June 2, 2019

Homosexuality and the Bible

Passage: Acts 2: 1-4; Romans 8: 14-17

Synopsis: On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the extraordinary coming of the Spirit in the birth of the church. It’s appropriate to continue my sermon series on human sexuality and consider what the Bible says about homosexuality on this Sunday because we recognize the church as a Spirit led, discerning community of faith. There’s no clear, uncontested teaching on homosexuality in the Bible and equally sincere and discerning Christians can have different understandings on matters such as same-sex marriage. We will, therefore, want to commit ourselves to respectfully listen to each other and to agree and disagree in love. What we should be able to agree on is that our sexual mores embrace Jesus’ love ethic in which all human relationships are mutual, responsible, caring, and loving. And we can have confidence that God’s Spirit will guide us to greater clarity as we discern together using the Bible, reason, tradition, and experience as our sources of authority.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate the extraordinary coming of the Spirit in the birth of the church, creating a new kind of faith community in our world. In many ways this community is continuous with the people of Israel and yet different. The main difference is that the church embodies Christ’s presence in the world. The other difference is that the church is more diverse, including all peoples throughout the earth.


This will be a different Pentecost sermon than any I’ve preached before. I’ll continue my series on human sexuality and focus on homosexuality and the Bible. This is quite fitting because one of the central characteristics of the church is that we’re a discerning fellowship. Christian morality is not an iron clad set of rules but rather a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God.  We’re a Spirit led fellowship that’s able to discern for ourselves with the Bible, reason, tradition, and experience as our sources of authority.


As Paul told the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life” (1 Cor. 6:3).  Our discernment is rooted in Jesus’ love ethic and focuses on the good, the true, and the beautiful—that which brings life and joy, and respects the dignity and worth of each person.


As I said in my last sermon, marriage and family is at the heart of God’s creation. The pattern for love, marriage, and procreation in the Bible and in creation is a lifelong, monogamous union between a man and a woman. This is the bedrock of flourishing life in our families and communities. It’s what we commit ourselves to in our wedding vows when we promise to have and to hold our spouse from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part. Such marriage is so good and will continue as long as life exists.


Even so, I don’t want to paint a Pollyanna picture of married life where all is sweetness and bliss. The very things that made us fall in love with each other can later create lots of tension and strife. Marriage can be a place of testing that forces us to grow up and teaches us the true meaning of love and patience.


In this respect, I affirm the statement in our Mennonite confession of faith which says that “God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life.”[1] As soon as we say that, however, we need to recognize that even the good, the true, and the beautiful can become destructive if we force it into a straight-jacket and insist that one size fits all.


Ethical and sexual norms are good and necessary but we always need to consider if there are situations where we need to make exceptions. For example, churches have done great harm when we rigidly and literally applied Jesus’ teaching against divorce by insisting that divorced and remarried people cannot participate in communion and be church members.


Theologians and biblical scholars on both sides of the debate on homosexuality generally agree about what the Bible has to say on the subject—actually very little. The Bible has a lot more to say about our relationship with money, how we treat immigrants, and even what and how much we eat. There are only a few pertinent texts on same-sex sexual relationships in the whole Bible. Jesus never says anything about it.


We’ve already considered the most important verse in the Bible on human sexuality—the creation account in Genesis (which Jesus reaffirmed in his teaching against divorce) that a man and a woman are joined together as one flesh. Other Bible passages that people sometimes quote are irrelevant because they’re about something else.


A prime example is the situation in Sodom where Lot’s neighbors insist that he send out the visiting angels so they can gang rape them (Gen. 19:1-29). Somehow, this became associated with homosexuality in our public imagination to the extent that laws against homosexuality were called Sodomy laws. But it was not directly a matter of homosexuality and no later references to it in the Bible condemn is as such. It was, instead, sexual violence against strangers and enemies as a way of utterly humiliating them. Such sexual violence is still all too common in prisons and war zones today.


