Jesus and homosexuality, part 2

Ted Grimsrud—April 27, 2012

I appreciate the several thoughtful responses to my post, “Jesus and homosexuality: What did he do?” They have encouraged me to do some more thinking.

The direct relevance of Jesus’ message for homosexuality

My cyber-friend Bill Samuel suggests that the essay “had no final conclusion” and “seemed to sort of wander away from the original topic.” While I may want to challenge his assessment a bit, I do take this as a challenge to try to complete the circle a bit more forcefully and suggest direct application of the account of Jesus’ “politics of compassion” for how churches today might negotiate the “homosexuality issue” (I have felt uneasy about using the word “homosexuality” for some years, but I have the sense that the word has somewhat less of a negative feel about it more recently—and we still don’t seem to have an alternative single-word term).

I ended the post with four somewhat general points about Jesus’ relevance for our day: his practice of welcome to all kinds of people, his direct challenge to those practicing a boundary-marker-centered faith, his willingness to suffer for the practices of welcome and challenge and call upon his followers to do likewise, and his foundational priority upon healing mercy as the locus of his ministry.

The final, seemingly obvious but admittedly unstated, point would be simply to say that Jesus’ message would seem clearly to require communities of his followers to embody his way of welcome in relation to homosexual people in their midst. Such communities should also make a special point of welcoming into their midst homosexual people who are currently outside their doors. In fact, this issue might well be one of the clearest test cases for how serious Christian communities are about embodying the way of Jesus.

On a certain level, this point about overtly affirming a welcoming approach toward homosexual people seems so obvious as not to need explicit mention. But, of course, many Christians (as hinted in Bill Samuel’s comment) find it clear that Jesus gives a message of welcome. However, they are not so clear that this message serves as an imperative for churches to abolish all limits to the welcome to homosexual people that are based on criteria that apply to such people that don’t apply to heterosexual people. This kind of discrimination, of course, is the fundamental issue. Is there something about the homosexuality per se that requires limits on the churches’ inclusion once we factor out behaviors that are also considered immoral for heterosexual people?

Jesus’ own practices would seem clearly to challenge Christians to answer this question about discrimination very carefully. He tells us, in effect, that his followers should be extraordinarily gracious, compassionate, and welcoming—making special efforts to include vulnerable people, people who society tends to discriminate against, people who are falsely labeled “sinners” and typically excluded from “respectable” society.

If the churches were to affirm, nonetheless, that there is still something inherently sinful about homosexuality that renders all same-sex intimate relationships unacceptable (including types of intimate relationships that are affirmed for heterosexual people), they have a large burden of proof in favor of inclusiveness to overcome.

And, in fact, it becomes increasingly clear that such a burden of proof has in fact not been met. The main bases for making the blanket claim for the sinfulness of all possible same-sex intimate relationships are (1) alleged biblical teachings, (2) the threat to the institution of marriage, and (3) evidence for the intrinsic harmfulness of any such relationship. None of these bases withstands scrutiny (I develop this argument further here). A huge recent development in our society at large and in many churches has been the mainstreaming of same-sex intimate relationships, providing evidence that the quality of these relationships matches opposite-sex relationships—decisively undermining arguments in support of both points #2 and #3.

Jesus and holiness

Another cyber-friend, Philip Bender, asked for my response to the “yes…but” question. This question affirms my critique of the “politics of holiness” (i.e., that it too easily leads to harsh exclusion of people labeled as “sinners”) but still is concerned that in this critique I might be taking Jesus’ call to rigorous discipleship too lightly.

I agree that this is a challenging theme to address in a balanced way. We often seem to tend to be in a cycle of pendulum swings: first being too legalistic then having reactions the legalism that lead to denying the call to holiness altogether (affirming that anything goes) and then back the other way and so on.

I think the use of the “politics of holiness” vs. “politics of compassion” framework is helpful—though only to a degree. It’s a heuristic device, admittedly used to set up a contrast that is somewhat artificial in order to make a point. Clearly, Jesus did get in serious trouble in his ministry. We must ask why, and when we do we are led to see that he was in profound conflict with religious leaders precisely on these issues of inclusion, welcome, challenging discrimination, et al. So, this heuristic device helps us see what the issues were.

