I wrote the following article while a graduate student of philosophy at Texas A&M University. I did not always endorse the views I express in my article. Over time, I came to embrace a more inclusive vision of God’s work in the world and in the church. But this did not occur overnight.
While I am now an Episcopalian and do not describe myself as an evangelical, I grew up in fairly conservative Pentecostal churches and attended Biola University (a school that is representative of mainstream evangelicalism). While a student there I first began to wrestle with issues about gender equality in society, the family, and in the church. By the time I met my wife, I had gone some distance towards embracing an egalitarian understanding of male-female relations. And by the time I had graduated with my B.A. I was a self-described “evangelical feminist.” A consequence of my change in perspective was that I left a little-known break-away denomination from the Episcopal Church (the Reformed Episcopal Church) and joined the Episcopal Church, U.S.A.
The next step in my education was seminary. I decided to attend Fuller Theological Seminary. Fuller, unlike Biola, is often regarded as representative of the evangelical left. Most of the students are self-described evangelicals from mainline denominations. There was more openness at Fuller to discussing issues about human sexuality (in spite of the official policy proscribing homosexual activity). I became aware of inconsistencies in my thinking about the equality of believers and God’s inclusive work in the world and my views about sexual ethics. I found that to demand celibacy of my brothers and sisters who were not heterosexual ran contrary to a view of God’s love as encompassing all expressions of self-giving love that reflect the sort of union of mutual respect and sacrifice being realized between God and creation. My first serious steps towards endorsing a more consistent sexual ethic that places the same burdens and affords the same benefits of sexual expression on all Christians occurred in two courses. One was a course taught by Ched Myers (author of Who Will Roll Away the Stone?, among others) on Christianity and social justice, the other was a course on New Testament Ethics with the New Testament scholar, G. Walter Hansen. In both I was forced to think hard about the theological reasons for and against full inclusiveness for GLBT Christians. But the watershed moment for me was when I had to defend the inclusivist view in New Testament Ethics. From that point on, I felt more strongly pulled towards accepting inclusivism and getting a settled view on these matters.
Resolution came for me almost six months after finishing my M.A. in theology, right before commencing my graduate studies in philosophy at Texas A&M (followed by the University of Rochester, where I received my PhD). My wife had already been expressing a commitment to inclusivism in our repeated conversations about these matters. I had already found the scriptural and philosophical arguments for non-inclusivism to be weak. But I found tradition to be strongly in favor of non-inclusivism. My epiphany came while in San Francisco for a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. I attended mass at Grace Episcopal Cathedral — a church well-known for its commitment to social justice and progressive Christianity. Many of the parishioners at Grace are from the GLBT community of San Francisco. I was aware of this. During the Eucharist I was deeply moved by the experience of sharing the Bread and Wine with the persons whose status in the church and, if you will, full humanity (including the right to express mutual love) I had been questioning. I left with a new-found openness and recognition of the Holy Spirit’s moving me to accept inclusivism. My head, in this instance, followed my heart. But, like St. Augustine, I sought understanding after having been moved emotionally to embrace an inclusive vision of the ways mutual love and sacrifice can be expressed sexually between two persons. This article is the fruit of my earliest efforts to articulate reasons for rejecting the view that only heterosexuals are permitted to model in their relationships the sort of erotic love God also exhibits in loving creation. I hope in the future to work on something more substantial aimed at an academic audience.
Hopefully the efforts of myself and others like me will influence those in positions of leadership at schools like Biola to be more open to honest debate and discussion of sexual ethics. If all truth is God’s truth, then they should have nothing to fear. They should bring Christian scholars and organizers representing a wide array of perspectives to the table. They did this at Fuller while I was there (and I suspect they still do). Fuller is still an evangelical seminary. And there are still a variety of perspectives represented in the faculty and student body on these matters. Hegemony, whether from the right or the left, is undesirable. Openness to free inquiry and debate is a virtue that ought to be exemplified by all academic institutions. Perhaps one day Biola and similar institutions will exhibit this virtue more consistently than they do at present.
Andrei A. Buckareff
Visiting Assistant Professor
Department of Philosophy
Franklin & Marshall College
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE
by Andrei A. Buckareff
Recently both in this community and around the country there have been a rash of hate-crimes committed and homophobic remarks uttered by people claiming to uphold the sexual norms prescribed by the Bible. As an evangelical Christian and a graduate of an evangelical seminary, I am concerned about claims to the effect that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are anti-homosexual, that Jesus Christ actually proscribed homosexuality, and that God, in the words of some, “hates fags”.
First, the Hebrew Bible, or “Old” Testament, contains very few remarks about homosexual activity. Most of what it says about homosexual activity, in Genesis 19:1-29 and Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, should be viewed in light of the sexual licentiousness and religious practices of the surrounding cultures where the idea of two homosexual persons in a committed relationship was a foreign notion altogether. Thus, the applicability of this passage to our present context seems questionable. As the Oxford theologian Oliver O’Donovan notes: “when biblical commands are isolated from their context in the narrative of God’s works, the demand they make becomes less, not more intelligible. For a command, once given, becomes a fact of history. . . . The fact that it was issued then does not make it authoritative for all believers at every time.”
