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Friday, May 07, 2004 - Page updated at 02:39 P.M.
Bible's words become instrument in gay-marriage debate
By Janet I. Tu
He points to the six passages that mention it and to the Book of Genesis, which, he says, makes it obvious that marriage between a man and a woman is how God wants humans to use the gift of sexuality.
"The Bible is real clear that homosexuality is not a natural way of relating sexually" and is a sin, he says.
But the Rev. David Shull of Seattle's University Congregational United Church of Christ believes it's more complicated than that.
Shull says that to understand the intent of those passages, it's important to understand their historical context, that they were written at a time when the concept of homosexuality was much different than it is it today. And he believes that translation difficulties the Old Testament was written mainly in ancient Hebrew; the New Testament in ancient Greek compound the problem.
"There was no understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation in that day. There was no model of committed, monogamous, adult same-sex relationships then," Shull contends. "You can't look into the Bible for answers to questions the people at the time were not asking."
The debate is not merely academic. This difference in interpretation is playing out in gay-marriage debates across the country and is threatening to tear some denominations apart.
Conservative Episcopalians started their own network of churches after the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop last year. The United Methodist Church's highest court just ruled homosexual practices violate church law, raising doubts about the status of a lesbian minister from Ellensburg recently acquitted in a church trial.
For Taylor and Shull, differing stances have led them to take actions on opposite sides of the gay-marriage debate.
Taylor is one of several local pastors who organized Saturday's Mayday for Marriage rally at Safeco Field in support of keeping marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The event drew roughly 20,000 supporters and as many as 3,000 opponents.
Meanwhile, Shull and his partner of 18 years, the Rev. Peter Ilgenfritz also a pastor at University Congregational UCC were among six gay and lesbian couples who sued King County after they were denied marriage licenses.
"I see absolutely nothing in Jesus' life, ministry and teachings that lead me to believe that he would do anything but celebrate same-sex commitments," said Shull, who points out Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
"His whole emphasis was on trying to break down the walls of division that the religious and political leaders were creating to separate people."
'It's very clear'
"It's very clear."
Their arguments go all the way back to the Book of Genesis, which, in describing God's creation of the world, says, "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."
Marriage between a man and a woman was "the first human institution that God created," Taylor said. "It's in the context of creation. God is saying this is his ordained plan for how (sex) is to be enjoyed and entered into, and when you go outside those boundaries, you're in for trouble."
Next, they point to three passages in the Old Testament and three in the New, including the Leviticus passages that call male-male sex an abomination, and the story of how God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their residents' sinfulness after a mob of men demanded Lot turn over to them for sex the two male angels staying at his home.
And three times in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul includes homosexuality and homosexuals in listings of humankind's sins and sinners, saying in 1 Corinthians that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God.
"You need to take (those passages) at face value and not rationalize it," said Taylor. "You cannot rationalize away God's commands and God's standards."
H. Newton Malony, a United Methodist minister and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., believes there is a place for reason and experience in interpreting Scripture, but that the words of the Bible should remain the most important authority.
While he does believe homosexuality is a sin, he doesn't think it's inherently worse than other sins listed by Paul "to illustrate what has gone wrong in a creation that has fallen."
The reason homosexuality has raised such a furor in many churches, he says, is that liberals want it not to be a sin at all "to declare not only the condition not a fall from creation and grace, but also the behavior."
And that is not what the Bible intends, Malony says. "Wherever homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, it is mentioned negatively, proscriptively, as if this is something that is not the will of God and is a sin."
Six 'clobber passages'
Some gay Christians refer to the six biblical references to homosexuality as "clobber passages," traditionally used by some churches to condemn them.
David Carr, professor of Old Testament at New York's Union Theological Seminary, believes those passages shouldn't be used that way because they aren't about the same kinds of relationships that people have today, nor do they hold the same definition of homosexuality.
"To use these as ammunition to blanketly condemn a different set of family possibilities and relational possibilities that are now present is to misconstrue the Bible," he says.
In biblical times, many scholars say, sexual relations between males were usually occasional acts part of religious rituals, prostitution, rape, sex with boys or as a side relationship to marriage. Most men who had sex with other men also had sex with women.
