How You Read the Bible Changes How You Approach LGBTQ Questions

13135371“Make sure you don’t listen to LGBT people’s stories until you’ve established what the Bible says about it.” That was the counsel of a pastor friend of mine when he heard that our church was going to be discussing human sexuality in the church.

We didn’t take that approach.

As our Study Team looked closely at Acts 15 in our sixth session, we realized how the early church handled disagreements about inclusion – and it was to listen to stories first. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the bible is not crucial – of course it is!  It just means that all readings of the Bible are affected by our cultural context. As a friend of mine says, “There’s no view from nowhere” – meaning, there’s no way to read the Bible without bringing your own perspectives and experiences to it.

I realize that some of the folks reading this blog don’t claim to be Christians, so I’m guessing this conversation may seem esoteric. Just to catch you up to speed, from the Christian point of view, the Bible plays a critical role in how we understand God, people, history, morality, and culture.

As we think about the Bible, I want to ponder it in three ways not necessarily connected to each other: a graphic, a theological construct, and a parable. I find these to be helpful ways to get at the connection of the Bible and questions around LGBTQ persons in the church.

A Graphic: Three Types of Beliefs

I think people hold their different beliefs with differing degrees of conviction, depending on the belief. On this idea I found the Study Team readings from Greg Boyd* particularly helpful. In terms of Christian theology, I’d paraphrase Greg Boyd here by saying that there are core beliefs, important beliefs, and opinions.Cylinder with labels

I think of core beliefs as those foundational building blocks of the faith, around which there is general agreement across the church. There are not a lot of these. The way I think about these building blocks is that they are best summarized by the historic statement of the Christian faith, the Apostles’ Creed. That statement focuses mostly on Jesus, but includes the Trinity, that God made the world, the unity of all believers, the forgiveness of sins, and everlasting life. Notably, it doesn’t include how God made the world, or exactly how Jesus is both God and human, or how salvation works, or anything about Hell. It’s not that those are unimportant. They just are not core beliefs.

Important beliefs, the middle category, might include all sorts of things like views on women’s ordination, baptism, and end times. Opinions, the last category, are less weighty matters, like what kind of music to have in worship or what qualifications to have for a youth pastor.

If core beliefs are indeed limited to the Apostles’ Creed or some other summary of the Christian faith (like many churches post on their websites), then it’s inherent to this whole conversation that there can be differences around important beliefs like the morality of various sexual practices. Those important beliefs about sexual morality, gender identity, and leadership qualifications are, well, important. But it’s hard to imagine that they are core beliefs. If we’re willing to admit that, wouldn’t it be realistic and helpful and even edifying to embrace people with differing views around these important beliefs… including beliefs about LGBTQ people in the church?

A Theological Construct: Is The Bible Inerrant?

The second perspective on how the Bible informs what we think about LGBTQ issues has to do with the weighty theological construct known as inerrancy. Holding to inerrancy, or not, makes a big difference in how you think about the topics at hand.

In our tenth session together, the Study Team considered The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics as well as numerous other articles and books about how to understand the Bible (see Session 10 in our Syllabus). Browse through them briefly, and you’ll get a sense for them. The Chicago statements tend towards being very clear about how clear the Bible is. One of the affirmations that stood out to me during our Study Team session was Article VII from the second statement:

We affirm that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.

After the diligent work we’d done on Genesis 1 & 2 and on the best traditional and progressive arguments on Romans 1, I really struggled with the simplicity of the Chicago Statement. Frankly, it seemed oversimplified. It’s not that the biblical texts don’t have meaning, it’s just that it’s so darn hard to figure out what that meaning is, particularly as a single text is weighed with all the other texts, each with their own emphases. But this isn’t an issue with just LGBTQ issues. Sociologist Christian Smith summarizes the breadth of the tensions Christians face on various issues:

The disagreements, to be specific, are over inerrancy (inerrantism versus infallibalist), providence (Calvinist versus Arminian), divine foreknowledge (Arminian versus Calvinist versus Open views), Genesis (the young earth, day-age, restoration, and literal views), divine image in humanity (the substantival, functional, and relational views), Christology (classical versus kenotic), atonement (penal substitution, Christus Victor, and moral government views), salvation (TULIP versus Arminian), sanctification (Lutheran, Reformed, Keswick, and Wesleyan), eternal security (eternal versus conditional), the destiny of the unevangelized (the restrictive, universal opportunity, postmortem evangelism, and inclusive views), baptism (believer’s versus infant baptism), the Lord’s Supper (spiritual presence versus memorial), charismatic gifts (continuationism versus cessationism), women in ministry (complementarian versus egalitarian), the millennium (premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism), and hell (the classical view versus annihilationism).

…On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as to what it teaches. That is an empirical, historical, undeniable, and ever-present reality.

Even very conservative scholars like D.A. Carson* recognize this wide spectrum of beliefs amongst those who hold a high view of scripture. So I struggle with how inerrancy is defined by the Chicago Statements and how it plays out in churches because it assumes a degree of certainty about what it calls the “literal, or normal, sense” of scriptures that I (and I believe most others) don’t see there.

