Can a Person Be Both Gay and Christian?
This article was written by Rev. Dr. Kari Tolppanen (read in Finnish here). After discussing the issues whether a person is homosexual by choice, why some people are homosexual and whether a homosexual person can become a heterosexual person, the author focuses on theological issues and concludes that a person can be both gay and Christian.
Kari holds a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto and a M.Div. degree from ACTS Seminaries in Trinity Western University, Canada.
Is a person homosexual by choice?
Is a person homosexual by choice? We get different answers to this question depending on whom we ask.
If you ask homosexuals this question, the answer is clear: no homosexual chooses his/her sexual orientation. Who would be foolish enough to choose to become gay when the life for homosexuals is so much harder than for heterosexuals? Gay people are often teased at school. In numerous cases, homosexuals’ own families and friends distance themselves and even reject them. Getting a job is often more difficult for gay people than for straight people. And, gay people may lose their job when their orientation is discovered. Often heterosexuals look at homosexuals with contempt and may also express their aversion to them verbally. In some countries, gay people are persecuted, imprisoned and even sentenced to death. Homosexuals rightly ask who would choose this.
The vast majority of homosexuals figure out they are gay during puberty, when their attractions start to stir in them. While heterosexual young people have heterosexual dreams, homosexual young people have homosexual dreams. When heterosexual young people notice beautiful people of the opposite sex, homosexual young people spot beautiful people of their own sex. Seeing the beauty of the opposite sex causes arousal for straight people, while seeing the beauty of the same sex causes the same reaction for gay people. For many gay people, even the thought of having sex with the opposite sex feels as disgusting as it would for straight people having sex with the same sex.
For many young homosexual people, the realisation of their sexual orientation comes as a shock. In most cases, accepting this takes years. Some can admit this to themselves only at a mature age. A few are never capable of this. People’s internal control mechanism is extremely strong in some cases.
When you ask heterosexual people whether a homosexual orientation is a choice, their answers are not always as clear as homosexual people’s answer. The vast majority of westerners seem to realize now that sexual orientation is not a choice and therefore homosexuals should be allowed to marry or officially register their relationships. However, many disagree, especially in Christian circle. They often refer to Paul’s statement that homosexuals have “exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones” (Rom. 1:26–27, NIV). Paul’s words, however, are in deep conflict with gay people’s experience if Paul’s words are understood to mean that homosexuals have voluntarily exchanged their sexual orientation. As I pointed out earlier, it would be foolish to become a homosexual voluntarily, because the life of a homosexual is often much harder than that of a heterosexual.
Some Christians do believe that sexual orientation cannot be chosen, but that this still does not give gay people permission to live in accordance with their orientation in a legal and committed relationship. This view, however, causes a difficult theological and practical problem. In 1 Cor. 7:7–8, Paul wishes that all unmarried Christians would remain unmarried as he is. But, as a realistic person, he realizes that God has not granted the gift of celibacy to everyone. For this reason, he instructs the Corinthians that if the unmarried and the widows cannot control their sexual impulses, “they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (7:9). Paul understood that it is better to marry than to live tormented by sexual passions because they would easily lead to promiscuity and relationships without commitment.
But, what about homosexuals to whom God has not bestowed the gift of singleness and celibacy? Confronted with this question, the logic of many Christians starts to fall apart. Their counsel to gay people is that although Paul allowed heterosexual single people to marry, this counsel cannot be applied to gay people. According to them, homosexuals must remain celibate for the rest of their lives. However, many gay people have the same desire to live in a loving relationship like heterosexual people do.
Joe, an American friend of mine, used to work in a leadership position at the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention. When Joe revealed his homosexual orientation to his leaders, they told him they allow him to continue his job if he promised in writing to remain celibate for the rest of his life. Joe said he was ready to sign this paper if his co-workers were also required to sign it. For some strange reason, none of his coworkers were ready to do this. Joe said that it was unfair that only he was required to make such a promise. Today Joe is happily married to a man.
Some readers may object and say that many heterosexual people must also live as singles because they have not found a spouse. This is true, but there is a difference: heterosexuals are allowed to live in hope until their last breath that one day they will find a prince or princess of their life. This hope carries them forward. Some people do not want to give this same hope to homosexuals.
Why are some people homosexuals?
No one can provide a definite answer to this question. Some Christians believe that no one is born homosexual, but that some people choose to be homosexual. Among the great number of homosexuals whom I know, I do not know anyone who agrees with this view. Nor have I ever heard of any heterosexuals who work among homosexuals who claim that homosexuals have chosen their sexual orientation. This view is usually held by people whose knowledge of homosexuality is very minimal and they do not know any homosexuals personally.
