[Ted Grimsrud – Eastern Mennonite University Dialogue with Mark Thiessen Nation – February 19, 2009]
Introduction: Starting with Jesus
In my general approach to theology and ethics, my starting point is the life and teaching of Jesus. At the heart of Jesus’ message, I believe, we find his double command to love God and love neighbor. So, in thinking about the church’s response to gay and lesbian Christians, I want to start with Jesus.
Here’s one angle: How did Jesus relate to “sinners”? We need to think carefully here. Let me suggest two somewhat different senses of the category “sinners.” The first sense would refer to people who violate the Law or in some other sense go against God’s will by their actions or inaction.
Jesus certainly taught that God’s mercy offers healing for all of these “sinners” when they turn back to God, even really bad “sinners.” A great example in the Gospels is Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. This young man, by any measure, violated central commands – especially honor your parents and keep pure eating habits. But he is forgiven. A second famous example is the woman caught in adultery, who Jesus forgave.
Both these cases stories, do emphasize God’s healing mercy that reaches even to the worst offenders. However, both also make clear that “sinners,” in the sense of those who violate the core concerns of the Law, are expected to repent and to turn from their sinful ways.
But there is also a second kind of “sinner.” “Sinner” also refers to those labeled sinners by the religious leaders, people who, in Jesus’ view, were not actually guilty of violating the core concerns of the law. People excluded from Israel’s religious life due to their poverty, for example, or some disease such as leprosy. For these “sinners,” Jesus offered welcome – you are fully a part of God’s people just as you are. Of course, like everyone else would be part of God’s people you are called to love God and your neighbor wholeheartedly. But you are not excluded because of a label placed on you that has to do with your identity and not an actual violation of the commands, of Torah.
Mark and I seem to disagree about which sense of “sinner” we should consider gay and lesbian Christians who are in committed relationships. Are they sinners who due simply to the gender of their significant other violate the core concerns of Torah? Or are they sinners who are being inappropriately excluded from full membership in the faith community due to labels that are placed on them?
I want to be clear, though, in stating where we agree. The inclusion of sinners that is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry is not simply a blind tolerance that says “I’m okay, you’re okay, we all have our faults, and we are all equally a part of God’s community regardless of whether we are seeking to follow the commandments or not.”
So, I believe that Jesus, in his welcome of those inappropriately labeled “sinners,” challenges us to do likewise. So we should welcome gay and lesbian Christians who seek to live faithfully and find themselves in relationships of mutual commitment and fidelity with people of their same sex.
On the one hand, we should recognize that Christianity’s hostility toward gay and lesbian Christians parallels the dynamics that Jesus critiqued in his day – the inappropriate use of the category of “sinner” to exclude people who are the victims of prejudice and are living faithful lives. On the other hand, we should affirm that our standards for people in heterosexual marriages also be applied to people in same-sex relationships: sexual intimacy only in the context of a monogamous, covenanted, faithful relationship.
Broader Biblical Support for Jesus’ Welcoming Stance
When we read the Bible with Jesus’ love command as our interpretive lens we will find much support for this understanding of welcome. I will mention only two examples.
In the Old Testament Law, we find something crucial. At its heart lay the call for the community, especially self-conscious ways to care for vulnerable people in its midst. Leviticus 19, for example, calls for special attentiveness to widows, to orphans, and to resident aliens – those without the kinship links that were so important to people’s wellbeing. This concern for vulnerable people within the community finds expression throughout the Old Testament in prophetic critiques from Amos to Jeremiah and beyond.
I believe that one class of people in our churches today who are particularly vulnerable are gay and lesbian people. The history of hostility from church and society has resulted in persecution, exclusion, acts of psychological and even physical violence. The spirit of Torah, especially as embodied by Jesus, challenges churches today to transform their attitudes from hostility to hospitality toward gays.
My second biblical example supporting Jesus’ welcoming approach is how Paul underlines Jesus’ message. He writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul emphasizes here that allegiance to Christ transcends common boundary lines often used to exclude—ethnicity, social status, gender. All who trust in Jesus and seek to follow his way are included in his body, regardless of whatever labels might have in the past been used to push “outsiders” away.
Paul teaches two themes that echo Jesus’ approach. First, human labels are abolished in Christ. Especially those labeled by “insiders” as being outsiders are to be included without discrimination when they trust in Jesus. Second, for all who join in the body of Christ, following basic standards of ethical faithfulness is expected.
A Bias Toward Welcome
From these biblical themes, I draw the conclusion that our bias should be in favor of welcome for all who trust in Jesus and seek to follow him. We should be especially welcoming toward people who are vulnerable in various ways to being treated with violence and hostility, who may lack resources, power, and easy access to social acceptance.
Our churches, thus, should be inclined to welcome gay and lesbian Christians, including those in committed relationships – even as our churches continue to hold all members to high standards of fidelity and commitment in marriage.
We find in the Bible a call to offer welcome to those inappropriately labeled “sinners.” We find a call to express special concern for vulnerable people. And we find a call to recognize our oneness in Christ that transcends exclusive boundary markers. These points all support an inclusive approach toward gay and lesbian Christians.
