It’s Pride Month. In Australia, there is a storm in a tea-cup over Israel Folau’s homophobic comments and consequent sacking from Rugby Australia. Some Christian’s are in an uproar over it, claiming its a freedom of religion/speech issue. (It’s not. But I’ve already blogged on that). So now seems as good a time as any to talk about why I’m an affirming Christian: that is, why I believe LGBTI+ people are loved by God just as they are, that they should be equal in the eyes of the church and that gay conversion therapy is dangerous, unnecessary and a form of torture (and it is, according to the UN).
First a little about me so you know where I’m coming from. I was raised evangelical, the eldest child of Christian ministers. I suppose you could call us fundamentalists in some ways, in that my father’s church believed homosexuality was an abomination, and largely subscribed to complementarian theology which puts men above women ( I do concede that Dad let women lead in some ways, but always under his “covering”).
Growing up, I was used to the idea that I would have to give up any ministry or career I had prior to marriage so that I could serve my husband. I remember my dad telling me this, and advising me to achieve what I wanted to achieve before getting married. Ironically, it was my husband who freed me from that thinking.
After my husband and I left my fathers church (a painful, dramatic split by the way), I found myself on a journey of discovery. The people who showed my husband and me the greatest, most unconditional love came from places we did not expect. Among them were atheists, agnostics, lapsed Christians – all sorts really. But all of a sudden many of the people closest to me were queer (Gay, lesbian, bisexual, non-binary). These were the people showing the most love to us as we battled our way through recovery. We were also fortunate enough to fall into a new beautiful tribe of Christian friends, but the LGBTQ+ crowd impacted me with their open-heartedness especially when I could have been thought of as undeserving, even a transgressor by association.
I was met with two realities during this rather turbulent time: one was the deconstruction and reconstruction of my own faith. I had to break down the old one and go on a deep search for the truth about life and God (which I thought I already had sorted). The second was the jarring challenge I saw in Mark 12:30-31. If you’re a little fuzzy on that, let me remind you:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
I say “jarring” because, during Australia’s marriage equality plebiscite, I’d seen some atrocious behaviour on social media from all places on the political spectrum. But in my opinion, some Christians were among the worst bullies – these were people who should have been living by Mark 12:30-31. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to vomit every time I read, “I have gay friends and I love them, but…”
I’ve heard that too many times. I think we all have. I think that’s why Israel Folau’s carry-on hits such a sour note. That line is nothing but a cheap cop-out. If you love your gay friends, then my strong belief is that you need to approach God and read the Bible as if you are them. You need to ask yourself the hard questions. You need to really, truly, deeply search. Because that’s what you would do if it were you. You’d ask yourself:
- Does God love me as I am?
- Does He accept me as I am?
- Did He, the One who supposedly makes no mistakes, make me as I am? Destined for hell?
Admit it: Even on face value, these questions are brutal. These are things I never had to confront as I sat there in my straight privilege, worshiping a God I knew loved me. But it struck me that in churches all across Australia there are young, closeted, Queer Christians asking these same questions and the answer seems different and eternally unjust. The answer seems like “If I hate myself enough, if I pray the gay away, if I never find love, and if I gouge my eyes out so I never have to see a person I find attractive, then maybe God will love me.” What a crushingly impossible standard to have to live up to! No wonder the rate of suicide and mental illness among young LGBTI+ people is so hideously high. It makes me angry and heartsick all at once.
Here’s the thing: It’s the *wrong* answer. Because when you read the Bible like it was originally written, the answer is a clear. “Yes! God loves you. Yes, He made you. No, He doesn’t make mistakes.” But there’s a whole lot of “lost in translation” that gets in the way of that message.
So here’s what the Bible really says about it: I know I’m wading into big territory here by taking on one of the largest, most viciously perpetuated myths in the Christian world, but it’s about time we started talking about it. One “clobber” scripture often used as “evidence” that homosexuality is a sin comes from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which reads: “ Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” There are other scriptures, such as those listed below. I’m not going to break down all of them, but there are a few things to note:
- Genesis 18 and 19 – This actually isn’t referring to homosexuality, but to rape. The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were about rape, about sexual violence, and not about same-sex attraction per se. It is this that is referred to in Jude 1:7 (another clobber scripture). Objectively, they don’t apply.
- Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 Interestingly, the Levitical scriptures are translated from the Hebrew word “Toevah” which covers a specific sexual act that violated cultural boundaries (Source: Unclobber, by Colby Martin. Go read it because I’m not going into detail). It was a prohibition to God’s chosen people, the Hebrews, who were called to live differently. It was not a directive to Gentile Christians that did not exist at that time. Yes, we are still called to be set apart for God and if God speaks to you about that one, then great. But the detail around that is something between each believer and God alone. Leviticus had no prohibitions towards lesbians because it was about one particular, male-to-male sexual act. (Read more in Colby Martin’s book, because Mamma ain’t giving you the sex talk today.)