According to one theory, early childhood growth environment and experiences are the reason why some people become homosexuals. For example, if the father is cold and distant, his son may look for a substitute father in other men whom he eroticises, especially if the son was sexually abused when he was young. I regarded this as a potential explanation for a long time, but the validity of this theory started to break down when I discussed this with people from different backgrounds. Many of my heterosexual friends have grown up in broken families where the father drank and was violent, and yet, these friends of mine are totally heterosexual. In some other cases, other men tried to sexually abuse my friends and yet they still turned out to be heterosexuals.
On the other hand, many of my homosexual friends have grown up in good and loving families and yet they turned out to be homosexuals. This is true in my case too.
Many scholars are now inclined to believe that genetic reasons or hormonal changes during pregnancy may explain why some people’s children are homosexuals. Several studies seem to support this theory. This would also explain why most gay people feel that they have been homosexual since their childhood. This would also explain why homosexuality occurs in other species as well.
Can a homosexual person become a heterosexual person?
In the western world, there are numerous Christian ex-gay organisations that are usually led by people who describe themselves as ex-gay. The goal of these organisations is to help homosexuals to move towards heterosexuality. Gay people are encouraged through therapy and prayer to reject their homosexual identity and behaviour. Almost all leaders and members of these organisations eventually admit that even after many years of therapy, their sexual orientation has not changed or has changed only a little. They still have homosexual dreams. Seeing a naked person of the same sex arouses them much more than one of the opposite sex. Still, they want to call themselves ex-gay because they do not engage in homosexual sex, or if they do fall into temptations, they want to rid themselves of that kind of behaviour. In other words, they call themselves ex-gay — not because they have zero homosexual feelings, but because they do not want to be homosexuals — usually for religious reasons.
Exodus International was, until 2013, the biggest Christian ex-gay organization. Thousands of people attended their events annually. The organization also acted as an umbrella organization for a number of other similar organizations. In 2013, Exodus closed its doors. The board of the organization decided to close down its activities when it was discovered how few lasting results Exodus International had actually achieved. Many of the active members had left the organization in despair because they had not experienced a promised change in sexual orientation. Alan Chambers, the last president of the organization, admitted in an interview that 99.9% of the homosexuals he knew had not experienced a change in their sexual orientation.
I know homosexuals who have married people of the opposite sex in hopes that marriage would change their sexual orientation. However, I do not know of any in which this change has actually happened. Some of these gay friends of mine live in a relatively happy marriage with the opposite sex, but often the spouse is more like a good friend to them than a spouse in the usual sense of the word.
Some of these friends of mine are at least physically faithful to their spouses, but not necessarily mentally faithful. When making love, they close their eyes and imagine that they are making love with a person of the same sex. Some fall into extramarital relationships.
The leader of a Christian organization once shared his struggle with me. Many regard him and his family as idyllic, but the reality is a different story. In his weak moments, my friend has had casual sex with men even though he has a genuine desire to avoid them. In recent years, he has become a vocal opponent of homosexuality. My interpretation is that with his resolute attitude, my friend is desperately attempting to strengthen his own moral spine in order to keep himself from falling. I would not be surprised if his story ends up going the same way as that of Chris, another good friend of mine.
Chris realized early in his youth that he was gay, but he wanted to somehow get rid of his feelings. He married a woman, hoping that his homosexual feelings would go away. For a while, things went relatively well. At one point, Chris even believed that his homosexuality had finally gone away even though he still did not desire sex with his wife. Emotionally, however, Chris and his wife were connected and close to each other. Chris was faithful to his wife.
After graduating from university, Chris first worked as a teacher, then as a vice principal, and later as the director of a large Christian nursing home until his retirement. Being absorbed in his work helped him suppress his homosexual feelings, but then his health started to fall apart. His ex-wife told me that Chris started to have unexplained blackouts. Three times he was taken to the hospital by ambulance. Once she found her husband half-conscious on the floor. Chris’ family believed that he would soon die. The doctors performed hundreds of tests, but no explanation for the blackouts was found. At this point, Chris decided to tell his wife about his homosexual orientation. This came as a shock to his wife, but in the end, she accepted the fact. After many discussions, they decided to divorce on good terms. Today Chris lives in a committed relationship with a male and his health is normal once again. He is a happy man.
Everything is possible for God. He can even change stones to bread. However, the fact remains that it is more difficult to find a needle in a haystack than for a person to experience a real and lasting change in his or her sexual orientation.
