A couple of weeks ago, at Wheaton College, a very interesting dialogue happened. The campus had organized a speaking event for ex-gay activist Rosaria Butterfield whose story of converting from a leftist lesbian university professor to the homeschooling housewife of a conservative evangelical pastor has made her very popular in the conservative evangelical speaking circuit. LGBT-supporting Wheaton students held a “demonstration” outside the talk that they said wasn’t a “protest.” They held signs saying things like “We’re all loved by God,” “Rosaria’s story is valid, mine is too,” and “I’m gay and a beloved child of God.” Their demonstration was called “More than a single story.” After Rosaria’s presentation, she talked with the LGBT students. Both sides were able to respect and show grace to each other. It was a beautiful witness.
What impressed me were the pains that the students took to honor Rosaria and not view her as an enemy while also making the point that just as people have many different stories about how they became Christian, gay Christians have a variety of paths to take in their interpretation of scripture. Wheaton Associate Dean of Student Care and Services Allison Ash summarized it this way: “At the meeting after the chapel, the students explained that their demonstration was meant to express concern that Dr. Butterfield’s story would be interpreted by the community as prescriptive rather than descriptive. They expressed the desire for other stories to be told among the community in order to represent more than one person’s individual experience.”
I think the point that these Wheaton students make is at the heart of the conversation about homosexuality. What if we really could respect that different interpretations of the Bible on this issue are possible? What if gay-affirming and gay-denying interpretations of the Bible were like the difference between being a Christian pacifist and being a Christian soldier? Or the difference between messianic Jews and Christians who don’t also go to a Torah study and follow kosher dietary laws?
If Christians wanted to be malicious and exclude messianic Jews from being considered real Christians, they would have a ton of support in Paul’s polemic against following Torah in Galatians. Likewise, Christian pacifists have a ton of scriptural evidence they could put forward for their position that Christians have no business taking part in any war (which was actually the default position of the pre-Constantinian church). I suspect that some pacifists would feel uncomfortable worshiping in a Christian community like my congregation where we list a deployed military member in the church bulletin each week for prayer and care packages and often ask our military to stand in worship and be honored for the appropriate holidays. I’m not a pacifist, so I can’t really speak for them.
Likewise, because I’m not gay, I’m not willing to appoint myself as an expert on what being gay is like and say something like: “Isn’t Jesus bigger than your sexual identity?” Both Jesus and the apostle Paul actually promoted celibacy for all people gay or straight, but were pragmatists about whether or not people could actually follow this radical call. Jesus says in Matthew 19:12: “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” So his position is that if you can be a celibate eunuch, then you should accept that call.
Marriage is for people who can’t accept the call of being a celibate eunuch. Furthermore, it’s illegitimate to use Jesus’ citation of Genesis in Matthew 19:1-9 as a proof-text against gay marriage because Jesus is saying that man and woman become one flesh in order to protect barren women from divorce, not to exclude gay people from marriage. It’s an abuse of Biblical texts to marshal them for purposes for which they weren’t intended. Similarly, we would not say that mission volunteers are not allowed to take money on mission trips because Jesus tells his seventy apostles to “carry no purse” when he sends them out to the Galilean villages (Luke 10:1-12).
The apostle Paul says the following in his argument for celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7:32-35:
32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
Notice that his rationale is entirely pragmatic. He doesn’t refer to some kind of gendered order that God has established in the universe. Sexuality to Paul concerns three things: “freedom from anxieties” (v. 32), “good order” (v. 35), and “unhindered devotion to the Lord” (v. 35). To me, these should be the three principles of our sexual ethics because they cover love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God respectively. It’s on the basis of these three principles that Paul says, “I wish that all were [celibate] as I myself am… [but] it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (v. 9). Some people can handle singleness and devote their extra time to God like Paul does. For others, remaining single would make them anxious and hinder their devotion to the Lord because they would be aflame with passion all the time. Paul says those who can’t handle singleness should marry.
I see the basis in Jesus and Paul’s teachings for an honorable celibate life as a gay Christian and the basis for an honorable married life as a gay or ex-gay Christian. Paul makes a very important statement about sin in Romans 14:14 that is perhaps the most important and most overlooked verse in all of his epistles: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Though nothing is unclean in itself, anything is unclean that corrupts us. This account of sin is both more lenient and more stringent than just having a clear rulebook of do’s and don’ts, which many Christians try to create out of the pastoral guidance of the same apostle Paul who said that the law could not save us, but only the grace of Jesus Christ.
There are many things we do that aren’t explicitly prohibited in the Bible that are “unclean” for us. It’s also the case that some things Paul is adamant about telling his churches to do, like making women wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11), are not prescriptive for us today. Because of Romans 14:14 and other verses like it, such as Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:27 that “the sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath,” I believe that sin can be sin for two reasons: it either 1) harms another person (love of neighbor) or 2) corrupts our hearts from pure worship (love of God). God doesn’t ordain the sabbath so that He can get an ego trip out of watching humanity obey; He ordains it for human benefit, because we need the rest of focusing on Him in worship for a day. None of God’s commands are arbitrary loyalty tests.
Corruption of the heart is precisely the issue that Paul names in the sexual depravity he describes in Romans 1. The “degrading passions” Paul mentions in verses 26 and 27 include adultery, polyamory, and in the case of men (but not women explicitly), same-gendered relations. Verse 27 seems to suggest that he only mentioned the same-genderedness of the male relations because he thought it was the cause of particular illnesses they had “received in their persons as the due penalty of their error.”
Since not all humanity behaves with this wild debauchery, it’s likely that Paul is referencing a particular historical circumstance, which some have speculated to be the court of Nero, whose wild sexual exploits would make many hardcore sadomasochists today blush. This means that some of what Paul names may be superfluous to the sinfulness of the behavior even if he considers it to be “against nature.” What makes these “degrading passions” sinful is what they cause: “They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters,insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (vv. 29-31).
So if I were a gay Christian, then I would examine whether monogamous lifelong partnerships among other gay people I knew caused them to be wicked, evil, covetous, and malicious, and full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, etc. If so, then I should pursue celibacy on the basis of understanding that gayness is the issue in this passage. If not, then I could consider marriage presuming that gayness is superfluous to the sinfulness being described in Romans 1. With any other verse in the Bible, we would give ourselves that kind of latitude in trying to ascertain the true meaning. Why don’t we give away all our possessions to the poor and follow Jesus? Because Jesus was making a command particular to the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22 that would be poor stewardship for everyone to follow. Why should Romans 1:26-27 be the only self-interpreting passage in the Bible whose applicability to our lives doesn’t need to be discerned?
My interpretation is just one possibility among many, just as there are multiple interpretations of what the Lord’s supper means and how often it should happen, even though Jesus said in John 6:53, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” which makes me argue for weekly communion no less adamantly than certain Baptists believe that sprinkling babies doesn’t count as baptism. Should a gay-denying interpreter of scripture accept the ordained ministry of a happily married gay Christian? I could understand them respectfully declining to do so in the same way that a Christian pacifist might excuse him/herself from receiving communion at the hand of a military chaplain. My hope is that just like Rosaria Butterfield and the LGBT students at Wheaton, we can respect the fact that there’s more than one way to live as a gay Christian who takes the Bible seriously. And those of us who don’t have any real skin in the game because we’re straight should let gay Christians, celibate and otherwise, lead us in our interpretive process.