"If you look across ancient literature, you do not see discussion of sustained, monogamous, same-gender relationships," said Carr. "You just don't."
Carr believes the biblical prohibitions have more to do with banning such isolated sex acts and preserving male honor than with prohibiting committed gay relationships. For men in those times, "being penetrated meant being shamed and dishonored," he said.
Carr believes this passage doesn't refer to lesbian relationships, but rather, female sexuality that's taken to be "unnaturally manlike and aggressive."
Those who interpret the Bible more broadly also argue that the concept of homosexuality as an exclusive and innate orientation didn't emerge until the late 1800s.
That concept and the word homosexual didn't exist in the ancient Greek of the New Testament, Carr said. The words typically translated as "homosexual" in the New Testament refer either to a man who's always the passive partner or who engages in some kind of male-male sex act.
Cantor David Serkin-Poole of Temple B'nai Torah in Bellevue says that, as a Reform Jew, he believes biblical interpretation is ongoing. "We need to look at how (Scripture) applies to today's world," he said. "We know so much more now about homosexuality."
He finds hypocritical those who condemn homosexuality based on Leviticus, yet don't follow other prohibitions in the same book. Eating shellfish is forbidden, for example, because sea creatures without fins or scales are listed in Leviticus as an abomination. Leviticus also bans wearing clothes of mixed fabrics.
"They pick and choose," said Serkin-Poole, who along with his partner of 23 years, Michael Serkin-Poole, also joined the lawsuit against King County after being denied a marriage license. "The problem is they're finding what fits their biases."
Further, he regards the Leviticus passages that say not to lie with a man as with a woman as a call to "be truthful about who we are. I am not pretending that Michael is female."
Like Serkin-Poole, Shull sees the interpretation of Scripture as ongoing.
He acknowledges that "it's impossible to find in Scripture positive statements about homosexuality." But after studying the verses' historical context, Shull came to some of the same conclusions as Carr and Serkin-Poole.
Shull sees one of the sins in the story of Sodom as rape, not homosexuality. And he says Jesus refers to that story as exemplifying the sin of inhospitality. In Matthew, Jesus said a city that would not welcome his apostles would be regarded more harshly on Judgment Day than even Sodom and Gomorrah.
He interprets Paul's listing of homosexuality as a sin to be a condemnation of the ancient Greeks' practice of heterosexual men using boy prostitutes.
In any case, Shull says the Bible can and should be interpreted for different times and cultures, while holding fast to its larger truths to love God and others. "God's spirit has moved through those texts there's a sacredness to them. At the same time, God's spirit continues to live in the world and God's spirit continues to live in those texts and helps us hear them in new ways."
For him, that involves holding Scripture in balance with reason, experience and tradition.
Those who interpret Scripture literally, he says, are "worshipping the words of the Bible instead of taking those words and prayerfully, in community, trying to understand: 'What do those words mean for us today?'
"I think that's much more exciting and faithful."
Commandment to love
Calvary Fellowship's Taylor, who takes a more literal view of the Bible, says he, too, believes in living Jesus' commandment to love others. "I'm not a homosexual basher. It's not a personal thing. It's what the Bible says.
"I love homosexuals," he says. "We have had many come to our church who have wanted transformation. There have been many who have changed and who in their hearts have no longer been captive to that orientation."
But he says liberal interpreters like Shull are trying to rationalize away a condemnation that clearly makes no exceptions: The passages "don't really say that if you're committed and it's a long-term relationship, that that means it's OK," he said.
Malony, of Fuller Theological Seminary, says most people now don't follow some Leviticus prohibitions against eating pork or shellfish, for example because he believes they speak to cultural practices, not moral ones like bestiality, incest and adultery.
For Malony, the deciding factor is not that the Bible includes a few passages about homosexuality, but that every time it mentions it, it's in a negative context. Still, Malony says the discussion shouldn't end there. "I'm not one of those that says: 'The Bible says it, that's all there is to it.'
"You've got to do some reasoning beyond what the Bible says. Christians have got to sit down and say: 'What shall we do with the fact that not all of us are perfect, not all of us can change our behavior completely. Particularly if we say there are a number of things that are mentioned always negatively in the Bible: adultery, idolatry. What do we do with that?"
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or email@example.com
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