The purpose of all moral commandments of the Bible is to help people to realise what is best for them. According to Jesus, all biblical moral teaching is crystallised in one sentence: Love your God above everything and your neighbour as yourself (Matt. 22:37). Paul is on the same page when he writes that all the commandments of the law stem from one commandment, which is: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Rom. 13:9). For this reason, one who loves one’s neighbour has fulfilled the requirements of the law (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14).
If I love God above all things, then I will not be willing to bow down to other gods — created or man-made — and to regard them as the highest authority in my life. If I love my neighbour as myself, then I will not speak disparagingly of others, set myself above others, treat others as second class citizens, demonise or threaten others. If I love myself, I will avoid everything that could harm me spiritually, emotionally or physically. If the double / triple-edged commandment of love is the guiding principle of our lives, then we do not even need the other laws and regulations, because the principle of love guides our actions and choices. The Old Testament laws and New Testament instructions are merely examples of what loving God, others and ourselves look like in practice. Not all moral commandments, however, are eternal and universal, even if God would have given them in certain historical circumstances. Some of them are clearly cultural- and time-dependant. Some may even express the moral views of the ancient Israelites more than God’s absolute will. I will come back to this in more detail later.
With respect to the debate about gay marriage, people in opposite camps have shown very little real love for each other. It is sad to see how few Christians have shown any desire to see the issue from the perspective of homosexuals. They do not want to explore the subject or to know any gay people. The only thing that homosexuals hear from the mouths of these people is condemnation and disapproval. These Christians are today’s Pharisees who cling to their view of the Bible’s teaching, but forget what is most important in the law: mercy, justice and faithfulness (Matt. 23:23). They tie up heavy loads and put them on homosexuals’ shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them (Matt. 23:4). They believe they know what is best for homosexuals even though they may not know any homosexual people personally. I constantly hear stories about how cruel some Christians are towards homosexuals. Some parents abandon their gay children and many churches kick out gay people. No wonder many homosexuals have a very hostile attitude towards Christians and regard them as the worst kind of Pharisees.
Many homosexuals feel that in order to love themselves, to be mentally healthy and happy, they have to accept themselves as being different and live accordingly. Does this mean that homosexuals should have casual sex partners? Certainly not. Promiscuity, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual, cannot be justified by the principle of loving your neighbour because casual sex, in one way or another, always harms the individuals involved. But it is also true that many gay Christians who have accepted their sexuality and have decided to live in a committed relationship with another person of the same sex feel deep happiness and contentment. One example is my friend Chris who I mentioned above. Today he is genuinely a very happy and balanced Christian.
Not all biblical moral rules are eternal and universal:
I argued above that not all moral commandments in the Bible are eternal and universal. Some of them reveal what was regarded as loving and acceptable behaviour during the time and culture when the commandments were given, but they are not universally applicable throughout the ages. I will give a few examples.
Marriage with close relatives: The law of Moses bans the next-of-kin marriages. A man was not allowed, for example, to marry his brother’s wife even after the death of her husband (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). However, there was an astonishing exception to this rule. If a man’s brother died without a male heir, the man’s duty was to sleep with his brother’s wife and provide a child for her (Deut. 25:5–10). This was required even if the man already had a wife. According to our moral standards, this kind of practice would be unthinkable. If a pastor encouraged this kind of behaviour today, he would immediately be called down from the pulpit. However, when we consider this law of Moses in light of the social structure and context of the ancient Israelites, this law reflects the principle of loving one’s neighbour. The purpose of this law was to protect the rights of the widow and guarantee that properties would not be monopolised by the few and rich. This law, however, cannot be regarded as universal and eternal even if we believe that it was given by God. This law was also not new. Even before the law of Moses was given, the Israelites (Gen. 38:1–10), as well as the pagan nations living around them, observed it. This practice, which according to our moral standards is objectionable, was widely accepted in the ancient world. The law of Moses, therefore, was a gracious concession to the already prevailing practice. This law is not repealed in the New Testament and yet Christians believe that we do not need to follow it.
The next-of-kin marriage ban in the law of Moses is in an interesting conflict with the creation story. If we believe literally in the biblical creation story, we are forced to conclude that Eve and Adam’s children married each other. This, however, was sinful in the light of the law which God gave Moses later. Did God act against his moral principles by creating the human race so that Adam and Eve’s children had no choice but to marry each other? This and other similar inconsistencies around moral issues in the Bible lead us to a very difficult question.
