A Rebuttal to Representative Rick Allen

Romans 1:21-2:8
June 19, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

[Before I start, I want to tell the parents that this sermon is not G rated. I am going to be talking about the biblical references used by churches to condemn homosexuality and so my sermon will contain some material that you feel your children are not ready to hear. If you would like to take your younger children over to the Church Center, please feel free to do that now.]

A few weeks ago, Georgia Representative Rick Allen offered a prayer at a meeting of House Republicans in which he read a passage from Romans 1:27-32, as justification for his refusal to support nondiscrimination measures for LGBT people. The passage as he read it from the King James Version, begins:

“And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet,” and the passage concludes, “that they which commit such things are worthy of death.”

Even some Republicans felt that Allen had gone too far in his prayer but after the attack in Orlando last week, Allen said that he stood by his comments.

“I just simply shared that, in what’s supposed to be a private setting with fellow members of my conference, just like I would in a Bible study. I read a scripture from Romans and that’s what I did.” 1 He added that his wife and he were shocked and saddened by the Orlando shooting and that they were praying for the victims, their families, loved ones and friends.2

Allen’s statement and his refusal to apologize for or amend his comments in light of the attack on the LGBT community in Orlando has sparked an angry debate about whether Allen’s prayer was appropriate, the intersection of faith and politics, and continuing bigotry and hostility toward gays. A lot of us have wished that there was something we could do for the Orlando community, and I’ve decided that this is what I can do: I can do Bible study. Today I want to ask, “Does Romans 1:32 really say that gays are worthy of death?” Did Paul really say that homosexuality is an abomination before God and that gay and lesbian men and women (not to mention transgendered, transexual, bisexual, or anyone who differs from the heterosexual norm) are consigned by God to death?

Today’s sermon, then, is not a sermon per se; it is a Bible study. I am not only going to look at the passage that Rick Allen and so many have quoted to justify arguments against homosexuality, I’m going to widen the lens and look at the Bible as a whole. Some of you may have heard much of this before and so this will just be review. For others, we may be plowing new ground. I hope, however, that when we are done, you will know what the Bible says about homosexuality, what it doesn’t say, and you will have a way to respond to those who use the Bible to justify their intolerance of gays. So, you might want to take notes.

Let’s begin by putting this whole issue in context. First of all, do you know how many times the Bible refers to same sex behavior? 7 times. And do you know how many of those seven times occur in the gospels? 0. So today’s condemnation of homosexuality by conservative Christian groups is based on seven passages, none of which came out of the mouth of Jesus.

In contrast to that, do know how many references there are to caring for the poor? Honestly, I don’t know because I gave up counting. I got up to 21 before I even got past the fifth book of the Bble. If you do a quick word search on the words “poor” and “impoverished” in the Bible, you’ll get almost 200 hits.3 And unlike his silence on homosexuality, Jesus was anything but silent about poverty: he constantly warned the rich to show concern for the poor and commended those who gave away their possessions. Christ seems to care a lot more about how much of your money you are giving to those in need than about who you are sleeping with.

Nevertheless, even if the references to same sex behavior are rare, they are there in the Bible, so let’s take a closer look at them.

Well, two of the references, I am going to eliminate immediately from our consideration because the “same sex behavior” that they describe are acts of violent domination. In the story of Sodom and Gomorroh in Genesis 19, and in a similar story in the book of Judges chapter 19, local men discover that strangers are visiting their town. Like gang members protecting their turf, the local men go to the house where the visitors are staying and demand that the strangers come out so that they can rape them. In both stories, the homeowner refuses to throw his visitors to the wolves and as an alternative, offers the ruffians his own daughters. In the Genesis story, Lot says to the mob, “I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” Lot is so concerned about being a hospitable host that he is willing to sacrifice his daughters to the cruelty of the mob. In the Judges’ story, the homeowner likewise offers the attacking men his virgin daughter and his concubine and in that story, the mob of men do take the concubine and gang rape her, abusing her all night. At dawn, she is in such bad shape that she can only crawl home where she dies on the threshold.

To call God’s condemnation of these episodes a condemnation of homosexuality is to confuse rape with sex. In these stories, men were using rape as a form of power and domination, a practice that still happens today especially in times of war or political aggression.4 The sin of Sodom and Gomorroh was not the sin of homosexuality; it was the sin of violence and territorial brutality. Even the Bible itself doesn’t associate the sin of Sodom with sexuality: Ezekiel 16:49 says, “Now, this was the sin of your sister, Sodom. She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned, they did not help the poor and needy.”