However, as Philip implies in his comment, we must recognize the dangers of using our typology in ways that distort. Certainly, Jesus did care, deeply, about holiness and rigorous obedience to Torah and the importance his followers practicing moral faithfulness in ways that set them in contrast with their surrounding world. And this concern surely included placing a high value on sexual purity (this seems like a central issue for him in forbidding divorce).

I would make two points in relation to this point about Jesus’ ethical rigor, though. (1) I think there is no hint in his teaching and no logical reason that I can see to think that homosexual people cannot live as consistently within Jesus’ ethical framework as heterosexual people. The only way one could argue otherwise is to assume that we should have a double standard in relation to sexual behavior: heterosexual intimacy is affirmed in some contexts (i.e., marriage) and not in others whereas homosexual intimacy is condemned in all contexts. Again, now that homosexual intimate relationships have been mainstreamed, we have much more evidence that there is little inherent difference between same- and opposite-sex intimate relationships.

(2) For Jesus, holiness (important as it is) is to be understood under the rubric of mercy, compassion, and love. The kind of holiness that Jesus embodied and called for is a holiness that enters into our sinful world and sought to bring healing (to “clean up” that which is “dirty/impure”). Jesus’ approach was very different from the stereotypical holiness that “can’t be in the presence of sin” and must destroy impurity. This was not an innovation by Jesus, though. He echoes the understandings of holiness reflected in such Old Testament passages as Hosea 11 (where God responds to Israel’s sin as a “holy God” who forgives rather than punishes) and Leviticus 19 (the heart of the “Holiness Code” where holiness is most centrally portrayed as offering care to the vulnerable people in Israel such as widows, orphans, and immigrants).

Jesus and sin

Another aspect of the “yes…but” question is the issue of how Jesus dealt with sin. The proof-text that invariably comes up (and Philip mentions) is the ending of the story of Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more.”

Like most proof-texts, this one does not stand up well to scrutiny. First of all, and probably most importantly, using this verse in relation to the homosexuality issue assumes that there is some kind of parallel between the woman caught in adultery (admittedly guilty of a major sin) and the homosexual person (again, with the assumption that the issue here is the homosexuality per se, not that the homosexual person may have violated some standard that would also be seen as sinful for a heterosexual person).

But this is precisely the issue in contention. Is there something inherently sinful about every same-sex intimate relationship? The validity of the assumption that there is needs to be established. As I stated above, this simply has not happened.

Secondly, we have the general assumption that Jesus “always” told people toward whom he showed mercy to “go sin no more.” This assumption often seems to have the effect of trying to minimize just how radical (and controversial) Jesus was in his compassion. In fact, the examples of Jesus offering forgiveness and then making a strict ethical demand are pretty rare. And we can easily find many examples where he did not do this.

Perhaps the most direct example, that stands somewhat in contrast with the story of the woman caught in adultery, is the story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7). She is labeled “a sinner.” She weeps and shows love toward Jesus. He forgives with nary a word of critique or with nary an exhortation to “go sin no more” as he sends her on her way. This story seems more typical to the dynamics of the gospels than that of the woman caught in adultery.

The point, of course, is not that Jesus offered a “cheap grace” that simply forgave without concern for the on-going healing and faithfulness of the person forgiven. His entire ministry was about empowering transformation of people’s lives. It’s just that he consistently offered this empowerment through healing love, not through threatened punishment.

A third point of critique of the standard use of the “go and sin no more” statement is that this use seems to undermine the point of the story of the woman caught in adultery itself. Jesus does not in any sense qualify his act of mercy. He simply forgives unconditionally, thereby making sharp the contrast between his politics of compassion and his opponents’ politics of holiness. Only after his unconditional mercy does he then give his famous exhortation—not as a condition for the mercy but simply as encouragement toward wholeness.

