Same-Sex Orientation: A Progressive Christian Perspective
Certainly one of the most divisive topics within the Christian community is sexual orientation. Same-sex orientation is where many Christians draw a line in the sand. In many cases the church has rejected people with a same-sex or bisexual orientation. Fundamentalist Christians often think that same-sex orientation is inherently evil in the eyes of God and would go as far as to say that anybody who thinks otherwise cannot be a “true” Christian.
This viewpoint generally stems from passages either taken from Mosaic law, as outlined in Leviticus or Deuteronomy, or from comments that the apostle Paul made in his letters to the Gentile churches. Jesus himself never addressed the issue. Jesus prohibits divorce, except for marital infidelity (Matthew 19:9), yet 30-50% of adults who marry in this country will experience divorce. He speaks directly against adultery (Matthew 5:27-28), yet at least one third of all Americans will engage in adulterous behavior. It is quite interesting that fundamentalist Christians pay little attention to these two prohibitions directly addressed by Jesus, yet spend an inordinate amount of time and energy focusing on sexual orientation and abortion, two issues never addressed by Jesus. Jesus taught volumes about the appropriate use of money to help those who are oppressed or disenfranchised. He also spoke frequently regarding forgiveness, compassion, and mercy. Jesus unmistakably rebukes those who would judge others with little introspection of their own behavior (Matthew 23). He speaks clearly on how we should be inclusive of people who are different than us, rather than exclusive. Yet nowhere, at no time, does he address sexual orientation or abortion. The fact that conservative Christians attack these two issues with single-minded zeal is perplexing.
There appears to be harsh prohibitions against same-gender sexual interaction within Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Deuteronomy 23: a 17-18). However, we should be very careful in extrapolating from the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Those laws were given to the early Israelites to bring order to a group of people that previously functioned in a relatively lawless, tribal culture, devoid of respect for God. These were holiness and purity codes used to establish a unique cultural identity. They differentiated and separated the Israelites from the Canaanites, inhabitants of the land the Israelites settled. The original Hebrew word used in reference to same-sex acts is toevah, which unfortunately was translated into the English word “abomination”. However, unlike the English word, which implies something that is intrinsically evil, the word toevah refers to something that is ritually unclean. It is also used to denote other unclean, or impure practices of the day such having sex with a menstruating woman, trimming a beard, or eating shellfish and pork. Within this context, same-sex interaction becomes toevah, because the pagan practices Hebrews were separating from included idolatrous worship sexuality and male cultic prostitution. Aside from this cultural context, there is no indication that any of these laws were meant to be universal for all time and circumstances. Many laws that were given to the ancient Hebrews are not applicable in today's world. I would dare say that no Christian husband expects their wife to undergo a purification ceremony after her menstrual period before they resume sexual activity. Likewise, Christians do not follow the ritual dictates regarding food preparation and eating. I could go on and on, but again, one can go back and review the numerous laws given to the Jews in Leviticus and Deuteronomy and realize that very few of them apply today in the same way that they would have 3,000 years ago.
Similarly, we should be cautious in our interpretation of the apostle Paul's letters. Paul's writings were directed toward specific communities with the design of correcting specific problems within those communities. While many of Paul's lessons can be applied today, there is no reason to believe that he was writing with the intent to teach us 2,000 years later. In Paul's time, there were many offensive same-sex behaviors. People born with a heterosexual orientation, participated in casual same-sex behavior. Greek philosophers and teachers would tutor young boys and abuse them sexually until they reached the age of puberty and then dismiss them (pederasty). The ancient Greco-Roman world functioned under a system of patronage, where men of higher status and greater power would sodomize a man of a lower status, thereby establishing his power and control over him, or sodomize him for humiliation. Greco-Roman temples practiced sex acts as part of their idolatrous worship. It is interesting to note that Paul never mentions the existence of committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships. Is it not just as easy to find examples of offensive or immoral heterosexual behavior, such as promiscuous sex or rape, yet we do not use this to denounce all heterosexual behavior. Why should we then denounce same-sex behavior that is expressed in a committed, loving relationship?
We must be very careful in applying scripture. Referring to particular verses of scripture, out of their original context, and treating them as universal law is extremely dangerous. Selective extrapolation of scripture in this way has been used to support slavery, oppress women, and exclude divorced men and women in the past, much to the detriment and shame of society and the Christian church. A rejection of this legalistic interpretation in favor of a broader interpretation of scripture that relies on the central themes of Jesus’ teachings and actions has fortunately led to a more just treatment of these issues, one based on love, grace, and acceptance. When looking at the issue of sexual orientation, we ought to keep in mind that any interpretation of scripture that runs contrary to God's love of all human beings is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.
At one time it was felt that a person could choose their sexual orientation, but modern science has essentially proven that a person is born with their orientation. If they are not born with their sexual orientation, then at minimum, it is imprinted at such an early point in the development of a person that he or she never makes a conscious choice. In that case, what is one to do if they are a Christian and have a same-sex orientation? Some would say that they should remain abstinent. There are people who choose celibacy on the basis of their faith and this is to be respected, but never required or expected. The human libido is hardly ever restrained. The multi-billion dollar pornography industry and high prevalence of adultery are testimony to this fact. As a general rule, celibacy does not work unless one has an aberrantly low sex drive. One need look no further than the Catholic Church scandals, with the abuse of young boys, to see that the desire for sexual contact often outweighs the best of intentions, even among people committed to their faith.
Another approach has been intensive behavioral training, or even attempts at conversion through aversion therapy, with the hope of changing a person's sexual orientation. It is very clear that this does not work if one has a genuine same-sex orientation. Furthermore, attempts to change sexual orientation often result in profound psychological harm. When "reparative" therapy fails, gay men and lesbian women are likely to think that either God has abandoned them or that they are a blemish in the eyes of God. Inevitably they abandon their faith and leave the church, now perceived as an institution of condemnation. It would seem far better to encourage people of same-sex orientation to seek mutually monogamous, stable relationships, as we do now for people with a heterosexual orientation.
Some might say that it is not God's intentional will for people to be born with a same-sex orientation. Scripture, starting with Genesis, portrays an image of man and woman together in partnership. Biologically, it makes sense that man and woman were designed to be together, if for no other reason than for purposes of procreation. However, given the fact that some people intrinsically have a same-sex orientation, they should be treated no differently than anybody else. They, along with every other human, are beloved children of God. Some Christians think that if a person is born with a same-sex orientation, God must have intended for that to happen, that it is a part of the natural biological diversity conceived by God. If that is the case, then they are no different than a person born with a heterosexual orientation. Sexual orientation becomes a nonissue. On the other hand, if you believe it is not within God's intentional will that people are born with a same-sex orientation, but nevertheless it happens, you should turn to Jesus in deciding how to treat such a person. Jesus always treated people who stood "outside of the norm", people who were excluded or marginalized, with unconditional acceptance. He included them in his faith family. Christian churches today should do likewise.