Biblical Law & Homosexuality

The most commonly-raised objection I hear to same-sex marriage is that it contradicts Biblical Law.

With all due respect, I have a problem with this view, because it bypasses the very foundations of Christianity.

If you’re a Christian, then the word of Jesus is the only law that you need. Everything else in the Bible - everything - is secondary to what Jesus said, because everything else in the Bible was written by prophets or scribes - human beings having visions or witnessing supernatural events - whereas Jesus is supernatural in and of himself: the one and only true Son of God. This is no small point. Jesus was fundamentally divine. Whereas everyone else writing in the Bible - Moses, Leviticus, John the Baptist, Saint Paul, etc., etc. - is not.

All you need to know about Christianity, then, you can get from the first four books of the New Testament - the gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. It is here that you get the teaching of Christ straight from his own mouth. It is here that you hear him preach about love and forgiveness. It is here that you hear him say that the two most important commandments are Love God and Love Thy Neighbor. Tempted to think the Old Testament’s Mosaic Law survives unchanged today? Think again. Remember the Pharisees who brought the adulteress to Jesus and demanded that she be stoned according to Mosaic law? Remember Jesus’ reply? “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7.). No, Jesus did not come into the world to perpetuate old laws of violence and cruelty. He came to fulfill some, while revising and/or ending others.

So what does Jesus have to say about being gay?

Well to start with, we have to understand that it’s not what you or I would say about being gay. Because you and I are human. Jesus is not.

Homosexuality makes a lot of people awkward. Some of this is because it’s a discussion of other people’s private affairs, which makes many of us uncomfortable. I’m not gay, but I’m an actor, and over the years I’ve worked with countless gay men and women in show business. Some of my best friends happen to be gay. And yet even after decades of this kind of close exposure, I have still not ever found an easy, natural way to simply ask someone if they’re gay or not. And my good gay friends and I have never had an easygoing chat about our different sexualities ... a topic you might think would come up fairly naturally. It’s because in some ways I’m just as much governed by old-fashioned social rules as anyone. There are just some subjects that still make me skittish.

But awkwardness is one thing, Biblical wrongness quite another. There is simply no support in the teachings of Jesus for antigay feeling whatsoever. We must try to remember that Christianity is prefaced by the Old Testament, but it is not the Old Testament itself. The Old Testament ends with the arrival of Jesus. It is Jesus’ life, and example, and teachings, that are paramount to a modern Christian. Likewise, the Acts of the Apostles and other writings which were composed after Jesus’ death are the tales of men as they struggle with a divine Christian mission. They are poignant and often insightful. But they are not the words of Christ.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus forgives, heals and breaks bread with people at every conceivable social level - Pharisees and prostitutes, thieves and civic leaders, deacons and drunken bums. In fact, many times he goes out of his way to find the most vilified person in town and spend the night at that person’s house, as a way of challenging the prevailing social prejudices. Imagine! Jesus doesn’t just visit some skid row flophouse to say hello and hand out soup; he actually spends the night there, and talks to these people, and makes them feel - perhaps because he knows they are? - important. He never meets a person so wretched or reviled that he cannot instantly forgive him and love him. It’s a remarkable life, and a remarkable demonstration for others of how to live. It is, in every sense, awesome.

Any law that Jesus thought was important, he says - more, he demonstrates - in these books. Thus, there’s no need for people who call themselves Christians to be rummaging through Judges or Deuteronomy for something else. You can ransack the Old Testament for historical interest if you like - as a chance to sample the background color of Jesus’s life and culture. But that’s all. Exhuming archaic laws from the Levitican crypt and trying to pass them off as current, living Christian teaching utterly wrong. It would be like pulling statutes out of a 19th Century law book and claiming they apply today because, once upon a time, they were real. Yes, one might answer, but what about all the years in between then and now? Do we just wipe them out like they never happened? What about the fact that this law was repealed a decade later? Do we just forget that? Citing the Old Testament as a source of law is equally foolish. It omits the fact that Jesus even lived. It asks us to forget everything he said which contradicts, an in many cases cancels, such old laws. It is fundamentally un-Christian.

