Gay equality part of Christian theology, ethics
By Karl S. Shelly*, The Goshen News (USA), 23 Jun 2012, page 16
We are living in days when the tide of U.S. history is turning in favor of gay and lesbian equality. As a follower of Jesus and ordained Christian pastor, I respond to these changes with celebration and thanksgiving. It is a Gospel event when those treated as the least are finally granted their full measure of dignity and humanity.
However, it will be some time yet before public opinion for equality is widespread. Opponents will continue to wage their battles for inequality, even occasionally winning as they did recently in North Carolina. Yet, in the coming years their voices will grow smaller and sound ever more shrill.
UNFORTUNATELY, the most entrenched enemies of equality will likely come from corners of the church. This was true in past struggles for the equal rights of women and racial minorities. In fact, it is safe to say that the most extreme voices of intolerance will come wrapped in religious piety.
Within all major religions there are extremists who claim divine approval of their repressive politics and hate. But this is not the Christianity I know, and it is not the faith I learned from the Bible.
I am unlikely to persuade those still heavily invested in their doctrines of exclusion. I write instead for the growing number of Christians who are uncomfortable with a theology of judgmentalism, who find little of the love of Christ in anti-gay preaching, and who have yet to hear the good news of how Christians can embrace equality for gay and lesbian people.
MY ARGUMENT for gay equality is a biblical one, and it is rooted in the historical tenets of Christian theology and ethics. I start, as most Christians do, with the Bible — that ancient and sacred book about God and God’s people.
It addresses a host of topics, but what stands out is the Bible’s focus on God’s radical love, God’s call to liberation, the human inclination to turn from God, and, ultimately, the path to God through Jesus.
It contains timeless Truth, but it was also written in an era that knew nothing of modern notions about leprosy (Hansen’s disease), astronomy and sexual orientation — where some people are born with intrinsic and unchangeable attractions to persons of their same sex. Contrary to the thinking of some fundamentalists, there is nothing in the Bible that asks us to stay in a pre-modern mindset when it comes to these advances in knowledge.
As those who have read “The Odyssey” know, it takes careful study to understand ancient text written in archaic languages. This is especially true of the Bible, which contains various types of literature ( historical, allegorical, apocryphal, poetical, etc.) and references little-known events and customs.
It is a complex book, which frankly is why it is easy for charlatans to make all kinds of ridiculous assertions about what the Bible says (such as those who claim the Bible tells which day the world will end). FOR EXAMPLE, consider the Bible’s treatment of homosexuality. It is commonly understood that in the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, there are just six brief references to “homosexuality” (and none by Jesus).
But what do those ancient Hebrew or Greek texts say to us on this subject? The answer is far from simple. Many biblical scholars tell us these verses actually refer to:
• Issues unrelated to modern notions of homosexuality (Sodom is about the lack of hospitality and rape, not homosexuality);
• Ancient cultural prohibitions (the “abomination of homosexuality” is like the “abomination of eating shellfish”) or
• People naturally inclined toward heterosexuality who, in a burst of lust, abandon their natural orientation for one that isn’t natural to them.
Those willing to look beyond simplistic readings will find it hard to argue that homosexuality, as we know it today, is a sin.
IN FACT, those familiar with the Bible also know that it does not speak a consistent word about sexuality or even marriage. Sections of the Bible speak favorably of polygamy, sex with slaves and having concubines (mistresses). These things change when culture changes. However, the Bible does speak consistently about the importance of faithfulness, about the ethic of love, about compassion, and about the importance of holding fast to covenants.
To these values, both straight and gay Christian couples are called. Perhaps what most moves straight people to let go of fear and prejudice is when they learn their child, sibling, friend or fellow church member is gay.
There is nothing like a real-life experience of knowing gay Christians and seeing God’s spirit alive in them to help one see the wide breadth of God’s wondrous love.
This is the work of God’s Spirit, a force that mere humans cannot stop. Thanks be to God!
* Karl S. Shelly is co-pastor at Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen (USA)