Why Can’t We Agree on what the Bible Says About Homosexuality?
If there is one issue that divides Christians, perhaps more than any other, it is that of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. It’s a hot topic these days and yet, we can’t seem to agree on what the Bible says about it. Why?
A Case in Point
During the 2013 Australian Federal election campaign, a good friend of mine Matt Prater confronted the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (a professing Christian) about why he had changed his stance and was now promoting same-sex marriage. Here is the video clip:
That little exchange right there puts the divide between so-called “evangelical christians” and “liberal Christians” pretty much in a nutshell.
Now let me state my position, before I discuss the reason for the divide. I fall very clearly in the evangelical camp on the question of same-sex marriage. I take what the Bible says about homosexuality literally. Agree with me. Don’t agree with me. That’s where I’m at.
My concern is that of those who take that same position – and there are many – a great proportion are unable to answer Kevin Rudd’s “logic” (which is backed by very loud applause from much of the general population who have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the aggressive rhetoric of the gay lobby over the past decade and more).
So – why can’t Christians agree?
What Does the Bible Say to Us Today?
There is generally very little debate over what the various books of the Bible (written as they were over a period of around 1,500 years) were meant to the say to the people to whom they were written, at the time that they were written. That part of the interpretive process is known as “exegesis”. I see some, but not a lot of debate, in the area of exegesis.
Where the real conflict comes in, is in the process of understanding what those texts are meant to say to us today, given the changes in culture, in the role of women, in levels of education, in perceptions of individual human rights and so on. That part of the interpretive process is known as “hermeneutics” – what if anything is God saying through that particular passage to you and me, here and now, given the tectonic shifts in culture since it was written?
That’s where the real conflict lies – although most of the combatants are completely unaware of it.
A Moral Trajectory
Fact: when it comes to questions of morality – morality is, after all, at the heart of the debate here – the Bible is hardly static in many areas.
Take for instance, the question of marriage. In the earliest Biblical times, polygamy was (apparently) quite acceptable to God. It first appears in Genesis 4:19–25 and then many times after. God told King Solomon not to accumulate for himself too many wives (Deuteronomy 17:17) and yet he amassed a thousand of them (1 Kings 11:3).
Yet, by the time of the New Testament a thousand or so years later, it seems that whilst polygamy was still practiced by some (see this article) the qualifications for leadership in the Christian church were that a man be married to only one wife (1 Timothy 3:2,12). This represents a clear change in morality (what’s acceptable and what’s not) from one period of Biblical history to the next.
On the question of divorce, another change – this time, involving Jesus. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4 we see that the law (God’s law) permitted divorce. Yet much later, Jesus forbids it except in very limited circumstances (Matthew 19:1-8).
Those are just three examples. There are quite a few more when it comes to drawing the line between what is morally acceptable and what isn’t.
(See also my earlier post, which includes the video scene from the series The West Wing where President Bartlett tears into a conservative Christian talk show host, with many more examples.)
So to many people – Christian and non-Christian alike – it seems as though the Bible follows a moral trajectory – from the barbaric and uncivilised, to the more mature and civilised.
And so, many will argue, it is quite evident that as human culture and behaviour has continued become more civilised in the two thousand or so years since the last book of the Bible was written, that moral trajectory should very obviously continue.
For example, people used to justify racism using the Bible. Now fortunately, we have grown and learned that this is not acceptable. People cannot choose their race or skin colour – discrimination based on race is now unacceptable.
So Why Isn’t the Same True of Homosexuality?
And so, today, many will argue that given the moral trajectory of the Bible and given that it is self-evident that (a) that trajectory should rightly continue as society learns and becomes more civilised, and (b) people can’t choose their sexual orientation (this is not my position, I am simply stating theirs), evangelical, “ultra-conservative” Christians are being myopic and bigoted in discriminating against those whose sexual orientation is different from the so-called “norm” through – what they consider – no fault of their own.
And even if sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice rather than a genetic predisposition, why shouldn’t two consenting adults be allowed to express their “love” for one another as they choose, without the religious morality police (who are at best on shaky ground) intruding into their bedrooms?
So the argument goes. And with so much vitriolic, emotional rhetoric from both sides of this divide (Rudd’s “spirited” position is a good example of that) instead of us thinking through our positions, many well-meaning, Bible-believing, Christ-following Christians simply state, in defence of their position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage: because the Bible says so.
But to a world that, by and large, has never read the Bible and is therefore pretty much ignorant of what it says, that position simply doesn’t stack up.
Paul encourages us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds not by the removing of our minds! (Romans 12:2)
So in my opinion, if we are to take the position that homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says so, then in today’s context in particular, we need to have thought about, understood and be able to articulate clearly, why.
That’s what my next blog post is about.