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“Do not judge, or you too will be judged” Matthew 7:1-2. This is an excerpt from the Holy Bible that many Christians try to abide by on a daily basis. The Bible features an array of passages that help Christians determine right from wrong. It gives them guidance and insight as to how they should live their lives as devout followers of Jesus Christ. It highlights the importance of compassion, fairness, equity, love, and social justice – concepts that the Christian faith is built upon.
But why is it that when controversial, unfamiliar topics are introduced into the Christian world, that sense of compassion and love seems to slowly transform into persecution and hate?
Christianity and homosexuality are two concepts that have clashed and quarreled with each other for thousands of years. Many Christians are conflicted in regards to their views of homosexuality because their religion stresses a fundamental code of ethics and morals that frequently interferes with the word of God found within the pages of the Bible.
Most Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin because it is denounced by the Bible, however, there are a variety of different views within the religion as a whole. Each denomination of Christianity differs in their views and opinions of homosexuality – some condemn, some accept, and some are divided. Throughout this essay, I will be examining these different viewpoints, as well as the history and current status of homosexuality in Christianity.
The Christian religion was born during the time of the Roman Empire.
Western attitudes toward law, religion, literature, and government are, to a large degree, dependent upon the Roman world. It is interesting, however, that our attitudes toward homosexuality are exceptionally different from those of the Romans. They did not consider sexual preference an important topic of interest, nor did they treat it in an analytical way. According to prominent historian and a professor at Yale University, John Boswell, “Roman law and social structures made absolutely no restrictions on the basis of gender” (Boswell). At the time, gay marriages were legal and frequent, popular literature was full of gay love stories, and male prostitution directed toward other males was so common that it became a major source of income for the imperial treasury. Homosexuality was everywhere in 11th and 12th century art, poetry, and music. This was an era of total acceptance – no one in the Roman world perceived homosexuality as abnormal or undesirable, nor did they think same-sex attractions were any more or less significant than a preference in height or hair color. There were no stereotypes in the Roman world. Gay men were not seen as more feminine than straight men and lesbian women were not seen as more masculine than straight women. Gay people were not seen as inferior to straight people. In fact, the Greek society that preceded the Roman Empire viewed homosexuals as inherently “better” than heterosexual people.
There is a strange historical coincidence that suggests that this wonderful sense of acceptance vanished when Christianity appeared, as general tolerance of homosexuality became much less common. There appeared to be no recognizable conflict between religion and homosexuality until the 13th century when “there was a great upsurge in popular intolerance of gay people” (Boswell). Assertions were made that homosexuals molest children, are bestial, violate natural law, and bring harm to nations that tolerate them. Within a single century, almost every European state passed civil laws condemning homosexuals to death. This sparked an era of great suspicion. Not only were homosexuals persecuted, there were also violent outbursts against Jews, Muslims, and women perceived to be witches. Women were suddenly excluded from power structures which they previously had access to. Throughout the entirety of the 12th century, same-sex relations were not seen as sinful and by the 13th century, homosexuality was portrayed as one of the worst sins that could possibly be committed, second only to murder.
Of course, the term “homosexual” didn’t come into existence until the late 19th century. The LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender) community in America didn’t actively start seeking public voice and acceptance by the churches until the latter half of the 20th century. During this time, a multitude of LGBT groups and organizations were formed in order to advance their interest in belonging to religious communities across the country and fought against common misconceptions among the public that their sexuality was perverse and abusive. In 1968, the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) was formed in California. This Christian denomination headed by Reverend Troy Perry wished to establish a congregation for the quickly growing LGBT community in Los Angeles. LGBT people began forming religious communities either within existing denominations or by creating new ones. This was primarily a response to gay pride parades being held in various cities across the country, as well as the Stonewall Riots in New York City that resulted from the harassment of patrons at a local gay bar by law enforcement in 1969. That same year, a Catholic support group for LGBT people called Dignity USA was created. New Ways Ministry, a Catholic Gay Affirmative, emerged in the 1970s which “worked to mediate differences between LGBT persons and negative judgments of the Catholic hierarchy regarding them” (Corrigan), stressing civil rights issues and attempting to reform the religion’s questionable sexual ethics.
Some attempts by Christian congregations to be more inviting of LGBT communities led to conflicts within their denominations. In 1992, Pullen Memorial Church in Raleigh, North Carolina issued a statement of “unqualified acceptance of homosexual Christians and their full participation in the life and work of the church” (Corrigan) and also blessed a union of a homosexual couple. At the same time, the Binkley Memorial Baptist congregation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina licensed a homosexual preacher. As a result, Southern Baptists voted to expel both of these churches from their association. A similar situation came in 1995 when the University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas ordained a gay man as a deacon and were consequently voted out of their Baptist association as well. During the early 21st century, the Christian Right reasserted their views of homosexuality as immoral. Conservative religious groups organized opposition to the various initiatives that were coming forward in several states across the US to legalize gay marriage. Their efforts led to the 2008 passing of Proposition 8 which revoked the right to same-sex marriage in California – a right that was previously legal in that state.
