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?

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.

People want to know why I have done what I have done—going against the teachings of my church, giving up my career as a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, and losing the only community I have known. That’s what happened when I came out as bisexual.

In some ways, my reasons might be unique. I changed my thinking about God and what the Bible teaches before I changed my thinking about myself. It wasn’t about desire for me, or even about being able to be open about who I am. It wasn’t until later that I saw how important those things are. Only after I knew the approval of God for my sexuality did I dare be honest with myself about it.

In many ways, it was a journey of years, but it culminated in a period of several months of intense study and prayer. I’d like to share with you what that process was like and what drove me to and through it.

Compassion Came First

The immediate catalyst was the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but all that did was amplify the agitation that already dogged me. LGBT people were hurting, even when they tried to follow the church’s teachings. Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy, we’re supposed to take up a cross after all, but it isn’t supposed to tear you apart from the inside.

Besides, same-sex relationships seemed like a sin that existed only in the abstract, not in the real world. Who did it harm? How does it dishonor God? How does it harm one’s self? How does it harm anyone else? Can you really hurt someone by loving them in commitment and self-sacrifice?

Something wasn’t adding up. What was I missing? How is the gospel good news for people who experience same-sex attraction?

Foolishly, I didn’t see that these were questions about myself. I had long ago decided not to pursue my desire for a relationship with a woman. What I wanted to know was how I could better minister to my congregation, including the members who are LGBT or who have LGBT people in the family.

Psalm 119 describes the goodness of God’s laws. If God is prohibiting this, then that prohibition makes people more spiritually whole, and breaking it is destructive to the soul. I believed the problem was in my understanding, not in the prohibition against same-sex relationships. I expected to find a better understanding of the theology my church teaches. I expected this because of faith in God and his goodness. But I also knew that in the process I had to become better versed on the theological perspectives of both sides, so at the suggestion of Herb Montgomery, a friend of mine, I picked up Gender, Bible, Sexuality by James V. Brownson first, and eventually an entire shelf of books, and started reading.

What Does the Bible Say?

I often heard LGBT apologists say the Bible never speaks to sexual orientation, that none of the passages apply to the current situation. I didn’t find that compelling back then. I wasn’t concerned with what the Bible doesn’t say, I was concerned with what it does say.

So when I approached those six passages of scripture that mention some type of same-sex sexuality, I wanted to know what they were talking about. Whatever they were about, that would be in harmony with the compassionate and loving heart of God.

It wasn’t hard to find out what these passages were talking about. No matter what commentaries or books I read, no matter what conclusions they reached about whether same-sex relationships are wrong or right, I always found that what is being talked about in these verses is exploitative sexual behavior like rape, prostitution, and adultery, and out-of-control lust in the case of Romans 1. There was no limit or concern for marriage and commitment. In none of these verses would the behavior be condoned if it were heterosexual instead of homosexual. These verses are some variation on the theme of men degrading men by using physical or social power to dominate them sexually by treating them sexually like women.

What Did Verses About Same-Sex Sexuality Accomplish?

I don’t have a problem with the rules and statements about slavery in the New and Old Testament not because I think we should live by them today, but because they made life better for the slaves in Israel. Slaves in the Ancient Near East were better off in Israel than anywhere else. The laws affirmed them as a human beings and not mere property. They set significant limits on how slaves were treated.

Similarly, I don’t have a problem with statements in both the New and Old Testament that limit the autonomy of women because the real impact of these scriptures was positive by moving society in the right direction. They accomplished greater freedom and equality relative to their societies. If we were to apply these verses according to their plain meaning today, we would be accomplishing the opposite goal. We would enslave people and take away the civil rights of women. A literal interpretation sometimes undermines the meaning and function of the Bible.

With this in mind, I considered the verses about same-sex sexuality. I took myself out of my modern mindset and put myself in theirs. Instead of asking about sexual orientation and marriage, the question I asked was this:

What would have been the impact of these verses on the culture in which they were written?

They accomplished protection for the vulnerable and accountability for the outrageous, out-of-control lust of men who were almost certainly married to women. It’s unlikely that they would have stopped even one same-sex relationship between adults. Those weren’t happening.

Could it be that these texts prohibiting same-sex sexual exploitation were there for the same reason as verses about slavery and the limitations on the autonomy of women? These texts would be life-giving when they were originally given. It’s not hard to see how they have a powerful modern application as well that supports the sacredness of each person, the value of protecting the vulnerable, and the right that each person has to sexual autonomy against exploitation.

What is harder to see is how they relate to committed, monogamous marriages between people of the same gender. When I finally took the time to read and understand these verses, I had to acknowledge that applying verses about same-sex exploitation to same-sex marrige was a stretch. I was surprised to discover this. It messed everything up for me. All my plans, my career, even my firm and convenient decision to never date women.

