Christian Eye for the Queer Guy

[1] Human beings, as far as we know, are unique in their ability to engage in moral choice. The endeavor to do this is an ancient and sincere striving; one that makes living a happy and fulfilling life a real possibility. But in trying to make moral decisions we often become overwhelmed by the immense moral pluralism of our modern culture and the sheer complexity of relevant factors that need consideration before informed decisions are made about a given issue of moral choice. One result of this moral striving is that we are often left more in hope than in certainty that we have ever acted appropriately. The effort to avoid the perplexity associated with moral difference often gives rise to attempts to find static certainty in morality, if for no other reason than to enjoy the peace of mind that this affords. In this essay, I will argue that Christianity should not attempt to provide unchanging certainty in moral decision-making. Rather, the Biblical teachings of Jesus and Paul point to a Christian morality grounded in open-ended exploration and ongoing transformation. My objective is to apply the innovative teachings of Jesus and Paul to the contemporary discussion of homosexuality (i.e., Christian eye for the queer guy).

[2] A failure to establish or endorse certainty in Christian ethics is not a cause for despair. Rather than viewing moral pluralism within the church as an indication that Christian ethics have gone astray, perhaps the existence of competing moral visions should be seen as a safeguard against self-righteousness, unjust intolerance, and a reminder that knowledge of right and wrong, like knowledge of God, is imperfect and in the process of being refined. Whatever discomfort is felt because of moral differences regarding capital punishment, euthanasia, or homosexuality may occasion an honest, sincere, and open-exchange of views that lead to greater mutual understanding, if not consensus. Critical reflection and dialogue about the nature of morality, in its many expressions, may lead to a clearer comprehension of the concepts, principles, and values that constitute its core substance. Confronting difficult issues might bring people closer to feeling the sheer excitement of the life of faith in the churches to which Paul wrote, for example. Such an attitude and approach seems particularly required of individuals and groups whose moral vision is based on an invitation to transformative Christian discipleship. Christian moral discernment encourages us to see things in a new light, one that is often different from that provided by received wisdom and tradition.

[3] Christian morality has always been evolving as we have discovered ever more about the mysterious world in which we live. There are innumerable examples of this transformation: Christianity’s view of the age of the world in light of evolution, and its view of the unacceptability of slavery in light of the development of liberal democracies and concepts of human rights are two that come to mind. Another example of a recent and, by comparison quick, change of Christian ethical opinion concerns the ongoing liberation of women brought about by the feminist movement. Christianity, as we must now fully recognize, was compliant in preserving notions of male supremacy and domination in Western culture. Indeed, the Christian church has played such a major role in female subordination that some commentators think that it is incapable of being reformed on the issue (Hampson, pp. 50f). For the most part, however, the need for reform has been widely recognized, especially in Protestant denominations, and rapid processes of transformation have come about in the last fifty years or so. Yet another example is the increasingly widespread recognition that sexual orientation might not be a matter of free choice and a recognition that love, intimacy and commitment are present in homosexual and heterosexual couples. Indeed, the advent of open and informed dialogue is stimulating the now widespread Christian reappraisal of homosexual relationships. In all these instances, the Bible and tradition are being revisited, not abandoned, in light of important new pieces of empirical information.

Bible and Transformation
[4] The vast diversity and dynamic nature of the Bible is vitally important to understanding Christian ethics. The Bible, we must remember, contains writings that span over a millennium, from the earliest Hebrew Scripture dating to ninth century BCE to the latest books of the New Testament dating from the second century CE. The earliest of these writings reach back into the nomadic campfires of Israel’s oral traditions. As would be expected, this vast time-span embraces many different authors, cultures, histories, literary styles, and perspectives regarding morality. Attempts to homogenize these into ‘the biblical view of x’ are simplistic and generally false. Indeed, the rich diversity of the biblical writings expresses anything but static conformity to clearly established moral dictates.

[5] The past two hundred years of biblical scholarship reveal that the Gospel narratives themselves are neither straightforward historical records nor are they eyewitness accounts written by people who accompanied Jesus and were reporting on what they saw and heard. Rather, written in the last third of the first century by second-generation authors, the gospels represent the changing and developing traditions of the early Christian movement (Tatum).1 Even cursory readings of the Gospels reveal their diversity; nowhere more than when they address ethical issues. Divorce is a case in point: Mark forbids it (Mark 10: 2-12); Matthew allows an exception to the hardness of inflexible rule (Matt. 19:9); and St. Paul wrestles with the marriages of believers to unbelievers in a way that suggests that, although he seems aware of the Marcan prohibition, he gives other advice: ‘I and not the Lord’ (1 Cor. 7:12). This example suggests that the New Testament writers themselves offer a dynamic, not a static and unchanging, understanding of faithful discipleship and ethical discernment. The New Testament authors themselves demonstrate innovation in the face of ethical uncertainty in order to embody creatively their Christian compassion in the actual circumstances of the lives of the faithful.

