Many 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.
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:
Endowment (the Creation interpretation) – “Cotton is a natural material; polyester is not.”
Predisposition (the personal interpretation) – “Optimism comes naturally to my wife.”
Convention (the cultural interpretation) – “It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!”
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.
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.
Tuesday January 24, 2017 I had these six interactions throughout the day:
I spoke by phone with a pastor in our area who is transgender (female to male), processing his spiritual journey.
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.
I received a call from a pastor who was planning on leaving our denomination because we’d become ‘unblibilcal’ (his word).
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).
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?”
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.
In debates about LGBTQ people in the church today, a key argument that progressives make goes like this:
because same-sex sexual behavior in the ancient world was so different from how it is practiced in our culture, we need to recalibrate what the biblical prohibitions would mean for us now and therefore allow same-sex sexual activity within covenantal relationships.
The vast majority of progressives (e.g., Vines, DeFranza, Brownson, Loader, Rogers) argue
this line of reasoning in some form. Essentially they build off of the cultural distance argument to say that while the bible disallows much same-sex activity for us today – just as it disallows much heterosexual activity today – it does not prohibit same-sex monogamous, covenantal relationships because it did not know about those types of relationships.
Traditionalists are split in how they approach the argument from cultural distance. Some (e.g., N.T. Wright, Hill, DeYoung, Shaw) argue that the cultural distance is not very great between us now and the ancient Greco-Roman context, so all same-sex sexual activity is still sinful. Others (e.g., Hays, Paris, Holmes) argue that there is indeed a large cultural gap, but that the solution is still not to allow same-sex behavior in the church.
So which of these options is it?
I invite you to do some thinking for yourself here. Below is a catalogue of what I’ve found to be the very best ancient citations around LGBTQ issues, culled from dozens of books, a hundred articles and a zillion blogs and online libraries. You can decide for yourself how large the cultural gap is between the ancient context and ours.
Types of Homosexuality in the Greco-Roman World
In a survey of anthropological work on sexuality, Jenell Williams Paris, professor of Anthropology at Messiah College, discerns four main types of same-sex sexual activity observable across the spectrum of human cultures. Steven Holmes summarizes her work:
Age-structured relationships, like those familiar from classical Greece, require an age difference between partners, typically an adult inducting an adolescent into adult ways.
Profession-based relationships are those in which generally nonstandard patterns of sexual behavior are legitimated for prostitutes or people in certain religious roles.
Gender-structured relationships are based around complex, non-binary [meaning exclusively male or female], cultural gender patterns.
Egalitarian relationships are between equals. Crucially, almost every cultural instance of “egalitarian” relationships outside of the modern West is temporary and occurs before or alongside a heterosexual marriage. Lifelong, exclusive, equal same-sex partnerships are virtually unknown to human history and anthropology outside the contemporary West. Same-sex sexual activity is common, but it almost never takes this cultural form. Realizing this is very important for understanding contemporary ecclesial debates over sexuality.
– from Steven Holmes’ chapter in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church
As I’ve looked at the original ancient writings, Paris’s four categories make a ton of sense. So here’s how I’d summarize the material in regards to the types of minority gender/sexual expression in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Pederasty (adult males having sex with adolescent boys) was very common and even celebrated in the Greco-Roman world (see 1.1-1.4 below). This is Paris’s ‘age-structured’ category.
Sex with household slaves was assumed in the Greco-Roman world as the right of the slave owner (see 2.1 below). Prostitution at temples was a well-known part of the cultural context of the Greco-Roman world (see 2.2 and 2.3 below). These are Paris’s ‘profession-based’ category.
Eunuchs were not uncommon in the ancient world (see the three types of eunuchs that Jesus mentions in Matthew 19:12, for example). In terms of sexual activity, they were most often assigned roles in #2 and #3 above (slave sex or prostituted). Additionally, they played a role of breaking down how most people viewed gender as either male or female. Since eunuchs took on aspects of both masculinity and femininity, and were even called ‘the third gender,’ they subverted cultural norms and opened up new ways of seeing sexuality and gender. See 8.1-8.3 below. This is Paris’s ‘gender-structured’ category.
