Updated: May 17, 2021
I grew up in an evangelical church in the 80s where there was one opinion about homosexuality: It was sin.
The reasoning for this was straight from the bumper sticker: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it."
Like most Christians, I put on the backpack of beliefs handed to me when I enter a church, without really looking closer at the issue or what the Bible has to say about it.
The Bible led me here.
As I’ve read God’s word over the decades, the themes of the Bible have risen to the surface - themes like redemption, restoration, relationship. For those that know the Bible, they discover it’s not a behavior or sin management book. Its purpose is not personal righteousness for its own sake. The purpose of scripture is to point us to Jesus Christ, his death, and his resurrection that saves us from ourselves. It encourages us to develop a relationship with Him, as we abandon our idols and destructive behavior.
There are linchpin or “weightier” passages -- parts of scripture that highlight or capture God’s heart and what He considers paramount: Micah 6:8, Matthew 22:37-40, Romans 13:8-10, 1 John 4:7-12. Passages like these are cornerstone verses that illuminate the themes of the whole Bible. These passages focus on relationship, walking humbly with God, mercy, justice, and most of all, love. These passages and themes help us interpret the rest of God’s word, which for those of us that believe in scripture’s authority, is an important method of interpretation.
There was a problem, however: five, maybe six passages on homosexuality that seemed to contradict these passages.
After thoughtful study, I came to understand that these five or six passages either do not describe homosexuality as we understand it today, or they are connected with sexual abuse, idol worship, or licentious lustful behavior. My conviction is that monogamous, committed same sex relationships are not sin. These passages that mention homosexuality do not describe a committed, monogamous relationship. I believe there is a preponderance of evidence in the Bible that supports this position, in contrast to five or six passages that have been misinterpreted or are ambiguous.
This article is not intended to be a systematic interpretation of these passages but an insight into my journey from a traditional to an affirming position regarding homosexuality.
To many Christians, this affirming position of homosexuality or same-sex marriage is another example of the breakdown of family values, the softening of sin, the ignoring of parts of the Bible, or the church becoming shaped by the world. Surprisingly to many, my convictions have come through the careful study and love of scripture.
In the past, I simply threw up my hands and thought, “Well, homosexual sex is sexual sin, just like adultery or lust.” What I didn’t consider are the linchpin verses. Romans 13, for example says,
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
We can agree that love means to “unselfishly desire and work for the best of others.” So if I simply decide to love others, I’ve fulfilled the law and God’s command? Yes, this is obedience to God: Loving God and loving people (Matthew 22:36-40). The rule of love, called the royal law by James (2:8), is not only the most important, but it fulfills all the commands. When we love, we are in complete obedience to God.
Proof of a believer
What is a Christian? The Bible teaches us that if we call on the name of the LORD we’ll be saved (Acts 2:21). Specifically, if we declare with our mouth that Jesus is LORD and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, then we are saved (Romans 10:9).
When someone asked Jesus, what must we do to do the work God requires? He answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29).
Further, the Bible tells us that proof of our walking with God is “fruit” in our lives. Attributes like “Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” reveal that we are filled with God’s Spirit and growing in him (Galatians 5:22). There are other passages where we’re encouraged to act based on our identity in Christ, like 1 Peter 3:8-9 which talks about compassion, love, and humility.
The main problem for traditionalists: the gay believer.
I was raised and taught in the traditionalist view of the Bible concerning gay people (same sex attracted): Those who choose to live out their homosexuality are outside of God’s will and they are walking AWAY from God. I began my journey with meeting individuals that embraced Christ and their homosexual identity. This did not compute with my traditionalist interpretation of scripture. Either God’s word was wrong, or my interpretations of the texts were wrong. And so my journey began with the simple questions, “If someone claims to be a believer and claims to be gay, is that person a Christian?” The current view of the traditionalist is that although someone may be born gay or same-sex attracted, they must resist the desire to act on these urges, and live a life of celibacy. Although some gay people have this conviction, that is far different than this being a command by God for everyone.
I now understand that those who have embraced their same-sex attraction and are in responsible, committed relationships, yet love Jesus and have surrendered their lives to him, are not outside of God’s kingdom. This is in stark contrast to traditionalists, or most evangelical Christian churches. According to their interpretation of the Bible, gay people that embrace their homosexual identity cannot be saved. Traditionalists must ignore John 6, Romans 10, and Galatians 5 in order to read Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1 with their interpretation.
Traditionalists are not applying their own interpretation of scripture.
