Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Christian Response to Homosexuality

By Rev. Stephen R. Parelli, Executive Director of Other Sheep
December 27, 2010, Bronx, New York; email:
Prepared for Trivandrum Theological Forum (TTF), Trivandrum, Kerala, India
TTF website:; TTF email:

Sexual traditions of India suppressed by British colonizers
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which makes it a crime to engage in “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”, and which was read down by the Delhi High Court judgment in the Naz Foundation v. Union of India on 2 July, 2009, so that gay sex between consenting adults was decriminalized, was originally “drafted by Lord Macaulay and enacted in 1860 during British colonial rule.”
In the years leading up to the 2009 Naz decision, the Ministry of Home Affairs of the Government of India, in its 2003 affidavit supporting the retention of Section 377, argued that the law “was brought under the statute as an act of criminality [because] it responded to the values and mores of the time [1860] in the Indian society,” to which the petitioners, in their reply to the court, countered by saying Section 377 evinced only “the British Judeo-Christian values of the time.”
Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, in their book Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History, provide an invaluable anthology of Indian writings from ancient times to the present on the subjects of the love of a man for a man, and of a women for a women. Robert Goldman calls the collection “a powerful corrective to the often expressed opinion that the Indian tradition is either unaware of or openly hostile to same-sex love.”
According to Dr. George Nalunnakkal of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, “India’s traditional silence on ‘sexuality’ is nothing but a celebrated myth. In fact, the Indian mind had always engaged sexuality in a very open and radical manner. It was, in fact, the colonizers who had brought to India their ‘values’ and ethos, which suppressed the Indian tradition.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), regarded by many to be one of the most important thinkers in the West, wrote with some wit: "The unnatural, that too is natural." The “British Judeo-Christian values” of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century, on homosexuality, are in keeping, not with the wit of von Goethe, but with a literal reading of the Epistle to the Romans by the Apostle Paul, so that, for the British, same-sex sex-acts were most assuredly “against nature.”
The problem is how we read the Bible

“The ‘problem,’ of course, is not the Bible, it is the Christians who read it. . . . No credible case against homosexuality or homosexuals can be made from the Bible,” says Peter Gomes, “unless one chooses to read Scripture in a way that sustains the existing prejudice against homosexuality and homosexuals.”
As a young man in my early teens, I was conditioned to think a certain way – to think Biblically. I would attend church three or more times a week. On a daily basis I would engage myself in systematic Bible study. With paper and pen I would write out my thoughts on the Scripture I had read for the day. In the course of my religious experience, while still at a very young age, I came to believe that the Bible condemned same-sex sex acts. I was terrified by those Bible passages that appeared to undoubtedly condemn me for my homoerotic feelings and my desire to act upon them. Some of these texts were: “Bring them out to us that we may know them,” Genesis 19:5; “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” Leviticus 18:22. “And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another,” Romans 1:27a.
During my years in Bible college and seminary, and as an ordained Baptist minister, my spiritual discipline and the vigilance I kept were constant, but by the time I reached my mid-40s I was weary and weak. I put myself into reparative therapy with counselor Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH and began attending area “ex-gay” support groups. Once these attempts for change ran their course, and having rigorously put into practice my spiritual disciplines for more than twenty years, I found myself thinking critically. “What if the church is wrong about homosexuality,” I asked myself. It was an astounding thought, something like an epiphany. I had never thought like this before, that a way of thinking, almost universally received, could be flawed. I found my new open-mindedness exciting as I considered the possibilities of study, and yet somewhat unsettling as I began to consider the ramifications of my new direction in thinking, i.e., ‘what if the universe is wrong?’
I began to read authors, who like me, questioned the church’s teaching on homosexuality. I read every book I could find. I began to build a library of books on the topic of faith and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) concerns. I was amazed to find that serious theologians and scholars, most of them gay, had already been addressing the topic for about twenty-five years or more. I had never seen their books before. How isolated I had been. I was a recluse in my own spiritual, ecclesiastical, evangelical waist land.
Against Nature – Romans 1:26, 27
The second major critical thought I remember having at some later point in time was this: The only way Romans 1:18-32 could be about me was if I were to read the chapter backwards, beginning with verses 26 and 27, the “against nature” part. This realization was a new beginning for me; I was no longer under the condemnation of Romans 1. I had memorized Romans 1:18-32 as a young man and would quote this passage as a means of spiritual defense whenever tempted by homoerotic thoughts or desires. Now, in my late 40’s, I was free: nothing in this passage leading up to verses 26 and 27 (“against nature”) was descriptive of me, and therefore, verses 26 and 27 did not apply to me. It was my second epiphany. I was somewhat transformed by it. It was an intellectually violent upheaval, an about-face, a metamorphosis, a radical change in my thinking: Romans 1, including verses 26 and 27, isn’t about me.
Elizabeth Stuart says the Apostle Paul uses this phrase, against nature, “to describe, not homosexual people, but Gentiles who characteristically engaged in same-sex activity, a characteristic that distinguishes them, not from heterosexuals, but from the Jews” [emphasis mine].
“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.”
Mr. Shyam Divan, in his Outline of arguments submitted to the Bench in The Naz Judgment, says “Section 377 criminalizes ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature.’ For a homosexual male or female, his or her sexual orientation is ‘natural’. The sexual orientation of an individual arises from the depth of his or her being and it is not an aspect of his or her conduct that can be termed as ‘unnatural’ or ‘against the order of nature’. In most reported studies, persons have either no choice or very little choice in their attraction to members of their own sex.”
Sodom and Gomorrah – Genesis 19
Dale Martin, in his book Sex and the Single Savior, says that in interpreting Biblical texts, “we read [them] certain ways because we are socialized to do so; . . . we read [them] differently on a second reading because we ourselves have been (socially!) changed in the meantime.”