And you know what? It’s a good thing Jesus came along and canceled all these Old Testament laws. Because they were a mess. The various chapters of the Bible’s Old Testament were written in very different epochs, by very different authors, who had very different ambitions and purposes and (sad but true) axes to grind. We’re used to thinking of the Bible today as one book, but it was far from so when these texts were first written. The authors of the Old Testament were writers as varied in temperament and purpose as any group of leaders at any time - for example, Martin Luther King, Louis Farrakan and Malcolm X. If I were to combine writings by these three authors into a single anonymous volume and then toss it a few thousand years into the future, who’s to say what readers of that time would believe? Looking back on the Old Testament, we have the same problem. Given overlapping, conflicting laws written by different authors of vastly different temperaments, we have to ask: What do you follow? What do you believe?

And when you ask these questions, you come to one of the main purposes of Jesus’s life. To simplify and humanize the love of God so that any man or woman, anywhere, anytime could understand it.

Therefore, I humbly submit: If you are treating gay men and women in any way that contradicts the message to Love Your Neighbor, you are wrong.

If you think you’re using “Tough Love” by treating them badly in order to urge them toward ‘renouncing’ their ways or seeking a ‘cure,’ you are misguided. You think you’ve found the path and you’re helping them find their way back to it. But you are a fool. The path to heaven is a way of the heart, not the head. You must love them, as you would anyone, and accept them, without reservation.

The divine purpose of this love may not, remember, be to change them. It may be to change you.

* * * * *

Here’s why Christians should be very glad that Jesus’s life cancels large sections of the Old Testament:

Dear Dr. Laura,

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.

I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the Bible’s other specific laws and how to best follow them:

a)

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

 

 

b)

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

 

 

c)

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

 

 

d)

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?

 

 

e)

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

 

 

f)

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev 11:10), it is a lesser Abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?

 

 

g)

Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

 

 

h)

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?

 

 

i)

I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

 

 

j)

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)`

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.

Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.

* * *

I obtained my copy of the above letter from www.snopes.com. Here are a few excerpts from their commentary on same, authored by the ever-eloquent Barbara Mikkelson:

This "letter," addressed to TV and radio’s Dr. Laura Schlessinger, may or may not have actually been sent to her, but in any case it is best read as an essay offering a counter to the "homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so" argument. Though it purports to be addressed to just one person (Dr. Laura), it is clearly meant for a general audience. The authorship of the letter is still a bit of a mystery, although the name "Kent Ashcraft" (or "J. Kent Ashcraft") keeps coming up.

...The key to this essay is its premise. Simply put, the letter points out a logical flaw in the "homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so" argument: if homosexuality is wrong because it goes against God's law as outlined in the Bible, why aren't any number of activities now viewed as innocuous but once regarded as unacceptable also offenses against God's law? How can one part of Leviticus be deemed as etched in stone when other parts have been discarded as archaic?

The essay completes with the sarcastic rejoinder, "Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging." While this is presented as a rebuke meant for just one, it is a general reminder that many belief systems pick and choose their way through Biblical teachings in determining what is right and what is wrong, with those assessments changing over time even within sects that pride themselves on strict adherence to the Good Book.

* * *

Well said, Barbara.

If you have a minute, here’s another article that appeared on the web recently. In this case, the author’s point is not simply that Biblical antigay statements are inconsistent, but that, in fact, many such passages and laws have been either distorted or invented out of whole cloth to serve an already-existing anti-homosexual bias.

In other words, the only antigay laws anybody can find in the Bible are those they insert themselves.

* * *

The Myth of Sin

by Matthew Frederick Streib

(Note: this article first appeared on the Cornell Daily Sun website on March 11, 2004. I have edited it - without the author’s knowledge or permission - to add some of my own thoughts. For the original, click here)

The Bible says very little, if anything, about homosexuality. Most of it has been incorrectly translated or interpreted in order to insert a condemnation.

The most obvious example is that in both classical Hebrew and Greek there was no word for homosexual. In any instance, then - such as Paul's letters - in which modern translations of the Bible use "homosexual" explicitly, the word is standing in for something else. Yet Biblical mistranslation is only a small part of a larger problem. The historical discussion of the Bible's stance on homosexuality reveals, in fact, a complex web of distortion and abuse of doctrine by those in power.

