In my faith tradition, which teaches that the Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week (Saturday) and that it was never changed to Sunday, it’s popular for evangelists to offer huge amounts of money to people if they can find the verse that says it was changed. The same challenge could be offered to find the verse that condemns transgender identities. It’s not there.

Once I was really open to asking the question, coming to affirm transgender and non-binary identities was easy. There isn’t any condemnation of trans people in the Bible. Yes. You read that right. There is no condemnation of trans people in the Bible.

There are a lot of misinformation or partial information about trans people in traditionalist settings, and I’ve written about those here. If this topic is new for you, or if you’ve only heard it from one side, you really should read it.

Today I want to talk about the main text of scripture that is offered as the reason trans people should be discouraged from affirming their gender when it differs from their exterior appearance, particularly sexual organs. There are a couple other minor texts to be addressed, but the lion’s share of the argument rests on one verse alone.

“God Created Them Male and Female”

The Biblical Research Institute (the official theological branch of the Seventh-day Adventist church) said that “in scripture, our gender identity is, to a significant extent, determined by our birth sex with God being the author of gender identity.” But does the Bible say this?

They provide Genesis 1:27 and a couple verses that quote Genesis 1:27 (Gen 5:1-2; Mark 10:6) as evidence, but where does this text teach “our gender identity is… determined by our birth sex”? Particularly since by “birth sex” they generally mean sexual organs? I don’t see anything at all about anatomy. Here’s the verse:

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

On these three lines rests nearly all non-trans-affirming theology. Yet this verse simply does not say what they say it does. They are looking for a passage to prove that gender is determined by the way a person’s exterior presents their gender, but this verse says literally nothing about that subject.

God created gender. Yes. Gender exists. But just because gender exists doesn’t mean it exists in a binary way. How might gender be expressed? What do we do when someone’s brain is at odds with their reproductive organs? What should we do when someone’s brain is telling them they are a different gender than what can be perceived on their exterior? What do we do when people are intersex? It certainly doesn’t offer clarity on these kinds of questions.

Deconstructing Gender

Sometimes trans affirmation is interpreted as a war on gender, or a denial of gender, and therefore out of harmony with this verse in which God created gender. But trans people are not destroying gender.

What transgender and gender non-binary people are doing as a way of exploring life as they live it is looking at gender in a ways that explore innate and culturally constructed understandings of gender. In my experience, trans and gender non-conforming people think with more depth and insight about gender than anyone else. They aren’t erasing it. They are delving into the meaning of gender for themselves and society.

In fact, if anyone confirms the innate nature of gender it’s trans people. They experience a deep innate sense of gender that goes against every experience of socialization they have. Because their exterior often presents as a different gender than their innate sense of gender, they are treated as boys their whole lives, for example, but gender is so innate psychologically that they still know themselves to be girls. Trans people don’t destroy gender, they testify to it. If gender is innate even for them, it must be for cisgender people as well.

Getting back to the text, trans people don’t deny the creation of male and female, not by any means. I see in them a beautiful expression of God’s good creation of gender.

Plain Meaning

If there is a more sophisticated way of understanding this text, I’m open to it, but I haven’t heard it yet. What I do hear from non-affirming people is that this text is clear in condemning trans and non-binary people, but it is not. The plain meaning is simply that men and women are both expressions of the nature of God. That’s what it says. Men and women. Both in God’s image. Simple.

I’ve always loved Genesis 1:27. Despite the history of Christianity, and it’s persistent struggles with misogyny, this verse unequivocally states that the image of God is not reserved only for men. It speaks to me of the power of scripture to challenge injustice, even in this most ancient text. What a beautiful testimony to inspiration.

The interpretation of this text that it means that gender must match genitalia only makes sense if you begin with that understanding of gender and read it into the text. It does not say that gender is based on genitalia. It does not say that minority gender presentations are an affront to God or to creation. It does not require people to live as the gender society perceives them as. It gives no advice or indication of what to do when the brain is out of odds with the sexual organs. Nor does it give advice on what to do when a person is intersex, presenting physiology that is neither distinctly male or female, and living the biological reality that not all people are created male and female in the sense of either/or, some are male and female in the sense of both/and.

People use this text to say other must be completely male or completely female. When some people don’t present that way, either because they are transgender or intersex, they want to force people into those boxes no matter what the consequences. But such a reading is imposed on the text. As we shall see, there are good reasons to see that this text itself illuminates the beauty of transgender identity.

God’s Gender

Here’s another part of Genesis 1:27 that is so simple yet easy to miss. If we, as male and female, are created in God’s image, what does that say about the gender of God?

God is both male and female. Not male one day and female the next, but always and eternally composing all it is to be male and all it is to be female.

Being more like God certainly does not require a harsh gender binary. Quite the opposite. Sin goes against the character of God and is not in harmony with it. To do something evil means to do something that is in violation of the character and nature of God. But God’s gender is neither male nor female, but both.

So how could a transgender or non-binary gender identity be out of step with God’s character? Why would we want to force non-binary or transgender people into an unbending standard that is out of harmony with the way God describes themselves?

There are people in the world who experience gender in non-binary ways, and those people can teach us something about the nature of God. We should not exclude them or force them to try and fit the mold of our own understanding. Such an attempt is out of harmony with Genesis 1:27 and not an affirmation of it.