In doing so, he parallels the prologue to the giving of Torah. In Exodus 20, the first word is God’s deliverance, clearly provided without conditions. But then, the people are given guidance for how to live as delivered people—not in order to thereby gain their deliverance but simply because that is how they become the most human, the freest, the healthiest people they can be.

In understanding Jesus’ response to sin, we need to recognize that he responded in different ways to different kinds of people. First, and most directly applicable to the issues around homosexuality and the churches, Jesus responded with unconditional welcome toward people (mostly falsely) labeled “sinners” by the religious leaders and structures. Lepers, women who were bleeding, poor people who could not afford temple sacrifices, and various other people who were excluded not because of anything they were doing was wrong. “Sin” clearly was (and is) a social construct, at least in part. Jesus challenged the way “sin” was constructed and applied and offered welcome without any demands beyond the general (rigorous!) demands he had for any person of faith.

The second kind of response to “sin” may be seen in the (somewhat rare) cases of Jesus relating to people who were doing sinful things—as in violating Torah. Here is where we would place the woman caught in adultery. She was offered mercy, but there is, after the mercy, also the pointed exhortation not to repeat the violation. In this type of response, Jesus does challenge those violating Torah to return to the path of faithfulness (in this sense he would differ little from others of his day). What is notable, though, is that we don’t have very many examples of these cases. And, as I emphasized above, Jesus main focus in these cases was still focused on forgiveness; he empowered mostly through mercy.

There is a third kind of response, though, that was more confrontive. Jesus did call out one general kind of sin. Significantly, this was a kind of sin not necessarily challenged in the organized religion of the time (or in our time!). Jesus challenged leaders who misused their power—either by lording it over others or by failing to emphasize the core message of Torah (e.g., focusing on legalistic details rather than justice and mercy, see Matthew 23).

That is, when Jesus does “confront sin,” the typical example is not the woman caught in adultery, but the religious leaders who abused their authority in relation to vulnerable people (such as the woman caught in adultery; that kind of confrontation is the actual point of this story). So, if we were to apply Jesus’ approach to confronting sin to the churches’ current discussions concerning homosexuality, it seems likely that the most important challenge would be to those who want to discrimination against homosexual people.

What about Paul?

Philip Bender also alludes to the writings of Paul and that Paul does not have any positive comments about homosexuality. Is Paul in harmony with or in tension with Jesus’ message of welcome? Does Paul’s rigor challenge my interpretation of Jesus—or does Paul correct the impression that gospels do give of Jesus?

First of all, as Philip acknowledges, precisely what Paul (or those writing in Paul’s name) has in mind in his scattered (three: Romans 1; 1 Corinthians 6; 1 Timothy 1) references to same-sex activities is not nearly as clear as the traditional view seems to assume. In fact, I have argued (as have many others) that what Paul has in mind is something entirely different than our current expressions of same-sex intimacy. I’ll leave that debate aside for here.

What about the lack of positive references to homosexuality? I think this is totally a contextual issue. I’m not taking the time to verify this, but I can’t think of anyplace where Paul gives a clear affirmation of our modern Christian understanding of heterosexual marriage either. He seems to treat marriage as mainly a concession to uncontrollable human sexual passions. We tend to see marriage quite a bit differently now (as we should!). And, if we do accept Paul’s point about sexual passions (even if we want to say a lot more about the value of marriage), that would seem to support the legitimacy of same-sex marriage (Paul seems to grant that imposed celibacy is a bad idea).

In other words, our present-day understandings of intimate relationships are things we have come to since biblical times. They are based on some important general biblical ideals but not on an explicit affirmation of them in the writings of Paul. This lack of positive comments about sexual intimacy in the context of marriage does not inhibit our affirmation of it as a crucial part of heterosexual marriage. Nor need Paul’s lack of positive comments about the joys of healthy same-sex marriage inhibit our affirmation of that.

Moral imperatives

Another of Philip Bender’s questions is about the place of “moral imperatives” with a “politics of compassion.” Of course, the calls to “love the neighbor” and to “forgive 70 times 7 times,” among similar commands, are moral imperatives. And these kind of moral imperatives are actually more risky and more demanding that the more “holiness-oriented” kinds of commands that focus on specific problematic behaviors.

