9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – NRSV
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and 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.
Romans 1:26-27 – NRSV
13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.
Leviticus 20:13 – NRSV
The Australian rugby player Israel Folau has been in trouble with his employers over tweets that ‘Hell awaits’ ‘Drunks, Homosexuals, Adulterers, Liars, Fornicators, Thieves, Atheists, Idolaters’. He’s been condemned by many for views that aren’t representative of ‘the values of the sport’, but as often happens when these issues hit the headlines, he’s also been described as a ‘devout Christian’ and no-one seems to have challenged whether his views are a fair representation of the views that informed and committed Christians should have on these issues. It’s for that reason that I feel the need to open up the issue of Christians and homosexuality, on this occasion more by way of commentary than sermon. (Click on the title to read more)
Maybe the first thing to point out is that the Bible has incredibly little to say about the issue of homosexuality; so little in fact that it wouldn’t be difficult to make the case that God has no opinion at all on the matter. The three verses I’ve quoted above are, to all intents and purposes, the only verses in the entire Bible that address the issue directly and Jesus has nothing to say about it at all. The verse that Israel Folau has chosen to paraphrase comes from 1 Corinthians 6: 9. He’s used the word ‘homosexuals’ to translate the rare Greek word arsenokoitai; the NRSV uses ‘sodomites’, the Revised English Bible uses ‘sexual perverts’ and Today’s New International Version uses ‘practising homosexuals’. When translations from the original Greek into English vary so widely, it’s a huge clue that the translation is itself mired in difficulty.
As is often the case, we need to probe what St Paul’s first readers would have made of his comments. In this connection we have to bear in mind that he would have been completely unaware of the existence of loving, supportive and faithful homosexual relationships. They simply didn’t exist in his world. The contemporary Roman law ‘Lex Scantinia’ underlines this; it made homosexual acts illegal unless they were acts with non-citizens or slaves. It’s extremely likely, therefore, that the only homosexual acts that St Paul was aware of were those of an exploitative, abusive nature. St Paul has a great deal to say about all kinds of behaviour in his writings, but if you take care to interpret what he says and reflect on it, mostly what he condemns is behaviour that treats others as less than God’s deeply and equally-loved children, or behaviour that gets in the way of others’ well-being, or faith. We also have to know about the community to which Paul was writing: first century Corinth, where he’d spent 18 months on one of his early Mediterranean journeys.
One of Corinth’s most famous landmarks, high on the hill above the town at Acrocorinth, was the Temple to Aphrodite where, claims one contemporary historian, more than a thousand prostitutes of both sexes were ready to ‘welcome’ the crews of visiting ships to the ancient port below. Corinth was one of the most notorious of all maritime destinations, and also one of the busiest, as it stood at a crossroads between east and west. When Christians today say to other Christians that St Paul’s letters should be treated as God’s holy law, valid for all times and all places, there are occasions when I imagine that I can hear the venerable saint shouting ‘No, that’s not what I meant! I was writing to address questions that I’d been asked by the fledgling Christian community in one of the most immoral places in my world!’
So what do we make of the Old Testament references? I think it’s easy to deal with these: we don’t, mercifully, still discriminate against the disabled, as is directly called for in Leviticus 21:16-23. We don’t stone people to death, even for the worst of crimes, let alone for love of someone of the same sex, nor do we observe the Old Testament laws against wearing clothes made of two different types of yarn. We don’t give these things a moment’s thought; why therefore do we agonise and obsess over the issue of a man lying with a male?
So much for Biblical arguments, but there’s something far more important to say about this subject that’s for so many years threatened to pull the Church of England and many other Churches apart. A great deal is written and said about Christ’s sayings, even those where there’s scant evidence that the sayings actually came from Christ himself. Much less is debated about his actions. It’s impossible to read the gospels without reaching the conclusion that Jesus, scandalously for his day, and in a way that almost certainly contributed to his death, chose to seek out the marginalised, the rejected and the ‘untouchables’ of society. He chose to spend as much of his time as possible with those who were least acceptable to his culture, and in a way that cut across many of the Jewish laws that he’d been brought up with. I propose to cover some of these stories in future blog posts; they simply can’t be ignored when we look at the treatment of the LGBTQ community. Why would we now accept as full and equal members of our society, the disabled, gentiles, the ‘demon possessed’ (ie mentally ill in our time), those haemorrhaging blood, lepers, those from Samaria and many others who were outcasts in Jesus’s time, but not those in stable, loving, faithful, long-term, same-sex relationships?
The Church of England’s current position on this issue is illogical and unsustainable. It sets a higher standard for those ordained, claiming that: ‘Because of the distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships.’ Surely there can’t be any safe or fair standard for clergy other than equality with the people in the pews and a commitment to see themselves as sinful people ministering to other sinful people? Anything else surely is doomed to fail? Surely attempting to place clergy on a moral pedestal is in danger of feeding narcissistic tendencies and thus increasing the risk of abuse by those of superior ‘status’?
I’ve left my most important points to last. It’s suggested in research that homosexuals account for 50% of young male deaths from suicide in this country. It’s impossible to hear this without feeling the deepest sadness and guilt, if you’re a Christian. The thought that those whose calling is to love and care for others, might have contributed to this statistic is appalling…….’First, do no harm’. Some churches persist in trying to ‘cure’ those who feel attracted to people of the same sex, despite a growing body of scientific evidence that such treatment can be deeply damaging psychologically. The assumption that’s made by many putting the opposing view is that homosexual attraction is a life choice. Anyone who’s ever spoken to an LGBTQ friend will have heard loud and clear that their feelings of attraction to those of the same sex started at a very young age. And if, as some scientists now claim, sexual attraction is actually pre-determined in the womb, surely it has to be God-given? And if it is God-given, it must surely be treated as a gift, not something about which to feel shame, still less something that needs to be ‘cured’!
Surely no-one should grow up thinking that they’re less loved by God than others? What kind of a God would do that? Certainly not the one I worship and try to serve!
In early 2014 I wrote a critique of the so-called ‘Pilling Report’ – another of the Church of England’s attempts to find a solution to the issue. In it, a ‘dissenting voice’ – the Bishop of Birkenhead – said this:
‘It cannot be pastoral to affirm a form of relationship which is contrary to God’s voice’.
To which my response is this:
‘It cannot be a Christian act to commandeer God’s voice in order to denounce others’.
So what do I believe God thinks about homosexuality?
I think he looks on those who claim to represent him here on earth, as they loudly denounce some of the most excluded and vulnerable people in society……and weeps.