Many people in the LGBT community celebrate such expressions. I’ve been taught by genderqueer people how to acknowledge and embrace my own more masculine characteristics that I never was able to change anyways. I’ve learned from my transgender friends how destructive it can be to deny this diversity, and how beautiful and life-affirming it is to celebrate gender diversity.

Hebrew Merism

The Hebrew language also offers a clue for why this texts should not be understood as describing gender in terms of a binary. Hebrew thinking and language in fact precludes such an understanding. Binary and dualistic thinking is a product of Greek thought, not Hebrew thought.

Genesis 1:27 could be a Hebrew merism, a statement which “combines two words to express a single idea; it expresses ‘totality’ by combining two contrasts or two extremes.” This definition is from an article published by the Biblical Research Institute, a conservative, Seventh-day Adventist theological entity.

An example of merism is saying “heavens and earth” to express all of creation, including the sun and moon which were understood to be between the heavens and earth. Another example is describing all of the Hebrew scriptures as the “Law” and the “Prophets,” when in fact they also include a third section described as the “Writings.” The intention is not to exclude the Writings, but to include them.

Is the statement “male and female” a merism? Maybe, maybe not, but to say the the verse is clearly and definitively a prohibition against anything but a strict binary in which all of humanity must fit fully on either one side or the other is to violate the way the Hebrew language functions. Such an interpretation cannot be supported by the text.

By now I hope you see that the primary text used to limit the treatment options of transgender people, to force them to live as if they were cisgender, simply does not hold up to scrutiny. There are a couple other texts to examine, but this is the main text offered as a clear statement against transgender people.

All transgender people want is the freedom to make their own decisions about how to best handle the difficult decisions they face. What they need from us is support for the lives they choose to live. What they can teach us about God and gender is profound. We need to extend the basic dignity of allowing them to define themselves, to choose their pronouns, and to choose their treatment options.

My wish for the church is that cisgender people would have more humility, more compassion, and more clear thinking on the reality of the biblical text and its teachings.

In the next blog, I look at a couple other texts used to condemn trans and non-binary identities and discuss the argument that a trans identity implies that God messed up: With Transgender People, God Doesn’t Make Mistakes, but We Do

“She says she’s a man, but you should watch her play with babies. Her motherly instinct just comes out.”

I was talking with a saccharine woman, all nicety and propriety, as she described her female-to-male trans relative to me.

“But she told all of us that she was changing to a man. She even got sex change therapy.” She said in a softer voice now, “she told me she regrets it, but you can’t go back, you know?” She gave me a long look. It was that look that says she’s made the ultimate point.

I felt sad for the poor man who has to deal with this woman, but didn’t know what to say. Her and I were coming from completely different understandings on some very basic issues.

There is a lot of fear on the part of cisgender people, particularly traditional people, when they think of transgender people. This fear is especially intensified when they think of surgery. They are afraid for the trans people themselves. They don’t want to see them hurt by making irreversible and tragic decisions. It’s difficult for any of us to step outside of our own experience, and to step so far outside as to have some level of understanding transgender people requires intention. I believe that this intention is necessary to alleviate the fear.

I want to suggest with this article that those who love trans people consider another risk, not the risk of their loved one making decisions that are scary and seem radical, but the risk that they themselves might not understand the reality of trans lives and may fail to provide the support and care their loved one needs. If that happens, they may lose the opportunity to see and love an exceptional person, someone courageous enough to do hard things for the sake of authenticity.

From the perspective of mental health professionals and transgender people, the woman I was speaking with and her traditional, non-affirming Christian family was likely contributing to their loved one’s difficulty adjusting to his transition. It may be that the trans relative felt regret because he underestimated the degree of rejection and questioning he would experience from his family and community.

In this first post, I had originally planned to address the biblical reasoning behind not affirming the gender of trans and non-binary people. But as I read the statements from theological institutions, and listened to the ideas that are present in traditionalist circles, I realized there are some more basic issues that need to be addressed first, issues about the nature of trans lives. So this post is going to talk about the basics, and about some misconceptions.

In the next blog I discuss common misconceptions about biblical teachings, particularly from the creation narrative. Then I look at biblical arguments around the idea that trans people should conform to the gender of their anatomy because God doesn’t make mistakes. For now, let’s look at some of the basics.

By the way, the terms “trans lives” or similar phrases are used rather than the term “transgenderism.” “Trans lives” focuses on the people who are living the reality we are speaking of, and “transgenderism” implies a philosophy or even a prejudice. If racism is prejudice towards race, what is transgenderism?

What is it to be Transgender?

I’m a woman. I’ve always known I was a woman. Being treated as a woman is something that always felt right to me.

The transgender people I know don’t experience life that way. The best way I can understand the experience of trans people is to imagine people treating me as a man based on their perception of my gender.

No matter how much people might treat me like a man, I would still be a woman. I would still know I was a woman. I would feel incredibly uncomfortable being forced to use a men’s restroom, being called male pronouns, and having women and men alike treat me like a man. No matter what, I wouldn’t stop knowing I’m a woman.