Personally, I’m far more comfortable with how the Bible describes itself in 2 Timothy 3:16, which is that it’s inspired by God and it’s true: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” It seems that God was content to give us a Bible that doesn’t make itself starkly clear on all points, and yet is still inspired. I think that’s exactly the Bible God meant for us to have!

Practically speaking, this means that when we look at the Bible, there can be room for different perspectives on the same events and their meaning. Why else would there be four different Gospel accounts, after all? Or why include two different histories of the same kings in Israel’s history, each with very different emphases? Or why would Hebrews and Romans look at predestination so differently?

From my experience, which is limited for sure, inerrancy is more of a mindset about certainty than it is a theology. That longing for certainty prioritizes clarity, which leads to neatness and cleanness in the realm of theology. That tidy theology then tends to domineer the experiences and perspectives of sexual minorities, often attempting to smother differing ways to think about the Bible passages dealing with sexuality and gender.

I know people who are not inerrantists who fall on all sides of the spectrum of belief about LGBTQ issues, including both traditionalist and progressive. What encourages me about these people is their openness to dialogue, their curiosity, and their willingness to wrestle with the bible’s variety and nuance. I find this perspective a lot healthier in many areas, including conversations around sexuality and the Bible.

A Parable: Three Umpires

About twenty years ago, when I was trying to figure out how to think about postmodernism, I came across a parable that made a lot of sense to me. Now it helps me think about how the Bible speaks to questions surrounding inclusion of LGBTQ people in the church. It goes like this:

Three baseball umpires are sitting at a bar talking about the game. ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes,’ says the first, ‘and I call ‘em the way they are.’

The second umpire protests, “There’s balls and there’s strikes. I call ‘em and that’s the way they are.”

The third umpire thinks for a minute and then speaks up. “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”

Modernists approach truth as if it is easily and directly discernible; they believe they have direct access to meaning, therefore they say “I call ‘em the way they are.” The postmodernists leave everything up to the subject, with no connection to a separate reality that’s out there, so they say “I call ‘em and that’s the way they are.” Then there are what might be called the Critical Realists, those who recognize that there is indeed a reality out there which we’re trying to understand, but we don’t see it perfectly (it’s as though now we see through a mirror, dimly).  The Critical Realists realize that because of their own perspective and experiences, they can only do their best to get at that reality. Thus, they say “I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.”

I’ve grown tired of the easy answers on both sides, whether it’s throwing down a clobber verse out of context or a pronouncement like “whatever you feel is right is right.” The clobber-er sounds like the first umpire to me, and the feel-er sounds like the second; one lays claim to the one true interpretation, and the other implies there’s no absolutes out there besides their own experience. I suppose they are similar in that they each try to define reality exclusively.

As I engage with more and more people around the Bible and LGBTQ concerns, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the best I can do is to say with the third umpire, “I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.” I’m doing my best, and it’s not easy, not neat, and not clean. And as best as I can tell that’s actually how the early church handled tricky questions about inclusion of the Gentiles, evidenced by the fact that their solution was short-lived and reversed a couple of times (see Mark 7, Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 8, 10, Romans 14-15, Revelation 2).

When it comes to sexuality and gender issues in the church, it’s not just the Bible that we’re talking about, although it is that. It’s how we view the Bible.


*D. A. Carson notes that “I speak to those with a high view of Scripture: it is very distressing to contemplate how many differences there are among us as to what Scripture actually says… The fact remains that among those who believe the canonical sixty-six books are nothing less than the Word of God written there is a disturbing array of mutually incompatible theological opinions.”

*Greg Boyd, Benefit of The Doubt. Chapter 8 – A Solid Center. Chapter 9 – The Center of Scripture.



How Having Gay Friends Has Changed My Theology

pd_A-Walk-in-The-HillsDavid* and Ann* were two of the first gay people I met after my brother came out to me in the early 1990s. In moments of great vulnerability, each of them shared with me that they were attracted to people of the same sex. My memory is a bit hazy (I’m almost 50, after all) but I think I was the first person either of them had told about being gay. They both immediately shared that they wanted God to change their desires, and I was on board with that. I prayed that they would become straight, and I processed with them as they went through counseling, what was called ‘reparative therapy’ at the time.

But neither of their desires changed. What did change, however, was my theology.

I’ve known these two Christians for over twenty years. I’ve seen them wrestle with God, almost lose faith, and come through to the other side of some dark times. David is now married to another Christian man, and Ann is a committed single. Both are still attracted to people of the same sex. So do you think those friendships might have affected my theology? You bet.

My understanding of how prayer works, when God heals, and what it means to be made in God’s image were all pretty simple twenty five years ago. All three of those theological constructs have changed because of knowing David and Ann. I’ve had to allow a bit more mystery into my theology, a bit more flexibility, and a lot more grace. Before, everything was neat and tidy for me. And that’s not even to mention having to do a lot of rethinking about human sexuality.

