Feminism, Social Issues

but Jesus never mentioned gay people

A few years ago, a friend of mine put up a link on Facebook with the a title something like “Every Verse Where Jesus Talks about Homosexuality.” Puzzled, I clicked through … only to get a completely blank page, with nothing but the title. And some ads, because, y’know, capitalism. I laughed, especially when I saw a number of confused people commenting on the facebook post, wondering why the page wouldn’t load. I think it’s one of the few click-bait articles I’ve ever enjoyed, mostly because I enjoy pointed humor.

But, while I enjoyed the joke, I’ve always been bothered by people who attempt to make this argument seriously, and why as much as I appreciate Matthew Vines‘ work, I’m curious how sustainable an approach like “the Bible doesn’t truly address sexual orientation” actually is. While on a personal level I find the interpretations offered by people like Dr. Brownson encouraging and compelling, I’m wondering if perhaps they’re starting the argument in the wrong place.

I don’t think the problem with the conservative Christian approach to LGBT people is their interpretation of the “clobber passages” like Romans 1. I think the problem is that they are approaching the whole work of Scripture with a heteronormative lens; except, in the case of conservative Christians they don’t see heteronormativity as a social construct but as a holy and inspired part of Scripture.

When I read the Bible and notice that there’s an awful lot of husbands and wives, I attribute that to heteronormativity. Yes it’s “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” but that doesn’t mean anything significant concerning my sexual orientation. Just because biblical writers  included Mary and Joseph, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zachariah, et al, doesn’t automatically lead to the conclusion that God intended for only straight couples to be blessed and for all gay couples to be condemned as an abomination. It was just “a matter of course” for the writers, just like nearly every single romance novel in Barnes & Noble features straight people.

It was the way the writers saw the world, and now we as a society have progressed. Gay people and their relationships are more visible now, and we’re starting to see this reflected in our media, like in Glee or Modern Family. I am hopeful that one day it will be a completely normal thing for a major epic fantasy series to lead with a queer protagonist, just like I’m hopeful that books with female leads won’t be considered “for girls only” or “chick lit” someday.

However, for the conservative Christian, this view of the relationships and marriages in the Bible puts me solidly into the territory of “not respecting the Bible.” Many Christians hold to positions like inerrancy and infallibility and inspiration, and when you combine all of that in the typical evangelical, what you’re going to get is someone who believes that heterosexual marriage is sacrosanct and the only kind ordained by God … because, in the Bible, that’s certainly true. There are no gay marriages in the Bible, and no one is ever going to convince a conservative Christian that David and Jonathan where gay for each other.

Because, to someone who has a “high view of Scripture,” nothing it includes– or excludes– is an accident. It is perfect, flawless, without error, and unquestionably right. About everything. And if the Bible doesn’t feature a gay couple, it must mean that gay marriage isn’t permitted. I’m pretty convinced that with this attitude, even if the Bible didn’t have a single verse about “a man lying with a man is an abomination,” conservatives would still fight against marriage equality.

I don’t think this attitude is insurmountable– this isn’t the first time that conservative Christians have thought this way about an issue (*coughslaverycough*). I think that the arguments that Vines and Brownson are making can be extremely helpful in starting conversations about LGBT equality, and hopefully some will receive some illumination about the heterosexism they’re carrying around with them as they try to interpret different passages. But, ultimately, I think that’s what should come first, and I think the Christian LGBT-and-ally community should be much more deliberate about confronting this.

Which is why I’m somewhat troubled with the attempt to use a supposedly “high view of Scripture” in these discussions, because I used to be squarely in that camp and personally, if Matthew Vines had told me he had a “high view of Scripture,” I would have laughed in his face. I wouldn’t have known exactly why I would have been so utterly convinced that he didn’t honor the Bible the way I did, but I would have felt that way all the same. Conversations about LGBT equality in Christian environments will necessarily involve — at least on some level– a critique of certain passages in the same way an egalitarian looks at “women be silent in church”or “I do not permit a woman to teach.”