In the months that followed, Maine, Iowa, Vermont, and Connecticut joined Massachusetts (legalized in 2004) in the growing list of US states that allow same-sex marriage. More opportunities opened up for gays and lesbians to be included in religious communities, particularly in large cities and university campuses. At that time, UC Berkeley offered over two-dozen organizations that invited LGBT membership across a wide range of faiths including Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. Christian conservatives were discouraged by this pattern of acceptance as well as other areas where the Right had devoted its time and energy. In his 2009 farewell address, James Dobsen, founder of the conservative Focus on Family organization, mentioned that the Right had lost the cultural war and that the country was now “awash in evil.” Resistance to homosexual ordination remained strong in the Catholic Church and elsewhere. Evangelical conservatives set forth a program of power politics and eventually gained control over nearly all national and state organizations in the country.
Today, most Christian churches and organizations still agree that homosexuality is a sin. Almost all American members of the Christian Right not only consider homosexual acts sinful, but unnatural as well. They claim that it contradicts God’s plan for marriage and procreation, violating His will. Perhaps these beliefs derive from the common conservative assumption that homosexuality is not a choice. Until 1973, homosexuality was widely viewed to be a mental illness, causing the Catholic Church to impose extreme methods like hypnosis, exorcisms, lobotomies, and electroshock therapy to rid people of their homosexuality. Even in our modern world, controversial “therapeutic” organizations still exist that offer programs to cure people of their homosexuality, usually by means of “praying the gay away.” Another factor that contributes to the conservative Christian view of homosexuality is the stereotype that the gay community is a promiscuous, disease-ridden group of individuals that participate in excessive amounts of self-destructive behavior like drugs and alcohol. Conservatives have even labeled the gay lifestyle as “deviant.” Christian denominations that oppose homosexuality include (but are not limited to) Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodoxy, Methodist, Baptist, Southern Baptist, Evangelical Alliance, Assemblies of God, Jehovah’s Witness, and Mormon. However, it is important to note that not all churches and individual members of these different denominations share the same views.
The main reason for the conservative Christian way of thinking, however, lies within the pages of the Holy Bible. The Bible introduced Christians to the notion that homosexual relations were against nature. The fact that homosexual activity is non-procreative is the primary reason for Christian hostility against the LGBT community. Although homosexuality is only mentioned six times throughout the entire text of the Bible, most Christians insist that it defines all homosexual activity as sinful based on their interpretation of the text. They believe it instructs them to exclude homosexuals from the church, and calls upon them to morally denounce homosexual acts. The most common passage in the Bible that is used by Christians to condemn acts of homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” Another popular passage is found in the book of Genesis, specifically the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – two ancient cities that were supposedly destroyed by God as punishment for the homosexual acts performed by their residents. Because of their interpretations of the Bible, Christians cause homosexuals a great deal of pain and suffering. Banning their participation in the church and well as their right to be married “deprives them of the comforts and spiritual ‘fruits’ of the church” (Shore). They damage bonds between homosexuals and their families and use their position within society as spokespeople for God, contributing to the persecution of a minority. Christians do not deny that they have done these things, but insist that they have no choice based on the text of the Holy Bible. Traditionally, the injunctions against homosexuality found in both the New and Old Testaments are irrefutable and any attempt to interpret them differently betrays the word of God.
Alternatively, not all denominations of Christianity condemn homosexuality. There are a variety of denominations that do not view monogamous same-sex relationships as sinful or immoral. These accepting denominations include (but are not limited to) Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical Anglican, Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, and the Churches of Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway. In fact, the United Church of Christ performs gay marriages and some Anglican and Lutheran denominations allow same-sex unions and have openly gay clergy. The United Church of Canada not only allows same-sex marriages, but views this sexual orientation as a gift of diversity from God. They welcome all people who profess Jesus Christ and their obedience to Him, regardless of their sexual orientation, to become full members of the church.
Christians who are accepting of homosexuality believe that the unjust conservative treatment of the LGBT community violates God’s most important commandment: to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. They believe patience, forgiveness, and kindness are Christ-like qualities, not criticism and judgment. They live by the notion that there are only two requirements to be admitted into heaven: believing in God, and loving others. Nowhere in the Bible does it state that one must be heterosexual. According to John Shore, “there is no demonstrable harm arising from sex within a committed homosexual relationship, but there is significant demonstrable harm arising from the discrimination against and condemning of gay persons” (Shore). According to Steve Chalke of Christianity Magazine, by pushing homosexuals outside of our communities and churches, blaming them for who they are, and denying them the right to committed lifelong relationships, “we make them doubt whether they are children of God” (Chalke). Is this consistent with the loving, forgiving nature that Christianity is known for?
