A biblical and better way

Churches should uphold biblical teaching about homosexuality—and be places to love and listen, rather than shame or exclude

January 14, 2015 | Feature | Volume 19 Issue 2
By Ronald J. Sider | Special to Canadian Mennonite

Theologically conservative Christians are widely perceived as hostile to gays. And it is largely our own fault.

Many of us have actually been homophobic. Most of us tolerated gay bashers. We did not deal sensitively and lovingly with young people in our churches struggling with their sexual orientation. We even had the gall to blame gay people for the collapse of marriage in our society, ignoring the obvious fact that the main problem by far is that many heterosexuals do not keep their marriage vows. We have often failed to distinguish gay orientation from gay sexual activity.

If the devil had designed a strategy to discredit the historic Christian position on sexuality, he could not have done much better than what the evangelical community has actually done.

Some believe the track record of conservative Christians is so bad that we should just remain silent on this issue. But that would mean abandoning what I believe is clear biblical teaching. It would mean forgetting the nearly unanimous two-millennia-long teaching of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians. And it would mean failing to listen to the vast majority of contemporary Christians who now live in the Global South.

Goodness and beauty

The primary biblical case against homosexual practice is not the few texts that explicitly mention it. Rather, it is the fact that again and again the Bible affirms the goodness and beauty of sexual intercourse—and everywhere, without exception, it is sexual intercourse between a man and a woman committed to each other for life.

In the creation account in Genesis, the “man and his wife were both naked and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25). Their sexual attraction is good and beautiful. A whole book—Song of Solomon—celebrates the sexual love of a man and a woman. Many Old Testament laws and proverbs discuss the boundaries for sexual intercourse—and always it must be between a man and a woman. Jesus celebrates marriage (John 2:1-11) and tightens the restrictions on divorce—again, always in the context of a man and a woman. Paul urges a husband and wife to satisfy each other’s sexual desires (I Corinthians 7:1-7).

This affirmation of sex within the life-long commitment of a man and a woman provides the context for understanding the few texts that explicitly mention same-sex intercourse: Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:24-27; I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10.

Leviticus condemns lying “with a man as one lies with a woman.” It says nothing about motives or types of homosexual acts (rape or cult prostitution). It simply condemns, unconditionally, all sex between two males.

Reaffirmed or ignored?

But Christians today do not condemn every sexual activity denounced in Leviticus. So we must turn to the New Testament to see what prohibitions it ignores or sets aside and what ones it reaffirms.

The longest discussion is in Romans 1, where Paul argues that non-Jews without the law exchanged the truth about God revealed in nature for a lie. God’s punishment was to give “them over to the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity.” Paul then cites several illustrations, including women exchanging “natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” and men committing “shameful acts with other men.”

Numerous authors argue that Paul does not mean all homosexual intercourse is wrong. Perhaps Paul only condemns pederasty (an older male with a boy was common), or cult prostitution, or uncommitted same-sex activity. Or perhaps Paul was thinking of the common view that it was a disgrace for a man to play the part of a woman because women were inferior. But the text does not say any of those things. It simply condemns same-sex intercourse.

Contrary to God’s will

In I Corinthians 6:9, Paul lists a number of sinful activities and declares that such “wrongdoers” will not inherit the kingdom. The list includes the greedy, slanderers, drunkards and malakoi and arsenokoitai. (It is tragic that many Christians spend much more time condemning the sexual activity mentioned in these two Greek words than they devote to opposing slander and greed.)

But what do malakoi and arsenokoitai mean? Many scholars agree with Richard Hays, who points out that malakoi was often used in Hellenistic Greek as slang to refer to the passive (often younger) partner in homosexual activity. Arsenokoitai (also used in I Timothy 1:10) seems to be a compound word first used by Paul. It comes from arsen (male) and the verb koitē (lying with)—a male lying with a male. It is likely that this newly coined word emerged from reading Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, because the same two Greek words used in Paul’s compound word arseno­koitai are in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

Even scholars who defend homosexual practice by today’s Christians agree that wherever the Bible refers to homosexual practice, it condemns it as contrary to God’s will.