Shifting Away From Tradition

At a pastors’ conference, Joe* approached me and asked to talk away from everyone else. On a long walk through the hills, he shared that he’d never thought much about his traditional views on sexuality until the day he came home early from church and walked in on his teenage son watching TV in a dress. That was the beginning of Joe’s journey of rethinking his theology.

I often talk with Christians who once held a traditional perspective about LGBTQ morality but have since become ‘affirming’ because a close friend or family member came out to them. For example, progressive New Testament scholar James Brownson shares in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality that his son coming out was a major motivator for him to re-evaluate his thinking.

As I wrote in my last post about  How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church, there’s something powerfully motivating about shifting your thoughts from abstract theology to real people, especially people you love. Having LGBTQ people in your life whom you love deeply typically changes you. Here are two of the big ways:

  1. Your attitude becomes less judgmental. Unfortunately, this often comes only after a lot of tears or a few shouting matches. Crushing the spirit of a friend or loved one has a way of making you reconsider how you see them. Whether or not your perspective on morality shifts, this is still a theological shift because it means that Jesus is breaking open your heart for others in new and good ways.
  2. Your theology becomes ‘affirming’ – either because you re-evaluate your reading of the bible (for those who value scripture highly), or you simply allow your experience to dictate your morals and don’t want to condemn the sexual activity of your friend or loved one.

The one instance where I often see a lack of theological shift is when a parent finds out that a child is LGBTQ and, instead of processing that in a healthy way, clamps down on that information, turning it into a family secret. Often these families can feel like fortresses, where vulnerability and intimacy cower in the corners. If you’re part of a family like this, I’d be glad to be a safe place to process or help you find one. (contact me here).

Shifting in Other Ways

Last month, Ernie* invited me over to his house and shared with me that he’s gay. He told me of the struggles he’s had in different churches, the loneliness he’s felt, and the deep connection he has to Jesus that has come from his costly commitment to celibacy. Even though we were the only two in the house, he mostly whispered all of this to me, which seemed appropriate since it seemed we were on holy ground. I felt so honored, so privileged to be there with him, to listen to him, and to be able to be with him on his journey.

Having friends like Ernie changes you. Through conversations with my friends who are not embracing their same-sex attraction, my theology has changed. In particular,

  1. I’m realizing that I (and the church) idolize marriage – we view it as the highest form of relationship. We’re strangely uncomfortable with those who are single, always trying to set them up with someone –  which is ironic since our founder was single. Celibate author Wes Hill has done the church a tremendous service in his website promoting spiritual friendship – which historically has been viewed as a higher form of relationship than marriage. Talk about being counter-cultural!
  2. I’m seeing how I (and the culture) obsess over sex – we view it as paramount in our personal identity. Those who are celibate in our midst stand as a stark contrast to the way our culture glorifies and commodifies sexuality, and we’re forced to rethink what it means to be made in the image of God.
  3. I’m realizing that my theology of discipleship has gone soft. Jesus says, “Let any who would come after me take up their cross daily and follow me,” but I want to negotiate with Jesus, haggling down the cost of following him. My friends who are choosing not to act on their same-sex attraction remind me of what it means to follow Jesus at all costs.

Final Thought

David, whom I mentioned earlier, came to see me recently. I met his husband, we walked through the neighborhood, we caught up. Just before we parted, he started to cry as he talked about how he’s met God on his journey since coming out to me twenty-five years ago. David caught me by surprise when he said, “Amidst all of the pain of this process, I wonder if God brought me into your life all those years ago so that you’d be better prepared to welcome your son when he came out.”

I think David is on to something.


*Most of the names and identifying details in this blog have been changed.

How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church

Prayer Labyrinth
Our group in Malibu walking the prayer labyrinth

Recently I was at a unique gathering in Malibu. Our group was made up of a dozen individuals from around the U.S., differing ages and ethnicities and genders, covering a spectrum of experiences and beliefs about how to be LGBTQ in the church; gay, straight, trans, and everything from celibate to questioning to dating to divorced to married. All we held in common was that we follow Jesus and love scripture.

I was asked this question, “What do you think is the value in LGBT people naming and defining their sexuality? How is that helpful or harmful for the heterosexual majority community and the church?”

This is going to sound a bit dramatic, but I responded by saying I think that the LGBTQ community is saving the church. I’m not saying it’s been worth the cost to that community; I grieve that cost and I sorrow over my own complicity in it. What I am saying is that I’m grateful for the gifts I’ve received from the LGBTQ community.

Below are some of the ways I think God is using the LGBTQ community to help the church.

