Arguments for Gay Rights (from Scripture!)

It’s 3:30am, and my mind has been writing this post all night; I won’t be able to sleep again until I get it out, so here goes.

I watched Milk last night, a fantastic true story about a man named Harvey Milk who became the first openly gay elected official in American history. This didn’t happen until the late 1970’s, and shortly after achieving his political post and making great headway in protecting the civil rights of homosexuals, he was murdered by a fellow San Francisco City Supervisor, along with their mayor. Their murderer was a political opponent of Milk’s, as they voted against each other’s bills, but that doesn’t appear to be the reason he killed them. The official defence (called “the twinkie defence”) was that the man had been eating a lot of junk food, and that this altered his mental state; clearly this is bogus (my wife pointed out that if this was an accepted defence, why didn’t we crack down on junk food?), but he was convicted only of manslaughter and given the lightest possible sentence. The film suggests that the murderer was himself a closeted and repressed homosexual, implying that his repression caused him to do it; he killed himself two years after getting out of prison. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Harvey Milk’s murder was that it didn’t come as a result of his many death threats, but from a coworker who snapped: Milk had expected assassination because of his human rights activism (how very Jesusy of him), but not like this.

Milk’s real political opponents were not just City Supervisors who voted against him in council; there was at that time a movement toward civil rights for homosexuals that was met by a counter-movement of Christian activists who, citing the Bible and God (usually rather vaguely), appealed and overturned many legal protections for homosexuals. A central plot point of the film was Proposition 6, which would have systematically fired any openly gay teachers in the California school system, as well as anyone who supported them. The supposed reason for this was that gay school teachers were “recruiting” children, and teaching them to be gay. I sincerely hope that the arguments were more nuanced than the film portrays them to be, because looking back 35 years later, they’re insultingly illogical and far-fetched.

The biblical arguments portrayed in the film are also fairly shallow, usually limited to “it may not be illegal, but it’s against the law of God” or some variation on a blanket appeal to God or the Bible. The film obviously doesn’t focus on biblical exegesis, but even back then the arguments were more nuanced and thorough than that. Sadly, probably not by much: even today there are some that insist on a certain style of interpretation of scripture that allows them to point to a verse – way out of context – as incontrovertible proof that God hates someone. I’m thinking, of course, of the Westboro Baptist Church, known internationally for their bigotry and terrible reversal of the spirit of scripture.

Now, there are certainly some verses that seem to be a quite straightforward condemnation of homosexual sexuality, particularly in the Old Testament but even a few in the New Testament, but these texts are not the open-and-shut case that they are often claimed to be, and thoughtful and respectful Christians ought to at least hear out the interpreters who argue that they do not apply to homosexuality as we know it today (I find this book to be a good conversation starter in this regard). We also owe it to ourselves, as well as to homosexuals, to think through the matter thoroughly even if in the end we come to quite conservative conclusions (I find this book to be a good example of a thorough approach with a conservative conclusion).

But regardless of where we stand on the issue of whether or not homosexuality itself, or even gay sex, is sinful, we still cannot use that as a reason to deny homosexuals any sort of rights. In fact, I will argue that we cannot in good conscience treat homosexuals any differently than anyone else, even within the Church, and that to do so would be profoundly un-Christian of us. Here are my reasons:

We can’t take the grace of God seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). Christians live in a tension: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us; we are now saints; we still sin; we’re still saved. There is an expectation that we will no longer sin, but there is also an acknowledgement that we still do. Arguments against including homosexuals in the Church a) tend to assume that simply being gay is a sin (and is a lifestyle choice rather than something that cannot be chosen or changed), and then b) single it out as a sin that is somehow outside of God’s grace.

The argument for this is usually based on the notion of “cheap grace”: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit,who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming ageand who have fallenaway, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Heb 6:4-6). The idea here is that if Christians continue to sin, they’ve abused God’s grace and will therefore lose it. This might have some traction if homosexuality were strictly a choice, but even if it were only a temptation that some people have (rather than a set sexuality, as most homosexuals today understand it to be), I don’t think this verse would apply (as by that standard, we’d all fall into this camp). Generally, arguments against cheap grace tend to be arguments for no grace – and given the fact that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us, I find that hard to swallow.

