When Your “Sincerely Held Religious Belief” is Not Ok

Hardly a week goes by when I run into someone who says its “ok” if they believe being Gay is “abnormal” or “sinful.” “You have your opinion and I have mine.” “What’s wrong with having an opinion?” As one gentleman recently told me “…nothing wrong with being of the opinion that it is abnormal. What would be wrong is insisting that everybody agree with that opinion. I don’t want anyone to insist that I accept homosexuality as normal, so I don’t insist that anyone must agree with me.” The irony of his comment was that he was Black. Talk about a lack of cognitive dissonance! The context for this particular discussion was on a conservative Christian English blog site, Premier, and the title was: “Cardinal says homosexuality is ‘abnormal’ and Church shouldn’t apologize for traditional teaching.” 

(https://www.premier.org.uk/content/view/full/901417)

So here’s the deal. Let’s not confuse normative human sexual behavior with what some Christians believe the Bible teaches about sexual behavior. Same sex and bisexual behaviors occur in about 10% of the human population, which is by all accounts, a fairly large group of people. I would hesitate to refer to 10% of the world’s population as “abnormal.” (*)

I would also hesitate to follow the Bible too closely, or literally, as a guide to sexual behavior, as that is not its purpose, nor does it do a particularly good job as a sex manual if used that way. Polygamy, slaves used as concubines, women taken as booty in war, male ownership of women, etc., kind of throws a monkey wrench in to the whole Biblical Marriage schtick.

Often when religious people fail to convince others that they “must” except their view they fall back on “I have the ‘right’ to my own opinion.” In this day and age there is a great deal of conversation and concern about individual “rights.” In most Western societies there is some sense of it being wrong to infringe upon the rights of individuals to live their lives free of discrimination, that everyone regardless of who they are, should be treated equally. Most people expect to be treated fairly.

Unfortunately, many religious people don’t see things that way. While expecting to be treated respectfully and fairly by others, they feel that the Bible gives them a mandate to do otherwise with those they deem “sinful.” When reprimanded for being discriminatory or bigoted, they claim they are being persecuted for believing what the Bible teaches. This type of thinking adds a sort of self-righteousness to bigotry and turns the oppressor into the oppressed.

Another tactic used by zealous religious folk is to dismiss arguments for equality and diversity as being “politically correct,” as catering to public opinion, or following “this world.” This is a cop-out, as getting to choose who we treat equally and who who do not, kind of negates the whole purpose of equality. It’s like saying all people are equal, but some are more equal than others. It also flies in the face of the “Golden Rule.”

I sincerely doubt the gentleman above would agree it’s “ok” to have racist opinions. Just what is meant by “it’s ok to have our opinions?” Is this a healthy attitude? Do opinions matter? Can opinions be hurtful and unChristlike? How has the evangelical adage of “hate the sin but love the sinner” worked out? Historically, not so well. And as long as religionists view Gays as abnormal and an “abomination,” they will continue to confuse hatred for acting loving.

All right, time to role up our sleeves and do a bit of research. One of the problems with patriarchal orthodoxy and its historical stranglehold on human sexuality is its blindness to sexual diversity in nature. In the OT Jewish canon, sexuality was defined solely in terms of a man’s dominion over the woman and the ability to pass on one’s “seed” in order to keep up one’s line perpetually. In other words, a woman was largely defined in terms of her ability to raise children, especially a male heir.

Anything, or behavior not fitting into that purpose was suspect. Women who were “barren” or didn’t produce a male heir were shamed or pitied, one of the reasons for multiple wives. Jewish laws before the Talmud, had no consequence for female same sex behavior, largely because it did not threaten men and women were not seen to be especially sexual in nature since there was no emission of seed. (1) On the other hand, male same sex erotic behavior circumvented what was understood to be the purpose of sex: to hopefully produce a male heir.

