birds of a feather

Most of us live in communities of exclusion. Sometimes that is intentional, sometimes it is merely circumstantial. We are often stratified in American society by class, income, and race. Our friends and neighbors are often people with similar socioeconomic characteristics. As the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.”

Even our churches reflect this pattern. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shamed his fellow Christians in 1963 when he said:

“We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

Nearly half a century later, his statement is still largely true. Our workplaces and schools are better integrated than our houses of worship.

In addition to living and worshiping apart, we tend to categorize and classify other people based on their chief outward characteristics: skin color, ethnic origin, social class, education, gender, sexual orientation, income, politics, and religion. We often put people in boxes based on these characteristics and then make generalized assumptions about them. We then have a tendency to rank the people in these boxes in a hierarchy of good to bad, of desirable to undesirable, of acceptable to unacceptable, of inclusion to exclusion.

Patriarchal systems of domination are still in place, especially in the church. It is male heterosexuals who most often make the rules and decisions about who is in and who is out, who can lead and who can’t.

It wasn’t all that long ago that White Christians used the color of one’s skin to define acceptability into church fellowship. More recently, it was (and in many cases, still is) a person’s gender that male Christians used to define acceptability into leadership positions. Now heterosexual Christians are using sexual orientation and sexual behavior as barriers to inclusion and equal status.

religious exclusion in the first century

None of this is new. In the time of Jesus, Jewish society was rigidly stratified and clear boundaries between people were established.

For instance, the Pharisees, with whom Jesus had many interactions, were a closed community devoted to keeping the Jewish law. In addition to the Ten Commandments and the 613 rules and regulations found in the Torah, they also followed an even more complex “oral law” intended to protect the written law from being broken, even accidentally. They were educated people which separated them from the majority (90%) of the population who were illiterate. And they were able to devote time to study which was far removed from the daily lives of poor peasant farmers. In fact, the Pharisees regarded the peasants as “rabble who know nothing of the law.”

The Pharisees believed the messiah would come if everyone obeyed the law completely for one day. As a result, they were leaders in the local synagogues—places of prayer and study—encouraging others to know and understand scripture, particularly the details of the law. But they were also a closed community, and tried to physically distance themselves from anything seen as unclean, including “unclean” people.

Lepers were unclean, dead bodies were unclean, so were menstruating women. The law spelled out regulations for isolation and ritual cleansing for restoration. There were also unclean occupations—wicked, immoral and sinful occupations—that labeled those who did this kind of work as societal outcasts. Thieves, gamblers, and loan sharks topped the list. But also included were many occupations that appear in the stories about Jesus: prostitutes, tax and toll collectors (publicans), and money changers. Even herders such as shepherds were considered sinful, because they were thought to be dishonest and untrustworthy. (Think about that next Christmas, when the angels appear to a bunch of shepherds who were invited to be the first witnesses of Jesus’ birth.)

Jesus was constantly criticized for consorting with these kind of sinners and sharing meals with them, a sign of his acceptance and even approval. The Pharisees were scandalized! Jesus never minded creating a scandal. In fact, in one interchange, Jesus announced to the Pharisees that female prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God ahead of male religious leaders.

women in first-century Judaism

The role played by women in first century Judaism was extremely restricted by both scripture and custom. In this rigidly patriarchal society, women ranked well below men along with slaves and children. All were considered as property of the male and without any personal or social rights.

A daughter was considered her father’s property and could be sold into slavery or forced  to marry anyone he chose before she reached puberty. Young girls were often engaged to be married by age twelve and wed a year later. Because the prospective husband offered a gift of money to the bride’s father, the woman was now considered the husband’s property and could be treated as a personal slave. (A vestige of this practice is still found in modern wedding ceremonies when the father “gives” the bride away to her new husband—a transfer of property from one male to another.)

Similar to the fundamentalist rules of the Taliban in modern Afghanistan, women were excluded from public life and restricted to the home to perform domestic chores and to bear and raise children. When leaving the home, women were required to cover themselves with two veils, concealing their identity. Men were forbidden to greet a married woman on the street, or even to look at her. A married woman could be divorced for even talking to a man in public. And only men had the right to divorce.

A woman could not inherit her husband’s property. That went to the oldest son. If she had no children, the husband’s youngest brother was expected to marry her and keep the inheritance in the family.

Women could not study the Torah or teach. They were forbidden to pronounce the benediction after a meal and could not be witnesses in court as they were deemed wholly untrustworthy. (Think about this at Easter when the gospels reveal that it was several women who first witnessed the Resurrection.)