Even the infamous case of Sodom and Gomorrah has nothing to do with homosexuality. According to the prophet Ezekiel, Sodom’s sin was that it had “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Moreover, other early extra-biblical Jewish sources, when they attacked homosexuality, usually specified it as pederasty. Things are not much different in the Christian New Testament. The few remarks one finds on homosexual activity in the Pauline corpus and the Pastoral epistles (Romans 1:26-27; I Corinthians 6:9-11; and I Timothy 1:10) are most likely references to pederasty and the association made during the first-century C.E. between homosexuality, extra-marital heterosexual activity, and the various religions competing with Christianity.
The Greek term most often used to describe those engaged in “homosexual” behavior in the literature of Paul’s time is arsen/arren, which is the generic term for a male, rather than aner, the term for an adult male. Sex between men was not culturally acceptable in the milieu within which Paul was writing, hence his description of unnatural behavior seems to be about the kind of exploitative power relations which were typical of not only pederasty, but heterosexual relationships during the period.
Furthermore, lesbianism was unheard of during this period; thus, Romans 1:26 is most likely about heterosexual relations. So James Miller writes that: “There are two basic reasons why a first-century hearer of Romans 1:27 would think specifically of pederasty. First, Paul is attacking an accepted Gentile practice. Homosexuality between adult males was not an accepted activity, but pederasty was. Second, in light of Jewish polemic against Gentile practices, by using the term arsen Paul implies that at least one of the males involved is not an aner. The terminology of Romans 1:27 is characteristic of pederasty.”
It is also important to note that the sexual practices of Gentiles during the first-century C.E. were quite different from ours today. Moreover, their understanding of human sexuality was not as developed. For example, homosexual activity between consenting adults was not accepted, whereas pederasty was accepted. Anal intercourse was normal, oral sex was regarded as deviant; marital fidelity was not reciprocal among both Jews and Gentiles — the male being free while the woman was bound to be subservient; and “slaves of either gender were considered the sexual property of their master.” For Paul, the notion of two persons of the same gender in a committed covenant relationship was a foreign concept. Admittedly, he may have frowned upon it if it occurred during his own day. But the spirit of the law is what those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are obliged to keep, not the letter. People in the church today are involved in a growing narrative where they are confronted with new challenges all the time. Let’s not forget that it was not long ago that most of the churches in the West accepted slavery as a God-ordained practice, and they had the Scripture passages to prove it. The thrust of the biblical message, however, is toward freedom and liberation. The law of love is what circumscribes the behavior of those committed to this narrative tradition.
Finally, many of the most vociferous opponents of the rights of gays and lesbians insist that Jesus disapproved of homosexuality. But Jesus never said anything about homosexuality! People make a huge exegetical error when they infer that Jesus Christ disapproved of homosexuality, particularly committed homosexual relationships. Notice that I used the word “committed.” That is the norm in Judeo-Christian sexual ethics. Those outside of this tradition are not bound by Judeo- Christian sexual ethics; albeit one may argue that committed monogamous relationships are more conducive to the health, both physical and mental, of individuals. However, we should listen to the insights of the Roman Catholic feminist theologian and ethicist, Denise L. Carmody, on the topic of how to determine a norm for acceptable homosexual relationships between Christians: “I believe that the crucial Christian ethical norm is love, that responsible experimenting balances docility to past wisdom with freedom to hear new wisdom from Christ’s Spirit today, and that heterosexuals ought to listen to what lesbians and gays say about their moral struggles more than preach to them norms based on heterosexuality. There is a great mystery about all sexuality, as about all love. The first rule of a prudent, truly faith-filled ethics is to attend reverently to what God seems to be doing in a given situation — to where a given course of action seems in fact to be carrying the people following it.”
In conclusion, there are many committed Jews and Christians who are also homosexuals in relationships that display a stronger commitment than one finds in the culture of divorce among heterosexuals that pervades even churches and synagogues. And many of them are evangelicals and Roman Catholics (perhaps the two largest groups in this community) who want to struggle for justice and proclaim the gospel right alongside those who are so busy condemning them without stopping to listen to their narratives. The God of Judaism and Christianity is a friend of the suffering and a lover of those whom others deem unworthy of loving. Let’s not forget that basic truth.
1. I share the dismay and sentiments of Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones who write: “The intensity of the feelings about homosexuality among many North American and British Christians is odd, particularly since these same people are seemingly apathetic about such issues as material and social justice, the environment and racism. This situation is even more perplexing when we realize that these latter issues are not so much matters of conflicting interpretations as of disobedience, of a sinful unwillingness to perform Scripture when it is clear that it will cost us some of our material comforts and closely guarded prejudices” (Reading in Communion: Scripture & Ethics in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p113).
2. Oliver O’Donovan, “The Foundations of Ethics,” Evangelical Anglicans: Their Role and Influence in the Church Today, eds. R.T. France & A.E. McGrath (London: SPCK, 1993), p. 100. Admittedly, O’Donovan may not share my sentiments regarding the legitimacy of homosexual love; but I am not certain where he stands on the issue.
3. James E. Miller, “Response: Pederasty and Romans 1:27: A Response to Mark Smith,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 65, no. 4 (Winter 1997): p. 863.
4. Ibid., p. 863.
5. Ibid., p. 864.
6. Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 388, 389.
7. Denise Lardner Carmody, Virtuous Woman: Reflections on Christian Feminist Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992), p. 33.