Dr Michael Brown recently responded to gay Christian author Matthew Vines’ questions of him on the website Christian Post (trigger warning: toxic content, especially in the comments after Dr Brown’s piece). It’s a very clear article (with which I often disagree for many hermeneutical reasons, even though I’m also a pentecostal). My brother in Christ Conrad Gayle, whom I know as a gifted jazz musician and celibate Christian who lives with same-sex attraction (those are terms I have heard him use in my presence) wants me to answer the two questions that Brown directs to Vines.
- Can you give me a single, unambiguous biblical example of a God-blessed homosexual relationship?
No, and it doesn’t matter much. Here’s what I mean:
- Can you give me an single, unambiguous biblical example that God forbids all slavery?
- Can you give me a single, unambiguous, instance of an woman in senior church leadership?
- Can you give me a single, unambiguous verse that says all Christians must speak in tongues?
- Can you give me a single, unambiguous reference in the OT that says Gentiles will be welcome into the covenant without being circumcised?
You might say yes, I might say no on some of these, or vice versa. What’s ambiguous to one might be absolutely clear to another.
What procedures are we going to use in order to ease the deadlock?
Most Christians make decisions about whether these things move with or against God’s plan for the world made known primarily in the life of Jesus (I am including birth, life and ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, present ministry through the Spirit, and coming again). The process of making thoughtful decisions about how to approach and interpret Scripture is called hermeneutics–and everybody’s got a hermeneutic. This applies especially to folks who believe they are not interpreting the Scripture because “it is black and white, not fifty shades of grey.” As I said to my friend Conrad, I think the drive for clarity is commendable. And: where’s the colour, my brother? (Insisting that one is not using a hermeneutic often leads to unwise use of power over others (“believe what I tell you or you’re in danger of hellfire”), or to what philosopher’s call naive realism. In Christian circles, naive realism usually manifests as the (unconscious) belief that the way I read Scripture is the same as God’s own view of things.)
There’s a strand of Scripture, a “theme,” that I think leads well into an inclusive framework (and thus I disagree with Dr Brown): the stories of eunuchs throughout Scripture. Most Evangelical people (at least on the internet) assumes that eunuchs are always celibate because their genitals have been compromised. More recent studies falsify this assumption. Eunuchs have a lot of sex, though often they don’t consent, but are victims of sexual violence. The author of Leviticus thinks that eunuchs are excluded by virtue of physical deformity; Isaiah 56 says that eunuchs are welcome if they are faithful (they are given a name better than sons and daughters). Jesus seems to include himself in the category “eunuchs for the Kingdom” in Matthew 19; and the first Gentile convert to the way of Jesus is the highest official in the court of Ethiopia, a eunuch!
Buried in the middle of the many eunuch stories of the Bible is a tiny comment about the prophet Daniel. He’s a strapping young lad, and the text seems to say that God caused his warden, a eunuch, to have chesed and racham for Daniel so that he and his friends would be treated well (Daniel 1:9). Chesed can be translated ‘covenant love,’ or ‘tender mercy’ and racham is usually ‘compassion’. David Neelands of Trinity College says that these words apply in many cases to people who are in love in Scripture. If it doesn’t have a romantic meaning in this text, the text does not explain how the author knows that a Gentile palace master is experiencing the kind of love that God has for his people (which often has a marital connotation in the Hebrew Bible)!
But hold on a second: traditional Christian interpretation says that all same-gender attraction is broken or disordered, in need of the healing touch of Jesus. If this is always the case, why would God deliberately cause a broken condition to arise in this jailer’s heart, even if it did benefit Daniel? Would that view of God be consistent with the compassion and healing ministry of Jesus? So conservative Christians want to interpret in terms of how they understand the canon of Scripture—they say that these words are not romantic.
But if the word does have a romantic or sexual connotation here, and if God did cause that desire to arise in someone’s heart, is it possible that God would approve of certain kinds of same-gender relationships? This interpretation would certainly cohere with my view (below) that the Bible does not speak clearly of all kinds of homosexual relationships. Once again, we see the importance of hermeneutical decisions that we usually make before we ever read a text.
- Do you agree that every reference to homosexual practice in the Bible is decidedly negative?
Yes. But scope and moral logic are also important. What I mean is this:
- When the Bible refers to homosexual practices, what does it mean? What behaviours are described and condemned?(Speaking as an evangelical with high regard for the content of Scripture, I want to try to agree with Paul! I believe, even as an affirming Christian, that I am condemning the same thing that he is.)
