Like many readers of the Citizen-Times, I was raised a devout Baptist. I thus grew up believing that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, and I held that view well into my adulthood.
My experience may thus be helpful to those who wonder how a Christian pastor could condone homosexuality, and even go so far as to support the rights of gay and lesbian people to share in the blessings of legal marriage.
The starting point in my journey on this issue was not a book or an idea, but a person. One of the men in my college dorm — I’ll call him “Michael” — was gay. Michael usually remained sequestered in the closet, but he came out to me.
And I discovered something that stunned me: he was just like me, only he was gay.
In Romans, the Apostle Paul appears to come down hard on homosexuals. They are “filled with ... all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, murder, haters of God” (Romans 1:29, 30).
Seems crystal clear. And yet Michael was nothing like that. Nor are Larry and Lisa and Julie and the other gay friends I’ve made since college.
Quite the contrary. Most of them are faithful churchgoers. They love God. I know this because I see it in them. They’re kind, loving and generous. They pray, they tithe, they sing in the choir. They are often better Christians than I am, an ordained minister.
How, then, could I reconcile my experience of these dear, faithful people with what I thought the Bible said about them?
I went back to Scripture and began to study the matter more seriously. I discovered that the Old Testament also seems clear on this issue: If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination (Leviticus 20:13).
But in that same, long section of Leviticus (known as the Holiness Code) one sees that it is also an “abomination” to touch pigskin, to eat shellfish and to have relations with a woman during her period.
Have you ever touched a football? Eaten shrimp? Made love to your spouse during menstruation?
Then you, too, have engaged in an “abomination.”
And, yes, the Bible itself uses the same word to describe all of these activities.
What could be going on here? Historically, the ancient Hebrews were a small band of former slaves, surrounded by large, powerful enemies (the Egyptians and Babylonians, specifically). Some scholars thus believe the Holiness Code was developed to ensure the rapid proliferation of the Hebrew population. Eating shellfish in a hot desert climate could kill you. Sex during menstruation produced no offspring. Ditto for same-sex sexual activity. Thus, the priests deemed these practices to be an “abomination.”
But what about Romans 1? First, who are these people Paul is talking about? Whoever they are, they worshiped “birds, four-footed beasts and creeping things” (Rom 1:23).
Given that language, biblical scholars now believe Paul was referring to prostitutes whose trade was centered in Rome’s many pagan temples. Paul, a lawyer and trained rhetoritician, cites this much-reviled group by way of inciting his readers, in much the same way a recent full-page add did in the Citizen-Times on this very subject.
Having aroused the indignation of his readers, Paul then delivers a knockout punch, the point of this whole section: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).
I remember when I saw that “You, therefore,” as if for the first time. I felt like Paul was speaking directly to me. I realized this passage was not about my friend Michael. It was about me. When I judge anyone — anyone — I am the guilty party, not them.
And I realized, finally, this passage was not about my gay friends who live in faithful, loving, committed relationships. It was about prostitutes in pagan temples in ancient Rome.
So what, then, does the Bible teach? Well, many things, of course. But one of its main themes is covenant faithfulness — God’s covenant faithfulness to humanity, and our call to be similarly faithful in our deepest relationships. That’s why I believe, along with a growing number of other clergy (including rabbis and ministers from other traditions), that as people of faith, as people who believe the Bible, we need we need to stop trafficking in stereotypes and stop using the Bible as a weapon in support of causes that wound good people.
We need to stop judging people, for when we judge, we are the guilty party. And we need to affirm the sanctity of committed, long-term relationships, and to help make relationships characterized by love and faithfulness possible, legal and safe, regardless of gender.
Rev. Steve Runholt is the pastor of Warren Wilson Presbyterian Church and College Chapel. He also serves on the board of Christians for a United Community and is a founding member of People of Faith for Just Relationships. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.