Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Bible & Homosexuality - 13 propositions

(go to to find an edited improved version of this...)
Having heard much talk recently about the Bible and homosexuality, in our Methodist denominational conference, in my home state of North Carolina with its marriage amendment vote, and then President Obama’s statement affirming gay marriage, I have pulled together thirteen propositions that I believe might help us moving forward.

(1) If we could travel back in time to interview the authors of the books of the Bible and the other leaders of God’s people, all of them (Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, James) would have regarded homosexuality as a bad idea. There is no support for homosexuality from these writers.

(2) No one in Bible times had the slightest familiarity with homosexuality as we know it today. Moses and Paul never met the kind of committed gay couple you might know from your neighborhood or the office. When they thought of homosexuality, they thought of an aged Roman senator who had a young boy for a sexual slave, or perhaps a sudden drunken encounter between two people who didn’t know each other five minutes before. In elite Greco-Roman society, there were non-secretive gay and lesbian relationships, but those involved were still married to persons of the opposite sex. Bible writers were against these things, and so am I.

(3) Today, when anyone talks about the Bible being plain, and that they agree with the Bible, they are reading selectively, picking and choosing this or that from the Bible. No one today has any serious intentions of doing everything the Bible says, and certainly an entire state or country does not, or we’d shut down the NFL and the Pentagon, which are quite clearly out of order according to the Bible. Jesus very plainly said if you have a party, don’t invite those who can invite you back, but invite the maimed; most who quote the Bible do precisely the opposite on both.

(4) Similarly, when we speak of the separation of church and state, this often is code language, translated roughly as “If it supports my viewpoint, the state should be involved; if it disagrees with me the state should keep its nose out of our business.” Consistency on the church and state relationship would be helpful. Generally, Christians are foolish if they count on government to enforce what the Church believes.

(5) The Bible’s writers were inspired by God, but clearly they were not taking dictation from God. And they did not anticipate every situation we would deal with in the modern world. They spoke to ancient people, largely about ancient issues, many of which continue today, but in very different forms. So the Bible requires interpretation.

(6) All of us in various ways take the Bible’s core truths and engage in some updating so the heart of the Bible might make sense today. Some of this we do quite faithfully: we are glad women speak in church, and we happily wear blended fabrics. At other times we update the Bible simply to suit our own prejudices: we justify unholy wars, and we are greedy consumers and then say we are “blessed.”

(7) No single Bible verse, or handful of verses, can reveal the fullness of God’s mind. If you retrieved four sentences of various things I have said over my adult life, you would have a skewed image of who I am and what I think. It is the whole body of work, all of God’s Word not just a few words from God’s Word, that tells us what we need to know.

(8) Generally when Christians talk about holiness nowadays, they point the finger at somebody else for not being holy instead of rising up to be holy. When Christians talk about “standards,” they mean religious rules that come quite easily for them or don’t affect them. We could readily focus on “standards” regarding how we spend or make money, or what we thoughtlessly watch on TV, or the rancor we harbor in our hearts against people who disagree with us – but instead the idea of “standards” becomes a weapon against those who aren’t like us.

(9) Christians who seek change on homosexuality are not wise to make “love” their primary argument. “God loves everyone” – but that doesn’t solve anything, since a non-inclusive Christian can quite easily point out that God loves child abusers or alcoholics. God does love, and then the Bible and all of Christian tradition has yearned for us to move past merely being loved by God toward a life of holiness before God. Similarly, to point to “this is the way I was made” helps a lot, but doesn’t entirely solve things, since I might be made with a proclivity toward alcoholism, or a likelihood of lethal disease.

(10) It is a false dichotomy when conservatives declare that liberals want love without holiness. Some liberals are not very holy, but then again quite a few conservatives are not so holy either. Many liberals I know are tremendously holy, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit, with hearts and lifestyles very much dedicated to God.

(11) It is also false to say that conservatives have the Bible on their side and the inclusivity folks ignore the Bible. Serious cases have been made in interpreting the Scriptures for openness to homosexuality, thinking of God's creation of us as the beings we are, the centrality of faithful, monogamous relationships, etc.

(12) God does love everyone, and holiness is God’s desire. But we cannot make anybody else holy. We cannot even make ourselves holy. This is God’s work in us. Our job isn’t to judge others, and our job isn’t to enforce rules on God’s behalf. God is God. What God asks of us is hospitality, love for everyone, openness to everyone, and even an openness to what God might do that we don’t understand, or that makes us uncomfortable. The first people who knew Jesus were so uncomfortable with him, and his way was so out of their holiness box, that they crucified him instead of welcoming him.