Jesus overturned many of these religious and social conventions. He spoke to women in public. He praised Mary to her sister Martha for studying with him. A group of women followed Jesus on his journeys, just like the disciples, and supported him if they had resources. Jesus raised women to a new level of dignity and treated them as equals. In order to follow Jesus, all Christians must do likewise. Sadly, many church groups still don’t get it.

female exclusion in the church

The more conservative Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, have long treated women as second class citizens, refusing to ordain them or to let them serve in key leadership capacities. The arguments used often include the claim that Jesus only called men to be his disciples and that St. Paul counseled women to be subordinate to men and remain silent in church.

In fact, Jesus raised women to a position of equality in his social interactions and Paul declared of that in Christ there was no longer a distinction between male and female. The old distinctions (Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female) had been eliminated by the example of Jesus.

Yet even in those churches who have fully accepted women as leaders, a new group is now front and center in the continuing stuggle of inclusion and exclusion.

gay exclusion in the church

There is an old joke which goes, “What do you call a man who loves another man?” The answer is “A Christian.” How ironic it is then that Christians are foremost among those who object to a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman.

Christine Smith, professor of homiletics at United Theological Seminary, writes in her book Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance:

“Through its theologies, biblical interpretations, and sexual ethics, the Christian church is one of the primary institutions that provide a foundation for social and ecclesiastical oppression of lesbians and gay men.”

Yet a growing number of Christians are challenging traditional church thinking. They are rejecting homophobia and heterosexism because of a different set of theological and biblical perspectives. The result is enormous conflict in the church.

Sexual issues are tearing our churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago.

sexual orientation or sexual behavior?

For many Christians, the fundamental issue of homosexuality is whether homosexuality is a legitimate form of sexual orientation or a deviant sexual behavior practiced by heterosexual people. If homosexuality is a sexual orientation, then it is due to either nature or nurture. If it has a genetic cause, then homosexuality is part of God’s creation, part of the wide natural diversity of human beings.

In fact, by definition, the term homosexuality refers to a same-sex orientation experienced by some people as heterosexuality is by others. On the other hand, homosexual behavior is a form of same-sex sexual activity that can be indulged in by people of any sexual orientation.

Take for example two recent sexual scandals among religious and political conservatives. Ted Haggard was the pastor of New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado and the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. In 2006, he was involved in scandal when it was revealed that he had solicited sex and methamphetamines from a male prostitute over a period of three years. In 2007, Senator Larry Craig, a Republican from Idaho, was arrested for homosexual lewd conduct in an airport men’s room. Both Haggard and Craig declared that they were completely heterosexual in their orientation. Both Haggard and Craig were married. Their assertions of heterosexuality are completely consistent with their conservative stance. Even if they have gay tendencies, they clearly don’t want to be labeled as gay.

For liberal Christians, a homosexual is a person who is shaped by his or her core sexual orientation, regardless if that orientation is determined by nature or nurture. For conservative Christians, a homosexual is really a heterosexual who is freely choosing a deviant sexual behavior against the will of God. These are the two fundamental stances that divide us.

what if homosexuality is genetic?

Whether genetic or other physiological determinants are the basis of sexual orientation is a highly politicized issue. The Advocate, a U.S. gay and lesbian news magazine, reported in 1996 that 61% of its readers believed that “it would mostly help gay and lesbian rights if homosexuality were found to be biologically determined. A cross-national study in the United States, the Philippines, and Sweden found that those who believed that “homosexuals are born that way” held significantly more positive attitudes toward homosexuality than those who believed that “homosexuals choose to be that way” and/or “learn to be that way.”

The American Psychological Association says this:

“There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

The perceived causes of sexual orientation have a significant bearing on the status of lesbians and gays. The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank in Washington, D.C., argues in the book Getting It Straight,

The authors state that finding that people are born gay “would advance the idea that sexual orientation is an innate characteristic, like race; that homosexuals, like African-Americans, should be legally protected against ‘discrimination;’ and that disapproval of homosexuality should be as socially stigmatized as racism.”

“However,” the authors claim, ” it is not true.”

One prominent evangelical leader, Rev. Rob Schenck, who used to advocate conversion therapy, came to believe that homosexuality is not a choice after speaking with scientists, and he now believes that conservative Christians need to drop the choice argument in order to continue opposing homosexual sex. He was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying “if it’s inevitable that this scientific evidence is coming, we have to be prepared with a loving response. If we don’t have one, we won’t have any credibility.”

