Multimedia Archive

Miscellaneous speeches, talks, and documents by Phil Snider (or edited by Phil Snider), mostly so I (he) can more easily link to them

Month: February, 2013

What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality, part II

(Here are my notes for my talk from Sunday)

Ephesians 4:1-5

Last week’s sermon, the first in a five part series brought to you by the letter “H,” focused on what the Bible actually says—and doesn’t say—about homosexuality. We took a look at the texts within their orginal context and asked how they apply to our context today, recognizing that things aren’t quite as black and white, or cut and dry, as we often think. I also highlighted the way that sincere Christians with sincere hearts have come to different conclusions on the matter, and that even if we don’t share in uniformity of interpretation we are responsible for sharing in integrity of interpretation.

Today, in part two, we are looking at what all of this means for our church. Goodness knows we don’t all agree. As I said last week, in the Disciples of Christ denominational tradition, our unity is not based on uniformity of opinion but on mutuality of love, which is actually pretty difficult to come by in a polarized culture like ours.

Over the course of time, my own view on these matters has shifted quite a lot. In my early days of ministry, I wasn’t sure whether to affirm homosexuality or to condemn it. To be honest, I didn’t think a lot about it. And because the bible only has five verses about homosexuality, out of about 30,000, I figured I’d pay most of my attention to what the bible talks about the most, which is probably the first thing we should consider doing as a church. As the Presbyterian scholar William Placher writes:

“Any honest reading of the Bible will make it clear that it takes sins like greed, hatred, and lack of compassion much more seriously than it takes any sins having to with [homosexuality]. If a [church] singles out homosexuals for judgment and doesn’t speak and act forcefully on other matters where the Bible is far more forceful, therefore, it looks as though its motive is not faithfulness to scripture, but accepting the prejudices of contemporary society. In such cases, while Christians may claim to stand up against the values of our culture, in fact they are yielding to them. Friends I respect who struggle with this issue sometimes say, ‘But the church needs to take a stand somewhere. We have given up on any number of points, but as some point we need to draw a line and say that this behavior may be increasingly acceptable in our society, but it is not acceptable to the Christian community.’ I understand this concern. But, if we learn anything about moral judgment from the Gospels, it is surely that Christians should focus on the sins that our society rarely criticizes, especially when they are committed by the rich and powerful, not those already condemned and despised, as homosexuality so often is. Even if one concedes that homosexual intercourse is a sin—and, for reasons already noted, the biblical evidence does not persuade me of that—it is also a form of behavior that gets people fired from their jobs, beaten up, called rude names, generally treated with contempt in many parts of our society, and sometimes even murdered. As I write this, the top selling album in the country, by a young white ‘rapper,’ Eminem, includes songs that talk vividly about beating up and killing homosexuals. A version of the album for sale in chain stores in more conservative parts of the country has the worst of its profanity eliminated, but leaves these references to violence unchanged. Those who grow up gay generally have a hard time of it in contemporary America. Thus, the patterns of Jesus’ ministry would clearly imply that, even if homosexual behavior were a sin, here is precisely not the place to ‘draw the line.’ Far better to draw it in the face of a sin like greed, which our culture generally treats with something like admiration, especially when it is masked as ‘success.’ Jesus, after all, singled out for particular condemnation the sins that his society accepted as compatible with respectability. Those who were condemned by society anyway he tended to treat rather generously. Here as elsewehere, Jesus stood with the outsiders, the disreputable, and the fearful, rather than the self-confident and self-righteous.” (Placher, Jesus the Savior, 101-2)

So the first thing we must do as a church is consider where Jesus would stand on all of this–or, perhaps more precisely, who Jesus would stand with.

My mind has changed a lot on this over the years. Throughout the course of my own ministry I started meeting more and more people who came to me in pastoral confidence and talked to me about their struggles growing up as a gay person in our society in general and in the church in particular (feelings of hurt, rejection, and depression, often feeling suicidal).

I used to kind of think about homosexuality as a sin along the same lines of alcoholism or adultery (and I should “love the sinner but hate the sin”), but after a while even that didn’t add up in my mind. For instance, if one is an alcoholic, and gives up drinking, one’s life improves, it gets better. And if in a relationship neither partner cheats on the other, well, obviously, that’s much healthier for the relationship. But throughout the course of my pastoral ministry, I started to notice that people who are gay don’t tend to get better over time when they try to renounce their sexuality. I know several people who have gone to counseling to try to become straight, or have literally had people pray in exorcism fashion for their “gay” demons to leave them, but none of it worked. Then I started to notice that the gay people I knew who were most healthy were actually the ones who had come to terms with their sexuality and didn’t try to repress or ask God to change it, but had accepted it as part of who God created them to be. And I started to think that people don’t choose to be gay anymore than I chose to be straight. Why in the world would someone choose to go through such heartache and pain? It didn’t make sense to me.