That’s something of the experience of being transgender or of a non-binary gender. Sometimes people know they are trans when they are very young, sometimes it takes years or even decades to unpack the meaning of a difference they’ve felt their whole lives, but it’s always there, unsought and unbidden.

Believing Transgender People

Transgender people don’t feel this way on a whim, it’s deeply ingrained. They aren’t changing their gender so they can have a relationship with someone of the same-sex as is sometimes suggested. They aren’t changing their gender to deal with other problems in their lives. They aren’t changing their gender because it’s a cultural trend or they admire Caitlyn Jenner.

They aren’t changing their gender at all. They are confirming their gender. They are confirming the gender they have always known themselves to be.

Many older transgender people haven’t even known the word transgender for most of their lives, they just knew something was different, and they had a consistent and persistent desire to live as a gender different than the gender they are assumed to have.

They know they are a different gender. They have this knowledge from that most important part of the body, the brain. It’s not something they would have chosen, given the difficulties of living as a trans person in our society, and not something they are able to talk or pray themselves out of.

It’s important to start here, because often people who speak theologically about transgender people misunderstand some key points as a result of not including trans people in the discussion.

Understanding doesn’t supply all the answers, but it does set the stage. Trans people are living a reality that is not typical, and they sometimes have difficult decisions to make about how they should live their lives in their reality. Failure to understand the reality of their lives is failure to pursue truth. It is these lives that we are speaking to when we speak of transgender identity.

What Are The Options?

Trans people have several options. Some trans and gender non-binary people are simply content expressing who they are, they live in families and communities who largely accept them as they are and as they present, and they experience few problems related to their gender identity. These people may never experience mental health problems such as Gender Dysphoria, a mood disorder related to gender identity, and they may never even have the desire for hormone or surgical intervention.

However, in an age where trans people are frequent victims of sexual assault, physical assault, harassment, and discriminator firing, leading to a suicide attempt rate of over 40%,  it can be hard to navigate the world as an openly transgender or gender non-binary person. Add non-affirmation by religious folks who prevent full inclusion of trans people in the life of the church, and it gets even harder. I never had this reality hit me so hard as when I saw a transgender child breakdown crying because she’d lost her best friend after coming out. It’s not easy, and that’s our fault, not theirs.

Transgender people have a few options for how they try and navigate this difficult world. This is probably over simplification, but I’ll start here.

1) They could continue to live as the gender society assigns them based on their physical appearance. In other words, they could stay in the closet.

2) They could present differently externally than what most of society expects and make no medical interventions, being content to live as a gender that is different than their biological sex without medical intervention.

3) If they can afford it, they could choose any one of many medical interventions such as taking hormones or having gender confirmation surgery. (By the way, there are many different types of gender confirmation surgery, many do not involve reproductive organs.)

Medical research, mental health organizations, and transgender people agree that leaving all these options open to transgender people results in their best life, reduced mental health problems, and people who are better adjusted and better able to contribute to society.

Most conservative Christian denominations disagree with this. They believe that only the first option, continuing to live as the gender society assigns to them, is morally correct. I will examine some of the biblical reasons that are offered for this belief.

Helping Not Hurting

One thing I know about conservative Christians is that they are not usually out to harm transgender people. They believe that denying two of these three options is the best thing for trans people. I see this when I read conservative explanations for their theology and when I speak to people who don’t affirm transgender identity.

The information they are given leads them to believe that non-affirmation of trans and non-binary identities is the best option. What if those reasons are not accurate? What if the church’s teachings are not helping people, but are hurting them? Wouldn’t you like to know?

When reading the two major documents offered by my denonination, one from the Biblical Research Institute (BRI), and one from the General Conference Executive Session (GCES), I found a good summary of many of the views of various conservative groups.

What I found difficult to accept was that most of these statements were made without biblical or medical citations. They were simply stated with no evidence. I don’t think that’s good enough. It’s not good enough to make assumptions without checking out those assumptions. It’s not kind, compassionate, or diligent. It’s not a desire to seek the truth.

I want to look at some of the key assumptions of those documents:

Does Surgery Harm Transgender People?

From the BRI:

It remains unclear, however, if this disturbance or brokenness can be overcome through sex-change surgery. Such treatment may disturb the patient even more.

First, I take exception with calling trans people disturbed and broken. It is pejorative and marginalizes trans people. It also makes it more difficult to understand the lives of trans people because it undermines their voices and opinions when in reality they are the best people, maybe the one people, who can help us understand their lives.

Second, the data does not support this. It’s the collective conclusion of the medical community that gender confirmation surgery should be one of the options available to transgender people. It’s also what trans people will tell you. If you have questions, this video does a great job of addressing the issues.

If conservatives don’t want to trust the medical community, where is their evidence? Don’t they owe it to the trans community to do more than make unsupported statements? Shouldn’t Christians take an objective and honest looks at the lives of trans people and try to present the most accurate information possible? Where did this information come from?

Do People Usually Regret Gender Confirmation Surgery?

Again, from the BRI:

So far, sex-change surgeries are irreversible. Persons undergoing these procedures have to use hormones for the rest of their lives, which indicates that an integrated sexual identity is not achieved through surgery. Surgery does not solve the problem completely. What aggravates the situation is that while surgery is irreversible, people may change psychologically as they grow and mature, seeking again a new identity.

