Jeff Bineham, B.A., Communication Arts (1980), writes:
I attended George Fox from 1976 to 1980, and during that time I met only one student who I knew to be gay. She was eccentric and eloquent and remarkably honest about her orientation, and she disappeared from campus after one semester. I think I treated her kindly. I know I judged her harshly.
My judgment, which I never voiced to her but which I’m sure she could sense, was that her sexual orientation made her guilty of a sin. I was certain my judgment was correct because I believed the Bible pronounced absolute truths, I believed I knew what those truths were, and I believed they indicated clearly that anything other than heterosexuality was wrong.
My thinking stopped there. I had little sense of how the conditions of time, place, and culture influenced the writing or the reading of scriptural texts, and I thus accepted uncritically what my tradition had passed on to me. I did not ponder in any depth what those texts actually said about gay and lesbian relationships.
The Bible mentions homosexuality in only a few passages, and in each case it condemns or forbids the actions in question. That’s probably why many believers judge homosexuality so harshly. The Bible is, after all, Christianity’s classic text; no one, Christian or not, would deny its special status. But that status does not free us from the difficulties of interpretation and the quandaries of deciphering which biblical principles apply to us now and which do not.
Surely we can exclude from consideration one of the most commonly cited passages – Genesis 19, which recounts the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In this story, angels visit Lot and are threatened by his neighbors with gang rape. Can anyone honestly conclude that this account contains moral judgments about committed gay or lesbian relationships?
Other Hebrew Scriptures appear to be unambiguous condemnations of homosexuality. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 combine to say that on penalty of death, a man “shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” Many are quick to apply this judgment today, but do so without considering that Hebrew Scriptures state numerous principles that few believe should apply in contemporary society. They forbid sex during menstruation, for example, and consider both semen and menstrual blood to be unclean; atonement is required of anyone who touches either (Leviticus 15:16-33).
Polygamy is the norm in Hebrew Scripture: Abraham married both Sarah and Hagar, and Jacob purchased and married both Leah and Rachel. The texts convey no sense that polygamy, or purchase, carry a moral stigma. And when a married man died it was his brother’s responsibility to marry and have children with the widow. No one argues that this biblically mandated responsibility applies in contemporary Jewish or Christian communities.
Hebrew Scripture contains numerous additional laws that govern marriage and sexuality, many of which we would consider ridiculous. Deuteronomy 25:11-12 states, “If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.” This severe punishment was administered to offending wives because they were men’s property, listed alongside the neighbor’s house, slaves, ox, and donkey as something one should not covet.
The Christian New Testament also makes pronouncements against homosexual behavior. Romans 1:26-27 describes “dishonorable passions” and “shameless acts”: “women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.”
Several theologians claim that these verses do not condemn homosexuality. The first century writer had no concept of sexual orientation, and presumed heterosexuals in lustful fits of passionate frenzy committed homosexual acts. The verses say nothing, therefore, about loving and committed relationships between innately gay people.
The other common New Testament references are I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-10, which contain lists of sins that include “sodomy,” a term many interpret to mean homosexuality. Theologian Robin Scroggs, among others, argues that the Greek words used in these lists refer to pederasty, a practice in which men took young boys as protégés and sexual partners. Scroggs concludes that “the homosexuality the New Testament opposes is the pederasty of the Greco-Roman culture” and that Paul’s judgments against homosexuality therefore do not apply to consensual relationships between gay and lesbian adults.
Many Christians will dismiss these interpretations as wrong-headed efforts to reread the Bible. And I do not, in fact, think these “rereadings” are definitive. They should, however, make us less certain about the dominant interpretations of these texts, and prompt us to consider that those who used the Bible to justify slavery, segregation, and the subordination of women believed with certainty that their interpretations were absolutely true.
In the few places where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior its evaluations are decidedly negative. Does that mean that those who take the Bible seriously should define as sinful every gay or lesbian relationship we encounter today? Or can we admit, to begin, that the way we read these texts has as much to do with what extra-biblical sources have taught us as with what the texts themselves say?
Since I left George Fox, I have of course learned that the one student I knew to be gay represented many others, some of whom were close friends then and remain friends now. They dared not share this one important dimension of their being, because they rightly feared the repercussions. If only, in light of the uncertainty surrounding the verses people typically cite about this issue, I’d opted for a scriptural sentiment that seems more sure: For all the law is fulfilled in one word; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
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