All of those experiences changed my mind in pretty signficant ways, so much so that I now view things much differently than I did when I first started ministry. Now I tend to think that the bible reflects the prejudices of ancient culture on this matter in the same way it does regarding slavery, or viewing women as property, or any number of things that our culture no longer affirms or accepts. My perspective can best be summarized in a quote from John Caputo: “My own view is that the outcome of a careful debate about these matters would be to show that there simply are no arguments to show that homosexual love is of itself anything else than love, and that therefore, since the essence of the Torah is love, it hardly falls afoul of the law. To be sure, when it is not love, when it is promiscuity, or infidelity to a sworn partner, or rape, or the sexual abuse of minors, or in any way violent, then it is indeed not love, but that is no less true of heterosexuality.” (Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?)

With all this said, I also recognize that there are very good and sincere people of faith who disagree with me. Some are dear friends who I have known for years, while others I’ve grown close to through church. It’s not that they’re heartless people, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not that they’re insincere in their faith; hardly at all. We simply interpret this differently. But their faith is every bit as sincere as my own. And no matter which “side” of this debate you are on, I would guess that you’ve had a similar experience with your own friends from time to time, including your friends here at church.

I also recognize that I speak to the church but not for the church. When I share my perspectives with others, I’m always quick to point out that these are my perspectives, and I am not necessarily speaking for Brentwood. I speak to the church but not for the church.

In June, the General Minister and President of our denomination, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, wrote a pastoral letter for Disciples of Christ churches that I found to be really helpful when considering what all of this means for our church, and I think you will as well. She writes:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In fielding questions from Disciples, I am asked, “Where are we with respect to sexual orientation?” Since the question comes up frequently, I would like the Church to know how I answer it.

I respond, “Some faithful Disciples, in deep study of scripture and with much prayer, have come to the conclusion that sexual orientation is part of how each one of us is created by God. Other faithful Disciples, in deep study of scripture and with much prayer, have come to the conclusion that homosexuality is sin. What makes us Disciples is that at the Table of the Lord, people of both points of view – and everyone in between – are welcome.”

Followers of Jesus have always been diverse. Matthew, the tax collector, a servant of the Roman Empire, was among the twelve. So was Simon, the Zealot, working to overthrow the Roman Empire. Yet these two were known by one name: disciples. Disciples of Christ today still hold different perspectives on controversial issues. Yet “God’s covenant of love . . . binds us to God and to one another.” “Through baptism into Christ we . . . are made one.” (Preamble to the Design.)

Our confession of faith in Jesus Christ brings us into fellowship with one other. We value iindividual and congregational freedom of belief and conscience. We gather with our differences;iunited by and in Christ alone. Among Disciples, a core manifestation of our unity with diversity has always been the open Table. Knowing that the Table is the Lord’s, we make room for whoever will come at Christ’s gracious invitation. All are welcome. Diverse though we may be, we, too, call ourselves by one name: Disciples.

Our challenge (as individual brothers and sisters in Christ and as congregations) is to help each other feel welcome and also safe at the table of our Lord. All tables of the church must be safe places, where respect for diversity among God’s children is honored. As self-governing ministries, in covenant with one another, our challenge is to make room for each other within one Church – even when we make different decisions on important matters. In the past, maintaining the respect and safety of the Table has challenged Disciples. In the era of slavery and abolition Disciples did not divide, but stayed at the common table. Today, the politicized and polarized character of the sexual orientation and equality debate again poses such challenges. This is the time to use our best table etiquette of entering into dialogue in love even in our diversity of opinion. This is the time for the church to show the world that wholeness wins out over fragmentation.

Approaching each other in love is especially difficult in matters at the core of our humaniidentity. Human sexuality is not an “issue;” it’s who we are. It’s about all of us – including our friends and family members who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender – children of God with names and stories and a faith journey to recount.

Along with the question, “where are we on this?” some are calling for the Church “to vote and take a clear position” – that is, “to decide” about how Disciples understand the Gospel call related to sexual orientation in our church. The truth is, in standard Disciples fashion, “the Church” already is deciding – all over the place – in congregations and regions and individual hearts. It’s just that, in keeping with our diversity, we are coming to different conclusions. This is an Ephesians 4 moment when we are called to “bear with one another in love.”

