–by Daniel S. Ferguson
Yesterday, something surprised two of our guests at church. They were a married lesbian couple, and the thing that surprised them about our church was that they were treated as normal. Just being treated as if nothing was off was strange to them. They had been welcomed at church before, but never not, to some measure, gawked at and gossiped about. They were shocked by our not being shocked.
It almost seems like a contradiction, but I am a straight Southern Baptist who went to a conservative Baptist seminary who supports full LGBT rights. I’ve been to the rallies myself. I’ve raised money. I’ve written letters to Congress and various state governments advocating for these rights, and I celebrate that they are becoming increasingly provided for across the states.
The one question I keep getting asked by my fellow Christians is how I can support them. My simplest answer is my most non-religious one, usually regarding marriage: I don’t think the government has any business defining marriage for consenting adults, and I don’t idly sit by while legal rights are denied to people without due process and without just cause. Any religious objection regarding the morality of homosexual marriage would not fulfill that requirement for me. In my view, the government no more has the right to define someone else’s marriage as it has the right to define mine.
Some governmental considerations (largely in terms of taxation) require that the government identify marriages, and while this means that the government must develop some definition, I do not recognize the government’s right to constrain that definition so as to exclude a whole class of people who would otherwise qualify. For governmental purposes, therefore, from a purely legal point of view, I advocate for their right to marry in the same way that I would support a transsexual person’s right to adopt.
But that argument is rarely convincing for my spiritual brethren. In their mind, there’s something just wrong about it, and they argue that objecting to homosexuality on a moral level compels them to oppose rights for the LGBT community on a legal level. Some particularly loud opponents say, for example, that permitting homosexual marriages would tear away at the fabric of family life in America, even to the point of damaging heterosexual marriages (Senator Santorum famously made this argument in the 2012 presidential primary season).
I do not wish to rebut such incendiary, hyperbolic, clickbait nonsense, but I do wish to address the issue. Is it possible to be a Christian and to support gay rights at the same time?
My answer is a resounding Yes.
Reason 1: Jesus Seeks Out the Religiously Rejected
Take a look at the people Jesus spent the most time ministering to. Salacious prostitutes. Greedy tax-collectors. Uncivilized poor. Disenfranchised women. These people all had one thing in common: they were routinely rejected by the religious leaders of their time.
In the case of the poor and women, it was a matter of status; they were the underclass. The poor had little property and few political connections, and women weren’t allowed to have property or even testify in court.
In both cases, the religious leaders of time didn’t pay any attention to them because they had no money, no influence, and no standing. But Jesus sought them out anyway.
Neither of these is directly paralleled in the current LGBT community today, though it is notable that many only recently gained significant legal rights, like the ability to adopt children or wear garments that reflected their gender identity to work (and that some are still denied those rights). It’s even more important to note that those rights are still restricted in many areas.
A more direct parallel comes from the other two groups Jesus spent time with: prostitutes and tax-collectors. Though the issue of homosexuality as a sin is a contentious one, try to set it aside for a moment. Whether it is a sin or not, the religious leaders of our time consider it a sin and proclaim that loudly whenever they’re asked (and often even when they’re not asked).
This is nearly identical to the way that prostitutes and tax-collectors were treated in Jesus’ time by their religious leaders. The Pharisees wouldn’t be caught dead in the company of a prostitute, but Jesus let one weep at his feet and told her that her sins were forgiven. The Pharisees blamed their political and national woes on tax-collectors (in much the same way that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were publicly blamed on homosexuals by Christian leaders), but Jesus went to their homes and ministered to them, and even had one among his primary disciples.
In various regions of the world today, religious organizations use their influence to discriminate against certain groups. We see this playing out on the news every day through violence in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, and the Philippines (to name just a few).
While such violence is not as common in the United States, it would not take long for anyone to identify the LGBT community as the primary target for discrimination by the Christian church in the United States (even our positions on Islam doesn’t really match the level of vitriol we have toward the LGBT community). Our religious leaders disparage them constantly, and nearly all LGBT people I have met have told me they feel as if this church actively hates them.
If I add A (Jesus seeks out those decried by religious leaders) to B (the LGBT community is decried by the religious leaders in the United States), I come to the following conclusion: If Jesus ministered in the United States today, he would be likely to seek out and minister to the LGBT community directly (Click to Tweet), even though the religious leaders of our time would oppose or even reject him because of it.