There are plenty of other verses to support the notion of God’s grace being unconditional, but since it’s a fairly central point of the Christian faith, I’ll leave it here for now.

We can’t take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously and still discriminate against homosexuals.

1. Treating homosexuals differently as a group goes against the unifying nature of the Church. “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse points to the three major dividing and classifying factors of first-century life, the three things that made it possible to have an “us vs. them” mentality. There was, of course, still the dichotomy of “saints vs. sinners,” but saints are saints by grace through faith, and if we’re going to kick sinners out of the church then there wouldn’t be anyone left in it. There’s also the dichotomy of “Christians vs. the World,” which is how we tend to treat homosexuals based simply on the fact that we don’t welcome them to church. This is something that we cannot do if we take the inclusiveness of the Church seriously.

2. There is plenty of biblical precedent for including outsiders and sinners in the Church. The most obvious example is the inclusion of Gentiles into the Church, which wasn’t unprecedented (Israel had long included foreigners) but was nevertheless completely revolutionary in its time. What’s amazing is how easily it happened: Gentiles began worshipping God, and God accepted them, as evidenced through his giving them the Holy Spirit (Acts 10-11). The issue was eventually brought up at a council because it was so controversial, but given that God had quite apparently accepted them, the council agreed to as well (Acts 15). The implications of this went well beyond racial barriers, however, because Jews were set apart by their practices as much as their bloodlines; accepting Gentiles into the Church meant effectively throwing out current and traditional notions of religious ethics! They left Gentile Christians with much simpler rules: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Note that even these commandments are moderated by the following phrase; because God accepted them before even these requirements were set, the council didn’t have much in the way of theological backing for these ethical commandments, and as such they have the moral force of guidelines for good living. Now, even if we were to take these commandments as being God-given, and include homosexuality under “sexual immorality,” all it would take is for one openly gay Christian to exhibit evidence of the Holy Spirit, and thus acceptance by God, to set a similar precedent for the inclusion of homosexuals within the Church on the same basis as the acceptance of Gentiles. Examples are not all that difficult to find. It’s difficult to take God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church seriously if we systematically exclude any other people group.

3. Even those passages in Paul that treat sexual sin very seriously (assuming again that homosexuality is sexual immorality) assume that people who practice sexual sin are within the Church: Paul wasn’t writing to churches to condemn those outside the Church, but to encourage and correct those within it. At the very least, this means that homosexuality (even if it is a sin) should be treated just like any other sin, not singled out.

We can’t take the ethical demands of the Gospel seriously and still discriminate against…anyone.

I don’t want to say that any point of theology isn’t important, but unless you are gay the status of homosexuality as sin is of no practical importance to you. According to Jesus, we’re supposed to treat everyone as if they were Jesus himself: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). Or as it was paraphrased in The Message: “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Jesus showed the radical nature of this not only in his parable of the sheep and the goats at the end of the age (e.g., Matthew 25, which implies quite frankly that salvation is based entirely on how we treat other people rather than on sinlessness or having correct beliefs), but also in the parable of the Good Samaritan:

Luke 10:25-37

New International Version (NIV)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (from Bible Gateway)

We’ve all heard this passage a thousand times, so I’ll try to be brief. The actions of the Samaritan were radical because:

1. The Jew that had been waylaid was technically an enemy of the Samaritan. These are two people groups with a long history of bad blood and battles, not to mention fundamental religious differences. For a Jew to eat a meal with a Samaritan would have probably been enough to make him “unclean,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if that feeling was mutual. This is (sadly) somewhat analogous to the relationship between the gay rights movement and some branches of conservative Christianity in the US. The Gospel demands that we go out of our way and spend our money to help those we hate the most.

2. I already mentioned that sharing a meal with a Samaritan would have probably made a Jew “unclean,” and that I wouldn’t be surprised if this notion was reciprocated (I’m no expert on Samaritan religious practices, but I believe it was quite similar to Judaism on many fronts). But more than that, for the Priest and the Levite in the story it would have made them “unclean” to touch a dead body, or probably even to get the poor guy’s blood on them. Being “clean” was a symbol of being guiltless, and so to deliberately do something that would make them unclean was the same thing as taking guilt on themselves – becoming guilty for the sake of someone else. The Gospel demands that we not only spend our time and money on others, but that we even be willing to take on guilt for their sake. This is the type of thinking that got Dietrich Bonhoeffer killed, but he did it because following Jesus Christ demands it.