Again, this statement is not supported. There is also a logical problem here. If surgery is problematic because it’s not changeable, therefore it is forbidden, it creates less opportunity for change and not more. By allowing the surgery, trans people can make decisions for themselves. I also don’t see the problem with people taking hormones long-term. There are many things we do everyday to care for ourselves. If it makes there lives better, what’s the problem?

Before people undergo these surgeries, extensive counseling is required. Hormones are also generally taken first and often are the only treatment people receive. Regret for the decision is rare, and usually a result of disapproval and lack of support. Those who have support generally do quite well.

Being Transgender Is Not A Disorder

From the GCEC:

On the mental-emotional level misalignment occurs with transgender people whose sexual anatomy is clearly male or female but who identify with the opposite gender of their biological sex. They may describe themselves as being trapped in the wrong body. Transgenderism, formerly clinically diagnosed as ‘gender identity disorder’ and now termed ‘gender dysphoria,’ may be understood as a general term to describe the variety of ways individuals interpret and express their gender identity differently from those who determine gender on the basis of biological sex.

This quote is inaccurate. The medical community didn’t just change the term, they changed the concept. Gender Identity Disorder (GID) labeled all transgender people as disordered. It focused on the identity. The new diagnosis focuses on people who experience psychological distress related to their identity, but the source could be societal pressures and not the identity itself.

New understandings are based on the growth of research and treatment in the psychological community after extensive effort to understand how best to improve the lives of trans people. I suspect that this inaccuracy is more than incidental, but intentional. It’s one thing to disagree with the psychological community, but they shouldn’t be misrepresented, especially in an official statement with lots of eyes on it. It gives me the feeling that I’ve had more trans people review this blog than the world church had review their statement.

I’ve also never heard a trans person describe themselves as “trapped in the wrong body,” though I hear cisgender people describe it this way regularly. What I hear transgender people describe is a society, family, and friends who refuse to accept their gender because of their exterior presentation. Some transgender people experience psychological distress about the sexual presentations of their bodies, and some do not. Even if they do, it doesn’t mean they feel trapped in someone else’s body. They may wish to modify their bodies, as cisgender people sometimes do with no exclusion or condemnation from the church or society, but they don’t often describe themselves as trapped in the wrong body.

Now We’re Grasping at Straws

From the BRI:

In some cases, sex-change surgery may be motivated by a sophisticated desire for homosexual activity.

Nope. That’s just not true. I date women. I would never want to be a man. I would never lie about my gender to be able to date women. No gay people I know would want to change their gender to date the gender they are attracted to. Who would ever want to do that? It’s harder to be transgender than to be gay or bisexual.

I’ve covered some of the myths and misunderstandings about transgender people, but there are many more. Here are some suggestions if you want to learn more:

In the next two (or more) blogs, I’ll be looking specifically at the biblical arguments. Genesis 1:27 will be in the next blog which will be out in one week. It’s written already and ready to go. I’m looking forward to sharing it.

**I consulted with several trans and non-binary people and had this blog reviewed by them as well as consulting sources which include experts and trans people. I myself am not trans nor am I an expert on the topic. Please let me know if you are and have feedback for me. I would welcome your input.**

I received a sincere question on my Facebook page that I want to address here:

“Why does the Bible make it so clear about it being 1 man and 1 women the times it talks about marriage? I’m hoping your study has produced an idea that I can chew on.”

“Marriage is between one man and one woman.” This is a popular definition for those who would exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. Where in the Bible are these words found? Nowhere. The phrase, “marriage is between one man and one woman” is a modern, non-affirming definition that is not found in the Bible. I’ll argue that it’s also not supported by the Bible.

The Bible Describes, but Doesn’t Define Marriage

Genesis 2:24 is usually cited as a Biblical definition of marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). Jesus also quotes this verse when he is asked about divorce. But even within scripture, this phrase was not interpreted as a restrictive definition.

Saying what will happen is very different from prescribing the only thing that can happen. “For this reason a man will leave…” No one disagrees that men leave their families of origin and marry women. Those of us who advocate for the legitimacy of same-sex commitments aren’t preventing men from marrying women.

The question is not whether men will keep marrying women, but whether that is the only option. Making a restrictive definition out of this text is stretching it too far.

For example, no one has a problem with a man not marrying at all. But if these words are to be taken as prescriptive, a man who never marries has also fallen short. Calling this verse a definition of marriage is a way to cleverly side-step this problem. But it does not say “marriage is…” It says “a man will.”

So why are some people comfortable with two men who never marry and remain celibate, but uncomfortable if those two men decide to marry each other? Either way they haven’t done what this verse says should be done. They have not chosen to “hold fast” to a wife. It’s inconsistent to make an exception for singleness, but not for same-sex marriage.

Men will marry women. On that we agree. It is a gift from God. But not all men will marry women. And that’s okay.

Biblical Examples Defy the Modern Conservative Definition

Polygamy was widely practiced and widely affirmed in the Old Testament. There are indications in the narrative that it isn’t a good idea. The first person to marry multiple wives was a guy named Lamech, and he was a horrible man who bragged about murder (Genesis 4:19-24). Multiple wives also caused endless problems for Jacob and his family (Genesis 37-44) and other families in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, elders are restricted to one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 1:6).

