Sunday, August 11, 2013

Homosexuality and The Bible

Needless to say, the issue of homosexuality has created quite a firestorm in our world. What makes this firestorm particularly hot for us is that the battle lines have been drawn at the front door of the church. I’ve heard some Christian ministers couch this discussion in terms of a “war.” Others have gone so far as to call it a “crusade.” Inviting images of Christians going to battle, with the Bible in one hand, picket signs in the other.

But from the midst of this firestorm, once again, we see real people. Strip away the court cases and the picket signs, and you begin to see how this issue is affecting real people. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center did a study on teenagers. They estimate that 30-40% of gay and lesbian teenagers have attempted suicide. A father and mother in this room have had to listen to their child explain their own same sex attraction. There are undoubtedly people in this room this morning who are homosexual. Some are acting on those feelings. Others have kept their feelings secret from their parents, from their spouses, from their children.

I’ll be honest with you church. When I began to conceive of this series many months ago, I knew I would preach a sermon on this topic. But I have pushed it back week after week after week. I’ve been waiting for God to give me the right words. I’ve been waiting for God to give me more clarity on where He wants us to stand as this firestorm is raging. I want you to know up front, my goal is to treat this issue with all of the sensitivity it deserves. There will be no gay-bashing. There will be no fiery political speech, urging you to get out your picket signs and march. Instead, I want us to open up God’s Word and look carefully at what God says to us about homosexuality.

And right away, we have to admit, God doesn’t say much about it!

There are only 6 texts in the Bible that mention homosexuality, and five of them are extremely ambiguous. The first text is Genesis 19:1-29. This is the story of God’s judgment of Sodom & Gomorrah. From this story, we get the word “Sodomy,” which has become a shorthand label for homosexuality. The problem with using this text as a judgment against homosexuality is this. There is no judgment against homosexuality there. If you remember the story, two angels visit Lot and his family in Sodom. Lot’s neighbors arrive at his front door, demanding that he send out to them the two “visitors” so they can rape them. The attempted sin in this text is rape, not homosexuality, and interestingly, whenever the sin of Sodom & Gomorrah is mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, nothing sexually related is ever mentioned. Ezekiel 16:49 says, for example:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy…

So many of us rehearse the belief that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality, but according to the Bible, that is not true. The sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was greed! A condition much more common, in fact, than homosexuality

The second and third texts are found in Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads:

You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Leviticus 20:13 reads:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood upon them.

Without question, these passages are unequivocally about homosexuality. Additionally, the judgment against homosexuality is unambiguously negative. If we are honest with the text, however, we cannot ignore its context. Both of these texts fall in a section of Leviticus known as the “Holiness Code”. As Israel was preparing to move into the Promised Land, God gave them instructions about how to be holy, about how to set themselves apart from their neighbors. Also in this list of instructions are the commands, not to eat meat with blood in it (like a rare steak) (Lv 17:10), not to have a round haircut (Lv 19:27), not to wear garments of mixed fabric (Lv 19:19), and not to touch the skin of a pig—there goes football (Lv 11:8). Likewise, one must also consider the possibility that the reason this prohibition against homosexuality existed at this time had to do with the inability of homosexuals to procreate! As Israel was moving in to take the Promised Land, numbers were important!

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, a man named Onan is put to death for “spilling his seed” on the ground. Procreation was vitally important to Israel. They were commanded to be fruitful and multiply. It is possible that the reason the prohibition against homosexuality in Leviticus exists is because homosexuals do not produce children. If the goal was to enlarge the kingdom of Israel, homosexuals were not much help! So the verdict on the Leviticus texts: Homosexuality is without a doubt wrong, we are left, however, wondering if Israel’s specific context invited such a condemnation, and if all of those commands—including those having to do with haircuts, fabrics, and football—are still binding.

The next two passages are found in the New Testament: I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:10. We will deal with them together, because they share the same issue. I Corinthians 6:9-11 reads:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the LORD Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Paul here is exasperated because the Corinthian Christians, though they had accepted Christ, were still engaging in their old habits. Listed among those old habits were two important words for our discussion. Listed just after adulterers and just before thieves are two interesting words. Malakoi & arsenokoitai. Here is the problem: There is no term in either Greek or Hebrew that means "homosexual.” And so, it is not as easy as saying these two words can be translated “male prostitute” or “homosexual”. These two words are translated variously in different English translations. The first word, malakoi, is a word that is often used in Hellenistic Greek as a pejorative slang term to describe “passive partners” These passive partners in that world were most often young boys who prostituted themselves to older men, a practice not altogether uncommon, especially among the elite classes of society.

The second word, arsenokoitai, is a bit more tricky. It is not found anywhere else in ancient Greek literature. Just here in I Corinthians. There seems to be some idiomatic connection between the root of this word and the Greek translation of Leviticus 20 that describes a man who lies with another man. But given that close connection, some have suggested that Paul may here be describing a very specific activity in the Greco-Roman world, the practice of older, wealthy, influential men having sexual relationships with young, male prostitutes. If that were to be the case, it would make sense why these two terms are used side by side, the young male prostitutes and the men who purchase their services. In that case, the sin here could be a domineering man having sex with a passive young boy. We don’t know for certain if that is what Paul had in mind, but the text is a bit ambiguous.

In short, each of these 5 texts provide as many questions as they do answers, and one would be hard pressed to build a tight case against homosexuality with just these verses. We must be willing to admit that. We must be honest about that.

A final text, however, is the most crucial for Christian ethics concerning homosexuality.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.  Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (Romans 1: 18-32)

As I’ve said many times from this pulpit, all theology begins in Genesis 1-2. There, we have a picture of the world as God intended for it to be. Paul ties his entire argument back to creation. In verses 19-20, Paul writes:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things He made...