Jesus did not eschew people just because they were considered sinful, or even if they actually were sinful. If there’s any group of people Jesus rejects, it’s religious leaders who keep people away from the Gospel. And that leads me to Point 2.
Reason 2: All Humans Are Savable
When we boil down the Gospel to its most essential parts, we are left with two ideas that are crucial to a Christian understanding of salvation. I frame them as equations because they’re easier to understand that way.
Jesus = Salvation
Human = Saveable
The Bible does not permit us to add to those equations, lest we diminish the power of the Gospel. It can’t be Jesus + Calvinism = Salvation, or Jesus + Baptism = Salvation, or else you worship a god other than Christ. In the same way, the Bible does not place, or even allow, conditions on the types of humans who can be saved.
You can’t say Human + Straight = Saveable. People claim Jesus as Lord, then the Spirit comes upon them and changes them. This is true even if homosexuality is a sin. The change both doesn’t and can’t happen before salvation, or else Jesus is totally irrelevant.
Therefore, if there are no limits on those who can be saved, then the church can’t place limits on the types of people we minister to, either, for our God-given mission is the preach the Gospel to all. But limiting the Gospel is exactly what we have done by vocally and systematically diminishing the LGBT community. They don’t need to be fixed in order to be saved; they need to be saved in order to be fixed.
Before someone goes nuts on me, no I’m not saying that salvation will “cure” a person of homosexuality. I’m saying that the church is neither permitted nor authorized to choose which people to minister to. The church is only empowered to share the Gospel–nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.
In the same way, I cannot for the life of me figure out why the church is so vocal about this issue at all. The early church seemed to have only a handful of messages for the public: 1) Jesus was crucified to defeat sin’s hold over you, 2) Jesus was raised from the dead in victory over the death, 3) Jesus provides salvation for all who believe, and 4) Tell everyone you know about Jesus.
When they ventured away from those messages, they had problems, and we would do well to learn from their mistakes. The early church had fights about whether to spread the Gospel to Gentiles or not, but Paul would have none of it, saying that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
James famously said that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19). And God Himself got involved in that argument through a vision to Peter, when God said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15).
I am not remotely qualified to declare whom God has made clean and whom He has not. If an LGBT person comes to Jesus, he is justified by the blood of Christ, and he is no longer considered blemished in the eyes of the Lord. From there, the Holy Spirit will work in him to sanctify him unto the Lord. I am not saying the person should or should not remain LGBT. I am saying that the work of Christ is not dependent on such a change.
For anyone in the LGBT community who thinks that they can carry on in selfish sin because I have said this, shame on you. Your freedom in Christ does not permit you to go on sinning. “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial.” If you truly honor God with your body and your sex life, I am not permitted to pass judgment. Indeed, I rejoice in your salvation. But if you are using the grace of Jesus Christ to justify selfishness, promiscuity, pride, vanity, lust, or abuse, you are just as evil as the religious leaders who oppress you. Even though homosexuality (I believe) is not a sin by itself, the rest of those things are. And worse than that, you are making it that much harder for LGBT people who want to know Christ to get close to Him. That does not increase your freedom; it enhances your bondage to sin.
Reason 3: A Multi-Millennium Interpretive Gap
The Bible talks about homosexuality rather sparsely, but when it does mention it, it’s always bad. Leviticus calls it “detestable” (18:22). Even in the more palatable New Testament, Paul calls it “shameful” (Romans 1:27) and routinely lists it among other sexual sins, saying it “is contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:10). The easy conclusion is that homosexuality is a sin against God.
But easy conclusions are often lazy ones.
The Levitical law mentioned above is among a list of prohibited sexual activities, many of which are undoubtedly detestable, such as pedophilia, beastiality, and virgin sacrifice. However, peppered in this list are other actions the text considers sexually impure that go entirely unmentioned by Christians today.
Just four verses before the famous 18:22, for example, is a verse that says that sex during a woman’s menstrual cycle is immoral. While some people are a little hesitant about that activity, no one from any church I’ve ever been to would put say it is anywhere near as immoral as incest, even though verse 26 says that all of the activities in the list are “detestable things.” While this doesn’t prove the morality of homosexuality, using Leviticus 18 as a straightjacket on sexual expression might be unwarranted.
From a more sociological perspective, it should be noted that all of the sexual practices forbidden by this chapter of Jewish Law are not just spiritual issues; they’re hygienic ones. Sex with a family member can lead to malformations in the child of a resultant pregnancy, which is substantially more likely in a world without birth control. Unprotected sex during a menstrual cycle (especially before running water was invented) can lead to urinary tract infections for male and female alike, which in a world before antibiotics would often result in severe illness or even death, especially in the desert.