The issue often comes down to nature or nurture. If the cause of homosexuality is environmental (nurture), then it is in the realm of possibility that the orientation could be reversed. But if the cause is natural, then it is likely that it cannot be altered.

recent genetic discoveries

On June 3, 2005, Reuters reported on a study published in the journal Cell by Barry J. Dickson and Ebru Demir of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. By altering a single gene in a fruit fly they were able to turn its sexual orientation around. In a series of experiments, the researchers found that females given the male variant of the gene acted exactly like males in courtship, madly pursuing other females. Males that were artificially given the female version of the gene became more passive and turned their sexual attention to other males.

Their research demonstrates that ‘behavioral switch genes’ exist in nature and suggests that genetics may play a significant role in determining sexual orientation. It’s a long way from fruit flies to humans, but the possibility exists that human sexuality is a complex combination of factors and is certainly more than a “lifestyle choice.”

Dr. Dickson, the lead author, said, “This really makes you think about how much of our behavior, perhaps especially sexual behaviors, has a strong genetic component.”

the Bible: God’s final word?

If homosexuality is found to be determined by genetic, physiological, or even psychological causes, that would call into question the few biblical passages that condemn homosexual behavior. If homosexuality is not a question of choice, then we have to deal with the different approaches Christians take toward scripture: is the Bible God’s unchanging (and literally true) word, or is it the product of two human communities—ancient Israel and the early Christian communities? For these ancient writers, the idea of a sexual orientation was completely unknown and unimaginable. For them, everyone was heterosexual and engaging in homosexual sex was a perversion or as the Hebrew Bible says, an “abomination.”.

And furthermore, does the Bible represent God’s final and only word to us on this and other topics, or is God still speaking to us at a time when we have more scientific knowledge about the way the world operates?

As scientific studies move forward, will the church be on the right side of this issue or the wrong side? Over the centuries it’s often chosen the latter. In this debate, we are observing the pre-modern worldview of the biblical writers come face-to-face with the scientific inquiry of modernity. As we enter the postmodern age, those clinging to the ideas and absolutes of the past will lose more and more credibility, particularly among the young. As younger generations continue to embrace new realities, the rigid and unchanging Christianity of the conservative church will most likely be left in the dust.

justification by faith

Perhaps the Apostle Paul may have something new to say to us about bridging our divisions over sexual orientation and sexual activity. In the first century, Paul faced a similar situation. He was concerned with the creation of a new community made up of two kinds of people—those who lived under the Hebrew law, and those who did not. His task was the reconciliation of two very different racial, ethnic, cultural and religious groups into a unified body. The term he used for overcoming their separation was “justification.”

As Martin Luther read Paul’s words, he understood their meaning to be about God’s gracious reconciliation with a sinful humanity. He saw justification primarily as a dynamic relationship with God at a personal and individual level. For Luther, this was an extremely personal issue and he clearly brought his own agenda to the reading of the text.

Some scholars now believe that Luther missed the significant social dimension in what Paul was saying. Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder and Swedish theologian Krister Stendahl believe that Paul was really speaking about justification as a social dynamic. The fundamental issue that Paul was concerned about was the social form of the church. Was it to be a radically new community of Jews and Gentiles? Or were the Jewish and Gentile believers to have separate sects? Or did all the Gentiles have to become Jews first to be included into fellowship?

insiders and outsiders

Paul’s concern was that the Jewish Christians—the insiders—were placing rigid religious and cultural demands on the Gentile Christians—the outsiders. At issue were two key requirements: the ritual mutilation of male genitals (circumcision) and kosher food prohibitions and preparation—both based on ancient Hebrew holiness codes.

These two practices (circumcision and food laws) were signs of covenant and signs of separation. They were intended to set the Hebrew people apart from their neighbors as a distinctive community. Now these practices were dividing the early church.

become like us to be accepted

The insiders, who regarded these requirements as law, demanded that the outsiders conform in order to participate in full fellowship and leadership. “You must become like us to be accepted,” they said. “There is no other way.” The insiders saw these requirements as uncompromising moral issues. They deeply believed that God’s law demanded these two practices. They could not be ignored or put aside. To do so was to be unfaithful to the unchanging word of God.

Paul clearly saw the social dimension of this struggle. He believed that the work of Christ is not only in redeeming the sinful nature of individuals; the work of Christ is also in social reconciliation—breaking down walls of separation between groups of people—people who are culturally defined as enemies.