The traditionalist interpretation of homosexuality is that same sex desire and acts come from their walking away from God and worshiping man-made idols. As a result, they were given over to “shameful lusts” and “exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (Romans 1:26-27). Also, according to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, those who continually participate in these same sex acts will not inherit the kingdom of God. In other words, they can’t be saved.
According to traditionalists’ interpretation of Romans 1, the same sex attraction is due to their all out rejection of God and pursuit of false gods. The traditionalist’s interpretation also states that their desire for same sex partners is a result of insatiable lust, not “brokenness.” Few traditionalists are comfortable, or even claim to hold this position, because they can no longer deny that some individuals are intrinsically hetero or homosexual.* It’s clear that homosexuality is much more than a sexual desire, but an attraction to those of the same sex.
Today, traditionalists lean on a complementarian argument, that God’s ideal for attraction, sexuality, and marriage is for one man and one woman as described in Genesis 1 and 2.
Eden and Complementarianism
Currently, the most common response to the affirming position is that homosexuality goes against the “perfect, complementary design” in the creation of Adam and Eve. Another way to put this is that when God created marriage, he created it between one man and one woman. Because this was before the fall of humankind, it is God’s perfect design. Further, the traditionalist argues that Jesus reinforces this teaching in Mark 10:5-9.
When Jesus talks about the original marriage of Eden between Adam and Eve in Mark 10, he was addressing unfaithfulness or divorce. He wasn’t addressing gender, homosexuality, or same-sex marriage. He was addressing commitment in a marriage. This makes sense in that the fidelity of Adam and Eve to each other was to reflect the fidelity and faithfulness within the trinity.
Does the creation narrative highlight the sexual complementarianism based on gender difference, or does it highlight fidelity, commitment, and love? Just as the trinity exhibits the most committed and perfect relationship in the persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so marriage is based on that relationship - not sexual complementarianism, which exists for the production of humanity.
There is another creation ordinance that occurs before the fall - the Sabbath. It is significant that the Sabbath was instituted before the fall, because this is a major point traditionalists make when pointing to the authority of gender complementarianism in marriage. Their argument is that because the original marriage is between a man and a woman, that definition of marriage should not be altered. It was created before sin entered the world. The Sabbath was also introduced before the fall, yet its implementation and meaning has changed throughout scripture, of which traditionalists heartily agree.✝︎
In Genesis 2:1-3, God rested on the seventh day after completing his creation. It was later included in the ten commandments, when God commanded the Israelites to rest on the Sabbath day, just as the LORD rested after creating the heavens and the earth. (Exodus 20:8). In Mark 2, Jesus is challenged by Pharisees concerning the Sabbath, when his disciples are gathering grain for a snack as they walk through a field. Jesus reminds them that David, their ideal king, by whom all kings are compared, ate consecrated bread meant only for priests to eat. Then Jesus tells them that man was not created for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man. In one sentence, Jesus tells the Pharisees how to interpret scripture. God doesn’t make arbitrary laws and rules, but they are for the benefit of humanity. God creates laws that we are to follow, but they have purpose. For example, it is wrong to lie. But what if lying may save someone’s life, as in the case of hiding Jewish people during the Holocaust? When we forget the commandment was created for humanity, we reduce the power of the command. It’s still wrong to lie, but there is a higher law.
Some worry that this waters down the commandment or God’s word, but the opposite is true. When we interpret every command literally, as the Pharisees did with the disciples, the command loses its purpose and power. When any commandment is put before love, mercy, and justice, we diminish the commandment, because we are in danger of misinterpreting it.
Later, it’s revealed that Jesus Himself is the fulfilled promise of the Sabbath, through whom we enter true rest. The Sabbath in the old testament pointed to a truer Sabbath in the person of Jesus Christ. Just as the Sabbath in the old testament was a shadow of the true Sabbath (the coming rest of Jesus Christ), so the ordinance of marriage points to the covenant relationship Christ has with the church. The Sabbath is not abolished, but fulfilled in the coming of Christ (Hebrews 4:1-11).
Consequently, when marriage is instituted by God in Genesis, it’s not about gender, chromosomes, or physiology. It is about a love commitment of fidelity, sacrifice, and service. Jesus explains there is no marriage in heaven (Matthew 22:23-33). Earthly marriage (whether same sex or not) passes away. When we question whether same sex marriage is sin, we are dealing with earthly and temporal things.
Paul uses marriage as a metaphor of commitment Christ has to the church. Many traditionalists use this as proof that marriage is to always be between one man and one woman. The metaphor in Ephesians 5 is to compare something commonly known (earthly marriage) with the new concept (Christ’s relationship with the church). Christ is not literally marrying his Church. The metaphor is to show us his love for, connection to, and commitment for His Church. When their interpretation of Christ as the bridegroom and church as the bride focuses on gender; they miss the point of the metaphor: Christ is committed to us, cleanses us from our sin, and is united to us. When the traditionalist highlights gender in this metaphor, they debase the union of Christ with the church, which is pure and eternal love.
