‘Neither Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Gay nor Straight’?

I like to rile people up sometimes, so a few months ago, I posted the following to my Facebook feed:

If Paul had been living in the 21st century, would he have added ‘neither gay nor straight’ to Galatians 3:28?

As you might know, Galatians 3:28 reads:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Most people who responded did so with a Christian version of, “Hell, no!” But I think we do ourselves and the Bible a disservice by pretending it universally contains specific, timeless admonitions and prohibitions. Don’t get me wrong: Sometimes it does. But usually those are pretty clear. Stuff like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind and with all your strength.” The Old Testament mentions them, Jesus mentions them, Paul refers implicitly or explicitly to them.

You know, kind of like divorce.

Wait, what?

The Bible mentions divorce 34 times. It features prominently in the levitical law. In Malachi God is described as hating divorce, and in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus equates divorce with adultery and even gives specific reasons in which divorce is acceptable. Paul argues Christians shouldn’t even divorce their non-Christian spouses and reiterates Jesus’ command against remarrying after a divorce.

So how many people actually follow that? Nearly 40 percent of regular churchgoing Christians are divorced. And I would guess a good percentage have remarried or plan to be. They have already made the decision that the Bible’s clear, multitestamental admonitions are confined to a specific culture.

Perhaps you would disagree.

Would you also disagree about women covering their heads? Women wearing jewelry? Men wearing long hair?

At some point, everyone – even the most ardent of biblical literalists – says: This is not universal, not timeless, not applicable for me in my 21st century life. Your reasons for advocating silence for women in church while ignoring the examples of outspoken female leaders in both testaments may be sound, but you’re still arguing for a culturally limited reading of at least some of the Bible. You have drawn a line.

Scientists, who see the overwhelming evidence for an old, slowly evolving earth, draw this line at Genesis 1-2. Archaeologists, who see evidence contradicting the historicity of Israelite origins, draw lines at the book of Joshua. Most Christians have drawn the line at the numerous passages condoning genocide and slavery. And, increasingly, biologists and psychologists are drawing that line at passages dealing with homosexuality.

Because passages describing homosexuality as a choice (Romans 1) or describing it in male-only terms (Leviticus 18 and 20) are reflecting a particular culture – one with an incomplete, even inaccurate, view of human sexuality and biology.

I’m not sure I can say I definitively affirm the rightness of gay relationships – I’ll weasel out of it, Obama-style, and say my views are evolving on the matter – but I can say biblical discussions of homosexuality are far more culturally dependent than those on divorce. Yet we all know divorced people, so we shrug that issue off. We don’t think we know many or any gay people, so it’s easier to take a hard line. Regardless, there’s a lot of gray here – a lot more gray than most seem to realize.

Which is why I appreciate the perspective of Justin Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network. I’m not gay, and I don’t struggle with same-sex attraction, which means I cannot truly understand the full complexity of this issue. But Justin’s perspective as an openly gay, fully committed Christian is valuable for those of us who want to hear all sides and gain a better understanding of what God truly expects from our gay brothers and sisters. When he speaks, I think it’s my duty as a Christ-follower to listen.

Justin weighed in recently with a broadside against perhaps the most popular line of argument against homosexuality among those Christians who see themselves as more enlightened, even progressive, than those whose objections to homosexuality sound more like homophobia than love.

People on all sides make a lot of assumptions about us and what we believe.

But for many people I talk to, the most frustrating response of all is when they try to explain themselves, only to have a Christian friend or relative say something like this:

“I love you, and I know this is hard for you. But I believe that what God says matters more than what feels good. All of us sometimes have to put our own desires aside to serve God. I might have a desire to cheat on my wife or look at porn, but part of being a Christian is turning from sin, and that’s what I do and what you have to do, too.”

It’s good Christian theology, right? So what’s wrong with that? …

See, those of us who are committed Christians already know that turning from sin is important. We are already seeking to follow God with our lives. The issue isn’t that we believe sin is okay or that we think our own feelings matter more than God; the issue is that we don’t agree on what the right or wrong thing to do in the given situation is. We don’t agree on whether the behavior in question is sinful, or what God is calling us to do in the present circumstances.

The committed Christian who is in a gay relationship isn’t in that relationship because he thinks “God’s Word doesn’t matter” or that it’s “okay to sin.” Not at all! He’s in that relationship because he believes God has called him to it and that the Bible passages used to condemn gay relationships have been misinterpreted.

Now maybe you believe he’s wrong. Fair enough. Maybe he is. But if he’s wrong, he’s sincerely wrong. He’s doing what he honestly believes is right.

You don’t have to agree that Paul would have added “neither gay nor straight” to the book of Galatians. But I make this challenge: Are you willing to make homosexuality an agree-to-disagree issue? More importantly, how would this change your treatment of God’s gay children?