Paul believed that the risen Christ was working to create in himself one new humanity instead of two. In Paul’s eyes, through his death and resurrection, Christ had abolished all the ordinances and commandments of the Law that separated Jews and Gentiles. With these out of the way, Christ brought down their dividing wall of hostility and reconciled both groups into one body. (See Ephesians 2:11-26).

a just relationship

When Paul says in Galatians 2:16, that we are “justified by faith in Christ,” it is not a description of an individual’s redeemed relationship with God; it is instead the culmination of a discussion on whether Jewish and Gentile Christians were to live together in one fellowship. In other words, justification by grace through faith is Paul’s term for the integration of two separated groups of people. To be justified is to be in a right relationship with one another, a just relationship—a relationship of acceptance, love and compassion—and thereby in a right relationship with God. To be justified with one another is to create a new kind of community where the brokenness of humankind is set right. Justification is thus a social event.

N.T. Wright, bishop of the Anglican diocese of Durham, England, has said,

The gospel proclaimed by Jesus is not meant to create a bunch of individual Christians, but a community where justification is a social concern. Not individualism, but unity and acceptance in the body of Christ are the decisive doctrines of Christianity, regardless of social, ethnic and cultural barriers.”

Paul saw the crucifixion of Jesus as a world-transforming event that changed the former requirements of the Hebrew religion. As a Pharisee, Paul intimately knew the 613 laws, rules, and regulations of the Torah holiness code. He believed they were important aspects of religious duty until the arrival of the Messiah and the in-breaking of God’s reign on earth. Because of the life and death of Jesus, obeying God’s laws no longer meant that one had to observe such culturally-distinctive requirements which Paul called “the works of the law.” Now, Paul believed, through the crucified Jesus, there was a whole new creation. Through the risen Christ, “all things were made new.”

Indeed, the struggle Paul had with Jewish Christians was not that they continued to keep the law—he was extremely tolerant of those who held to such a conviction. Instead, the basic theological issue he exposed was their failure to recognize that in Christ the old barriers had been shattered and should be put aside as future requirements.

In Paul’s mind, all barriers and divisions between people were coming to an end for those who lived in the risen Christ. There were no longer categories of separation like Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. All were equal; all were equally sinful. No one could claim superiority in the eyes of God. If the Jewish Christians wanted to maintain the holiness codes, so be it. But it was not required of Gentiles, because the old codes were no longer required to be holy or acceptable in the eyes of God.

an inclusion without requirements

In Paul’s new Christian communities, the outsiders were now invited in without requirements. For Paul, that was the radical nature of God’s grace—there are no requirements! Grace drives out all requirements! We become reconciled in the body of Christ not through holiness requirements—“the works of the law”—but by grace through faith.

But even greater than faith, says Paul, is love. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13, NRSV) For Paul, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10, NRSV). Love trumps the law every time.

We find ourselves today in a similar circumstance as the first-century church. We too are divided by holiness requirements that stand in the way of full acceptance, fellowship, and leadership of gay and lesbian Christians.

homosexuality and the Bible

Straight Christians have put demands on gay Christians regarding what one might call “kosher sexual behavior.” Once again, a few isolated verses of holiness code are used to separate people in the church.

There are only a handful of references in the Old and New Testaments that suggest that homosexual sexual activity is against the will of God. Some can be argued away as inappropriate to our contemporary discussion since they refer to gang rape (Genesis 19:1-29) and Canaanite male temple prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17-18). Two other references are unclear as to whether the issue is homosexuality alone, or promiscuity and “sex-for-hire” (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10).

But two Old Testament passages are unequivocal in their condemnation of male gay sex. The first (Leviticus 18:22) states the principle: “You [masculine] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second (Leviticus 20:13) adds the penalty: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

It is clear that the ancient male Hebrew writers saw gay sex as a detestable act deserving death. Wasting semen on any non-procreative activity (including coitus interruptus, masturbation, and bestiality) was considered tantamount to abortion or murder to a people struggling to populate a country and build a great nation. In addition, in a patriarchal society, a man taking the sexual role of a woman shamed and degraded all male dignity. (Leviticus, it should be noted, has nothing to say about female homosexual sex since women didn’t matter.)

One can argue that many other forbidden activities in the holiness codes are no longer considered applicable to our situation today. For instance cursing your mother or father is also an abomination, and also deserving of death. (Leviticus 20:9) This is not a major issue in our churches, but for many Christians, the prohibition to gay sex still applies.

In addition to the prohibition in Leviticus, there is Paul’s letter to the Romans. He too seemingly condemns homosexual sex.

In a Christian Century article entitled “Homosexuality and the Bible,” Walter Wink writes:

“Paul’s unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior in Romans 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of any discussion.

‘For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.’ (Romans 1:26-27)

“No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seems to assume that those whom he condemns are heterosexual, and are acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up,” or “exchanging” their regular sexual orientation for that which is foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, “leaving,” “giving up” or “exchanging” their natural sexual orientation.

