While some may find the arguments from part 1 compelling, for most Christians wrestling through this issue their main sticking points are the texts of Scripture which mention certain homoerotic acts. What follows won’t be a comprehensive review of every Scripture, for that you’ll need to purchase A Time to Embrace, however I will touch on some of the more popular texts. My goal is that by the end of this post you’ll have a feel for how Bible believing Christians (as we say in the South) can interpret old texts in new ways and be empowered to not only love their LGBT brothers and sisters but come to see them differently than say, an alcoholic or someone struggling with a sexual addiction.
On this topic one of the first statements Johnson makes is, “…it should be clear that the biblical passages invoke by prohibitionists have nothing explicit to say about the relationships of mutually and exclusively committed same-gender couples.” In other words, there’s no story decrying the evils of two men or two women who devoted themselves to one another in marital love and quietly served their family, neighbors, and faith community to the end of their days. Instead, what we see is exactly what we’d expect from a religious book centered around love of God and neighbor, a critique of cultural practices that promote sexual promiscuity, violence, and cruelty. This is the crux of the welcoming and affirming viewpoint as it relates to the Scriptures, however it doesn’t preclude us from wading into the text so let’s begin with the controversial story of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sodom and Gomorrah
In this story God hears an outcry from the city of Sodom and sends angelic messengers to investigate. Upon arrival they’re taken in by Abraham’s nephew, Lot, but then things begin to go south. The men of the town surround Lot’s house and demand that he offer up his visitors so that they can rape them. As a trade of sorts Lot offers up his virgin daughters instead. In this version God blinds the men of Sodom so both the angelic visitors and Lot’s daughters are saved, however in a parallel story in Judges 19 the women offered up to save the man isn’t so lucky – she’s abused all through the night. Clearly these are dark and violent stories that have thoroughly embedded themselves in the western consciousness and my hunch is that for prohibitionists this story is in the back of their minds whenever the topic of same-gender marriage comes up. Thus, it’s here that many prohibitionists take their stand, arguing that this sexual behavior is clearly condemned by the Scripture, and of course they’re absolutely right. Yet the question must be asked whether the nature of the acts mentioned here are despicable because of their same-gender character or because they’re violently abusive?
In the stories of Sodom and Gibeah I believe it’s something other than the same sex character of the conduct that makes it wrong. Rape is violent and destructive no matter the gender. Growing up in the South I’d always heard the story of Sodom and Gomorah invoked to condemn same-gender love. It was the perfect picture of how we imagined ‘the homosexuals‘ – filled with violent lust, a danger to others, a people completely out of control sexually speaking. The Bible couldn’t have been clearer in it’s condemnation than that story. Which is why I was shocked when I came across this passage from Ezekiel 16:9 which clearly states that the sin of Sodom is… wait for it… “…they did not help the poor and the needy.” In other words, what jumped out to the ancient writer about this text wasn’t the same gender nature of the abuse but rather the lack of hospitality shown to the visitors. Surely Ezekiel was mistaken! Or might the issue be that we have an amazing capacity to read our own cultural assumptions into the biblical text? Two other sets of passages from the book of Leviticus figure strongly in the non-affirming case.
Leviticus 18:22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination.”
Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Clearly these passages forbid certain homoerotic acts, however the questions we’re asking as people committed to the authority of text is the what and why of the prohibition because these types of questions are always at the heart of interpreting any Biblical text. The reason, and this is something we all readily admit when it comes to other Old and New Testament passages, is that it’s easy to read our own cultural assumptions into the text; thus completely bypassing the cultural assumptions of the writers themselves. In fact, as you’ll see below Johnson argues that prohibitionists, tolerationists, and accomodationists do just that.
Based on what scholars know of the ancient world at this time one of the major reasons for the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20 is that this type of homoerotic act was often practiced by one socially superior male on a social inferior; normally a slave or some other subordinate member of the household. The social superior would never have identified themselves as a homosexual and certainly didn’t intend to begin “a romantic relationship” with their social inferior. In fact terms like homosexuality (a medical term that didn’t come into use until the 1850′s) or same gender relationships would have been completely foreign to ancient cultures. Instead the purpose was pure sexual gratification, similar in a way to masturbation, it just happened to be with a person the socially superior person could take advantage of.
A second incredibly sinister cultural practice that is squarely in the sights of these Levitical passages is the mistreatment of prisoners of war. In the ancient world a conquered people were often subject to various forms of torture and humiliation at the hands of their captors. For example, the Assyrians were notorious for impaling their victims on poles and abandoning them to a slow and gruesome death. However, another common practice was to rape (sodomize) the enemy soldiers now under one’s control. Again, this can’t be confused with a few soldiers engaging in some sort of gay lifestyle, rather the purpose was the humiliation of your enemy. The thinking seemed to go that now that they had forced the enemy to submit in physical combat, the enemy should now be forced to submit sexually, thus furthering their shame by turning the vanquished into symbolic women. Obviously, this type of historical background is important to know when approaching the Levitical texts.
Romans 1:27 “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.”
1 Timothy 1:9-10 “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine”
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The Roman 1 passage is coming out of the hedonistic practices of the Roman world and are grounded in certain cultural assumptions about proper male roles There were two incredibly popular, but nonetheless destructive, sexual practices going on in his era: rampant male prostitution and the freedom for social superiors to perform sexual (and often homoerotic) acts on their social inferiors without their consent. Imagine today if employers were not only free to sexually abuse their employees but it was actually expected of them? While it’s an analogous situation, it gives a better feel for the cultural situation Paul is speaking to.
Another pernicious activity was the sexual slave trade of boys and castrated young men. These were often prisoners of war who would be sold into a life of exploitation and abuse. Johnson believes this is almost certainly the context behind 1 Timothy 1:10 which condemns, “fornicators, men who have sex with men, and slave traders.”
The phrase “men who have sex with men” in the 1 Corinthians 6 passage is the Greek term “arsenokoitai” which breaks down into arsen (“male”) and koite (“bed”) which is literally “males who go to bed with males.” Yet again, in the ancient world this word came to be associated with certain hedonistic homoerotic practices that were widespread in the Roman Empire – practices often performed by social superiors on their inferiors or male prostitution. It’s these practices that Paul doesn’t want to see infiltrate his fledgling religious communities built on a love of God and neighbor.
In my final post I’ll cover how Johnson encourages us to move from a place of prohibition to liberation and consecration.