But how does this relate to the inclusion and rights of homosexuals in the Church today?

I believe that a large reason that many churches today do not accept homosexuals as Christians is because we are afraid of condoning sin. Most of us know a few homosexuals, and have no problem with them as people (this was one of Harvey Milk’s strategies: get as many gay people to come out of the closet as possible so that the average person would realize that they already know some gay people, and that they’re nothing to be afraid of). Most of us have no problem with other people’s sins, so long as they don’t affect us (one argument presented in the film is still common today: “What other people do in their bedrooms is none of my business, as long as I don’t have to do it in mine”), and we tend to recognize that we need to be in a relationship of accountability with someone before pointing out their sin to them can be effective (contra the strategy of the Westboro Baptist Church, who say that they love “fags” more than anyone else because they’re willing to tell them the truth about their behaviour and eternal destination). Most moderate Christians also recognize that allowing for some kind of gay marriage or partnership would be the compassionate thing to do – because enforced celibacy doesn’t tend to lead to healthy people, gay or straight (see: Catholic Priest sex scandals).

But most moderate churches still haven’t done anything about this issue. I’ve been sitting on the fence for a long time, because I haven’t been able to square the texts against homosexuality (I tend to think that the more conservative exegesis fits the texts better) with the compassion and ethic of Christ: law and grace have been at war in me regarding this issue (I don’t mean to imply a dichotomy between the two, but on this issue it has seemed that way to me). Now I realize that I need to be willing to be guilty before God for the sake of others, so that even if homosexuality is inherently sinful, and if this sin is somehow outside of God’s grace, and if as a Christian leader it is my duty to denounce this sin and eject homosexuals from my congregation, the Gospel demands that I be willing to go against all of that for the sake of loving my neighbour. (If you follow the Westboro or Mark Driscoll track and say that it’s more loving to show “tough love,” I respect your position, but do not find it helpful).

So there it is. I don’t want to pretend that I’ve figured out the texts, because I haven’t. In regard to what I have to do as a follower of Jesus Christ, they’re not super important. Even if it were explicitly sinful to allow openly gay people into the Church, to exclude them would (in my mind) go against the teachings and spirit of Jesus Christ, dishonour the grace of God, twist the inclusive nature of the Church, and altogether fail to live up to the demands of the Gospel.

I welcome your thoughts on this!


10 thoughts on “Arguments for Gay Rights (from Scripture!)

  1. I’m aware that I used the word “we” to refer to heterosexual Christians. For that, I apologize; to some extent the terms on this issue have been set by those who are exclusivist, and to some extent I just dropped the ball. I cannot personally justify referring to you as a “them”, whoever you are and whatever your orientation.

    And I sincerely hope that this didn’t come across as condescending or patronizing to any homosexual readers – that’s the farthest from my intentions! Just as a healthy dose of feminism has forced me to re-evaluate the way I speak and write, so too in this case: I’m still learning to be inclusive and respectful of other perspectives in the way I communicate.

    If anyone has any beefs with this post, please comment! Above all, more (respectful) dialogue is helpful.

  2. Jeff, so great to read your thoughts on this issue. I believe more Christians need to actively consider this issue not just in terms of how they behave towards homosexuals in their day to day interactions, but how the Church responds to them as well.

    I was hoping you could clarify something. How would you, according to Scripture, define inclusion of homosexuals in the church? The New Testament provides some pretty stringent outlines for church leaders that don’t necessarily apply to those in attendance, so I’m curious as to where you believe the line should be drawn.

    Also, I had a question regarding this quote from your second to last paragraph, “if as a Christian leader it is my duty to denounce this sin and eject homosexuals from my congregation, the Gospel demands that I be willing to go against all of that for the sake of loving my neighbour”. Must denouncing sin and ejecting homosexuals from a congregation go hand in hand? Would it not be more loving, and more Christ-like, to denounce the sin AND embrace the homosexual into the congregation? If one views homosexuality as a sin, then wouldn’t Christ’s example of how He dealt with the adulterous woman be a strong indicator as to how we should treat those engaged in sin? Refrain from condemnation, but exhort them to live a life without sin? Isn’t that how the church should respond to ALL sin?