(13) Immense humility, and tender care and gratitude are always fitting for Christians. Being right is interesting, but love for those Christ loves is always one step higher in Jesus’ scale of values. To be a listener – and we’ve had far too little listening on both sides – is holy. And we can be grateful for each other, even in our disagreement. Methodists have said for decades that they don’t condone homosexuality; but gays and lesbians keep coming to our churches, they preach, teach, pray, sing, serve, and love – and I for one give endless thanks to God for this miracle of grace that they are still here. And of course, the total inclusivity people need to find ways to include those who disagree, who genuinely are striving to know and serve God with where they are on things. Proverbs 16:7 says “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.”


  1. thank you! Well said. When are you doing the follow up to GC you talked about?

  2. These are very helpful, James, thank you. I am currently experiencing some internal tension over this right now, because my heart is with those who want to change our teaching, but my head is still with Richard Hays, N.T. Wright, Marva Dawn, Stanley Grenz, (some pretty good minds).

    N. T. Wright would dispute your point # 2 above, at about the 5:30 point of this video.

    He would cite Plato's Symposium as an example.

    What to do when your head and heart disagree with one another? Maybe you just acknowledge that they disagree! I would have been in favor of the Hamilton/Slaughter amendment. Thanks for the discussion!

  3. Wow! This a beautifully written post. This is a blessing. I hope many read it.

  4. Excellent essay. I think some people would rather be right than graciously loving. Somehow, I think this grieves the great I AM.

  5. Loving and inclusive commentary is always the best way to interest me and to soften my heart. Thank you for not being "preachy." This is so well thought out and well-written by you, inspired by our Maker, and wholly appreciated by me.

  6. Very well put, much deeper than I could compose, so thank you very much.

    However, suggest in item 8, last should read, "religious rules that come quite easily for them or don’t _a_ffect them."

    Deep thanks again for publishing your thoughts!

  7. "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." James 3:17

  8. I was very glad to read this and to be able to share it. Thank you!

  9. Thank you, James. What a blessing to have seen you in Florida!

  10. Thank you for posting this.

  11. This was extremely refreshing to read. Thank you Pastor Howell.

  12. This is a thoughtful, thought provoking post. I thank you for sharing your perspective on this complex issue.


  13. Beautiful! Beautiful and rational and very helpful to those of us who are interested in real life, not fear. Thank you.

  14. Thank You! More to think about as I wrestle to wrap my heart and head around this issue.

  15. @5:34 Jonathan: I'm reasonably familiar with Plato's Symposium, and Socrates with Alcibiades doesn't exactly match the corner office gay couple. Socrates was *much* older than his "inamorato;" they had a teacher-student relationship; he was married; and the entire relationship was largely based in the then-common (and, I hope, unnatural) thought that women were inferior objects of love, and one who loved a woman worthy only of scorn. I don't think we have a similar context today, where the only acceptable outlet for genuine love is male.

  16. Thanks, Shannon - I was going to write a similar reply, but now I only have a little to add regarding the Symposium:
    To *choose* one's companion on the basis of blanket disdain for the other gender (that is - for men to choose men for sexual and romantic companionship because women were more akin to animals, as per Socrates et al, or for women to choose women because men are more akin to animals, as per a handful of radical feminists in the late 20th century, for whom lesbianism was articulated as a political choice) is also something I would agree is a sin, and something that Paul and the rest of the early church stood clearly opposed to. (In Christ there is no male nor female, etc etc) While this variety of homosexual behavior was practiced in the Mediterranean roughly contemporary with Paul, and was not among those practices mentioned by James in item #2, it remains a kind of sexual behavior that we can rightly condemn today without condemning the vast majority of stable gay and lesbian relationships - which are not based on disdain for the opposite gender, but rooted in happening to be attracted to persons of the same gender.

  17. what a well thought out post..thank you! I do think the perspective that is missing (and is missing quite often from this discussion) is the early church's perspectives on sexuality as a whole. Within the context of defending Christian morality against accusations of elaborate love feasts and wanton disregard for virtue, it was clear in the earliest apologies (i.e. Justin Martyr) that there were strict teachings about the very limited relationships and environments in which sex was permissible for Christians. I still think the most useful scriptural guide for this discussion is Matthew 19 (as opposed to the "clobber verses"), in which Christ very purposefully limits Christian sexual behavior to the most narrow of options.

