By Rev. Jim Lucas, MDiv, BCC
“But what about the Bible?” It’s a question many 21st Century Christians are asking as they face growing acceptance in North American society for gay partnerships, whether in the form of marriage or civil unions. As Christians we certainly want to be understanding and compassionate toward our friends and family members who are gay, but most importantly we want to follow God’s will as revealed in Scripture.
So what about the Bible? At least since the 14th Century, the Christian Church has almost universally condemned gay relationships based on its understanding of the Bible.
Now many devout Christians, including scholars and pastors, are coming to the conclusion that the Church has misinterpreted the Bible on this ethical, pastoral, and very personal matter. A careful reading of Scripture leads these believers to the conclusion that the Christian community must affirm and bless faithful, loving partnerships for gay couples.
How could fellow Christians possibly arrive at such a conclusion? It would be easy to dismiss them as not taking the Bible seriously or as caving into popular trends in the world. However, this would not be a fair assessment. The new voices deserve to be heard. After all, the Church has been wrong before on major social issues. Take slavery, for example. We have to admit that we could be wrong again.
Interpreting the Bible
Bible teachers point out that we must interpret minor themes of the Bible in the context of major themes. So what are some major themes of the Bible that are important for this discussion?
One of the basic themes of the Bible is that God created us all in God’s image, just as children are created in the likeness of their parents (Genesis 1). God loves us as God’s own children. This applies to everyone, which of course includes gay people.
Because God loves us, God wants us to live and thrive. As Genesis 2:18 tells us, God said, “It is not good that the human should be alone.” God created us for companionship. To thrive we need such companionship. While we can find such companionship in various relationships, almost all of us long for one special person to whom we can be committed for life. For those who are gay, this is a partner of the same sex. Why would God prohibit us from a relationship that helps us to thrive?
The Bible teaches us specific ways we can thrive as human beings in relationships. Primarily, we thrive by living in love. Jesus said that the whole law could be summarized in the command to love (Matthew 22). Can gay and lesbian partnerships be characterized by love? Of course! We have countless examples to prove it. How could such loving unions violate love? How could they violate the command that summarizes all of what God commands? It’s really very simple: they don’t.
Distinguishing True and False Teaching
This approach to gay unions is unfamiliar to many Christians, and so they assume that it represents some new false teaching. Christian humility, however, requires us to ask whether in fact the traditional approach represents false teaching.
How can we discern false teaching from true teaching? Jesus taught a very simple method. In the context of a discussion about false teachers, Jesus said, “By their fruit you shall know them. A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit” ((Matthew 7:16-17).
With this simple but profound guidance, we must ask what good fruit would look like and what bad fruit would look like. Next we must investigate which approach produces good fruit and which approach produces bad fruit.
Consider a couple of additional passages. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). So it’s important to ask what approach brings life. Paul describes this abundant life when he gives examples of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
I can tell you that in my ministry with gay and lesbian people since 1991 it has become unequivocally clear that the church’s traditional approach of condemning gay unions has borne rotten, stinking fruit. This approach has driven gay people to lives of shame, depression, anxiety, self-hatred, fear, and alienation from family. It has driven them to self-destructive behaviors, including substance abuse, dangerous and promiscuous sexual encounters, and suicide. It has led gay people into heterosexual marriages, which very often end up in great suffering and divorce. Perhaps worst of all, the traditional approach has driven gay people away from the Christian community and sometimes away from God (almost always because of feelings of rejection). How could a teaching that is supposedly based on Scripture produce such bad fruit?
Furthermore, it is unmistakably clear that an approach that affirms committed, loving partnerships for gay couples produces beautiful, healthy fruit. Over and over I have observed that as gay people let go of the old messages of condemnation and receive new messages of affirmation, they experience emotional and spiritual healing. They come to peace with themselves, their families, and God. They abandon self-destructive behaviors. They return to God and often the faith community, albeit typically in churches that affirm gay partnerships. How could a teaching that is supposedly “of the world” produce such good fruit?
Once again we see that the application of biblical teaching leads us to affirm gay unions.
Applying the Golden Rule
As one specific way of fulfilling the command to love our neighbors, Jesus taught us, “Do to others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12).
Imagine how you would want others to treat you if you were gay. Would you want the church to excommunicate you for having a life partner? Or imagine how you would feel if the tables were turned—and the church told heterosexual people what it tells gay people. Would you want to be part of a church that required its members to renounce their marriages as sick and sinful—and vow never to be married again? The thought is ludicrous. Yet most churches routinely treat gay people in this way.
As we consider how to apply the Golden Rule to our relationship with gay people, our moral obligation becomes clear. If you were gay, wouldn’t you want the church to support you in a life partnership, just as the church currently does for heterosexual couples?
Considering Those Difficult Passages
But what about those passages that appear to condemn gay relationships? Bible scholars have written volumes of literature on this topic. In this article we have space only to consider a summary.
As we look at these passages, keep in mind that in order to respect and understand the Bible, we must always consider passages in their literary and historical contexts. What did particular passages actually mean in their original settings 2,000 years ago (New Testament) or more (Old Testament)?
We must then go on to ask if and, if so, how a particular passage applies to our situation today. Is the situation which the Bible addresses the same as our situation today? Or is it similar enough so that it has direct bearing on our setting and our particular moral issue?
Genesis 1 and 2 – Creation
Some people turn to these creation accounts to say that God created people heterosexual and that this is a “creation norm” for all times and places. However, the passage never says this.
