Where I Stand Now (Concluding Thoughts on ‘The Missing Myth’)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at the complicated relationship between the Scriptures and various people who fall under the general ‘queer’ umbrella. Now in this last post, I have the difficult task of putting the pieces together. First let’s remind ourselves of where we’ve been:

From re-examining the creation story we saw that gender is not primordial, that the original Adam contained both the male and female aspects of humanity within, and that both male and female are created in the image and likeness of God. The creation of Eve was the result of Adam’s loneliness and need for an equal partner, one who was ‘bone of his bone’. We also saw that patriarchy is explicitly described as part of the fallen order. The creation story was also a jumping-off point for an exploration of what the Bible has to say about sex; there we saw that — as beautiful as the symbol of the potential for new life in sex is — the Bible never once suggests reproductive intent as a rationale for sex and in fact consistently downplays the the role of sex in procreation. Instead, sex is described as a hearkening back to and participation in humanity’s original unity. It’s the overcoming of aloneness and alienation and a source of communion and joy.

Looking at the stories of David and Jonathan and Ruth and Naomi, we saw that while they do not portray ‘gay’ relationships as we think of them today, these stories nonetheless show and celebrate the committed, self-sacrificial love between persons of the same sex, a love that is expressed in word, in deed, and in covenant. Using the queer-adjacent case of eunuchs and the bigger, community-identity-shifting case of Gentiles as studies, we also saw places where the Scriptures change their mind and end up welcoming people once considered to be outside the community of faith.

With tongue planted firmly in cheek, we also explored some ways in which the role queer people seem to play in society mirrors that of the Holy Spirit. And, we saw places where the broader Christian tradition, as restrictive as it has historically been, nonetheless celebrated same-sex relationships (however these were conceived), gender-nonconforming individuals, and in at least one shocking case, erotic queer joy.

Then last week, we spent a lot of time with the texts that have been used, historically and today (for they are not the same texts) to justify excluding queer people, and particularly gay and lesbian people, from full participation in the life of the Church. While these are complicated texts that require a lot of nuance, essentially we have:

  • one text that describes a situation far from the loving same-sex relationships gay Christians experience, that the Bible itself interprets as being about the violation of vulnerable people. and was not interpreted as being about homosexuality until hundreds of years later;
  • two texts from a part of the Bible that we have good Gospel reasons for not applying, and which the Scriptures themselves show to be to some extent negotiable and provisional;
  • two texts from the Epistles that rely on highly questionable interpretations of two pieces vocabulary, one of which is a broad term that describes an attitude towards life and only by extension touches on sex (both heterosexual and homosexual), and the other of which we really don’t know what it meant; and
  • most importantly, one text from the Epistles that makes use of the ‘pop philosophy’ of its day as part of a bigger argument that we’re all in the same position before God.

Some of this evidence seems to be contradictory. We’ve seen, for example a creation story that seems to stress male and female equality, but also Scriptures that reflect deeply patriarchal attitudes; we have Scriptures that promote a big vision where all are welcome, but also Scriptures that go out of their way to exclude people. What’s going on here? And what are to make of this? I think a likely solution is that the stories of the Bible have always been more ‘progressive’ than the cultures that have created, treasured, and promulgated them. There’s never been a ‘conservative’ prophet — the myth-makers, storytellers, visionaries, and prophets have always shone the light towards the revelation of God’s loving, gracious welcome. Where things get bogged down in very finite cultural values is when we’ve tried to codify and regulate how to live this vision out. (It’s telling that the two most ‘conservative’ figures in the Bible, who go against the grain of so much of the prophetic legacy, are a legal scholar (Ezra) and a politician (Nehemiah).) And I think this same tendency explains why later interpreters came to give Genesis 19, which the Bible says is about injustice against the vulnerable, an anti-homosexual spin, and why more recent Bible translations have tended to give the general term malakos a specifically anti-gay spin and to translate arsenokoites as though it were an explicit reference to homosexuality, when all we can legitimately conclude from the limited evidence is that it describes some form of abusive behaviour.

But where does all this leave us? Let’s work through some thought experiments to explore some options.

First, let’s surmise that, taking Paul’s cue and looking at the world around us and finding homosexuality throughout the animal world, homosexuality is part of God’s created intent for the world. This would indeed be good news for queer folk. But, this would mean that, following the biblical narrative, it too suffered the consequences of the Fall, and is thus just as much liable to sinful expression as any other part of human personality and relationships. In this situation, queer folk — just like everyone — would need to be careful how we use our sexuality, since it is easy to ‘sin’ sexually. Sexual sin is easy not because sex is bad but because there are so many ways in which we can fail to show up for a partner in our sexual relationships, for example through distraction, selfishness, or self-consciousness, to say nothing of rape, sexualized violence, coercion, or abuse. In the ‘redeemed order’, this is clarified in the ‘Kingdom’ principles Paul provided the Corinthian Church: all may be permitted, but is it edifying? all may be permitted, but am I being dominated by this? (1 Corinthians 6.12). We are called to use our sexuality as much as anything else, to bear good fruit and to build up, and not in ways that perpetuate the bonds of the ‘old ways’ of ‘this world’. The call to fruitfulness is particularly relevant for queer folk; since the reproductive possibility is off the table for us biologically, we have a particular vocation to ensure our lives, including our sex lives, bear fruit in other ways.