[6] It is critical to recognize that biblical faith in its ethical dimension was never complete at any one time in the biblical history. Biblical faith does not stop simply because scripture was formally canonized by a Council in Rome in the later part of the fourth century CE. The biblical faith continued being made and remade in the early Christian communities, but in a different way, outside the canon of scripture. Biblical faith did not stop, and indeed, does not stop. And this is the point that is so important: biblical faith goes on being made and remade today in the form of on-going Christian discipleship. Biblical faith and Christian discipleship, therefore, are still in the making and will remain so this side of the fully realized Kingdom of God. Neither the biblical writers, contemporary disciples, nor any who come after us will know everything there is to know to complete the making of that faith and moral embodiment entirely to God’s satisfaction. Paul speaks memorably to the imperfection of human knowing and acting when he states: “For now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 17:12). We are not God, so the biblical faith we embody will always be an aspiration that requires ongoing transformation. All we can hope to do, therefore, by God’s grace, is the best we can in the situations we face, with scripture, tradition, love, and humility as our guides.

Love and Grace in the Teachings of Jesus and Paul
[7] Christian moral discipleship is grounded in the witness of Jesus. When Matthew’s Jesus was asked by a Pharisee what was the greatest commandment of all (Matt. 22:36, paralleled in Mark 12:28-34 where the same question is asked by a scribe), he replied, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ These verses focus on the complicated nature of the relationship between human and divine love. Most Christian ethicists argue that these verses do not refer to human love as eros or philia, which seek the self-satisfaction of desire in the form of romance or friendship. Rather, Christian morality places a central emphasis on human agape love, modeled after God’s love for God’s creatures that seeks only the well being of one’s neighbor and does not consider self-satisfaction at all (Furnish, 1972; Outka). Christians should love even their enemies, a standard of conduct that transcends customary rules of morality (Luke 6:7, 32-33). Experience teaches that human agape love, therefore, is not an easy moral teaching to embody. Agape love summons Christians to exemplary living, marked by a regard for the fullness of life for all without regard to worthiness. Seen in this way, grace is love in action, the tangible evidence of God’s presence. It unifies human beings with one another and with God.

[8] The word grace is a translation of charis, the Greek word for God’s gift of Godself to humankind. The New Testament is full of metaphors referring to this free gift. For the writer of the Gospel of John it is the bread of life (7:37-39), and in the Acts of the Apostles it is used to characterize the spirit-filled person, such as Stephen (Acts 6:8). Paul calls charis an ‘aroma’ (2 Cor. 2:15) and associates grace with the freedom and liberation that salvation brings (Rom. 3:24). Grace manifests in the life of Jesus (Rom. 5:21) and is to be understood as the tangible difference that is made by the divine presence in human life and affairs. For Paul, this is the basis of the ‘new life’ that is made available in Christ, what he calls a ‘new creation’ (Gal. 6:15). Grace is what later Christian tradition called ‘sanctification’ and later still ‘personal holiness.’

[9] The New Testament portrays grace as so powerful that it cannot be contained by traditional purity regulations or conventional moral codes of behavior. It is all pervading and, for that reason, more likely to be practiced by the outcast and sinners than by the official guardians of virtue, whoever they may be. At this point the parable of the Good Samaritan speaks volumes (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus tells the parable in which a man is robbed, injured, and left half-dead along a road. A Samaritan passerby saw the man, recognized his need for help, and had compassion, attending to his wounds and providing for his care. Neither the Pharisee nor the Levite helped the injured man, not because they were not nice people per se, but because their conventional purity codes and ritual regulations prevented them from touching unclean bodies. What kind of a story is it in which a Samaritan-typically labeled a heretic and impure person-can be the hero of the story and a Pharisee-typically viewed as righteous and pure-can be pronounced unrighteous? It is the story of the grace and compassion of God unhindered by conventional beliefs and interpretations about purity.

