Homosexuality in Western culture: a cultural/theological perspective (Part 2 of 3)

 

PART TWO:

The Theological Perspective

(Revised March 5, 2014)

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To those who exist outside of the church, it may come as a surprise for you to know that in the last 10 years the issue of homosexuality has really divided the church. Part of the reason for this has nothing to do with the actual topic itself. Instead, it’s more about the ongoing tension that exists between “modern” and “postmodern” Christians. Although this tension is convoluted, much of it surrounds the issue of biblical authority.

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This is an important note of context because there seems to be an assumption in the LGBT community that religion is just “anti-gay”, which results in an unnecessary estrangement. I am in hopes that this section will act as a buffer against this false perspective, as well as present the proper Christian perspective (in my humble opinion of course). In the end it may be that both groups still disagree – there is nothing wrong with disagreement as long as it is based on accurate information and devoid of stereotypes.

In general, “modern” Christians believe that the bible condemns homosexuality, in any form, as a sin. I am purposely excluding the “crazies” or “fundamentalists” who fall into this category as they don’t represent mainstream thinking within Christian Modernism. And to be honest no one cares what they think.

“Postmodern” Christians (AKA Progressive Christians) mostly (but not all) accept our current cultural form of homosexuality primarily because they don’t believe the way it is described in the bible is the same that is practiced today. For example, the bible’s version of homosexuality involves those who practice the behavior as a means of sensual gratification and does not include those who may practice homosexuality within the confines of a meaningful/loving relationship.

Since almost the entirety of Christian faith is based upon the bible, we will look at the key passages that are often used in an attempt to understand what they mean within their context. From there we will form a conclusion based on how we have understood the biblical information so as to provide a proper understanding for Christians.

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The Old Testament

From what we have learned from the aforementioned historical context, we know that ancient societies practiced the act of homosexuality. Moreover, this was simply a result of their particular sexual proclivities and existed extramarital.

Depending on your theological persuasion (no pun intended) you view the Old Testament (hereafter OT) as being either, superseded by the New Testament and therefore irrelevant for today’s culture; or, as one part of a larger story.

An often used proof-text against homosexuality is the well-known story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:22-19:38). In this story, there is a disturbing scene where the “angels of the lord” take refuge with Lot and his family. The MEN and BOYS of the city come to Lot’s door and ask that Lot let his guests come outside so they could “have their way with them”. Ultimately, God destroys the cities.

This story is often used to demonstrate God’s hatred of homosexuality. However, this would be a gross misinterpretation of the text. First, the only thing the story tells us is that God hates sin. In Chapter 18 we are told why God wants to destroy the city “there was not one who was righteous.” God does not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah simply because they were practicing homosexuality. For many cultures during that time practiced this. It seems more likely it was due to their complete disregard for God and basic civility. The people of the city were barbarians and had no regard for human life and dignity. Perhaps the act of homosexuality was one of those, but the text does not mention anything in particular.

The Law

Closely related to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is the invocation of the Law in Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are almost identical.

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”

Although the verse itself seems fairly straight forward, it is important to understand what it means within its proper context. If you were to pan out from this verse and observe the section in its entirety you would note verse 18:3

“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.”

How then should we understand what is being said here. Certainly, one can take it literally and understand it simply as an indictment on homosexuality. (Although, I would argue that if you are going to stick to a literal interpretation, then you also have to say that this doesn’t apply to women as they are not mentioned.) However, I think many of us are uncertain as to what question we should ask the text. It does seem that same-sex relations are being condemned. The logical question then seems to be, why is it being condemned?

The passage goes on to describe how God doesn’t want Israel to be like the nations from which he rescued them from (first Egypt, and second, Cannon). If you were to fast forward through the OT you would see that this ends up being the ongoing tension between God and Israel; namely, Israel wants to be like the other nations (so as to seem legitimate to them) whereas God wants them to be “set apart”.

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The New Testament

The New Testament (hereafter NT) passages that are often cited in this discussion are: Romans 1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; & 1 Timothy 1:10.

It is primarily these passages that tend to separate Modern and Postmodern Christians. This creates a curious question: if both groups are reading the same passages and those passages seem to clearly speak against homosexuality as a sin, then why are they coming up with radically different conclusions?

The answer goes back to the real problem between these two groups; namely, how one reads the bible. For Modernism there is irony regarding a worldview that is predicated upon the idea that scientific inquiry and analytic thinking is the cornerstone of rationality, and yet, it is this very way of thinking that hinders Modernism from asking the “right” questions regarding these sorts of texts. Perhaps it even prevents them from asking ANY question of the text. Reading the text with the eyes of modernism requires such a narrow focus on the propositions sitting in front of them (in conjunction with their presuppositions on truth), that many tend to become blind to all of the information that exists in the surrounding milieu.

