I think the thing I miss most is being able to just talk to you. I often want to ask your advice but even more than that, I miss being able to debate things with you. You always loved to talk, usually deep into the night, often heatedly. You never shied away from issues and you were good at debating because you listened as well as argued.
You were also not afraid to change your view. I remember as a very young child when you thought all dancing was wrong, lead to temptations, was ‘worldly’. Then, when you were at Theological college, you were asked to play the music at a Barn Dance. You were shocked! I still remember you coming home afterwards, completely surprised and admitting, “It didn’t seem evil at all. It was actually rather fun.”
You changed a lot when you were studying at college. You were never afraid to stand up for what you believed, even if you were standing alone. But nor were you afraid to modify those views if you realised they were wrong. You had a good brain and you used it, you didn’t think that being a christian meant that you kissed your intelligence goodbye. You taught us to think, to listen, to read the Bible and to pray. Your views were always consistent with what the Bible taught but you also told us to read it wisely, not to pick out random texts that would support our own arguments but to read it honestly, to seek out what God wanted us to learn from the writing.
And so I want to talk to you now Dad. I want to talk to you about what God thinks about homosexuality and I so wish you could answer and join in the debate. But I can’t hear you anymore, so I’ll just explain where I’m at and maybe that will still help to clarify things a bit, to sort out a few loose threads and help me to hear a bit better what God wants to say.
It’s an odd topic for me to be battling with. More than anything else I want to see the church, the body of Christ, behaving more as one, being more unified. I want us to stop thinking about belonging to the ‘Baptist Chapel’ or ‘St. Peter’s’ and to start seeing ourselves as one church, with one head, moving in the same direction and all working together. So it seems strange that an issue which proves to be so divisive should be the one that I cannot stop thinking about. Perhaps it is important to get it sorted.
It also seems strange because it is not something that really affects me personally. None of my close family or friends are homosexual, so it should not feel personal – but it does. That’s why I am writing this as a letter rather than an article. This does not feel like an intellectual debate, this feels like something deeply important which I need to discuss.
It is only fairly recently that I have given it much thought. Growing up, our church taught that homosexuality was a sin and I thought no more about it. I don’t remember you ever really talking about it other than once, when a lecturer at your college was found to be gay and left. You respected this man’s teaching so I know you were surprised and disappointed. You were, I think, uncomfortable with effeminate men.
Homosexuality was discussed again as part of a sermon when we lived in the US. I remember the pastor preaching from the bit in Romans that lists a whole lot of sins. He made the point that Paul began by listing things that the Jewish people would find repulsive, like homosexuality, and then moved on to things that they were doing, like gossiping. His point was that we like to make homosexuality the ‘worst’ sin whereas actually God sees all wrong doing as sin, we are all guilty, even if we ‘only’ gossip. I talked about this with you and you agreed, saying that you did not think the church should be rejecting people who were homosexual but rather accepting them and helping them to change. You didn’t see it as ‘the worst’ sin, all sin is sin.
So, for a while, I guess this was my view too. I saw homosexual practice as wrong but believed we had no right to reject the people and should still be welcoming them into the church.
Then in the UK we had a big debate in parliament about whether the law should be changed to allow same sex marriage. A lot of people felt very strongly about this. The church felt that marriage was an institution set up by the church, a religious ritual, and that gay people, while being given equal rights in law, had no cause to force the church to change a basic belief, that marriage was a state for a man and a woman.
I remember walking through London one day and passing a big church. Outside was a huge sign which read “God created them man and woman. Marriage is for one woman and one man.” I stopped dead. I was, to be honest, a bit shocked. This was the only sign outside the church. If I had been gay, that church is the last building I would ever willingly have entered, that had to be wrong. Did we have the right to be so judging, so rejecting, of anyone?
So I started to think about this issue more seriously. What did the Bible actually say? It keeps nagging at me, for no apparent reason, I really want to sort this out. Now, you taught us that the Bible is the word of God, it is given to us so that we can better know God’s will for us, how to live. I recall you used to say, “Refer to the maker’s instructions.” (As an aside, if you were reading this, I would point out that if ever you really had something which came with instructions you always tried to figure it out yourself first and only looked at the instructions if you got stuck! But the theory is a good one.) You also taught us that we should understand the context in which the words were written, ask God to show us what he wanted to teach us and not always take them at face value.
The church has in the past used the Bible to justify the oppression of women, the right to own slaves and all sorts of other things which are not in line with the meaning of the words. If I took the words literally I would wear a hat to church, never plait my hair nor wear gold or nice clothes. Some religions believe that their holy book was dictated, word for word, by God to man. Christians do not believe that, so we have to work a little harder to understand what God is saying.