The Levitical prohibitions against SS behavior amongst males uses the term “toevah” which has a cultic meaning, i.e., pertaining to non-Israelite cultic practice. In this context homosexual temple prostitution is regarded as a “taboo” for Israel. “Abomination” in the KJV is a rather unfortunate and misleading translation of the word. For a good discussion of the use of the term toevah see the following footnote. (2)

“Now, if by “abomination,” the King James means a cultural prohibition—something which a particular culture abhors but another culture enjoys—then the term makes sense. But in common parlance, the term has come to mean much more than that. Today, it connotes something horrible, something contrary to the order of nature itself, or God’s plan, or the institution of the family, or whatever. It is this malleability of meaning, and its close association with disgust, that makes “abomination” a particularly abominable word to use. The term implies that homosexuality has no place under the sun (despite its presence in over 300 animal species), and that it is an abomination against the Divine order itself. Again, toevah is not a good thing—but it doesn’t mean all of that.” (3)

In the NT, it is Paul who non-affirming Christians most often turn to, and in particular, the first chapter of Romans. What is ignored in their proof-texting is the use of the vocative in Romans 2:1…

“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.” Here, then, is the vocative in the Greek, “Oh man,” a grammatical case used for direct address: ὦ ἄνθρωπε. And this takes us to the question I have posed to those who repeat 1:26-27 in condemnation. Who’s the ἄνθρωπος that Paul’s addressing here?” (4)

Rather than Paul condemning all SS activity in 1:26-27, he is quoting the ἄνθρωπος as saying such, then soundly rebuffing them in chapters 2 and following. Chapter 1 of Romans contains a typical Jewish diatribe against Roman culture, in particular its practice of orgies. What has occurred in the past is that theologians have concentrated so narrowly on the wording of Romans 1:18-32, assuming it is Paul speaking, that they totally miss the connection in chapter 2.

“Some scholarship of late, of which Porter’s article is the most thorough example, has noted that Romans 1:18-32 does not represent Paul’s view, but the prevailing view of Gentiles among many Jews at the time, which this apostle to the Gentiles feels compelled to refute. Building off of the scholarship of J.C. O’Neill (who calls it “a traditional tract which belongs essentially to the missionary literature of Hellenistic Judaism”) and E.P. Sanders (who explains that “Paul takes over to an unusual degree homiletical material from Diaspora Judaism”), Porter ultimately concludes that “in 2:1-16, as well as through Romans as a whole, Paul, as part of his Gentile mission, challenges, argues against, and refutes both the content of the discourse and the practice of using such discourses. If that is the case then the ideas in Rom. 1.18-32 are not Paul’s. They are ideas which obstruct Paul’s Gentile mission theology and practice.” (5) 

Wrapping things up, at best we can only claim that Scripture’s treatment of male homosexual activity is based on cultic prohibitions (OT), and that the practice of egalitarian, loving SS relationships are not addressed at all in the NT. Paul’s discussion in Romans hinges, not on the condemnation of SS activity, but on the hypocrisy of the Jews who do condemn it. Paul’s personal views on the matter are not really addressed. Even Preston Sprinkle, in his “A People to be Loved,” bases his anti-gay bias largely on an argument of silence on the matter. 

So, in conclusion, I think the use of the terms “abnormal” vs “normal” are unfortunate and misleading and do not reflect a medical/psychological analysis and ultimately result in marginalization and persecution of Gays and, in truth, and go far beyond what Scripture actually teaches. Opinions do matter. The church needs to do better.

* Those who identify as Gay in some fashion or another vary greatly from culture to culture, depending largely on the cultural understanding of what it means to be Gay. 10% is a ballpark figure representing Western Culture as a whole. As more individuals come out, percentages of those who identify as LGBTQ continues to rise. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_sexual_orientation

1 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_and_Judaism

2 http://religiondispatches.org/does-the-bible-really-call-homosexuality-an-abomination/

3 Ibid.

4 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2013/10/romans-126-27-a-clobber-passage-that-should-lose-its-wallop/

5 Ibid.

The Nashville Statement and Patriarchy

The recent Nashville Statement (1) on human sexuality is the latest attempt by the Religious Right to position male-female complementarianism, patriarchy and gender stereotypes as the Biblical norm for today, based largely on the ancient cultural norm in which male dominance and female subservience was the norm. One of the main problems with the belief that the Bible paints a clear picture of “one man, one woman,” is…that it does not. The truth is conservatives must carefully pick and choose their verses to support their thesis, conveniently overlooking the much more numerous passages that portray the ugly side of patriarchy and submission.