Furthermore, such an interpretation looks for an answer that the writer of the passage never intended to address. The question behind Genesis is, “How did this marvelously diverse creation, including human creation, come into being?” Genesis gives the resounding answer, “God made this world!” And since the book tells about the beginnings of the human race, of course it is going to tell about a man and a woman. But that doesn’t mean that God could not have allowed and blessed later variations of sexuality, just as God has blessed a vast variety of created beings throughout the earth’s history, most of which are never mentioned in the Bible.
Genesis 19 – Sodom
In this passage we read about the city of Sodom, from which we get our word “sodomite.” The passage tells the story of all the men of Sodom surrounding the house where two out-of-town male guests (who are really angels) are staying. The men of Sodom demand that Lot, the owner of the house, send the guests out so that they might have sex with them. Later we find out that God destroys the city.
Some people say that God destroyed the city for its homosexuality, but this clearly does not make sense. The passage is talking about intended gang rape, which was a common practice in the ancient world by which men humiliated other men and showed dominance over them. The passage says nothing about loving gay relationships.
Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 – Laws
Many people point to these passages that state, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Although the passage seems very clear, we must consider its context. The book of Leviticus is filled with many laws, most of which we don’t follow today because we realize that God gave them for another time in history. Christians acknowledge that this time ended when Christ came. So why would we say that almost all the other laws are not for us but this one is still for us? Yes, we do follow a few of the laws in Leviticus, but why? Not simply because they are in Leviticus but rather because the New Testament teaches that certain laws are still in force. So we need to look elsewhere in the Bible to find clarity.
This passage refers to those whom “God gave over to shameful lusts” and to women and men who “exchanged natural relations for unnatural.” It speaks of men who “committed indecent acts with other men.” On the surface this passage seems to condemn all gay and lesbian relationships. However, is that really what it is saying?
Let’s look at the context and the passage itself. The context talks about those who have completely turned away from God. And then it says that God “gave them up” to various extreme behaviors. These behaviors sound like a description of people going wild in their rebellion against God and against any healthy boundaries. But what about good Christian people who have not turned against God—but who realize they are gay?
Also consider the description of the people. The passage says they “exchanged natural relations for unnatural.” But does this sound like a description of what we today call gay and lesbian people? Not at all! It sounds more like a description of people we would call heterosexual acting out in homosexual ways. Note also that the passage refers to relationships characterized by lust. But what about relationships based in love?
In summary, the author of this passage (the Apostle Paul) seems to be referring to a situation quite different from that of gay people as we know them today. And so we may not legitimately use this passage to say anything about loving, faithful gay and lesbian unions. It simply does not apply.
I Corinthians 6:9, I Timothy 1:10
These two passages include lists of people who will not inherit the “kingdom of God” and who are “lawbreakers.” In some Bible translations we see “homosexuals” or some version of the word included in the list. Many people have concluded on this basis that gay people are going to hell. They also conclude that gay people can become heterosexual through the power of God since the passage goes on to say that some of the people on the list had been changed through Christ.
The problem with this interpretation is that it is based on a very questionable translation. This passage (and the entire New Testament) was originally written in Greek. The two Greek words that some versions of the Bible translate as “homosexuals” (or something similar) are very difficult to translate and have been translated in a variety of ways.
An increasing number of Bible scholars now believe that these words do not refer to healthy, loving gay relationships as we know them today. Rather, they refer to specific kinds of homosexual relationships such as that of pederasty (older men taking boys as sex partners), prostitution, or even slavery—all practices that nearly everyone would condemn among heterosexual people as well as gay people. In fact, when the executive director of the translation committee for the New International Version was asked what the translators meant by the term “homosexual offenders” in I Corinthians 6:9, he replied that they were not referring to gay people per se but rather to people such as homosexual child molesters and rapists.
In summary, it appears that these two passages have often been mistranslated. Or at the very least the translation is not clear at this point, and so we must be careful in how we apply it.
Announcing the Bible’s Good News
That’s it! We’ve looked at the individual passages people typically use to condemn gay people and gay relationships, and we’ve looked at the Bible as a whole. What do we see? We see that the Bible clearly does not condemn gay people or gay relationships as we know them today. What the Bible condemns is homosexual—and heterosexual—relationships that do not contribute to love and life.
So we must look to the broader themes of Scripture. When we do this, we see that God loves and welcomes us all, whatever our sexual orientation. And because God desires that we live and thrive, God calls us to live healthy, loving lives in healthy, loving relationships. For most people that includes finding a life partner and living faithfully, thus demonstrating the faithful love of God. And for most gay people that means finding a same-sex life partner.
That’s good news for gay and lesbian people of faith! Yes, you can be gay or lesbian and a Christian. God loves all human beings regardless of sexual orientation. And God blesses our life partnerships with love.
The author of this article, Rev. Jim Lucas, received his Master of Divinity degree from Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1985. After serving a Christian Reformed congregation, he began a ministry with—and on behalf of—gay and lesbian people in 1991. Jim is currently ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ, and he is also a Board Certified Chaplain (BCC) with the Association of Professional Chaplains. Rev. Lucas serves as Chaplain of GIFT—Gays in Faith Together.
Contact Rev. Lucas at
207 East Fulton
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
For a list of books and other media on this topic, see the resource section of the website http://www.GaysInFaithTogether.org or send an email to Rev. Lucas at the address above.