The default of the Bible is sexist and heteronormative. It … just is. I appreciate all the amazing work so many scholars have done over the years to mitigate all of that. I love feminist and queer theologies, egalitarian interpretations, and the work of so many liberationist theologians. There is much beauty and value and richness and depth in this library, so much shared history and tradition. But, when I read the Bible, I do have to set aside its more problematic elements– especially the fact that the people who wrote it were misogynistic and heterosexist.

Until conservative Christians can do that, I’m not certain that the anti-LGBT-equality movement will truly die.

Photo by Argya Diptya

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  • Melissa

    This strikes me as so right, and yet I never thought of it in that way before. What has been bringing this home to me lately have not been feminist or LGBT arguments or passages in the Bible on those subjects– maybe because those debates are too familiar and I’m used to dealing with the minutia of the interpretive arguments rather than the big picture– but passages in the NT about Jews. I’m reading “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition” by David Nirenberg and….the measured, detailed, careful way he lays out the anti-Jewish sentiment in the NT (especially in John)– even being very fair to the context of the time, which he is– shook me to my core. I had somehow NEVER quite noticed it. And yet it’s all there, and not subtle at all, and obviously a big part of Christian medieval and more recent history….but somehow, I just hadn’t thought deeply about it.

    At least in all the conservative Christian circles I’ve been in, everyone is very pro-Israel and pro-Jewish in a Mike Huckabee-ish way (even if the ultimate desire is still, I guess, to convert Jews, which is really not being pro-Jewish, but whatever). But if they were really taking the Bible literally, they would have to accept those negative– even violently negative– verses. Clearly it’s just the larger cultural context that has changed, with anti-Semitism less normative and Israel embraced as a Republican cause. But this has happened without any serious conservative Christian reckoning with those verses (or at least I think so. Maybe NT Wright’s perspective sort of deals with it). Anyway, the vitriol is still there in the texts. And these verses occur in the gospels, and not just John but the synoptic gospels– the very texts I’m used to thinking of as easier than Paul, more loving than Paul. It was sort of shattering to me to realize there’s no little corner of the Bible-as-text that I can somehow keep totally “pure” and good. And then I thought….well, ok, that’s fine. It’s ALL fallible. So what. I can still take the spirit of love and justice that runs through it too, and look the rest in the face like an adult.

    Sorry such a long comment; this just resonated a lot right now.

    • Thank you for this. The falliability and pure humanity of scripture is something I have been struggling with for a long time. It has been tripping me up for years, among other things, and what you said really struck me- particularly this part:
      “It’s ALL fallible. So what. I can still take the spirit of love and justice that runs through it too, and look the rest in the face like an adult.”

      Thank you!

  • I understand your pessimism, and at face value it’s hard to imagine a world where conservative Christians will tolerate gay people or make a Biblical case in favor of them. But the topic of slavery shows us that’s possible. There’s obviously a huge amount of evidence that the Bible is pro-slavery, but nowadays even fundamentalists go through mental gymnastics to arrive at what used to be a liberal reading of scripture.

    And what strikes me is just how fluid evangelical Christianity has become. The conservative reading of scripture on a whole range of topics has shifted and changed drastically in a short amount of time (I wouldn’t say that it’s evolved, because often these shifts are for the worse). And no matter how radically it shifts, there’s always a collective amnesia about it. Conservatives forget that they used to lean closer to the pro-choice position, or that they used to view muscular Christianity as a liberal heresy. So there is hope.

  • Jesus said: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Golden rule. Would you want anyone telling you if you can or cannot get married? Then don’t tell the same sex couple next door they can’t.
    The fight over what many citizens consider a matter of being equal under the law and the only arguments against same sex marriage comes from quoting scripture makes no sense, because the Bible has no validity in a secular legal system. In a debate your source needs to be reasonable and valid. “Because God said so!” is neither in a pluralistic secular society.

  • Tim

    I agree with you that there’s a bias in the text itself in the stories that are told or not told about sex, but I don’t think it’s completely accurate to label the bias as heterosexism.

