This post originally appeared on Dave Barnhart’s Blog
I’ve been involved in several conversations both online and face to face about the Bible and LGBTQ issues. Because public discourse about the Bible has been dominated by the Christian Right for the last forty years, many folks are surprised that the Bible has anything positive to offer LGBTQ persons. Discussion about the Bible tends to rehash the same old “clobber passages.” I think it’s important for Christians who favor LGBTQ inclusion to reframe the discussion, so I offer these ten biblical themes that anti-gay Christians avoid talking about.
1. Tying up heavy burdens for others.
This is from Matthew 23:4, part of Jesus’ chapter-long polemical rant against the religious leaders: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The language of burden and yoke was a common metaphor for how religious leaders interpreted scripture. A “heavy burden” was a burdensome interpretation. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus contrasted himself with legalistic religious leaders. For their part, they accused Jesus of misreading the Bible or of “abolishing the law” (Matthew 5:17)—exactly the same arguments made against LGBTQ persons and their allies.
Anti-gay Christianity claims that “acting on” gay or lesbian attraction is a sin, and that they should abstain from sexual pleasure or intimacy with another human being for their entire lives. This is a “heavy burden” that most straight Christians do not shoulder themselves, but one which anti-gay Christians lay upon the shoulders of others. While celibacy may be a lifestyle choice, requiring it of others is certainly putting a burden on their shoulders.
Though they have accepted the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity may be something we’re born with, some of my colleagues describe LGBTQ identity as a genetic disorder, a product of our fallen world, like alcoholism or genetic obesity. The difference between being LGBTQ and being an alcoholic is empirical: “treatment” for addiction or obesity leads to lower mortality, depression, suicide, and other risk factors. But “treatment” to “cure” being LGBTQ leads to more depressions, suicide, and other risk factors. This burden isn’t heavy—it is crushing, even fatal.
(See also Acts 15:10: “Now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”)
Matthew 23 also contains at least two more relevant scriptures, including:
2. Locking people out of the kingdom of God.
Jesus continues to rail against religious leaders, saying: “For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them” (Matthew 23:13). There are a lot of ways to interpret what it means to “lock someone out of the kingdom,” but telling people they are abominations has got to be high on the list. Taken with the “heavy burden” line a few verses earlier, it seems overly strict interpretations of scripture may be what Jesus is talking about here. People want to enter and participate in the kingdom, but they are made to feel unwelcome.
3. Proselytizing hateful attitudes.
“For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). Franklin Graham is probably the highest-profile Christian leader connected with promoting anti-gay legislation in other countries (like Russia and Uganda), but he shares the spotlight with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and pastor Scott Lively. I am reluctant to imitate the rhetoric of anti-gay activists who gleefully declare that LGBTQ persons and their allies are hell-bound. But in the context of Jesus’ angry speech in Matthew 23, I suspect drafting laws that impose the death penalty or jail time on gay people, using the Gospel of Christ as a pretext, is the devil’s own work. How much homophobia is native and how much is imported by Christian missionaries could be debatable—but “crossing sea and land” to make new hate-filled converts is certainly part of the anti-gay agenda.
All of these three themes are applicable to anti-gay attitudes themselves. Religious exculsivism and hypocrisy are something all of the prophets rail against:
“I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6)
“…if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)
and Paul affirms:
“…as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’” (Romans 2:24).
All of these scriptures highlight the theme that religious leaders, in their pursuit of religious zealotry (often supported by the Bible), alienated people from God.
We’ll return to Matthew and the table-turning rhetoric Jesus uses against religious leaders in a bit. But first, let’s flip WAY back to the beginning of the Bible, where God talks about:
4. The importance of companionship.
“It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone,” says God in Genesis 2:18. This scripture, by the way, could be seen as a direct contradiction of Paul’s (or his reader’s) statement in 1 Corinthians 7:1 “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” While Paul thinks that celibacy is preferable (7:7), he acknowledges that all of us “have a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind.”
While anti-gay Christians often say that God made “Adam and Eve,” not “Adam and Steve,” the next event in the creation story isn’t the creation of woman, but the creation of animals (Genesis 2:19-20). It’s only after this long process that God takes Adam’s bone (possibly the baculum, or penis bone) and forms a woman.