  18. Interesting veiws, ones that will be ignored or dismissed by the majority of Christians who nevr practice what they preach! And clearly you mean this to reach other Christians since you assume God is a person who lives in the sky and is a bad parent (as seen in much of the Bible). But as a former Christian and life long gay man in a 28 year marraige with another man (not legal of course, I mean come on), Thank you for at least trying to not be full of hate!

  19. I just think we should move past a debate between liberal and conservatives (as we are making it too much about ourselves), and focus on the spiritual evidences before us. That's what was done at the Council of Jerusalem and I believe it is the model we should adopt whenever the Church is faced with a major divergence in doctrine. James, Paul, Peter, John and co... all humbled themselves, prayed together and talked about what the Holy Spirit had done through the Gentiles and drew their conclusions from God's lead.

  20. Well written. Thought provoking. Well worth reading and sharing. Thank you.

  21. Tristan - I apologize for the hurt Christians have caused you. I hope we can change for the better and that this debate will seem quaint and antiquated a few years from now, even in the UMC! Dr Howell, thank you so much for your words and trying to promote thoughtfulness...

  22. Dear James, I am a first time reader, being referenced to your post via a facebook friend. I appreciate the thoughtful way that you have presented your points in this blog post. I'd like more information on point #2 and how we know that homosexuality in the Roman era is not the same as in our era. I get the Roman patricians and their penchant for young boys and the incidental encounter, but how do we know that there were no committed gay couples? How do we know that there were no dating relationships?

    1. I think Pastor Howell's was pointing out their impression and exposure to homosexuality. While there probably were committed and dating gay relationships, I doubt that most of the writers of the bible actually had exposure to them.

      I'm sure their impression was built from more unsavory observations.

    2. Come to think of it, I think the same holds true today. Many of those who are opposed to homosexuality still believe it to be an unethical act of harm or gluttony, rather than symbiotic, committed and loving.

    3. Thank you for your reply, Kipp. I think Paul and the Corinthian christians, at least, had to know people that had homosexual experiences. In chapter 6 of 1 Cor. Paul says, "and such were some of you," referring to a list of practices including homosexuality.

  23. While I loved the piece and found it thoroughly thought provoking, I beg to differ on points #1 and #2.

    #1 - You are correct that I don't think a supporting argument can be made for homosexuality from the Church leaders/writers (I think Archbishop Rowan Williams would disagree as would some other theologians, on the grounds that the homosexuality mentioned in the Bible speaks to the sexual act itself and not the person. Williams *may* go even further and say that it speaks to heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts specifically). I'd contend that homosexuality was denounced for political reasons rather than theological, on the basis that Judea-Christians at the time were an incredibly small church and subjected to pretty rampant murdering. It's a gut-feeling (which admittedly holds little weight), but I always read the "anti-homosexual" scriptures as a move to force/encourage population growth. Essentially an exact opposite of the policy that China held for so long.

    #2 - Jonathan mentioned N.T. Wright who I thought of immediately when reading your point so I'll essentially skip that. I'd contend that there's just no way of historically backing the claim you've made. Obviously homosexuality existed during these times, we have well documented cases of it. However, to claim that the Christian leaders *never* experienced a committed homosexual couple or to (albeit indirectly) that such couples may not have even existed, there's nothing to back that claim up. On the flip side, I also don't recall any evidence to refute your claim but as the old line goes: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" Historians of that era weren't known for documenting human sexuality and relationships. Therefore, I think the wise decision is to remain on the fence regarding this.

    Your other points I loved dearly and definitely gave me ample food for thought.

  24. It should also be noted, though I think we're all aware of the fact, that the books were written down centuries (or decades in some cases) after the events transpired. So, we can't really speak for the person directly but rather the author's interpretation of the oral stories passed down to them and if you've played a game of telephone you know how unreliable/unlikely it is that #1 the information from Point A to Z stayed the same #2 the same exact information was passed down, verbatim.

    I'm "REL 318 BWC"

  25. Sarah Ruden in "Paul Among the People" disputes Wright. She says that there is no evidence other than Plato for a loving same sex relationship and that "what [Plato] so lovingly paints is total hokey." Remember, too, that Plato lived 400-500 years before Paul. Ruden is not a "Christian" or "Biblical" scholar. She is a greco-roman literature scholar who addresses how the common Roman person would understand Paul.