The vast majority of Christians believe that God’s character is immutable. He is the same yesterday, today and for ever (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Jas 1:17). Our moral perceptions can change, but to God, black is always black and white is always white. How then is it possible that God seems to change his moral instructions in the Bible?
There are three options for interpretations: (1) God and his moral standards are not, in fact, immutable. In this sense, he is like we human beings who change. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which God seems to change his mind (e.g. Gen. 6:6; Exo. 32:11–14; 2 Sam. 24:15–16). The adoption of this option, however, is impossible for me and for the vast majority of Christians because — if God could change — he would no longer be God with a capital G. (2) Biblical moral instructions are believers’ views of what kinds of behaviour God regards as right or wrong. Because people’s perceptions of what is in accordance with the will of God can change over the course of history, we find conflicting moral instructions in the Bible. (According to this view, the fact that people’s views about God change also explains why God seems to change his mind in the Bible). (3) God has only one core moral principle — human beings must love their Creator above everything and their neighbours as themselves — but he graciously adapts this principle in varying ways depending on the cultural and historical circumstances of humankind. Let’s take the creation story as an example. If we believe the creation story is literal, we could speculate that in the beginning God allowed next-of-kin marriages because there were no genetic risk factors for humankind immediately after creation. Marriages between close relatives, however, were later banned when the abundance of birth defects became apparent. God’s character did not change, but what was regarded as an appropriate action according to “love your neighbours” was graciously adapted by God in new historical circumstances.
In my opinion, neither of the two last interpretation options above should be ruled out. Perhaps we can find both examples in the Bible.
The following examples will also show that not all biblical moral regulations are eternal and universal.
Slavery: Slavery has been practised since the beginning of humankind. The law of Moses, which was given by God, allowed the Israelites to keep slaves. It made a relatively clear distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish slaves. The Israelites were allowed to be kept in slavery for up to six years, after which time they became free (Exo. 21:1–8). The Jewish slaves, who are called servants in many translations, were not allowed to be treated cruelly in an arbitrary manner (Lev. 25:43). It seems that the law also obligated the Israelites to treat their non-Jewish slaves better than they were treated in many surrounding nations. The New Testament does not speak against slavery. Even some Christians had slaves (Philemon), but they had to treat them well.
Slavery was not necessarily seen as evil in ancient Israelite society. Its purpose was to help impoverished Jews survive (Lev. 25:39–41). From this perspective, slavery was an expression of love towards vulnerable people in Jewish society. This moral law is not repealed in the New Testament and yet modern Christians regard slavery as extremely immoral and an unchristian practice in the modern world. A pastor who defends slavery today would not be regarded as a real Christian. This example shows again that not all moral concepts are considered unchanging even among God’s people.
Would God allow Christians to have slaves in the current historical and social context although slavery is considered to be contrary to the moral standards of the civilised world? Hardly. Christians who kept slaves today would be miserable witnesses of God’s love. Newspapers would write about them in a very negative way and people would laugh at their testimony. If this argument is true, it strengthens the view that God will often work within the moral values of a given society if these values are not in a stark contrast with his core moral principle (i.e., people should love their Creator above everything else and their neighbours as themselves).
Female ministers: Ancient Jewish society was very patriarchal. Against this background, it is remarkable that Deborah, a female judge and prophet whose responsibility was to instruct and judge people according to the law of Moses, became the spiritual leader of the Israelites (Judges 4 and 5). In light of the Book of Judges, there is no doubt that God had called and gifted Deborah to be a teacher (Judges 4:4–5). However, according to Paul’s teaching, females are not allowed to be teachers. Both in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-38 and 1 Timothy 2:11–14, Paul uses strong words to ban females from speaking in the church. Paul claims that his instructions are the Lord’s commandment (1 Cor. 14:37), and supports his view theologically by referring to the creation story (1 Tim. 2:13–14) and the law of Moses (1 Cor. 14:34). Were Paul’s instructions divinely inspired? If they were, how is it possible that earlier God had appointed Deborah to be the teacher of the law of Moses? How can God support females in ministry at one point and then oppose it at another point?
One possible interpretation, as I already mentioned above, is that the statements about females’ suitability for spiritual leadership positions are views of the contemporaries of the biblical writers rather than revelations of God’s absolute will. Another possible interpretation of these conflicting statements is that God has nothing against female ministers, but he graciously works within cultural circumstances. In Roman and Jewish societies of Paul’s time, having female ministers would have scandalised people. Paul’s purpose was to avoid the development of a situation where the general society would start to see the church as a social protest movement. Paul instructed the Corinthian Christians, “Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32, NASB).