References to consensual, committed, adult, same-sex sexual behavior are rare and complicated at best. There are some references that could be construed to indicate there were examples of such mutual relationships, but they are contested and not particularly clear (for example, whether Achilles was an adult in reference 4.1 below). I could find no clear references to same-sex adults in consensual long term relationships (for example, Euripides and Agathon are sometimes referenced, and evidence suggested they had a long term relationship, but I struggle with that because it began while Euripedes was an adult and Agathon was a boy). I included the Sappho fragment dealing with lesbianism, but I couldn’t find a lot that clearly indicated adult, long term, consensual, committed lesbian relationships (I need to do more study here). This is Paris’s ‘egalitarian’ category.
Attraction, Orientation, and Morality in the Greco Roman World
Besides the various ways that same-sex activity was structured in the ancient Greco-Roman world, it’s worth looking at how that world viewed sexual attraction. So in addition to my above 4 summary statements about types of same-sex activity, here are four summary statements of how I perceive the source material relating to questions around attraction, orientation, and morality.
5. Sexual attraction in the Greco-Roman world was often based on ideals of beauty regardless of the sex of the object (see 5.1 below). While this might seem like an unusual form of bi-sexuality to us today, in that world it was seen as normal.
6. The Greek/Roman authors who objected to same-sex sexual activity did so on three primary grounds. The first was if it was illegal. Both same-sex and heterosexual sex was illegal in the Roman Empire between non-married free adults. It was legal with slaves or minors of a different social standing. The second criticism of same-sex behavior was criticized rested on excessive/unrestrained desire. In that culture, lack of restraint was deplorable (see 6.1 and 6.2 below). The third reason for criticizing same-sex sexual activity was directed specifically at the passive partner. Being penetrated (vs. being the penetrator) was abhorred because it meant not being dominant but, rather, ‘womanly.’ Dominance, strength, and manliness were highly prized in that culture (see 6.3 and 6.4 below).
7. Jewish authors in the Greco-Roman world universally reviled same-sex sexual activity. This is important because it helps us understand the cultural backgrounds of authors like Paul (see 7.1-7.5 below).
8. In ancient Greece there was a theory as to the origin of sexual attraction, which included same-sex attraction (see 8.1 below). This supports that that there was some understanding in the Greco-Roman world of ‘orientation’ and not just attraction.
The source material is quoted below for you to read and draw your own conclusions. If you want a more extensive, though less curated, list click HERE.
1.1 Plato, Symposium, the speech of Pausanius, (Greek, written in Athens in 380 B.C)
…this is that love which is of youths… Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature [than women]… they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow. And in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them.
1.2 Sibylline Oracles, 3:596-99 (Jewish authorship, 2nd Century BC, written in Greek)
Above all men they are mindful to keep the bed undefiled; they have no unholy intercourse with boys, as do the Phoenicians, Egyptians, the Latins and wide Hellas and many nations besides, the Persians, Galatians and them of all Asia.
1.3 2 Enoch 10:2 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
…those who dishonor God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion.
1.4 Philo, Contemplations, 59-61 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
But the entertainment recorded by Plato is almost entirely connected with love; not that of men madly desirous or fond of women, or of women furiously in love with men, for these desires are accomplished in accordance with a law of nature, but with that love which is felt by men for one another, differing only in respect of age; for if there is anything in the account of that banquet elegantly said in praise of genuine love and heavenly Venus, it is introduced merely for the sake of making a neat speech; for the greater part of the book is occupied by common, vulgar, promiscuous love, which takes away from the soul courage, that which is the most serviceable of all virtues both in war and in peace, and which engenders in it instead the female disease, and renders men men-women, though they ought rather to be carefully trained in all the practices likely to give men valour. And having corrupted the age of boys, and having metamorphosed them and removed them into the classification and character of women, it has injured their lovers also in the most important particulars, their bodies, their souls, and their properties.