What’s required today?

But Christians today do not take everything in the New Testament (for example, head coverings for women) as commands for today. Some Christians advance a number of arguments to claim that (at least in the case of a monogamous, life-long commitment) same-sex intercourse is morally acceptable:

  • A great deal of homosexual intercourse in Greco-Roman society was pederastic (a dominant older male with a passive young­er male) and not infrequently involved slavery and rape.
  • The Greco-Roman world knew nothing about a life-long orientation or a long-term male-male sexual partnership.
  • Many people in Paul’s time condemned homosexual intercourse because it required a male to play the role of a woman, which was considered a disgrace because males were superior.
  • Some Greco-Roman and Jewish writers condemned homosexual intercourse because it could not lead to procreation.

Obviously, a mutually supportive, life-long, caring, same-sex relationship is very different from the relationships described above. And we do not believe sexual intercourse must be for the purpose of procreation.

But two things are important to note. First, Paul never argues that homosexual practice is wrong because it is pederastic or oppressive or wrong for a male to play the role of a woman. He simply says it is wrong. Second, there are examples in ancient literature that talk about a long-term (even life-long) homosexual partnership, and a number of ancient authors talk about a life-long same-sex orientation.

Slavery and women

Some argue for abandoning the historic Christian teaching on same-sex intercourse by pointing out that Christians no longer accept what the Bible says about slavery and the inferiority of women. But in the case of both, a trajectory within Scripture points toward a very different view.

What Paul asked Philemon to do when his runaway slave Onesimus returned was so radical that, if widely implemented, it would end slavery. On women, Jesus defied male prejudices and treated women as equals. Women were apostles (Romans 16:7) and prophets (Acts 21:9; I Corinthians 11:5) in the early church. When Christians reject slavery and affirm the equality of women, they extend a trajectory that begins in the biblical canon. In the case of same-sex intercourse, nothing even hints at such a change.

Praise for celibacy

If the biblical teaching on sexual intercourse is decisive, then celibacy is the only option for those not in a heterosexual marriage. But many argue that celibacy is impossible or that the abundant life God wills for every­one involves sexual fulfillment.

Such an argument, however, would have astonished Jesus and Paul—both unmarried celibates. Both praised a celibate life. Furthermore, the historic position that sexual intercourse must be limited to married heterosexuals demands celibacy for vastly more people than just the relatively small number with a same-sex orientation. Widows and widowers, and those who long for marriage but cannot find a partner, are also called to celibacy.

In addition to the unanimous biblical teaching, church history’s nearly unanimous condemnation of same-sex practice and the same teaching by churches that represent the overwhelming majority of Christians in the world today ought to give us great pause before we bless same-sex intercourse.

This is not enough

But simply repeating biblical truth is not enough. We need a substantially new approach:

  • First, we must nurture Christian men and women who keep their marriage vows and model healthy family life.
  • Second, we need to love and listen to gay people, especially gay Christians, in a way that most of us have not done.

Mennonites must also take the lead in several other vigorous activities related to gay people.

We ought to condemn and combat verbal or physical abuse of gay people.

We ought to develop programs so that our congregations are known as the best places in the world for gay and questioning youth (and adults) to seek God’s will in a context that embraces, loves and listens, rather than shames, denounces and excludes.

Surely, we can ask the Holy Spirit to show us how to teach and nurture biblical sexual practice without marginalizing and driving away from Christ those who struggle with biblical norms.

The best in the world

Our churches should be widely known as places where gay people can be open about their orientation and feel welcomed. Of course, Christians who engage in unbiblical sexual practices (whether heterosexual or gay) should be discipled (and disciplined) by the church and not allowed to be leaders or members in good standing if they persist in their sin. The same should be said for those who engage in unbiblical practices of any kind.