Testing Our Benefit of the Doubt
However, we can’t simply leave the discussion here. If there is indeed something inherently wrong or sinful about same-sex relationships, we would then have reason to override this benefit of the doubt toward inclusion. Jesus’ message of welcome is not based on ignoring the call to faithful living. If some behavior is intrinsically unlawful, intrinsically harmful to persons and communities, then Jesus would have us expect that that behavior be changed for people to be full participants in the community.
However, with our inclination toward welcome based on Jesus and the rest of the Bible, we should ask for strong evidence that intimate same-sex relationships are wrong simply because they are with same-sex partners. What could constitute a high enough standard of proof? I can think of three obvious possibilities. One would be if there clearly is something inherently harmful in our present experience about the “same-sexness” of same-sex partnerships. A second would be if we had strong reasons to believe that recognizing same-sex marriage would in some way undercut the churches’ commitment to heterosexual marriage. And a third is if we have clear commands in the Bible forbidding such relationships for Christians.
Of course, many Christians do believe we have clear teachings on each of these points. I am not convinced, however.
(1) Is the “same-sexness” of same sex partnerships intrinsically harmful? On the issue of harm, it is true that a great deal of harm does result from the sexual behavior of many gay men – both physical problems and the emotional problems related to promiscuity. However, it is hard to see how any of these problems would be present in, say, a covenanted, monogamous lesbian partnership. That is, these problems do not seem to be related to the “same-sexness” of the partnership per se.
I believe it is an empirical fact that many same-sex partnerships for both men and women are healthy in every way. I know several among friends of mine – in two cases now for over 20 years, in another for over 40 years, and in two other cases now for over 10 years.
We all know of sexual behaviors among heterosexual people that are harmful – coercive sex, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, sexually transmitted diseases. But we don’t make generalizations about all “heterosexual practice” being wrong – instead, we seek to foster healthy partnerships because we know that most human beings flourish best when they are in healthy marriages. I would simply say that we should approach same-sex partnerships in the same way – critiquing the harmful practices and supporting the healthy ones.
(2) Does same-sex marriage undermine heterosexual marriage? The idea that same-sex marriage would in some way undercut our commitment to the importance of heterosexual marriage seems illogical to me. Look at the failure of our churches and wider culture to sustain permanent heterosexual marriages. To think that now gay marriage is a threat to heterosexual marriage seems misguided—obviously other things have created the crisis. Blessing people who want to make a commitment of fidelity to one person for life would, I think, only strengthen the broader institution of marriage (and perhaps provide heterosexual people with some positive role models!).
It is true that the Bible only speaks of marriage between men and women. Such biblical allusions encourage us to value marriage a great deal and should lead the churches to work hard at supporting the child-rearing task many marriages have. However, I simply don’t see a connection between valuing heterosexual marriage and childrearing as our norm on the one hand (which I strongly do) and finding same-sex marriage to be bad on the other hand (which I don’t).
To be an exception to the norm need not make something a threat to that norm. We affirm other exceptions to the norm of male + female for life + children without seeing them as a threat—for example, marriages without children and second marriages for divorced folks. Why can’t we see same-sex marriage as complementary to heterosexual marriage—a way to affirm another kind of life partnership that operates with fidelity and commitment in satisfying the human need for emotional and physical intimacy?
(3) Does the Bible command Christians not to enter into same-sex partnerships? The Christian tradition has, of course, centered its negative attitude toward same-sex partnerships on the third of our points – that the Bible has been understood to be commanding Christians not to be part of such partnerships. In this final section, I will respond to this issue.
First of all, I think we should ask for clear proof that the Bible requires Christians to override what I see to be an inclination otherwise toward welcome of gays and lesbians who trust in Jesus and who follow the same ethical norms concerning sexuality as heterosexual people. When we read the Bible looking for such proof one thing we will notice is that the Bible does not contain any direct commands to Christians concerning same-sex relationships.
(a) Leviticus. The Bible contains only a tiny handful of texts that can be read as in any way speaking directly to same-sex relationships. The only place where the texts voice a command directed to people in the community of faith is in the book of Leviticus, chapters 18 and 20.
If this is indeed the only direct command, we may question whether it can serve as a normative statement for Christians. Most obviously, the statements in Leviticus come in the context of a number of other commands that Christians do not believe are normative for our ethics: not planting more than one crop in a given field, not wearing clothing of mixed fibers, not having sex during a woman’s period, no masturbation. As important Leviticus indeed is for Christian ethics in a general, background kind of way, we do not look there for our direct commands for Christian ethics.
Also, Leviticus speaks only to the behavior of men, not of same sex intimacy in general. In the direct context of the prohibition on males having sex with other males are various other prohibitions that have to do with male sexual behavior. So we need to ask what might the reasons be for this kind of specific prohibition that clearly is not a general statement about all possible expressions of same-sex sexual intimacy.
