Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

GLBT Persons in Church: A Biblical/Theological Case for Full Inclusion, 1

I have repeatedly postponed blogging on this topic. I would prefer to write on much else. But Christians who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered are under attack: From politicians who would make them second class citizens at best; from hate-mongers who encourage physical attacks and intimidation (e.g., a certain foul excuse for a “church” in Kansas); from “ex-gay ministries” which work with discredited science to convince GLBT folks that they are neurotic or psychotic and need to be “cured;” from fundamentalists from many different religions; and from some non-fundamentalists who would split denominations (e.g., the Anglican communion and especially the Episcopal Church, USA; the American Baptist Churches, USA, etc. ) or seek to purge seminaries (despite vows of celibacy) (Pope Benedict’s command to Catholic seminaries).

I cannot stand back and be silent without being complicit in this assault on people, some of whom are personal friends and better Christians than I will ever hope to be. I tremble at starting this series because it could prevent me from future academic or church-related posts. It will certainly lead to many nasty comments and could undermine my attempts on this blog to get evangelicals to take more seriously the biblical injunctions to social and economic justice and to peacemaking. Nevertheless, I am compelled by conscience to start this series.

The case I want to make for the church universal revising its moral theology will take time to lay out fully. I will not rush. I will try to make careful biblical and theological arguments, and, when appropriate, examine the relevant scientific evidence.

This first post will clarify terms and some presuppositions.

  1. Homosexuality is a modern term first coined (in German) in the 1860s and given an English equivalent a few years later. This is the first time in the Western world that the idea of people intrinsically attracted to their own sex develops. Thus, modern translations of the Bible which use the term “homosexual,” are anachronistic. There was no ancient or biblical concept for what we call “homosexuality.” The Bible does address certain sexual behaviors, as we shall see, but the biblical writers all presupposed that everyone was born attracted to members of the opposite sex.
  2. Homosexuality is a term used to describe many different phenomena that are not all related: polyamorous exploration by youths just discovering their sexualities; political or ideological stances (e.g., some extreme feminists deliberately choose exclusive lesbian partners out of the belief that sex with men is inevitably patriarchal and must involve the submission or bondage of the female partner); pederasty (exploitive relations between adults and children, usually by persons who are heterosexual in adult relationships); prison rapes (again, usually by people who are exclusively heterosexual outside of prison); the ancient practice of men in a conquering army raping the men of the conquered territory in order to humiliate them by “treating them as women;” same-sex monogamous relations of love. My argument for inclusion is only an argument about the latter case. Given the divergent nature of these phenomena, many now prefer to use the term “homosexualities,” or to drop the term altogether.
  3. Transgendered persons are not gay or lesbian. Most lesbians self-identify as female and most gay men self-identify as male. By contrast, transgendered persons feel, often from a very early age, that they have been born into the wrong bodies–a physical male who always “feels” like a woman or vice versa. There may even be a genetic basis or a difference in brain chemistry which accounts for this. A very tiny percentage of babies are born with ambiguous sex organs (or even both male and female genitalia) which must be corrected by surgery. Some transgendered people have sex-reassignment operations and physically transform to the opposite sex. (I know one couple where this happened after a long marriage, with children. They are still married, but live in separate bedrooms and both are celibate.) Not all cross-dressing is related to this phenomenon, but some is. Because the issues surrounding transgendered people are different than with gays and lesbians, I will save further discussion until the end of this series.
  4. Bi-sexuals are those persons who are equally attracted to members of the opposite sex or to their own sex. Ever since the pioneering research of Kinsey, we have known that very few people are 100% attracted to the opposite sex or to the same sex. We fall on a spectrum and those of us who are “heterosexual” are actually dominantly heterosexual:–i.e., whatever attractions we have to our own sex are minor, usually suppressed either consciously or through social expectations, and outweighed by the much greater attractions we have to the other sex. “Homosexuals” have the opposite pattern. Bi-sexuals are those people whose natural attractions to either sex are balanced or nearly balanced. The “successes” of “ex-gay ministries,” are probably with people who are nearly balanced along the spectrum. Some people argue from the phenomenon of bisexuality against monogamy. I do not. I believe strongly in monogamy. True bisexuals (rather than gays or lesbians who are trying to “cure” themselves by heterosexual marriage), if they are Christian, should, in my view, commit to a monogamous relationship of one form or another.
  5. We must distinguish between sexual orientation and sex acts. The former is not addressed at all by Scripture. It is a modern concept.
  6. We must also distinguish between moral guidelines for churches, and civil rights in the wider society. Even before I held my current view that the churches needed one sexual ethic for everyone (either celibacy or monogamy–rather than insisting that gays and lesbians either be celibate or “cured”), I defended the civil and human rights of GLBT folk. We consider heterosexual adultery a sin, but we don’t argue that adulterers should be fired from their jobs or denied housing, etc. The debate over civil marriage or civil unions or domestic partnerships, is a debate about secular justice–it is not identical to debates over the moral commitments of churches. Some churches will have same-sex weddings now that have no legal protections. Others will not recognize even heterosexual marriages that have not been performed in church. It is quite possible to believe, as do some conservative friends of mine, that all same-sex activity is immoral, and still to support same-sex civil marriages or civil unions, etc. (Just as I, a Christian pacifist, support the right of gays and lesbians to serve freely and openly in the military–despite my belief that all military service is immoral for Christians–and despite the weirdness of helping anyone get INTO the military.) We must recognize that civil laws cannot be identical to church requirements.

That’s enough for one post. My next posting on this topic will attempt to sketch some presuppositions for reading Scripture on this issue.