It is further complicated because unless we read ancient Hebrew and Greek, we are reading a translation and these can never be literal. I can read Mandarin, I know that I cannot translate a sentence word for word from Mandarin to English or I will be in a right muddle! I have to understand the sentence in Mandarin and then write the meaning of that sentence in English. Which means that the Bible, even those which are translations, will have some human interpretations included. So I have been reading some commentaries and trying to understand just what the relevant passages are saying.
When you read the Bible, you cannot ignore that it seems to be completely condemning of homosexuality. For a while, I decided that my original belief was correct, that whilst we must love and accept people who are gay, as indeed God loves them and us, yet the actual practice was wrong. We can ‘reject the sin without rejecting the sinner’. But is that right? I felt the need to explore this a bit further. The church has very few people who are gay and this cannot be right. We accept murderers, liars, thieves – why was this issue one which so many people find difficult? Is it because people who are gay do not accept that it is a sin? Even a murderer usually accepts they have done wrong, so why do people who are gay reject that they are? And could they be right?
It is also heartbreaking to hear of so much pain that is caused by this issue, families breaking up, young people killing themselves because they feel rejected, other people using it as an excuse for hatred. That cannot be right.
So what actually is homosexuality? If you read scientific and psychological studies, it is a biological state, not something which people choose. Now, I am not ignoring the studies (but I am a middle child and somewhat contrary, I do not accept anything at face value) I do wonder if this is always true. Our society values masculinity very highly. It had to in ages gone past, physical strength and endurance was essential for the survival of our species and we seem to have retained some of this in our psyche. So, marines who show weakness are called “a bunch of girls” (this is not meant as a compliment!) Boys who cry are called “sissies”. We do not like effeminate males. This therefore makes it quite hard for a male who is effeminate. Maybe they feel rejected by their peers and therefore ‘decide’ that they are gay. If they are gay, there will be a reason for their ‘failure’ to behave like a tough male. They feel more comfortable in the gay role, even though it is not what they naturally are, and so they adopt it. The same might be true of a girl who felt ugly or inadequate in the stereotypical roles that society has manufactured. Surely sex, at its most basic, is a physical response to stimulus and if you shut your eyes or imagine yourself into a persona, maybe it doesn’t matter too much who does that stimulating.
But, if I am honest, this view seems to ignore an awful lot of research. I do not believe that scientists are always right (many of them seem to have missed the whole existence of God) but neither should respected research be ignored lightly. Not if you have a brain. So maybe some people are born gay. This doesn’t mean my theory above is not right for some people, but maybe it is also a biological condition.
Does that mean that it is not a sin? Well, not necessarily. Some people are naturally kleptomaniacs, that does not make stealing okay. It might be natural for them but it’s still wrong. I think that some people are naturally attracted to children and yet this is clearly wrong. Children should never be used for sexual gratification. Those people have to just accept that they can never be fulfilled in the way they feel is natural for them and remain celibate. No question, their feelings are wrong.
I should also admit that I find seeing gay people kiss or show affection weird. It feels wrong. I don’t like it, it makes me uncomfortable. But is this because it is wrong and my conscience is kicking me, or is it because it is unusual, not something which is seen very often. It is also something which I, as a heterosexual woman, cannot really relate to. I should also say that I find the thought of my parents having sex also feels distasteful. Does anyone like to think about their parents in that way? We know it happens, on a certain level we’re glad they find each other attractive, but do we want to think about them doing it? Ugh, yuk, no!
Some people argue that homosexuality is “unnatural”. I am not quite sure what they mean by this but if they mean it is not seen in the natural world, they should visit a farm! We often have a herd of cows in the field next to our house and without a doubt they indulge in homosexual activity! So do male ducks every Springtime. However, people are not animals, we were created to be higher than the animals, so is it morally wrong?
Some people have argued that when it refers in the Bible to an ‘unnatural’ act, it means homosexual activity between people who are NOT homosexual, between people who are just experimenting, who naturally are heterosexual.
The only way to decide if something is wrong, morally wrong, against what God wants for us, is to look at the Bible and to ask God to teach us. This is what I have found out:
I find the references in the Old Testament easier to deal with because so many other issues are clearly meant to refer only to the Jews at that time. In Leviticus, homosexual behaviour is called “an abomination” or “detestable”, depending on which translation you read. My understanding is that the word which we have translated (to mean “an abomination” ) is one which is used for issues which affected the Jewish people of that time, it is about being separate, not a moral issue. When Leviticus was written, the Jewish race was relatively small and God wanted them to be separate, different to the surrounding nations. The physical expression of this separateness was certain rituals that they observed and certain things which they abstained from. Homosexual practice was listed as an abomination. So was eating prawns. I cannot see any reason for taking one part and not the other.
So is it irrelevant? Can we just ignore that bit of the Bible? You always told me that was a dangerous thing to do, that we might miss something important. I think God does still want his people to be different, separate from how other people in the world live. We are meant to be loving and morally upright and generous. I just think the examples (no homosexuality and no prawn sandwiches) are no longer relevant. We do not think that eating pork is a moral issue today, it is about the Jewish people being separate.
