Language. Nature. Fruit: A Biblical Case for Inclusion

It’s not a sin to be gay. MIC DROP.

But really, it’s not, and I’m here to explain why.  I hope you’ll go on this little journey with me. This is no time for shortcuts, so make some coffee and settle in.

Let’s start by looking at words.

I love language. Like, LOVE. My wife is Russian and we have these language battles about whose language is better, and the game goes like this – we try to give each other a word that does not have an equivalent in the other language. The other day she thought of this word in Russian: pochemuchka. Its literal translation is “a child who asks lots of questions.” English doesn’t have a singular word like this. We have to say, “a person who asks lots of questions.”

She has other great words. She wins all the time.

This is a common thing across languages, because languages are cultural. Some words in one language just don’t, or can’t, translate to another language because there is no cultural equivalent or need for it. There is a fantastic Icelandic word, gluggavedur, which literally means, “weather that looks beautiful while you are inside, but is much too cold when you step outside.” Ha! You’re not going to need that word in, say, Portuguese. Or in Finnish they have this word, poronkusema, which means “the distance a reindeer can walk before needing to use the bathroom.” What?? You’re probably not going to need that word in any other language, honestly.

But this even happens within a language, usually as a reflection of place or time. I grew up in North Carolina and always have called a winter hat a “toboggan.” Right y’all? But when I moved to Wisconsin and asked if I could borrow a toboggan when we went hiking they brought along a round sled. They had never heard the word referred to as a winter hat before, all they knew was it was a round snow sled. Our differing definitions of that word were defined by place.

Have you ever seen a Shakespeare play? Did you have any clue what the actors were saying? Even though it’s English, ask any Shakespeare actor and they’ll tell you that they spend a lot of time in preparation just translating their lines, yes translating, from 16th century English to modern English just so they can correctly act out what the playwright intended. When you come across “I’ll bite my thumb at you, sir!” you’re going to need to know what that means. Luckily we have enough historical and contextual information about 16th century England to be able to mostly understand what Shakespeare was talking about. So, our differing understandings of these words and phrases are defined by time and place.

Language is incredibly complicated. It is a living, breathing, constantly changing entity that both reflects and shapes a culture. It is impossible to keep perfect track of. Now, imagine trying to translate an ancient language, like Biblical Hebrew and Greek, into modern English without having true cultural understanding. We somehow have to cross the bridges of time, place, AND distant culture. The historical information we do have about these cultures and the times in which they were lived is not nearly enough to fully understand the use of language within them. Does that Greek word mean toboggan the hat or toboggan the sled?? It’s impossible to know, so Bible translators do this super smart academic thing called…guessing. That’s not to put down the work that translators do using research, context, and history. But many Greek and Hebrew words don’t get translated word for word because we aren’t really sure how to translate them, or they are truly untranslatable to English. As my wife can attest to, all translation involves interpretation. So, we do our best.

A great example is the Greek word, splangchonozomai. The current Biblical translation of this is “to take pity”, as used in the story of the Good Samaritan. Like, the Samaritan “took pity” upon the man…but this is a terribly shallow translation. Literally, splangchonozomai means that “your insides are twisted with compassion.” That full definition completely changes the meaning of the text.

How we translate words changes everything.

You still with me?

So,  the reason I don’t believe that it’s a sin to be gay is that I fundamentally do not believe that the word “homosexual” used in the New Testament means what we use it for today.

The Greek word used in the New Testament for “homosexual” has no connotation of same sex loving relationships or same sex orientation. Period. Hard stop. The words used, malakoi and arsenkoitai, are typically used to describe things like uncontrolled lust and/or male sexual abusers. In fact, the word, “Homosexual” is a pretty new word in English! It didn’t even exist in literature until the 19th century. The first time anyone used it in connection with the idea that people are oriented towards attraction based on gender was in Karl Westphal‘s famous 1870 article Contrary Sexual Feeling. 1870 you guys. After Shakespeare, even.

Sexual orientation didn’t exist as we understand it before then. So Paul could not have been talking about “sexual orientation” here in the New Testament when he used those words. It just wasn’t a thing. Yes, same-sex relationships existed in Paul’s day but it still wasn’t anything close to what we know it as today. (more on that…)

Now, let’s throw in some cultural context here: the Romans were a terribly promiscuous people. No, let me rephrase that: wealthy Roman men were terribly promiscuous. We have a ton of historical information about this – if you were a free wealthy man, you could have sex with any other person who was lower in social class than you and the other person just had to deal with it. This included women, slaves, and even slave boys. Like, there are stories that if a wealthy man walked by a woman he wanted to have sex with in the street, he could do it. Further, we also know that it was a common practice for wealthy men to rape both young girls and young boys as part of the Roman Temple pagan worship services. It was bad y’all.

