When Prejudice Disguises Itself as Holiness

Prejudice disguises itself as holiness when passages such as Romans 1:26-27 are employed to clobber LGBTQ persons. The text reads as follows:

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their 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 and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Here is the problem with turning Paul into an anti-gay proponent: Paul, along with most ancient moralists, would have regarded same sex relations as an expression of excessive or exploitive sexual behavior by heterosexuals. It is not likely that he would have had any understanding at all of same sex attraction as a sexual orientation set early in life. Paul’s knowing about sexual orientation is about as likely as his knowing of atoms and electrons as basic elements of our universe. He would have been totally unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has no choice, and sexual behavior over which one does. Paul and everyone else in his day most likely believed that everyone was “straight.” The idea of sexual orientation or the possibility of a same-sex committed relationship were not even on their radar.

If one applied the same reasoning that Paul employed in Romans 1:26-27 to what we know today, then one could very well argue that for same-sex oriented persons to have sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex would mean acting “contrary to nature”—contrary to one’s unchangeable basic sexual orientation.

It is common for anti-gay proponents to argue that gay marriage denies the natural order. This is such a weak and misguided argument. It certainly sounds lame when Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 11: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Does nature really teach that? Are families who have children through adoption (rather than through procreation) perverting the “natural” order of things? Is my Down Syndrome daughter sinful because she has an additional chromosome with the resulting consequence of limited mental ability? Her state is definitely not “natural.”  

But let's come back to the likelihood that Paul would not have had any understanding of sexual orientation as an unchangable state. An example of how limited knowledge impacts the meaning of Scripture (both the original meaning intended by the biblical writer and our assessment of its relevance) is the way the Gospel writers understood and attributed diseases like epilepsy, psychological disorders, and even birth defects and disabilities to the work of unclean spirits or demons. They simply didn't know any different. 

Another example is the way ancient people conceived of the earth as the center of the universe and the way biblical writers believed in a three-tiered cosmology consisting of God’s heaven above the dome of the sky, the earth in the middle, and sheol (the abode of the dead) below the earth.

In holding to these beliefs they were simply echoing the common beliefs of their time and culture. They did not have available the accumulated knowledge we have access to.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it could be proved that Paul did know something about sexual orientation and still condemned same sex relations. Would that settle the issue? Does that mean that God is against such relations?

I have spent my life studying the Bible and it is central to my faith, and one thing that has become crystal clear to me is that the biblical writers got some stuff dead wrong. They certainly got God wrong when they imagined that God wanted Israel to utterly destroy any group of people who got in their way of taking possession of the promised land.

Did God really command Saul to kill even the women and children of the Amalekites as the Bible says in 1 Samuel 15:1-3? (“Thus says the Lord of hosts . . . Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox an sheep, camel and donkey.”) Is this the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good by them? I don’t think so.

Some biblical writers were wrong in believing that women were inherently and morally inferior to men and incompetent to lead as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 teaches (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”)

And let’s be honest about biblical sexual mores: They were all over the place. Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced throughout the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by any biblical writer. Not a single judgmental word. 

Why not? Because patriarchy dominated in ancient Israel. Even Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”) which Jesus referenced in his argument against divorce was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. They believed a man could become “one flesh” with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse.

Consider the following sexual mores found in the Old Testament (almost always favoring male power and dominance):

  • Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). 
  • A man could not commit adultery against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. And a bride who was found not to be a virgin was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21). 
  • When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with his eldest brother (serial polygamy?). If he died without producing an heir, she turned to the next brother, and if necessary to the next, and so on. Jesus mentions this practice without any criticism (Mark 12:18-27). 
  • I suspect many Christians would be surprised to learn that the Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman’s economic value was not compromised.
  •  And of course there were those practices considered taboo: sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period was strictly forbidden (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24); nudity was forbidden (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa 20:2-4; 47:3); and semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them ritually unclean (Lev. 15:16-24).

Does the Bible present a clear sexual ethic? Obviously not. Any honest and sincere interpreter of Scripture who is truly interested in truth should concede this.

And what contemporary Christian would argue today in favor of slavery even though there are clearly some biblical passages that condone and support it? Most interpreters (even those who believe in biblical inerrancy) understand that there is a deeper tenor and ethos of Scripture that emerged from Israel’s experience of the Exodus and from the life and teachings of Jesus, namely, that God identifies with the outcast and marginalized, and God’s passion is to liberate the oppressed.

The same logic should be applied to the handful of biblical texts that condemn excessive and exploitive same-sex behavior and say nothing about committed same-sex relationships.

So why do many Christians today reject what we know about sexual orientation and insist that the Bible is clear and right when condemning same-sex relations? I believe their biblical literalism and their deluded concept of holiness are nothing more than a cover for their entrenched prejudice and fear that they are unwilling to acknowledge.

Every interpreter and faith community must pick and choose which texts will have authority in their lives and communities. The question is not: Do we pick and choose? We all do. The more pertinent question is: What will guide our picking and choosing?

I would advocate that we use reason, common sense, our best sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and loving, and the clear and obvious themes that dominate the Jesus tradition in the New Testament through which Christians should filter all other Scripture.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus says nothing about same-sex relations or relationships?  Jesus, like everyone else in his era, would not have had access to the knowledge we possess today about fixed sexual orientation. Still, Jesus does not utter a single word of judgment. What Jesus does condemn, however, are attitudes and actions rooted in prejudice, greed, and intolerance, and he exhorts us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

I believe all sexual mores should be critiqued by the love ethic of Jesus. Such a love ethic is mutual, caring, loving, and non-exploitative. Jesus challenges both heterosexuals and LGBTQ persons to question their sexual behavior in light of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and love—that which is truly in the best interest of the other person.

I believe that Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons are not only misinterpreting Scripture and standing on the wrong side of history (like the pro-slavery Christians once were), they are in my opinion betraying the very one they call their Lord.

I suppose we all (I’m certainly no exception) have called evil good in order to justify some bias that we pass off as holiness. We all have blind spots. However, growth in spiritual awareness, sensitivity, and compassion exposes them.

Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons pursue a false holiness they can measure, mandate, and control. They are not interested in the holiness of grace—grounded in honesty and humility and expressed through faithfulness and forgiveness.

The blindness of Christian pro-slavery advocates was eventually exposed. I am hopeful that the day will come when Christian anti-gay proponents will either acknowledge their blindness or else their anti-gay bias will be exposed as non-Christian.


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