The New Testament was written more than 2,000 years ago and the Old Testament is much older – most of the content in the Bible has evolved in meaning over the years, and things such as multiple translations, dated language, and different interpretations must be taken into account when interpreting each passage. For instance, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is now widely understood by religious scholars to condemn indulgence, social injustice, and indifference to others rather than describing punishment for homosexual acts. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is known as a “clobber passage” – passages that are commonly used by Christians to “clobber” gay people and to justify their condemning, persecution, and judgment. Heterosexual Christians also use these passages to denounce “sinful” behavior that they themselves are not tempted to commit, and overlook the “sinful” behavior that they do routinely commit. For instance, Christians who don’t experience same-sex attractions accept that they will binge drink, lust, or lie from time to time. Christians don’t believe that they are expected to never partake in any sinful behavior listed in the Bible, and understand that specific circumstances and human weakness need to be assessed before condemning a transgression. Even murder, the worst sin that can possibly be committed according to the Bible, can be justified by self-defense, protecting the innocent, or fighting in a war. So why is it different when it comes to homosexuality? The Bible is a combination of songs, visions, histories, dreams, and parables – even the most fundamentalist Christian sects do not take the Bible completely literally.
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the concept of homosexuality didn’t exist at the time the Bible was written. It is often argued that the clobber passages were written about same-sex acts between heterosexual people. According to Shore, there was not yet a reference point for an entire group of people who were attracted to the same gender, so virtually “no one lived, or in any way publicly self-identified, as a homosexual” (Shore) at that time. Gay-affirming Christians insist that Paul simply could not have been writing about gay people any more than he could have written about smartphones or televisions. And since there was no concept of homosexuality at this time, the Bible is incapable of making any sort of comment regarding gay marriage as well.
Homosexual-affirming Christian denominations claim that objections to homosexuality are not biblical, as there are many inconsistencies surrounding the text of the Bible. First of all, Christians are very selective in determining right from wrong – many actions that are forbidden by the Bible have become normal in mainstream society and are generally not questioned or criticized by the public whatsoever. Secondly, most Christians only use passages from the Old Testament when condemning homosexuality. If we lived by every instruction mentioned in the Old law, the world we live in would be a much different place. Polygamy would be legal and things like getting tattoos, rounded haircuts, wearing mixed fabrics, eating pork, and seeding lawns with a variety of different grasses would all be forbidden. Brides could be stoned to death if it was found that they were not virgins, and the Christian day of worship would be Saturday instead of Sunday. The inconsistencies are endless. Leviticus 20:13 tells us that homosexual acts are detestable, yet in the following chapter Leviticus excludes physically disabled people from the Kingdom of Heaven. The Old Testament not only endorses slave keeping and trading, it even sets the terms and conditions for its practice. The Old Testament is also a proponent of the inferiority of women. Since the Bible is no longer used to justify slavery or deny women the right to vote, Christians clearly are no longer living by the rules of the Old Testament – except when it comes to homosexuality.
Currently, the LGBT community has come a long way in their pursuit of religious acceptance. In 2013, Pope Francis stated in an interview that he affirms the social views of the Church, including homosexuality and abortion and admitted that the Roman Catholic catechism does condemn homosexual activity. However, he then called upon the church to love homosexuals proclaiming that they “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Gryboski). Later that year, Francis once again spoke publically on the subject saying, “If a person is gay and seeks God and had good will, who am I to judge him?” (Gryboski). LGBT activists were thrilled and interpreted these remarks as the beginning of a more gay-friendly agenda for the Catholic Church. In response to these comments, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, stated, “Pope Francis has pressed the reset button on the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of LGBT people” (Gryboski). Additionally, modern gay Christian leaders have been promoting the concept of Inclusive Orthodoxy, the belief that the church must be inclusive of the LGBT community.
Sometimes minority interpretations of scripture struggle for decades before eventually becoming accepted by the majority. When Copernicus discovered that the sun was the center of our solar system instead of the Earth, scripture was used by Luther, Calvin, the Catholic Church, and many others to condemn him because his critics were incapable of seeing beyond biblical texts. Christianity and homosexuality are two concepts that will most likely never see eye-to-eye. The question of whether or not homosexuality is a sin or whether it should be condemned will forever be questioned and debated. Conservative Christians will probably always view homosexuality as a sin, and gay-affirming Christians and LGBT advocates will continue to try and prove them wrong. However, by examining both topics including their history and different viewpoints, we can at least get a better understanding of why and how this disagreement came about, and how they should be dealt with in the present time. If we as a society cannot agree on a controversial issue such as this, we can at least take steps toward a more tolerant attitude and learn to live together as civil human beings. After all, we share the same planet and it is our diversity as a species that makes life interesting and gives it meaning.
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