I recently wrote a few words on why I do not consider the Bible to be an authority on sexual orientation. However, after reading Al Mohler’s piece out today, “What the Bible Really Says About Sex – Really,” in which he criticizes Michael Coogan and Jennifer Wright Knust for being “liberals” and for not honestly interpreting the Bible in their respective recent books on sex and the Bible I decided I should spend a bit more time explaining my position.
With many states passing civil union laws allowing gay couples to receive some of the benefits of heterosexual married couples and other states legalizing gay marriage there is a large and often very heated debate of marriage. Many conservative Christians claim to have sole understanding of marriage and what it should be. The argument usually hearkens back to “biblical marriage.” That is, I have heard more conservative Christians than I can count say that “the biblical definition of marriage is between one man and one woman.” The truth of the matter, though, is that there is no consistent “biblical definition of marriage.” Many forms of marriage are evidenced in the Bible ranging from Levirate marriages, to the interesting cases of goels, to polygamy. The most common form of marriage that is spoken of in the Bible is polygamy, which is when one person is married to multiple people, in the case of the Bible this is always one man married to multiple women. To be clear, this is not spoken negatively of in the Bible, either. It is simple spoken of. It was their way of life and their was nothing evil or sinful about it.
Further, many point to the story of Adam and Eve as evidence for a “biblical definition of marriage.” There are numerous problems with this, not the least of which is the simple fact that the text nowhere speaks of Adam and Eve being “married.” To be sure, in the story they had sex and had children, but there is no marriage ceremony, there is no “institution of marriage.”
I am not surprised that so many conservative Christians overlook what the text actually says when it comes to marriage, but I am disappointed. The truth of the matter is that many American conservative Christians have equated a legal status granted by the state with a religious ceremony and think that their interpretation of the religious ceremony should hold sway over everyone in this country regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. This is not only a lack of respect for those who do not think like them, but also a grave lack of understanding of the world of the ancient Israelites coupled with copious amounts of special pleading and revisionist history to accompany their arguments.
In many ancient religions sex was celebrated. It was seen as a way to commune with the divine. This is a view that I rather appreciate, for there is no other action that so intertwines one with another physically and emotionally. Sex is actually a beautiful picture of communing with God if we can take the stigmas away from it. Nevertheless, sex has long been demonized by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Conservative Christianity has recently tried to change the long-espoused view of all things sexual as sinful by pushing the line that sex is actually a beautiful thing … so long as it only happens between a husband and wife. The Bible is stated as the authority for this view as well, but when I read the Bible I see many rules regarding sex (hello, Leviticus), but if we dismiss 99% of the Bible’s rules, which we do (mmmm….pepperoni pizza), then why do we insist that certain ones still be followed. What right do we have to pick and choose which ancient Israelite rules we think are worth maintaining? Further, the Bible does speak of adultery (sex with someone you’re not married to even though you are married) and fornication (most likely “sex outside of marriage”) as being sins, why do we uphold its perspective on these two acts, but dismiss it when it comes to our dietary habits, worship practices, etc.
Simply put, I think it is quite disingenuous to disregard the rules we don’t like or think are outmoded all the while promoting the ones that happen to line up with our particular worldview. Moreover, the Bible simply does not speak of many issues of sexuality yet many conservative Christians think they still have the right to define what is acceptable and what isn’t.
I have written about this before, but I will try to be more straightforward here than I may have been before. I am full aware of the statements about same-sex situations in Leviticus and Romans. However, I maintain that the social structure of the Bible simply did not know of what we now understand to be one’s sexual orientation. That is, while some men would have sex with younger men (boys?) they were not understood to be gay or homosexual. That is, they were understood to be straight men that were having sex with men. That was fully acceptable in many cultures, but was not in others (see Romans 1). Before I say “we know that most people do not choose to be gay” I will say a few words about the “it’s not natural argument.”