Let us then just eliminate the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and the gang rape in the book of Judges from our list of passages supposedly condemning homosexuality, because in fact, those two passages have nothing to do with today’s modern consensual same-sex relationships. That means that we are left now with only five passages. And I’m going to whittle away that list even more.

There are two verses commonly quoted by those opposing Gay rights which are found in the book of Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 says: “You (masculine) shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The second passage, 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.”

These particular verses are certainly unambiguous and today’s modern same-sex relationships I think would fall under this prohibition, at least the ones between men. The ancient Israelites believed that a man’s sperm contained everything that was needed for the creation of life — the woman was just the vessel in which the seed was planted — and so to waste that seed in a homosexual act or in masturbation was to endanger the future of the tribe so both were prohibited. What women did was irrelevant because the viability of offspring, they believed, was the responsibility of the man, so Leviticus is silent about lesbianism. The problem here, besides the fact that we understand procreation much differently today, lies in using the book of Leviticus to determine anything about today’s moral code. This book has tons of rules that we no longer follow because the rules of Leviticus are cultic laws designed for a nomadic agricultural theocracy 3000 years ago.5

If a person, then insists that we condemn homosexuality because Leviticus tells us we must, then that person had better hope that their teenager never gets mad at them and says, “Go to [expletive deleted],” because Leviticus also prescribes death for children who curse their parents. Yes, the book of Leviticus says that male homosexuality is against the rules, but it also says that priests who let their hair get messy will die. It says that eating pork is forbidden, that mixing fabrics is prohibited, that touching the hide of an unclean animal makes you unclean (so much for football and tossing around the pigskin), that planting different seeds in the same field is wrong (so much for all of you gardeners), and that no one should eat fat because it is reserved for God (so much for all of America.) Until the preachers who condemn homosexuality based on these two passages in Leviticus also give up their Big Macs, polyester suits, Sunday football, and can claim to have never have a bad hair day, I’m not going to give any credence to their arguments from Leviticus.

So to review, of the 7 biblical references against homosexuality, 2 are really talking about gang rape not loving same sex relationships and two are cultic prohibitions which appear in a long list of other cultic laws that we constantly and easily ignore without anyone standing on the floor of Congress to protest. But those four references are all from the Old Testament, someone might say. As Christians, we base our faith in the New Testament and there is where the crux of the matter really lies.

Well, let’s turn then to the three remaining scriptures, but as soon as we do, we very quickly run into problems again.

In two of the three passages, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, the Bible condemns a list of behaviors as contemptible to God. In those lists are a couple of Greek words that refer to some sort of same sex act, but translators differ on what they believe that act to be. The New International Version, for example, translates I Corinthians 6:9-10 this way: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

The NIV has decided, then, that the Greek phrase in question refers to ordinary homosexual acts between men. Other translations broaden the prohibition to include women by translating that same Greek word as “homosexual.”

“Homosexuals,” those translations say, “will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

On the other hand, the New Revised Standard Version translates that Greek word as “male prostitutes,” believing that the Greek word refers only to those who exchange sex for money, or to the Temple prostitutes common in some pagan religions. Some translators insert the term “catamite” which refer to the ancient Greek practice of married men having boy sexual companions on the side. Both of these translations wouldn’t apply to modern consensual same sex relationships but only to sexual relationships with unequal or abusive power dynamics.

In other words, Biblical scholars are quite divided on whether these two passages are condemning homosexuality in general or whether they are condemning certain abusive practices common in Greek pagan culture at the time. As I studied this, I came to the conclusion that the way the translator translates these Greek words comes down in the end to the bias that the translator brings to the translation. If you are for gay rights, you will translate the word as male prostitute or catamite, practices that have little to do with modern loving same sex relationships. If you are against gay rights, you will choose a broader translation like “homosexual,” to justify your rejection of LGBT people. The Catholic Bible translation even sort of admits its bias by adding a footnote which says, “The apostle condemns, not the inherent tendencies of such, but the indulgence of them,” implying that Paul understood the contemporary Catholic stance of accepting homosexuality as a biological orientation while insisting on chastity for those born gay.

There is, of course, nothing that indicates Paul would have been a good 21st century Catholic but in the end there’s no way to prove conclusively what Paul meant by this phrase. People on both sides of this issue will assure you that they can tell you what these Greek words mean and that their translation is the right one but don’t believe them. There is not enough evidence to know for sure exactly what behavior these verses were condemning when they used these words. I personally think that it is wrong to exclude from God’s grace an entire group of people whose sexual orientation is different from the norm on the basis of two verses when the meaning of those verses is clouded in uncertainty. Before anyone makes any judgements about anyone else, especially judgments that lead to potential discrimination, exclusion, and even violence, they had better be dead certain of their translations and the reality is that we are simply not able to be that certain about these two verses.