  1. No longer is “LGBTQ” a theological issue, now it’s real people.  It’s people like my brother, Porter. People like my son, Timothy. By coming out, the LGBTQ community has forced the heterosexual community to deal with real people and not just ideas untethered from the world we live in. Jesus emphasized the importance of dealing with real people, so by coming out, the LGBTQ community has been serving the church by enabling us to be more like Jesus. Thank you, friends, for your incredible resilience and strength in reminding me that you are people, not issues. I’m sorry for treating you otherwise too often.
  2. We’ve had to face our judgment. In his book unChristian, David Kinnaman points out that, statistically speaking, the first three terms non-Christians use to describe Christians, in order, are 1) anti-homosexual, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. How devastating is that!? Those last two are the very things that Jesus spent a lot of time confronting – in fact, more than any other. So the LGBTQ community has provided the opportunity for Jesus to speak to those of us in the heterosexual community in the same way he spoke to his followers 2,000 years ago. Friends, I’m so sorry for my own judgment and hypocrisy. I’m also sorry for how often I’ve been silent and forced you to speak up alone when it would have been so easy for me to stand up and speak with you. Please forgive me. While
  3. We’ve had to face hard conversations that we’ve previously avoided. Facing hard conversations is what the church is all about, and yet we’ve shied away from that mandate. Instead, we’ve become like the culture and hidden. In fact, we have failed to have these conversations in places where the culture around us has faced them squarely. The LGBTQ community has forced our church to have this conversation, and this conversation is training us to have other conversations. Friends, thank you for the courage you’ve demonstrated every time you’ve come out to someone. I want to be as courageous as you. I could never quantify if it’s worth the cost to you, but I can say that I’ve gained by your sacrifice. 
  4. We’re rediscovering what identity is, what it means to be made in the image of God. The church has simply equated being heterosexual/cisgender (and preferably married!) with being human. It’s like how White, male, Western theologians can be unaware of their Whiteness, maleness and Westernness when doing theology because often they live in an echo chamber only reading their own stuff… until they read Black theology or Feminist theology or Liberation theology. In the same way, the LGBTQ community helps the majority/straight community figure itself out more. And along the way, it helps us uncover our assumptions about being made in the image of God. Friends, thank you for surfacing my assumptions, for helping me see humanity through another lens, and for the implicit invitation to think more deeply about what it means to be made in God’s image.
  5. The LGBTQ community is helping us rediscover grace, because it’s raising the crucial questions: How are people accepted into the community around Jesus? Do people have to become straight/cisgender to be accepted? Is grace really enough? In new ways, we’re getting at core gospel truths because our assumptions are being exposed, and we’re seeing that we’ve layered a lot of culture on top of the gospel. Friends, thank you for reintroducing me to grace – it’s alway better than it was the last time I knew it.
  6. The LGBTQ community is driving a deeper look at scripture.  The majority/heterosexual community is not allowed to get off with easy answers and proof-testing anymore. Just throwing out a reference to Leviticus or Romans was so easy, and so misguided – like throwing out a reference in Joshua to justify war. And not only do we have to be careful and thoughtful with scripture, we’re starting to have to become transparent in our theology of scripture – now we’re having to show our cards on how we approach scripture. We didn’t have to do that before. We could get away with saying, “we just follow the bible.” Friends, you’ve help me (and us) think more clearly, enabling us to love God more with our mind. Thank you.
  7. The LGBTQ community is helping us rediscover unity. Because there’s such diversity around these issues, the church is having to wrestle with unity again. Who is in and who is out? What are the qualifications for unity in the body of Christ? These are really important questions that the church is facing at a new level. While denominations are splitting, there’s also been a lot of movement towards a more sacramental unity, as opposed to the ideological unity that currently presides over the evangelical world. Friends, I wish it weren’t so painful for you. I wish our battles about unity weren’t being fought over your bruised and bloodied souls. I’m so sorry. May God have mercy on us all, healing his church and ‘reconciling to himself all things’ (Colossians 1:20).

Finally, to my son, to my brother, to my LGBTQ friends at City Church and in Long Beach and in the broader community, whether you’re in church or not, I want to say these words:

Thank you for how gracious you have been to me personally as I try to figure out what to do with you. That sounds so awful, and it is. I’m so sorry for how I’ve participated in the injustice that has left you in the petri dish as those of us in the majority culture fight over the microscope. It’s embarrassing to write it. Please forgive me.

Thank you for how you’ve led me back to Jesus time and time again by exposing how unlike him I am, by helping me think more deeply about scripture, by calling me to love people more freely and especially by how you’ve shown me grace, cared for me, and loved me well.

You have shown Jesus to me. You have been Jesus to me. Thank you.

Best Progressive Arguments on Romans 1 (Part 3)

sacredheartLast week I spoke with a guy who needed to process the impact of twenty of his friends leaving his church because the church decided to begin a conversation about the potential inclusion of LGBTQ people in church membership. A different guy told me last week, “It won’t do you any good to talk about homosexuality” because people from his church background don’t talk about things like that.

I was struck in both of those conversations that it’s so hard for people coming from a traditional perspective to really listen to the thoughts and insights of those from a more progressive position. In so many ways, it’s not much different from how hard it is for people from a progressive perspective to listen earnestly to those from a traditional perspective!