Caring About What the Bible Cares About

I have read the verses referencing same-sex sexuality over and over. You could read all the texts in 1-2 minutes. I realized that none of these verses were part of a larger passage where the topic of same-sex sexuality is taken up as the theme. In each of these texts, it is only mentioned briefly and is secondary to the main point. In each of these texts, context shows that they refer to exploitative sexuality or out-of-control lust. Non-affirming Christians want to apply them to all same-sex sexuality, but what if they are stretching too little and too far?

I believe in the inspiration of scripture. Scriptures tells one story. There are places where that story is told clearly and boldly. There are other places where it is more difficult to understand because it’s being applied to people and situations dramatically different from our own. It’s only when we pay attention to the major themes of scripture that this becomes clear. Setting aside the most important principles in favor of a few texts is not taking scripture seriously, it’s explaining away the heart of the gospel in favor of selective literalism.

Gradually, I realized that we allowed a handful of texts to hijack the heart of scripture. Our theology was not leading us to treat LGBT people as we want to be treated. I’ve also come to believe that the traditional condemnation of same-sex relationships degrades the foundational ethics of marriage. You can’t save marriage by limiting it heterosexuals. That’s a distraction. It doesn’t address the real problems of selfishness, adultery, and complacency that are causing divorce and destroying marriage.

What we need is a biblical understanding of sexuality that addresses actual problems not manufactured problems. What we need is the true heart of the verses that address same-sex sexuality, which is to shun sex that is exploitative, selfish, and based on pure lust. Sex is not for that. Sex is meant to be given from the heart in love and fidelity to one’s spouse. Literalistic interpretations are obscuring the real meaning. Sex can be given from the heart in the context of a life-long commitment to a same-sex partner. It happens all the time. Such love is pleasing to God.

I won’t ever forget my cowardice. It was fostered by a thousand small decisions to turn away from pricks of conscience, little warning signs that all was not well in my beloved denomination.

One of my favorite classes in seminary was a difficult, small class. The few brave souls who volunteered for this academic endeavor sat around a table with the professor, and we talked about Old Testament Law. Together we dissected the minutiae of the Hebrew text, disagreed with each other about the meaning, drew comparisons with parallel texts, and tried to understand the minds of ancient Hebrews and what they knew of God.

I loved every minute. It was just the type of intense Bible study I craved. In our discussions I was bold, at times contrarian, and always searching for the strand of justice that I began to see running through this ancient text.

I was thrilled with the dawning understanding that even seemingly restrictive texts were bringing justice and healing for vulnerable people. We saw how the law improved the lives of women and slaves, not as much as we have today, but certainly more than the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern nations.

Sitting here, at this table, with these people, holding my own—it was thrilling. I loved the professor. He was and is kind, intelligent, and willing to learn and grow from his students even after decades of study. I was with my people and in my element. This, if anywhere, is where I wanted to be appreciated, where I wanted to shine.

“A Man Shall Not Lie with a Man”

It was bound to happen. One day we began talking about the dreaded verses in Leviticus. “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.” In everyone’s opinion, these verses turned out to be verses that had no nuance. Our professor explained how the restriction could be applied to women as well a men, but that was the limit of understanding beyond the literal. These texts, far from being more liberating than other nations, were more restrictive. They were clear. Important. Undeniable.

Then he started talking about a friend from college. I don’t remember the exact words, but I’m not exaggerating to say it was something like this: “He got caught up in the whole gay lifestyle. He left the church and God completely, had hundreds of sexual partners, was always at gay clubs, developed health problems, and it was decades before he finally returned to God and gave up homosexuality. Homosexuality is a dangerous thing, and God has no tolerance for it.”

I sat there stunned. He doesn’t understand at all. He doesn’t realize that there are countless queer people living out their sexuality in committed relationships, raising families, and generally being stable and healthy. Here is the man who literally wrote the book on sexuality in this church, and he doesn’t know the first thing about queer people. He has accepted and is perpetuating dangerous stereotypes.

A response rose in my mind but died before it reached my lips. I wanted to speak out, but I didn’t. I was afraid. I didn’t want anyone to know I was attracted to women.

Confronting My Selfishness

An unexpected lesson I’ve learned in all of this is how much more selfish I was than I ever thought. I used to think it would be selfish to do what I wanted to do, pursuing relationships with women. Before I pushed it down deep into the recesses of my psyche, dating women seemed so right to me. In my mind, selfishness would be giving into these desires.

I’ve since realized that my true selfishness lie in another direction. There were a million little domesticated selfish decisions in my religious life.