While men raping boys and men raping other slave women was common, people openly living in same sex relationships WAS NOT. Sure, it happened, but it was not common or culturally accepted. So, why would Paul be speaking about the small number of people living in same sex relationships and making sure the early church protected itself from them? Paul was worried about big picture stuff. About the real dangers the early Christians would face every day.

As you see, over and over again, Paul was concerned with two main dangers: idolatry and abuse.

When Paul talks about sin he talks about it in those two main categories. We know that abusive sex was a huge part of Roman society and that abusive sex (both hetero and homosexual) was a key part of the Roman Temple pagan worship system. This was ugly and the early Christians would have been surrounded with it. Some of them had probably participated in these sexual rituals or been subject to them depending upon their economic status. But when they became a Christian they were putting off this sort of sexual abuse and sexual idolatry to seek the best for each other.

This is what Roman 1 is referring to when it says, 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 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.”

This passage is not talking about sexual orientation or sexual relationships – but idolatry. “Exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human”… Paul is talking about how and what we worship. Where does worship happen? In the temple. What do we know happened in the Roman temple? Men and women degrading themselves with abusive sexual acts in the name of the Roman gods. Idolatry & abuse.

PSA: Same sex relationships do not have abuse at their core. They are relationships built on mutual respect and care for each other – just like any other relationship.

Ok, I’m going to throw a curveball here: let’s talk about eunuchs for a second. Roll with it.

What even is a eunuch? Well – they were those men in ancient days that were sometimes designated to be the servants or protectors of royal women. It is believed that that they were either naturally or forcefully made incapable of reproducing and sometimes of even having sex . The king didn’t want to take any chances that the men serving royal women created heirs. We also are pretty sure that any man who didn’t present cisgendered or was not attracted to women was likely categorized under the broad term of “eunuch”. So, what does the Bible say about eunuchs? Isaiah 56:4 says that “when God brings the new day of salvation (Jesus’ Kingdom) eunuchs would have an inheritance and a position of redemption.” Well damn, that’s pretty clear. And who was one of the first foreign converts in Acts? An Ethiopian eunuch. Funny how the Apostle Philip just met this guy and baptized him without stipulation or reservation. Welcome into the inclusive church of Acts my eunuch friend!

Under this category of “eunuch” would also have been a lot of people who today we would call “intersex”. What is “intersex”? This is when a child is born that does not fit within the clearly defined definition of “male” or “female.” Think it’s rare or not real? Think again! About 2% of kids born aren’t fully dimorphic, meaning their sexual organs don’t present as fully male or female. And this only accounts for sexual organs… research tells us that this stat is much higher when considering what may happen in the brain. Guess what else is 2% of the population? Redheads!

Imagine if we said God was against all redheads. Wouldn’t that be silly? By the way, 2% of the population equals 102 million people that don’t exactly fit in our limited, binary gender system. 102 MILLION. Hello.

Ok so, the Greek word we translated as “homosexual” really means weird Roman sexual abuse, there are lots of more kinds of people than we like to think there are and the Bible is totally accepting of those people even in the limited way people understood gender and chromosomes and human sexuality back then.

We on the same page? Good.

So, Sometimes I hear people say, “It’s not natural for people to be gay or transgender – God didn’t intend this – just look at nature.” Ok, let’s do it. Two words: GAY PENGUINS (it’s a thing). But seriously, animals are “gay” all the time. Birds, cats, penguins. And not just when there’s a shortage of hetero mates. It just happens. And, did you know there is a whole classification of animals, like the kobudai fish, that actually biologically change their sex (and reproductive functionality) at some point in their adult life. Clownfish do this too. The majority of these animal hermaphrodites are known as “protogynous” (Greek for “female first”): they switch from female to male. These animals are designed to transition genders. If we all agree that God created everything, then we can agree that God designed beings in nature that are intended to cross the gender spectrum. And we already agreed that it really IS a spectrum (remember intersex folks?), not just two categories. #science

So, we have a lot of info. What do we do with it all? Well, let’s talk about fruit. Not the kind you eat. (Although why are grapes so good??)

