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

GLBT Inclusion in the Church: “Final” Post (At Least for This Series)

As we wrap up this long series, people still have questions–more than I can answer.  First, let us remember that this is a discussion of church life–not questions of civil liberties in society.  Those are also important.  Someone could decide that the church cannot change its sexual ethics but still work to stop the discrimination in society against GLBT folks.  This is a position I once held:  I thought is analogous to heterosexual adulterers–you would not let them be fired from jobs for their marital problems, nor denied housing, etc.  I am in favor of same-sex civil marriages–no church, synagogue, etc. is forced to recognize them.  It is a matter of secular justice.

But, at the same time, churches that agree to revise their sexual ethics (as mine has) are free to marry gay or lesbian couples–whether or not the law recognizes them.  One heterosexual couple in our congregation was married without a civil license–refusing the legal benefits of marriage until gay and lesbian couples can have them, too. It was a courageous stance of solidarity.  Legal marriage is the right to sue one another if you get tired of each other–it has little to do with Christian marriage or Jewish marriage, etc.

Some say that Gen. 2:24 is the reason we cannot allow Christian same-sex marriages. But that verse is not a command, just an etiological rooting of the practice of marriage in creation.  To turn it into a command would be to claim that every must marry.  See this blog on why “order of creation” arguments fail.

Others claim that celibate singleness is the default position for Christians and that it should take a special calling to marry. But the church would have died out with such an ethic.  It is true that Paul (who might have been a widower–it’s hard to see how a man who was never married could have been part of the Sanhedrin) wished for all Christians to “be as I am,” i.e., single–but that was because of his belief that the End was near and that single-minded devotion to the work of the gospel was needed. Even so, he did not command single celibacy–and, in fact, recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit.

So, what can we say about sexual ethics for the church?  More than can be said here.  These are some broad conclusions and not a complete sexual ethic.

