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

GLBT Persons in the Church: A Positive Word from Jesus?

It is commonly said by those on all sides of this debate that Jesus said nothing whatsoever pertaining to “homosexuality.”  Traditionalists conclude that Jesus simply accepted the Levitical prohibitions (and the negative view of 1st C. Judaism) without question.  Revisionists conclude that Jesus was unconcerned about same-sex issues and that contemporary Christians are free to take Jesus’ overall liberating views on the dignity and equality of all persons as our guide.

But there is one ambiguous passage in the Gospels in which Jesus MAY have indicated an openess to same-sex covenantal love.  I want to be very cautious here.  I have been told about a Norwegian woman (a Baptist pastor, actually) who completed a Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of Manchester in the U.K.  She investigated this pericope rather thoroughly. But the dissertation has not yet been published and so I have not seen the evidence for her conclusions. So, what follows, is a possibility that bears further investigation–but without that further investigation would be (in Lee’s words about how Richard Hays treats Rom. 1 on the other side of this debate) “too thin a reed on which to build a case one way or the other.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus condemns divorce (except for porneia, indicating some kind of sexual sin, usually thought to be adultery), using God’s created intentions to overturn Mosaic law (which allowed men to seek divorce). The disciples, blown away by the idea that they may have learn conflict resolution with their wives, mutter that it may be better not to marry at all.

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; others have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The one who can accept this word, should do so.” Matt. 19:11-12.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been interpreted to mean that Jesus was advocating celibacy, but that is not clear.

  • The word “eunuchs” is not really an English translation of the Greek ενουκοι. Rather, it is simply a transliteration. 
  • Because of the influence of the KJV, modern English uses the term “eunuch” to mean a castrated male. But did the term have that meaning in the ancient world?
  • In the dissertation to which I have referred (but I have seen only a summary, not the evidence),  a broad range of materials is consulted and it seems that “eunuch” had a much wider meaning in the 1st C. Mediterranean world–referring to any male who deviated from the cultural norm of marrying and begetting children. It was even used to refer to men who married and did not beget children. It was also used, I am given to understand, to refer to men who had longterm male lovers–NOT to pederasts or to temple prostitutes, etc.
  • Now, traditionally, this passage has been used to endorse celibacy, but the topic under discussion is marriage.
  • Jesus says that some are eunuchs (that is, men who do not marry and beget children) because they were made that way by men. These are probably castrated males such as many cultures used for herem guards.
  • Jesus says that some make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the early church, Origen took this to mean that some should castrate themselves and he did so.  Fortunately, most of the church did not follow this pattern.  Those who would be “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” have been voluntarily celibate–as apparently Jesus and Paul were. (In light of his belief that Jesus would return any minute, Paul wished all Christians were “as I am”–apparently meaning celibate, but recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 7:7–a chapter in which Paul also indicates that an acceptable basis for Christian (heterosexual) marriage is to control one’s otherwise uncontrollable lust! Nice.)
  • Jesus says some eunuchs “were born that way.” Is he talking only of males born with some genital defect? Or is referring also to men who do not marry and have children because they were born with desires for their own sex?

Caution: Even if Jesus has people we would call “gay” or “lesbian,” those with homosexual orientation, in mind as part of the category of “born eunuchs,” the passage does not indicate what Jesus would have them do–except that it is clear that, contrary to his own Jewish culture, he does not order them to marry or condemn them for not marrying.  “Family” takes on broader than biological meaning in Christianity.  But Jesus does not say, “all born eunuchs must remain celibate,” either.

Is this a veiled positive word for gay and lesbian Christians?  I don’t think it is clear, but I do think it is a possibility worth further investigation.

Let those accept this who can.

Next, I will wind up this series by moving beyond reading of the few texts in Scripture relating to this topic to giving a theological rationale for welcoming and affirming GLBT Christians fully into the life of the church, including blessing same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage.

July 19, 2008 - Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues, homosexuality


  1. I’m not sure if this helps the case you’ve built so far. You’ve made a lot about how homosexuality (committed same-sex relationships) didn’t exist in the first century, and now you’re saying “ενουκοι” could be “men who had longterm male lovers.”

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 21, 2008

  2. Also, if it is those born attracted to the same sex, it doesn’t fit the pattern. Each type is one of a category. Homosexuals don’t fit the category as the other do, especially in context of “it is good not to marry.”

    So the argument is that it’s better to be celibate or gay instead of marrying?