2.1 Artimedorus, The Interpretations of Dreams, (Greek, writing from Ephesus in the 2nd century AD)
Having sexual intercourse with one’s servant, whether male or female, is good; for slaves are possessions of the dreamer, so they signify, quite naturally, that the dreamer will derive pleasure from his possessions.
2.2 Strabo, Geography (Greek, writing from Turkey in 20 AD)
The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”
2.3 Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae Book XIII (Greek author writing in the 2nd century AD)
[referencing temple slaves] …those trained fillies, stripped for action and posted in battle-line, stand in scarfs of finest weaving… From them, constantly and securely, you may purchase your pleasure for a little coin.
3.1 Marial, Epigrams 6:67 (Roman poet, first century AD)
Do you ask, Panychus, why your Caelia only consorts with eunuchs? Caelia wants the flowers of marriage – not the fruits.
3.2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 11:48-50 (Roman writing in the 1st century AD)
In humans, [testicles] are weakened/broken both by injury and by the source of nature. And for that reason they acquire the third gender, on the side of hermaphrodites and eunuchs.
3.3 Josephus Jewish Antiquities, 4.8.40 (Roman-Jewish historian writing in the 1st century AD)
Let those who have made themselves eunuchs be held in detestation; and avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men for the increase of their kind: let such be driven away, as if they had killed their children, since they beforehand have lost what should procure them; for evident it is their soul is become effeminate, they have withal transfused that effeminacy to their body also.
4.1 Plato, Symposium (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)
…the true love of Achilles towards his lover Patroclus-his lover and not his love. The notion that Patroclus was the beloved one is a foolish error… for Achilles was surely the fairer of the two, fairer also than all the other heroes; and, as Homer informs us, he was still beardless, and younger far.
4.2 Plato, Symposium (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)
Those who start a love affair with boys of that age are prepared, I think, to be friends, and live together, for life. The others are deceivers, who take advantage of youthful folly, and then quite cheerfully abandon their victims in search of others. There ought really be a law against loving young boys, to stop so much energy being expended on an uncertain end. After all, no-one knows how good or bad, in mind and body, young boys will eventually turn out.
4.3 Sappho, fragment 1 V, (Greek female poet, 6th Century BC)
…You, Blessed One,
With a smile on your unaging face
Asking again what I have suffered
And why I am calling again
And in my wild heart what did I most wish
To happen to me: “Again whom must I persuade
Back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
For if she flees, soon she’ll pursue;
She doesn’t accept gifts, but she’ll give;
If not now loving, soon she’ll love
Even against her will.”
Come to me now again, release me from
This pain, everything my spirit longs
To have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
Be my ally.
5.1 Plutarch, Moralia (Greek, writing from near Athens in the 1st century AD)
The noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail. The lover of human beauty [will] be fairly and equably disposed towards both sexes…
6.1 Plato, Laws (Greek, writing from Athens in the 4th century BC)
The pleasure enjoyed by males with males and females with females seems to be beyond nature, and the boldness of those who first engaged in this practice seems to have arisen out of an inability to control pleasure.
6.2 Musonius Rufus, (Roman, writing near Rome 1st century AD)
Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess. For example, those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves, not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men; sometimes they pursue one love and sometimes another, and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible.
6.3 Plutarch, Moralia (Greek, writing from near Athens in the 1st century AD)
We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depth of vice and allow them not the least degree of confidence or respect or friendship.
6.4 Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, (Roman, writing in Rome in the 1st century BC)
Everything comes down to this: that you rule yourself… [do not] do anything in a base, timid, ignoble, slave-like, or womanish way.
7.1 2 Enoch 34:1–2 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
…sin which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus in the manner of Sodom” and “abominable fornications, that is, friend with friend in the anus, and every other kind of wicked uncleanness which it is disgusting to report”
7.2 Sibylline Oracles, 5:166-68 (Jewish authorship, 2nd Century BC, written in Greek)
Among evil men thou shalt suffer evil, but shall remain desolate for whole ages, loathing the soil of the land: because thou didst seek after enchantments, adultery was in thy midst, with unlawful intercourse with boys, thou woman-hearted city, unrighteous.
