As homosexuality becomes more socially acceptable, the pressure to make it theologically acceptable will increase. Indeed, Christians have been at the forefront of the marriage inequality movement for a long time (see my post on the MCC) and a “Queer theology” has emerged which seeks to justify same-sex relations Biblically.
The campaign for marriage equality (against marriage inequality) has been likened to the movement against slavery. I think this a good analogy. Christians were at the forefront of this movement too and an important part, no doubt, of the success of the campaign was the denunciation of Biblical interpretations of the Bible that allowed the system of slavery to continue. The Bible didn’t change – it still contains references to slavery with no obvious disapproval (even some instances of approval). But we chose to see those passages differently.
I think, to a greater extent than people (certainly any preacher) are willing to admit, Biblical interpretation is a function of the prevalent culture. This is true also for the emerging culture of marriage equality. Progressive Christians are looking for ways to interpret the Bible to suit beliefs they already hold. This is a less judgemental statement than you might think: God reveals himself not only through scripture, but also in the hearts of men. Those pioneers of the anti-slavery movement must have been moved first by the suffering of the slaves. Then they related it back to scripture. It simply could not be that God would approve of this.
To say then that the marriage equality movement is looking for ways to interpret the Bible in their favour is a neutral statement. Christianity probably would not evolve by any other means. (Those who think Christianity should not evolve will inevitably contradict themselves in following the practices and beliefs of whatever evolved denomination they choose to adhere to). But Biblical interpretation is a tricky business: it needs an air of legitimacy. There are rules. As in logic and mathematics the suppositions must support the conclusion. We need to feel convinced.
I have been reading through some of the MCCs scriptural interpretations and while some are illuminating, others have the ring of desperation. To make the Bible say less (it does not endorse slavery) is far easier than making it say more (the Bible denounces slavery).
There are several passages in the Bible that seem, at first glance, to condemn homosexuality. The approach taken with these passages is to interpret them as referring to a form of homosexuality that is clearly sinful, and not a monogamous, loving, committed relationship between two people or to consider them as part of a particular cultural understanding, no longer relevant today. These passages include
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:1-11): the inhabitants of Sodom are described as wanting to rape the guests of Lot. Rape is easy to condemn, in any form, and does not form part of a loving homosexual relationship.
- Romans 1 (Rom 1:18-32): Paul condemns church members who engage in homosexual acts. However, this is in the context of idol worship (not any kind of committed relationship), and quite likely being practiced by heterosexuals.
- 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 6:9-11): Modern translations interpret two words for sinners as referring to homosexuals. One of these words can, apparently, be more properly translated as “morally weak” or may refer specifically to male prostitutes. The other word is so rare that its true meaning is uncertain – it may refer to male sexual exploitation.
- Leviticus (Lev 18:22 and 20:13): These verses condemn male with male sex. More liberal interpretations see these as applying specifically in the context of religious worship practices – in particular religious practices of heathens that the Jews were not to follow (such as temple prostitution).
I am generally in favour of these interpretations. Where it is not clear that a condemning interpretation is appropriate choose the one that is more inclusive and loving. Better to bring people closer to God than drive them away.
Making the Bible say more
Some commentators have attempted to interpret certain Biblical passages as showing support for committed homosexual relations. Mostly, I think these are acts of wishful thinking. For instance
- David and Johnathan (I and II Samuel): Some have interpreted the love that David and Johnathan shared as being romantic, not just a very strong friendship. This seems like wishful thinking to me.
- Ruth and Naomi (Ruth): As above, some have interpreted this relationship as being lesbian. Again, this seems like wishful thinking. Two women can be very attached to each other without being in love with each other.
- The Roman Centurion and his servant (Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10): The servant Jesus heals may well have been the Centurion’s male lover (the arguments for this are quite good). However, if anything, this illustrates Jesus’s love and compassion and willingness to heal those who beseech him. It says rather little for Jesus’s thoughts on whether homosexuality is a sin.
- Born eunuchs (Matt 19:11): Jesus appears to mention men who were born gay (and thus unable to marry). This is certainly a reason to stop trying to “cure” homosexuals – Jesus didn’t seem to see a need to cure them. But it says nothing about gay marriage. In fact this text could easily be used to argue homosexuals should remain celibate.
- A eunuch in the church (Acts 8:26-40): The Eunuch who is baptised in this passage may (or may not) have been gay. The passage certainly illustrates that all are welcome who accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and Christians who cast homosexuals out of the Church are wrong to do so. It says nothing, however, about whether a homosexual lifestyle is acceptable.
It will be interesting to see how much of this “Queer theology” survives. I find it quite likely that as society progresses the translations of the so-called clobber passages will change to reflect increase acceptance of homosexuality. The wishful interpretations of homosexual relationships (such as Johnathan and Saul) will probably fall away. We will be left with a Bible that says nothing about committed same-sex relationships. It will be up to us to fill the silence.