This fanciful and humorous creation myth was most likely intended to be descriptive: why, unlike other animals, do human males lack a baculum? Why, unlike other animals, do we have sex for pleasure any time, instead of only when females are in estrus? Why do we long to be united with another? Why do snakes walk on their bellies? Why, unlike other animals, do women have pain in childbirth? The story is descriptive, not prescriptive. It does not say this is the only way to be sexual. In fact, our ability to have sex any time—and in a variety of creative ways—sets us apart from the animals. The authors seem to have recognized this basic fact.
If it is not good that we should be alone (unless it’s by our choice, as both Paul and Jesus indicate), then it is not good to forbid LGBTQ persons intimacy with a partner or “helper” that suits them.
5. The irrelevance of reproduction.
God’s covenant with the ancient Israelites was about two things: land, and offspring to inherit it. But Isaiah claimed that God had a bigger picture in mind. He comforted those prisoners of war in Babylon who had been castrated by their captors:
…do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:4-5)
Again, a common argument by anti-gay Christians against LGBTQ persons is that reproduction and natural law proves God’s intentions for heterosexual pair bonding: Gay couples can’t have babies! But lots of people get married who cannot reproduce: old people and infertile couples, for example. Isaiah upends this argument completely. Reproduction is not necessary to participate in God’s covenant with Abraham. Even eunuchs have a place in the coming Kingdom.
Speaking of eunuchs…
6. Some people are born different. Jesus recognized that people are not always born according to a strict gender binary:
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)
What do we do with people who are born intersex, or without clear gender? Their parents may choose to raise them as male or female, but with whom should they be “allowed” to be intimate? I have never, ever heard a decent explanation for this from anti-gay Christians. And once we open that door, we have to consider the possibility that people may be born with one set of equipment and chromosomes, but a different gender identity.
Jesus also seems to indicate in this passage that celibacy is a lifestyle choice—and not one that is appropriate for everybody. Paul corroborates this idea in 1 Corinthians 7:7, when he says not everyone has the same gifts.
This passage fits nicely with something Paul says as well…
7. Gender is no longer relevant in the new Kingdom. Paul tries to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to live together in harmony and put aside distinctions like who is circumcised or not. But he throws open the door to erasing all kinds of social distinctions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) (see also Colossians 3:11). If we were to write his words for today’s world, we might say, “There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer black, brown, or white, there is no longer male, female, trans, or genderqueer, there is no longer gay, queer, bi, or straight; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
8. God’s impartiality. Multiple authors affirm that “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9, James 2:9, Mark 12:14). I wrote a book about this. The gist is that this phrase was a well known slogan to the early church. If the early church hadn’t decided to accept “abominable” uncircumcised, pork-eating Gentiles, most of us wouldn’t be here. Christianity would have remained a tiny Jewish cult instead of a world-wide movement.
This slogan plays a key role in Romans 1 & 2. Since Romans 1 is often used as a “clobber passage” against homosexuality, it’s important to remember this turning point, where Paul springs the trap on his readers: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself (Romans 2:1). His religious listeners should not assume they are better than the pagan Romans, he says, because God shows no partiality. If people who use Romans 1 to condemn gay and lesbian persons actually read to the end of the chapter, they would be brought up short by Paul’s clever rhetorical trap. If you agree that the Roman emperors (like Caligula, who was stabbed in the genitals by his male concubine—“receiving in his own body the due penalty for his errors”) are without excuse for their sexual deviance, then you, too, are without excuse. Paul’s goal is to use his readers’ prejudice against Roman pagans to indict themselves. If someone is prejudiced against gay folks, the rhetorical trap works just the same.
The phrase “God shows no partiality” was obviously well-known to ancient writers, since it shows up in the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. It’s used to erase distinctions between religious and non-religious, between Jews and Gentiles, between leaders of the church and followers, and between rich and poor. It’s not much of a stretch to use it to erase distinctions between queer and straight, transgender and cisgender.
9. Luke’s gay apocalypse. There is a detailed description of this interpretation here. The first time I read this interpretation of Luke 17:34-35, I thought reading gay and lesbian sex into it was pretty wacky: “In that night, two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding; one will be taken and one will be left.” But now I find it impossible to read the passage without seeing the possibility that Jesus is saying homosexuality is irrelevant to salvation. The fact that the passage begins with a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah may reinforce this reading—if Genesis 19 is really about homosexuality.