Polygamy: God created one wife for Adam, but soon polygamy became a common practice. Abraham (Gen. 25:6), Jacob, Gideon, David and Solomon had numerous wives and concubines. God does not condemn this practice at any point before giving the law of Moses. Neither does God ban nor condemn polygamy in the law he gave. At most, the law only regulates this practice and intends to improve the wife’s conditions within polygamy (Lev. 18:17; Deut. 17:17; 21:16–17). Among the Jews, polygamy continued until A.D. 1000 when a Jewish synod called Rabbeinu Gershom banned it. However, even after that, polygamy continued to be practised among some Jewish sects.
In Jesus’ time, King Herod the Great had at least ten wives. However, polygamy may not have been very common among ordinary Jews of that time (but see also Josephus, Ant. 17.1.2; Justin Martyr, Dial. 134). One of the main reasons for this might have been the fact that the Roman government, under which the Jews lived, had banned polygamy. Many Christians today assume that monogamy is an institution created by Christianity, but the reality is that monogamy was a law of the Roman Empire. The Romans regarded polygamy as a barbaric practice and therefore banned it before the birth of Christianity. Paul who worked as a missionary in the Roman Empire did not stand against the civic government on this issue. For this reason, he wrote to Timothy instructing that the overseer of a congregation must be the husband of but one wife (1 Tim. 3:2). Today the vast majority of people in the world regard polygamy as unthinkable. Again, any pastor who defended polygamy on a biblical basis in our present society would soon be unemployed.
In the ancient world, where there were frequent wars and there was no social security available for women, polygamy also had a positive side. During wars and following them, many women would have been in a really miserable situation, if the remaining males had been allowed to have only one wife. At least in this respect, polygamy was an expression of love for one’s neighbour at that time.
Once again this example demonstrates that moral issues are not always black and white even though some Christians try to argue this. According to our standards, polygamy is objectionable, but God was clearly willing to work with this custom as long as it was not in absolute conflict with the principle of love of neighbour.
Divorce and remarriage: The law of Moses, which was given by God, allowed divorce and remarriage with a new partner (Deut. 24:1–4). Paul allowed divorce in extreme cases, but not remarriage, except with the original spouse (1 Cor. 7:10–11). Bible scholars agree that Jesus considered remarriage as equal to fornication (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:3–12; Mark 10:2–12; Luke 16:18). They only debate whether Jesus gave permission for the so-called innocent party to remarry.
In light of these two different kinds of laws on divorce, Christians who believe that all biblical moral instructions are unchangeable and expressions of divine will may find themselves at an impasse. Appealing to the statement in Matt. 19:7–8 that Moses allowed divorce and remarriage only because of the hardness of people’s hearts does not solve the problem. We have to remember that, according to the traditional Jewish and Christian view, the law of Moses was given by God. How then is it possible that God, whose moral principles are unchangeable — as we believe — allowed the practice of fornication in the form of remarriage during the era of the law, but does not allow it any longer? In order to be consistent, we have to either reject our view of an unchangeable God or to find another logical explanation for the changes to the law. Finding an alternative logical explanation is not easy.
My own proposal is as follows. In his teaching, Jesus often used hyperbole to shock people and force them to think. For example, he taught that if our hand or eye tempts us, we should remove them from our body (Matt. 5:28–30). However, no one takes this teaching of Jesus so literally that they would cut off their body parts that cause temptation. Jesus uses an exaggerated figure of speech here in order to wake up his audience and get them to think about the consequences of sin.
Jesus also taught in his sermon on the Mount that his followers should never swear an oath (Matt. 5:33–37) even though the law of Moses allowed it (Num. 30). However, Paul did not interpret Jesus’ prohibition so literally that he would have never sworn an oath. He swears oaths and abjures in several occasions (Acts 18:18, compare with Num. 6:1–21; Acts 21:23–24; Rom. 1:9; 2 Cor. 1:23; Gal. 1:20; Phil. 1:8; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 5:21; 2 Tim. 4:1). Jesus used hyperbole and exaggerated language about this subject because people were abusing their freedom to swear oaths in his time.
Likewise, some of Jesus’ contemporaries divorced too easily. According to Hillel, a famous Jewish teacher and Pharisee who lived around 110 B.C. and A.D. 10, burning a meal was a good enough reason to divorce one’s wife.
Against this background, it is easy to understand why Jesus used such hyperbole about divorce and remarriage. However, in light of the examples above, I do not believe that divorce and remarriage are always absolutely wrong. Both the instruction of the law of Moses and of Jesus concerning divorce and remarriage can be defended on the basis of the principle of love of one’s neighbour, but the same cannot be said about Hillel’s view. No one should divorce and remarry lightly.