And so to review once again, of the original 7 verses in the Bible that are cited as a condemnation of homosexuality, two refer not to mutually consenting same sex relationships but to gang rape. Two are found in a list of tons of cultic laws that we willfully and happily disregard today. Two use Greek words whose translations are highly debated and are simply Rorschach tests for your own views on the issue.

We have whittled our list of Bible references down to one, to the one quoted by Representative Rick Allen in his prayer, Romans 1:26-27. It’s certainly tempting at this point to simply question whether one bible verse justifies the amount of time that Christians have spent on worrying about what goes on in people’s bedrooms, but let me avoid that temptation and finish my study up by looking seriously at this last verse in Romans.

The New Revised Standard Version translates Romans 1:26-27 as, “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.” Paul is not using unambiguous words here — he is describing consensual same sex acts of both men and women, and in verse 32 he does say, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die.” So far, Representative Allen seems to be on solid ground…. until you put these verses back in the context of which Pauyl said them and consider the breadth of his entire argument.

Paul is writing to a Gentile audience, trying to convince them that now that they are Christians, they have to give up their pagan ways. Earlier in verse 21, he describes the terrible consequences of pagan idol worship:

“What happened was this,” he says, “…When [people refused to worship God] they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives…. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.”

Paul goes on to say that when you worship wooden idols, your life is going to be a mess. The Message translation best summarizes Paul’s point: it says, “Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either –– women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men––all lust, no love.”

Sex, Paul said, without the proper worship of God, became just a physical need with nothing holy about it, done for self-satisfaction without regard for anyone else. It wasn’t the sexual act itself that bothered Paul; it was the degree to which sex had become a way of exploiting others to satisfy one’s own needs. We know that this was his concern because he goes on to list all of the other ways in which we exploit one another. In the Message translation, Paul says that when people worshipped idols, “All hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean–spirited, venomous, fork–tongued God–bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold–blooded. And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care…”

And yes, Paul says, all of those self-centered people exploiting others to satisfy their own needs, whether those needs are sexual, social, emotional, or monetary, deserve to die.

If we stop there, we have already undermined much of Allen’s interpretation because this is not a passage condemning mutually loving same-sex relationships but lustful degrading exploitive self-centered same-sex relationships, right along with all of the other degrading exploitive self-centered things we do to one another. And I suspect that even the LGBT community might agree that such behavior should be condemned as unhealthy and unholy.

But if we don’t stop there, but continue with Paul’s argument we discover that this passage is in fact talking to all of us. We are all sinners, Paul says, all deserving of death — not now, let us be clear about that. Paul is not talking about the death penalty — but later, when we stand before the judgement throne of God. We are all sinners who have fallen far away from the glory of God and are all in need of repentance so that we can be the compassionate unselfish people that God called us all to be. And because we are all sinners, and all deserving of death, we should not judge, Paul says.

“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

Would that Representative Allen had finished Paul’s argument here in Romans because no matter what we think the passage says or doesn’t say, it is clear that Paul’s final word is, “Do not judge.”

Do not judge others because you yourself are a sinner.
Do not condemn others because you yourself are in need of grace.
Do not exclude others from the possibility of God’s salvation because when you do, you may by your very self-righteous judgment, exclude yourself.”

That’s what the Bible says about same-sex relationships, the same thing it says about all of our relationships: be kind, be caring, think of the other person, don’t exploit others for your own selfish ends, and above all, don’t judge.


Footnotes:

1. http://www.rollcall.com/news/policy/congressman-read-anti-gay-bible-verse-prays-orlando-victims

2. http://allen.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=408

3. Not all of the references to poor and impoverished concern economic poverty but a majority of them do which still leaves us with a disproportionate number of references compared to the number of references to same-sex behavior.

4. A study by the University of California’s Health and Human Rights Law Project found incidents of male sexual violence against their opponents in Chile, Greece, Croatia, Iran, Kuwait, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia.

5. http://hill-kleerup.org/blog/2012/06/13/76-things-banned-in-leviticus-and-their-penalties.html

For a more thorough treatment of the bible’s views on homosexuality, see “Biblical Perspectives on Homosexuality”, by Reverend Walter Wink