- What is the moral logic of the condemnation? Do these reasons apply to what we are discussing in today’s culture? If yes, why? If no, why not?
I admit: It is possible that the Biblical authors objected to all forms of homosexual practice or relationships. But if this is the case, they should have been much clearer.
Contrary to the work of NT Wright and others, the majority of scholars who know the culture of the ancient world say that there was no such thing as a sexual relationship between social equals. This means agency and consent between equals (values that the Western world gets from the Gospel that are important to us!) have been absent from the vast majority of sexual relationships throughout history. (Our increasing understanding of marital rape should tell us that we have a different view of things than does the Bible!)
If all instances of homosexuality have to do with sexual abuse or religious prostitution (as I believe they do), isn’t it fair and wise to recognize the profound distance between their context and ours?
Michael Brown believes that the Bible is unequivocal about the sinfulness of homosexual sex, and that misreading this important point puts even self-identifying Christians in danger of hell-fire. But given that a great many Bible-readers believe these passages refer to something we rarely see today, is it responsible to be controlled by fear of being wrong? Where do 1 John 4 and 2 Timothy 1:7 fit in? These passages portray the kind of fear we often see in conversations about sexuality as opposed to the Gospel, and even possibly demonic in origin.
Is the grace and mercy of Jesus shown us in his death-on-cross and resurrection sufficient to save us even from very serious (and unintentional) misinterpretations? After all: no self-identified Christians I know are trying to lie about the content of Scripture! I am confident the answer is yes, we are still saved and loved despite our lack of understanding.
So, knowing I could be wrong, I will live as a gay man and seek (if it seems good to the Lord) a holy and faithful same-gender relationship, confident that there will be blessing if I am called to it. Speaking as a man who used to be in a marriage with another man, I already know some of the blessings of a Christ-centred marriage. I am convinced in my own heart, both because of study and experience, that normally there is no difference between straight and gay Christian couples in this regard.
This book was very hard for me to read, though I liked it. It is beautifully written: lyrical, well-organized, theologically robust, moving. My problem with the book, as anyone who knows me well might guess, is this: my brother Wesley Hill cannot allow himself to consider that someone like me, who affirms that same-gender relationships are part of God’s good plans for some of his people, can be a faithful Christian. (There is a single footnote in the introduction that points to a few scant resources–including an excellent essay by theologian Sylvia Keesmaat–but otherwise I’m not sure his rhetoric in this regard is generous.) I really wish this book had been two–one about the vocation to celibacy, and the other a much more fulsome statement about the author’s traditional position on the morality of sexual-romantic intimacy between queer Christians and people. I realize they may be rarer than people expect, but there are affirming queer Christians who are celibate. Opposition to homosexuality, for them, is not at all related to their vocation, and therefore the thread of agony that winds its way through Hill’s narrative will not speak to their situations.
One thing I appreciated without any reservations was Wesley’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection, something he reiterates consistently. And yet with my affirmation is a difference in conclusion:
Rather than refer to someone as “a homosexual,” I’ve taken care always to make “gay” or “homosexual” the adjective, and never the noun, in a longer phrase such as “gay Christian” or “homosexual person.” In this way, I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian–someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit–will remain. (Hill, p. 22).
On the contrary, I believe that my identity as a gay man will not disappear, but will be part of what informs my relationships even in the resurrection.
Perhaps I am picking a fight about word choice, but “part of my makeup, a facet of my personality” is both a typical conservative notion about sex and (from Hill’s own perspective, I think) a contradiction. I live with Cerebral Palsy, a neurological impairment and disability that I do not believe belongs to God’s good creation. Though it affects almost everything I do, it is not part of my makeup from the standpoint of the resurrection–God will remove it because it doesn’t belong to my true and full personhood. If Hill believes (as he clearly does) that all homosexual expression is sin, it might be more coherent for him to say that his same-sex attractions are not part of his true makeup.
Seeing the world as a queer person–for most of us, I expect–is much more complicated than simply being “a facet,” something with clear edges that fits into a much larger picture. For most queer people, our queerness is like a drop of dye in a glass of water–clearly not the most important thing, but something that probably will diffuse itself in different ways throughout. In my experience, people who describe their queerness as “a facet” have rarely stopped to examine the ways in which sexuality (which someone helpfully describes as “the drive to overcome our alone-ness”) impacts the way they live their day-to-day lives.