We already know a few objective truths about theology:

  • Good theology produces peace, shalom, and flourishing for people. This is God’s desire.
  • Bad theology does the opposite – leads people to division, pain, and suffering (remember the church’s justification of slavery? yikes).
  • Any theology and interpretation of Scripture should be known by the fruit it produces.

And here are some cold hard facts about LGBTQIA people in churches: (I did a ton of research on this in my Doctoral program and have the books to prove it).

  • When a church fails to embrace, love, and affirm someone’s sexuality it leads to depression, anxiety, exclusion from family systems, and suicide. 85% of the time they leave the church. Underline it, highlight it, memorize it.
  • When a church embraces, loves, and affirms someone’s sexuality it has the direct opposite effect: LGBTQ members experience happier lives, better relationships, and grow in their faith.

The outcome of good theology is peace. You want members of the LGBTQ community to experience shalom and peace in their life? To grow in their faith? To stay in the church? Of course you do because you keep saying that “you love them.” Then embrace them fully. Affirming Christian members of the LGBTQ community directly leads to higher faith levels. (I have a whole academic paper on this).  We know from endless studies that acceptance of LGBTQ+ people also equals health. Acceptance equals flourishing, higher self-esteem, and more stability. Less risk of suicide, mental health issues, addictions, and self-harm.

Ok. We’ve reached the end of the trail, friends.

We’ve talked about how the Bible was not referencing loving homosexual relationships, but instead is talking about harmful abuse and idolatry. Paul was worried about THAT, not about two same-gendered people in a respectful relationship. We then talked about the spectrum of biology and sexualities, and how in the Bible the very first foreign person to be converted to Christianity and welcomed into the global church was a eunuch, and that that term covered a wide range of types of people. You think that was a coincidence? It wasn’t. Finally we talked about how to tie all of this information up: by examining the fruit. It only takes knowing one person in the LGBTQIA community to understand that acceptance=flourishing, and rejection=damage.

Our goal as Christians is to spread God’s love all over the place. You don’t get to pick and choose who God loves. Who is welcome. Who is called to ministry.

I’m 40 years old and if you are my age or older, you know that you grew up with negative messages about the gay community all around you. As people, we are always afraid of what is not common, what we don’t have experience with. This is the brain’s defense mechanism to keep us alive #science. But the Bible tells us time and time again to “Fear not.” We have taken a cultural issue and made it a theological issue and have used the Bible to justify our fear of people who are different from us without even trying to understand. I’m tired of churches shaming the gay community and causing harm. The only way we change this is by people speaking up and speaking out, by churches taking stands for inclusion and love. Together, we can change the rhetoric of the church. Sure, there will be backlash – I’ve had more tomatoes thrown at me than I can count. But God is not a God of exclusion or fear or hate. God is a God of love and all theology should point to that. Period.

Conclusion: The Bible does not say its a sin to be gay. To all my LGBTQ friends I want you to know – God loves you. You are perfect just as you are. And I’m with you because I know God is with you too. (And even the Bible is with you!)

I’m sure you’re done with your coffee by now and read all the words you can today. *Back to your regularly scheduled life.*

Stay with Love my friends! Hate is too much of a burden to bear.

3 comments

  1. I attend Church of the Resurrection here in KC under the leadership of Adam Hamilton. I am older than you 🙂 and did grow up under a very conservative religion. I always questioned what I was taught, but never got any real answers…it was almost like they were saying, “because I said so”. I struggle to this day with my relationship with God (not necessarily in a bad way), but definitely a searching way. BUT I struggle more with professing Christians being so hateful. I look at the life of Christ and am in awe. I am hopeful and humbled that one day he’ll invite me to be at his banquet table, where I’m sure I’ll be seated next to some very colorful people! My heart gets so heavy reading some of the comments. I applaud you for sharing this post and will commit to pray for you during this season of Lent. God bless!

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  2. Jason, how is your church effected by the recent UMC decisions at St. Louis Conference? And can I ask what is the mean, median and mode age of your congregation? I belong to a small very old german elca lutheran church in the midwest My husband is on church council and they are discussing gay marriage.

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  3. Thank you Jason. I am a Methodist Pastor with a gay Son. In light of the recent General conference decision in St. Louis retaining the hurtful language concerning gay pastors and gay marriage, your message gives me hope and insight that Christians may someday truly love all God’s people.

    Like

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