In this particular case Postmodern Christians are asking the right question; namely, would God condemn the act of homosexuality within the loving confines of a marriage? Most do not disagree with the fact that homosexuality, as the bible presents it, is being condemned. But because we fail to understand our cultural assumptions we are blind to the reality of history as a different world. The question we should ask is, how does the bible present homosexuality? The bible presents it in the same manner that history does; namely, it is an extramarital sexual proclivity. This, of course, begs the question, what if it’s within the confines of marriage? The bible does not answer this question because it’s not part of the bible’s historical milieu.

The NT does seem to focus heavily on loving meaningful relationships within the confines of marriage. The Postmodern question is, why can’t this happen within a homosexual union? And, if this is true should not Christians then support homosexual marriage?

The problem of Romans 1: a brief study

If we simply stopped the conversation here, then I would be inclined to agree with the overall Postmodern position regarding homosexuality. However, there is the problem of Romans 1 & 2 that adds another important aspect to the discussion.

The book of Romans begins with the idea that all of humanity has rebelled against God through the selfish desires of their heart (it is here that Paul mentions homosexuality). Paul using this context in order to help the reader better understand why Worship of Christ is a necessary requirement for humanity (later half of Romans).

Let’s take what Paul says in order:

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Verse 18 begins with “but”, this indicates that what is about to be mentioned is being contrasted against what was previously stated. What was previously discussed (Romans 1:1-17) is regarding what it means to have faith in Christ. Therefore, the subsequent conversation will involve those things which indicate an individual is not living the life of Christ. We find the answer to this in the latter half of verse 18. That is, God is angry against ALL SINFUL wicked people who suppress the truth of God by their wickedness.

Here are some important questions we have to ask ourselves during this study.

  • Who is Paul referring to when he says “they”?
  • Is Paul describing a single event, multiple events, or a way of thinking?
  • Can we differentiate when Paul is “prescribing” and/or “describing” events?

Paul finishes his thought (18-20) by talking about how God has revealed himself since the beginning of creation. Theologians refer to this as “general revelation”.

However, and more importantly, “since the beginning of creation” gives us a clue that Paul is speaking about the past and that whatever he is talking about has happened since the beginning of creation.

Confirming this for us is the next verse (21). The verse begins by saying “Yes, they knew God…” The passage continues in the passive voice using the third person pronoun. This shows us two things first, that he is distancing himself (and his audience) from what he is speaking about (in this particular case, idolatry); second, that he is certainly speaking about a the past. For some reason this fact is often overlooked in this discussion.

Up to this point, Paul is providing the reader context for what his main point is going to be. Unfortunately, so many people read the bible propositionally, that it’s easy to jump to what you think is the point, apart from the context, thus postulating a conclusion which is devoid of truth.

Therefore, the question we MUST ask ourselves as we continue reading is, when does Paul’s context stop and his main point begin? This has been a crucial mis-step by many who try to understand this passage.

This brings us to Paul’s next thought (verses 24-32), which is oftentimes only partly quoted. You cannot understand what Paul is saying here apart from reading the whole thought.

The first observation, almost glaringly obvious, is that Paul is still speaking in past tense “…God abandoned them…” In fact, this tells us that Paul is not only still providing context, but he is still talking about “something else” at some “other time” in history.

There are two main points within this one thought. that is, to what extent sin effects our “behavior” (24-27); it also effects our “thinking” (28-32) and vice versa. The behavior Paul describes here is the inevitable result of living a life apart from God. Paul gives ONE example (among many examples he could give, and in fact does in the next section) of homosexual behavior. The important distinction to make here is between the “act of homosexual behavior” and “being homosexual”. As stated before, neither Paul, nor the other biblical writers, make this distinction. Therefore, up to this point we still have no basis for condemning homosexuality within the confines of a loving marital relationship.

However, there are two additional observations that need to be made in this passage: verse 25 states “…God abandoned them to their shameful desires…” and “…even the women turned against the natural way to have sex…” Then in verse 27 “…and the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women burned with lust for each other…”

We are given two examples, both of which contain the same elements. That is, they both answer the question “what is natural?” And, they also seem to indicate the “intentions” of those who performed those acts.

First, Paul is clear that the act of homosexuality is not natural. Therefore, it seems to follow then that it does not matter if the “act” was performed in the confines of a meaningful relationship or as a proclivity. Second, “desire” and “burned with lust” indicate the intentionality that exists as part of the story Paul is telling. Those who committed acts of homosexuality did so with the intention of sexual gratification. In other words, Paul seems to be reinforcing his previous assertion, by implying that when these people performed these acts it was NOT because they were simply attracted to the same sex, but was the result of some proclivity.