    One final thought. Whether one is born a homosexual, born with homosexual tendencies, or chooses homosexuality is entirely up for debate is not clear to me, but since the Bible teaches that we are all BORN with a sinful nature, and if Scripture acknowledges homosexuality as a sin, (which I believe it does) then how do heterosexual Christians believe they have the right to condemn other sinners, when we have ALL fallen short of the Kingdom? Jesus Christ as man, perfectly exemplified how to avoid doing this. We are to leave judgement to the Father, salvation to Christ, and conviction to the Holy Spirit. It’s not up to us to fill any of those roles, but to walk in Christ’s footsteps as a man and strike a balance between not condoning sin and not condemning sinners. This, I believe, is what it means to live out a life of Truth AND Grace.

    Thank you again for addressing such a controversial topic in a way that points to both the Love of Christ and the Word of God. Too often only one or the other are used only to underscore a personal agenda. Thank you for your transparency and desire to see God honoured and ALL His people loved.

    And PS, please say Hello to that lovely wife of yours!

    • Hey Jaimes, good to hear from you! And thanks for your excellent comment!

      There are a few different levels of inclusion in the church that come up in debate. Some would hold that an openly gay person is an unrepentant sinner, and thus that they should be “treated as an unbeliever” according to Jesus’ model of settling disputes, or “turned over to Satan” according to Paul’s model of church discipline. People often take either to be referring to no longer including the person in the church at all, but I’m not convinced of either. According to Jesus’ model, we should treat unbelievers as if they were Jesus, and we should treat believers as brothers and sisters in Christ – not much difference there! And handing someone over to Satan is another way of saying that you’ll let their sin run its course, or let them feel the sting of their sin – basically, stop protecting them from the consequences of their actions. Both can certainly be done within Christian community, without turning someone out, and I fully agree with you that this is preferable!

      Beyond merely being in a congregation is membership, and each church has its own standards in regard to membership. Some churches require very little for membership, and it is not very different from simply being a regular attender. Other churches require certain moral standards of their members, as representatives of the church in society. Depending on the church, they may not consider a “gay Christian” something that’s even genuinely possible, much less a positive reflection on their church.

      Another level of inclusion is church leadership, which is a more advanced version of the same arguments regarding membership. There are some who do see homosexuality as an ordinary sin and do not highlight it, but at the same time would still see an openly gay person as “struggling with sin.” Because such a struggle would be pretty fundamental and constant, it is suggested that they would not be fit for ministry in the same way that we probably wouldn’t endorse a porn addict for a pastoral position, or a kleptomaniac for church treasurer. I use these two examples because in the first it is recognized that a person has a difficult personal struggle that will affect their direct relationships, while in the second their personal struggle will have a major impact on the church they serve. Thankfully, most people no longer see homosexuals as threats to their children, but some do, and wouldn’t employ them on that basis. Either way, homosexuals are usually prevented from serving in ministry or leadership because they are either unrepentant, or struggling with sin in such a way as to prevent them from being in healthy ministry. Both of these are modified versions of the same persecution homosexuals have received from society in the past: that they are either criminals, or mentally ill! Thankfully, neither is now considered the case in the laws and DSMs of North America. As far as I know, the Anglican/Episcopal and the United Church are the only major denominations that allow for openly gay leadership.

      I like the spirit of your approach regarding treating homosexuals well within the congregation while still denouncing sin and thus attempting to balance law and grace, but it’s certainly not without problems. As I mentioned above, many people would choose to eject a person based on the arguments mentioned there. For those who would preach against homosexuality while still allowing homosexuals to attend or even be members, a few issues come up: what kind of ethical standard should one encourage a homosexual congregant to follow? Does it involve repression of their sexuality (e.g., required celibacy), or attempts to change that sexuality? (both are very problematic). It would be difficult to preach against something that someone believes to be a positive part of their identity in a way that doesn’t come off as condescending, patronizing, or just plain hostile. I’m concerned that such a church would alienate those homosexuals who have a stronger sense of self, and damaging those that stay. It may just be a compromise that ultimately ends up failing to honour either end.

      You’re bang on in your final thoughts: we have no right to condemn anyone on any grounds!

      Thanks for your thoughts on this Jaime – let’s keep the conversation going!