[10] Jesus disregarded traditional belief barriers associated with sickness, status, and sex. He recognized that people associate lepers with physical impurity but he touched a leper and extended compassion and healing nonetheless (Luke 5:12-14). Jesus knew that conventional opinion judged tax collectors to be unworthy of inclusion, indeed worthy of exclusion, but he called Levi anyway, making him one of the twelve disciples (5:27-39). Jesus knew what people believed about men and women talking together in public, but he allowed a woman, “a sinner,” to touch him in public anyway, “kissing his feet and anointing them with ointment.” When criticized, Jesus commended the woman for her unbounded love (7:36-50). The God we meet and recognize in Jesus is the God who reaches out to all in relentless and diverse expressions of compassion and hospitality. Jesus introduces us to what biblical scholar Eugene March calls “the wide, wide circle of divine love” (March).

[11] Living a life blinded by conformity to narrow contemporary religious and cultural purity boundaries not only was problematic in the first century Jewish social world in which Jesus lived, but also is problematic in our contemporary culture and religious sensibility. Conventional belief often deems homosexuality a physical purity issue, which leads to a strongly negative attitude towards homosexuality. Conventional Christian beliefs regarding sexual ethics tend to view heterosexual married sex as physically pure while viewing homosexual non-marital sex as physically impure. For these Christians there is something “dirty” about homosexuality. The embodiment of grace, love, and commitment become subordinate to, bound by, and judged according to conventional purity regulations, i.e., what goes where, appropriate gender attraction, procreative potential, and marital status.

[12] Lutheran theologian and ethicist Dietrich Bonhoffer expressed convincingly the significance of Jesus’ teaching regarding the danger of binding love by judgment:

If when we judged others our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is to be found, and that is in our own hearts. But if we are on the lookout for evil in others, our real motive is obviously to justify ourselves, for we are seeking to escape punishment for our own sins by passing judgment on others, and are assuming by implication that the Word of God applies to ourselves in one way, and to others in another (Bonhoffer, p. 206).
Bonhoffer regards such a stance as misleading and dangerous because it indicates a willingness to claim for ourselves a special privilege that we deny to others. He argues that Christ’s disciples have no special privilege whatsoever; they have received nothing but Christ’s reconciling love (206). Christians are called to not only give freely what they have received, but also to recognize and appreciate reconciling love wherever it is present.

[13] God’s grace and love are not bound by conventional purity judgments but include all acts of tenderness, compassion, and hospitality between all human beings whatever their race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation. This is because, in the Christian understanding of the relationship of human to God, the human-human encounter is part of the human-divine encounter. It applies no less to human beings in their sexual relationships, than it does to people in any other form of human relationship. It applies no less to human beings who are homosexuals than to human beings who are heterosexuals.

[14] Jesus used parables, like the Good Samaritan story, to encourage his hearers to see in a radically new way. As invitational forms of speech, the parables do not invoke external authority as do the speech form of divine lawgivers (thus says the Lord, “you shall . . .”). The authority or voice of the parable is invitational rather than imperative, invoking compassion rather than judgment (Crossan, Borg, pp. 69-95). Jesus used these provocative parabolic forms of speech to subvert conventional ways of seeing and living, to rouse creative and innovative response, and to invite his hearers to an alternative way of life where the first are last and the last first, the impure exalted and the pure humbled.

[15] Next to Jesus, Paul is the most important person in the history of early Christianity. The genuine letters of Paul, all written in the fifteen years before his execution in Rome around the year 64, are our earliest witness to the new Christian movement. They are, of course, quite different from the narrative structure of the gospels. For the most part written to Christian communities that Paul himself had founded, these letters typically address specific local problems. Their emphasis is on whatever is necessary in a given situation, rather than on a carefully crafted and coherent moral system binding on everyone in the same way at all times.

[16] For Paul, the heart of the gospel is that we are granted justification by grace freely given by God as a gift (Rom. 3:24, 4:4; Gal. 2:21). The effect of grace is deliverance from the life of anxious striving and self-preoccupation that goes with justification by works. This is the central significance of the gospel of Christ according to Paul:

We are now justified by God’s grace as a gift through the redemptive value that is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:14).

Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4).

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).

Thus, for Paul there are two radically different ways of being: living by grace through faith, and living under the law by works. This fundamental contrast is the same as the contrast we find in the teaching of Jesus. “Justification by works” or “life under the law,” is life in the conventional world with its emphasis upon purity requirements and strict compliance to established moral codes. Life by grace is the alternative wisdom of Jesus, with its emphasis upon the compassion and grace of God as manifest in the free and innovative life of the faithful.