Traditionalists have so focused on the gender roles of marriage, they’ve missed the point of marriage, to experience and live out the fidelity, love, sacrifice, and commitment, shown in the trinitarian relationship of God.
The first marriage is descriptive, not prescriptive
Those who affirm same-sex marriage, do not dismiss that complementarianism is God’s good creation. Although the example of Adam and Eve was the union of male and female and to be fruitful and fill the earth, it does not translate that same sex marriage is sin. There are variations of how people live out marriage that almost all agree are pure and good. A 55-year-old woman well past the age of conceiving children may get married, though she cannot fulfill the command to be fruitful. Some couples marry and never have children, either by choice or because of infertility. Many choose to adopt. There are blended families through second marriages. Some never marry. Few would argue these examples are sinful or deviate from God’s will, but they are most definitely not the model of Adam and Eve, who were commanded to “be fruitful and increase in number, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God’s creation of an ideal or “normative” model doesn’t mean a deviation of it is sin. In these instances we apply God’s wider truths of faithfulness, sacrifice, and love.
There are also “vice lists” in the Bible - about fifteen of them. Vice lists, or lists of sins, are usually meant to discourage destructive, sinful behavior within a community, and a method to measure whether one is truly a believer.
There are about fifteen of these lists in the Bible, and some translations use some form of the word “homosexuality” in two of those lists. With every other sin on every other list, it’s clear that these sins are “unloving.” They are either selfish or destructive to relationships with others or God. The only “sin” that conspicuously doesn’t fit these lists is homosexuality. That is because these two passages have been misinterpreted and translated as “homosexual,” rather than molestation, sexual abuse, or debauchery. Those in the first century reading these passages did not imagine individuals attracted to the same sex, or people of the same sex in a loving committed relationship. Paul was most certainly pointing out individuals involved in sexual abuse or possibly even sex trafficking.‡
Today, if two men came to church, married to each other and declaring with their mouth that Jesus is Lord, believing in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead, (Romans 10:9) what is the unlovingness of their sin? Would this behavior wind up on the vice lists?
What matters in marriage?
Think about the wonder and beauty of marriage. Reflect on your own marriage or your parent’s, or friend’s marriage. What are the elements of marriage that last forever? Jesus said there is no marriage in heaven, but what about marriage is eternal? Fidelity, commitment, love, connection, sacrifice. These are eternal things, and this is what is important in any marriage. Now, as you think about the eternal relationship of the trinity, the focus is not about gender, chromosomes, or sex. Of course not. The focus is love, commitment, trust, relationship. This is what matters and lasts.
Why bring up this matter at all? Isn’t this divisive? Churches and friends are being torn apart by this issue. Shouldn’t we leave it alone? I want to start a dialogue on this issue for the same reasons the early church debated welcoming gentiles into the Christian faith and family. The church is in danger of leaving people out of the gospel.
We all remember Jesus turning tables over when people were selling goods at His Father’s temple. Why did Jesus get so angry? It really seemed like he lost it. Here is the central reason: Jesus erupted in anger, because these people were selling doves and other merchandise in the temple courtyard. This got in the way of worshipers seeking God. They were blocking people, including gentiles, from reaching the LORD.
Another time, when Jesus was asked who the greatest in the kingdom of God were, he pointed to the lowest of the lowest, the children. They had no power or voice. He said of them, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Today, we are causing a group of people to stumble and keeping them out with our misunderstanding of God’s word.
Jesus’s desire is to remove barriers for those seeking him. Whether it be women, the poor, children, gentiles, and yes, the gay community.
Jesus’s message has always been, “Come.”
It’s clear in scripture that although we cannot know or determine God’s perfect will all the time in everything, we should unfailingly seek to be a conduit to Christ and not an obstacle.
* I owe William Loader thanks for highlighting this in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church.
✝︎ I must thank Karen Keen for her crystalizing the concept of "Sabbath as a creation ordinance" in her wonderful work, Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Relationships.
‡ Megan K. DeFranza provides an excellent explanation of these passages in the second chapter of Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church.
For further reading:
J. Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate. A memoir of a gay Christian's experience.
W. Loader, M. K. DeFranza, W. Hill, S. R. Holmes, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church. A balanced and respectful conversation of different views.
Website. The Reformation Project. "Brief Biblical Case for LGBTQ inclusion" A helpful source for a short, introductory read.