When people from across the life of the Church talk to me, I am always astonished to heariboth conservative Disciples and liberal Disciples (and moderates, for that matter) share deep feelings of disenfranchisement. The two “sides” think the other either rejects the authority of Scripture or holds a legalistic interpretation of select passages. Each believes another is setting the agenda. In reality, I am convinced that we all are trying to be faithful to the Gospel as we understand it, and sometimes that feels like a lonely place.

As General Minister and President I continue to work for and pray for God’s justice – the day when no member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) feels unheard or rejected or treated like a “second class citizen” within the fellowship of the church because of their understanding of human sexuality or their sexual orientation.

In the meantime, Disciples, let us engage in our “best practice” of welcoming all to the Lord’s Table, making sure all are welcome and safe. Let us maintain and create church processes that allow individuals and congregations to live together with our different decisions.

At the Lord’s Table, God welcomes us to share in fellowship with the entire Body of Christ. At the Table we become Christ’s body for the world. Through the church, we have the opportunity to extend to others the grace of inclusion that God extends to us in our own search for faithful understanding and right action.

We are diverse communities, but all Disciples. We are many members, but one body of Christ. My prayer is that we can continue to cherish each other in Christian love even as we continue to live for awhile with the ambiguities of our different conclusions. May we make room for each other at the literal and metaphorical tables of the Church.

May we bear with one another in love.

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What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality, part I

Today I begin a five-part sermon series on the biblical questions that I am asked about most frequently as a pastor. The questions I get the most, in this order, are: “What does the Bible say about homosexuality?” What does the Bible say about hell?” and “What does the Bible say about heaven?” So I figured I would take some time this summer to address them.

As you can imagine, the responses to these questions are varied and complex. I wish I could say that it was all very cut and dry, that there is an easy answer to all of this. But there isn’t.

As Christians, we have a serious responsibility to come to terms with what we believe in relationship to the Bible, scripture, tradition, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Every day we render judgments regarding what we believe is right and true, and if as Christians we claim the Bible to be our authoritative source, then we have the responsibility to listen to its teachings and, to the best of our ability, listen to its guidance. We ought not take the teachings of the Bible flippantly on any matter, unless we are okay with not taking it seriously.

Obviously, not all of us are going to interpret the Bible the exact same way. The question, it seems to me, is not based on whether we have uniformity of interpretation but rather integrity of interpretation. Whatever our personal beliefs might be, we are charged with interpreting the Bible with integrity, to ask how it serves as a guide for our beliefs, which demands understanding it to the best of our ability, in relationship to its original context, and in light of the teachings of Christ.

Today, my role is to help walk you through the biblical texts that talk about homosexuality. Clearly, this is one of the most widely talked about topics in contemporary culture. In just the past couple of months, three of the biggest Protestant denominations in the United States (the United Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians) have consistently made headlines because at each of their church conventions they’ve made resolutions related to homosexuality, from conversations about ordination to marriage to the appropriateness of same gender relationships. These conversations have been very divisive for contemporary denominations and churches, as I’m sure you already know.

One of the things I value the most about Brentwood in particular and the Disciples of Christ in general is a commitment to respecting a variety of interpretations, and still believing that the love of Christ unites us. Goodness knows that those of you sitting here today don’t all agree on this matter! But we make a commitment to be church together, believing that the love of Christ transcends even our differences of opinion; that love, not doctrine, unites us.

My role as a pastor in the Disciples of Christ is not to tell you what conclusion you must make, but rather help give you the resources you need to come to a responsible interpretation. I speak to the church, but not for the church. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to wrestle with what you believe on this matter. What I believe doesn’t have to be what you believe, and vice versa. Again, the question is not about uniformity of opinion but integrity of opinion.

So with that said, let’s venture into the biblical teachings about homosexuality and ask for God’s guidance. One quick disclaimer: The Bible would receive an “R” rating by the standards of today, so in an effort to be sensitive to all the ears in the room, including the younger ones, there are times when I soften the explicit language in the Bible, and I need you to be able to infer with me what the Bible is getting at. So, for instance, I might say “same gender relations” as opposed to something perhaps more explicit. But bear with me in that regard for obvious reasons.

