You Asked for It (3):
A Biblical Perspective on Homosexuality
A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Central Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2011
Texts: Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:18-32, Galatians 3:23-29
The title of today’s sermon provides important clues to its content. You asked for it—actually, a number of you did. (It’s true–a few specifically asked me not to preach on this topic; chief among those was my mother!) But in a summer that saw a change in our church’s constitution—- essentially removing the categorical bar to ordination for gay and lesbian persons in force since 1997—- not to consider biblical teaching that informed this change seems irresponsible. One church member in particular carved out the scope of her request this way: I support civil rights for gays and love and admire many gay friends. I accept the conclusion of the medical profession that homosexuality is not an illness but a minority sexual orientation. But I just can’t avoid the Bible verses that condemn it as a sin. How do we interpret those?
I appreciate that member’s sincere wrestling because it reminds us that as Christians we are subject to biblical authority. We are informed by science; we continually seek greater knowledge and insight from research and experience and intellectual pursuit. Yet the Bible is the authoritative guide to our faith and our practice like nothing else. The Bible reveals God’s Word (though notice that is NOT the same as saying the Bible is a record of God’s words). Presbyterians have always understood Scripture as a unique witness to the Word of God in the formation of the covenant community of Israel, the life and ministry, saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the birth of the Church.
Yet at the same time, Presbyterians have always understood that the words of Scripture must be interpreted (guided by the Holy Spirit) to become God’s Word for us. Presbyterians have always placed a high value on preaching and on Bible study because they assist the church in the sacred task of finding in these ancient words — bound as they are to the times in which they were written — the Word of the Lord. And yes, this interpretive process is ongoing; what the church has affirmed in one generation may be reformed and revised in another.
A little historical review is helpful: the apostle Paul writes in a couple of his letters that slaves should be obedient to their masters. In the 1800s, North American Presbyterians interpreted this text differently; some saw it as biblical confirmation of the practice of slavery; others believed it to be a commentary on Paul’s perspective that Christ was returning soon to establish his kingdom, making such relationships irrelevant. The interpretive divide was so great, however, that the Presbyterian church split into northern and southern branches; a divide that wasn’t reconciled until 1983. Similarly, the apostle not only forbade women from taking a leadership role in the church: Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent [I Timothy 2:11,12], he justified the practice by saying that Adam was created before Eve, and it was Eve, not Adam, who was deceived and sinned. This interpretation dominated Christianity for more than a millennium, the Presbyterian Church voting only in 1956 to permit women to be ordained as Ministers of Word and Sacrament. One of the reasons that a group of dissidents broke away to form the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the 1970s was to preserve the prohibition against women clergy… because that’s what the Bible taught.
My point is simply to show that biblical interpretation is rarely a “once and for all” declaration, etched in stone and immovable. Instead, the Bible is a living document the church continues to engage, not unlike the way our country’s Constitution is interpreted and amended to speak to situations undreamed of by its authors. People of sincere faith and righteous intentions disagree about how specific texts should be interpreted. That’s why the second part of the sermon title is significant: A Biblical Perspective. . . it represents my human effort to hear God’s Word in Scripture; it represents what through prayer and study I believe God is calling me to proclaim. Not everyone hearing this sermon will agree with this perspective, and I am grateful for being part of a faith community in which we can disagree without damaging the mutual respect and affection we hold for one another. This sermon will not be the “last word” on this matter, and I look forward to our continued conversation and dialogue.
What we notice first is the lack of biblical teaching about homosexuality. A couple of verses in the Old Testament, a few more in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, and that’s it. But let’s turn to these verses, recalling our interpretive task captured in an e-mail one of you sent me. A woman came home from a shopping trip and boasted to her husband, “I received a compliment on my driving.” “Oh?” He responded, “How’s that?” She answered, “When I got back to the car, there was a note on the windshield that said, “Parking fine.” If we only read the words of Scripture, without understanding their context, we run the risk of substituting wooden literalism for God’s word. Our “parking” might be fine, so to speak, but we’ll miss the point. So we come to the Bible with an open heart and inquiring mind. What was the social reality in which these teachings occurred? To whom were they originally addressed? And why? What other biblical texts are applicable?
