Typically, the difference between gay-friendly and -unfriendly churches lies in the interpretation of scripture, and, predictably, there is more disagreement than consensus.
On one end of this tug-of-war are gays and lesbians pulling to be a part of faith and good works, and on the other end are other religious people, often in the same churches, trying like crazy to drag the homosexuals through the quagmire. Who has the better end of the rope?
One man who has analyzed both sides of the issue is Professor Lloyd Lewis, assistant dean for student life and assistant professor of practice ministry at Vanderbilt Divinity School. He’s a bear of a man with a laugh that makes the room grow brighter. Lewis is also gay, an ordained Methodist minister who’s been teaching at Vanderbilt for almost two decades.
“If you look at the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament,” he says, “some same-sex practices seem to be prohibited there. At the same time, we need to look at the cultural context. There are a lot of other things in the Holiness code that are prohibited.”
A cursory check of the Bible shows that the list is pretty staggering. In fact, even the death penalty is ordered for such practices as dishonoring your father or mother, not being a virgin on your wedding night, being a woman wearing a man’s clothes, committing adultery, having sex with a woman during her menstrual period and being a magician or a fortune- teller, just to name a few.
“Why pick out same-sex prohibitions and make them a sort of canon within a canon?” Lewis asks. “Why leave other prohibitions out? People are willing to take the other prohibitions not literally, so why do they pick out only the same-sex prohibitions to take literally?”
What seems to be the reason for this tendency? Why this exclusive hang up on same-sex acts?
“My feeling,” he says, “is that heterosexuality is seen as a God-given norm for humans. So homosexuality becomes a threat to some people’s idea of what it means to be human. If one sees two gay men and their daughter as a family, then this calls into question the way we view family.”
Lewis says too that many Christians use the Bible to maintain a particular social order, usually patriarchal and hierarchical, and usually an order where straight, white men are in charge. “Fundamentalist ministers and fundamentalist preachers operate best by making people afraid,” he says.
Probably nobody’s better qualified to address the subject of what the Bible says about homosexuality than renowned scripture scholar Amy-Jill Levine, a professor and the director of the program in religion, gender and sexuality at Vanderbilt Divinity School. There’s no doubt, she says, that scripture decries same-sex intercourse. But, she says, this prohibition is consistent with an ancient society that had clearly defined sexual roles for men and women and that didn’t like categories to be confused or boundaries to be broken.
Levine points out that references in the Hebrew Scriptures that deal with homosexuality also deal with the ancient view of “categories,” how “men should act like men and women like women.” In other words, she says, the issue of homosexuality tends to surface in the context of defining these categories.
This same concern for categories also helps to explain the Old Testament biblical edicts that prohibit planting the same field with two different crops or wearing clothing made of both linen and wool.
In the New Testament, Paul is similarly concerned with male hairstyles vs. female hairstyles, how men dress when they pray vs. how women dress when they pray, Levine says.
“We see something similar today when boys who are less adept at physical activities are derided by coaches as 'girls,’ or when girls who have leadership qualities are told to act 'more ladylike.’ One question that may be posed today is: Do we still want to preserve these categories? Some religious people answer 'yes’; others will answer 'no,’” Levine says.
Asked her view of those who use Bible passages as a weapon against homosexuals, Levine says, “My first step would be to avoid demonizing those with whom I don’t agree. People of good will and strong faith come to different conclusions on how to interpret the biblical text.”
She, like her colleague Lewis, says that the Bible can be taken too literally. It has plenty to say about human behavior that today’s social normsand many clergywould dismiss outright.
“If we simply look at the New Testament, we find that slaves are to be obedient to their masters even if they are harsh (1 Peter 2:18 and elsewhere),” Levine says. “Women gain their salvation by bearing children (1 Tim. 15); gentile Christians are not to consume blood (Acts 15:29); and everyone is to 'be perfect’ (Matt. 5:48). My favorite verse these days given major public displays of piety is Matt. 6:5-6, wherein people are exhorted not to pray in public.”
There are passages in the Bible, Levine says, “that I would not want to see put into practice, and I have certainly seen the harmnot only psychological, but also physical, and even deadlysome of these passages have caused. To bash a gay person, psychologically or physically, or to suggest that a gay person is going to hell, is not the role of the person who, at least in my view, takes the Bible seriously. The role of the one who takes the text seriously is to love. The decision of who gets into heaven or not is, according to the New Testament, that of Jesus (see Matt. 25), not that of the individual believer.”
A local lesbian campus minister sums up her view of the seemingly anti-gay biblical passages this way: “I believe the Bible is a record of stories and sacred writings of people of faith, and those writings are from a culture that was different from ours. It’s a matter of interpretation, as all writing is. I have no problem acknowledging that many Bible writers believed that homosexuality was wrong. But they also said many other things were wrong. Many believed that eating pork was wrong. Many believed that cutting a woman’s hair was wrong. The nature of the divine, and the nature of human beings and the command to love your neighbor as yourself is far more important to me.”
As for loving your neighbor, fundamentalists often say they “love the sinner and hate the sin.” To which Professor Lewis replies: “It’s not very loving to not want [homosexuals] to have the same love in their lives as you have in your lives as heterosexuals.”
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