  • Let us begin by recognizing that the Bible does not contain any single sexual ethic.  In different portions of Scripture, we have polygamy, concubinage, levirate marriage, and much else.  By the time of Jesus, monogamy seems to be the Jewish norm, but, as African Christians would be quick to remind us, no word of condemnation is said about the polygamy of of several Old Testament “saints.” Divorce is permitted in the Torah, but condemned in very strong terms by Jesus–terms that are slightly relaxed by Paul.  The Bible gives us an ethic of love–given different form in different cultural contexts. Those in the U.S. who promote a politics of “family values” based on the Bible seem never to have read the Bible. Which family values? Those of Lot volunteering his virgin daughters to be gang raped if only the men of Sodom will spare his male (and angelic) house guests the same fate? Solomon’s many wives and concubines? Abraham having children by his wife’s slavegirl–then later driving mother and son into the desert to make peace with Sarah? Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac? Tamar’s playing the prostitute with Judah in order to force him to grant her rights  under levirate marriage? (Judah pronounced Tamar more righteous than he was.)  The Bible does not share the Religious Right’s “Leave It to Beaver” romanticism about nuclear families.
  • Human sexuality, though sharing much with that of other mammals, including a drive for procreation, is far more complex.  Procreation is one purpose, but far from the only.  We must reject the view of the Medieval Church that saw procreation as the only purpose that justified marital sex–which leads to condemnations of artificial birth control and masturbation–not to mention the absolutely bizarre judgment of St. Thomas Aquinas that heterosexual RAPE was less sinful than masturbation or same-sex acts because at least rape allowed the possibility of procreation!!!!!!!!
  • Sex is a created good, but a human, mortal, finite good.  I think we must also reject the teaching that marital sexuality is a sacrament. Yes, Paul compares marriage to the relationship of Christ and the Church, but he does not say that married SEX is like the relationship of Christ and the Church! This sexualizes God–and is far too close to the “sacred sex” of ancient fertility cults. 
  • Nor is sex as sacrament fair to one’s spouse: One needs to be “in the moment” with the partner, not using the partner to (weirdly) get closer to God.  Sex is a good, but a human, finite good.
  • Sex is a powerful human drive and most people are not given the charism for lifelong celibacy.  To say, as the Church has for most of its history, that heterosexuals have the choice between celibate singleness and monogamy, but that gays or lesbians (or bisexuals or transgendered persons) must be celibate WHETHER OR NOT they have the charism or calling to do so is to add burdens that one is not willing to bear one’s self. That’s what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.
  • Monogamy is hardly a perfect thing, but it is the best thing we have.  If sex is to be Christian, it must be in a covenantal relationship–not some form of recreation or entertainment.  We usually call this covenantal relationship “marriage” for heterosexuals.  I am not particularly concerned with whether we call covenantal unions between gay or lesbian couples “marriage” or “holy unions” or whatever (a matter of debate even among gay theologians), but that we recognize and bless such covenants as places to fulfill godly callings.
  • Monogamy is not perfect, but it helps prevent or reduce chances for exploitation. Bi-sexual persons, if they are Christian, are no more permitted to live lives of promiscuity than any other Christian.  I suppose they may date members of either sex (we would assume such dating to be as chaste as we assume any other Christian dating would be), but in choosing a life partner, they would be expected to be faithful.
  • Update: I want to avoid misunderstanding of the last point. I am NOT implying that bi-sexual persons are any more or less promiscuous (as a group) than anyone else.  They are simply attracted to (certain persons of) both sexes.  I do not mean to play into stereotypes about bi-sexual persons. However, I am trying to correct a misunderstanding on the part of traditionalists that any modification of the church’s traditional sexual ethic amounts to “anything goes.” Throughout this series commenters (and others emailing me) have asked, “How can you welcome and affirm bi-sexuals? Are you not allowing three-ways and promiscuity?” I am not, but I am sorry that my refutation of that error was done so clumsily as to seem to reinforce the stereotype that bi-sexual persons are any more inclined or tempted to sexual promiscuity than any of the rest of us. (The evidence seems to indicate that, if anyone is to be tagged as more promiscuous, as a group, than any other, it would be heterosexual males.)
  • We must reject all sexual violence.  This does not go without saying:  In much of the world, marital rape is not even a legal concept.  ANY sex act (as any other act) which harms or humiliates the partner is wrong.  Within covenantal limits, feel free to experiment–as long as the partner is just as willing. No, must mean no, regardless of whether or not one previously said, “I do.”
  • Sex leads to great vulnerability, emotionally. Covenantal arrangements do not prevent this, but do create more of a safe space for “appropriate vulnerability.” Harm is done when only one partner is so emotionally vulnerable. This happens within marriage, too. One of the many reasons promiscuity is sinful is that it teaches people to detach themselves from the sex act–to objectify it and with it, one’s partner.
  • The issues around transgendered persons are difficult.  Should the church encourage those who feel “trapped in the wrong body” to have sex reassignment surgery? I contend that it should–hopefully before one has married.
  • Great harm is done not only to gays and lesbians, but to their heterosexual partners when misguided Christians encourage them to enter heterosexual marriages in order to be “cured” of their same-sex orientation. I have seen the shattered pieces of such marriages–including with my sister. (She would NOT believe those of us who told her that her fiance was gay. Three sons later, he left her.) The current church teaching, and so called “ex-gay” ministries, is just setting up heartbreak for spouses and children. It must stop.
  • Though we reject the teaching that procreation is REQUIRED of all marriages (or same-sex unions), that Christian couples who are childless by choice are sinning, we must reinforce the view that Christian marriage (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is more than simply for the happiness or emotional needs of the couple.  Either by adoption or by making one’s home available to host others, or by some other way, any Christian marriage must serve the Kingdom of God.

For further reflection, I recommend Kim Fabricius’ Twelve Propositions on Same-Sex Relationships and the Church. 

Chris Sanders over Sandaltraps Sanctuary also has excellent reflections here and here.

I had imagined a more richly theological end for this series, but I have run out of steam. I do hope the series has been helpful. I hope it begins rather than ends questions. I think some readers came with closed minds and just wanted to see if they could criticize–but some of them nevertheless asked important questions. I think the majority of readers, whether or not they agreed with me, did come with open minds and with a desire to stretch beyond cookie-cutter answers. That can only be good for the health of the Church.

July 27, 2008 - Posted by | GLBT issues


  1. Yeah, putting a homosexual in a heterosexual marriage is probably a bad idea. But so is putting someone who doesn’t want to get married into a “committed homosexual relationship.” Wasn’t that how your friend was interpreting “eunuch” in Matthew 19:12? “You can’t tolerate marriage? I have an answer! Enter a gay civil union for the kingdom of heaven” (my paraphrase).

    Comment by James Pate | July 27, 2008

  2. James, that completely misunderstands that interpretation of Matt. 19:12. No one that I know is advocating forced marriages or forced relationships of any kind. That is precisely the opposite of the sexual ethic I propose. It almost seems like a deliberate attempt to misread what I have said–as most of your comments have seemed, frankly. I cannot believe that I have miscommunicated as badly as that.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 28, 2008

  3. You haven’t communicated badly. You have been as clear as crystal. I didn’t however understand James’ comment but I see why now. This has been a wonderful series.