God created a perfect world. But instead of accepting the perfection of that world as a gift from their Creator, the creation exchanged God’s gift for something else. Three times in this short passage, Paul writes how humanity “exchanged” God’s gift for something else.

Verse 23: “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images…”
Verse 25: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie…”
Verse 26: “They exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural…”

And three times we see the result of that exchange…

Verse 24: “So God gave them up to the lusts of their hearts…”
Verse 26: “So God gave them up to degrading passions…women exchanging natural relations for unnatural & men committing shameless acts with other men…”
Verse 28: “So God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done…”

In this passage, Paul unequivocally condemns homosexuality. This is not an argument he ties to his own context. This instead is a position he ties to creation itself. God created the world to reveal His nature. If you recall from Genesis 1:27...

So God made humankind in his image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.

Paul said, God has shown the world His image. But they have exchanged that image for something else. But he also makes an interesting argument here. He does not say, “People committed homosexual acts, so God punished them…” Instead, he says, “The world rejected God, so God handed them over to their degrading passions…” Among those degrading passions: homosexuality.

Richard Hays, a respected NT scholar writes:

Paul is not warning his readers that they will incur the wrath of God if they do the things he lists here; rather, speaking in Israel’s prophetic tradition, he is presenting an empirical survey of rampant human lawlessness as evidence that God’s wrath and judgment are already at work in the world. (Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament)

God’s wrath does not come because of homosexuality. Homosexuality is part of God’s wrath! When creation rejected God, God handed them over to their own desires. No matter how destructive, no matter how contrary to His nature, no matter how inferior they are to His original design for us. Because we rejected God, God has handed us over to wickedness, envy, murder, greed, unnatural intercourse and shameless sexual acts.

God’s judgment against our rebellion is to allow us to live in a world contrary to His perfect nature. What God has planned for us is so much better! But because we rejected Him, God’s justice demands that we live here—in a world where we get to choose what we want instead of what God wants! In a world where, as Paul writes in verse 32, we are so blind that we even applaud those who relish in their punishment.

But church, there is an important part of Paul’s argument that we cannot, we must not, overlook. In the very next chapter, Romans 2, Paul begins…

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are all under the judgment of God. We must quit acting like everyone else’s sin is worse than our own!

I want to share with you a real struggle I have when preaching about this issue. There is a reason I have put this sermon off for several weeks. There is a war waging inside of me. On the one side is my strong conviction to be faithful to the Word of God. On the other side is the great pain I feel for people who struggle with homosexuality. I am not a scientist. I am not even qualified to speak on the question of nature vs. nurture. There are experts that say people are born homosexuals. There are other experts who swear they are not. The only thing I have to go on is my experience with people and I have known some very godly people who would not choose to be homosexual. They have battled against it for years. They come from normal families. Their fathers did not neglect them. Their earliest memories of sexual attraction were always homosexual.

I do not know how to handle that. Is it OK for the preacher to say that? I used to be scared to say, “I don’t know,” especially from the pulpit, but I’m saying it now: “I don’t know why some people (seem to be) born with this desire.” The only thing I am able to do is to go to scripture and say homosexual desires as well as so many other desires are part of our fallen nature. Some of us are genetically disposed toward alcoholism. Some of us struggle with envy. Some of us struggle with heterosexual lust. Some of us are materialists who neglect the poor. I know there are some people with homosexual desires that will accuse me of taking away their identity by calling attention to Paul’s words about homosexuality. But here is an important word church: None of these items gives us our identity. The color of my skin does not define me. My gender does not define me. My sexual orientation does not define me. My identity as a child of God is the only thing that defines me.

Brothers and sisters, I want to say a final word about how we are handling this issue. I think it is important to say that the concept of homosexuality appears in only 6 verses in the entire Bible. And, as we’ve seen, in most of those passages, there is considerable ambiguity, and Jesus never said one thing about it. Does that mean we should just ignore it? No. Jesus didn’t mention a lot of things. But it does make you realize there are certainly many more important things that should be dominating the Christian headlines these days.

In contrast to the idea of homosexuality the word “forgiveness” appears 143 times! The word “grace” appears 180 times! And the word “love” appears 645 times! I have wondered in recent years why so many Christians have allowed this to become the defining issue of our time. In one of her recent blogs, author Rachel Held Evans asked this series of questions:

So why do so many Christians focus on the so-called “clobber verses” related to homosexuality while ignoring “clobber verses” related to gluttony or greed, head coverings or divorce?  Why is homosexuality the great biblical debate of this decade and not slavery, (as it once was) or the increasing problem of materialism and inequity? Why do so many advocate making gay marriage illegal but not divorce, when Jesus never referenced the former but spoke quite negatively about the latter?

I’m not suggesting we have a contest about which sins are worse than others! The point is, we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Some of you this morning may be wresting with very practical questions about this issue: Can I be friends with a homosexual? Is a homosexual person welcome at Glenwood? I’ll tell you how I answer those questions. Yes, I can be a friend with a homosexual. If God calls us “friend” though we are sinners,  I think we can accept each other—no matter what sin we struggle with. And yes, homosexuals are welcome at Glenwood. The day we bar homosexuals from entry is the day we will put up barriers for everyone else: the gossips, the drunks, the liars, and the materialists. This would be a very empty room indeed if we didn’t allow fallen people to be here.

And to be honest, I’m ready for Christians to be known more by what we are “for” and less about what we are “against.” Our world is a fallen, broken, depressed, violence-filled, angry, lost, world; and as bearers of the Gospel (the good news) of Jesus Christ’s salvation, we hold the only remedy in our hands! Now, that is something to be "for." That is good news that can help a fallen world like ours stand up again!

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