The now somewhat popular “second reading” of the Biblical account of Sodom and Gomorrah, a paradigm shift witnessed in my own life time, from the traditional “Sodomy” interpretation to the “inhospitality” interpretation (cf. Mark 6:7-11) is a striking example of the fact that different “social and psychological constraints” were evidently brought to bear on this text. Michael Carden, in his book Sodomy: A History of a Christian Biblical Myth, says “my engagement with the texts will not pretend any dispassion.” Gay theologians, having brought their queer selves to the Sodom and Gomorrah story, have concluded, and widely published, that the sin of Sodom (cf. Ezekiel 16:49 ) was “oppression and injustice, not sexual sin” [emphasis mine].

So effective has “gay theology” been since its beginnings in the 1970’s that, as early as 1993, Bob Davies and Lori Rentzel, two popular evangelical “ex-gay” authors who maintain that all same-sex sex-acts are forbidden by Scripture, dismiss Gen. 19 as a text that can support their view. In Coming Out of Homosexuality: New Freedom for Men & Women, they admit “pro-gay theologians are correct in saying that this passage [Sodom and Gomorrah] does not provide a strong argument against prohibiting all homosexual acts” [emphasis mine].

The lyings down of a woman – Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

The Hebrew text of Leviticus 18:22 reads “And with a male (וְאֶת־זָכָר ve’et zakhar) you shall not lie (לֹא תִשְׁכַּב lo tishkav) the lyings down of a woman (מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה miskab issah).” To lie “the lyings down of a woman” (מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה miskab issah, Lev. 18:22 and 20:13) is, according to Saul M. Olyan, a reference “specifically to intercourse and suggest[s] that anal penetration was seen as analogous to vaginal penetration on some level.”
Therefore, the prohibition is against male-to-male anal intercourse, nothing more. Strictly speaking, other forms of homoeroticism between men are therefore permitted, such as oral sex, mutual masturbation, and intercurural sex.