This interpretation does interesting things to our arguments about the Bible and LGBTQ issues. In our modern debate, anti-gay Christians claim that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about homosexuality. The counter-argument is that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is really about xenophobia and violence toward strangers. The inhabitants of the towns threaten visitors with rape. So, the counter-argument goes, this is a story about violence and exploitation, not a story about consensual sex between people of the same gender.
But because Luke’s apocalypse references Sodom and Gomorrah and two men in one bed, then I think it’s reasonable to claim that if one is about homosexuality, then so is the other—and if one isn’t then neither is the other.
The other common New Testament debate is about what Paul meant by the word “arsenokoites” from 1 Corinthians, 6:9. It’s often translated as “male prostitutes” or “homosexuals” or even “Sodomites,” but it is really a compound Greek word formed by the word “man” and “bed.” Anti-gay Christians claim that the word is clearly Paul’s reference to homosexuality. The counter argument is that it could be about any kind of sexual abuse or exploitation. The anti-gay response is that no, really, man-bedders has got to be a reference to the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22, “lying with a man.”
But Luke’s gay apocalypse also turns this argument on its head. If “man-bedders” is “clearly” Paul’s reference to homosexuality, then Jesus’ similar language about two men in a bed must also be about homosexuality. This is one of those interpretive situations where you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Either Paul isn’t talking about gay sex and Jesus isn’t either, or they both are. Either the story of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t about gay sex, and Luke’s gay apocalypse isn’t either, or they both are. Either way, Jesus trumps both Genesis and Paul.
And speaking of Jesus, let’s end with…
10. Jesus loves weddings. In one parable Jesus tells, the folks who refuse to attend the wedding and who refuse to celebrate are not the good guys (Matthew 22:1-14). We don’t really know why they refuse to celebrate; maybe the king’s son is gay?
While the parable is often read as an allegory or an indictment of “the Jews,” A.J. Levine points out that these kinds of readings are not always faithful to Jesus’ Jewish context. The fact is, we know people who refuse to attend weddings, or who only attend because there’s an open bar. We know people who shout and wave signs to protest marriages. What the king (or the nameless host in Luke 14:15-24) decides to do is go out and bring in random people off the street, whether they were originally invited or not.
Anti-gay preachers and protesters at gay weddings are an object lesson for this parable. They are a concrete reminder that no situation, not even heaven itself, is so joyous that someone can’t find a reason to moan. Is it really so hard to imagine people refusing to attend or celebrate a wedding, when we see it happen in front of our own faces?
I do not pretend that my presentation of these scriptures is a thorough or unbiased exegesis. I’ve found that anti-gay Christians who use clobber passages from the Bible are quick to point out proof-texting and eisegesis when others do it. This is both a case of pointing out the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, and of being able to dish it out but not take it.
But because anti-gay rhetoric has dominated public dialogue about religion and sexuality for the last forty years, I think it’s important for Christians who favor LGBTQ inclusion to reframe the discussion. It’s also important because people who wield the Bible as a weapon need to know what it feels like to be told you are on the wrong side of the wrath of God. The Word of God is indeed a two-edged sword, and it cuts both ways. People who use it as such had better be skilled enough that they don’t cut off important parts of themselves.
The fact is that most people are not persuaded by nuanced academic readings of the Bible. Persuasion happens because of relentless repetition in countless sermons, bumper-sticker slogans plastered across T-shirts and cars, and conventional wisdom passed along among friends. For this reason, I think it’s important that LGBTQ Christians and their allies learn these biblical themes, and spread them far and wide.
Here they are again, in digestible form:
Don’t tie up heavy burdens for others that you don’t have to bear (Matthew 23:4)
Don’t lock people out of the kingdom of God (Matthew 23:13)
Don’t cross sea and land to convert people to your hellish religion (Matthew 23:15)
It is not good for humans to be alone (Genesis 2:18)
I will give you an inheritance better than sons or daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5)
There are eunuchs who have been so from birth (Matthew 19:12)
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28)
God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11)
In that night, two men will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding; one will be taken and one will be left (Luke 17:34-35)
Those who refuse to celebrate weddings are not the good guys (Matthew 22:1-14)