In the Bible, there are five verses that talk about what we refer to as homosexuality (although the ancients didn’t have an understanding of “sexual orientation” in the same way we do today). There are two verses from Leviticus, one from 1 Corinthians, one from 1 Timothy, and one from Romans. A lot of times people throw Genesis 19 into the mix (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah), but for reasons I’ll mention shortly most scholars today don’t think it’s a passage about homosexuality.

Leviticus 18:22 says that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” and Leviticus 20:13 says “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they’ve committed an abomination.”

Clearly, these verses prohibit same gender relations. It’s obvious. It’s explicit. So the easy thing for us to do is say that this settles the matter, and for many people it does. So why in the world would some Christians say this doesn’t settle the matter? Well, the response to this is pretty simple, and you likely know it already: There are a bunch of biblical passages in Leviticus and in the Bible that we don’t follow whatsoever, and we have no problem with it. Many of us eat shellfish. We eat pork. We wear clothes made from two different types of materials. We lend money with interest. All without batting an eye. So why do we hold up some verses as authoritative but completely disregard others? Such a lack of consistency makes it difficult to justify our reasons for condemning one thing as taboo while ignoring other taboos that lie side by side in the text.

A funny picture made the rounds on Facebook recently. It pictured a man with a tattoo that said “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” with the biblical reference Lev. 18:22. Yet if you go on to read Leviticus 19, you’ll see that it forbids tattoos! So all of this is very difficult to navigate. And I also failed to mention the second half of Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they’ve committed an abomination, and both must be put to death.” Of course, none of us who follow the sexual ethic commended here follow through with the death penalty for such violations. It would put us in prison, and rightly so! It’s like what the Taliban does, and of course we don’t want anything to do with that. If we follow the ethical admonitions in the first five books of the Bible, then kids who curse their parents have to be executed, as well as brides who aren’t virgins, as well as a bunch of other things we would never do. If you take the sexual ethics found in Leviticus as your guide, are you ready to execute those who commit such acts? Are you ready to own up to all that is demanded in the text? This is why the corny bumper sticker that reads “The Bible says it – I believe it – That settles it” is so non-sensical and unhelpful. So how do we decide which parts of the Bible we follow, and which we don’t? This is no easy matter.

To make things even difficult, biblical scholars also tell us that the ancient Israelites believed that acts of same gender relations kept Israel from fortifying itself against its enemies. Israel was a small, fragile nation, and it needed as strong of a defense as possible. In order to survive it believed in procreating as much as possible in order to increase the number of soldiers in the army. So men were not to “waste” their seed whatsoever, whether with other men or by themselves, because the purpose of sexuality was for procreation. Hence the strict prohibitions. This is also much of the reason why brothers of those who died without children were supposed to have relations with their late brother’s widow, in order to bear children, which is yet another biblical practice that none of us heed today.

And from still yet another perspective, scholars tell us, there were cultic worship practices among devotees to other gods that involved temple prostitution between males, and Israel was not to order their worship practices the same way, but to be set apart. Part of this is also connected to ritual purity codes, and in the same way men were not to have relations with one another, neither were men supposed to have relations with women during a certain time of the month (related to menstrual cycles). So there are a variety of contextual considerations that come into play, and we have to ask ourselves if the same principles that applied then still apply today. There’s no clear cut answer. All of us won’t come to the same conclusions, but we have the responsibility to ask the same questions, and to respond with integrity.

I mentioned earlier that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, from Genesis 19, is sometimes cited as a text prohibiting homosexuality. In the story, the men of Sodom come to assault Lot’s visitors, who they do not recognize as being two angels, and Lot offers to hand over his daughters instead. However, offering daughters instead of the visitors makes no sense if we think of the men of Sodom as “homosexuals.” “These Sodomites are violent bullies,” one scholar writes, “who carry their excesses to the point of attempted rape [assault]. Such behavior still occurs in the aftermath of battle, in prisons, or among violent gangs. Those who perform such forced rapes [assaults] consistently insist that they are [straight], and their actions seem indeed to be intended to assert power rather than to express sexual attraction.” (See William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 98). Here, men in the role of aggressor place conquered or victimized men in the role of the woman, all in order to assert dominance, power, and authority over them, which is a practice that continues today in prisons and in the aftermath of battle, among straight men asserting their dominance over others. A problematic practice indeed, one to be unequivocally condemned, but not one excluded to “homosexual” men by any stretch of the imagination; rather, it is straight men asserting their power over their victims. Hence the reason most biblical scholars don’t view the sin of Sodom as that of homosexuality (indeed, according to the book of Ezekiel, the sin of Sodom is that they “did not aid the poor and needy” cf. Ez. 16:49).

