Removing Roadblocks #6 - From Condemnation to Affirmation

October 25, 2020

Series: October 2020

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Today's Scripture

Various passages interspersed throughout the sermon

Today's Sermon

   "From Condemnation to Affirmation - Removing Roadblocks Series #6"

         Today brings to a close the series on removing biblical roadblocks to our faith.  I, for one, am glad.  It’s a bit of a slog to wade through some of these topics.  We could have merely recognized that the Bible was written in very different times and places, acknowledged that we are largely not literalists, and reaffirmed the presence of both metaphor and cultural influences present in the texts.  We could have said that as our understanding of the world has evolved, and we don’t have to treat the Scriptures as some instruction book for all times.   I believe it’s important to hold onto a close reading of the Scriptures, rather than merely qualifying them.  In doing so, we can take this collection of sacred writings of our ancestors that show their wrestling with existence and in doing so be blessed by them for our own wrestling.  You may still find portions of the Scriptures that you take issue with, but all too often I’ve seen people object to things they don’t truly understand.  They’ve been turned off or turned away by that which they have not truly seen.  That’s what I have been trying to address here so that what was meant to be a personal and collective pathway littered with obstacles or has become an obstacle itself.

            We finish with a question that may well be resolved for you; it’s been resolved in this church for decades, the affirmation of LGBTQ persons and their participation in all offices of the church.  I chose it because many affirming Christians do so in spite of the Bible, while many who are not affirming are so because of their reading of the Bible.  What if I told you the Bible may not mean what you think it does when it says what you’ve been told it does?

            Jack Rogers was a pillar in the Presbyterian church.  He was Moderator of the 213th General Assembly.  He was a theologian and scholar of biblical authority.  His leanings were conservative and evangelical, though these kinds of labels can sometimes be more confusing than helpful. When he was asked by the pastor of the church that he was attending in Pasadena to serve on a task force to study the question of gay ordination, he said no.  It was 1993, and the issue was at the center of fierce division in the denomination.  Rogers was not in favor of gay ordination, but he did not want to take on the issue.  However, as a personal favor to the pastor, he agreed to serve with 14 other members of the congregation, who represented perspectives and expertise across the spectrum.  They studied psychological and sociological aspects of the question, heard from gay and lesbian Presbyterians and family members, looked at church governance, and they studied the scriptures extensively.  In doing so, Rogers changed his mind.  His reading of the Bible changed his mind toward affirmation.

            In his book Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church Rogers addresses these studies.  He meticulously works through what’s come to be called “the clobber passages,” Bible verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality, and I’d simply like to walk you through his conclusions.  It will be a little atypical for my sermons, but it’s really important to see how we can misunderstand the Bible.  Obviously, there will be strong sexual content.

            Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-29) and The Rape of the Levite’s Concubine (Jud. 19:1-30).  Both of these stories feature a host inviting traveling men, foreigners, into his home.  In each, an angry mob surrounds the home and demands the travelers be surrendered to them.  The implication is that they will be rape or kill the foreigners, for such homosexual rape in the ancient world was a way to show domination over one’s enemies.  Rogers draws on scholar Dale Martin who reminds us that to assume the women’s position in sex was to be inferior.  Remember this was a patriarchal culture, and this is where perhaps our offense should enter in.  In each case, the homeowner tries instead to offer up women in his household to appease the crowd.  Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is not homosexuality, but not properly welcoming in the stranger; it’s described variously as “greed, injustice, inhospitality, excess wealth, indifference to the poor, and general wickedness.”[1]

            The Old Testament Laws of Leviticus 18 and 20.  Now those of you who have enjoyed Jeff Shankle’s recent adult class on Leviticus will remember that the Israelites formed and preserved their identity in part through a holiness code.  Again, patriarchy makes an appearance.  Theoretically a child could be put to death, for cursing their parents because it threatened the hierarchy of the patriarchal family—it is unclear whether or not this actually ever happened.  As I mentioned before, a same sex act between men, put one man in the woman’s position and this was problematic because it troubled that established hierarchy.  We don’t see a reason to hold onto the patriarchy; why hold onto heteronormativity?  Moreover, Rogers points out that the act in Leviticus was seen as ritually unclean, and Jesus addresses this directly in Matthew 15 by declaring with respect to food laws, purity is determined by what comes out of the mouth, not what goes in.[2]