These examples show that not all of the biblical moral instructions are eternal and universal. They must always be interpreted in light of the historical and cultural circumstances of the time when they were given. If this is true regarding the issues of marriage, slavery and females in ministry as we have seen, why could we not apply this principle to homosexual relations as well? The only commandment that is eternal and universal is this: Love your God above all and your neighbour as yourself.
Biblical verses which condemn homosexuality:
The Bible has a few sections that speak of homosexual behaviour in a negative tone, or forbid it altogether. I shall discuss these sections only briefly in my article because there is a lot of good literature available about the interpretation of these sections. I would like to recommend Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, and Mark Achtemeier’s The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart. The former is written by a homosexual whereas the latter is written by a heterosexual.
Genesis 19:1–29: Almost everyone is familiar with the story about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. God destroyed these cities because of their wickedness. Many casual Bible readers believe that homosexual behaviour was the specific sin for which these cities were destroyed. However, according to the prophet Ezekiel, the sin of these cities was that they “were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me” (Eze. 16:49–50). Ezekiel does not say at least in plain language that homosexual behaviour was the cause of the destruction of these cities.
According to the Genesis story, all the men of Sodom tried to rape the angels who came in the form of males to visit Lot. Rape — heterosexual or homosexual — cannot be justified in any way through the principle of neighbour love. Heterosexual men have also carried out gang rapes, but no one uses this as an argument against heterosexual relationships. Likewise, the homosexual gang rape in the Sodom story should not be used against loving and monogamous homosexual unions.
Many Bible scholars have noticed that in the Genesis story, all the men of Sodom came to rape the angels who had appeared in the form of males. This is a strange statement. According to modern scientific studies, no more than 5–6% of the population identifies themselves as homosexually orientated. Even in San Francisco, which probably has the highest concentration of homosexuals in the present day, the percentage of homosexuals is not very high. In light of this fact, it is very unlikely that the men of Sodom wanted to rape the angels because all of them were homosexuals. Gang rape was a form of humiliation of the strangers. Similar cases can also be found elsewhere in history.
Judges 19 and 20: An unnamed Levite married a woman from Bethlehem. After some time, the woman ran away back to her father. The Levite went out to get her back. On the way back home, he and his companions went to Gibeah’s square hoping that somebody would invite them to stay overnight at their home. However, not one of the original inhabitants of the city welcomed them, which was unthinkable in that culture. At last, an old man who lived as a foreigner in the city came to the square and welcomed the Levite to stay overnight at his place. At night, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house and wanted to have sex with the Levite and kill him. The Levite escaped from the gang rape by handing over his concubine to the wicked men and they raped her throughout the night. The concubine died of her injuries.
It is very questionable to use this story against loving and monogamous homosexual unions. The behaviour of these wicked men cannot be defended in any way. Once again, when we read this story, we may wonder why the men wanted to rape the Levite. Obviously the original inhabitants of the city took a hostile attitude towards the Levite, seeing as none of them wanted to welcome him and his companions to stay overnight at their houses. Most likely the wicked men’s only intention was to humiliate the stranger; not to satisfy their homosexual desires. It is unlikely that these men actually were homosexuals because they were satisfied having sex with the Levite’s female concubine.
Leviticus 18:22; 20:13: Chapter 18 begins with God’s warning that the Israelites should not follow the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites (v. 3). Some, but not all of the practices listed in chapters 18 to 20 were directly related to idolatry. Chapters 18 and 20 focus especially on forbidden sexual relations. According to chapter 18, the forbidden practices are: (a) sex with close relatives (vv. 6–18), sex with one’s wife when she is having her period (v. 19), sex with one’s neighbour’s wife (v. 20); sacrificing children to the idol Molech (v. 21); sex with a person of the same sex (v. 22) and sex with animals (v. 23). Most of these prohibitions are repeated in chapter 20. The prohibition of incest can easily be defended through the principle of neighbour love. Children who are born from next-of-kin marriages often have genetic disorders.
One of the banned sexual relations was between siblings and half-siblings. According to the law of Moses, the marriage between siblings and half-siblings was so great a sin that both partners were to be executed (Lev. 20:17). Against this background, it is interesting that Abraham was married to his half-sister (Gen. 20:12) and this is not condemned in any way in the story of Abraham. Even God calls Sarah Abraham’s wife. If Abraham’s marriage with Sarah was a deadly sin, why did God never say anything about it to Abraham? On the contrary, according to Gen. 26:5, God himself testified that Abraham had followed his regulations and laws.
