First published at Between the Lines on December 12, 2002
MANY PEOPLE claim that homosexuality is wrong because “The Bible says so.” This claim rests on two presuppositions:
(1) The Bible condemns homosexual conduct. (2) The Bible is a good moral guide.
Each of these raises questions. Regarding the first: does the Bible condemn all homosexual conduct, or just some? And which Bible are we talking about? (Remember that in addition to the numerous editions of the Judeo-Christian Bible, there are also countless other religious texts that claim divine authority. Given our tendency toward cultural myopia, it bears repeating that the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are not Christians.)
Regarding the second presupposition: is the Bible infallible, or might it contain some error? If the latter, how do we distinguish true moral teaching from that which simply reflects the authors’ prejudices? Consider, for example, two passages — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — that seem pretty clearly to endorse slavery:
“[Y]ou may acquire male and female slaves ƒ from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born into your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.” (Leviticus 25: 44-46)
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
Faced with such morally troubling passages, the reader has one of three options:
(A) Deny that the passages really endorse slavery. But this seems rather difficult to do, especially given the references to “property” in the first quotation, which was allegedly spoken by God himself.
(B) Maintain that the Bible contains no error and concede that slavery may be morally acceptable. Not surprisingly, few believers take this approach (though the case was quite different 150 years ago, when slave-owning Christians often cited these passages). This option ought forcefully to be rejected. Surely one should have more confidence in the wrongness of slavery than in the inerrancy of the quoted text. Which leaves us with.
(C) Acknowledge that the Bible contains some error. To admit this is not to claim that God makes mistakes. Perhaps humans have erred in interpreting God’s will: after all, one should not confuse complete faith in God with complete faith in human ability to discern God’s voice.
Option (C) comes at a cost, however. Once you have admitted that the Bible contains error, you cannot simply use “The Bible says X” as if it were an airtight justification of X. This is as true for homosexuality as it is for slavery.
Is the Bible thus rendered useless? Not at all. The Bible is a valuable account of the experience of past believers, and it can teach important lessons on matters both moral and non-moral. But to quote its passages on controversial issues without paying attention to its historical context is to diminish its richness. Fundamentalists do the Bible no honor when they treat “The Bible says X” as if it were the last word, rather than a piece of a larger puzzle regarding human longing for truth and meaning.
Which brings me to another point. Critics often suspect that there’s something self-serving about “revisionist” readings of scripture by pro-gay scholars. In some cases, the critics are right. But the revisionist readings are also motivated by honest recognition of a tension between the apparent evidence of scripture and the apparent evidence of our experience. If God is the creator of all things, surely God reveals divine intentions in our lived experience and not merely in an ancient text. (Besides, if you don’t generally trust your own experience, why trust your experience of the text?) And if our lived experience teaches us that homosexual relationships can be loving and nurturing, there’s something incongruous about the idea that a benevolent God would condemn them.
How then do we explain the handful of passages that seem to condemn homosexuality? Biblical interpretation is a complex matter, and I can only scratch its surface here. (For a more thorough treatment, see Daniel Helminiak’s What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.) But let me suggest that these passages, like the passages on slavery, strongly reflect the cultural circumstances of the authors. More specifically, they reflect (1) the fragility of the authors’ communities and a corresponding emphasis on procreation for the sake of community survival, (2) a distaste for Greek pederasty, and (3) a distaste for various pagan practices that included ritual homosexual conduct.
If the Biblical authors had these features in mind when they wrote about homosexuality, then what they were discussing is quite different from what we are discussing. In that light, using Biblical passages to condemn contemporary homosexuality looks much like using them to support nineteenth-century American slavery — a reflection of the reader’s prejudices, rather than an honest assessment of the moral facts.