[17] In many Christian contexts, the negative attitude towards homosexuality is fueled by theologies of works-justification, wherein Christians must prove their worth by proving their “pure” sexual orientation. As Robin Scroggs (p. 10) argues, works-justification involves living according to the “performance principle,” in which justification depends on how well people conform to particular external performance requirements. Paul did not seek to replace Torah law requirements by substituting a new set of “Christian” law requirements. Rather, Paul recognized that God’s grace is not bound by any particular standards of works-justification.

[18] Paul combines justification by grace with a radical view of the universality of the Gospel by becoming the champion of Gentile Christianity. Paul’s rejection of purity boundaries is most stridently essayed in the Epistle to the Galatians where the emphasis is on Christians enjoying a ‘new creation’ in Christ (Gal. 6:15). In this new creation “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). This freedom for unbounded love is what grace makes possible; simply because of the new relationship with God it bestows (Sanders, pp. 502-508).

[19] Perhaps the shattering of purity barriers by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to our contemporary purity code’s interpretation of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior might therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. That is, on the basis of whether or not sexual relationships are expressed in acts shaped by love, fidelity, intimacy, mutual respect, monogamy, commitment, and grateful joy. Perhaps the passage in which Paul negates the other purity restrictions of his world also means, “In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay.” Granted, Paul did not say that, but the logic of graceful activity, the universality of the gospel, the rejection of works-justification, and Paul’s ethos of compassion imply it, or so it seems to me.

[20] The basic argument addressed here is that the ethical teachings of both Jesus and Paul are more resonant with a morality of challenge, innovation and transformative grace than they are with a rigid system of laws and rules. Grace is associated more with the activity of embodied love and compassion in the world than it is with conformity to conventional purity judgments. The Pauline Epistles, like the Gospel narratives, portray the moral life as something open and dynamic as opposed to closed and static. Viewing the Biblical teachings of Jesus and Paul in this way may stimulate new horizons for Christians to view and interpret the beautiful human beings who happen to express intimate love in homosexual relationships.

Framing the Moral Discussion
[21] Intelligent, sincere Christian people disagree sharply on homosexuality’s moral status. In that respect, homosexuality is not unique; intelligent Christian people also disagree sharply on the moral status of capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, and a host of other issues. What distinguishes homosexuality is that it is not immediately clear what is at stake in the moral debate. Euthanasia and capital punishment end lives; abortion ends a potential or budding life-but what does adult consensual homosexuality do?

[22] Christian debates about the moral status of homosexuality often focus on one of two points: nature and Bible. Some Christians contend that homosexual sex is unnatural because it does not result in reproduction. However, many straight and gay couples do not agree that procreation is the sole purpose of sexual relating, and the ELCA in its 1996 message “Sexuality: Some Common Convictions” states that “Human sexuality was created good for the purposes of expressing love and generating life, for mutual companionship and pleasure.” Straights and gays stress the importance of sexual expression for purposes of bonding, intimacy, mutual pleasure, joy, tenderness and love. A genuine and active church discussion on the topic of nature and sex opens the doors for transformation and new insight.

[23] Other Christian believers claim that homosexuality is clearly condemned as immoral and in violation of God’s will by specific scriptural passages in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. In is important to recognize that few texts in scripture-perhaps seven at most-speak directly about homosexual behavior. Significantly, the four Gospels record no saying of Jesus on the subject. The issue is not a major scriptural preoccupation. Compare, for example, the incidence of texts on economic justice, of which there are many hundreds. A thorough discussion of the seven most-often disputed texts may be downloaded from the ELCA’s sexuality studies website.

[24] We receive no guidance whatsoever about the central issue of sexual orientation. Indeed, the concept of differing sexual orientations and the accompanying term homosexuality did not arise until the mid-nineteenth century (Furnish, 1985, 53-54; D’Emilio and Freedman, 121-138; Countryman, 118). Significantly, the term “homosexual” did not appear in an English Bible translation until 1946, with the publication of the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament (Furnish, 1985, 54). Certainly biblical writers knew of homosexual acts, but they apparently understood those acts as being done by heterosexual people (they assumed everyone was heterosexual). Thus, when persons engaged in same-sex genital behavior, they were departing from their natural and given orientation.