- Matthew 19:4–5 and Mark 10:6–8 – In both of these, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament in answering questions about divorce, not homosexuality.
This leaves Romans 1:26–27; 1 Timothy 1:8–11; and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. All of these were written by Paul, who was ironically the only Apostle who didn’t physically meet Jesus. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he has been criticised by some Biblical scholars for being inconsistent in that he advocates love as our only law, but then gives a whole bunch of guidelines including calling homosexuality a sin. But is he really doing that? Here’s a noteworthy quote (from Chuck McKnight,) that illustrates just how far a little cultural awareness goes at calling that one into question:
“Prostitution was standard practice, often tied to idol worship, and often including sex with young boys. Additionally, it was common for boys to be paired with older men who would have a sexual relationship with them until they reached adulthood. It was also accepted that men would have many sexual partners—male, female, and children—as long as they only played the role of the “active” partner, and as long as they did not have sex with another man’s wife (because wives were property). The “passive” partner was considered the weaker role, reserved for women or young boys.
The concept of an equal, loving, consensual same-sex partnership, though not entirely unheard of, was not at all a common occurrence in Paul’s day. We have very little basis for assuming that this was the kind of relationship Paul had in mind. It is much more likely that Paul referred to specifically harmful same-sex practices like those described above.”
For a bit more of a scholarly look into the topic, I look to Professor Joan Taylor, professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College, London, and author of “What Did Jesus Look Like.” In a guest post on “Historical Jesus Research” she wrote:
My own translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9 would be: “Or do you not know that unrighteous men shall not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: neither whoremongers (pornoi), nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor spineless cowards (malakoi), nor ‘male-bedders’ (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor covetous, drunk or reviling men, shall inherit the Kingdom of God”.
In the Greek text, it seems very clear that the concern Paul has is with damaging male behaviour that would lead to a complaint by another man. All these can easily get lost in translations, done by different committees of translators at different times. So, one of the greatest outrages of Bible translation ever done has been that the word arsenokoitai is translated as ’homosexuals’ in many English Bibles from the 20th century onwards. The problem for all translators is that arsenokoites is a rare word. However, studies have shown that it is always associated with vices of seizing or raping, and therefore it should be understood as involving male-on-male rape or coercion, and socially at the time, it would be more connected with pederasts seizing boys. This behavior does not in any way map on ‘homosexuality’ as we understand it: it is not a word about same-sex love. It is a word describing abusers. To translate arsenokoitai as indicating homosexuals is utterly, totally mistaken, wrong, and itself a kind of abuse by faulty translation.
In the Jerusalem Bible and New Revised Standard Version, we have ‘sodomites’, which would only be right if the sodomy was understood as forced. The King James Version has more vaguely ‘abusers of themselves with mankind‘, which does at least still ensure that the fundamental concern is with abuse (though here it is of themselves). But all these get interpreted as indicating ‘homosexuals’ thanks to certain interpretive trends.
Furthermore, malakoi, literally ‘softies’, indicates spineless cowards and weaklings in other comparable lists of male vices, but is translated in the King James Bible as ‘effeminate’, again making the Bible condemn male to female transgender people or indeed any male who seems to be ‘girly’ in the eyes of certain beholders. This again is a wrong translation, and its ramifications are incredibly serious, as we see.
The Key Message and the Modern Damage:
The above section is both immensely condensed and substantially paraphrased by Taylor’s own admission. There are entire books and entire theses devoted to this topic. I’m just a little blogger using her little corner of the Internet to holler, “Hey! We’ve been wrong here and its hurting people!” I’d laugh (if it weren’t so damaging and unfunny) when I hear the seemingly age-old retort “it’s been written in the Bible for 2000 years,” because in reality (as Taylor pointed out) its more like 200 and there is a whole lot of historical context missing from those translations.
Beyond all that, the irony is if Paul’s messages were to be condensed into one key message, it is this: Don’t abuse people. Don’t use your power, position, or privilege to exploit others. Yet it is this that the church is guilty of in so many places and so many ways.
I understand that many of the translation errors may have happened at a time when homophobia was much more entrenched, or when sexual and marital practices differed greatly, but that is not our reality today. I understand that Christian leaders don’t all read Hebrew and Greek, nor do they seek to. Heck, even I don’t. But it isn’t hard to find good information from those who do.
