by the Rt Revd David Gillett, Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1988-1999) and former Bishop of Bolton (1999-2008)
This is a question I have been asked many times over the years – particularly by people in their teens to thirties who have recently become Christians. They have grown up knowing friends who are in same-sex relationships and, for them, this is part of the diversity of human love, partnership and marriage. I have heard many ask, ‘Why do some Christians make such a big issue of this? Some are gay, some are straight – surely God loves us all in the same way and blesses our relationships equally!’
It is, of course, a question much more painfully and urgently asked by our LGBT+ siblings who have been excluded in various ways by many within the Christian community – and often by the institution itself.
Such questions require a fresh look at the Bible
For an increasing number of Christians today this is not a question that needs asking, even by many in evangelical churches that are normally considered to hold to a non-inclusive view. As they, and I, study the Bible, we conclude that God wishes all to discover love and intimacy in the authenticity of how God has made us in our own unique individuality. And now, unlike in the ancient Near East, we understand that God creates us with different sexual orientations. Consequently, we now approach the Bible with a broader and different set of questions than believers and scholars of former ages.
It is time to move beyond the defensive answers often advanced about LGBT+ experience and relationships – time now to develop a positive presentation of the Bible and gay relationships.
Forsaking former prejudice
The traditional approach to the question of same-sex love has been to look at those 6 or so verses in the Bible where certain same-sex activities are forbidden in differing cultures, contexts and religious situations. This approach has an inbuilt prejudice at its very heart for, though the Bible has many more prohibitions about heterosexual activity in various situations, we do not begin with these prohibitions when we evaluate the purpose and wholeness of heterosexual love. This dichotomy between the methodology of examining heterosexuality as opposed to same-sex relationships belittles and dehumanizes gay people even before the question is asked. In studying the Scriptures, where we begin largely determines what answer we get.
A positive place to begin
Increasingly, I ask folk to begin by looking at the two famous examples in the Bible of love and relationship between two people of the same sex. Naomi with Ruth and David with Jonathan. Not that I am claiming that these relationships were explicitly sexual in their expression – though some do see this in the case of David and Jonathan. They are, however, logical places to begin when we are considering the value of both friendship and love between two people of the same sex. They reveal a quality of commitment and relationship which is part of our God-given humanity.
Naomi and Ruth commit themselves to an intergenerational and cross-cultural relationship, expressed in very strong covenantal language. ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.’ (Ruth 1.16f). Ruth’s words here are remarkable: they have lived on through the centuries as one of the most powerful expressions of commitment and loyalty in love. It is a relationship sworn on oath in the most solemn of ways.
The relationship between David and Jonathan uses a different set of words, but they are equally extravagant in the commitment they describe. ‘The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.’ (1 Samuel 18.1-4). When Jonathan was slain in battle, David’s lament includes these moving words that reflect the nature of their relationship, ‘greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.’ (2 Samuel 1.26). These words reveal a depth, commitment, love and intimacy which is striking. The phrase, ‘passing the love of women’ is particularly noteworthy, given what we know of David’s sensual heterosexual love-life!
Often part of the ‘distaste’ that some feel about homosexual love is situated in such male-with-male intimate loving friendships which embarrass some men – or challenge their own and society’s view of masculinity. But just as we base our study of the Biblical view of heterosexual relationships in the positives in the Bible’s story, so it is only just and equitable to base same-sex relationships in the positive story.
Sex is a good gift of God for all, regardless of sexual orientation
Starting to approach the question of same-sex love in this more equitable way also avoids the tendency, so often present in differing communities, of going directly to laws that seek to control what people experience (and fear) as ‘different.’ This is where the Church has often begun, especially when it has wanted to exercise control – or was part of a community that valued rules above all else – or was concerned to be over-protective and to curb the freedom that God gives us in Christ – or even because it regarded sex in itself as somehow dangerous and uncontrollable.
This tendency throughout the history of the Church to surround sexual expression with so many prohibitions, cautions and caveats led for many centuries to the elevation of celibacy and virginity as higher callings than intimate faithful loving sexual relationships.
While this has largely disappeared in our culture in relation to heterosexual marriage this is still held out by many as the only acceptable way in same-sex relationships.
Yet the basis of God’s good creation is that sexual relationship is part of the very essence of God’s good gifts to the whole of humanity.
Reading Genesis chapter two inclusively
We rightly recognize that the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 2 is a picture of how a man and woman rejoice in their intimate sexual union as a central feature within their relationship – wholesome and enjoyable and worthy of celebration.
