A Biblical Justification for the Acceptance of Homosexuality by the Christian Church
© 2003, John P. Nordin

2.  The need for a authoritative biblical justification

A.  The need for a justification

Do we need a justification for accepting homosexuality – a formal “case” or argument that occurs in public and leads to a decision that most will accept?  Not everyone thinks so.  Gay people and those who advocate for them are often not willing to give the debate authority.  Any person who has worked through the question of homosexuality at a personal level finds it very agonizing to have others debate this question.  To them, this is a question of personal survival and are offended by others debating the issue in some detached and theoretical way.  “I don’t care what you decide," or, "who are you to judge me" are typical expressions of this.

While the anxiety of homosexuals about the debate should be understood, the idea that this is a personal question only must be rejected.  If gays and their supporters - as a precondition to engaging in debate - announce that will not be bound by the outcome of the debate, then it is hard to understand why those opposed to gays need let the debate bind them either.  If the question is simply a personal issue of self-expression, then why is it not an issue of self-expression for those who hate gays?  The church is more than a collection of individuals, each entitled to their own opinion.  The issue is not just for you or your friends to decide what “is right for you” about this issue.  The church, as a group, is making a decision about what to say to homosexuals, how to preach about the issue and who to allow to be its pastors and members.

Likewise, homosexuals cannot be automatically be given the status of an authority or expert on the subject of being homosexual.  While living an issue does teach you about it, deep expertise also requires reflection on an experience, to study what others have discovered and to go beyond the accidents of your own personal story.  The question is what the church should do.  If we are to ask the institution to change its policy, then we will have to have arguments that carry weight with a majority of the institution’s members.  An institution will not change its opinion on the basis of the authority of the very people it rejects.

Even if we think we (proponents) have fully justified our own position, spending years discussing this including witnessing to family, neighbors and parishioners, we should appreciate that many are not in that position.  It remains true that many or even most Christians haven't even begun to think critically about homosexuality.  Many have resolved the issue by adopting uncritically some principle that they have never examined.  Many Christians are coming to grips with the issue for the first time.

It’s easy for those who have been debating this issue for some time to be irritated with those who haven’t and think them slow or unenlightened.  The first draft of the ELCA social statement on sexuality [1] made this mistake, with a patronizing tone to those less enlightened than the authors and suggesting that a justification was not needed so much as a prophetic call to action.

It is also the case that opponents of homosexuality will be reluctant to think that any sort of inquiry into the issue is needed.  No justification needs to be constructed because, to them, the matter is closed, decided already and the only battle is over enforcement of what they call “the church’s historic teaching.”  The question to them is one of obvious revelation, and so there is nothing to debate.

However, without a public debate where arguments are made and assessed, all that is left is, on the one hand, power and on the other, individual sentiment.  Keeping this decision in the church, but without a commitment to a debate, what we have left is politics with the sides fighting for votes and power, not a Christian decision of the whole church.  The decision can be taken outside the church and become privatized, but that effectively means the end of the church as a community that supports its members with their moral decisions.

These reasons argue that there must be a real debate, with something in common and something at risk on both sides.  Each side must enter in with a conviction that what they discover in scripture and by reason will be persuasive with them. 

We need a formal, public justification for advocating that the church change its position on homosexuality.

B.  The need for a biblical justification

For a religious body to decide what God desires its members to do, an analysis of the religion’s sacred texts is essential.  This statement may seem obvious, even banal.  However, there are many who object to it, rejecting the value of scripture, either overtly or by implication.  These are mostly proponents of change, but even opponents can reject the need for the Bible to be central to the debate.

Rejecting the Bible as “old-fashioned,” or morally out of date.

Some reject the scripture as authoritative because they believe they have risen above the ancient limitations of the Bible.  In a discussion of the new CEV translation, some of its supporters [2] mentioned in an approving way that the new translation removes certain imperfections in the original text.  This is a small example of an attitude that assumes the ability to judge scripture.  If one can judge scripture and change the text of scripture, then no biblical justification of homosexuality is necessary.  Those who feel this way regard the various homosexual proof texts as aberrations, relics of primitive, pre-scientific society.  Coming to that conclusion terminates the need to develop a biblical argument.