7.3 2 Enoch 34:1 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
…have laden the whole earth with untruths, offences, abominable lecheries, namely one with another, and all manner of other unclean wickedness, which are disgusting to relate.
7.4 Pseudo-Phocylides 188-193 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
Do not outrage your wife by shameful ways of intercourse. Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse male with male. And let not women imitate the sexual roles of men. Do not surrender wholly to unbridled sensuality toward your wife.
7.5 Philo, On the Life of Abraham, 135 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire.
8.1 Plato’s Symposium, (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)
For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two, and whose name survives though, the thing itself has vanished. For ‘man-woman’ was then a unity in form no less than name, composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female…
[Zeus said] ‘I propose now to slice every one of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs. If they continue turbulent and do not choose to keep quiet, I will do it again,’ said he; ‘I will slice every person in two, and then they must go their ways on one leg, hopping.’ So saying, he sliced each human being in two, just as they slice sorb-apples to make a dry preserve, or eggs with hairs…
Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half in longing for its fellow would come to it again; and then would they fling their arms about each other and in mutual embraces yearn to be grafted together…
If in their embracements a man should happen on a woman there might be conception and continuation of their kind; and also, if male met with male they might have satiety of their union and a relief, and so might turn their hands to their labors and their interest to ordinary life. Thus anciently is mutual love ingrained in mankind, reassembling our early estate and endeavoring to combine two in one and heal the human sore.
Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the she-minions.
Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature. Some say they are shameless creatures, but falsely: for their behavior is due not to shamelessness but to daring, manliness, and virility, since they are quick to welcome their like. Sure evidence of this is the fact that on reaching maturity these alone prove in a public career to be men. So when they come to man’s estate they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children, but only do these things under stress of custom; they are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days.
A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind. Well, when one of them—whether he be a boy-lover or a lover of any other sort— happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another. No one could imagine this to be the mere amorous connection, or that such alone could be the reason why each rejoices in the other’s company with so eager a zest: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express.
I’m so honored to have a friend of mine at City Church of Long Beach share his story. We thought it would be best for it to be anonymous at this point because of how personal it is and to enable him to continue to process his story individually with people when it’s the right time.
When I was in second grade, I had my first crush. I remember telling myself that being that girl’s boyfriend would make me happy. What shocked me most about this thought was that I was a girl. I asked myself, “why did I want to be the boyfriend in a relationship?” I didn’t have an answer.
Around that time, I started becoming aware of how uncomfortable I was as a girl. I didn’t want to wear dresses and bows. I wanted to wear cargo shorts and shirts with hot wheels on them. Fortunately, my mom let me grow into being a tomboy, and as I got older, while my friends didn’t quite understand why I was becoming so boy-ish, they didn’t try to stop me either. During this same time, I had another group of friends who attended an after-school program with a couple of ladies who read the Bible, so I decided to go. At this age, God was an invisible friend I could talk to when I was bored.
In middle school, my peers began to tease me for being a tomboy. One girl started a rumor that I was secretly a man. I was often questioned by girls when I would try to use the restroom at school, so I stopped using the school restrooms for a while. All the bullying didn’t stop me from growing, of course, and when I came out as a lesbian in high school, nobody was surprised. I had been dressing entirely in men’s clothing at this point. My first girlfriend introduced me to our on-campus Gay-Straight Alliance, and going to meetings regularly armed me with a lot of knowledge. It turned out that there was a name for who I was, and there was an entire community of these people. I learned that a lot of people in this community had been cast out by their families, and some of them were even homeless because their family’s religion had made them intolerant of gay people. Religion had hurt a lot of my new friends.
Proposition 8 came about in California, and it got ugly at my school. People who had never talked about religion before began telling everyone that God hates gay people. I had a friend tell me that I was going to hell because I was a lesbian. That was the first time I realized that my new-found community was hated by another community: Christians. I didn’t have much experience with God, but now suddenly he hated me for being true to myself? That didn’t sound like any God I wanted to be involved with. I hated those religious people right back. When Prop 8 passed, I felt defeated. Why did Christians in my school and outside of school hate us so much? Why were our lives so invaluable to complete strangers? I stopped talking to God out of hurt.