Knowing what we now know about sexual orientation, we pose a fresh – and inclusive -question to the story in Genesis 2. “How will a gay Adam whom God has made discover the partner ‘fit for him’?” He will naturally discover the answer for a wholesome, enjoyable and intimate sexual relationship with another man. It is a denial of God’s creative purposes to prohibit sexual expression to same-sex couples in their relationship while encouraging it between two of the opposite sex, as all are equally part of God’s good creation.
To some this may seem an illegitimate way of reading Genesis 2. But it flows directly from the question we now have to ask of the text given that we no longer see homosexuality as an illness or a lifestyle choice.
The Bible ceases to be a living word of God if we only ask it questions framed on the basis of its own historical and cultural context. For the Bible to be life-giving it must be in dialogue with the urgent questions of today.
No longer starting with the negative…
Returning briefly to the more traditional, but less equitable and relevant way of deciding on the nature of same-sex relationships – it is understandable and morally justified that there is condemnation of heterosexual men engaging in same-sex activities to fulfil their own lust, to debase others in war or who are in an inferior social position, or maybe even in pursuit of some religious sexual rite.
Until recently the Church accepted the commonplace idea that homosexuality was a perversion to be punished or an illness to be cured. Sadly, this is still the case in some churches and some countries. Now, thankfully our received understanding is that some by their very nature – as created in God’s image – are gay.
So now we react to passages like Romans 1.26f differently than if we look through the lens of illness, perversion and prohibition of difference. As Paul laments the blatant disregard for God and the subsequent descent into ignorance, idolatry and licentiousness, he evidences various debauched same-sex activities. (See Jonathan Tallon’s opening article in this series). Paul is not here issuing an apostolic evaluation of the permanent faithful same-sex loving relationships which we see with many of our LGBT+ friends. Rather, he is condemning salacious sexual experimentation, domination of slaves or minors, promiscuity and pagan cultic practices and prostitution.
The Gospel is good news for all
Now, as we ask different questions of the bible than we did when homosexuality was seen as an illness or a perversion, we cannot fail to notice that the Gospel speaks of God’s unfathomable love which Jesus offers equally to all with no mention being made of distinctions in sexuality.
Here I conclude with just three examples of how we now hear the Gospel addressing all people, whatever their sexuality.
Equally wholesome: ‘What God has called clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10.15) Peter sees that what God creates as clean and acceptable must not be categorized as unclean or unacceptable, even if the law or religious tradition claims otherwise. Thankfully in our culture, we have mostly abandoned the previous suspicions that sex is a less than good and enjoyable gift of God. Now, we must abandon the unjust and unjustifiable categorization of LGBT+ people and their relationships as somehow less than fully wholesome. They are an equal part of the diversity of God’s good creation. Same-sex love is as natural, good and wholesome for gay and lesbian people as are male-female sexual relationships for the rest of us.
No Outsiders: ‘For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one, and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us…’ (Ephesians 2.14ff) For many there has been a painful division between ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ – as stark as that between Jew and Gentile was in the time of the New Testament. As then, so now the loving action of God in Christ breaks down that division. For us to seek to build such walls and treat others as ‘outsiders’ is to put the Gospel into reverse. The Gospel mandates us to be at the forefront of campaigning against homophobia and the open hostility which still reveals itself all too often. Many of us now see the importance of our joining with other Christians at Pride Marches to show the love and welcome with which we, and the Gospel, embrace our LGBT+ friends.
All one in Christ: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28) Paul here makes clear that all the inherited divisions within humanity which have marred our communities and given power to one group over another have no place within the community redeemed by Christ. For one part of God’s redeemed creation to diminish another part is to wound the very Body of Christ. The Church, if it is true to its very essence, must be at the forefront of treating LGBT+ people and their relationships with total equality. Where this is denied, the Gospel itself is diminished and robbed of its power, making the good news ‘bad news’ for many.
This message of full acceptance and inclusion affirms the value of same-sex couples. It forms the basis of how we can support and celebrate same-sex relations and equal marriage as an outworking of God’s will for the whole of his creation in all its wonderful diversity.
It is something which, without fear of disregarding the bible’s authority within the Church, we can proclaim as just, equitable and worthy of celebration!
About the Author
The Rt Revd David Gillett, former Bishop of Bolton writes: ‘As a Theologian-Pastor, my views, like many other Christians have developed over time since my M.Phil dissertation of 50 years ago explored approaches to sexuality in the bible. Since then I have been a lecturer at St John’s College, Nottingham and Principal of Trinity College Bristol, interspersed with ministry as youth worker, vicar, peace worker, and bishop. My academic/teaching interests are in the areas of Old Testament, World Religions and Spirituality.’