  26. This article says to me you have fallen away from the flock homosexuality is wrong period. A strong verse to remember is, no sins are greater than the others. We have all fallen short of Gods expectations but that's why he sent Jesus. Your post says to me that as long as we do something nice it should be accepted as ok for instance the death penalty, still MURDER. So in other words accept all people, don't judge but when it comes to sinning we should shepherd the flock of the Lord to repent and to do good not tell them just to live in sin because the times are different.

  27. I agree with most of what you said, except I do hate to see you keep refering to God, as if God were some person somewhere. That concept of what God is or might be needs to be put aside for a better understanding based on our 21st Century knowledge of the world. What ever you thinking about Ultimate Reality, First Cause, or a Higher Power - God is no longer a good name for it. Personally I see God as the "Life Force of the Universe."

  28. "Sarah Ruden in "Paul Among the People" disputes Wright. She says that there is no evidence other than Plato for a loving same sex relationship and that "what [Plato] so lovingly paints is total hokey.""

    Being familiar with this book, while I can understand how you took from the book what you did, I drew something entirely different from it. Rather, I found Dr. Ruden laying down an argument for why, essentially, we should disregard Paul as any kind of authoritative figure.

    We don't live in the First Century Roman Empire, we weren't faced with the politics and the context that Paul lived in - to extrapolate his world onto ours is a serious case of poor judgment. Paul wrote about things he experienced, as such his "sense" of history and culture were entirely his and not ours, so we should not attempt to lay his writings over our history and culture as if they could be equated or be considered one in the same.

    Ruden also lays out an understanding of homosexuality in Paul's time that just doesn't really exist in ours. The homosexuality she paints in Paul's time is one of an exploitative nature...a homosexuality of domination/power (rape, as we would understand it today). That's just not the homosexuality we're dealing with today when it comes to issues like Amendment One - we're talking about a homosexuality that is every bit as loving as a heterosexual relationship, the /only/ difference is that instead of a man and woman, it's same-gender.

    Off topic, I still don't understand what makes Paul such a central figure in the Christian tradition - and I admit this as a person fully vested in the Christian Church and pursuing ordination. We have a man who merely claims to hear a voice he believes to be Jesus and later claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus. Despite this, what he teaches seems to contradict the other disciples and to some extent (I'll catch flack for this), Jesus. I'll go ahead and put myself up sh*t creek without a paddle, but I think Pelagius holds more authority than Paul. Anyway - this paragraph is really a topic for an entirely separate conversation.

  29. Thank you, James. To repeat another post, "Well said," and obviously thought-provoking.

  30. Wait a minute. I don't think "Loving and committed" makes any difference.
    1) The Scriptures NEVER give exceptions to point to where sin is "okay."
    2) By the time the Christian Church had formed, the Greeks HAD a history of "committed relationships" (they and the other pagan cultures were more... can we coin a word here? "omnisexist" than anything else, but homosexuality was definitely glorified in Greek culture. But male lovers are on record as being very devoted to one another, whatever else might have been going on in their lives with women, other men, boys, etc. And Paul would have known this.
    3) The Judaizers wanted the Gentile (pagan) converts to be circumsized as evidence of their conversion, but Peter and the Apostles said the only requirements to be imposed upon them were: a) refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols (which would have involved participating in pagan rites) and b) abstaining from *all* sexual immorality. In other words, the Christian paradigm was to be chaste - one man and one woman.

    And what's wonderful about Paul is that - among other things - he was a zealous Jew who became the apostle to the Gentiles: those pagan, omnisexually licentious, even depraved people who came to Christ and were converted. For anyone else, getting their hands dirty by associating with such people would have been unthinkable! but Paul did it, and he LOVED those converts.

    So - I'm sorry, Dr. Howell, but you're missing the whole point, which is that recognizing that homosexuality is expressly FORBIDDEN in the Scriptures is not hate, or a misrepresentation of Scripture, or a mis-appropriation of God's love. After all, not only is there any prevarication, anywhere in Scripture, about sin and holiness, but Paul also said, to the Corinthians, that murders, homosexuals, et al would not enter the Kingdom of Heaven --- "... and such WERE some of you, but you have been bought...." We are not condemned to never escape our sins.

  31. If Jesus was teaching us by example and parable, and he wants to be so open and accepting of everyone, why then did he turn over the tables of the traders in the temple? Cleary, not everything is to be accepted.

