On April 2, 2022, I gave a presentation entitled “Loving All on the Journey to Holiness,” a presentation addressing both the biblical (and Wesleyan!) mandate to love our neighbor and, all the more, our brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the biblical witness concerning the place of same-sex intercourse in the Christian life (it can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/RrPqQvOfmo0). The Rev. Tom Fuerst, a clergy colleague here in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, took the time to watch the whole presentation and responded very thoughtfully and critically to its contents. I share here his counterpoints and questions along with my responses (which I do not pretend to be “definitive” in any sense, just … responses). I put my responses in boldface, however, since this is my blog. 😊
Tom: Leviticus 19: You mention that it occurs in the context of several other sexual prohibitions – including no sex during menstruation. Why do you think the verses on same-sex sex are ethically obligatory today but the one on menstruation is not? (“It’s the considerate thing to do” isn’t really an argument for such a strong prohibition, I don’t think.)
David: I admit to not having spent much time with this particular prohibition over the course of my career – and thus I am just exploring a possibility here. Menstrual blood is de facto defiling and, while there are purifications prescribed for this as other pollutions, willfully incurring pollution (such as having sex with a menstruating wife would clearly involve) may be at the root of the problem. (One willfully incurs corpse pollution when burying the dead, of course, but I have a sense that this is a unique case.) Philo of Alexandria explains the prohibition as a concern not to waste Israelite seed, sowing it into a field that is clearly not prepared to receive it. This makes sense of the prohibition, and is interesting, but I tend not to regard Philo as having genuine explanatory force regarding these “special laws” in regard to their origin, just living with them in first-century Alexandria where a rational explanation of every stipulation in the Torah is important for preserving the sense that the Jewish religion is essentially rational.
Tom: I understand your criminal code arguments given the historical context. That said, it’s still hard to square “this ethical command should be followed, minus the death penalty” with your earlier claims that “we should love every person.” How can the God who tells us to love every person, including the LGBTQ person, ALSO inspire a text that calls for the death penalty for said persons? This inconsistency is part of the justification many Christians have given (often in private settings) for their hatred for LGBTQ persons. It’s ALSO the reason the LGBTQ community finds the Bible/Leviticus oppressive. Regardless of whether the penalty is still in play, it once was, and that strikes marginalized communities as particularly problematic.
David: I hear this and, of course, wish I could erase the entire history of Christians using Leviticus as a warrant to hate. What you seem to be really getting at here, of course, is that Leviticus does not, or does not uniformly, speak as “word of God” but is at best an admixture of “word of God” (e.g., we can all affirm Lev 19:2 or 19:18) and “legalized bigotry.” One solution is to claim that God did not inspire Lev 20:13 (not a bad solution, unless God did). The other is to allow Leviticus to bear witness to the absoluteness, and the absolute seriousness, of maintaining holiness in the presence of the Holy God and submitting our sense of “right” to its vision for “holiness.” This one, I readily grant, is not a simple choice and there is a great deal of attractiveness to treating Leviticus (etc.) as the admixture. But this is where the doctrine of scripture that underlies the two options becomes so important – and their differences so telling.
Tom: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 1:9-11: What does it communicate to our LGBTQ siblings (whom we love) when we authoritatively cite texts that put them in a vice list with idolators, the godless, murderers of mothers, enslavers and slave traffickers, drunks, sexual perverts, or revilers? If Paul’s view is that LGBTQ persons are equivalently bad to all of these, then how can we affirm and do ministry with such people? It seems to me, rather, that Paul’s equivalences here are, rather, that the excesses of vices are highlighted. And given that, as some scholars have argued, “homosexuality” didn’t exist in the ancient world, but rather, the ancients considered same-sex sex as an excessive action of *straight* people. That would make more sense, I think, of Paul’s putting arsenokoitai in the vice list.
David: The pastoral challenge that you name is real, but we’re all in that vice list together until we step into the reality of “such were some of you.” You appear to frame the question in the way I really wish everyone would stop framing the question: Paul is not speaking of the people who experience same-sex attraction/orientation but do not follow their inclinations to their consummation, but those who do perform same-sex intercourse. It’s not a judgement upon the person but the actor. The “excessive passion” argument has become popular, but it is fundamentally flawed. The ancients were very well acquainted with same-sex orientation. The fact that scholars are not honest about this is frankly infuriating. Plato’s Symposium – a far from obscure text – gives voice to such a view in the speech of Aristophanes, who articulates a creation myth that puts same-sex orientation alongside heterosexual orientation from the mythic beginnings of humankind. Preston Sprinkle (in People to Be Loved) gathers a number of other texts from Aristotle, Parmenides, and astrological texts that attest likewise. Bi-sexual attraction was also real. But Jewish authors like Paul would call any passion excessive that led to sexual activity prior to or outside a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. A bisexual person’s adultery or pedophilia would be alike in that regard.