Hill regularly implies (perhaps because of his own convictions, but perhaps also because of the theological bias of Zondervan, his publisher) that Christians who affirm same-gender relationships as-or-analogous-to marriages are not being faithful to the Gospel. His book was published in 2010, before Evangelical books like Generous Spaciousness, Torn, or God and the Gay Christian were also available; yet, his biblical exegesis of the passages that buttress the traditional position is un-nuanced and unhelpfully summative (even given that his primary purpose was not to go merrily ’round the biblical mulberry bush one more time!). He left me with the impression that Christians who disagree with him have done no substantial theological work, and have in fact let pity and predominantly secular reasonings guide our decisions. I hope that Hill will be able at some point (perhaps in a later book or a revised edition) at least demonstrate more nuanced engagement with the theological work of queer-inclusive Christians (and especially those whom identify as Evangelicals).
I had a life-changing experience once while worshiping in a Pentecostal church I regularly attended in my early twenties. That night, I was feeling seriously distracted by all the beautiful men around me–and especially the worship leader, a tall, lanky man with tight blond curls, blue eyes, lovely arms (visible because he wore a sleeveless tee-shirt) and one of the most beautiful male voices I’d heard to that point in my life!
“Lord,” said I, “I’m trying to worship, here, not get distracted by beautiful men!”
It was the strangest thing, but I sensed the Holy Spirit laughing at me, quite affectionately. “So you think he’s beautiful?” she asked.
“Yeah, I really do!”
“Oh, good!” came the reply, and I swear I could hear the wicked-playful grin. “I do, too!”
I know that there are all kinds of reasons why skeptical people could tear my testimony to shreds. But in that moment, because I was recognizing his beauty and seeing him from what (surprise!) seemed to be the Holy Spirit’s perspective, my longing and recognition of his beauty became part of my worship rather than an ungodly distraction.
It seems clear to me that my brother Wesley cannot yet experience his attractions as part of how God might want him to appreciate human beauty, and it causes him deep agony. I wonder, though his writing about the traditional, sweeping perspective of the Church contains much truth and beauty, if he is causing himself deep and needless harm. I am sure that many Christians in Hill’s position will resonate deeply with much of what he says. I only wish that he could recognize much more fully that there are Evangelical Christians, like himself, who reach a different conclusion about homosexuality but nevertheless love Jesus and look forward in hope to the bodily resurrection, when all shall be made new, and when we all experience the joyful surprise of receiving our full humanity in Christ–even if we were deeply wrong about its shape and content on this side of the New Creation.
I found this short story buried in my email, written in 2010 after a heated discussion with a beloved atheist in my life, who believed I gave too much credence and credit to what he thought was completely irrational objections to homosexuality in the Evangelical tradition of my youth. I wrote this story for him–not quite autobiographical, but trying to show him what is at stake, existentially, for some traditional Christians who resist changing their opinions about homosexuality. I couldn’t believe I found it, and it brought tears to my eyes because I think it is one of the most honest pieces I have ever written.
I am not a homophobe. I just think you’ll burn in hell. I know you think I’m a first-class hater when I challenge your ideas in class. Your blue eyes flash at me, and your full lips tighten like you want to spit. Hey, believe me, I understand. It’s hard for me to say these things to you, but I can’t afford to change what the Bible says.
It’s not really your fault that you believe the “science” that the liberal media has been feeding you ever since you were born. I keep trying to tell you that gay activists were responsible for changing the DSM and not good science—I even give you sources!—but you don’t believe me. You tell me you didn’t choose the way you feel, that I shouldn’t knock it until I’ve tried it—but why would I want to try something that the Bible says will send me straight to hell? I know you want me to tell you that you’ll be just fine, but I’m more concerned about your immortal soul than your approval.
I see the confusion in your eyes when I invite you to sit with me at lunch most days—the thing is, I actually really like you. A lot. I mean, more than half the time we agree about things in class; you’re articulate and funny; you have this slightly sarcastic way of saying things that always makes me think. Usually, you refuse my invitation; that’s understandable, given how heated our in-class exchanges become, but that’s a professional difference, it has nothing to do with whether or not I like you. Do you really think I want to make your life miserable? I want to know about you. You keep telling me that you’re more than just your sexual practices. The thing is, I believe you. But you don’t tell me about what music you listen to, what TV shows you watch, or why you hate the Bible so much. (Well, maybe I don’t need to know that last one – I mean, it condemns you to hell as long as you refuse to repent.) I keep hoping that you’ll let me become your friend. I don’t think it’ll happen. But that’s not my fault. You’re the one who thinks I’m a hater.
