By Russ Harper
The topic of homosexuality is currently dividing the United Methodist Church. The official policies of the church are quite mixed.
On the one hand, the church is officially opposed to homophobia and heterosexism. The church opposes “all forms of violence and discrimination based on gender, gender identity, sexual practice, or sexual orientation” (resolution #2043, 2008 Book of Resolutions). The church affirms that “homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth” (Resolution #2041, 2008 Book of Resolutions).
On the other hand, the church believes that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.” (¶304.3 2012 Book of Discipline). Also ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions may not be conducted by UMC ministers or in UMC facilities (¶341.6). To do so is a “chargeable offense” that may result in a loss of clergy credentials.
Many Methodists therefore look to scripture for guidance. Perhaps the majority of Methodists, like most Christians, believe that same-sex relations are forbidden in the Bible. As a result, these Methodists believe that same-sex relationships can never be acceptable, no matter what we may think of individual LGBT persons. Other Methodists believe that we should love and accept LGBT persons and celebrate their relationships no matter what the Bible says, and yet others believe that when read in its historical context that the prohibitions against same-sex conduct are not applicable to the same-sex relationships we see today.
I believe that as Christians, our guiding principle should always be that of love. The “Great Commandment” from Jesus Christ is one that I consider it to be the most central, most definitive, and most important statement of Christian ethics. If we are to truly follow Jesus, we must love and serve everyone; not just those deemed acceptable by society or the church. In my view, it is not possible to love your neighbors while simultaneously judging them to be “unacceptable.” Jesus said:
“‘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 first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:37-40)
The Apostle Paul agrees. While arguing against gentile circumcision or the need to follow Jewish dietary codes, Paul writes:
But through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:13c-14)
Still, these passages do not do away with the law; they only say that the law is fulfilled when you “love your neighbor.” (Although Paul does go on to argue that Gentiles such as we should not be concerned with the law as long as we accept Christ as our savior and love one another.)
So what is the law regarding same-sex relations, and how does it relate to love of neighbor?
It turns out that there are only about five verses in the entire Bible that appear to have anything at all to do with sexual relations between persons of the same gender. Of these, there is only one law that expressly forbids them. These verses are:
- Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
- Romans 1:26-27
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
- 1 Timothy 1:8-11
Leviticus contains the one and only law against same-sex behavior. It reads as follows:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (Lev 18:22)
The penalty for violating this law is given in 20:13:
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. (Lev 20:13)
This is the only place in the entire Bible that explicitly forbids same-sex intercourse. Notice that this verse does not condemn LGBT people or “homosexuals.” The idea of sexual orientation only came about in the late 19th century. As a result, this verse is only about actions, not thoughts, emotions or personality. Also, these verses only apply to men, not women. Isn’t that odd? Leviticus 18:23 forbids both men and women from having sex with animals, but there is nothing at all in the entire Bible that prohibits sex between women. Is that an oversight? We will come back to this question later.
Back to the prohibition against sex between men. We might naturally assume that this verse specifically targets gay men, but verses 6-20 are all about prohibiting men from having sex with women—usually to prevent incest. This is also very strange. Are these the same men? There is nothing in Leviticus to suggest that they are not. It is as if the writers of Leviticus expected that men whom we moderns might consider to be “straight” might want to have sex with one another. Why would that be? Why would the ancient Israelites feel the need to create a law like this?
Leviticus is thought to have been written around 538 BCE shortly after the Babylonian exile. At this time, the Levitical priests were trying to re-establish Jewish worship and culture that was nearly destroyed after the Babylonian conquest some 70 years before. With that aim, the Jewish priests created laws to prevent the worship of foreign Gods and strengthen civil society. This particular set of laws is called the “Holiness Code” and is found in Leviticus 17-26. These laws cover dietary restrictions, animal sacrifice, sexual taboos, religious celebrations, ethical concerns, prohibitions against idolatry, and so on.
Most biblical scholars would probably agree that Leviticus 18:22 likely had something to do with idolatry or the worship of foreign gods. The word “abomination” is strongly associated with cultic practices, and the mention of child sacrifice (Lev 18:21) and bestiality (18:23) strengthen the association.
For example, according to Kenneth C. Davis in Don’t Know Much About the Bible (pg. 143):
Canaanite religion centered on worship of Baal, a fertility god responsible for rain, obviously a significant figure in an agricultural community that bordered a desert. The rains came, according to Canaanite belief, when Baal had sex, with his semen falling in the form of life-giving rain. Instead of a simple “rain dance,” Canaanite priests had sex, apparently coupling with men, women, and beasts.
So it seems very likely that Leviticus 18:22 was primarily intended to prevent idolatry. But there may be more to it than just that. According to Professor Mary A. Tolbert of the Lancaster School of Theology, sex in the ancient world was seen as a display of dominance and submission:
The single most important concept that defines sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world, whether we are talking about the kingdoms of Egypt or of Assyria or whether we are talking about the later kingdoms of Greece and Rome, is that approved sexual acts never occurred between social equals. Sexuality, by definition, in ancient Mediterranean societies required the combination of dominance and submission. This crucial social and political root metaphor of dominance and submission as the definition of sexuality rested upon a physical basis that assumed every sex act required a penetrator and someone who was penetrated. Needless to say, this definition of sexuality was entirely male—not surprising in the heavily patriarchal societies of the ancient Mediterranean.
Professor Tolbert goes on to say that during times of war it was not uncommon for men who had conquered a foreign army to rape them in order to show that they were dominant and of a higher status.