Tom: What do we do with the fact that “men acting like women” is terribly difficult to define and, certainly, culturally conditioned? What it means to be a man and a woman are not “natural.” They’re all culturally defined roles.
David: This is why I also regard malakoi to be very slippery. The degree to which the scriptural witness is overall concerned about not blurring gender lines is, slipperiness of some terms notwithstanding, an interesting counterpoint to the current trend towards a gender spectrum. I rather think that the biblical proscriptions of same-sex intercourse to be closely related to this interest in maintaining binary gender distinctions (such that men should not “lie with males as with females”) rather than with degrees of passion along a continuum of passion.
Tom: Romans 1:18-32: Again, I wonder if we can really unconditionally love and do ministry with our LGBTQ siblings and also say, as you interpret Paul saying, that they are (uniquely?) evidence of God’s wrath on the cosmos.
David: “They” are not such evidence, but their inclinations are evidence of the general disorder that Paul regards as having come upon the cosmos as a consequence of human rebellion against the Creator. And to the extent that we do not identify “them” with their inclination, we can really love and do ministry with and for LGBTQ persons. “Unconditionally” need not mean “without aspirations for your full sanctification” (understanding “sanctification” here in my terms rather than your own), even as we are to love “unconditionally” many who do not seem bent on traveling the full distance to living the life of the new person as Paul and others describe it.
Tom: I also have wondered (and this is just me) if Paul’s language of “burn with lust” here doesn’t disqualify mutual, monogamous same-sex sexuality. I have gay friends and family who have been with their partners for decades. As a married man, I think you can appreciate that their love for their partners – including their sexual love – cannot merely be reduced to “lust” any more than my sexual love for my wife is merely “lust.” Attraction and lust are not the same. Paul is condemning lust alone, no?
David: I would (of course?) agree that it is not appropriate to label all same-sex desire for intimacy as “lust.” But in light of the scriptural disqualification of same-sex intercourse tout court (and, obviously, this is a major point on which we differ) I think it is not the quality alone, but also the object, of such sincere desire for intimacy that is problematized.
Tom: Romans 1: The larger context clarifies that Paul is discussing idolatry and an intentional rejection of the truth. It deals with people, particularly gentiles, who do not worship the God of Israel. When we are discussing same-sex marriage and the church, however, we are discussing Christians who are not idolatrous and do not reject the truth. Does this not set a completely different context for our ethic? Especially because Paul seems to be quite hyperbolic?
David: I agree that Paul is using hyperbole insofar as there are some rather respectable Gentiles out there who are pursuing highly ethical lives – and some who would even agree that the divine is not well represented by or present in images. But the hyperbole consists in painting all Gentiles with the worst colors of Gentile practice, not in Paul’s identification of these practices as a sign of human fallenness. And the degree to which we are submitting to/aligning with “the truth of God” is precisely the question at issue between the traditionalist and progressive view of same-sex intercourse. Worshiping the one God is a great step forward from the morass of alienation from God and the God-ward re-orienting of our whole person and our whole life together, but it does not sanctify the practices of the old person that we continue to nurture (hence the bulk of NT exhortations regarding all manner of survivals of this old person).
Tom: Further, I’m concerned about your rhetoric that sexuality has become the center of our identity. It seems to me that same sex identity is only pushed to the forefront of our discussions precisely because it is under attack intellectually, religiously, ideologically, and politically. In the anthropological idea of “schismogenesis,” people create cultural divisions by defining themselves against each other. Insofar as same-sex identity is the center of someone’s identity, it’s usually in my experience because they feel like their identity is being attacked from the outside. If our cultural moment were not so combative, I wonder how this would change. I See the same things in ” identity politics” debates when it comes to race.
David: This is instructive. I’ve not thought of the phenomenon in this light before. Clearly I need to consider this more fully.