In my last blog I looked at what I think are the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. Today I want to summarize what I think are the five best arguments that same-sex sexual activity is not sinful, again from Romans 1. Regardless of your perspective, would you be open to listening in to this conversation?

By way of context, the progressive arguments here are that the morality of monogamous, covenantal, same-sex sexual relations (a.k.a., marriage) is what’s on the table, and not other sexual activity.

1. Paul Critiqued the Same-Sex Cultural Climate of His Day, Not of Ours

In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 we looked at the differing views on the word ‘nature.’ Most progressives understand that word in Romans 1:26-27 as having to do with cultural convention (e.g. ‘It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!’), just like Paul uses that word in 1 Corinthians 11:13-14 to describe how it’s ‘unnatural’ for men to have long hair.

Progressives argue that Paul uses a number of key phrases describing excessive passion (‘shameful lusts’ in 1:26 and ‘inflamed with lust’ in 1:27) to highlight the culturally degrading form that homosexuality took in that time. As the Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 by James Dunn puts it, Paul’s description of homosexuality “is a characteristic expression of Jewish antipathy toward the practice of homosexuality so prevalent in the Greco Roman world.” Therefore, Paul is not critiquing consensual, monogamous homosexual expression but, rather, the form it took in his day.

Another approach to this same argument is that there is a cultural normativity that makes same sex marriage fine now, even while it wouldn’t have been in Paul’s time. (A parallel would be that Paul prohibits women from braiding their hair in 1 Timothy 2:9, almost certainly because the cultural norm then was that prostitutes braided their hair – but that norm has changed in our culture.)

2. Paul is Addressing Sexual Exploitation Pastorally

While there’s some disagreement on whether the Greco-Roman world knew much about covenantal same-sex relationships, scholars agree that the dominant forms of homosexuality were coercive: pederasty (adult males with adolescent boys), prostitution and master-slave sex (2/3 of the Roman world were slaves or freed slaves).  If you’d like to read some of the ancient source material yourself, here’s a quick summary.

Paul’s comments in Romans 1:26-27 would have been received as remarkably empathetic and pastoral by those in the congregation who had been sexually exploited in the ways he described. The progressive argument here is that Paul is not dealing with mutual, covenantal same-sex relationships in Romans 1, but instead he is condemning the rampant sexual exploitation of the culture and giving a much needed voice to those who had been victimized by it.

3. The New Testament Moves from External Sins to the Heart

Jesus taught that the real issue behind murder was anger and that what lay behind adultery was lust, and he summarized the Old Testament law into just two commands, both about love. Paul built on that move from externals to internals when he wrote things like:

  • Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8
  • For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

Progressives like James Brownson articulate this theological move like this:

Jesus sought to focus attention concerning purity, not primarily on external behaviors, but on internal states… In the New Testament generally, and in Paul’s writings in particular, purity is primarily a matter of the heart and one’s internal disposition. The fact that Paul in Romans 1:24 links “the lusts of their hearts” with “impurity” confirms the connection between these two ideas in this passage in particular.

The argument here is that the core issue going on in Romans 1:26-27 is not the condemnation of externals, (in this case, the manifestation of all homosexual sexual expression) but rather about the impurity that drives lustful actions. Therefore, channeling sexual desire in healthy and godly ways within marriage, whether straight or gay, honors God and reflects biblical teaching.

4. Church History Has Gotten It Wrong Before

While progressives recognize that church history has consistently read Romans 1 as condemning same-sex behavior, they also point out that church history has gotten some things wrong in the past and that engaging in careful study and discussion of scripture is always healthy.

For 1,500 years the church consistently held that the correct way to interpret Genesis 1 and other passages was that Earth was in the center of the universe and that the sun moved around it. When that idea was challenged with the research and teaching of Copernicus and then Galileo, the church strongly resisted reinterpretation of the scriptures. For example:

  • In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10, John Calvin warned against those who say, “that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that moves.” He goes on to call those who believe that the earth moves “stark raving mad” and “possessed” by the devil.
  • Martin Luther said, “The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth” and elsewhere Luther refers to Copernicus as “a fool who went against Holy Writ.”

Progressives argue that being open to reinterpreting Romans 1 is simply part of the age-old process of doing theology. They say that just as Calvin and Luther were wrong on the earth standing still, new insights and understandings of history, science, and scripture, indicate that the traditional interpretation of Romans 1 banning all homosexual practice is wrong and the church should not be completely bound by its tradition of interpretation.

5. Christians Have Not Always Read This Text the Same Way

The vast majority of us who read Romans 1:26 immediately see it as referring to lesbianism: “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” However, that was not always the case.

James Alison points out,

we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex. Chrysostom was in fact the first Church Father of whom we have record to read the passage as having anything to do with lesbianism… what modern readers claim to be “the obvious meaning of the text” was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t.