Contrary to most evangelical thinking, while the NT gives us excellent advice on loving our enemies and our neighbors as ourselves, the Bible, as a whole is a mixed bag on the issue of “Biblical Marriage.” With Biblical marriages involving polygamy, concubines, maid servants, spoils of war, sisters-in-laws, rape victims, etc., conservatives must do a lot of cherry picking to come up with a definitive view of marriage.

So, the basic quandary behind the Religious Right’s rejection of non binary human relationships and identity is the question of whether or not the “Biblical” model of sexual relationships is culturally informed and outdated, or whether strictly male-female complimentarianism and male headship (2) should be the cultural norm for moderns. As evident from the Nashville Statement, most evangelicals believe the latter, although headship is not specifically mentioned here. The traditionalist stance presented in the Nashville Statement is based, in large, on a specific biblical hermeneutic that is literal and believes the Bible is without error. But pushing for a literal, inerrant understanding of the texts poses problems for the definition of Biblical marriage. If one would follow the various examples of marriage in the Bible religiously and consistently, Christian marriage would differ little from that of Islamic fundamentalism. What conservative evangelicals have done to soften the hard edges of this fact is to couch male dominance in the language of “complimentarianism.” In other words, men and women have separate but equal clearly defined roles. We have heard “separate, but equal” used before and it never truly means “equal.”

This is not to say that all evangelicals hold to a strict male headship relationship of human sexuality and gender role. The minority model I grew up with was “mutual submission,” which is more egalitarian and follows a much more Christlike attitude of serving one another. It also follows the broad outline of Paul’s discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5.

Behind the language of the Nashville Statement, is a history of a cultural shift from evangelicalism to fundamentalism within the Southern Baptist denomination. As David Gushee points out, fundamentalists within the denomination waged a fierce battle for control of the Southern Baptist convention between 1979 and 1993. What resulted was a decisive string of victories within the SBC that put fundamentalists firmly in control. In, turn, these men made sure that women and moderates were forced out of teaching positions within Baptist colleges as well as diminishing the role of women within the denomination. (3) Prior to 1979, Christian fundamentalism’s primary hand-wringing involved the Civil Rights movement and resistance to Black equality and the “mixing of the races.” But as Gushee puts it, “by the late 1970s, a different strategy was developed on the conservative side, focusing especially on traditionalist Christian discomfort with the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on abortion…This proved a more appealing agenda for conservative Christian consumption than directly attacking progress in racial integration and black empowerment.” (4)

The shift from outright racism (which is still very much alive among fundamentalists) to “family values,” i.e., anti- feminism, anti-Gay, anti-abortion, is very much based on a traditional male headship model, as presented in scripture. One would wonder why evangelical and fundamentalist men would be so upset by Gay marriage, but the answer is simple: non binary individuals fall outside the control of male headship. They don’t fit into a patriarchal scheme of human sexuality. Which begs the question, in an egalitarian society, where an individual’s self worth and purpose is not based on their genitalia, exactly what value does male headship bring to the table? If divorce rates among evangelicals are any indication, the answer is, none, as the rate of failed marriages mirrors that of society as a whole.

The tragedy of the Nashville Statement is that it closes the door to dialogue about human sexuality, and attempts to rigidly compartmentalize gender stereotypes, ignoring the realities of gender and sexuality. It also closes the door to further understanding and reform amongst evangelicals. The door too has been shut on careful consideration of the Biblical passages themselves, preferring a inerrant, literal hermeneutic that does not take into consideration a great many things: culturally bound materials, story as opposed to historical facts, and a general inability to differentiate Kingdom principals from cultural mores. It has sadly become all too apparent that fundamentalists favor law over Grace, continuing over a century of vigorously defending indefensible attitudes towards race, women, violence and sexual minorities. This needs to stop.

1. https://www.scribd.com/mobile/document/357531494/The-Nashville-Statement
2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complementarianism
3. David P. Gushee, “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” see chapter 3.
4. Ibid., p. 32.