Can I be really honest with you? I watch you all the time. I see how you treat your friends – they love you to bits, man. Even the guys seem to like you, even if I know some of them agree with me more than with you. Professors greet you with respect in the corridors. Your name is at the lead of every major drama production – and I hear you play a mean game of ping-pong, too. Is there anything you can’t do?
What gets me every time, though, is seeing you with your boyfriend. OK, sure, I admit it, when I see you holding his hand or he brushes your tight brown curls back from your forehead, my stomach turns a little. But you always look so fucking happy, happier than anyone—much less an unrepentant sinner like you!—has the right to be. I mean, I’m the Christian, here. I’m not perfect—far from it, my friends say I can be downright mean, sometimes—but I’m trying hard to love people, to speak hard truths, to preach good news. Why is it that I always feel something is wrong with me, that I can never measure up? Scripture says, “I have never seen the righteous forsaken,” so why do I feel so miserable while you get to be so happy enjoying all the sinful pleasures this world has to offer?
I mean—God, I can’t believe I’m about to admit this—in my unguarded moments at the end of a long day as the water cascades over my back, your face is in my head, smiling. Smiling at me, like you do at your friends. No—more than that. At your boyfriend. This perfect, crooked, full-lipped smile—and just for a moment I see myself kissing you. I kiss you, because I want you, and you want me back, and just for a second, before the tidal wave ends, I feel happy. But as I dry off after spending too much time in the shower—again—I hate myself, because I know exactly what you would tell me if I told you all this. You would tell me to give in, to be myself, to abandon the God who is kind enough to forgive me again for falling short of his standard rather than killing me. I hate myself because I want to—just for a second. But the difference between you and me, my friend, is that I repent. I may lust after you in my heart, but that has to be better than actually doing the filthy things that you and your boyfriend get up to.
And I hate you. I hate you because you don’t want to repent. I hate you because you’re fucking happy not repenting. I hate you because even if you did repent and we both found ourselves in heaven, I still couldn’t kiss you.
I wish you would go away. I wish I could be the godly man that I want to be, that people expect me to be, that God demands I be. Tomorrow, I will go back to arguing the truth with you in class, and trying to be your friend, and trying to keep the image of your face bending to mine out of my mind.
And you will never read these words, even though I wish somehow you could.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God:
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
1. As a Christian, as a gay man, and as someone who believes the first two identities do not conflict inherently, let me say it clearly: I affirm Marriage Equality for my friends in the United States, and continue to affirm its existence in Canada, where I live.
2. I have recently been involved in difficult discussions about marriage equality (and Christian objections to it) that have been very saddening to me; it is possible that I may lose important friendships, though I will work and pray against that possibility.
3. Let me continue to be candid. Most Christians in the world read the Bible, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament, as condemning all forms of homosexual sex and sexual relationship. This interpretation has a long history, and until about 1954 or so was also argued for on strictly rational grounds by ‘secular’ state authorities in the West. Most Western people, until recently, felt that natural law, medicine, and sound social function required objection to homosexual acts, even between consenting adults. For Western Christians, the objection has or had an added force because the “Word of God written” objected, and in fact explained why the ‘secular’ consensus found why homosexuality was so destructive. Something that God says is wrong will have real-world, negative effects.
4. The issue for me as a Christian becomes: Christians’ objections to homosexuality are based on a bad reading, a misinterpretation, of the words, historical context, and pastoral application of Scripture. In other words, Scripture cannot be applied directly to all, or even many, of the manifestations of same-gender sexual relationships or activities that we see in the Western World, today.
5. Yet, as my sisters and brothers in the US will note, most of the opposition to marriage equality in the civil arena comes from theologically conservative Christians, whether fundamentalist or evangelical. (The distinction often matters, but that’s another conversation) In fact, there are myriads upon myriads of stories and research studies that demonstrate how destructive conservative Christians and their churches have been in the lives of gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) people. A belief that causes widespread destruction needs to be challenged, and that is what the gay rights movement has been doing for the past forty years or so. In fact, as evidence that homosexuality can be profoundly healthy mounts, it seems logical to afford people who have been stigmatized as a class the same protections that other citizens have–and marriage, whether common law or civilly registered (not to mention blessed by the Church!) is one of the most comprehensive forms of protection that the state can give pair-bond. (Such a protection also means that bodies are more easily managed by the State, but that’s a different discussion, for another time.) Thus, gay activists have been pushing–more and more successfully, it seems, for the extension of marriage as a basic social good to non-heterosexual people who want to attempt the same kinds of stable and life-giving relationships that their hetero neighbors do.
