I look forward to marching in the PRIDE parade with my church each year. We have had a float in the parade almost from the parade’s beginning. Each year there are protestors. Almost always there is someone holding a Bible; someone waving a sign littered with words of hate but claiming to speak for God; someone shouting that the Bible says that being gay is wrong.
No matter who you are or what you believe, I am sure you have heard or seen biblical texts used to condemn, exclude, and hate. But what does the Bible really say about LGBTQ people; what does it say about same-sex loving relationships; what does it say about how we should treat our neighbors?
Let’s start with Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 14-19). If you actually read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and also read references to the story in other parts of the Bible, it quickly becomes apparent that the story is not really about same-gender sex. Same-gender sex does not cause of the destruction of the cities. Various kinds of sex are part of the story but it is exploitation, a lack of hospitality, and mistreatment of the poor that cause the destruction of the cities.
Ezekiel says “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49-50). Amos warns that Israel will be overthrown just like Sodom and Gomorrah because the “poor are oppressed and the needy are crushed (4:1). And in Isaiah: the people of Jerusalem and Judah “proclaim their sin like Sodom.” And what is the charge? “Your hands are full of blood;” “the spoil of the poor is in your house;” and you are “grinding the face of the poor” (Isaiah 3). Even Zephaniah uses the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. He notes that Moab will be like “Sodom and the Ammonites like Gomorrah for “these have filled houses with violence and fraud.”
When Jesus sends out the twelve disciples as told in Matthew 10, he mentions Sodom and Gomorrah, when telling the disciples what to do if a city will not show them hospitality (Matthew 10:14-15). The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is a lack of hospitality. It is violence to outsiders and the poor. It is an abuse of power. There is sex in the story but sex, regardless of the genders of those having it, is neither the cause for the destruction of the cities nor the manifestation of those cities’ evil.
Now, how about Leviticus? Both chapters 18 and 20 forbid a man to lie with another man “as with a woman.” This activity is called an abomination and is listed with other abominations – the word abomination is always used to indicate a serious breach in ritual purity law. These passages list other abominations: eating pork, misusing incense, intercourse during menstruation, wearing garments made of two different materials (if you are wearing polyester – you are an abomination), sowing a field with two kinds of seed, cutting one’s hair where it meets the temple of the human face, and the list goes on. This list full of things, like eating shrimp and beating one’s slaves, that we have long forgotten, ignored, or decided did not apply to us or others. How is it that one part of this list is printed on signs and used to hate people and the rest of the list is ignored?
So now we are down to three passages, all of which are in the New Testament and all of which are in letters that Paul either wrote or are attributed to him. In two of the passages Sodomites are mentioned in lists of “wrongdoers” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) and the “lawless and disobedient” (1 Timothy 1:9-10). In both of these listings, however, there is considerable evidence that the language used indicates a condemnation of pederasty – the sexual and/or economic exploitation of children, particularly young boys – rather than against consenting sex between two adults. In the same way, Paul’s description of women who “exchanged natural relations for unnatural” and of “men committing shameless acts with men” (Romans 1:26-27) is set within a larger context of idolatry. Pagan temple cult prostitution using adult men and women as well as young boys was common in that day. In context, Paul is condemning exploitation. He is condemning the sexualized use of young boys by powerful men and condemning the use of men and women as temple prostitutes.
Even if you discount these contextual factors, even if you want to choose to lift a single verse here or there out of its context, there’s still a major issue of consistency in our notions of biblical authority. What about all those other prohibitions? For example, there are 49 verses in the Bible against gluttony. Where’s the outcry and condemnation?
The only people Jesus explicitly notes are headed for judgment are those who did not provide food for the hungry or drink for the thirsty, those who did not welcome strangers or provide clothing to the naked, those who did not visit prisoners. In fact, there are more than 2,000 verses in the Bible mandating our care for the poor. Where is the public outcry over the sin of injustice toward the poor?
Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about sex: same-sex sex or any other kind. The only words of Jesus about marriage as recorded in the Gospels are a condemnation of divorce going so far as to state that those who are divorced are committing adultery if they remarry. Again, I don’t see protest signs about this. (And to be clear, I am glad I do not. I believe God loves all of us: divorced, gay, straight, bi, trans, gluttons, all of us).
I hear with some regularity people say something like: “I support Biblical marriage.” Which Biblical marriage do they support? Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar? Jacob, Leah, and Rachel? Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines? The ones where women are given, taken, sold, and bartered into marriage? Paul encouraging celibacy? Or the unconditional love and devotion that marks the relationship of Ruth and Naomi?
When it comes to dealing with texts typically used against LGBT inclusion, we need to be honest with the Bible. This includes looking both at the presumptions that modern-day readers bring to their interpretation and the larger context and trajectory of the biblical narrative. The same hermeneutic (should I say method of interpretation?) that we use to understand all those passage in the Bible about slavery, about stoning disobedient children, the equality of women, and a thousand other things -- that’s the hermeneutic we must apply to same-sex relationships.
The Bible has been used as a tool of hate for too long. A tool of hate against Jews, against people of color, against women, against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans people and it must stop. It is not simply a matter of fights over facebook or twitter – it is parents who have disowned their sons and daughters, it is churches who have called their very own an abomination, it is kids bullied at school. How do we respond?
When the early church was in turmoil over what to do about Gentile converts – Do they need to be circumcised, what about food rules, can we even share table fellowship with them? I mean, read the Bible, there are rules to be followed . . . Peter stood up and said, in effect: “I know what the Bible says about circumcision and food laws. What I’m telling you is that I’ve seen indisputable evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Gentiles. God has made no distinction between them and us.” It’s an ancient and deeply biblical idea. Paul says it this way: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
I believe God’s image is reflected in lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, straight - in all people: that all of us exactly as we are are beloved children of God. I believe this based on my reading of the Bible. I hope I don’t see any protestors at this year’s parade but even if I do, I know that love is the calling of God - love, not hate, love!