Still, polygamous marriages were marriages. No one was putting them in air quotes. No one was saying “so-called polygamous marriages.” They were legitimate, with full social and legal status (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15-17). In certain situations polygamy was even required by the law of God (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Jacob, David, Solomon, Moses, and many others had multiple wives. In short, polygamous marriages are also biblical.

Yet these biblical marriages are in contrast to the one-man-one-woman definition that is popular among conservatives today. Our western understanding of marriage has changed, and our legal code excludes polygamy. This isn’t a restriction in scripture, but it makes sense to us today.

The Bible Doesn’t Exclude Same-Sex Marriage

We restrict polygamy when the Bible allows it, because it’s a good and healthy restriction. Why not allow something that the Bible never restricts?

The handful of texts that restrict same-sex sexual acts refer to exploitation and depersonalized lust. Love, marriage, and commitment between people of the same gender was never addressed in scripture, because it wasn’t a question asked in their society. So there is no restriction placed on same-sex marriages in the Bible.

We regular make decisions about things the Bible never addresses directly. The Bible gives no advice on voting, on whether or not healthcare should be universal, on the use of contraceptives, or on bullying in social media. Yet we do have all the information we need from scripture if we apply the values at the heart of scripture.

This is where the discussion should take place. Catch phrases about the biblical definition of marriage are more rhetorical than theological. The Bible speaks about marriage in ways that are more complex and culturally conditioned than what is represented by traditional, non-affirming churches. We prefer simple answers. We prefer a biblical definition that can fit on a protest sign. But that’s not what the Bible gave us.
So, what if same-sex marriage makes the lives of LGBT+ people and their families better? What if queer people can contribute more to society if they aren’t shamed and excluded? What if they can provide much needed families for foster children? What if they can be life-affirming, life-giving, and holy representations of the love of God? Who are we to deny these good things to queer people when the scriptures do not?

William J. Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals is a fantastic book for understanding how to interpret Biblical commands that will be especially satisfying for anyone who loves organization and precision. He outlines a precise rubric in a field of theological study that sometimes seems nebulous.

The hermeneutic he has developed and outlined in this book is a designed to reveal not only the intent of the scriptural teachings on various topics, but their movement. He argues that there is a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” in scripture. Though the individual texts may at times seem unjust, within the framework of the overall teachings of the Bible and in comparison to surrounding cultures a picture emerges of God moving people closer to the ultimate goal: redemption.

Three specific topics are explored in order to demonstrate how Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic works. They are of course the three groups in his title: slaves, women, and homosexuals. The title itself is an indication that Webb will not be sympathetic to LGBT people. The term “homosexuals” is almost exclusively used by those who have negative attitudes towards LGBT people or their sexuality.

On the topic of slaves and women Webb shows how the nation of Israel had greater permissiveness than the surrounding cultures, how there were moments of exception to the rules that devalued women and enslaved people, and how scripture would occasionally have “breakout” passages which undermined both slavery and the subjugation of women. He sees the topic of homosexuality, as he refers to it, as an unequivocal “no” in every instance, with Israel being more restrictive than surrounding cultures.

Reading though his book, it becomes quickly apparent that he spends very little time talking about same-sex sexuality in comparison to the other two topics. This underscores the reality that scripture speaks very little to the topic while there are scores of verses supporting slavery and the subjugation of women. Today, I imagine there would be a number of considerations brought up by James V. Brownson, Matthew Vines, and others which would demand Webb’s consideration. But since Webb’s book was published in 2001, those books hadn’t been written yet.

It’s also worth noting that Webb’s publisher was InterVarsity Press, the publishing wing of an organization that just last year (2016) decided to fire all people who believe that God affirms of same-sex relationships. In an environment with so little academic freedom, the conclusions are worth serious scrutiny.

I have the same problem with Webb’s work that I have with many books of non-affirming theology, they begin with modern questions about sexuality and read it back into the text to see if it affirms or condemns. The best approach to understanding scripture is to first be clear about what the text is talking about and why. Only then can we go about applying the meaning of that text to the modern situation. A flawed approach begins with the modern question instead of the ancient one.

Webb’s categories would also benefit from considering principles that can be drawn from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, in which Jesus described the Kingdom of God to which Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic is reaching. In his teachings, Jesus names love as the foundational concept scriptures. He reinterprets Old Testament laws in light of this principle.

Since Webb was addressing same-sex marriage, it would also have strengthened his book to look biblically at the concept of marriage. At some point, anyone who is engaged in the questions of the biblical morality of same-sex marriage must ask if such marriages are best informed by the many passages of scripture which speak at length to marriage, or the six which refer briefly to same-sex sexuality.

If we are to understand the biblical concept of marriage and the redemptive arc to which it is moving, would that arc be progressed or regressed by opening marriage up to couples of the same gender? That’s a question Webb never even feigned to ask.

Despite these limitations, I highly recommend this book. His underlying concepts are excellent, even if they aren’t always applied well to same-sex marriage. And it’s easy to see how these concepts can strengthen the case of those of us who believe in affirming theology.

This is Part 2 of a series on posts about the Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse. If you’re wondering why on earth we wouldn’t just take the super-clear, plain understanding of the laws in Leviticus, check out Torah Part 1.