6. In spite of all the evidence marshaled by LGBTQ people, however, there are still people and powerful organizations which oppose this extension even of civil marriage, primarily on religious grounds. Here, then, is the question: are people who oppose marriage equality bigots, in much the same way we would apply the label to racists or those who hate people on the basis of gender or religious faith?
7. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially: one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.” It strikes me that the disagreement about the label “bigot” among LGBTQ people when applied to conservative Christians might be about where one places the emphasis: is bigotry more about “obstinacy and hatred” or about “intolerance”?
8. People who place the emphasis on “intolerance” are right, in a liberal democratic context, to object to conservative Christians who object to a change in the definition of civil marriage. Why do I say this? Because if Christians have learned anything from our history, it is inappropriate to try to gain coercive influence in society when a great many of your fellow citizens have not been convinced by your worldview or your arguments. Though I object to any conception of the State as “ideologically neutral,” liberal democracies nevertheless consider it a basic good that multiple communities are able to live together without harming one another. Christians who object to civil marriage for LGBTQ people because they hope to coerce the nation “back to God” or at least “to the way I see things” are forgetting something theologically important: Christians are not responsible for taking over the government or shutting out objections to the Christian worldview, but rather for forming radical and persuasive communities that clearly offer something distinct from and even better than “life under the sun”–the status quo as we know it. Conservative Christians, on the other hand, who concede that extending the definition of civil marriage is consistent with allowing people to object to the Gospel (or to our interpretation of it), are no longer “intolerant.”
9. For my money, the key factor in whether or not someone is a bigot (or holds a bigoted view) has more to do with obstinacy, or what some logicians call “invincible ignorance.” In my life, there are clearly people like this: there are people, usually theologians and major pastors, who should know better than to disseminate things about homosexuality or GLBTQ people that are, even on the face of things, patently false (never mind when you bring sound scholarship into the debate!). Unfortunately, there can also be a great many more lay Christians who spout off something like the slogan, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” This is typical fundamentalist view, perpetuated from the top down and then reinforced by the way that future generations are taught the Bible. The civil sphere is controlled by the Devil, and if Christians manage to maintain godly values in the civil arena, it represents a victory for God that will facilitate spreading the Gospel of Christ. If one is in such a warfare or siege mentality, it is understandable why “invincible ignorance” becomes such a huge problem: bending even a little bit capitulates to evil. Bigotry in this sense is very real and harmful.
10. Perhaps I am in a unique situation, but I rarely meet intolerant conservatives (who want Canada to withdraw equal marriage); nor do I usually meet conservatives who are invincibly ignorant, who are unwilling to engage in conversation–and thus sometimes deliberately perpetuate harm against LGBTQ people. Rather, I meet people who are aware of the (sometimes profound) wounding on both sides, who increasingly are willing to bare their fears in front of one another: “This is what I’m afraid of, if you win…” Are conservatives who want to learn from conversation with LGBTQ people bigoted? I would argue not. Real-world conversations–over food and face-to-face, not by means of position statements and political stump speeches–are actually occurring, even while Marriage Equality seems to be gaining momentum.
11. Everyone has their own story to tell, formed by the own unique yet shared matrix that involves gender, race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, educational level and many other aspects. Imagine if we were to drop phrases like “conservative bigot” and “liberal whoremonger” from our conversations, and got down to the business of amassing evidence in the public realm and of sharing stories about why we are so invested in the positions we take!
12. There are bigots in the world, who spread false and evil poison abroad in society. They must be confronted. When we sit down at a table across a severe ideological divide, we must be willing to hear of pain, harm, agony, and suffering at the hands of those who only appeared to be willing to talk, or who deliberately took shots that ripped our lives apart. Bigots exist on both sides of the marriage equality debate–and the ones on the conservative side can, in real terms, inflict far greater destruction. But it is important to note that, while victims are allowed be explosively angry, it is the hardening into bitterness and hatred that perpetuates the cycle of bigotry: angry queer people react angrily to angry Christian conservatives, who conclude that the angry queer is a menace that must be stopped, and so on…
13. Very simply: I affirm Marriage Equality; most conservative Christians are not in fact bigots; and dropping inflammatory rhetoric in situations where people want to have a respectful conversation seems necessary to actually having one!
14. The take aways: Regardless of your position on Marriage Equality, assume that an opponent who really wants to learn from you is not a bigot. I also believe that conservative Christians opponents of Marriage Equality need to do most of the work. Stop complaining about the queer agenda, and open your ears: if you hear screams, it may be because they are mostly our fault.