This story is an example. I should have spoken up. It was a difficult position. I was already afraid that people would think I was gay, how much more so if I appeared to know something about gay people? Yet it was one of hundreds of acts of self-preservation. Some were less innocent.

Theological Selfishness

Even before I acknowledge my own queer identity, when I was trying desperately to label my attractions to women as simply feelings that had nothing to do with identity, I was still acutely aware of the lack of compassion in the church. I couldn’t get my conscience to shut up about it. I worried that we were wrong, not just about LGBT people, but about our approach to scripture.

One thing stuck with me from that class, and it disturbed me. In each discussion we had to find a strict biblical argument to justify unjust laws, such as those about slavery. It was implicit that our goal was to show that unjust laws were accommodations to move people in the right direction, even if the laws didn’t get them all the way there.

We used a small arsenal of theological tools to accomplish this, but one argument that was never used was simple human compassion. No one ever said that slavery was wrong because it hurts people and is incompatible with a loving God. We seemed to be missing the forest for the trees.

Why were we all Christian in the first place if it wasn’t for the teachings of Jesus to have love for all? It bothered me. The whole thing bothered me. Why did we care more about these tools than we did about people?

But I still wanted a seat at this table. I’d worked so hard to be here. In in my selfishness I labeled these pricks of conscience “doubt.” This turned out to be a useful label for dismissing compassion.

Looking back it’s clear that those things that became unquestionable in my mind turned out to be all the things it was most convenient for me not to question. Those questions could cost me any chance at a job. Later when I was hired as a pastor, they could quickly get me dismissed.

If I paid too much attention to the wrong hurting people, the one’s the church was uncomfortable talking about, and if I cared about them too much, spoke about them too much, or even changed the way I thought about what behaviors are and aren’t sinful, I would be putting myself at risk. The loss could be devastating.

Spiritual Growth

So I didn’t question. Now that I have stepped forward, now that I have lost all those things, I can see my former doubts for what they were. Selfishness. Plain, simple, naked, selfishness. It caused me to abandon the ones Christ cared for the most all the while calling myself a Christian minister. I got so much out of hanging out with the 99 sheep that were never lost that I didn’t care about the 1 sheep we were not only leaving behind, but banishing from our midst.

The collective behaviors of the ministers and leaders of churches, of which I was one, are causing more suffering than I cared to admit. I was also far more culpable than I let myself believe. It’s easy in large organizations to disperse the guilt to everyone but yourself, thinking you’re better, you’re different, you’re balanced and reasonable.

The true extent of my knowledge and compassion was that I sometimes felt guilty, and in my attempts at better understanding I had read two books on the subject. They were both non-affirming opposed. How I could be so selfish? The answer is terribly simple. I wanted to belong.

Already, I have had people dismiss my views on same-sex relationships because of my own orientation. The accusation is that I’m selfish. I just want to do what I want to do. I’m sure I am many things, and I’m sure I have lots of ways I need to grow, but affirming my sexuality and the sexuality of other LGBT people is a sign of spiritual growth, and doing so was not a selfish act.

Losing my career, risking loss of family, testing every relationships that has sustained me from my childhood, and becoming an outsider in the church I’ve spent my life serving was the cost I paid. I paid it gladly because I saw I pure vision of God, the gospel, and compassion. It gave me great joy, enough to sell all I had to attain it. It was not selfishness. Selfishness kept me in the closet for years, and it was compassion that finally brought me out.

Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret the Bible. I love hermeneutics. For a long time I believed good hermeneutics would save us in the end. That hope has had a slow and painful death. We have lofty ideas of how we can learn to interpret scripture and clear up all our controversy, but that isn’t the way it happens historically. In the real world, hermeneutics are usually the way the church justifies itself after the fact.

Revolutionary Telescope

Take for example the telescope that changed the world. When Galileo looked at the solar system through the telescope he invented, what he saw demanded a new understanding of the universe and our own part in it. It’s easy to forget now, but at the time Galileo’s claim that the earth rotated around the sun and not the other way around was an existential crisis for the church. At least they thought so.

These new theories about the universe were contradicted several passages of scripture. Making way for Galileo’s theory meant making way for new ways of understanding scripture. In other words, new hermeneutics.

Galileo was a deeply religious man and advocated for new approaches. He suggested that passages speaking about the sun standing still in the sky could be understood figuratively instead of literally. The church rejected this idea as undermining the authority of scripture.

They didn’t reject it because of strict literalism, but because for many centuries the church taught a cosmology that conflicted with the heliocentric model.