Progressives point out that even with parts of Romans 1, there has been diversity of interpretation throughout the church’s history, and that doesn’t necessarily make Augustine (!) or modern interpreters apostates. Instead, diversity of interpretation can be a mark of faithfully engaging the text.

Final Thought

Personally, as I reflect on my own journey of thinking about these things I remember reading all of the Christian literature available to me in 1990 when my brother came out to me. I read all of the conservative arguments, but there were no progressive arguments available – at least not that I could find (remember, there was no internet!). I point this out to say that the conversation is different now because there are two sides to it.

I’ll continue to explore that conversation in coming weeks.

If you’d like to read related blogs:

Romans 1: Best Traditional Arguments (Part 2)

On Tuesday, I sat down for coffee with J., who at had just come out to his family and friends. He cried a couple of times as he shared his story, including when he told of his father hugging him afterwards – a rare occurrence.

J. was raised in a church nearby, but he’s stopped attending because God feels distant and he doesn’t want to put on his ‘happy church face’ and show up. But he couldn’t have been clearer about wanting to follow Jesus. “For the first time I’m actually open to considering having a partner – but I won’t do it if it’s not right. And I don’t want to just convince myself the bible says something if it doesn’t.” Then he leaned in, “So what do you think God wants for me?”

Well, that’s a good question.

In my own attempts to answer it, I thought I’d look at the best arguments on Romans 1 from the traditional perspective (in this blog) and from the progressive perspective (in next week’s blog). As we think on the scriptures and wrestle with the issues, I will try to remember that we’re actually talking about real people, like my new friend J.

Here are what I’ve found to be the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 against same-sex sexual behavior. As a good friend of mine just reminded me today, I would be remiss not to mention at the outset that the whole point of the traditional arguments are that God loves gay people and wants their best. With that in mind, let’s dive in.

1. Same-Sex Behavior is Contrary to God’s Creational Order

In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (which basically covered the nature of the word ‘nature’) I outlined this argument, so I won’t say much more about it here. In the simplest of terms it goes like this: God created male and female sex parts to work together, so doing sex otherwise is immoral.  To summarize the argument in a more scholarly way, Richard Hays writes that:

[since] the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity… when human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.

2. Paul Uses Additional Terms to Emphasize Creational Intent

In addition to the immediate context of Creation just mentioned, Paul seems to be referring specifically to the Genesis 1 account in Romans 1:26-27 by the use of two key terms for ‘women’ and ‘men.’ Here’s the break down of those terms from one of my seminary professors:

Paul does not use the normal terms for women (gyne) and men (aner) but two terms (thelys and arsen) that may well allude to God’s created order, as they are used in the Septuagint of the creation account, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27 LXX). (Grant Osborn, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series)

Using those terms is a way for Paul to ‘double down’ on his emphasis that the only godly way to have sex is the way God designed it in the Garden of Eden, namely, between a man and a woman. In a sort of repetition of point #1, this shows Paul’s commitment to the original design as the only moral way to behave sexually.

3. Same-Sex Behavior is the Third of Three Sinful “Exchanges”

Paul’s overarching argument in Romans 1 is that the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) are disconnected from God, caught in unhealthy/sinful ways of living, and in need of a Savior. Paul builds his argument with a series of three ‘exchanges’:

  1. [They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idols (1:23)
  2. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie (1:25)
  3. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (1:26)

Paul uses the same greek work (‘exchange’) to emphasize how, because of each of these scenarios, the Gentiles have distanced themselves from God and are suffering for it and in need of rescue. The parallel items at the back end of each of the ‘exchanges’ look like this:

idols : lies : same-sex acts

Essentially, this argument says, since idols and lies are always immoral, the parallel activity of same-sex behavior is immoral.

As one renowned scholar put it, “Paul’s attitude to homosexual practice is unambiguous. The third appearance of the word “changed’ (cf. vv 23 and 25) seems to imply that the action described (“changing the natural use to that which is contrary to nature”) is of a piece with and direct result of the basic corruption of the glory and truth of God in idolatry.” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary Romans 1-8)

4. The Text Condemns All Same-Sex Behavior

This argument says that, for the sake of drawing all people to Christ, Romans 1 highlights the sinfulness of all same-sex behavior, as opposed to just pederasty or temple prostitution. In an interesting twist, Romans 1 critiques female-female sex, which was far less common than male-male sex in the ancient Greco-Roman world, suggesting that Paul was trying to cover all his bases.

In addition to that, Paul uses key words that clarify the range of whom God holds responsible in cases of same-sex behavior. In an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, James DeYoung writes that “The terms ‘toward one another,’ ‘men with men,’ ‘in themselves’ and ‘their error’ all argue for adult reciprocal mutuality and mutual culpability, which would not characterize pederasty.  As the error is mutual, so is the recompense.”

Therefore, since Paul includes both male and female same-sex activity while implicating both parties of such activity, he clearly defines all same-sex activity (and not merely exploitative same-sex activity) under the category of “shameful lusts” (1:26).