The law of Moses also banned a man from marrying his wife’s sister (Lev. 18:18). Once again, in light of this law, it is interesting that Jacob married both Leah and Rachel who were siblings. These women were also Jacob’s second cousins. Though this marriage was not always happy, it is also not directly condemned in any way. God continued working actively in the lives of Jacob, Leah (Gen. 29:31) and Rachel (Gen. 30:22).
These contradictions between the law of Moses and the earlier practices, which even God had accepted, present us with a difficult theological question. If God and his moral principles cannot change, why do we find different moral principles in the Bible that seem to have God’s approval? Do some of the moral instructions reflect the views of God’s people about what they believe to be God’s will rather than the actual will of God? Does God accept the practices and laws of a society so long as they are not in clear conflict with God’s core principle of love?
In this section of Leviticus, having sex with a person of the same sex is also banned. This prohibition can either be interpreted as an eternal and universal principle or as a limited one of which purpose was to correct certain ills in society. I support the latter option.
At the time of the giving of the law of Moses, temple prostitution was very common among the neighbouring pagan nations. There are several references to this practice in the Old Testament (e.g. Exo. 34:15–16; Deut. 23:17–18; 1 Kings 15:23–24; 15:12). There were both male and female prostitutes in the temples. There is no sure historical proof that these male prostitutes also offered services to males worshippers, but this is not entirely unlikely. However, it is certain, as we already learned above, that sometimes even heterosexual men disgraced and humiliated men by raping them. Pagan soldiers also raped enemy soldiers in order to humiliate them and slave masters raped their male servants.
Therefore, it is no wonder that in a historical context where there were no positive examples of committed, monogamous homosexual unions, the Jews’ view of homosexuality was very negative. The Hebrew verb shakab that is used in our verses for sex between people of the same sex is used elsewhere in the Old Testament for extramarital, casual sex (see R. Laird Harris, et al. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2, p. 921).
Promiscuity cannot be justified by the principle of neighbour love, but it is not logical, in light of everything said above, for Christians to condemn all homosexual relationships on the basis of these few verses in Leviticus.
Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10; Jude 7: Homosexuality was tolerated in Greek and Roman societies, but normally only in one form: a married man was allowed to use young boys for his sexual pleasure until the boys reached the age of marriage. After that, the relationship had to end. Once again, this kind of practice cannot be justified by the principle of love of one’s neighbour. Greco-Roman homosexual relations were not lifelong unions between two equal persons, but in them, the older, married man used younger boys for his sexual pleasure. Against this background, it is very understandable why Paul and Jude wrote very negatively about homosexuality in these verses. It is equated with debauchery. The Bible is against debauchery because it is a form of selfishness. It is not motivated by the desire to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
Because of the cultural context in which these verses were written, they cannot be used against current homosexual unions where two equal persons promise to love each other for better or for worse until death. In this kind of relationship, one is not using the other. The union is based on the principle of love of neighbourly love. This kind of love does not harm but heals people and brings inner peace. Many homosexuals who live in a faithful union have experienced this.
For further consideration:
According to Paul, all moral commands of the law stem from this command: love your neighbour as yourself (Rom 13:8–10; Gal. 5:14). However, there are some commandments and stories in the Old Testament which today are difficult, if not even impossible, to defend on basis of the love commandment. I will take, as an example, the commandment of the law of Moses to stone to death a family’s rebellious child (Deut. 21:18–21). In light of the teaching of the New Testament and our moral understanding, this commandment sounds totally inconceivable. Since there are no extant narratives, scriptural or otherwise, where this practice was followed, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that it was rarely or ever carried out. Not even David executed his disobedient and rebellious children.
In some Old Testament stories, God orders the Israelites to slay all enemies without mercy (e.g. 1 Sam. 15:2–3), but, in the New Testament, God is depicted as personified love (1 John 4:8,16) and Jesus exhorts his followers to love even those who hate them (e.g. Matt. 5:38–48; Rom. 12:20). Jesus also prohibits the use of all violence by his followers (Matt. 26:52). How is it possible that the same God, whose moral values remain unchanged, could give such contradictory orders?