They believed in concentric circles above and below our world, traveling deeper into hell below and higher into heaven above. The sun was in one of the heavenly levels. If you’re familiar with Dante’s inferno, you’ll recognize his description of levels leading deeper into hell. They believed the universe was best represented by layers, not orbiting planets, and they believed the Bible taught this. And taken literally, they have a pretty good point.

Changing cosmology seemed like a threat to more than just their current way of doing things. It was a threat to scripture itself. If they were to accept that the earth rotates around the sun, where would it all end? Would all credibility be stripped from the Bible?

But they were wrong. Christianity and the Bible turned out to be more resilient than they thought. Their attempts to protect and defend the scripture did more damage in the end when the church lost credibility.

History On Repeat

Again and again this pattern repeated through history. Political ideas about the equality of all people lead to freedom for slaves. Women were given the right to vote as the understanding that they are equal to men in intelligence and capacity as human beings became undeniable. All these changes were hailed by traditionalists as threats to the authority of scripture. They were wrong, though.

It continues in our day. There is a steady erosion of patriarchy and some traditional churches are try desperately to maintain some vestige of the fading system. They say that men are still the leaders, and women are still the followers. They claim the Bible teaches this, and that if we stop believing it, we will no longer have any trust in the Bible. But are they right? Have these claims ever been right?

We must stop this destructive pattern. It is unacceptable for the church of God to continue standing in the way of the work of God in the world.

Things Change, and the Bible Remains

When it comes to specifics, the Bible has shown itself to be more flexible than we realize. After history marches on, God’s people accept new revelations. Then scholars come and explain why these changes were also hermeneutically sound. But hermeneutics don’t drive change.

Living as we do, confined to a moment in history, it’s hard to see it without looking back. And when we look back, we tend to look back from our point of view, and not understand theirs. We shake our heads at those silly Catholics, most of whom didn’t even look through Galileo’s telescope to see the obvious. We don’t do them justice. They were afraid these new understandings would undermine the faith itself. What looks tertiary to us seemed central to them.

By taking a compassionate view towards those who resisted change, we quickly learn the most important lesson there is to learn about hermeneutics: Hermeneutics are better at making room for the past than they are at making room for the future.

Stepping out of our time, and seeing through another vantage point shows us that what seems unchangeable isn’t. Things can change. Things must change. It will be okay.

It isn’t until after their inevitable changes occur that theologians look back, the quintessential armchair quarterbacks, and explain to us how the real problem all along was our interpretation of scripture. So they devise new hermenetics. They teach us new ways of interpreting the scriptures that make way for the changes that have already happened without undermining the authority of the scripture.

But did Galileo do what he did because his interpretive strategy was better? Or because of his insatiable desire to see and understand God’s creation? Did abolitionists in America work to free the slaves because they had a superior hermeneutic? Or because they excelled in compassion? Was any of this really a theological debate at all? Obviously not.

Real Faithfulness to Scripture

Traditionalists are concerned with loyalty to what the church has always taught and believed. They focus on protecting these beliefs against any change that might be threatening. New ways of living and thinking pose a threat to the system, so they defend the old ways. But by defending against these fresh invasions that seem so central at the time, they miss out on what really is central in the teachings of scripture.

In all these cases, the church in its fear of change allowed a rigid understanding of a few Bible verses to undermine the most important principles of scripture. They lost their way. They lost their heart. In their desire to defend the scriptures, they ignored them.

The only reason we have a church to defend is because of people like Galileo, Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, MLK, and so many others who were heretics and radicals in their day. Jesus told the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that though they venerate the prophets now, they would have killed them, and nothing has changed.

The radicals and reformers harmonized with the Bible all along. Motivating these social changes was a deeper understanding of the true principles and values of scripture. Love. Justice. Compassion. Hope. Truth. The creation of all people in the image of God. What are our petty fears in the face of such as these?

Hermeneutics can’t save us from our fears. Only love can. Because love is the true heart of the Bible. A biblical approach to any topic must be drenched in the uncompromising love of God.

If you’re paying attention, you might realize that I just pulled a switch on you, because what I’m proposing is not no hermeneutics, but new hermeneutics. What motivates our understanding of scripture shouldn’t be a desire to defend it’s credibility, but a desire to live out it’s core principles. Religious leaders of old should not be our models in understanding scripture. Prophets, radicals, and reformers should be.

How do we keep from using hermeneutics to serve the status quo, ignoring the pain our theology causes and stubbornly insisting that our rigid interpretations are correct?

We reorder our hermeneutical priorities around compassion and justice. We think long and hard about the lives of people who will be impacted by our theology. We stop getting caught up in the weeds of literalism and reach instead for the principles of scripture that were prioritized by Jesus. This is biblical hermeneutics. We get so caught up in love, compassion, grace, and truth that we forget we were ever afraid.