“Likewise, the relationships Paul describes are heavy with lust; they are not relationships of genuine same-sex love. They are not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple.”

Paul wrote to the Romans from the city of Corinth, where the prevailing religion was the worship of Aphrodite. Aphrodite was a hermaphrodite with both male and female sexual organs. In the worship of Aphrodite, people played the role of the opposite gender and engaged in sexual orgies with same-sex prostitutes who were available in the temple. Paul’s condemnation was against these orgies. What Paul says in these verses cannot possibly be applied to the kind of relationships created by loving homosexual partners who are making a lifetime monogamous commitment to each other.

our new holiness requirements

Yet, between the holiness codes of Leviticus and Paul’s comments in Romans, the church has created a separation—a barrier—to the full inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians. To be accepted, many churches demand a holiness requirement of celibacy. In many churches, homosexuals are welcomed into fellowship only as long as they live contrary to their nature. If they express their love in a sexual relationship with a committed partner, they are considered uniquely sinful and unclean, and are decidedly unwelcome. Lifelong same-sex relationships may not be blessed by clergy in most churches. Gays and lesbians are considered unworthy of ordination in the majority of Christian denominations.

Like race and gender, sexual orientation is part of the diversity of the human family. In Christ, there is no longer black or white, male or female, gay or straight. All are equal. All are equally sinful. All should be accepted and welcomed into the body of Christ as fully-participating members and leaders. Civil society is moving much faster than the church to accept homosexual people as full citizens with the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals.

Paul would likely say to the straight Christians as he did to the Jewish Christians, “What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that straights and gays alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one.’” (Paraphrase of Romans 3:9-10, NIV)

It was also Paul who said, “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you.” (Romans 15:7, NIV)

accept one another

Jürgen Moltmann commented on what these words mean for the Church in his book The Power of the Powerless:

“We are no longer solitary individualists. We are a community in which one person accepts the other in the same way that Christ accepts us. Then the dreary old principle that ‘birds of a feather flock together’ no longer applies. Now people who are different accept one another and find pleasure in one another. Then Christian fellowship—which means liberating fellowship—no longer means just sitting down beside people I agree with. It means sitting beside the people I don’t agree with—and staying there. Then I will stop meeting just to corroborate one another by way of the same old stories, jokes and judgments about other people. Then we create an open community, a hospitable community, and bring friendliness into the unfriendly corners of this society of ours.”

Christine Smith expands on the role of grace in acceptance in Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance:

“A grace that renders creation holy and participates in the liberation of all people is a grace that does not know or understand the boundaries of human acceptance. It is a love that empowers those whom society would strip of power. It is a grace that indicts and exposes all those human realities that destroy sacred community and embodied justice. And it is a love that eternally lifts, embraces, and calls people home.”

love trumps the law

Brad Gee, senior pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Farmington Hills, Michigan said in a 2005 sermon:

“When Jesus saw the needs of people, compassion trumped purity every time. Love trumped the law every time. Helping people trumped holiness every time. When Jesus sensed that a person needed to be touched, needed to be healed, needed to be loved, needed to be forgiven, all of the Old Testament purity laws went out the window in favor of the politics of compassion and love. 

“Sadly, the church that claims the name of Jesus has, somehow, forgotten the Jesus who broke down the walls that separated people from one another. 

“Jesus is a come-as-you-are Savior. There is nothing you have to do to be welcomed by Jesus and, hopefully, by the church that bears his name. There is nothing you have to change about yourself to be welcomed by Jesus and, hopefully, by the church that bears his name.

“If you have felt like an outsider because of your marital status, your level of education, your job, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your health, your newness to Christianity, you need not feel that way anymore. Jesus is a come-as-you-are Savior…period. No exceptions.”

moving toward full inclusion

As a church, we are in the midst of a significant moment of decision and action. Now is the time to enact God’s justice for our gay brothers and sisters. If Paul had taken a “pastoral” approach to the Jewish-Gentile division, instead of facing it squarely, we would still be eating kosher food at church potlucks. Instead, Paul said that the religious mandates that divide us—even those that are a sign of the covenant with God—must be put aside for the sake of community. Jesus, by his example, has already put them aside. But we, in our blindness still cling to them.

Now is the time to live out “justification by faith.” Now is the time for reconciliation. Now is the time to unify straight and gay Christians in a compassionate, accepting community. Now is the time for the holiness codes to be put to rest. Now is the time for God’s grace to transform us into a new creation.