For so long, I thought that affirming the sexuality of LGBT people like myself was at odds with the Bible, but I never understood why. People who affirmed LGBT people seemed to be doing what Jesus would do. But for those of us who take a high view of scripture, it isn’t enough to feel that something is more loving, we need to understand how that love is biblical love.

It wasn’t until I took a much closer look at the Bible that I realized how much better it’s teachings are than I could imagine. I want to share with you some things I learned about the texts of Leviticus and Genesis.

In my conservative and traditionalist seminary, I took a class on interpreting and applying the Old Testament Law. One of the principles I was taught is that the narratives of the Torah explain the laws of the Torah. That’s why I think it best to take the three Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse together along with the one additional passage that’s ambiguous. They help us to understand what is meant by the prohibitions in Leviticus.

The Leviticus verses, both 18:22 and 20:13 say, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” So we need to look at the stories that depict just such an act or an attempt at such an act.

The Sin of Ham

A strange story appears in Genesis 9. After the flood, Noah and his three sons were starting their new lives. Noah promptly planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and lie naked in his tent. Ham went in and saw him, but not only that, the original language gives the idea that his eyes lingered on his father’s nakedness. In another seminary class, I remember the teacher describing how Ham was a homosexual and was disgustingly turned on by his father’s naked body. He then went out and told his brothers about Noah’s nakedness. The brothers walked backwards with a blanket to cover his nakedness.

No one is really sure what happened here. Uncovering someone’s nakedness is a euphamism for sex, but Noah uncovered his own nakedness and that’s not really the same. There is something less than rape and more than nothing going on here. There is a definite sexual tone. In verse 24 Noah sobers up and realizes what Ham “had done to him.”

One thing we do know, whatever happened Ham’s brothers reacted very differently than Ham did. They wanted to show their father respect, while Ham wanted to spread knowledge of their father’s disgrace.

The sexual overtone of this verse doesn’t seem to be about lust. If it was, he wouldn’t be bragging to his brothers. Yet he would speak so brazenly to his brothers if his goal was to humiliate his father. The indication is that same-sex eroticism here is about humiliating Noah.

The Sin of Sodom

This passage is where the word sodomy comes from. The story is found in Genesis chapter 19, but it really starts in chapter 18. I suggest a quick read. The basic story goes like this:

  • Angel’s show up at Abraham’s tent. He doesn’t know they are angels. He invites them in, gives them the best food, is all-around an awesome host.

  • They tell Abraham who they are and that they’ve come to destroy Sodom. Abraham pleads with them and they agree that if they find even five good people there they will spare the city.

  • The angels show up in Sodom. No one knows they are angels. No one helps them out. So they decide to sleep on the street. Lot realizes this is a terrible idea and invites them in.

  • Every single man in the city, young and old, gathers outside Lot’s home demanding the men to gang rape them.

  • Lot asks them to take his daughters instead, and they refuse then begin to push into the house.

  • The angels rescue lot and blind the men of Sodom who still try to get at the men but can’t.

  • The next day Lot and his family get out of there and the angels destroy the city.

 

Long before I had affirming theology, back when I was still trying desperately to be straight, I remember a line from a sermon describing the men of Sodom as “a group of gay men.”

 

Even when we live in this world of globalization, where queer people often pick-up and move to cities that are more gay-friendly, the most I’ve ever heard of is a city of 50% queer people (Palm Springs, CA, correct me in the comments if you know of a gayer city). So the idea that every single man in this city is gay is preposterous.

 

Besides, the idea that gay men are into gang rape is disgusting. I often see this type of reasoning in non-affirming works of theology, the assumption that queer people are different in more than just the gender we are attracted to. I’ve read that gay men would be into being temple prostitutes, that they would welcome castration, and in the Sodom story that they would be into gang rape. I know some great gay men; they wouldn’t hurt a fly.

 

A plausible explanation that scholars and commentators confirm is that these men were not motivated by sexual desire. They were engaging in a practice that has sadly always existed and still does today, men raping men to humiliate them and remove any threat.

 

Sodom was a city that had been attacked before (Genesis 13-14). While Abraham showed himself to be an exceptional host, Sodom showed itself to be bloodthirsty and violent to strangers. They craved a reputation that would strike terror in their enemies. Unlike the “gay men” explanation, this explanation takes the whole of the text into consideration.

Implications for Leviticus

So could the passages in Leviticus be referring to situations of power, humiliation, control, and violence?

If we arrive at the answer to that question not by falling back on our own personal prejudices, but by comparing scripture with scripture and relying on the narratives of the Torah itself, that is exactly what these verses are about.

There are still more reasons to see them this way.

In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the command is phrased differently than the other sexual prohibitions. The normal phrasing for sexual intercourse is that “you shall not uncover the nakedness.” Yet these verses say “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Why the difference?

A sad reality of the Ancient Near East is that men had more intrinsic value than women. That’s consistent with the men in Sodom scoffing at Lot’s offer of his daughters. They wanted to inflict maximum pain, that meant harming those who had the most status and value.

In the Old Testament law, decisions are made by men, even women who aren’t slaves are bought and sold, and the vows a woman makes to the Lord can be retracted by her husband or father. Women had more agency in Israel than in surrounding nations, but much less than men.