However, Christians who acknowledge a gay orientation but commit themselves to celibacy should be eligible for any role in the church their spiritual gifts suggest. Imagine the impact if Mennonite churches were known to be the best places in the world to find love, support and full affirmation of gifts if one is an openly gay, celibate Christian.

Ronald J. Sider is a member of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, Pa., and a professor at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University. This article is a summary of a chapter in a forthcoming book by Sider and Ben Lowe, A Faith For All Generations (Baker, © 2016, http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.). Used by permission.

—Posted Jan. 14, 2015

For reflection and group discussion, go to the discussion questions related to this article.

See also: "A Difficult Debate"

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Sider writes "Of course, Christians who engage in unbiblical sexual practices (whether heterosexual or gay) should be discipled (and disciplined) by the church and not allowed to be leaders or members in good standing if they persist in their sin. The same should be said for those who engage in unbiblical practices of any kind."

Really? I'm pretty sure my own use and misue of money offends God and other church members often. I'm working on it, but this says that I shouldn't be a leader or "member in good standing" if I persist or engage in "unbiblical practices of any kind.". If we are honest with ourselves and each other, nobody would be left in the church.

We need to stop trying to judge each other with a list of what makes someone "in" or "out". Jesus exemplified God's unconditional love. When Jesus disciplined it was truly out of love and with full divine knowledge of the hearts of others. As humans we can only assume or point to an obvious, often arbitrary list of "sins".

We are not God. But if we try to love like God and live like Jesus taught us, our church could remain full of imperfect disciples of Christ who nurture their souls, grow in their faith, follow the Spirit and try to live in God's will. That's a church that I believe we are called to be and a church where I fit in!


Ron Sider is a distinguished church leader, and I am sure that his article speaks for many Mennonites across North America.

But it does not speak for everyone. A growing number of us can no longer stomach the exclusion of friends and family whom we love from the churches we love. So we want to build congregations that are fully accepting -- which includes accepting same-sex marriages. (The idea that we should demand celibacy from our queer sisters and brothers strikes me as out of touch, at best.) We know how Sider and others interpret the Bible and tradition, and we respectfully disagree.

So Mennonites believe differently on this. The question is whether those differences must divide us -- whether locally or globally. I hope not. And I draw hope from the words of MWC president Danisa Ndvolu of Zimbabwe. When recently asked about divisive questions such as same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, he said: "Let us walk together. Those differences are part and parcel of our cloth ... of who we are as a body of Christ."

(See http://lancasteronline.com/features/faith_values/a-conversation-with-bis... )

As Christians, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what the Bible is saying. Ron’s article yet again, focuses on describing what the Bible does or does not say about human sexuality and more specifically homosexuality. What if we spent as much time and energy on honing our skills of spirituality, prayer and hospitality as we do arguing about and trying to figure out what Biblical scholars were trying to say? When I last checked, the Bible mentions that God’s love is for everyone. From the earliest days of Paul, the church has struggled to determine who is or is not in. God’s love is unconditional and it is our responsibility to show God’s unconditional love to family, friends and neighbors and yes, this includes members of the GLBTQ community as well as “straight” people who may be poor, homeless, Aboriginal, addicts, sex trade workers and (much to my chagrin) those who work diligently to ensure people are kept out of the church pews...and the list goes on. Ron suggests that as a church we will tolerate gay people if they remain celibate. Really? Is this God’s calling for us; to tolerate one another as he has tolerated us? Has God not shown us unconditional acceptance and love? Why then do we feel we can impose restrictions on others? If God’s calling is for us to accept and love each other (see list above), then tolerance is not good enough. Ron’s view of the church is, once again, exclusive. He dares to imagine that Mennonite churches be known as the best places in the world to find love, support and affirmation but, only if you fit in to the criteria (and unfortunately if you are homosexual, that would include denying you your sexuality and of course, any intimate personal relationship with someone of the same sex, although, I think you could still be friends with someone of the same sex, just not intimate). I dare to imagine a Mennonite church that is teeming with people of all walks of life, races, sexual orientations, poor, homeless, rich, those able to make rollkuchen, those not able to make rollkuchen...and the list goes on. What a beautiful experience our Sunday morning (?) worship would be! God is at work and present in our world, despite the best efforts of the church. It's time to pay more attention to our hearts and less to our minds. May everyone experience the hospitality and spirit of God’s love in those around us. Vicki Wenger Grace Mennonite, Brandon MB