    Comment by steph | July 28, 2008

  4. I’m not misreading you in the least, Michael. Your friend was arguing that, according to Matthew 19, entering a homosexual civil union is a possible solution for those who don’t want to be stuck in a heterosexual marriage. No, she didn’t say it was forced, but she seemed to see it as a possible solution that Jesus advocated. What other conclusion could one reach by interpreting “eunuch” as homosexual? So now men who don’t want to be stuck with a wife for the rest of their lives can become practicing homosexuals for the kingdom of heaven. Does that make any sense at all? The lengths some liberals will go to justify homosexual behavior from Scripture simply astounds me.

    I wonder why they can’t just do what you wrongly stereotype the apostles to claim in Acts 15: “Who cares about the Bible? God wants us to be inclusive” (my paraphrase). Or allow me to use your words, from your post “GLBT Persons in the Church: Today’s Gentile Inclusion?” “Yeah, I know what the Bible (Moses) says, but I tell you I saw these perver–er, I mean Gentiles, receive the Holy Spirit–the same as we did!” “The risk those early Jewish Christians took in deliberately setting aside the clear word of Scripture for the demands of the gospel was no less than we face today regarding GLBT folk.”

    That is not what the apostles thought they were doing at all, Michael. They had a different interpretation of Scripture from that of the Judaizing Christians. According to the Judaizers, a Gentile had to be circumcised to enter Israel, and so they had to be circumcised to join the church. According to the apostles, however, Scripture upheld the free inclusion of the Gentiles. Amos talks about that (according to James). Also, the Torah allowed Gentiles to dwell in the Israelite community while observing a few simple rules. But they were NOT dumping Scripture in favor of experience–not in their eyes.

    Comment by James Pate | July 28, 2008

  5. James, I am going to answer only one part of your rant and then stop. On Matt. 19, I have NOT read the dissertation in question, but my impression is that translating “eunuchs” to mean any who break with the accepted cultural pattern for males of marrying and begetting offspring would indicate that “BORN eunuchs” were gay, not “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom,” who would be celibates. Clear?

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 28, 2008

  6. That’s still a stretch, as even you have acknowledged (on occasion). Even you said that a born eunuch can be someone with a genital defect.

    But that’s my general impression of pro-homosexuality interpretations of Scripture–they are a stretch. That’s why pro-homosexuality Christians are all over the map, as you yourself are in some of your posts. In your post on Romans 1, for example, you say that Paul uses “unnatural” to mean “against custom” (as if that matters–Paul still says that homosexual acts are shameful and that God disapproves of them). Then, in the same post, you say that Paul doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to natural law.

    In your eyes, you’re exploring possibilities, but we see two approaches here: one says the Bible is not opposing homosexual acts (which is more fundamentalist), whereas the other says that Paul doesn’t know what he’s talking about anyway.

    Comment by James Pate | July 28, 2008

  7. Doug Chaplin is running a good series on homosexuality
    It’s a shame that so many Christians approach this subject with anger and prejudice, as they do when looking at issues around war and even gun ownership.

    Comment by steph | July 28, 2008

  8. “It’s a shame that so many Christians approach this subject with anger and prejudice…”

    That reminds me of the liberal reaction to President Bush!

    Comment by James Pate | July 29, 2008

  9. No prejudgement in the reaction of people to Bush’s words and actions as we reap their consequences.

    Comment by steph | July 30, 2008

  10. “Bi-sexual persons, if they are Christian, are no more permitted to live lives of promiscuity than any other Christian. I suppose they may date members of either sex (we would assume such dating to be as chaste as we assume any other Christian dating would be), but in choosing a life partner, they would be expected to be faithful.”

    This seems to play into stereotypes and misrepresentations of bisexuality that bi-sexual persons are trying very hard to correct. It is NOT that bisexuals can’t make up their minds, nor is it that they are especially promiscuous. They simply are attracted to members of both sexes. There is no reason to single them out as you have done.

    Comment by Tia | July 31, 2008

  11. Tia,
    This is a very good point. I was afraid I would be misunderstood here. I am not trying to single out bisexual persons as especially promiscuous, nor unable to make up their minds, etc. Instead, I am trying (clumsily, I guess) to correct a misapprehension by traditionalists that if we revise the traditional teaching of the church on sexuality then anything goes. That to welcome and affirm gays, lesbians, bi-sexual and transgendered persons is to endorse promiscuity, threeway liasons, etc. I’ll try to edit the main article to correct this misunderstanding.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 1, 2008

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