  3. Thanks, Jeff, for the thoughtful post. I appreciate your desire to be Christ-like to all persons. I also appreciate the concerns raised by Jaime Fenwick as well as your response. (I think that you and Jaime might enjoy Mark A. Yarhouse’s book Homosexuality and the Christian: A Guide for Parents, Pastors, and Friends.)

    Clearly, the challenge is to love all people while letting truth inform our love. Humility and repentance–and fear and trembling–are required in this, to be sure.

    Speaking of truth, I would urge some caution concerning your description of the film Milk as “a fantastic true story.” According to a review by neo-conservative journalist John Podhoretz (and even in spite of Podhoretz’s incendiary remark about AIDS being a “natural refutation of [Harvey Milk’s polyamorous] doctrine”), it looks like the film may, in some significant ways, not be an accurate portrayal of the real Harvey Milk, or at least not the Harvey Milk described by Milk’s biographer Randy Shilts (a gay journalist):

    Best regards — and best wishes for the upcoming New Year!

    • Thanks for your comment Dr. V, and especially the heads-up! No history is without its own angle, and it’s good to be reminded of that.

      See you next year! 😉

      • Yes, the writing or portrayal of history always reflects an angle or perspective. I would add that this needn’t be a problem in itself, but becomes a problem when the perspective eclipses or significantly distorts the actual goings-on in history. (Sorry, I don’t intend to come across as nit-picky here. I simply have a strong interest in philosophy of knowledge as it pertains to history.)

        Yes, see you next year!

  4. Hi Jeff, interesting thoughts. Just a question—would you please clarify this: “The Gospel demands that we not only spend our time and money on others, but that we even be willing to take on guilt for their sake.” I can’t remember an example or verse offhand. Thanks.

    • Thanks for reading Harley!

      This was my conclusion from my interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which judged the Priest and Levite as being un-neighbourly because they were not willing to become ritually unclean for the sake of the dying man; Jesus basically said that they should have been willing to take on uncleanness.

      Bonhoeffer held that this is one of the primary tasks of the Church: to take on the guilt of the world, confessing it on their behalf before God. He even argued that we should be willing to actively take on guilt for the sake of others, and did so himself when he tried to assassinate Hitler.

  5. Jeff, first I want to say, “Amen!” I definitely sense there is a shift in the church’s attitude towards the LGBT community towards the kind of inclusion you pick up on. I wrote my hermeneutics paper on my denominations stance towards homosexuality asking how the discussion could be furthered and I found they still were a little more rigid on the subject. However, it seems more people in our church are speaking out on the issue to be re-addressed (see I found the major issues are hermeneutical ones. For example, my denomination claims the biblical has a clear sexual ethic throughout that is rooted in the order of creation and the covenant between God and the church. The questions of importance are the instances in scripture when concessions are made to polygamy and divorce, while prostitution rejected. While these concessions highlight the ideal of marriage, it becomes trickier to pick up why in some circumstances certain forms of sexual behavior were allowed while others were rejected, and where does homosexuality fit into this, especially in light of the body of the church.

    I also think hermeneutical questions arise if one is committed to the notion that the bible does not condone homosexual practice, especially when you get to Paul who seems to connect sexual immorality to idolatry, yet as you note by pointing to the nature of the gospel, the church, and its ethics, these texts seem to circumvent other texts about the ethical status of homosexuality, opting instead for the inclusion of those living in sexual sin in the body, and as you and an above commenter showed, things get tricky when we try to sort that issue out. Naming the sin also seems to be the tricky part, especially when homosexuality is now an issue of social justice rather than an issue of holiness, which is the language of the text. We always risk being received as sounding politically incorrect when we speak in the bible’s language of holiness rather than rights. I wonder if a discussion of law and gospel is necessary in order to further this discussion.

    All in all, I think reflecting on this issue is not simply a question of what the bible says but what is the proper way to read the bible and how to weigh the different texts against each other. Hermeneutics and theology seem to be inseparable. I find classic alternatives of fundamentalism, which holds all texts as equally valid, and those on the opposite who tend to say culture or history is in the right to be very unsatisfying and scripture is disposed of when it doesn’t align with our current knowledge. Sadly, I feel like too many subscribe to these positions before the debate has even started.

    Once again, thanks for this post, Jeff! Great stuff!

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