In terms of the more holiness-oriented expectations, it strikes me that it would work best along the lines Philip suggests (a bit facetiously, it seems): “Do we first radically include everyone, then give moral instruction?” I really like the picture that Sarah Miles gives in her book, Take This Bread, where she writes about an Episcopalian congregation that practices open communion as a form of outreach. The first word seekers here is welcome. Then, as they hang around and get more involved they begin to see in people’s (as much as hear about) the moral expectations in the Christian life.

In relation to homosexuality, though, I would again repeat that the “lifestyle” issues are no different than in relation to heterosexual people. A married couple should expect the same kind of reception and moral encouragement regardless of whether they are heterosexual or homosexual—likewise with single people.

Philip then suggests, “Somehow I doubt that you’d say we first preach the good news love God’s love and then–later–talk about peacemaking to new converts.”  I admit that if one were to listen to my preaching, one would certainly hear a lot more about peacemaking than about sexual behavior. I think this is simply echoing the biblical emphases. However, I would like to think that if a seeker were to attend my congregation, hear my preaching (and the other sermons), and want to get more involved, we would not say, first you have to get your position of peace right, then you can keep attending. I envision more that this issue is embedded in the life of the congregation in such a way that a people who actually had serious disagreements with our views of peace would themselves either begin to change their minds or find themselves unattracted to being in that environment—not that we would tell them they were not welcome.

I actually don’t think the churches should be hostile toward people who are in the military. I would not exclude such a person from church membership simply for that reason. But I would want our congregation to be clear enough about its understanding of the gospel that a military person would not be able to avoid coming to terms with his or her own convictions about peace. And then I would want to know how they felt their convictions fit with those of the congregation.

To be honest, though, I have a hard time imagining such an event. And I am not sure what this might say in relation to my understanding of homosexuality.


Finally, another cyber-friend, Chuck Warnock, raised  a similar kind of question: “I have no doubt that homosexual persons would be welcomed in our church services, but would they be welcomed into membership? leadership? And if so, how do we deal with the Pauline passages correcting sexual problems in the early churches, Corinth especially?”

I see two different kinds of issues being raised here. One is a kind of political issue, how are people already in the churches going to respond to “institutional incorporation”? Will they protest, even leave, if they are faced with membership being open to homosexual persons in intimate relationships? Or leadership? Would they remove leaders from office who advocated such openness?

The second issue is simply how best to interpret the New Testament texts, specifically Paul’s writing to Corinth?

To speak to the second question first, I would simply reiterate that I don’t believe Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians have anything specifically to do with homosexual people per se. The issues of sexual purity that Paul raises are applicable today in exactly the same way to heterosexual people as to homosexual people. In the much-analyzed verse where Paul, according to many translations, speaks specifically about “men laying with men” (1 Cor. 6:9), he refers to non-Christian sexual injustices (along with many other kinds of injustices), not what we may today call homosexual partnerships. (I discuss this at much more length here.)

I agree with Chuck’s summary of Hauerwas and Gushee: “We need to start with promiscuity versus fidelity, and…to affirm that fidelity in relationship (some might call it covenant) is sufficient regardless of gender combinations.”

The “political” issue is much more complicated. As a Mennonite, I am much more inclined toward a bottom-up process of inclusion. So much then depends on the particular congregation; rather than on directives from the top down. Congregations should welcome homosexual people into membership and leadership on the same bases they welcome heterosexual people. But this can only happen in a healthy way, it seems, when there is a critical mass of support from the pews.

2 thoughts on “Jesus and homosexuality, part 2

  1. HI Ted,
    I find it interesting that Jesus never mentions homosexuality. If it is indeed such an important issue for Christ’s vision on earth, why does he not mention it? I appreciate your time on this issue.

  2. I have this idea that the test of the church at any time is how we treat the
    least of the brethren, which to a lot of Christians at this time are homosexuals.The minute we declare someone less than, or separate from our experience as humanity those are the people who become the least and and it is our conduct towards those people by which we as Christians will be judged.

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