Things get even murkier when we turn our attention to Christian scripture. Here we encounter three texts that condemn same gender relations: The passages from 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are virtually identical: each lists types of sinners who won’t inherit the kingdom of God, including “men who have [relations] with other men.”

In Greco-Roman culture, the context in which St. Paul (the author of these letters) was situated—same-sex activity was quite common. Often, as a rite of passage, adolescent boys were subjected as passive partners to older men of power and prestige. The older men would display their power by relegating these adolescent boys to the passive role of women—further establishing the patriarchies of Greco-Roman culture. When the boy became an adult, he would switch roles, and then he would marry a woman and have children. This practice was so common that the legendary Greek philosopher Plato took all of this for granted and praised the virtues of courage and honor that resulted from such relationships. And while these practices were common, they are once again in stark contrast to the kinds of relationships that are shared today among mutually consenting adults, so we’re left wondering. One scholar reflects on St. Paul’s writings and says that “. . . though some scholars argue the point, [it seems] fairly clear that Paul considered these practices sinful. Some Christians conclude that that settles the matter [while] others feel that Paul simply reflected the prejudices of a Jew who had come into contact with [Greco-Roman] culture. . . . Paul condemned what he saw . . . [but] we are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw. Would he have felt differently if everyone involved had been an adult? If the relation had been understood as between equals? . . . Such questions have no obvious answer.” (see Placher, 99).

The last remaining biblical passage about homosexuality, from Romans 1, says that “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men…” This is, by the way, the only mention in the Bible about women laying with women.

Here Paul says that such activity is unnatural — that it goes against the created order — and this is one of the strongest arguments that is still made today. But appealing to natural law is a dangerous path to tread. After all, Paul’s writings have also been used to argue that slavery and patriarchal structures are natural. As the theologian John Caputo comments, “Natural law theory is notorious for serving the interests of the natural law theorists, for starting with a conclusion and then working back to the idea of ‘nature’ that provides them with a suitable cover” (see Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 110). In the cases of slavery and patriarchy, it’s convenient for men who already have the power to define what nature means. And when it comes to such situations today, don’t we gladly admit that Paul reflected an ancient bias that no longer holds? All of which raises the unavoidable question: If Paul got the “natural law” wrong when it came to slavery and women, who’s to say he got it right when it comes to homosexuality? There is no obvious answer. Critics often object at this point and say that the only way to populate the species is intercourse between a man and a woman, so the natural law is clear. But if the only purpose for sexual activity is the procreation of the human race, should we then condemn sexual activity between married senior citizens or younger couples who are infertile? And if science ends up showing us that a person is born gay, that a person doesn’t choose one’s sexual orientation, that it is natural to be gay, then would Paul’s argument still hold the same way? Again, we are left with questions that Paul never considered.

Whether we look at passages from the Old Testament or the New Testament, we quickly see that none of this is cut and dry, none of it is black and white. I wish it was; that would make my job much, much easier. Would St. Paul—or the writer of Leviticus for that matter—say the same principles apply to two adults of the same gender sharing a monogamous, mutual, loving relationship? I wish we could conjure St. Paul up from the dead to settle these matters for us, but we simply can’t. We have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, in the light of Christ.

Next week, in part 2 of this sermon series, I will reflect on how we consider handling all of this as part of the church, as those trying to be a faithful witness to Christ in the world today.

For now, we’re left with the responsibility of prayerfully considering where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Not all of us are going to agree, at which point it is all the more important for us to remind ourselves that our unity is not based on uniformity of opinion, but on mutuality of love.

One thing I find helpful when encountering difficult passages of the Bible, one thing I find helpful when considering how best to interpret them, is a line from the orthodox theologian Karl Barth, who once said “The Bible is the Word of God insofar as it conforms to the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ.” And as we go from this place today, as we reflect and discern, I encourage you to consider the words from Jesus that Charlie shared a few moments ago during our scripture reading from the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus was asked “What is the greatest commandment?” his simple response was “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As you consider where the Holy Spirit is leading you, even in recognition that not all of us are going to be led in the exact same directions, the mark of Christ—the mark of love—must be our north star. When it comes down to it, each and every one of our judgments as Christians is to be consistent with the ethic and character of Christ—the ethic and character of love, for on this hangs all the law and the prophets. This is our measuring stick, this is our authority, this is our canon, and this is how we are called to make decisions. As St. Augustine once said, “If love is the only measure, the only measure of love is love without measure.” So where is love leading you?