  32. God loves the sinner,not the SIN.You can't be on the fence about this.Gods word will never change,only MAN.1 Corinthians 6:9

  33. I don't have the time and fear those who read don't have the interest so I will be brief.

    This propositions are built on many unspoken presuppositions.

    While fact is present (this is good), much of the argument seems to be built almost solely on a Western, modern, Protestant worldview. I understand we can't entirely separate ourselves from our context, but we do best when we don't assume it universal or normative.

    My presupposition is that our tempers, our initial impulses and even basic senses are fickle and therefor don't present a wise staring point.

    Additionally I fear that the self congratulatory nature (especially of the comments) is simply out of agreement in view, not method. There is no less pride in the broad statements (i.e. no one takes holiness seriously) than in affirming scripture, tradition, experience (in Wesley's definition: the direct witness of the Holy Spirit) and even some reason.

    The view presented is no more rational than that it presupposes is uneducated and hypocritical.

    James, it particularly irks me to see someone appear to embrace more modern ways of studying and understanding the New Testament while assuming we can't do the same with the Old. The straw men of Levitical prohibitions against fabrics and foods are helpful in dismissing the Bible, but not helpful for Christians trying to be faithful to it.

    I hope I am writing this in love and I only wish you and your commenters well. Grace and Peace.

  34. Rev. Howell,

    This a great post that attempts a mediating position (which I myself have attempted somewhat in light of the recent Amendment One fallout here, particularly among my fellow Charlotte area young adults: ).

    However, I would challenge your point #2 I think. There is evidence of committed same-sex relationships in the Roman Empire (though they are not as prevalent as they are in our culture). Even if there weren't such evidence, to limit the Biblical authors' intended target as you do above is at best an argument from silence.

    The Spirit who inspired the authors was well aware of the innate sinfulness of the human heart and the ways in which such sin would manifest itself throughout time. It is not difficult to extrapolate on this issue. But again, there is evidence from antiquity that such extrapolation may not even be necessary in this case.

    Blessings from Disciple Dojo,
    JM Smith

  35. on #2, see version #2, the "15 propositions" - which wrestles with this issue

  36. Wow! I don't even know what to say. I'm in shock. I could publish a lengthy essay to counter each of your propositions, but I feel that would be fruitless. All that comes to my mind is Rev. 22:18-19 which says that anyone who adds to or takes away from Scripture does so to his/her own detriment. Sir, you have done both. I seem to be in the minority among those who have posted. This is frightening to me and I feel sad for America. The statements posted here on ancient homosexual relationships aren't even relevant. The only question that matters is "Does God say homosexuality is a sin?". The answer is a clear yes...not a cloudy one and not one that can be pondered and checked out on a socically cultural basis.

  37. The Church has always and everywhere, based upon the word of God, taught that it is a sin for a man to have sex with a man, or a woman to have sex with a woman.

    The basis for this prescription has to do with Christian anthropology. We are created male and female, incorporeal beings expressed in a sexed body. There are no homosexuals (an adjective that cannot be a noun). There are men and women. We are not defined in our essence by our mode of copulation.

    If our creation as man and woman had a purpose from the beginning, which at least Jesus seemed to suppose, then it can be argued that 'committed same-sex relationships' are doubly sinful, if same sex sex is practiced, because the public expression of the "relationship" is a perverse (pardon the expression), almost diabolical parody of God's intention from the beginning in creating us as sexual beings.

    Today's culture can bless same-sex relationships ("homosexuality as we know it today") because modern man believes men and women to be so much meat. Nothing else has purpose, so most certainly sexual pleasure can have no purpose or meaning.

    We are here to heal the sick, not to embrace the illness.

    The church is the pillar and ground of truth, and we will do well to walk in the truth we have received, as Jesus put it, from the beginning.

    To believe and teach as the church has always believed and taught is not exclude anyone. It is to invite sinners into a community of love so that we can all move toward love's perfection in us.

    Describing slaveholders, Abraham Lincoln stated that evil has within itself its own self-aggrandizing inertia. The slaveholders were not satisfied owning their slaves; they would only be happy when the nation stopped calling slavery wrong and joined them in calling it right.

  38. I discovered your web site via Google while looking for a related subject, lucky for me your web site came up, its a great website. I have bookmarked it in my Google bookmarks. You really are a phenomenal person with a brilliant mind! gay relationship