Leviticus is part of Torah, the Hebrew Scriptures that comprise the first five books of our Old Testament. While Leviticus contains some narrative history of the ancient Israelites, it is primarily a book of Law, and outlines with great specificity how the community is to conduct its social and religious life. Central to its concerns is Israel’s call to be a distinctive community devoted to the worship and service of the Lord God alone, in contrast to surrounding nations and peoples who worshiped other gods. The laws and directives declared in Leviticus are part of Israel’s “holiness code”— the practices that set them apart from other cultures, reminding them of their covenant relationship with God. The problem is, many of these rules seem unintelligible today: why, for example, are the people forbidden from wearing garments made of two kinds of fabric, planting two kinds of seeds in a field, or eating shellfish (this last, in fact, is described as “an abomination”). When I was a teenager in the sixties, someone in my church youth group found a verse in Leviticus prohibiting men from cutting their hair and trimming their sideburns, which we tried to use to full advantage with our parents who were always trying to get their sons to cut their hair. The verse that immediately follows that forbids getting a tattoo, which may be more useful for today’s parents! Some of the penalties for breaking these laws seem a little drastic too: death by stoning is prescribed for those who work on the Sabbath (and for disobedient children who won’t shape up). The point is that the Holiness Code of ancient Israel cannot simply be read as binding on people of faith today. The contexts are too dissimilar, and the code itself too conditioned by cultural realities of that time and place to have meaning in ours. Yet it is here in the 18th chapter of Leviticus that we read the apparent condemnation of homosexuality; I’m going to begin at the first verse to set the context: The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the Lord your God. And now picking up verse 22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. [same word used to describe eating shellfish] A case could legitimately be made that whatever good purpose this prohibition served back then no longer applies.
Part of the problem lies in translation. Biblical scholars disagree about precise definitions of words, but there are several that English language versions translate uniformly as “homosexuality,” including pedophilia, ritual prostitution, pornography, and abusive use of power in relationships. In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul makes reference to “degrading passions” as evidence of human sinfulness. . . right alongside some other practices with which we are all too familiar. Reading in the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, at the 18th verse: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. Whew! And just so we are not mistaken about to whom the pronoun “they” refers, Paul makes clear: Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? There isn’t certain correspondence between biblical descriptions of homosexuality as a willful choice with potential for exploitation, and a contemporary understanding of homosexuality as innate orientation expressed through mutually loving relationships between two men or two women. In other words, you can’t draw a line directly between these biblical verses and modern reality. What is compelling about the Romans text is not its ambiguous condemnation of homosexuality, but its powerful assessment of the common condition of sinfulness, and the universal need for salvation and new life.
If the texts seeming to deal with homosexuality are ambiguous at best, where do we turn for biblical guidance on this matter? God’s truth is not divided and does not contradict itself. The same Paul who excluded women from church leadership positions and urged slaves to obey their masters would nevertheless proclaim a larger truth, one rooted not in ever-changing cultural practice and sensibility, but in the eternal love of God. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul declares that divine love embodied in Jesus Christ renders human categories meaningless. Hear God’s word in the third chapter at the 23rd verse: Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Is it a stretch to add “there is no longer gay or straight” for we are all one in Christ Jesus?
Look, let’s explore what Jesus himself had to say about homosexuality. [long pause] Nothing. It’s ironic that something our Lord didn’t even mention has become a litmus test of faithfulness to him.
What Jesus said and what Jesus did, however, are persuasive. Through his words and actions, Jesus revealed the height and depth and breadth of God’s love. No law was more important to Jesus than to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself. The “family values” of God’s Kingdom are built on unconditional love and welcome. Jesus’ conflicts with both secular and religious authorities grew out of these values. He pushed back boundaries, erased borders, and broke down barriers to say that God’s love is for all.
I believe it is this witness that finally provided the impetus for the church’s constitutional change. The new wording requires all candidates to be deacons, elders, or ministers to submit their entire life to Christ’s rule. That rule is the rule of love we have seen in Jesus. We learn to love by following his example. It will lead us, as it did his first disciples, to some surprising places. Loving our enemies. Loving the outsider. Love not as a warm, fuzzy feeling, but as a conscious decision to act for the good of another. Led by the Spirit of Christ, may we widen our hearts to declare an end to designations that divide our church family and to thank God that by God’s grace, across all differences, we are one people. Amen.