So to lie with a man as with a woman isn’t described as a sexual intimate act of “uncovering his nakedness,” it’s an aggressive act of “lying with a man like a woman.” This is by nature an act of humiliation.

It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion looking only at the Biblical text. It’s only confirmed by any book on Ancient Near Eastern same-sex eroticism. Male-to-male intercourse was viewed as a one-way act of domination of one man by another. The man who was dominated was treated as a woman and humiliated.

This understanding matches the narratives. It matches the laws. But it’s also a good interpretation for one more crucial reason: It’s a compassionate interpretation.

Interpreting this verse in the least nuanced, most literalistic way possible results in harm to LGBT people like myself. When applied to people who are in committed relationships of love and self-sacrifice, there is no harmony with the primary command in the Bible: Love God and our neighbor. How does limiting loving relationships promote love?

On the other hand, interpreting these prohibitions as I have suggested is in complete harmony with the most important principles of scripture. This command protects the vulnerable. It affirms biblical sexuality of love and respect. It brings judgement on aggressors and rids Israel of a disgusting practice that brought harm and pain.

It is also in harmony with the approach to Torah that Jesus himself took. Part 3 is coming for a detailed discussion of how Jesus interprets in Torah in Matthew 6-7.

In a sense, those of us who affirm same-sex marriage as biblical will always have an uphill battle because we are arguing against the plain meaning of scripture in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which at face value is a simple prohibition against male same-sex intercourse.

Whenever there is confusion, and particularly when emotions are high, arguments that are simple are appealing. The argument that these verses are the plain word of God offers a very simple, clear, and straight forward answer. But the very simplicity that makes it compelling is also a liability. Interpreting the Bible is not always simple. Sometimes it takes effort, and there is nothing wrong with that.

This is the first in a series of three blogs what will address the verses about same-sex sexual behaviors in the Torah. Part 2 is available now, part 3 is coming soon. There are also three verses in the New Testament that will be addressed in future blogs. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and there are three places where same-sex sexual behaviors are mentioned (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), and possibly a fourth in Genesis 9 where it is implied.

In this first blog, the subject is the levitical laws, the second blog will address the narratives, primarily the story of Sodom, and how it informs the levitical law. The third blog will examine the implications of Jesus’ own approach to interpreting and applying the Torah.

The Plain Word of Scripture

The first question to address is why we would ever go against a plain command ofGod. Let’s begin by looking at the first of the two texts in question:

Leviticus 18:22 (ESV) says, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.”

Notice the specificity and economy of words in this text. There is no mention of mediating circumstances, and no excuse offered for those who would look for exceptions. The plain meaning is that sex between two men is wrong. Period. End of Story.

However, there is a follow-up question that needs to be asked. If this is the hermeneutic (meaning the method of interpretation) you have chosen, the hermeneutic that the clarity of the statement and the plain reading is the right one, are you willing to apply this method to all the verses in Leviticus? Or at least all of the texts where you can’t sight a clear reason not to, such as commands related to the temple service which was abolished by Christ?

The only way it makes sense to take a strong literalistic stance on this verse is if you do so with other verses as well. Otherwise you aren’t following scripture, you’re following your own inclination.

Leviticus, Literally

So let’s look at some other verses…

Leviticus 19:20-21 (ESV) says, “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.”

This verse makes room for men to own women and to have sex with them without their consent (known today as rape). The only problem with a man owning a woman and having sex with her is if she has been promised to someone else. Female sexuality is bought and sold. That’s the plain meaning of this text.

Leviticus 21:9 (ESV) says, “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”

We all know PKs (Priest’s Kids?) can be a real problem. Pastors, if your daughter gets out of control, your reputation might suffer. That’s an age old problem for which Leviticus has an answer. Burn her at the stake. That’s the plain meaning of this text.

Leviticus 24:19-20 (ESV) says, “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”

In this verse a specific action is shown in the clearest of language. There are no excuses or mediating circumstances. If you harm someone, intentional or not, you must receive the same bodily injury. Period. End of Story. That’s the plain meaning of the text.

Leviticus 25:44-46 (ESV) says, “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and females slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever.”

Its clear yet again. Slavery is okay. Nothing wrong with it. There it is in the Bible clear as day. The plain meaning couldn’t be more plain.

Leviticus 20:13 says, “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.”

That one sounds familiar. It’s essentially a restatement of 18:22, but this time with a command to kill them both, and a promise that their blood is upon them and you are not culpable for their deaths. Plain meaning of scripture. Who am I to apply one half of a text literally and ignore the last half?

When Literal Is Immoral

These are just a few verses from Leviticus, there are many more verses in the Old Testament whose literal meaning is questionable. When we hear the verses on slavery and the devaluation of women, we automatically start thinking about reasons why they might not apply to us.

But why do we do that? The answer is simple, because we believe slavery is harmful and therefore immoral, and because we believe women should be valued equally to men. We are looking for ways out of the literal understanding of these verses, and there are ways out of the literal meaning of these verses, and they are legitimate.