Now, let’s imagine instead that, judging the Levitical laws and the Romans 1 story as an accurate reflection of God’s intention, homosexuality is itself a consequence of sin and representative of the fallen order. Where does this leave us? This is the ‘born in prison’ situation. If this is the case, there are three possible ways forward: ‘healing’, celibacy, or trying to limit the problem by directing it within a committed marriage-like relationship. As the experience of millions of queer folk and the gross failure of reparative therapy and ‘ex-gay’ movements show, the ‘healing’ option is at most very very rare, and efforts to accomplish such an end often do a lot of damage that can take decades to undo. If, as it seems, God isn’t really interested in ‘healing’ homosexuality, celibacy is then the ‘best option’; but, celibacy is also very hard and a rare gift. It was always maddening to me in my Orthodox days to see the double standard when it came to celibacy; the Church would go out of its way to dissuade men from becoming monks because celibacy is such a hard thing for most people, yet once it found out you were gay, its message was that to reject celibacy would be to show that you’re obsessed with sex. If celibacy is not a reasonable solution for most straight people, then it’s also not a reasonable solution for most gay people. That would leave committed, marriage-like relationships as the best option. This would recognize that these relationships do not reflect the fullness of God’s intent for humanity but are essentially harm-reduction strategies. In this line of thought, gay marriage within the Church would be a kind of pastoral accommodation, what the Christian East refers to as a ‘penitential marriage’, an idea it has used for a thousand years for second marriages. While hardly a rousing welcome for same-sex relationships in the Church, the funny thing about this is that it’s really not far from how Paul talked about marriage itself in 1 Corinthians 7, particularly for widows, but more generally as well! Marriage may be an icon of the Kingdom of God, but it’s a damaged and partial one, which Paul thought was second-best. And so, even in this thought experiment, all people, queer or straight, Gentile or Jewish, male or female and everything in between, are in the same boat before God. (Which is, as we saw, the ultimate conclusion Paul was arguing towards in Romans 1-3!)

There’s a third scenario I’d like to undertake here, that doesn’t take any position as to homosexuality’s origins, since that’s ultimately an unanswerable question. It starts instead from our relationship to the the tradition and its gate-keepers, and uses the case study (which I mentioned in passing last week) of the daughters of Zelophehad from Numbers 27 as a kind of template. These women came to Moses with a problem: Their father had died without male heirs and the Law God had given the people through Moses contained no provision for daughters in such a situation. They were about to lose everything, including their name. So they approached Moses, before the whole gathered assembly, and plead their case: “Why should the name of our father be taken away from his clan because he had no son? Give to us a possession among our father’s brothers” (Numbers 27.4). Moses brings their case before God and God says: “The daughters of Zelophehad are right in what they are saying; you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance” (27.7). Here we have a story where a group of people who were forgotten or pushed aside under God’s Law brought their complaint before God and God saw that their case was just and changed the Law to make provision for them.

I think this is a great analogy for where queer folk of all stripes are at right now with the Church, and society at large. The traditions that we’ve all received don’t have room for us. We’ve committed to following Christ and have experienced the transforming work of the Spirit and yet our queerness has not changed. We’ve tried all the traditional pathways for us and found that they are dead ends. They bear bad fruit of poor mental health, broken relationships, and spiritual desolation, and leave us as outcasts in our own families, communities, and faith communities. And so we’re coming before the Church and before God pleading our case, trusting that God will see us and hear us. And we have good, Gospel reason to believe that God does. For, God heard the outcast Hagar and blessed her son Ishmael even though he was not the child of promise. For God heard the case of the daughters of Zelophehad and found that their case against the Law was just. For God welcomed the eunuchs whom the Law excluded and gave them, within God’s house, “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.” For God sent the Holy Spirit upon the household of Cornelius and convinced Peter that God welcomed even the Gentiles, just as they were, despite the fact that all of the legal, narrative, and theological precedents were against them. Our God is a God who sees and hears the outcast and the marginalized and who welcomes them into the family.

And I find room for this welcome not because I want to ‘explain away’ the Scriptures but because I want to uphold them. I want to fulfill the creative imperative of Genesis 1 by bearing as much good fruit in my life as I can. I want to avoid the ‘sin of Sodom’ by standing up for the vulnerable and, as Micah put it, working for justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly before God. I want to fulfill the spirit of the Law by not using sex as a tool of oppression, humiliation, or degradation. I want to live into 1 Corinthians 6.9 by not being malakos, by being serious about my life and behaviour and not passively blown about by my every whim and appetite, and though we don’t know what arsenokoites means, I feel comfortable leaning into many of the likely candidates, such as by ensuring my relationships don’t abuse power (as per many of the early English translations of the verse) and avoiding any semblance of transactional sexuality (as per the ties to prostitution demonstrated in many of the early Latin translations). And I want to live into Romans 1.18-32 by, by God’s grace, seeking to understand God through the created world, through purifying my mind through repentance, prayer, and practicing the teachings of Christ, by avoiding excess in all things, including my sexuality, and, ultimately, by reminding myself that I am a sinner, just like everyone else, and dependent on God’s grace, just like everyone else.

I believe that God is good. I believe that God is love. I believe that God is just. And so, I believe that when I meet my maker, God will welcome me with open arms — no matter what the Church decides about me — and that by my values, my commitments, and the quality of my life and the fruit that it bore, I will have by God’s grace a good defense before the ‘dread judgment seat of Christ’ and that Christ will say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’