I think the immediate context for those commands concerning men not having sex with other men may be this: It was, in part at least, related to the need for children in their community, and the problem of men “wasting their seed” and hence not focusing on the bringing of children into their society. Hence, we have prohibitions in Leviticus 19:19-24 of sexual acts that do not produce legitimate offspring: masturbation, having sex with their wives during their periods, sex outside of marriage, sex with animals. Plus, there is the one non-sexual prohibition—direct child sacrifice (obviously resulting in the loss of offspring).
In trying to make sense of this list of prohibitions, it seems that we should search for an explanation of them that includes all of the pieces (for example, the idea that the prohibition of male/male sex stems from a concern with two men being too much like one another and human/animal sex involving partners too much unlike one another seems doubtful because it does not speak at all to the prohibitions of child sacrifice or masturbation or sex during menstruation). The most obvious rationale is this concern for offspring. And that clearly is a context-specific basis that we would not longer find binding.
Some of the prohibitions (such as adultery and bestiality) we continue to accept because we have reasons beyond simply their being listed here in Leviticus. Some of the other prohibitions (such as masturbation and sex during menstruation [which relies on a view of feminine impurity that we now reject]) we no longer follow. So, the normativity of the prohibition of male/male sex needs to be established on grounds beyond simply its presence here in Leviticus.
The Leviticus commands would have more weight if we had other complementary texts that told why men having sex with men was a problem or that illustrated this problem by telling a story about it (such as how the story of David with Bathsheba illustrates the problem with adultery). But we don’t. So, the Leviticus text is merely a cryptic command with no explanation of its meaning.
When we turn to the New Testament, we have three texts that are commonly cited. Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 are the more important of the three – 1 Timothy 1 seems clearly derivative from 1 Corinthians 6 and adds no additional content.
(b) Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. The Romans and 1 Corinthians texts both use allusions to same-sex sex in order to address issues other than the sexual behavior of people in the churches. Neither is framed as a statement to Christians: Paul does not say, this is what you are and are not to do in your sexual relationships. Instead, both texts illustrate unjust behavior of people outside the community of faith in order to make points about Christian behavior that have nothing to do with sexual practices.
In Romans 1, Paul challenges all people, in the church and out, to recognize that they are sinful and in need of the mercy of God shown through Jesus Christ. Paul points to idolatrous behavior (including lustful sex) on the part of those outside the community of faith. He does this in order then to tell his readers that they too are sinful (“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) and that they have no basis for being self-righteous and judgmental toward others.
Of course, Paul does not imply that the unjust behaviors of these idolaters are morally acceptable. But this behavior is clearly that of unbelievers and is obviously violent and unjust (as the other elements of their behavior that he mentions make clear—murder, strife, heartlessness, and the like). Paul does not have in mind people within the churches whose lives are consistently faithful except perhaps for the gender of their intimate partners.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul takes up the problem of people who are part of the Christian fellowship suing others in their congregation in secular courts. Paul sharply rejects such actions. He says the people who run those secular courts are unjust, just as the Corinthians Christians used to be before meeting Christ. To drive this point home, Paul lists various types of characteristics of such unjust people. In this list, all the items allude to injustice of one kind or another. Paul here uses two words without explanation that are often translated (I would say, misleadingly) in ways that have homosexual connotations.
One of the these words, malakos, literally means “soft” and is used in Matthew’s gospel of a “soft” coat. In various first-century texts it has the sense of morally soft in general and sometimes of morally soft in relation to sexual behavior. In these latter cases, at least sometimes it appears that part of the problem is seen to be in male effeminacy. So, malakos could have a connotation of male/male sexuality in some contexts, but need not. It could simply mean morally lax in a general sense.
The other word, arsenokoitai, may have a sense of male/male sexual behavior since it literally means “men laying.” This could imply “men laying other men” along the lines of the Greek translation of the Leviticus 18 and 20 texts (though it could also imply “men laying” with prostitutes or other men’s wives). We simply have no way of knowing the precise meaning Paul had in mind. He does not spell it out in 1 Corinthians 6, and there are no other writings that we know of in all of the first century that ever use this word except 1 Timothy 1:10.
Regardless of what arsenokoitai literally means, it does seem clear that in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is not concerned with telling Christians how they should behave sexually. He is concerned with challenging their practice of taking each other to secular courts that are characterized by the worst kinds of injustice.
So, we simply don’t have any direct teaching in the Bible aimed specifically at Christians that would clearly override the biblical bias on behalf of welcoming all who trust in Christ. Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians all address concerns very different from the question of whether, for example, a couple I know, two Christian women in a covenanted partnership who live faithful lives, should be restricted in their church involvement only because each is in a monogamous, committed relationship with a woman instead of a man.
That is, there really seems to be no basis in the Bible to forbid same-sex relationships simply based on the fact that they are same-sex. But there are bases in the Bible to welcome as full members into the fellowship people who are inappropriately labeled “sinners.”
Today’s American Christian churches face major challenges in the face of failed heterosexual marriages, in the face of sexual misbehavior of all kinds. I would suggest that the best place to draw our lines is not in excluding same-sex couples who are committed to fidelity and monogamy. Rather, all of us who believe in fidelity and monogamy and sex only in the context of covenanted relationships should make common cause and embrace such fidelity wherever it occurs, creating communities that encourage faithfulness from all of us in our intimate relationships.