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5 comments on “‘Neither Male nor Female, Slave nor Free, Gay nor Straight’?

  1. Rich Potts says:

    The divorce analogy is a good one, and it works on the problem from the “choice” side.

    I think the appetite/desire side also needs work. And I have argued for a while now that the church should deal with homosexuality the way it deals with obesity. Leaving aside the moral discussion and focusing on the analogy, sex and food correspond to basic physical appetites. Obesity and homosexuality are, at best, disappointing fulfillments of those desires and, at worst, sinful desires for most Christians.

    But with obesity, we demand nothing of our brothers and sisters, though we don’t overlook obesity exactly. We remain uncomfortable with it. The issue is not about becoming convinced that being obese is a healthy way to live. The question is what has the Church done with obese Christians, and why have we done it? And what we do is “forgive it” in advance. Before we ever meet an obese Christian, we’ve chosen to get over that fact and work together for the kingdom. They may be pastors, teachers, whatever, even as their lives degrade by diabetes, hypertension and joint failure. (I’m not picking on obese people, just pressing the analogy.) Why not do the same with gay Christians? I’m waiting for someone to explain what, exactly, is so different about that physical appetite that we can’t also forgive it in advance?

    Of course, for all we know, if Paul lived in this century, he might also have banned obese people from the church.

    • Paul says:

      I like the obesity comparison, Rich. Like divorce, the Bible has much more to say about food and how we use it than it does about homosexuality, yet our culture is such that we all love food and know overweight people, so we can shrug that off. This could be applied also to consumerism, greed, envy, contentment (lack of), etc. All of these things are CLEARLY targeted in the Bible, much moreso than homosexuality.

      It makes the Christian outrage about gay marriage seem flimsy indeed and frankly leaves the refusal to ordain gay ministers open to question. Is it OK to ordain an obese minister? How about one with a flashy car or a big-screen TV?

  2. You have several times on the blog mentioned “science” in regard to homosexuality and more or less left it at that. It seems to me that you get as specific as mentioning specific branches (biology, psychology, etc.), make non-specific references to considerable evidence and then go on with your idea. This is in contrast to your reasoning on other topics, where you take specific passages of Scripture and really dig into them using more specific findings from various sciences.

    I’m not necessarily blaming you–after all, you’re not earning your masters in genetics, and it’s not the central theme of the blog. I don’t expect you to delineate individual studies and compare them to each other and begin quoting scientific journals every time you use science to reason something out. And I’m not necessarily setting myself up against you on the topir – of course I certainly don’t have the knowledge on the subject to call you out on that front.

    But you do bring it up somewhat regularly, and you do seem to bring it up in a fairly conclusive way. So I feel comfortable saying that I think you may be oversimplifying an issue – namely, what the scientific community has a consensus on – and using it in your reasoning often enough that potentially borders on misinformation.

    Again, that’s relative to how you’ve dealt with it here; obviously I’m not trying to make assumptions on how much you know about science or “correct” your conclusions (nor, probably, could I). But I think it’s kind of murky business to use the “hard” sciences to deal with the social and moral implications of an issue, and it comes up in a couple of ways with this particular issue.

    Science (genetics, biology and psychology) is pretty well united in identifying sexual development as a process too complex to boil down to one contributing factor over another (genetics, early childhood environment and experiences, ongoing biological development through puberty, personal experiences and choices at various development stages, etc.) for any individual, and so much the more when discussing the topic at large.

    As I understand it, leading psychologists and biologists were already comfortable with most, if not all, of the implications recent studies have brought to light for the layman. I’m unaware of any dramatic shift in thinking (yet) among scientific professionals when it comes to the relative importance of various factors in sexual development.

    Additionally, genetics is a much more complex system than what we are able to learn about in high-school biology (which is the level of most of the information I can readily find and understand on the subject), and the study of genetics involves an awful lot of checking against other scientific disciplines.

    I’m not saying that any particular research is faulty, but speculation about its implications is certainly in the hands of laymen like you and me significantly earlier than with other significant genetic discoveries. I definitely feel like people have come to more conclusions socially than biology, genetics or psychology have through research.

    Even if scientific research shuts down some faulty ideas, it does not, as I understand it, conclude that any individual is “born a certain” way in regard to sexuality; let alone that individuals are commonly “born a certain way”. This possibility is open, and is certainly not dismissed by any research I can find. But the most direct information I can find on the subject goes out of its way to assert the fuzziness and complexity of the issue.

    All of which is not to argue against your moral conclusion, but to say that I think the issue may have very little to do with what science currently shows.