However, it can be hard to separate “up-to-date” from “trendy.”  If you look at the “modern, up-to-date” books on social issues from even 20 or 30 years ago, they are often embarrassingly out of date.  This is certainly true of books dealing with human sexuality whose pronouncements about what is acceptable or healthy seem quaint or absurd today.

The issue of the role of science in this debate is discussed more in a following section.

Rejecting theology in favor of the personal.

Some reject scripture as having authority because they feel that the personal is more important than the theological.  Many debates about homosexuality effectively ignore the Bible and religious analysis, despite seeming to refer to it.  Discussions about homosexuality can recount personal experience, tell stories of gay awakening, be self-conscious about the “struggle” and yet never focus deeply on questions of the Bible and its interpretation. [3]  

In some cases, this is defended by people who are in the church and even by pastors and others in positions of religious leadership in the church. [4]   Many believe that a focus on theology or on the Bible is just “head learning” or “dry” or “rationalization.”  They believe that it is only by hearing the story of a homosexual and encountering them as a person that change happens.  No one will be argued into acceptance, they contend.

There is no doubt that change does happen this way, and no doubt that little change has resulted from years of debate.  However, this rejection of the use of scripture is a fatal error.  Is the Christian church a religion, or is it not?  That is not as silly a question as it might sound.  If the church is intended to be the home of a religion, then how can we dismiss both religious reasons and sacred texts as the foundation for how we decide what to do?  The argument will be made that the transforming encounter with a religious homosexual is a living out of religious issues.  If so, then the religious texts should be relevant to help us promote those encounters, help us approach them in the right way and help shape our understanding of them.  Near the end of this paper, I hope to show how that would be possible.

Rejecting the Bible in favor of theology.

Opponents of change sometimes base their reasons less on biblical texts than on theological categories such as (in the Lutheran tradition) “Law and Gospel.”  This will be assessed more fully in a later chapter.  While these categories should be derived from the Bible, there is always the temptation for them to become detached from the Bible.

Rejecting the Bible in favor of common sense.

The Bible is more widely admired than it is studied or used.  This leads to arguments that appear to be based on the Bible, but really use it as an ornament.  An example is provided by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s 1996 document on sexuality, Common Convictions. While not addressing homosexuality directly, the document does address of host of issues about sexuality.  The Bible is certainly referenced, and often, but the conclusions seem to be based more on “common sense” about life than analysis of the text.  “In Scripture we read that God crated humankind male and female and ‘ … behold it was very good.’  (Gen. 1:27, 31)  Sexuality is a mysterious, life-long aspect of human relationships.  Through sexuality, human beings can experience profound joy, purpose, and unity, as well as deep pain, frustration, and division.” [5]

One cannot disagree with any of this, expect to note that the conclusion has little connection to the beginning: the verses cited do not speak directly of sexuality, its mysterious nature or its possibilities for joy and suffering.

Rejecting the Bible

“The erosion of scriptural authority has been constant since the Reformation, and especially, the Enlightenment.” [6]   So begins Robin Scroggs’ review of the matter, identifying a series of reasons why this has occurred, ranging over issues of the exact text, historical accuracy, ethics and theology.  Perhaps we should add unintended effects of scholarly study itself.  “The hegemony of modern criticism in the scholarly guilds of biblical interpretation tends to hold Scripture captive to an academic, rather than religious ends… these same interests … transferred to the citadels of theological education with the unfortunate result of reproducing a clergy no longer interested in the formative intent of Scripture.” [7]

In short, the problem is serious.  It is no longer a question of trying to reform slightly how the authoritative Bible speaks to us on an issue, but rather to first even imagine that the Bible could have authority.  At the same time, I would expect that many reading this document are totally unaware that there is any crisis of authority for the Bible.

The consequences of rejecting the Bible

There are serious consequences should we succeed in dealing with homosexuality while bypassing the Bible; what we gain by acquiring an easy solution to our problem of homosexuality, we lose many times over in eliminating the power of the Bible.

This is not trivial.  If we come to an acceptance of homosexuality as an individual by dodging a head-on struggle with scripture then we have left ourselves vulnerable to one of two problems.  If we do still value the scripture, then we are vulnerable to guilt.  In the back of our minds, sitting there is the knowledge we keep secret to even ourselves: that we’re really made peace with this issue by ignoring the Bible.  On the other hand, if we come to an acceptance of homosexuality by diminishing the Bible, then we have cut our selves off from its ability to sustain our lives, a prayer life or be a comfort in trouble.  Neither alternative is desirable.