5. Church History

For two thousand years (that’s a long time) the church has consistently held to these interpretations (and some other ones which I don’t find as convincing) of Romans 1. That much history is not something to trifle with. There should be strong reasoning to consider even having conversation about an area of theology that has enjoyed such unanimous support for so long and so widely, much less to consider changing that theology.

In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams summarize their findings from looking throughout scripture and church history at these issues:

In the context of the current confusion, we intend to demonstrate that Scripture and the historic, orthodox church consistently have warned that homosexual practice is sin.  We will show that the suggestion that homosexual practice is acceptable before God is contrary to Scripture and to what all the church everywhere has always taught.

Next week, I’ll look at the five best arguments for a progressive interpretation of Romans 1.

Here is Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (What is the Nature of the Word ‘Nature’)

Here is Part 3 of this series on Romans 1 (Best Progressive Arguments)


Yes, It’s Time for Romans 1 (Part 1)

The_Colosseum_in_Rome_640Many have called Romans 1 a “clobber passage” (because of how it’s been weaponized at times against the LGBTQ community). So is it? For those unfamiliar with these conversations, the two verses in Romans 1:26-27 form the longest passage in the bible that speaks directly to same-sex sexual behavior, so it’s super important in this conversation.

Our Study Team set aside an entire Saturday morning to discuss it (after we’d done a bunch of reading and thinking about it), so I thought it would be helpful to share my reflections from that study.

There’s some real thinking required here, and we’re going to look at it over several blog posts, so get ready to do some work. And if you’re not willing to really understand this text, I might suggest you remove it from any conversations about LGBTQ people in the church because you may well be misusing it and, one way or the other, turning it into a weapon to hurt people.

Feeling Judgmental

One of the pieces the Study Team read was from Richard Hays’ masterpiece The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In his chapter on homosexuality, he reminds us that all of the talk of sin in Romans 1 (including the bits about gay sex) are “a homiletical sting operation.” They are set up to deal with the kind of evil that destroys more people than any sexual sin: judgmentalism. Here is Hays on Romans 1:18-32:

The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then the sting strikes in Romans 2:1: “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.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteousness is “without excuse” (2:1) before God just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are “without excuse”(1:20).

Hays helps us see that however we read Romans 1:26-27 on homosexuality, being judgmental is inexcusable in the sight of God. That shouldn’t stop us from thinking and talking about what is sin and what’s not sin, but it should wipe that ‘those people…‘ thought right from our minds, to be replaced with ‘us people...’

The Nature of Nature

A lot of the arguments on Romans 1 hinge on the Greek word physis. It’s commonly translated ‘nature’ in English. The Greek word comes up 14 times in various forms in the New Testament, and 3 of those are here in our passage:

…their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.  (Romans 1:26-27)

Needless to say, the word ‘nature’ is crucial in these verses, so how we understand it drastically affects how we read this text. So what is the nature of ‘nature’?

The premier Greek lexicon (Baurer/Danker) gives 4 definitions of physis (nature). You can read them yourself here if you’re a true nerd. Their English counterparts are similar in many ways, and as with all definitions, there’s some elasticity and overlap. Here’s a basic summary of those 4 definitions of the Greek word for nature:

  1. Endowment (the Creation interpretation) – “Cotton is a natural material; polyester is not.”
  2. Predisposition (the personal interpretation) –  “Optimism comes naturally to my wife.”
  3. Convention (the cultural interpretation) – “It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!”
  4. Species (not relevant for this discussion – see James 3:7 – physis is translated ‘kinds’)

The first three definitions have each been part of the LGBTQ conversation around Romans 1. I want to briefly dispel of the second definition and then dive in deep to the first and third since they have more impact.

When progressives first started looking at Romans 1, they would on occasionally argue that what Paul was writing about here was that it was unnatural if a straight person had gay sex or if a gay person had straight sex because it was contrary to their personal disposition (definition 2). My sense is that most current scholars on both sides of the debate don’t think this is a very plausible interpretation, so we’re not going to focus on that argument here.

Definition 1: Nature as Creation                          Definition 3: Nature as Convention

Nature as Creation (Definition 1)

Romans 1:25 mentions creation twice – “they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Therefore it’s natural (pun intended) when it comes to the very next verse to read “nature” through the Creation interpretation (definition 1). Context matters, and the fact that Creation is mentioned in verse 25 gives weight to verse 26 being read in the same light.

The Creation interpretation is the standard approach of the traditionalists to Romans 1. As Robert Gagnon writes in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, “Nature here for Paul, as a Jew, is that which something truly is by virtue of its creation… For Paul homoeroticism constitutes an extreme expression of human revolt against the divinely ordained natural order and not just a subversion of customary gender roles.” Nature is tied to creation and to ‘divinely ordained natural order.’

The argument goes this way: despite the fact that people were designed by God at Creation to have sexual relations with the opposite sex, people instead had sex with the same sex, which is contrary to how God ordered the world. Because this is disordered (not part of God’s original design) it’s sinful.