The most common argument I have heard against homosexuality is that it is not “natural.” This, though, is patently incorrect. We know now from numerous studies and extensive research that homosexuality – along with bisexuality and nonreproductive sexuality – are much more common among animals than many have been willing to accept. Animal species with significant rates of homosexuality include black swans, penguins, vultures, pigeons, amazon dolphins, elephants, giraffes, lions, sheep, lizards, fruit flies, etc. The fact of the matter is that the appeal to nature is not just flawed, it is completely false. The only other understanding of the “it isn’t natural” argument, then, is that it goes against what that specific person considers natural and, well, that is simply an opinion and would be a more honest one if he/she simply stated it that way.
So, now that we can agree that homosexuality is, in fact, “natural,” we can speak to homosexual humans. As you can imagine, a lot of research has been done on this issue and the majority of studies are finding that most homosexual people are in fact predisposed toward a certain sexuality (be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or somewhere in between). To be fair, studies have also shown that one’s environment can have an influence on their sexuality, but that even in these cases one’s sexuality is set by the time they go through puberty. That is, whether they were born that way or their environment influenced them or both, they did not choose to be gay.
Further, the way I usually try to help heterosexuals see the legitimacy of this argument is by asking them when they chose to be straight. Invariably, they tell me that they never chose to be straight, they were born that way. Welcome to the life of a homosexual. They, too, never chose to be gay, they simply are. Thus, since I fully believe that homosexuality is natural, I cannot accept any view that argues that homosexuals are inherently sinful (or more sinful, depending on your understanding of sin) people and that they cannot, for that reason alone, be a part of the people of God. I fully reject that view. Everyone, in my opinion, can be a part of the family of God. Moreover, I do not understand homosexuality to be a sin. How could simply being who you were born to be be wrong and sinful? Some will argue that they think people are born gay, but that it is still wrong, it is just a product of The Fall. I also reject that perspective for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the fact that my theology does not adhere to an Augustinian view of the sinfulness of humanity. Simply put, I do not believe in The Fall and I do think that people are inherently good, not inherently sinful. An etiology in Genesis that contains a talking serpent tricking Eve into eating a forbidden fruit is certainly not enough to sway my view here.
I do believe that the Bible was inspired, but only insofar as I believe people today are also inspired. That is, we can be affected and influenced by divine inspiration, but that does not remover our humanity from the process. The authors of the Bible were most often the “winners” writing their version of history and supporting their social and cultural norms. This is not unique to ancient Israel by any means and it does not lessen the impact that the text has on me. In fact, my reading of the text is much more meaningful when I better understand the Sitz im Leben (essentially historical context) of the text. Reading the Bible and other ancient texts opens windows to beautiful worlds. We are able to see how people understood the divine and their relationship with the divine. My relationship with the divine does not always look like their relationships did and I, for one, appreciate that. The Bible is, among other things, a collection of peoples’ understandings of God. It is not a book written by God, no matter what Al Mohler tells you. As a biblical scholar and as a Christian, I have a responsibility to be honest with the text and honest about the text. It was written by humans, but as I said, this does not mean it is meaningless and unimportant.
Further, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are doing more than simply elevating one specific culture in a specific time and place (or a revisionist understanding of that culture), but that we are actually seeking out God. So, while the Bible is an authority in my life, it does not have sole authority. I do not accept its stance on slavery, genocide, treatment of women, etc. and I would argue that most of you don’t either. Why, then, are we so scared to continue working to understand God for ourselves as opposed to simply accepting what someone or something else tells us? Moreover, when we do speak of the Bible’s position on a certain issue, we have the responsibility of doing so with honesty and integrity. Arguing that there is a “biblical definition of marriage” and arguing that that definition magically lines up with your particular view is a flat out lie.
So, feel free to call me a liberal or someone who sees the Bible as “as a human book conditioned and warped by human frailty and fallibility.” Maybe you’ll even ask me, as I’ve been asked before, “How can you call yourself a Christian?” Your reaction to me is not important. What is important to me is that I live a life of integrity and love. Nothing else matters.