As a question of politics, I think it is only a biblical argument that will be effective with rank and file faithful.  These people may not be able to articulate their concerns, but they can have an uneasy suspicion that what they are hearing uses the Bible as a cover, rather than as a center.  Only a biblical argument of depth and power and one that is part and parcel of a history of interpretation will have the power to convince enough church member to change their opinion and vote for an acceptance of homosexuality.  This is even more true if we wish for enough to change their mind for the change to be accepted peacefully.

Those of us who advocate for change cannot use sharp bureaucratic infighting, political influence or our education to spring this change on an unprepared laity.  A 51% majority is not enough.  The only approach with integrity is to look the rank and file of the church in the eye, acknowledge that we are proposing a significant change and ask time to explain why we think that reading the Bible with integrity demands that we change.

But it should also be said, that the most compelling reason for the need for scripture to be at the center of our discussion is simply the compelling nature of the Bible itself.  The power of its insights, the range of its wisdom, the beauty and splendor of God that is revealed there, the way it can be understood by the simple yet cannot be exhausted by a lifetime’s intense study, any person who has experienced this cannot keep silent while it is marginalized from an important issue. 

If we really are a Christian church, then our views must be based in the sacred texts of the religion.

C.  The need for an authoritative biblical justification

How is a biblical argument to be constructed?  What is a good, solid, persuasive biblical argument?  How do we decide if the arguments we are hearing are sound?  I believe we cannot solve the question of homosexuality until we solve the question of how we should interpret the Bible.  Thus we need to introduce the word “hermeneutics.”  This word means the science and method of how we interpret scripture.  It is a common term for people who study the Bible professionally, but a word totally unknown to the general church.  There are many different approaches to the subject, many “hermeneutics” of scripture.  There are “feminist hermeneutics” that favor analysis of gender issues, “liberationist hermeneutics” that focus on political issues.  There are “fundamentalist hermeneutics” that say the Bible is inerrant.  There are dozens of different approaches to scripture.  You can write a history of the church just by assessing the various hermeneutics of scripture that have come and gone and returned.

That probably surprises many of you who have just thought that the Bible was the Bible.  But, think of how much effort has gone into understanding the United States Constitution.  What does “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” actually mean?  People who interpret the Constitution bring different theories to their work.  There are different “hermeneutics” held by “strict constructionists” and “judicial activists” among others.  The US Constitution is only intended to describe what the government can and cannot do.  The Bible is about the entire meaning of life, a much more complex issue!  Further, the Constitution was written in our culture [8] in the language we still speak.  Neither is true for us reading the Bible in translation as it speaks of events from a distant time and place.  Thus, in using the Bible to decide a question, we must pay attention to what our hermeneutic of scripture is.

The question of homosexuality in the church is first a question about biblical hermeneutics.  Until we answer questions about inerrency, scripture as law and what sin is as defined by the Bible, all our debates about homosexuality will flounder because we have no way to reach agreement. 

Therefore, I think we must have a Biblical justification of homosexuality, and we have to study how best to do it.

[1] Division for Church in Society, “The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective,” First Draft, October 1993.

[2] See issues of Bible Review for October 1996, p. 42-43, Feb. 97, p. 5 and April 97, p. 8.  In addition to struggling how to overcome the "anti-Semitism" produced by reading the Bible, readers also debated what to do with the "sordid, narrowly moralistic, prejudiced and immoral teaching" found in the Bible.

[3] An example is Wink, Homosexuality.

[4] Indeed, some of the most bitter criticism (and most condescending) that I have received for this work has come from advocates for homosexuals who regard any use of the Bible as an authority to be hopelessly reactionary.

[5] ELCA, Common Convictions, p. 1. The example cited is, I think, typical of the document.

[6] Scroggs, “Foundational Document,” p. 17

[7] Wall, “Canonical Perspective,” p. 530

[8] This is true for citizens of the United States.  Readers from other countries can, I suspect, find similar examples from their own cultures.