We also don’t believe anymore in the retributive justice of the Old Testament, the eye for an eye, because Jesus showed us a better way (Matthew 5:38-42). Shouldn’t we be interpreting these verses the way Jesus did? If the possibility exists that this interpretation is harming people, shouldn’t compassion for those people at least cause us to reexamine our viewpoint?

As a woman who has a longing in myself to for a committed romance with another woman, and as someone familiar with the history and trials of LGBT people, I can tell you that there is good reason to believe that the plain meaning of these verses hurts people. Anyone who is paying attention and listening to the lives and stories of LGBT people knows this.

Beyond Literal

Does that mean we should just throw them out and never worry about them again? Absolutely not. I disagree with many of the LGBT affirming theologians who show a lot of verses from Leviticus we don’t follow anymore then just throw the whole thing out. I don’t dismiss these verses just because they appear in Leviticus.

I believe every verse of scripture has something to teach us. No word is without value and meaning. Yet I do not believe we should always seize on the meaning that first strikes us.

We shouldn’t decide the present-day application of a text before we have questioned and done our homework, and certainly not before we have considered the real lives of people impacted by that verse. When compassion gives us reason to question the plain meaning, we should look again at our interpretation.

When understood in their context, the laws about slavery, the treatment of women, and retributive justice did make people’s lives better. If you had to be a woman in the Ancient Near East, Israel was the best place to be. Women had more rights, more protection, and more agency there than anywhere else. Same thing if you had to be a slave. There were limits placed on slave owners. And the eye-for-an-eye law was much better than laws in other nations where a rich man’s eye was worth a poor man’s life.

All of scripture is seeking the redemption of humanity. Taking the plain meaning of scripture is sometimes just an excuse for laziness. We need to look again.

The next step is to compare scripture with scripture so we can better understand the levitical verses on male same-sex intercourse. We take that up in Part 2.

Gender, Bible, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships, by James V. Brownson

James V. Brownson is eminently qualified to write a book about. He is a professor of New Testament, has served as academic dean at Western Theological Seminary, and holds a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. His book, The Bible, Gender, and Sexuality is the first affirming book someone with serious theological inclinations should read.

Brownson’s study began when his son revealed that he was gay. Believing in the authority of scripture and describing himself as in the reform tradition, Brownson wanted to understand the will on God on the matter. As often happens, when someone he loved was suffering, he could no longer ignore the questions. He went about his study to understand the truth whatever it may be.

Brownson sets out to examine the underlying moral logic of prohibitions against same-sex sexuality, arguing that such a step is essential when applying a text to one culture that originated in an entirely different culture. Without such work, religion would be incapable of progress.

Traditionalists have claimed two different themes of underlying moral logic to justify the absolute prohibition on same-sex relationships. The first is a social argument about complementarianism, that men and women have distinct roles to play and same-sex relationships are forbidden because these roles cannot be maintained. The second is biological complementarianism where men and women are biologically fitted to each other and capable of procreation.

Brownson deftly dispatches Robert Gagnon’s claim of biological fittedness in Genesis 1 & 2, pointing out that the “one flesh” statement is used of kinship ties and not the complimentary nature of male and female genitalia. He does so by pointing both to the simple meaning of the Hebrew vocabulary and a close exegetical analysis of the text. “One flesh” is also a term that God uses of his relationship with his people, it is a bond of kinship and not biological sex.

A careful examination of biblical understandings of marriage, sex, lust, celibacy, and family strengthen Brownson’s analysis and his critique of complimentarianism. His explanation of gender-based concepts of shame and honor in the New Testament and surrounding culture was easily the clearest, most helpful explanation of gender difference in sociological concepts of honor and shame that I have ever read.

Brownson’s treatment of Romans 1:26-27 is the high point of this work. His pedigree as a New Testament scholar shines clearly in this section. The exegetical, hermeneutical, and cultural material he brings into his analysis is superb.

One thing that could be challenging for some readers is that instead of making a single interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, he gives several compelling options. I agree with this approach. The text refers to something specific that the original audience would have immediately known. But from our viewpoint, there are many compelling ways to understand this passage that don’t involve universal prohibitions on same-sex sexuality.

The one critique I have is Brownson’s analysis of the levitical law. As a New Testament scholar, it isn’t surprising that this was his weakest point. In my experience, most books of affirming theology tend to take the Old Testament law less seriously than I would like. This is a reflection of Christianity at large which lacks a coherent understanding of the purpose, structure, and application of Old Testament laws and instead tends to dismiss them.

The logic of the book not only challenges traditional interpretations, Brownson builds to an underlying moral logical for sex and marriage that is cogent and compelling. Rather than simply allowing for same-sex marriage for the sake of compassion, Brownson clarifies the biblical ethic for sexuality and marriage. He summarizes, “People are not to say with their bodies what they cannot or will not say with the whole of their lives” (p. 109). That’s the foundation of biblical sexuality and marriage.

Brownson speaks to the true heart of biblical marriage, which is expressed in commitment and a sexual ethic defined by the giving of one’s self to another in a reciprocal and self-sacrificial kinship bond. He argues that such a bond is compatible with same-sex marriage, though it is not compatible with the sexual liaisons described in the bible’s six passages addressing same-sex sexual activity.

Bible, Gender, Sexuality is a true achievement. Brownson’s critiques and theological contributions make his book a must read for anyone interested in this topic.