    I think all of this underscores that the way Christianity is going to deal with the issue is likely going to have very little to do with supporting or refuting science. Like any issue I can readily bring to mind, it will come down to treating individual people with openness and integrity on the subject, and stepping out of the way for God to judge where he feels it’s necessary.

    • Paul says:

      I am oversimplifying, mostly because I’m not trying to launch into a discourse on the scientific studies of genetics and homosexuality.

      To my mind, the Bible and other pre-scientific/non-scientific views of homosexuality treat it like a choice. It is common knowledge that scientists have found a significant genetic component to homosexuality. Now, obviously, there are people who choose, subconsciously or not, to be gay because of events in their life, and there are other factors, as well. It’s too simple to say, full-stop, that homosexuality is inherited.

      But if the truth is, as you say (and I agree), that “it’s complicated,” then that is enough to argue the biblical culture had an incorrect view of homosexuality. And that’s all I’m saying here. There are people who are born gay; scientists have conducted plenty of studies showing this to be the case. Anecdotally, we can easily find stories about people who have never had attraction for the opposite sex. This fact contradicts the belief of ancient near Eastern cultures, and that means we need to bring recent discoveries about the nature of God’s world to the text of his word. A fuller exploration of this issue scientifically, while interesting, would not change my argument because ultimately the oversimplified generalization – that scientific evidence contradicts the worldview of the biblical authors on this subject – is correct.

  3. Adam says:

    I am struggling with this topic for a couple of reasons. First it seems like science is being used to create an absolute position from which ones theology should always agree. Second I have an issue with the idea that in order for someone to be seen as supportive of the gay community they in turn have to accept that communities views on a theology, that, in all likely hood is separate from not only what most churches say on the topic but what the Bible says as well.

    It is certainly understandable to view science as having the power to help us grow when it provides us with knowledge and information, and it’s acceptable to use that knowledge to help shape our views of the world around us. I won’t deny that science has been essential in lifting civilization out of the dark and into the light and while doing so correcting inaccurate (read wrong) ideas about our world. However there are some areas of faith that simply cannot be over ridden by science. For example I, like many other Catholics, firmly believe in transubstantiation regardless of what science tells us about physiological make-up of the Eucharist. Our belief that the bread and wine actually becomes the Body and Blood of Christ is not dependant on a physical manifestation. We believe that the miracle associated takes place regardless of physical form because of our faith in God and in the Church. So I ask you, should my faith be marginalized because I believe something that science can’t confirm or deny? When I hear arguments about faith and belief needing to be backed or informed by a scientific understanding of our world what I actually hear people saying is that science should be the litmus test on which all religions should be judged. With those who hold on to beliefs that are not supported directly by science judged to be less worthy of an opinion. It’s in this way that science is viewed to oppose religion because if science can be used to validate or invalidate what we believe then what becomes the point of belief.

    Moving on to the second issue, I don’t accept the justification that because I can’t comprehend the struggles a gay or lesbian individual faces it precludes me from proclaiming an active gay or lesbian relationship to be in direct conflict with the type of relationship God intended. I will willingly admit that I can’t possibly understand the struggles involved with being gay yet I don’t believe that is a comparison that God is interested in. We each have our own crosses to bear in life and some have heavier crosses than others but no one has carried a heavier cross than Christ did. So when a gay individual argues that my opinion isn’t valid because I can’t understand the degree to which they struggle they are missing the point of whose life they are supposed to be comparing themselves to. They should be looking at their cross and comparing it to that of Christ’s and no one else’s.

    The comparison between how we deal with obesity in our current society and the gay community is interesting but a little misguided in my opinion. Obesity itself is not sin because it describes a physical condition in which an individual exists. Gluttony which is the love of food, is the root cause of the sin that leads to obesity but the actual occurance of sin takes place when the impulses associated with that love of food are acted upon. Thus the sin occurs when you take action on an impulse you know to be in conflict with God’s laws. Similarly being gay is not a sin because that is the condition in which an individual believes they exist. The sin occurs when they act on the impulse to have relations with another individual of the same sex. Not because they have feelings for another individual of the same sex. In that light I believe I can say that it is perfectly acceptable to love our gay brothers and sisters in Christ and support their faith in God while at the same time stand up against an actively gay or lesbian relationship. Furthermore, because the Bible speaks out against the activity associated with the relationship I think we have a responsibility to resist the promotion of that type of relationship. In that sense we are taking a stand against the action and not the individual.

    Is it a difficult stand to take that is probably unfair? I would say yes to both counts but I would also say that Christians should be focused on faithfulness more than fairness and any activity that causes us or others to be separated from Christ is an activity performed out of faithlessness not faithfulness. Part of being faithful requires making hard decisions that can often be considered unfair but when we allow our judgment to be overcome by what we perceive to be fair it can actually work to diminish our faith.

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