It is even more difficult to comprehend how God, on the one hand, himself kills (e.g. Exo. 12:29–30; Lev. 16:27–33) or orders to kill (e.g. Lev. 31:17; Deut. 13:12–15; Joshua 8:1–2, 26; 1 Sam. 15:2–3; Hos. 13:16) the family’s innocent children together with their guilty parents, but says elsewhere that children should not be killed because of the sins of their parents (Deut. 24:16; Eze. 18:1–20). How can God, whose moral standards do not change, give such conflicting commandments? These and many other similar kinds of inconsistent moral instructions seem to indicate that not all of the biblical moral commandments are from God’s lips; rather they reflect moral standards of the contemporaries of the biblical era. If so, then we are perhaps justified to ask whether the sections which discuss homosexuality are God’s view or the Israelites’.
Consistency for interpretation:
I would invite those who oppose gay marriages to be consistent in their biblical interpretation. Today it is nearly impossible to find Christian leaders or lay Christians who oppose heterosexuals’ remarriage as vigorously as they oppose gay marriage. They are ready to bless the unions of divorced people or to be present in their weddings, but, at the same time, they would not attend same-sex weddings under any circumstances. And yet, if the view is taken that Jesus’s teaching on remarriage must be taken literally, this means that the blessing of the remarried couple is the blessing of an adulterous relationship. Many biblical scholars acknowledge that this is the logical conclusion we come to if we take Jesus’ words very literally. However, these same scholars also argue that remarriage is not a continuous state of adultery, especially if the couple regrets their action afterwards. Remarried heterosexual couples are let off the hook easily. In the interest of consistency, these couples should be treated as Ezra treated those Jewish men who had married foreign women. He ordered them to divorce because these kinds of marriages were against the law of Moses (Ezra 10). However, I do not support this kind of literalism (compare with Paul’s instructions for mixed-marriage couples in 1 Cor. 7:12–16). We can only imagine what chaos and agony this kind of literalism would lead in our society.
Many Christians show similar inconsistency on the issue of the female priesthood. As we considered above, it is quite clear that Paul did not accept women for teaching positions in the church and, yet, today we can find them in that position everywhere, even in Evangelical churches that oppose gay marriages. In the interest of consistency, these inconsistent churches should start to fight against remarriages and female priesthood as vigorously as they fight against gay marriages.
Those who oppose gay marriages argue that homosexual unions are against the order of creation because homosexual couples cannot produce children. It is true that homosexual couples cannot produce children, but God did not create Eve for Adam primarily to bear children. He created a spouse because it is not good for someone to be alone (Gen. 2:18). If the possibility of producing children were a condition for getting married, then to be consistent we should also prohibit marriages for women who have already reached menopause and for others who cannot have children or do not want to have children.
Many heterosexuals consider homosexual relationships objectionable and unnatural, but most homosexuals do not. Love between same-sex couples is as natural for homosexuals as love between opposite-sex couples is for heterosexuals. For many homosexuals, even the thought of having sex with the opposite sex seems disgusting. What seems natural depends on from which side of the fence the issue is considered. If we want to regard homosexual unions as being against the order of creation, then we have to remind ourselves that polygamy and slavery are also against the order of creation and yet God allowed them in the law that he gave through Moses.
Homosexuals have not chosen their sexual orientation. Many of them have the same desire as heterosexuals’ to live in a loving and faithful relationship.
Moral issues should always be approached and interpreted through the lens of love of the neighbour love commandment that Jesus gave. According to Paul, all of the biblical moral instructions stem from this commandment (Rom. 13:8–10). To say the same in negative terms, we should avoid all activities that harm ourselves or our neighbours. Because I cannot see how monogamous, faithful and loving homosexual unions could harm the partners, I also cannot find any logical theological arguments against gay marriages.
In the title of this article I asked whether a person can be gay and Christian at the same time. Some Christians argue that this is impossible. I must strongly disagree. I have attended countless gay Christian events. From time to time, the presence of God’s Spirit has been very evident in those events. Sometimes heterosexuals who have attended those events have told me with tears in their eyes that they have seldom before experienced anything similar. The Spirit still blows wherever he pleases. We can experience his presence and power, but we cannot control and limit him (Joh. 3:8). If the Spirit works among gay Christians, how can some churches kick them out of their churches?
The gay marriage issue divides Christians. In the same way, the issues of circumcision and food laws divided Christians in the apostolic era. Paul and his co-workers believed that circumcision of the heart had replaced circumcision of the flesh and that Christians did not need to observe the food regulations of the law of Moses, but the majority of the Jerusalemite Christians disagreed with Paul (Acts 21:17–36). Paul instructed Christians to accept different opinions and interpretations on those issues (Rom. 14 and 15). I hope the same kind of open-mindedness prevails in the discussion on same-sex marriage.