Several other biblical texts are ambiguous. It’s not clear if what’s condemned in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 is homosexuality or promiscuity and prostitution.[2] The Old Testament book of Leviticus, on the other hand, gives an unequivocal condemnations of homosexual behavior, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (18:22). It’s listed as a series of sexual offenses such as adultery, incest, and bestiality—all punishable by death.


For Christians, Old Testament laws need to be weighed against the New Testament. We, therefore, no longer follow various Old Testament laws on matters such as polygamy, not eating various foods, or requiring male circumcision. That’s why Paul’s condemnation of homosexual behavior in his discussion of humankind’s guilt before God in the book of Romans becomes the centerpiece of our discussion. He writes:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (1:26-27).


Here’s where equally sincere and discerning Christians disagree. Some of us see this as biblical evidence that all homosexual behavior is sinful. Others notice that Paul’s argument that such behavior is against nature indicates that he did not understand homosexual orientation and thought that all homosexual behavior involved heterosexual people acting in unnatural ways. They, therefore, think he cannot be speaking against covenanted, loving, same-sex relationships.


Wisdom urges us to live with this ambiguity and keep listening and talking to our sisters and brothers who disagree with us. It’s helpful to understand as much as possible about the social context in which Paul was writing, even though it does not lead to definitive answers. He, along with other Jews in his time, such as the historian Josephus and the philosopher Philo, condemned Roman and Greek sexual promiscuity, including homosexuality. This was a fundamental difference between Jewish and Greek sexual ethics.


Women in antiquity lived cloistered lives under the strict control of their fathers and husbands. Marriages were arranged between families, more for social and economic reasons than for love. In Greco-Roman society romantic pursuit of a lover, therefore, typically involved an older man pursuing a young, teenage boy as his lover. Jews found this utterly disgusting and immoral.  We know nothing about female homosexuality in the ancient Middle East because there is no surviving written record of it, most likely because women were not seen to be significant.


We will also want to notice Paul’s main point in the first chapter of Romans. His reference to homosexuality is part of a list of vices, which he relates to idolatry. The list includes covetousness and even gossiping. All are condemned, meaning no person is righteous in him or herself. We all depend on God’s grace and, in Paul’s words, “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (17b).


There is no clear, uncontested teaching on homosexuality in the Bible even though all references to it are negative. Some biblical scholars such as Richard Hays, therefore, concludes that homosexual people should live a life of celibacy.[3] Other biblical scholars such as Walter Wink, however, affirm same-sex marriage. Wink stresses that celibacy is a special gift that cannot be forced on people. He, therefore, affirms loving same-sex marriage. More broadly, he says that our human sexuality should embrace Jesus’ love ethic. I’m sure that Richard Hays would agree. Wink writes:


We must critique the sexual mores of any given time and [place] by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Such a love ethic is nonexploitative (hence no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to his or her loss); it does not dominate (hence no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel); it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving.[4]


We as the church need to do the hard work of discerning which relationships embody that love ethic. And we can have confidence that God’s Spirit will guide and empower us in our discernment. As Paul affirms, “All who are led be the Spirit of God are children of God” (Rom. 8: 14). We should, therefore, not fall back into a spirit of fear but live in a spirit of adoption as God’s children. This means being able to take risks with the confidence that that which exemplifies Jesus’ love ethic will become evident to us.


I’ll talk more about this in my next sermon. We won’t always agree and that means being able to disagree in love and not disparage each other. I have every confidence that we’ll eventually be able to come to consensus on that which brings life, love, and joy, includes everyone, respects the dignity of each person, and expresses the integrity of our relationship with God.


[1] Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 1995), 72.

[2] Richard Hays in Homosexuality and the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 6-7; Walter Wink, in Homosexuality and Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 34.

[3] Richard Hays in Homosexuality and the Church, 14.

[4] Walter Wink, Homosexuality and Christian Faith, 45.

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