[25] There are few biblical passages relevant to the issue of homosexuality, all refer to individual instances, and the biblical writers show no awareness of the modern conception of homosexuality as an orientation, natural or otherwise. One Biblical passage in Genesis 19:1-11 is often read as attributing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to homosexual acts, but it is more likely that the object of condemnation is inhospitality to strangers and sexual violence in the form of rape. The condemnation of homosexual acts as such has to be read into the text at this point and the same is arguably true of the other biblical references (Lev. 18:22, 20:1-3; Rom. 1:26-27l 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). Leviticus condemns same-sex male behavior in the name of the same Jewish cultural and religious purity requirements that associate menstruation, giving birth, and sowing mixed fields as impure or “unclean” activities. We have already seen how Jesus and Paul replace purity with compassion, isolation with inclusion, justification by works with justification by grace. As Christians reflect upon and discuss these Old Testament passages there is room for new insight and application.

[26] The New Testament passage in Romans, for example, seems directed against homosexual lust in connection with the main topic of discussion at that point, which is idolatry. Of course, Jesus also criticizes heterosexual lust. Perhaps inordinate sexual lust is the primary issue of concern for Christians then and now. Robin Scroggs’ (1977) New Testament scholarship provides historical context that might help Christians interpret Paul’s apparent reference to homosexual acts. Looking closely at the cultural and religious contexts of the first century milieu in which Paul lived, Scroggs argues that in the Greco-Roman world there was one basic model of male homosexuality: pederasty, the sexual use of boys by adult males, often in the form of prostitution and always lacking mutuality. He concludes that Paul rejected “the image of homosexuality as pederasty and primarily here its more sordid and dehumanizing dimensions. One would regret it if somebody in the New Testament had not opposed such dehumanization” (p. 123). In short, the specific Pauline judgments against homosexual practice may not be directly relevant to today’s debate regarding the caring, mutual, loving relationships between consenting adults who are homosexual in orientation.

[27] Intelligent, caring Christians will not agree on questions of biblical interpretation and application to daily life, but open and informed dialogue on controversial issues will enhance mutual understanding, will create a context of dynamic relationship, and may replace silence and fear with affirmation and hope. Dynamic discourse on issues regarding the Bible and homosexuality, intimacy and grace, spirituality and sexuality might affirm the created goodness of our sexuality and bodily life; the inclusiveness of the Christian community, not limited by purity codes; the equality of women and men; and the service of our sexuality to the service of God. That incorporation of our sexuality into God’s grace means expression in acts shaped by grateful joy, mutual commitment and respect, intimacy, love, justice, and compassion. These are criteria that might apply regardless of one’s orientation.

[28] Both Jesus and Paul invite their followers into a transformative relationship with the same graceful God that they themselves knew, and into a community whose social vision is shaped by the core values of love and compassion. Jesus and Paul respond creatively and innovatively to the concrete moral concerns of their day. They do not offer static, unchanging, and inflexible moral absolutism grounded in law or command. Mainline Protestant denominations are now gripped in titanic struggles over how to apply creative love and dynamic compassion to issues of gay intimacy and connectedness. This should come as no surprise given the Christian commitment to an ethics of sanctuary, an ethics that says you are not alone and you are not unprotected. At root, the issue is whether or not Christian churches will recognize homosexual intimacy as a legitimate form of human bonding and expression of God’s boundless love.

Works Cited

Bonhoffer, Dietrich
1959 The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan Co.

Borg, Marcus
1995 Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Countryman, William
1988 Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Crossan, John Dominic
1983 In Fragments: The Aphorisms of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

D’emilio, John and Freedman, Estelle
1989 Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper and Row.

Furnish, Victor
1972 The Love Command in the New Testament. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
1985 The Moral Teachings of Paul: Selected Issues. Nashville, Abingdon Press.

Hampson, Daphne
1990 Theology and Feminism. Oxford: Blackwell.

March, Eugene
2005 The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity. Louisville: WestMinster John Knox Press.

Outka, Gene
1972 Agape: An Ethical Analysis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sanders, J.T.
1977 Paul and Palestinian Judaism. London and Philadelphia.

Scroggs, Robin
1977 Paul for a New Day. Philadelphia: Fortress.

Tatum, W. Barnes
1982 In Quest of Jesus. Atlanta: John Knox.

Weinberg, George
1972 Society and the Healthy Homosexual. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co.

End Notes

1 For an excellent, accessible introduction to this understanding of the gospels, see W. Barnes Tatum, In Quest of Jesus (Atlanta: John Know, 1982). The most widely accepted scholarly understanding is that Mark is the earliest gospel, written around A.D. 70. Matthew and Luke were written some ten to twenty years later, and both used Mark as well as the document known as “Q,” a collection of sayings of Jesus totaling about two hundred verses, perhaps collected together as early as A.D. 50. John may be independent of the other three gospels and is typically dated around A.D. 90 to 100.