Tom: It seems apparent to me that Paul is, rhetorically, being quite hyperbolic in Romans 1. As you noted earlier in the lecture, he is making a rhetorical move so that he can turn things around on his Jewish interlocutors in Romans 2. Thus, he is using hyperbole, and also citing from The Wisdom of Solomon – as you know, a quite hyperbolic text – in order to make his ethical, theological, rhetorical point. I wonder what role Paul’s use of hyperbole should play in our interpretation? Especially because he includes this in a vice list to exaggerate gentile idolatry and malformed ethics.
David: I may not have much more to add here (save that Wisdom of Solomon and Paul are fairly much on a par and I tend to incline positively towards the Deuterocanonical books anyway). Though they exaggerate about the degree of Gentile depravity, they do not seem to exaggerate about the kinds of attitudes and practices that demonstrate the depravity of Gentiles in varying degrees. And if everything else in the list is something from which we should distance our practice, it seems to me that the same would apply to same-sex intercourse.
Tom: Jesus healed people with various disabilities. Do you think Jesus would heal a person of same-sex attraction? And if so, do you affirm the church’s practice of “praying the gay away”?
David: I don’t affirm the practice of some churches of “praying the gay away.” That seems quite wrongheaded. Pray with a gay or lesbian brother for strength in the fact of physical temptation – and in the face of every other challenge he or she faces – certainly. But there have been too many testimonies of people for whom “praying the gay away” at best did nothing and at worst left a person despairing. (On the other hand, some honest exploration with a counselor about sexual identity might always be a good idea, just to be sure that some traumatic event doesn’t stand at the root of same-sex orientation – as it did in at least one case with which I am closely familiar.)
Tom: Finally, I agree with your statement that an argument from silence about Jesus is quite unhelpful. I do wonder, however about your statement that there is a stunning unanimity about same-sex intercourse. Obviously I would need to look at the original sources for each of those references, but I would wonder about their contexts. Are they also talking about idolatry? Are they also talking about lust? Are they also talking about exploitative sex like in Genesis 19? All of these, I think, would need to be inspected for there to be the kind of unanimity we would need to outlaw mutual, loving same sex relationships.
David: I spend more time in the literature of the Greco-Roman world than in the experience of the modern world. 😊 But I would never get in the way of your conducting your own investigation. Wisdom of Solomon, Letter of Aristeas, Sentence of Pseudo-Phocylides are the Greek texts that come to mind; I have read about rabbinic texts but I really don’t like reading rabbinic texts, so there I’ve relied on other’s investigations. But it seems to me that it was simply out of bounds with, again, no positive statement concerning same-sex intercourse in the context of any relationship. It seems to me quite possible that those with same-sex orientations simply lived out close friendships with other men in relationships that never became sexualized – and here I think we are at the disadvantage in our setting, in which everything, it seems, has become sexualized.
Tom: The last 15 minutes were you drawing implications from your argument, and I appreciate many of those implications. Most of all, I appreciate the vision for a genuinely Christian community. I am not sure such a vision is possible, held captive as we are in our individualism and consumerism but I do hold out hope that the kind of vision you put before us somewhere someone can attain. So thank you for helping us imagine something better than what exists now.
David: I’ve only seen such a community once – at a charismatic Episcopal church, the first I served as organist and choir director. It has convinced me that, not the ideal, but the much-nearer-the-ideal is indeed attainable, though I’ve not seen it attained to anything like the same degree since.
David’s coda: I haven’t mentioned this before anywhere, but I know that I have had Rom 1:32 very much on my mind in regard to this entire debate for decades: “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.” The “ultimate” expression of Gentile depravity is not same-sex intercourse (to response to a parenthetical question of Tom’s above); it is losing sight of the distinctions between what is righteous and holy in God’s sight and what is unrighteous and unholy in God’s sight to the point that we not only do the latter but approve those who do. As I look out upon the landscape of biblical studies, theological studies, and United Methodism, I see a lot of minds working to find a path to “approve” same-sex practice, and I continue to fear that this is a vast exercise in approving – and, yes, in some instances applauding – what Paul has warned strongly against. I fear that the conversation has not moved with sufficient caution in this regard but has, as another friend put it so well, has determined a destination and determined to build a bridge to arrive there. But if that lands us in a place where Rom 1:32 describes us as United Methodist Christians accurately (in God’s sight; it won’t be seen as such in our sight)? We will have come to a very dangerous place and ushered many to a very dangerous place.