My home life was great, despite the taunting and teasing I was facing in school. My parents and family didn’t care that I liked girls and was dressing like a boy. In fact, my mom was becoming one of my biggest supporters. But there was something that I needed to address in my heart. I was starting to feel uncomfortable in my own skin the more I became physically involved with girls. Being called by name felt strange sometimes. Even being referred to as she or her was starting to bug me. Nobody in my immediate group of lesbian and gay friends was talking about this kind of stuff, so I tried to hide it and pretend I didn’t feel that way.
I graduated high school that year and started classes at the local community college. I began skipping classes early though. There was something going on inside of me that I couldn’t deny anymore. I had never really been comfortable with the name I was given at birth, and I was often called by a nickname so I didn’t have to hear it in its entirety. But in college, it was getting painful hearing even the nickname. Something was stirring inside of my heart, and my community couldn’t help me hide from it anymore. My girlfriend at the time urged me to do some research about how I was feeling. I found an online community of people who were calling themselves transgender. I found out that these people had been born a girl or a boy, but felt most comfortable presenting as the opposite sex. I thought about all my years dressing up like a boy, and how much better I felt in those clothes. I thought about how uncomfortable I was in my body, and how sometimes I had longed to have a flat chest.
I told my girlfriend about my new findings, and we decided to see how being called he and him felt to me. We tried out some boy names, and she even introduced me as male to classmates she had. I did some counseling online, and in a period of six months, I realized I was transgender. I had done hours of research by the time I went to my doctors and asked about hormone replacement therapy. They had never worked with a transgender person before, so the process was very slow. During this time, I became severely depressed. I couldn’t live in my own skin anymore, and I nearly ended my life. Fortunately, I found out that I could get a referral to an endocrinologist in Los Angeles who had experience working with transgender people. The first day I met with this doctor, she started me on injectable testosterone.
My parents were initially upset and confused by my coming out as transgender, but about a year and a half after starting hormone replacement therapy, my parents started calling me the name I had chosen for myself, and it felt good. In another six months, I picked up a study bible and decided I was going to read it¾as an atheist. Meanwhile, using my driver’s license became tough because it said I was female, yet I was presenting male. After struggling for months with this issue, my mom decided she was going to help me pay for a legal name change and a gender marker change on my license. This was a big deal, and it changed my relationship with my mom.
Unfortunately, just weeks after sending all the necessary paperwork, my mom got very sick. We didn’t understand how severe it was until she passed away just weeks after that. The moment leading up to her death was chaotic and tragic, but in the middle of that I prayed to God. I didn’t know how to ask for his help, but I told him I needed him with me. And somehow, I made it through the chaos. When the dust settled and I was alone, it was way too quiet. I had promised God that I would figure out my spirituality if he protected my mom from a traumatic death. And given the circumstances, her death wasn’t horrible. It came under heavy sedation. She didn’t feel a thing. God had delivered on his part, and now the ball was in my court.
Through calling my mother’s friends and family, I found someone who went to City Church of Long Beach. They knew that I was transgender through my mother, and didn’t care in the slightest. They invited me in after hearing the crazy tale of my dance with God. I had never gone to church before¾was I welcome here? I was terrified. But I accepted and went with every guard up I could manage. And something weird happened¾these people saw me. They looked me in the eye and thanked me for being there. They asked me what I thought, and told me to be honest. The pastors gave me their private cell phone numbers. They wanted to have coffee with me. Where did these people come from? They wanted to invest in me, and they didn’t want to push me into a relationship with God. I was encouraged to take everything at my own pace. I started to believe that God actually wanted me to follow him. I began believing that Jesus died for me too.
I got to bring my grief and brokenness to the table, and nobody told me to put it away and hide it. Bill and Jason often reminded the congregation that Jesus invited whomever he wanted to his table, and they didn’t get to say who came or not. And shortly after joining City Church, I was baptized. I had decided to give my life to Christ. Just eight months prior to all of this, I had called myself an atheist. I still cannot wrap my head around how quickly my life changed.