            What Rogers calls “New Testament Vice Lists” of 1 Corinthians (6:9) and 1 Timothy (1:10).  Each passage employs the Greek term arsenokoites.  In 1 Corinthians, this gets translated in various Bibles as “sodomites” (New Revised Standard Version), “sexual perverts” (Revised Standard Version), or “homosexual offenders” (New International Version).  Scholars such as the aforementioned Dale Martin, Brian Blount, and Martti Nissinen argue it is not at all clear the word means what it has often been interpreted to mean.  In fact, it likely refers to some form of sexual exploitation.  Here again is the issue of power differential.[3]  One translation of arsenokoites is “pedarast.”  Pederasty was an ancient practice of Greco-Roman culture whereby adult men kept young men/boys for their own gratification, and these passages are taking issue with that practice, as, I presume, would we.

            Jude, a book you may not even have heard of in the Bible.  This New Testament writing is only one chapter long and it’s the only work in the Bible that refers to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as “sexual immorality.”  According to Rogers, “Jude 7 draws a parallel between the ‘unnatural lust’ of angels who wanted to have sex with human women (Gen. 6:1-4) and the men of Sodom who wanted to have sex with (male) angels (Gen. 19:1-29).”[4] I bet you didn’t know this stuff was in there.  This might increase Bible Study attendance!  Again, the violation is of position in hierarchy, between angels and humans.  It’s not about same-sex partnership among consenting equals (and only equals can consent), which is our standard today.  Not even heterosexual union in biblical times was equal. 

            Romans 1 and the “problem” of Paul, and this may seem a tougher one.   Paul writes, 

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Rom 1:26-27 NRS) 

         For Rogers, the operative phrase is “for this reason,” for what Paul is critiquing is the notoriously vice-ridden city of Corinth, a seaport where all bets were off morally.  Paul offers these words in the midst of a long list of idolatrous practices the result of which is that people are given up to “degrading” and “unnatural” practices.  Now, does this mean all same-sex passions are “degrading”?  We don’t know, but even if we say “yes” the word “natural” is key.  It would seem Paul’s beliefs about nature would be important.  We now know that homosexuality is an observable reality in the animal kingdom.  It is natural.  We would not penalize Paul for not knowing the sun was the center of the solar system, so why would we privilege his archaic understanding of nature?  Rogers doesn’t even go down that route.  He merely points out that when Paul uses “natural” he means “conventional.” He suggests Paul is arguing that people should follow society’s norms, which is not happening in Corinth. Sometimes Paul upholds such norms and sometimes he challenges them. It depends, and that’s what makes reading him so difficult.

            Those are the clobber passages.  That’s it.  How much weight the Bible gives a certain topic is telling.  As Rogers points out that, “There are around 3,000 verses in the Bible that express God’s concern for the poor and oppressed.”[5] Yet, many preachers don’t give those topics barely any weight, much less proper weight.  Those who do labeled the dreaded “too political.”  Consider Jesus.  He’s been conspicuously absent from the sermon today.  At my last church we printed up these pamphlets that said on the cover “What Jesus Said About Homosexuality.”  The inside was blank because Jesus never said a word about it. 

          You might pick and choose from the Bible, which everyone does on one level.  But, do you see that you don’t have to merely cut out the pieces you don’t like?  Rogers concludes that not one of the passages people use to condemn homosexuality actually speaks to what we see and affirm today.  By digging in more deeply into study we often find things don’t mean what they appear to mean on the surface, and that can become a way to deeper wisdom and understanding.

            Well, that’s all.  May your way now be clearer.  May you be a little less unburdened even as you carry more of this book on your journey.  Amen.


Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

1. Where do you think the Bible condemns homosexuality?
2. Have you heard other explanations/understandings of those passages?
3. Even if there were passages that condemned it, would that mean affirming people would not be Christian?
4. What is the place of the Bible in Christianity? For you?
5. What is the relationship between modern fields of study (e.g. psychology) and contemporary faith?



[1] Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality:  Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2006), 71.

[2] Rogers, 73.

[3] Ibid., 73-75.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Ibid., 89