Sider's article is a helpful summary of a perspective that is emerging as a (the?) major evangelical position on homosexuality. The article has a lot going for it - the opening admission of homophobia and prejudice, the crucial recognition of a distinction between same-sex attraction and same-sex behaviour, the call for married Christians to nurture healthy marriage and family relationships, and the desire for our churches to be welcoming places for same-sex attracted persons. Many of the biblical and theological arguments are also helpful, in particular the notion of discerning "trajectories" in (and beyond) Scripture regarding ethical matters. However, the article has at least one significant drawback: it perpetuates the myth of the "plain sense of Scripture." This is seen especially in his repeated assertions that Leviticus, or Romans 1, or Paul generally, say nothing about why homosexual behaviour is wrong, they simply say it is wrong. Period, end of story. These kinds of assertions decontextualize the Bible, as if biblical statements are without any literary or cultural context and can therefore be understood simply as they stand, lifted easily from the biblical text and applied to our modern setting in a straightforward manner. The reality, however, is that every single statement in Scripture is part of a complex weave of cultural and literary realities. Even the New Testament statement, "Jesus is Lord," which we as Christians believe to be universally true, is tied in to first-century linguistic and cultural realities. To put it another way, every single biblical statement - every one - is "culture-bound." Imagine I write a letter to someone in Anywhere, Canada, a town notorious for its bad drinking water. In the course of my letter I write, "Whatever you do, don't drink the water." Two thousand years from now, after Anywhere has disappeared and 21st century Canadian English is no more, someone might come across my letter, translate my ancient writing, and conclude that this Michael Pahl thought people shouldn't drink water. Period, end of story. "After all," they might say, "he doesn't say why the recipient shouldn't drink water, he just says they shouldn't." And that future interpreter would be wrong. Rather than assuming the biblical writers were giving timeless commands, context-free and therefore plainly read and easily applied, the reality is much more complex. There were in fact particular reasons why the biblical authors said what they said, even if those reasons are assumed within their culture and thus unstated. The question of why Leviticus or Paul condemned the behaviours they did is not tangential - it is in fact one of the most crucial exegetical questions to ask in this discussion. Unfortunately, Sider's article sidesteps this crucial exegetical question, and his article is substantially weakened because of it. One might also find other unsatisfying aspects of the article, such as the lack of engagement with biological, psychological, and demographic realities (although, to be fair, one cannot address everything in a short article). For some, the steps Sider proposes won't go far enough. In spite of these criticisms, however, it must be said that the article represents a positive step forward for conservative Christians, sketching out a better way of interacting with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ than has all too often been the case.

Sometimes people say we should stop judging each other. What does this mean? The idea is that homosex is no worse than any other sin, and we are all sinners saved by grace, and we should love one another, and no one should be excluded. Well. these are people's ideas. But how do we know if they are good ideas or not? What if someone else has another idea? Would we judge against that one?

We need to go back to scripture. We know that Annanias and Sapphira died primarily for lying. Just for lying. Not telling the truth. They died. Were judged and died. Was it wrong for the apostle Peter to be part of this judgement? Would we then judge the apostle? So why do we judge scripture? Why do we judge that Romans 1 is too harsh, or that Jude is too mean, or that Galatians 5:21 is too judgemental? Do we have the right to do this?

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