There was one thing still looming over my head, and it was my transgender identity. Surely these people didn’t want to love THAT part of me. I was involved in a discipleship group that was constantly pushing us to be genuine and true, yet I still had a very big secret. Could I be loved by Christians? The LGBT community didn’t believe it to be true, and neither did I. But, I decided to find out: I told Bill. He didn’t freak out; he didn’t walk away or condemn me to hell. He blinked, and then he saw me for the first time. I’ll never forget this moment; I hold it very close to my heart because I never saw it coming. He had a lot of questions, and I did not mind answering them. He asked if he could share my story with Jason and his own family, and I agreed. I had several coffee dates with Bill and Jason, and they loved me well through coming out to them. I told my discipleship group, and they pledged their support to me, too. There are now a small number of people who know my truth, and not one of them has condemned me. They have all been so welcoming and loving. I am so lucky to call City Church my church.
I never believed that I could be loved by people who follow Jesus. It’s so strange that I have wound up here, in the middle of church, telling my story to strangers. I still struggle with believing I’m worthy of being loved by my church and God. But no matter how angry I get with God for taking my mom from me, or for how heavy it is to be transgender in this world, I always come back to him because I need him. I feel a pull in my heart towards his love, and I want to be an honorable man of God. I can now finally say that I am a proud, transgender Christian.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the purpose of this blog isn’t to convince you of a particular position. It’s to share the journey of our Study Team and to encourage conversation. The 5 authors in this book are so bright, have such good arguments, and are so gracious to each other. Buy it. Read it.
I wish there were more conversations like this in the theological world. Strong disagreements so graciously handled. Nicholas Wolterstorff, revered professor at Calvin College, came out in support of gay marriage. His former student, Matthew Tuininga, who is now a professor at Calvin College himself, wrote a thoughtful response from the traditional perspective. They clearly respect and love each other, and they pull no punches.
Howard Heie, Christian university educator and senior fellow at The Colossians Forum, writes that “You cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” He’s done a remarkable job creating space for sincere disagreement and helpful conversation about LGBTQ issues in the church.
I found this to be a profound little piece on unity in the church, reliance on the Holy Spirit, and what real conversation looks like for believers.
6. Email from a friend
Christian leaders from differing theological positions have written emails like this one. I suspect one reason is that it’s not safe for them in their contexts to have these conversations – at least not openly. This one’s from a pastor with whom I’ve never had these conversations:
I’m reading your blog.
I’m reading your blog on “when my son came out (part 1+2)” and weeping.
Weeping for lots of reasons.
But, I just want you to know how thankful I am for the insight, the wisdom, the honest reflection, the vulnerability and life you are living.
I’m with you in this. I’m with you in this journey and for every part of it.
7. Email from an “Enemy”
This is actually from a friend, but when people push back on me it can feel like they are an enemy (not sure if that happens to you, but I would guess it might). As I reread it, I realized how much truth there is in it because my ministry has indeed shifted to care more about LGBTQ people and issues. This friend gave me the gifts of his honesty and his insights, and I’m grateful.
Bill, I wanted to email you and let you know that I would like to unsubscribe. It isn’t that I don’t care, or don’t want to pray for you, it is just that the updates and blogs have become very myopic around only one thing. Honestly, it just isn’t the updates and stories you used to tell. It is very focused on the LGBT stuff you are doing. I appreciate that, and know that is where your heart is now, but it just isn’t for me.
Hope that makes sense. You are a friend and I value that. I didn’t want to be offensive, but just honest that I probably don’t fit the updates and prayer list anymore.
8. Courageous Person
A friend whom might be called ‘asexual’ took some time out of their work day in January to talk with me about their life (they prefer gender neutral pronouns, since they don’t identify with their birth sex). They allowed me to fumble through my questions – many of them very awkward; they shared honestly about their sexual development as a teenager and their experience coming out to their mother; they freely exposed all their questions about sexuality and gender and God. This friend is not a Christian but has served City Church on any number of occasions, helping out where needed. They’ve demonstrated true curiosity, gracious engagement, and real courage.