The nature of ‘nature’ is crucial to the traditional reading of the text. It’s also crucial to the progressive reading of the text.

Nature as Convention (Definition 3)

Paul uses the word physis a few other times in similar ways to how he uses it here in Romans 1. For example,

Does not the very nature of things (physis) teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. 1 Corinthians 11:14-16

This passage is particularly interesting because Paul is writing about male-female relationships as in Romans 1, and he’s also making a very broad statement for how it plays out in all churches of that time. And yet, the plain reading of this text suggests that Paul’s comments on hair length are primarily about a cultural convention, not about God’s original moral design.

Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, a leader of an ex-gay ministry in Canada, was led to question her conservative convictions because of verses like these. She writes,

Again from Romans 1:26–27 is the phrase para physis, which is normally translated as “unnatural.” Some suggest that this cannot mean “immoral” because Paul uses this word to describe God’s act of including gentiles in Romans 11:24. Paul also uses the same wording in 1 Corinthians 11:14–15 to state that long hair on men is against nature. This raises the question of whether it is inherently immoral (that is, for all times and all places) or a statement for that culture.

Many progressives, using this ‘cultural convention’ interpretation, read Romans 1 in conjunction with the kind of homosexuality they see in the Greco-Roman world (see my blog on those ancient documents here) and make an argument that goes like this: The cultural forms of homosexuality that Paul was writing about were immoral, however they are not the covenantal, monogamous, mutual, adult relationships that gay Christians are seeking to honor God with today.

Again, as with the traditional approach, the nature of ‘nature’ has a big impact on how we read Romans 1.

So What Does This Mean?

For me, looking honestly and deeply at the key words in this discussion, like physis, is unnerving. I’d prefer to have everything neat and tidy.

And yet, God has instead left us to do the hard work understanding scripture and, I believe, has invited us to dialogue well with each other along the way. It’s almost as if he wants us to love one another even when we disagree!

With that in mind, I’ll close with thoughts on Romans 1 from two scholars I respect immensely, who see the passage very differently, and yet who see the conversation very similarly:

Conservative scholar Preston Sprinkle has blogged that “there is room for dialogue and fellowship with those who hold different views on this topic” because:
I’ve seen that the issue is a hundred times more complicated than I thought. No longer do I believe Christians can simply quote a verse from Leviticus (or wherever) and think that the debate is settled. There are a lot of questions surrounding the biblical material that refers to homosexual sex. 
Progressive scholar James Brownson writes something very similar:
Both sides of the debate can agree that Paul is correct in what he says here [in Romans 1]. In other words, both sides accept the authority of the text in what it is directly teaching. This is an important point that should not be passed over lightly. Neither side of the debate denies the authority and truthfulness of Scripture. The point of difference centers on the underlying moral logic that shapes the text, and thus its applicability to contemporary life.
Next week we’ll spend time looking at the best traditional arguments from Romans 1, and the following week we’ll look at the best progressive arguments from Romans 1.

People Need to Talk

the_art_of_conversation_by_rttmsdag-d32q8ocTuesday January 24, 2017 I had these six interactions throughout the day:

  1. I spoke by phone with a pastor in our area who is transgender (female to male), processing his spiritual journey.
  2. A dear friend’s son had come out of the closet the previous week, and the dad was trying to figure out what to do about that.
  3. I received a call from a pastor who was planning on leaving our denomination because we’d become ‘unblibilcal’ (his word).
  4. I heard the story of a young woman who said she would come to Sunday worship because she couldn’t believe there was a church that talked about these things (she had stopped going to church because these things weren’t discussed).
  5. I processed with a dad how to respond to his 12 year old daughter who had asked him aggressively the night before, “Dad, what do you think about homosexuality?”
  6. My son called from college to process his experience with a Queer Christian Fellowship group on campus.

And that was just one day. The next day, I launched this blog.

It’s been two months since I started the LGBTQConversations blog, and as of the writing of this post, there have been 16,956 page views of this blog. I’m stunned by that number. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, people are interested in these conversations. And there are so many more to have.

Today, for example, I’m part of a denominational vote on whether marriage should be defined as only between a man and a woman. That’s a big conversation.

Yesterday an old friend wrote me a long Facebook message pondering these things, asking me if I thought homosexuality was a sin. That’s a big conversation.

This morning I was asked by a person who I’m guessing is transgender, “If you had a magic wand that could turn all the LGBTQIA folks into cisgender heterosexuals, would you wave it—why or why not?” That’s a big conversation.

And this morning I got an email from man I’ve never met who asked to grab coffee with me. He told me about being raised in a Christian home and coming out to his family earlier this month. As he ponders what’s next for him in terms of relationships and his process of thinking about what the bible says, he concluded with the line “I know that if I were to do my own thing without seeking God’s approval I would be ruined with guilt.” That’s a big conversation, too.

There are a lot of other really important things to talk about in the church. For whatever reason, this is just one of those things that God continues to bring to me.

So I’ll keep having the conversations.