The sex-as-dominance metaphor was not just limited to sex between men. It applied to all sexual relationships, including those between men and women.
In his book, Lost Christianities, author Bart D. Ehrmann describes the relationship between men and women in the ancient world like this (pg. 63):
[…] In the ancient world […] people generally understood gender relations differently than we do. Today we tend think of men and women as two kinds of the same thing. There are humans, and they are either male or female. In the ancient world, genders were not imagined like that. For ancient people, male and female were not two kinds of human, they were two degrees of human.
As we know from medical writers, philosophers, poets and others, women in the Greek and Roman worlds were widely understood to be imperfect men. They were men who had not developed fully. In the womb they did not develop penises. When born, they did not develop fully, did not grow muscular, did not develop facial hair, did not acquire deep voices. And, in a world permeated with an ideology of power and dominance, that made women subservient and necessarily subordinate to men.
Here we see that the “as with a woman” part of Leviticus 18:22 may not just be euphemistic way of referring to sex between men. It may also describe the motivation for the act and the justification for the prohibition. For a man to treat another man “as a woman” not only humiliates and subordinates the other, but also treats him as a lesser kind of human. Even if the act were consensual, the subordinate man would still lose status because he is still being treated “like a woman.” However, the dominant man gains honor and status because of his display of power and dominance.
When viewed from this perspective, it seems to me that in addition to preventing idolatry, Leviticus 18:22 was also intended to prevent male-on-male rape. Even in cases of consensual sex between males, the prohibition would seem to encourage a theology of equality between men. (“Don’t use sex to dominate your neighbor.”) Of course, all of this hinges on the belief that males are naturally dominant and superior to women.
This kind of thinking may also help to explain why, in the entire Bible, there is no specific prohibition against sex between women. None of the symbolism of dominance and submission would seem to apply to sexual relationships between women. For one thing, from a male-dominated, patriarchal perspective, women are simply un-equipped to fill a “penetrator”or dominant role. For another, women were expected to be “naturally” submissive. As a result, the already low status of women could not change through same-sex intercourse.
This hierarchy between men and women is taken for granted throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We only see it begin to break down in the time of Jesus and Paul. In Galatians, Paul writes:
…for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)
Here Paul is arguing that the social distinctions and hierarchies that separated men and women no longer apply. Instead, God is doing something new. Paul calls it a “new creation” (Gal 6:15).
Mutually supportive, long term, loving, sexual relationships between men of relatively equal social status is a thing of our world. Likewise long term, loving, sexual relationships between men and women of the same social status is also a relatively recent development. I am sure that the biblical authors of ancient times could scarcely imagine it.
I do not think that the authors of Leviticus were trying to prevent same-sex relationships as we understand them today. Instead, I think that they were trying to prevent male-on-male rape, and I think they were trying to promote equality among the men of ancient Israel. I certainly think that this is how Jesus and Paul would have interpreted the verse: If you love your neighbor, then don’t rape them, and treat them as your equal.
At the same time, Paul writes of a new creation where the motivation for that kind destructive behavior becomes meaningless and is wiped away. Likewise the barriers that separate us one from another are also wiped away.
For neither circumcision or uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal 6:15)
Here Paul is restating what he said in Galatians 3:26-28: hierarchies and separations between Jews and gentiles, males and females, slaves and free, all of these divisions are gone, at least within the church. We gentiles can live free from the law because by loving one another we fulfill the purpose of the law. For Paul, this meant that God was doing something new and unprecedented. Something wonderful. God was bringing about an end to oppression, division, and injustice through love. Things may look the same to an outsider, but for Paul and other early Christians like him, God had remade the world through Christ. Paul says in 2 Corinthians:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! (2 Cor 5:17)
I find it sad and ironic that Bible verses originally meant to lead and promote equality are today being used to harm are and justify discrimination. But I am not with out hope. I certainly acknowledge that mine is a minority view of scripture. The church has traditionally taught that there is something wrong with being gay or lesbian, and that scripture prohibits all same-sex relationships, but that view is starting to change. I think most main-line biblical scholars would accept most of what I’ve outlined here. People in churches are starting to pay more attention to biblical research and archeology, and attitudes are starting to change. The topic of marriage equality could scarcely be imagined 25-30 years ago. Today it almost seems inevitable. Today a Texas gubernatorial candidate is campaigning on it! Changing times inevitably bring turmoil, but I think the turmoil facing the church will soon pass away.
I like to think that God is still working on us; still wiping away old fears and prejudices; opening our hearts and reconciling our differences. Already our children are wondering what all the fuss is about. So maybe God is making a new creation even now, in our lifetime.
May it be so.
Davis, Kenneth C., Don’t Know Much About the Bible, 1998
Ehrmann, Bart D., Lost Christianities, 2003
Tolbert, Mary A., Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: Biblical Texts in Historical Contexts, 2002
UMC, 2012 Book of Discipline
UMC, 2008 Book of Resolutions
UMC Website, What Is The Denomination’s Position On Homosexuality?
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition, 2001
Russ Harper has been happily married to his wife Micheal Harper since 1988, and they moved to Texas the following year. They are very proud of their beautiful daughter Mikayla, who studies math and computer science at Texas Tech.
Mr. Harper has been a database programmer for over 25 years. He is currently the Senior SAS Programmer for the Texas Department of Insurance, Division of Workers’ Compensation. Mr. Harper, a life-long United Methodist, was a member of Saint John’s UMC from 2001 to 2011 where he was a much-loved class leader. He is currently an involved member of Trinity UMC Austin where he continues to organize and lead adult Christian education classes.