Paul’s neologism arsenokoitai, used in these passages, have sometimes been translated into English as “homosexuals” or “sodomites.” Though translations actually have varied widely, the translation of these words as “homosexuals” (NASB) or “sodomites” (NRSV) in many English Bibles has been formative for many Christians.
Other texts in which it is solely men and women having sex, and men and women marrying, could also be and sometimes are listed on the traditionalist side.
If we take the most commonly cited texts on the issue from the traditionalist side, they are derived from 11 of the 1,189 chapters in the Bible. But it is not unusual to hear the broader claim that whenever the Bible mentions licit sex, it is exclusively heterosexual.
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In future columns I will seek to address at least briefly the substantive interpretive issues around each of the major passages, and propose other possible ways of “connecting the biblical dots.”
But for now I want to make a few recommendations about how not to argue against traditionalists. These claims are made on theological, ethical and prudential grounds, and are directed mainly at my progressive friends. Please, friends:
1) Do not dismiss the traditionalist-cited passages as “clobber verses,” deployed with malice in order to harm gay people. Certainly there are some on the conservative side who like a good clobber now and then, like we all do when we fight for our causes; but remember the good-hearted Christian folks who are simply trying to be faithful Christians and aren’t clobbering anyone.
2) Do not dismiss whole authors (Paul) or sections (Old Testament) of Scripture as if we good contemporary folks know that they have little to say to our enlightened modern world — at least, not if you want to be taken seriously by traditional Christians.
3) Do not dismiss people who cite the Bible against your view simply as fundamentalists or biblicists or some other derogatory phrase. It’s not helpful, and most of the time, it’s not fair. Name-calling rarely advances the search for truth or the health of Christian community.
4) Do not dismiss traditionalist Christian sexual ethics as simply part of an overall anti-body, anti-sex, anti-woman, anti-pleasure agenda. Surely this has been a strand of Christian history. But I can point you to a zillion Christians who love bodies, sex, women (men) and pleasure, but read the Bible in a traditionalist way on this issue.
5) Do not simply point to broad themes of liberation, justice or inclusion of the marginalized as if those important biblical imperatives ipso facto invalidate the need to deal with the texts cited on the traditionalist side.
6) Do not assume that the issue is settled by making claims to being “prophetic.” This is a big claim, and it helps to remember that some on the other side of this issue are also making it.
7) Do not just say that it’s time for Christians to “catch up with the culture” or stop falling “behind the times.” The fact that a particular culture has moved to a particular point does not prove anything, because cultures are sometimes quite wrong.
The argument over sexuality today is a serious one. It requires serious work. But when progressives default to these responses and refuse to engage the real concerns of the other side, they come across as fundamentally unserious about Scripture — or theology — or ethics — or Christian discipleship. And I suspect that this is one primary reason for the level of passion about this issue on the traditionalist side. They consider the LGBT issue a symbol of a far broader problem in the life of the church. That concern, too, must be addressed.