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 21, 2008

  3. Actually, I have said that the Apostle Paul would not have known of committed same-sex relationships. They existed in every culture at all times–but in most have been very hidden/closeted. The “gay sex” that most of the biblical writers knew and condemned was either idolatrous, promiscuous, exploitive, or all of the above. Jesus may have been giving a more positive insight.

    “It is better not to marry” is not JESUS’ conclusion, but that of the disciples who are horrified to learn that cheap divorce is not an option–that they will have to engage in conflict resolution with their wives.

    But you are right to point out the difficulties, Steven. I would definitely NOT want to build most of my case here. I want to find and read that dissertation closely and examine the evidence and arguments in detail. I just thought that it was intriguing enough to mention.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 22, 2008

  4. Michael,

    Your claim that Paul wouldn’t have known about loving homosexual relationships is flawed from the start. You have yet to deal with the clear argument that Paul’s wording of “against nature” came directly from Plato in his Symposium where we find a discussion on whether these exact relationships you claim Paul couldn’t have known about are legitimate and natural. And it was written almost 4 full centuries prior to Paul! History attests a move toward acceptance of those relationships in the Greek culture – thus in Corinth and Rome especially, these relationships likely were very common.

    As for this particular article, you by far stretch the context and do damage to the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. If this was true, why do we only now consider this to be a legitimate interpretation? Why did the Holy Spirit wait 2000 years to divulge this to you and a select group of others, especially when Christianity completely gutted homosexuality from the Roman culture 1600 years ago? Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit have made this clear then, when homosexuality was exposed as sinful and declared unlawful?

    Why now? Let me give a take. Christianity always perverts itself toward the cultural norms. Thus, Christians always move toward defining themselves according to culture, not the Bible. And when the Bible is rejected and the culture affirmed, then Christianity looses its essence as the Church of God. This is what happened in Nazi Germany. It was the conservatives like Bonhoffer who held the Church and the theological liberals who acquieced to the culture.

    I think we are clearly seeing this again with these types of interpretations. When it looks like the culture, then it’s likely not of Christ. Christ calls us to different from the world.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | July 22, 2008

  5. What culture do you live in? In U.S. culture, GLBT persons are regularly beaten and murdered. Churches that welcome them are subject to protests saying “God Hates Fags!” So are the funerals of gay people. In order to win elections about other issues, anti-gay legislation is regularly posed as ways to martial out the far-right base.

    Christ does call us to be different from the world, D.R., and that difference would best be shown by always being on the side of outcasts and marginalized people.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 23, 2008

  6. “Regularly beaten and murdered?”

    Are you serious? Do you have some numbers or statistics to back that up? And how do those compare to other stats on others who are different from the majority who are beaten up?

    And churches that welcome them are subject to protests? How often does this really happen? Rarely! You know the Westboro folks can only do so many events per year. And if I remember correctly Soul Force actually does more protests per year than does Westboro.

    Now, I agree we are called to marginalized people, but we are also called to attest to the Holiness of God. Homosexual acts are witnessed by Scripture, the Jewish writings, the Early Church Fathers, and nature to be sinful. We are called to hold to that.

    And culture is changing. Homosexuality is becoming more and more mainstream and with that has come almost universal acceptance. Sure, more than 50% of the population doesn’t support gay marriage, but I would dare say less than 20% actually have a Biblical reason for opposing it. For most it is a matter of personal distaste, not actual conviction.

    But, lest we miss the actual discussion, you have not answered any of my critiques on the historical question. So while you cite as a major point of your views on pacificism, the Early Church, you completely ignore its witness on homosexuality, claiming that possibly (not certainly, but only possibly) they didn’t understand homosexuality like we do. Yet, you never consider that the Early Church didn’t view the military service, war, and violence the way we see them today.

    That is a serious flaw in your approach, but one you have been unwilling to see or explore.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | July 23, 2008

  7. D.R., he is serious. Perhaps you just don’t know the facts regarding violence against gays. http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc/main.aspx?dbName=DocumentViewer&DocumentID=32353

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 23, 2008

  8. DR, the FBI keeps plenty of stats on hate crimes against people on the basis of sexual orientation, race, religion, etc. I believe they also break down those statistics based on the type of crime. Perhaps you’d find a google search for those stats enlightening.

    As for protests against plays, churches, funerals, etc. the Westboro folks get most of the press, but they’re not the only ones who engage in such behavior. One wonders however, just how many of those sorts of protests you’d find acceptable per year. (By the way, next time Soulforce protests at the funeral of a straight person who died of AIDS, or a US Service member who died in Iraq, then perhaps I’d see how your comparison is valid, but until then it’s an apples and oranges comparison.)

    Comment by Alan | July 23, 2008

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