Beyond the literal rendering of the verse itself, and in the greater context of Israel’s “strategy to survive,” Nissinen sees the Leviticus prohibition as a prohibition against confusing gender roles. “Interpretation of gender,” says Nissenin, was “a fundamental factor of social structure and control.” On the other hand, Miner and Connoley understand the Leviticus prohibition to be “clearly directed at homosexual temple prostitution.” In either case, it would be difficult to show how Israel’s Holiness Code – of which Lev. 18 and 20 is a part – fits the context of same-sex lovers today. Nissinen notes, “in no way can the code be likened to civil or criminal law in the modern sense of the word.”

Malakoi and arsenokoitai – I Corinthians 6:8-10 and I Timothy 1:10

The list of sins in these two Pauline texts include malakoi (I Cor. 6:9) and arsenokoitai (I Cor. 6:9 and I Tim. 1:10). Both words have been sorely mistranslated as “homosexuals” (malakoi, NKJV ; arsenokoitais, I Tim. 1:10, NAS, HCSB, LEB ).

Malakoi literally means soft; it is a “type of moral weakness.” Because it is listed in I Cor. 6:9-10 with sins that are clearly sexual, malakoi might best be rendered, as it is by quit a few versions, as “male prostitute” (see NRSV, NIV, NLT, HCSB, NCV, ISV, and TNIV for this rendering).

One can easily see that there is a radical difference between “homosexuals” and “male prostitute.” “Homosexual” is a modern term in common use today which identifies a person’s sexual orientation as being attracted to the same sex. “Homosexual,” like “heterosexual,” says nothing of a person’s lifestyle as being moral or immoral which raises the question as to why would “homosexual” be placed in a list of sins along with thieves, drunkards, adulterers, murderers and liars, which is what the Bible translators do here. “Male prostitute,” on the other hand, says nothing about one’s sexual orientation. A male prostitute could be homosexual or heterosexual. His lifestyle is prostitution, but his sexual orientation is not known. That modern Bible translators can translate each of these words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, using words with such wide-ranging differences in meaning, indicates that the meaning of the original Greeks words are difficult to discern, and/or the translators are culturally biased in their translation work.

Arsenokoitai is, in fact, a difficult word to translate. It occurs only 73 times over a period of around 600 years following Paul and generally occurs in lists, in which case there is little to no context by which to provide a sense of meaning. In one such list, “the term is used by a Greek author when cataloguing the sins of the Greek gods” and is, perhaps, a reference to Zeus, who, by force, abducted and raped Ganymede, a young man. There is a second text which gives us a further indication as to the possible meaning of arsenokoitai. According to Greek legend, Naas (the name given to the snake in the garden once it became a Satantic figure) commits “adultery” with Adam. Hippolytus writes that it is by this act of “adultery” that arsenokoites enters into the world, and compares Naas and Adam with Zeus and Ganymede. In this context, arsenokoitai conveys the idea of a strong individual taking sexual advantage over a weaker individual by use of position and power.

Miner and Connoley make the observation that arsenokoitai in Paul’s two lists of sins (I Cor. 6:9-10 and I Tim 1:10) comes at the end of a list of sexual sins (male prostitutes and fornication ending each list respectively) and at the beginning of a list of economic sins (thieves and slave traders heading each list respectively), suggesting that arsenokoitai “describes a male who aggressively takes sexual advantage of another male.” Tom Hanks notes that “Paul’s vice list” in I Cor. 6:8-10 is “headed with the reference to oppression (akikia), implying that the homoerotic acts condemned [there] are those characterized by exploitation, injustice and violence (rape), all especially experienced by slaves.” Hanks further notes that the oppression heading is paralleled in Romans 1:18, 29; 2:8; and 3:5, which, again, implies that the homoerotic acts in Romans are “characterized by exploitation, injustice and violence (rape).”

There is no biblical sex ethic; only a love ethic

James B. Nelson, Professor of Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary, Minneapolis, from 1963-1995, says it is problematic to use “direct guidance from Scripture” for determining “specific sexual behaviors” because “the Scriptures are multiform and inconsistent in the sexual moralities endorsed therein” such as “polygamy, levirate marriage, concubinage, and prostitution. . . .