For example, certain individuals - and the church - like to cite Leviticus 18:22 as a general condemnation of homosexuality: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination." But this prohibition, like many others in Leviticus, is very specific to the historical epoch in which it was first uttered. The laws of Leviticus are, in fact, ‘protective laws’ that were meant to keep the Israelites from being tempted into any of the rituals or practices then prevalent in nearby Canaan, Israel's greatest competitor. Lying “with a male as with a woman” was a practice of the temple prostitutes of Canaan in the fertility rites of the god Baal - they believed sex between men would ensure a good harvest. If this passage truly referred to homosexuality in a more general context, references to lesbianism would not have been omitted.

(And if it were truly a heinous sin, it would be called more than an “abomination.” The word “abomination” in ancient Israel did not mean “mortal sin” but “soiled,” a word of about the same seriousness as person who pees on the sidewalk. This is not ”thou shalt not kill” we’re talking about here. - Paul)

As an example of an even bigger stretch, take Sodom and Gomorrah. "Bring them out to us, so that we may know them" (Gen. 19:5). No Jewish scholars before the first Christian century taught that the sin of Sodom was sexual. Nowhere in the Bible's many references to Sodom, from Deuteronomy 29:22 to Matthew 10:14, is homosexuality mentioned as a reason for that city’s destruction. Instead, Sodom is cited as an example of the sins of injustice, idolatry, and, most importantly, lack of hospitality to strangers. The specific sin committed was not homosexuality, but rather the attempted rape of protected guests, a heinous abuse of trust.

Not only has the Bible been mistranslated to condemn homosexuality, but the Church has deleted passages that seem to favor it. In 325 C.E., religious leaders of the newly Christianized Roman Empire gathered at the Council of Nicea to standardize the central tenets of Christianity. At the meeting, they scrapped a large group of verses that were located between what became Mark 14:11 and 12. The verses described Jesus' and Lazarus' interaction. A portion of the verses read:

    But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days, Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth came to him, wearing a linen cloth over nakedness. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.

This passage does not mean that Jesus was gay, but a careless reader might so interpret it. The homophobic leaders of Nicea could not risk that, so they chose to alter the Bible accordingly.

(Clearly Bible “laws” and “lessons” often aren’t God’s laws and lessons at all, but an attempt to use the Bible to further the moral codes (and shortcomings) of various self-appointed Bible editors down through the years. In other words, the Bible isn’t dictating human behavior - human behavior is dictating the Bible. - Paul)

Turning to the New Testament and its most prominent critic of homosexuality, it should be noted that Paul of Tarsus hated all sex, not just gay sex. Paul took Jesus' teachings in Matthew 19:10-12 to an extreme, grudgingly allowing marriage, and sex without pleasure, for the purpose of propagation. This view was adopted and exploited by Augustine Aurelius, Bishop of Hippo, who stated that "the world must be used, not enjoyed." He claimed that semen incurred the damnation brought upon man by Adam's sin, and because propagation demands semen Adam's descendants must pay for his sin, forfeiting their right to be free. Through this doctrine he did the government of ancient Rome a great service, for in a stroke he rendered the Christians of Rome inherently incapable, according to the Bible, of attaining their political freedom.

This is ironic, because Paul himself warned about the dangers of religious figures proclaiming their own piety for what were, in fact, self-serving ends. In one of his famous letters to Corinth he railed against those who promulgated false interpretations of Jesus' teachings:

    It is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends. Such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his ministers also disguise themselves as ministers of righteousness. (2 Cor. 10:18, 11:13-15).

In my opinion, there’s a strong parallel to today. Many American leaders live in a world of privilege and cynically use Christianity as a mantle to lend their lifestyle legitimacy. Yet what they preach does not come from the teachings of Christ: they don’t work for the poor, the unfortunate, or the outcast. Instead, they feed upon America's racism, sexism, and homophobia - scapegoating minority groups and misleading Christians - in order to cement their power.

And they do this by the attempted monopolization of Christian doctrine. They act as though their interpretation is the only correct one in order to render their authority unassailable; any Christian who opposes them immediately becomes a heretic. Does this sound like the teachings of Jesus? Or is it, in fact, more like the ways of his greatest opponents, the New Testament’s showy Pharisees?

There is nothing more anathema to the deeds, words, and intentions of Jesus than this hateful disfiguration of his message.