December 21, 2006 - Posted by | Biblical exegesis, GLBT issues, homosexuality, theology


  1. I look forward to your posts in this series. As you might guess, I have been much influenced by Richard Hays’ arguments on this subject, and I am sure you will be engaging him and pointing out where you disagree with him. I have read your blog long enough to know that you will have some serious biblical and theological arguments, and not just the typical, “let’s all be inclusive” arguments that are so common and so weak. I look forward to a fresh discussion free from the tired old thought patterns from left and right that have dominated recent church discussions.

    Comment by Jonathan | December 21, 2006

  2. Excellent start to what looks like it will be an illuminating series.

    Comment by the cynic librarian | December 21, 2006

  3. Be strong and courageous…

    Comment by Dan Trabue | December 22, 2006

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, all. Richard, I have very little argument with Hays’ exegesis of Rom. 1–it is his hermeneutics with which I disagree. He violates his own stated method. If he had used the same method on the topic of Jewish/Christian relations, he would have come to very different conclusions!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 22, 2006

  5. Amen. And I echo Dan: Courage!

    Comment by Erudite Redneck | December 23, 2006

  6. Your blog is encouraging to read. I am an evangelical Christian who claims to be social justice-oriented. Recently, I have became very involved in LGBT rights in the church… your honesty is refreshing (this issue is NOT easy to talk about). Thank you for being courageous to talk about it. So many do not and there are so many people out there who want to be Xian but feel no place in the Xian community because of their sexuality. Keep it up! Blessings.

    Comment by Brandy | December 26, 2006

  7. Feel free to drop my blog anytime, Brandy. Soon, I will work on the next section of this argument. There will probably be 8 major posts in all.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 26, 2006

  8. >But Christians who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, or transgendered are under attack:

    I believe scripture says we can take that statement even further. All people everywhere are under attack – under spiritual attack by the kingdom of this world – and it’s goal is ‘to kill, steal, and destroy’. So, I share your zeal, however I don’t share your conclusions. We need to have God’s word reveal to us the truths of what’s going on in the spiritual realm. The end result should not be the pitting of ourselves against each other, but rather ALL of us against worldliness, the flesh, and the devil as we stand on God’s word to fight back against the enemy of our souls.

    Comment by Roger | December 27, 2006

  9. “We need to have God’s word reveal to us the truths of what’s going on in the spiritual realm.”

    That’s why we have Bible studies such as this one, Roger. To reveal God’s Word to those who have ears and are prepared to listen.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | December 28, 2006

  10. Glad to see you’re tackling this, Michael. I fully agree with your point in #6. Even before I held my current view, based on ‘”let’s all be inclusive” arguments that are so common and so weak’, I would argue that social justice insists on one sexual ethic for everyone.

    Bless you.

    Comment by anabaptist | December 31, 2006

  11. “There was no ancient or biblical concept for what we call “homosexuality.” The Bible does address certain sexual behaviors, as we shall see, but the biblical writers all presupposed that everyone was born attracted to members of the opposite sex.”

    What evidence do you have for this claim? The fact that you mention the word being coined in the 19th century makes it look like you have an argument like this:

    1. You can only think about something if you have a word for it.
    2. The word for homosexuality only arose in the 19th century.
    3. Therefore, people before the 19th century didn’t really think about homosexuality.

    Certainly those naughty Greek knew a lot about man-on-man sex and some of them preferred sex with men to sex with women because women were stupid and uninteresting, unlike muscular, handsome, worldly wise men. I believe you can find a speech like this in Plato, either the alciabiades or the symposium (memory is a little shaky).

    At any rate the argument that the bible writers and early church fathers didn’t know anything about homosexuality is not even remotely convincing to me because human sexuality has not fundamentally changed in 2000 years, nor have the moral problems arising from it.



    Comment by Shane | January 30, 2007

  12. Shane, thanks for stopping by. Yes, according to those who study the intersection of language, culture, and how the brain works would agree that without a word for something, one cannot have a concept of it.

    For instance, before TV and air travel, etc. someone from Bangladesh would have no word for snow and if you described snow would burst out laughing at you. We coin or borrow words to discuss concepts new to us.

    Now, the speech you have described in Plato’s Symposium is important to our full case. But notice what it describes: An attitude of misogyny and rejection of the other sex for ideological reasons–similar to those extreme feminists who choose lesbianism as a form of rejecting men. One could call this phenomena “homosexuality,” I suppose.

    But it would NOT be what we usually think of as “homosexuality,” someone whose sexual orientation (attraction, desire) is dominantly or entirely (see Kinsey, Hite, etc.) toward their own sex. Such persons aren’t rejecting the other sex for ideological reasons (Plato: women are inferior; Extreme feminists: all relationships with men are ones in which I would be exploited and oppressed); they are simply not attracted to them.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 30, 2007

  13. […] and with many events, but I haven’t forgotten it. For the previous posts in this series, see one, two, three, four, five, and this one. We come, at last, to the New Testament.  We shall have to […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in Church: The Case for Full Inclusion,6 « Levellers | March 23, 2007

  14. […] sexual orientation.  If you are new to the series, please read the previous installments first:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, this addendum, and 6.  Jumping straigh to this post is not advised.  Also, even […]

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  16. […] on the latest installment.  To date, there have been seven (7) major posts and an addendum. See: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, addendum on pro-GLBT “over reading,” 6, & 7.  This is addenum 2: […]

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  17. […] Terms and Presuppositions. […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on GLBT Persons in the Church: A Case for Full Inclusion « Levellers | July 14, 2008

  18. […] Orientation: The Scientific Evidence (Such as it is) As I stated at the outset of this series, the term “homosexuality” is coined in German in the 1860s and comes into […]

    Pingback by Sexual Orientation: The Scientific Evidence (Such as it is) « Levellers | July 23, 2008

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