In this day and age, it is utterly unacceptable for the church to effectively say “come one, come all, come you rich, come you poor, come you sick, come you whole, come you sinners, come you saints. Just don’t come near us if you aren’t straight or cis-gendered.” That is a complete misrepresentation of the heart of God. I could give you example after example from the Bible, but I’m running out of time in this blog because we’ve got to talk about another burning issue…
The Gay Conversion Therapy Issue:
The fact is that one can’t change their sexuality. Recently, the Premier of my home state in Australia pledged to make gay conversion therapy illegal. I cheered and I did it for a number of reasons. Here are some of them:
- Psychology Today has reported that young adults whose parents enlisted the help of a professional to change their sexual orientation (i.e. Gay conversion therapy through church-based or other therapists) had 5 times the likelihood of attempted suicide than their peers.
- The UN Committee Against Torture has made it an issue for international law. I.e. They are effectively, and reasonably, calling it torture. The American Psychiatric Association has called it unethical. A past US Surgeon General has said there is no evidence for it (read more here).
- The Human Rights Campaign noted that “In 2007, a task force of the American Psychological Association undertook a thorough review of the existing research on the efficacy of conversion therapy. Their report noted that there was very little methodologically sound research on sexual orientation change efforts (SOCEs) and that the “results of scientifically valid research indicate that it is unlikely that individuals will be able to reduce same-sex attractions or increase other-sex sexual attractions through SOCE.”
- In 2009, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) released a damning report that showed the dangers of SOCE (Sexual orientation change efforts). Among the risks were: “depression, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, shame, social withdrawal, suicidality, substance abuse, stress, disappointment, self-blame, decreased self-esteem and authenticity to others, increased self-hatred, hostility and blame toward parents, feelings of anger and betrayal, loss of friends and potential romantic partners, problems in sexual and emotional intimacy, sexual dysfunction, high-risk sexual behaviors, a feeling of being dehumanized and untrue to self, a loss of faith, and a sense of having wasted time and resources.” Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that “Therapy directed at specifically changing sexual orientation is contraindicated since it can provoke guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for achieving changes in orientation.”
- In short, there is clear evidence that conversion therapy does not work, and some significant evidence that it is also harmful to LGBTQ people.
Even shorter: You are more likely to emerge from gay conversion therapy psychologically damaged and/or suicidal than “straight.”
I’ve heard people ask why anyone would voluntarily do gay conversion therapy. But that is part of the problem. The why lies in hearing, week after week, that you are an abomination (when you aren’t). It’s in loving God but believing He made you for hell unless you change the unchangeable. It’s in the deeply ingrained internalized homophobia taught to young, impressionable, good-hearted, God-loving people in churches and homes across the world. But as we see from scholars like Taylor (and others), it’s all built on faulty translations of the otherwise Good Book.
I’ve told you about why the clobber scriptures are very likely victims of faulty translation. I haven’t told you about the many stories in the Bible that, once you are aware of them, are blindingly obvious in their LGBTI content. It’s just that the blinders have been on for generations, and in an age where the world is more familiar with what the church stands against than what it stands for, it seems there is a great unwillingness to take them off.
When we look back in the Bible we see Jesus scorned by the religious establishments of the day because of His inclusiveness. But today, we seem to see many religious establishments scorning inclusiveness because of Jesus. I find this to be the worst type of misrepresentation. That’s why I’m writing about this in pride month.
Why I’m Not Encouraging LGBTI Christians To Go Back to Church Just Yet:
Ladies, Gentlemen, Others – this has been my “Coming out” as an affirming Christian. It had to happen in pride month, yeah? But I have one caveat: I’m not encouraging you all to get to church just yet. Why? I am aware that the church universal is not always welcoming. I am also aware that if a church is not affirming, then it’s not welcoming either. (thanks Kevin Garcia for that truth bomb).
I think of my beautiful best friend. She rocks rainbow hair and tattoos, and she is looking for the right woman to spend the rest of her life with. She is kind and generous and fun and an adored aunty to my kiddies, and I don’t want her anywhere that isn’t ready to embrace her with no “if’s but’s or despite’s”. I think of my trans friends and I don’t want them to have to deal with sideways glances. I think of my gay friends, I don’t want them to have to wonder whether they can hold their husband’s hand in church. I think of my bisexual friends and I don’t want them to have to explain themselves.
I know that church is a place that has hurt many of you. I’m speaking up about the injustice and bad theology so that one day you will feel safe, welcomed, and affirmed. Until that time, or until such a time as you feel you want to be inside church flying the diversity and equality flag, I’ll do it for you. Others like me will too.
Until that time, where two or more are gathered, there God is in our midst. So you are welcome at my dinner table. Let’s be Christian’s together. You just bring the wine, okay?
Peace, love, and rainbows