Ministerial Musings: Homosexuality and the Church; an Inclusive Perspective

Nothing has divided the Christian Church more in the last few decades than the issue of homosexuality. Even the controversy surrounding the ordination of women—which is still a contested issue even in some mainline denominations—pales in comparison to the quarrels that have not only divided liberal churches from the Religious Right, but many a house against itself as well.

Recently, the focus has been on gay marriage in particular. Several states (including Ohio) have passed constitutional amendments, “To protect the sanctity of marriage,” to quote the Pat Robertsons of the world. Apparently, male-male and female-female unions are going to be the fatal flaw in the already dysfunctional foundation of the American family. Domestic violence, child neglect, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, illiteracy, the welfare system, unemployment, lack of affordable housing and healthcare…none of these seem to pose the same threat to the American family (as if it were a monolith) as two consenting adults wanting to publicly affirm what they already have the right to do: be a couple in love. For the life of me, I cannot perceive how granting ten percent of the population the same right that my wife and I and millions of other Americans take for granted is going to fracture our “traditional” family or anyone else’s.

The conservative and fundamentalist churches that pepper our landscape have abused the bully pulpit long enough. It is time for moderate and progressive churches to speak the truth in love. Ignoring the issue will not make it go away. Disregarding those who “love the sinner, but hate the sin” (the operative word being “hate”) will not deflate their agenda. Rather, our silence has empowered them. As the eighteenth century British philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.”

That said, I begin by refuting a long-held, erroneous maxim in the previous paragraph. Homosexuality is not a sin. Let me repeat that for those of you who were unable to hear it over the thunderous din of countless chins hitting floors. Homosexuality is not a sin. The belief that homosexuality is theologically abominable is based on a literal reading of a few passages in Scripture, such as Genesis 19:1-25, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Many reputable Bible scholars across the ecumenical spectrum have argued that when read through the lens of responsible historical criticism, these passages are addressing issues of pedophilia, rape, and prostitution: criminal acts that were rampant in many biblical cultures as they are in many of today’s cultures; criminal acts perpetrated more by heterosexuals than homosexuals. These passages do not address consensual, same-gender relationships between two adults.

In fact, the word homosexual, as we understand and use it, did not enter the lexicon until 1869, when it appeared in two German pamphlets published anonymously, “to describe the theory, just then beginning to take shape, that from birth some people are affectionately predisposed toward persons of their own sex” (V. P. Furnish, 1994: 57-58). I am not inferring that homosexuals are not sinners. They are, but not by virtue of their sexual orientation. They are sinners in the same way that we all are sinners: we fail to live in relationship with God and one another as God intended, because we are broken creatures.

I find it interesting that many ministers insist that the aforementioned passages be taken literally, but allow a great deal of liberty when interpreting pericopes that promote slavery, the subjugation of women, and a plethora of other archaic practices. Do male fundamentalists really avoid all contact with their wives when they are menstruating (as directed in Leviticus 15:19-24)? Do they truly believe that those who work on the Sabbath should be put to death (Exodus 35:2)? Do they also subscribe to the admonitions against divorce that Jesus levies throughout the Gospels (which, by the way, are void of any teachings against homosexuality)? One cannot be a selective biblical literalist. Either all of Scripture is subject to the scrutiny of scholarly inquiry or none of it is. You cannot have it both ways.

Furthermore, as the burgeoning field of practical theology asserts, theology must remain in dialogue with the secular disciplines. Only then will mutually corrective conversations be given the opportunity to develop and lend their learnings to the Church and society. Science, which has informed and reformed our traditional understanding of creationism, is on the verge of proving that sexual orientation is genetic. If that is true, then homosexuality is as much a choice as heterosexuality, which leads us to conclude that God created homosexuals with the same love and intention as heterosexuals. Such scientific deductions, if they prove valid, will debilitate the fundamentalist critique that homosexuality is both a choice and a sin, unless they still choose to read their Bibles in the dark.

The greatest barrier facing fundamentalists, however, is neither a historical reading of Scripture nor scientific discovery. It is their own battering ram: the Bible. Even if a scholarly reading of the questionable passages in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament were to prove that homosexuality is a sin, how can the Christian community reconcile barring homosexuals from the life and fellowship of the Church when such exclusivity runs counter to the Gospel? Who are the people with whom Jesus associated, the people with whom he sat at table and conversed? Social pariahs. People who lived on the fringes of society. The marginalized. The outcast. The oppressed. What was the reaction to his doing so by the Pharisees and Sadducees (the religious conservatives of his day)? They conspired with the government—just as the Religious Right is doing today—to crucify him. Every time a Pat Robertson, a James Dobson, or a Fred Phelps opens his mouth spewing homophobic rhetoric and lambasting those of us who are trying to embody the Christian ethic of love, they crucify Christ again.

We all know that the Bible is filled with contradictory passages. It does not take a Ph.D. from Harvard Divinity School to enlighten us to that fact. The Good News that Jesus taught and embodied, however, is consistent: it is a message of love. We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We are to love one another with the same unconditional, other-affirming love with which God embraces all of creation. We are to minister to the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the oppressed. We are to struggle for justice and peace with those who are denied the same rights as the privileged.

“‘I give you a new command,’ Jesus said, ‘that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for another’” (John 13:34-35). Is the blatant exclusion of those who were born different loving one another as Jesus commanded? The answer is obvious, and to those who continue to do so may the rest of us continue to pray, “‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:34). Then again, maybe they do.

John Tamilio III (JT3) is the Senior Pastor of Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in the Tremont neighborhood. He and his wife, and their three children, live in Lakewood. (A version of this article originally appeared in the Mainstream Coalition Messenger.)
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Volume 5, Issue 22, Posted 8:47 AM, 11.04.2009