Our LGBTQ Study Team has been one of the most remarkable groups I’ve ever been a part of. They cover the map in terms of their perspectives on the questions at hand, and yet have been gracious, passionate, truthful and united in following Jesus in mission. It gives me hope that Christians could be united
Timothy has been so kind to me to let me go on this journey, which included exposing his life story to the world. As he commented recently on a Facebook post of mine,
While it never stops being weird to have your father, church community, and general populace read and discuss your personal sexual life, I am eternally grateful to Bill White(and other family & community) for all the love and support. As for this blog, I could not be more excited to see the ways in which my/your/our/God’s small story can spark conversation about what it means to live & love well in a world of uncertainty.
Since we’d done a bunch of prep beforehand, we jumped into the conversation – and EVERYONE (the Study Team is made up of traditionalists and progressives and a spectrum of those in between) had to participate in each exercise. We started with summarizing the best arguments from the traditional position on LGBTQ issues based on Genesis 1-2 (these will be brief summaries – you can look at the Syllabus to read the material for yourself).
The 5 Best Traditionalist Arguments
These five arguments from Genesis 1-2 are used as support for the overall traditionalist approachthat God’s design in creation is for male-female marriage and that sexual behavior outside of male-female marriage is therefore not God’s design.
1. Male and female are complementary, and complementarity is required for marriage. Traditionalists point out markers in the text that show how men and women were intentionally designed by God to be complementary. As one scholar put it, “the sexes are complementary: the true partnership is expounded by the terms that are used [a helper fit for him, 2:18, 20; literally ‘a help as opposite him’]” (Derek Kidner, Genesis).
2. Procreation is essential in marriage, so same-sex couples cannot be married. Since the second century AD, traditionalists have argued for procreation as the chief goal of marriage, which then rules out couples where that is not an option. While not as popular of an argument today, many traditionalists still rely heavily on it. For example, “In Christian belief and practice, procreation is the proper end of marriage. A relationship that is not ordered towards procreation may be good and right and holy, but it is not a marriage” (Stephen Holmes, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church).
3. God designed the bond between male and female to be a sexual bond, suggesting that sex should only be in a male-female marriage. Traditionalists argue because being ‘one flesh’ is inherently a sexual bond and a male-female bond, then God designed marriage only for male and female together. One author writes, “The nature of the one-flesh union presupposes two persons of the opposite sex. The phrase “one flesh” points to sexual intimacy, as suggested by the reference to nakedness in verse 25” (Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?).
4. The biological fit of sex organs emphasizes that marriage is only between male and female. Basically, the argument here is that the penis fits in the vagina, which is an observable fact of God’s intended design for intercourse. “The act of sexual intercourse brings a man and a woman together as one relationally and organically. The sameness of the parts in same-sex activity does not allow for the two to become one in the same way.” (Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?).
5. Male and female together reflect the Trinity in ways that same-sex couples cannot. Traditionalists argue that the unity of the man and the woman in marriage demonstrates a unity in difference that is reflective of the Trinity, where there is a unity of different persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). As one book puts it, “In an amazing, creaturely way, the husband-wife one-flesh union reflects the light of God’s eternal community, the Trinity” (Adam T. Barr and Ron Citlau, Compassion without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends Without Losing the Truth).
The 5 Best Progressive Arguments
After we summarized the best traditional arguments, we worked together on the best progressive arguments from Genesis 1-2. Interestingly, we found that these five were mirrors of the preceding five arguments – the progressives saw the scriptures differently or highlighted different pieces of the text, but the areas of argument were the same. Those progressive arguments are as follows.
1.The creation story primarily emphasizes that the man and the woman were similar, so complementary sexes are not required for marriage. Instead of the complementarity view above, progressives point out that the text mostly highlights the sameness of the man and the woman. For example, “God made the man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah). Then later it uses a word which means man, a male human being: ish and a word which means woman, a female human being: ishshah. The similarity underlines the connection between the two.” (William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature). Since the sameness of Adam and Eve as human is what matters, the difference of male and female becomes less important.
