Homosexuality and the Bible
1) Many people begin this discussion with the few — the very few — verses in the Christian Bible that seem to teach against homosexuality. But this is a false start. There are more than 30,000 verses in the Bible. A handful of verses can be cited that seem to teach against homosexuality; but even more verses can be cited that seem to approve of slavery, or seem to teach against women in positions of leadership — and obviously human society has in these respects become more just and inclusive over the centuries. The key point here is this: When reading the Bible, it’s never simply a matter of finding a few verses here or there. We need to know which verses to focus on, and which general themes to emphasize — and to help us with this discernment, we need a guide and teacher. For Christians, our guide and teacher is Jesus of Nazareth.
2) When asked to summarize the whole of scripture, Jesus famously zeroed in on two verses, one from Deuteronomy, and one from Leviticus: “Love God with all your mind, heart, soul, and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For Jesus, those are the verses — and the general themes — that are most important. Like eyeglasses, these are the lenses through which we need to read the rest of scripture, and indeed the whole world. The author of the First Letter of John picks up the same theme: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). And if we’re not quite sure what “love” looks like in any given case, Jesus points to the rule many call “golden”: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).
3) What’s more, Jesus’ ministry included several signature moves, and one of those signatures was that he sought to welcome those whom others considered unclean or immoral or not good enough. In fact, he was strongly criticized by some religious leaders of his day for the company he kept. His hospitality and service knew no bounds; he never turned anyone away. And his teaching often lifted up so-called “outsiders,” even supposed enemies, as surprising role models (the parable of the Good Samaritan being a classic case in point).
4) Another signature move: Jesus repeatedly took a common sense, humane approach to the application of legal rules. His life and teachings consistently demonstrate that he chose compassion for people over strict adherence to the letter of religious law. He broke the rule against working on the Sabbath in order to heal a man; he refused to stone a woman who committed adultery, even though scriptural verses can be found to justify such execution; he ate with people who could not ceremonially wash their hands. He consistently chose compassion and hospitality, even in the face of criticism for doing so.
5) In this way, Jesus drew upon Jewish tradition, and in particular the Hebrew prophets, who constantly admonished their listeners to remember the outsider, to welcome the stranger, to include those whom others would seek to exclude, and to avoid getting bogged down in doctrinaire, exclusionary behavior. The biblical prophets call for justice, for kindness, for humility, for mercy, and for the kind of hospitality that seeks to cross lines of suspicion or enmity. For example, laws in Deuteronomy 23 kept foreigners out of the temple – but in Isaiah 56, the prophet proclaims God’s new law that the temple was for everyone, including foreigners.
6) Likewise, in the New Testament, the general shape of Paul’s work is to reach out and include “the Gentiles,” the very people some of his contemporaries considered unclean or immoral or not good enough. Like the ancient prophets, the fundamental dynamic of the New Testament is a choreography of greater and greater inclusion, wider and wider circles of welcome, respect, and love.
7) Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, and he said precious little directly about sexuality at all. What he did teach about – what he cared most about – were other things: loving God and neighbor, yes, and also forgiveness, and trust, and humility, and justice, and the nearness of God’s kingdom, and the importance of avoiding judgmental, hubristic forms of religiosity (most of all, Christian forms!).
8) Christians don’t agree on questions related to human sexuality, and that debate will continue. But it’s a strong, venerable, and compelling Christian perspective to say that while we may disagree on some of these issues, we can and should agree that God calls us to create neighborhoods and larger communities in which each person is welcomed and respected. No-one should be a second-class citizen; no-one should be denied basic rights, services, or opportunities for leadership. We may differ on many topics, but this baseline of respect and dignity should be unshakable. This is what “loving your neighbor as yourself” looks like: treating one another kindly even and especially when we disagree. Jesus never denied hospitality to anyone, and neither should Christians who seek to follow him. The basis for this Christian perspective is profoundly scriptural: what Jesus said and did, and what the great themes of the Bible say to us today, as we read those ancient texts with Jesus as our teacher and guide.