Now, its important for us not to create conclusions based upon whats not being said. Moreover, we must reiterate the fact that Paul is not addressing our modern dilemma. He is only talking about the act itself.

It’s not until the end of the section that, Paul ends this section describing the “act” as sin (“…as a result of this sin…”).

The second part deals with how sin has affected the individuals thinking. Here we see Paul list more sins with the same intensity that he describes the sin of homosexuality. The idea here being that repetitive sinful behavior eventually changes how you see the world, even to the point of hating God.

When we take things out of context we miss the point: concluding Romans

It turns out that all of chapter 1 is historical context for what Paul begins to preach on in Chapter 2. Paul states that it is the ACT of homosexuality that sin. His reason is because it is NOT natural and is the inevitable result of a humanity who has abandoned God.  Therefore, if the act of homosexuality (same sex relations) is present (which, why wouldn’t it be), then even homosexuality within the confines of a meaningful relationship is still sin. Interestingly Paul is also (albeit indirectly) saying it’s NORMAL. Something can be normal and still not natural.

In chapter 2, he changes his tense from “they, their, them” in chapter 1 to “you” in chapter 2. Probably the most profound (and most important) part of this conversation is what Paul says in Romans 2:1-4 (and is something we conveniently leave out in this conversation):

You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? Romans 2:1-4

Wow. Ironic, isn’t it? Paul is writing this passage to Christians regarding how they treat a specific subculture within Rome, and yet, this is the same passage Christians today use to condemn the same group of people that Paul tells us not to condemn. If you remember only one thing let it be this, Paul states that it’s through “kindness, tolerance, and patience” that people turn from their sin; NOT condemnation!
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Either, Why Christians feel alienated from culture OR, why Christians fail to make an impact on culture.

It’s quite simple really! Christians today feel alienated from culture because of the Christians from yesterday (many still lingering around today) chose to alienate themselves from culture. It’s the combination of a faulty modern worldview coupled with an arrogant struggle for power.

The first is a theological/philosophical problem. I address this issue in my article: Why religion and science are both wrong. In addition to that article, I would add, even a significant number of Christians feel alienated from Christianity by those who clamor to the modern worldview. You don’t have to look much further than the Modernism/Postmodernism debates to see the absolute hatred many modern Christians have for those of that worldview. If their attitude is this bad within the Church; how much worse is the perception outside of the church?

The second is a cultural problem. For far too long religious zealots in academics, politics and the church have spent much of their time trying to preserve a political ideology that never actually existed; namely, this idea of America as a Christian nation. The inability for people to understand the difference between the forefathers of our country forming a nation out of the need for religious freedom as opposed to a nation that should be governed by the religious, is mind blowing. This is what Soren Kierkegaard referred to as the problem of “Christendom”. Furthermore, it is neither biblical nor culturally beneficial.

Although this ideology has ebbed and flowed throughout American history, it has seen a significant resurgence in the last 15 years. This ideology is not only a false perception of our country’s historical reality, but it produces a false sense of entitlement.

This entitlement has manifested in several ways, from attempting to force Christian ideals through the legislation of morality to public displays of outrage over extending rights to certain subcultures to controlling what is being taught in public schools. Moreover, it should not surprise Christians that there exists a significant tension between the secular and the religious in our culture. When you point your finger at people and are constantly pointing out their faults, you are going to become the minority when that subculture becomes the predominate power broker within culture. Christianity in our country is now simply receiving what it has so generously handed out over the last hundred years.

Understanding why something happens and excepting that fact are two different things. I don’t think that anyone should be discriminated against for their faith (or sexual preference). The answer is not to fight against that power struggle, but to slowly change it through what we are told in the passage above “kindness, tolerance, and patience”.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Christianity within this country is for it to become a “minority” again. Though the exact phrase has left me there is an old Kierkegaard quote that goes something like “…Christianity ceased to exist once it became legal” (this of course is in reference to Constantine). There is something true about that statement.

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What Christians should do differently: some aphorisms

  • Christians must exercise humility when it comes to Scripture and recognize that it was written for THEM not the “secular”.
  • Christians need to stop listening to everyone else and begin forming their own (informed) conclusions.
  • Christians should understand that they have no right to force their moral beliefs upon others (the same would be true of the secular).
  • Christians should recognize that our differences makes us stronger, not weaker.
  • Christians should imitate the same love and compassion that Christ had for people, and hold that up as the supreme Christian ideal.
  • Christians should understand that it’s not about how loud or often you speak, but knowing what to say, and when to say it.
  • Christians have nothing to be ashamed of. Moreover, they must stop being on the defensive, which begins with the presupposition that one has something that has to be defended. Moreover, it gives legitimacy to the secular where there may not be one to begin with.

<< Read Part One Here