2. Companionship, not procreation, is the core thrust of Genesis 2. Progressives argue that the modern church has largely adopted a view of marriage that should allow room for same-sex couples because procreation has been de-emphasized and companionship has risen as the main image of Genesis 2. One scholar put it like this, “Beyond the good of procreation, marriage makes the conditions for companionship and friendship that God intends both for mutual joy and for the sanctification and maturation of the individuals within it” (Eugene Rogers, A Theology of Marriage including Same-Sex Couples).
3. “They shall become one flesh” is primarily an expression of a kinship bond, not a sexual bond. Progressives highlight other parallel passages that reflect a family bond in marriage, which they see as being open to those of the same sex. As one scholar points out, when Adam says “ ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,’ on the surface of it, this appears to be a discovery of sameness, not difference. Furthermore, if one looks elsewhere in Scripture for similar language, one discovers that this language is always used to express kinship [Gen. 29:14; Judg. 9:2; 2 Sam. 5:1; 19:12-13; 1 Chron. 11:1]” (James Brownson, The Bible, Gender and Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships).
4. The exceptions to strictly male/female biology suggest that God’s creational diversity should be celebrated. The 32 types of intersex conditions suggest that not all sexual relationships are designed to be only male-female. The question is, “If we argue that sex difference – male and female – is necessary for marriage and sexual relations, then what about intersex persons who aren’t clearly male or female?” (Megan DeFranza, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church).
5. Individually male and female each reflect God, so complementarity in marriage is not required for humans to be the imago dei. As one author put it, “In each human, regardless of the direction of their sexual attractions, there is the vibrant and beautiful potential that comes from being created in the image of God” (Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church).
Below are two excerpts from the reading we did – roughly the same length, covering essentially the same material, both looking at the bible, and very different in their conclusions. We’re working on sorting out these differences – and it’s not easy.
We concluded our conversation with a greater appreciation of each side’s arguments and with a sense of anticipation – and perhaps pressure – knowing that we would be looking at Romans 1 next.
The other day we had friends over for lunch after church. These are good folks coming from a strong background in a Chinese American church.
Since they are new around City Church of Long Beach and have a lot of Christian experience, it struck me as the respectful thing to do to fill them in our our LGBTQ Study Team process. Typically, that’s not the sort of thing that evangelical Christians want to be surprised by after six months of connecting, serving and tithing – so I figured I would let them know up front. Thus, the lunch.
As their adorable boys were running around the sofa I said, “As I mentioned last week, I wanted to make sure you knew about our LGBTQ Study Team process. You guys are well grounded in the bible and theology and it seems wise to give you space to assess who we are as a church early on. I want to give you permission to ask whatever you want.”
Jeff jumped in first. “What’s your church governance structure?” Good question, but I’ll be honest, that’s not where I thought we’d start (or end, for that matter). Though not a sexy question, it made sense as that one unfolded into so many more – are there checks and balances for the pastor, is there shared leadership, what’s the vision of the church, etc. They wanted to know who we are as a church; governance, leadership and vision matter.
Then it was on to theology. “You guys don’t use the word ‘sin’ a lot when you preach,” Jon pointed out. “Why is that?” We unpacked what sin is and how to convey it to our unchurched context. Madeline breathed a sigh of relief when I mentioned I believe in total depravity, and there was really good conversation around total depravity not meaning that everyone is secretly an axe murder but that all of our actions and motives are tainted by selfishness.
From there it was questions about the Bible – is it trustworthy, inerrant, or what? And what is God truly like and how do we know God best? What’s the relationship between gospel and law, truth and grace, Jesus and God? And on and on and on. A great conversation. There was only one question that they didn’t ask.
They never asked about LGBTQ issues.
And it’s not because they were avoiding it. I just don’t think they needed to.
I could be wrong, but judging by the fact that they still worship with us, I think that they got enough of the answers they needed and are willing to go on the journey with us as we sort out the rest. A definitive stance on LGBTQ issues was not one of the answers required to determine if we are a faithful church who loves Jesus and lives on mission.