Men having unprotected sex with men before modern plumbing made those actions more sanitary could lead to a multitude of associated diseases. In the hygienically problematic environment in which Leviticus was written, a prohibition against homosexuality makes sense as a sanitary law, and like with many things in Jewish law, rules concerning bodily cleanliness were expressed in terms of spiritual cleanliness. This is why there are whole sections dedicated to the spiritual cleansing that mildew requires (Leviticus 13), which was an equally spiritual problem requiring a priest to resolve, but I don’t see any pastors waving signs saying “God Hates Mold.”
When it comes to Paul and the New Testament, a strong cultural lens must be considered, even more so than usual. Homosexuality in 1st century Rome was not public or common, as it is today. In that time period, homosexual actions were virtually never the result of loving relationships, and were almost categorically extramarital. In addition, there is significant evidence to suggest that a great deal of wealthy men purchased young men as slaves (“pages”) for the express purpose of sexual activity.
Most people today would oppose that, too. A key difference is that today, there are plenty of homosexual relationships that are the result of consenting adults who passionately and selflessly love each other. In Paul’s day, such relationships would have been extremely difficult even to find, and they certainly were not the norm. If the only homosexual activities of which you were aware involved child sex trafficking and salacious extramarital affairs, your opinion of it would be rather stark as well.
I believe that some of Paul’s statements concerning homosexuality should be taken in the same light as some of his statements concerning women. They probably represent the best wisdom of his time, but they are ultimately contextual. When the context changes, some of the doctrine changes with it. Not all of it, perhaps not even most of it, but certainly some of it. I know of very few churches who require women to cover their heads during service, for example, even though Paul finds says not doing so is “a disgrace” (1 Corinthians 11:6). That doctrine changed when the context changed, yet I see no public outcry that the visibility of women’s hair is tearing at the fabric of society.
Notably, this section only covers homosexuality, but the Bible does not address the other categories within LGBT very directly. The best opponents could hope to do is extrapolate from texts like “Male and female [God] created them” as a Biblical basis for opposing transexuality, but that’s a pretty weak argument since that passage is pretty clearly talking about God’s power of creation and not intending to make any statements about gender itself.
Reason 4: I’d Rather Be Wrong
These arguments in themselves are not substantial proof that LGBT lifestyles are Biblically sanctioned, divinely approved activities, but that’s not my argument. My argument is that there’s room for reasonable people to disagree without labeling each other as sinful, backward, petulant, or virulent. (Click to tweet) And there’s certainly room for one Christian to accept another’s salvation and church membership despite his or her sexual preferences.
In my mind, the question of homosexuality and LGBT practices is still just that: a question. I don’t pretend to have an answer. In light of what I have supposed, I can’t claim with certainty that it is a sin or that it isn’t. But I can claim with certainty that I’d rather be wrong about reaching out to people with Christ’s love and compassion than be right about pushing them away and yelling at them with indignation and judgment. I think this would be the case for me even if I could definitively identify such activities as sinful. I figure the Holy Spirit will do the rest.
Before I let you go, though, there are two more things to address. First, churches absolutely must stop talking to the LGBT community as if their LGBT-ness is their only sin. (Click to Tweet) Even if it is a sin, it is not the only sin. Christ must work in their hearts on their whole soul, not just one part. It would behoove the church to address everyone about their holistic sinful nature rather than one or two particular sins.
The LGBT community will resist you every step of the way for saying their sexuality is sinful, but there is not a human alive who thinks he is perfect on all accounts. The church would get much further in its evangelistic purposes by addressing the whole human instead of just one part. In other words: talk to people like they’re people, not abstractions. Every person is a soul Jesus died to save; treat each one accordingly.
Second, the LGBT community must stop discussing its sexuality as its primary identity. While I cannot claim with certainty that homosexuality or other LGBT practices are sins, I claim with utmost certitude that forging an identity of greater value than that found in Christ is a sin–indeed, the worst of sins, since it leaves you apart from Christ.
While I value your courage and happily participate in your struggle to gain equal rights, I strongly encourage you to define yourselves by Christ first and then by everything else second. While the church has routinely been guilty of treating you as abstractions, we have largely been given that cue by you. Don’t give us that leverage; we clearly can’t be trusted with it.