“Even on such a major issue as sexual intercourse between unmarried consenting adults there is no explicit prohibition in either Hebrew Scripture or the New Testament (which John Calvin discovered to his consternation). Indeed, the Song of Solomon celebrates one such relationship. . . I believe that our best biblical scholarship reaches Walter Wink’s conclusion: ‘There is no biblical sex ethic. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period’” [emphasis his].

Purity codes and Outcasts

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day – the Sadducees, Pharisees, and priests – were strict adherents and guardian of the purity codes. This meant they were concerned with a certain “habitual arrangement of things.” The arrangement was what was valued, not the people (Mark 2:27 ). In this context, the religious leaders had “narrowed the love of God until it included only themselves.”

In their arrangement of things, the Jews had reduced the Samaritans to the “lowest degree” within the social order, ranking them with Gentiles. After the Israelites, at the top of the strata, were the despised trades, like tax collectors. Then after them, in a general descending order, were Jewish and Gentile slaves; proselytes; freed gentile slaves; and – just above the stratum of the Samaritans and Gentiles – were Israelites with serious blemishes like bastards, the fatherless and eunuchs.

By repeatedly recounting a discriminating story-of-origin about the Samaritans, and by observing day-to-day ritualized actions against them, the Jews had ostracized the Samaritans socially and religiously. They “cursed the Samaritans in their synagogues and considered their touch as pollution. . . . Their very name became a term of abuse, ‘Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil’, John 8. 48. The Jews were “righteous,” while the Samaritans were “outcasts.”

The need to belong

In their book What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage, the authors show that, essentially, you and I, straight and gay, are social beings created with the innate desire to belong. To be avoided, shunned, ignored or excluded can have damaging effects on our emotional well-being. “Those who’ve experienced the silent treatment” from family, groups, or society, “have called it ‘emotional abuse’ and ‘a terrible, terrible weapon to use.’”

Social exclusion can result in depression, loss of self-esteem, delinquency, violence, and suicide. This is especially true for LGBT youth who, according to one American report released in 2006, “are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.” Findings in another American study released in 2009 showed that “adolescents who were rejected by their families for being LGBT were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.”

In the morning sessions of Day 3 (25 September 2008) of the proceedings before the Delhi High Court in the matter of Naz Foundation vs. Union of India, Mr. Shyam Divan, in his arguments for Voices Against 377, said, “Homosexuals suffer tremendous psychological harm. Fear of discrimination leads to a concealment of true identity. . . . [I]n the case of homosexuals it is the tainting of desire, it is the attribution of perversity and shame to spontaneous bodily affection, it is the prohibition of the expression of love, it is the denial of full moral citizenship in society because you are what you are, that impinges on the dignity and self worth of a group.”

In the “habitual arrangement of things” today, where “humans use ostracism to control social behavior,” in too many cases, LGBT people have been placed outside the circle of inclusion by their local church and by their devout families. An eminent African American civil rights activist of the 1950’s and 60’s, who was doing LGBT faith-based activism with me with Soulforce in 2008, told me this: “Something the African American had in his struggle for civil rights was his family and his church. When society would reject the African American in his struggle for equality, he or she could repair to their family and church and there find solace, belonging, love and hope. Not so for the LGBT person,” he said. “For them, family and church, two basic units for belonging and empowerment, have joined society in ostracizing the LGBT person in his struggle for equality and acceptance, and he or she is left with the realization that they are completely cut off.”

The reign of God on earth

When Jesus was brought before Pilate, he was charged with subverting the nation (Luke 23:2, NIV). He had brought into question the existing value system. He had crossed social boundaries and had disrupted the “habitual arrangement of things.” By his subversive teachings and actions, he had freed things and people from their “proper” broken places in the arrangement of things. He had “widened the love of God until it reached out to all men.” He was creating the reign of God. His was the message of inclusion.

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