Another Bible text which is often quoted is at the very beginning, when Adam and Eve were created and told their purpose was to have children. Now, when the Jewish race first began, increasing in size would be hugely important. There are rules in the Old Testament which say that if a man has sexual contact with a woman and spills his seed on the ground, that is a sin. However, we do not follow this teaching today. We do not consider that single people or couples who do not have children have ‘failed’, are sinning.
Sometimes the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is used as evidence against homosexuality. However, it seems that God was planning to destroy those cities because “their sin was very grave” and not specifically homosexual. True, the men later wanted to gang rape the men of God and so are destroyed, but gang rape of any kind seems wrong to me and very far removed from homosexuality.
If we look at the New Testament, it also seems unclear. St Paul wrote about homosexuality, for example in 1 Corinthians and seemed to be clearly condemning it. However, the word that he uses, “arsenokites” does not seem to have been used anywhere else previously and scholars think that maybe Paul made it up. It cannot be properly translated from Greek to English as “homosexual” and so the meaning is not as clear as it seems.
At the time when Paul was writing, homosexual practice tended to be centred around idol worship or being with several partners or to involve young boys (which is child abuse.) He would not have used a word to describe a loving monogamous relationship between two adults of the same sex because quite simply, it did not exist. (Or, if it did exist, it wasn’t seen to be a problem so wouldn’t have been discussed.) It seems to me that God makes rules to protect us. If people are living a promiscuous lifestyle, they are stunting their ability to have a loving relationship, they risk spreading disease and they are using another person as an object. This is harmful and therefore I would argue is not what God intended. The problem today is that much of what we perceive to be homosexual practice is actually promiscuity.
Is it possible that at the beginning of time, people were intended to be heterosexual but due to their rejection of God, he allowed homosexual ‘genes’ to develop? A bit like we are told that feeling pain in childbirth is due to the world going wrong, due to man’s original sin. Maybe, but that does not change that to be homosexual is not wrong, anymore than feeling pain is sinful. I have three children, it hurt, if someone had told me that I was sinning because I felt pain I would have punched them on the nose!
What does this mean in practice? Should we start telling people in the church with established views that they are wrong? I fear that this will lead to church splits and a lot of hurt. More wrong wont solve anything. But nor should we continue. I think that maybe God is very angry with how difficult we have made it for gay people to come to him. I think we need to develop our teaching on this, challenging views which are clearly wrong. We need to encourage an openness, an acceptance and be prepared to discipline actions which cause someone else to stumble.
If homosexuality is not wrong, then we should encourage people who are homosexual to have loving monogamous relationships. We should not be driving them into an underworld of promiscuity in a search for acceptance. Does this mean marriage? To be honest, I don’t know but my feeling is no. Marriage was a sacrament devised by the church within a very specific area. The vows and traditions are not in the Bible, they are just church religion. Why would gay people want to force this to change for any reason other than to be perverse, to make a point? Christians have behaved appallingly towards gay people but that does not mean that gay people should now sweep away all the traditions which have stood for centuries. That is just rude. They have the same right in law as any heterosexual couple and perhaps they should devise a church ceremony for the time when a couple commit to each other before God, when they enter into a life long monogamous relationship. But why call it marriage? I think that will just offend people unnecessarily.
Should we allow gay priests and ministers? Undoubtedly yes if (as in the case of a heterosexual person) their calling has been well tested. However, should they practice sexually is a more difficult one. Personally, I think this is a step too far for many people. I wonder if it is a similar case to the one in the new testament when the early christians were trying to decide if they should eat meat offered to idols. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with the food, just as I believe there is nothing intrinsically wrong with two people of the same sex having a monogamous physical relationship, but if it will cause injury to others, they should abstain. Not an easy thing to do, but not so different to the catholic priest who denies his sexuality and remains celibate because that is what he is feels it is right to do. Let’s try to take people slowly, to minimise the hurts, there have been enough already.
I find it hard to write these things because I know they fly in the face of teaching from many christians who I hold in deep respect. However, more and more prominent christian leaders are beginning to change their views. I think my own view mirrors that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said, “I do not believe that God would look at a black man and say, ‘It would have been better if you had been white’. I do not believe God would look at a woman and say, ‘It would have been better if you had been a man’. And I do not believe that God would look at a homosexual person and say, ‘It would have been better if you had been heterosexual’.”
I wonder if my grandchildren will look at the church of today and be appalled by how we treat homosexual people. Just as I am appalled when I look back at history and see christians who quoted from the Bible and justified owning slaves in England.
Am I right? It is so hard to know and I pray that God will show me if I have still got it wrong.
Thanks to: Elizabeth Longhurst 2011
Peter Gomes and Desmond Tutu interviewed in ‘For the Bible Tells Me So’ 2007
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