    I think critiquing the body of mainstream genre romance as heterosexist or advancing a heteronormative narrative is pretty valid – the protagonists clearly identify as fairly exclusively attracted both romantically and sexually to members of the opposite sex, and, in general, they express themselves sexually in sex acts with the opposite sex. (Interestingly, in most mainstream genre romance, although there is a lot of sex it’s often exclusively between the main couple, once they identify each other). And characters in the story who don’t identify that way or express themselves sexually that way are seen as other, belonging to a separate group.

    But it’s hard to critique the Bible that way because it is both more and less than a genre. More, because it contains many different types of literature and types of narratives arising from very different cultures over a long period of time (as opposed to the corpus of genre romance which is mostly largely contained within a couple of centuries) and less because there’s just not a whole lot of it, comparatively speaking.

    Sex doesn’t come up in a lot of stories, and I don’t think there’s a bias toward the stories where it does come up or the stories where it doesn’t as being more significant one way or another. Could Jesus have been equally sexually and romantically attracted to men as to women? It seems to me that you could assume that, in reading the gospels, and you wouldn’t get a different reading from if you assumed he was exclusively romantically and sexually attracted to women, or just asexual. (And I’m not suggesting that if he were equally attracted to both sexes he would have identified as bi – the equivalent of that modern social construct just didn’t exist at that time although the Greek viewpoint was something almost equivalent to pansexualnormative, I think.)

    And I don’t think there’s a significant bias in the relative importance of relationships based on the gender of the individuals in the relationship, in general. Zacharias and Elizabeth. But also Elijah and Elisha, Naomi and Ruth.

    But, consistently, when sex (in terms of sexual activity) does come up as part of a biblical narrative, I think there is a pattern to how it comes up, and it is mainly that the majority of the stories involving sex revolve around the issue of reproduction. This echoes the theme established in the second story in Genesis: the status quo is not good, in some sense. But the change solution promised is “the seed of the woman”. When the children of Israel are suffering in Egypt, God sends a baby. Moses, Samson, Samuel, etc., and finally Jesus. We could call this “reproductivenormative,” but one assumes that if David and Jonathon had been destined to have a miracle child, the story would have mentioned distress over one or the other of them’s barrenness followed by a miraculous intervention resulting in the miracle child; that would follow the script, so to speak.

    This narrative excludes people, in a sense, who don’t express themselves sexually through reproduction, but I don’t find it obnoxiously exclusive because it also includes a lot of stories of those who didn’t sexually express themselves that way, as far as the narrative is concerned. Jesus, for example.

    But, I think there’s another sense in which the reproductivenormative stories are universal because, to quote the Lego Movie, “You are The Special”. We each got here through reproduction, regardless of whatever else is true about our identity, and each of us is invited in some sense to see ourselves in the stories as being the change agent that improves on the status quo.

    • I disagree. The fact that the Bible only includes straight couples and ignores any other form of orientation is the definition of heterosexist. You may not find it obnoxious, but try being a not-straight person in a world where your existence goes ignored pretty much everywhere.

      • Tim

        Isn’t it sort of a post-hoc assumption that the reproductive couples included in the Bible were straight? LGBT people are often capable (infertility aside) of expressing themselves sexually through reproduction and have done. I think there may be some modern assumptions (by evangelicals and progressives like) leading to a reading of “Bible only includes straight couples” that might not be entirely justified.

        You know that I personally am not ignoring your existence (nor do I ignore the existence of orientation as a component of what makes each of my children uniquely who they are.). I hear you expressing that the experience of having your existence ignored is deeply painful. Tell me what I can do to help.

        • Tim

          Sorry to hear you’re suffering from FM by the way. My sister, who is a nurse and the primary provider in her family, suffers from that, too. It’s tough. The people who love you absolutely do understand you.

      • Here’s a question relating to that. I have a sci-fi/fantasy story idea that has been bouncing around in my head for years and I may eventually take a shot a turning it into a book. The primary characters are straight. This is not meant to minimize non-heterosexual readers. It is merely how I have envisioned the characters in my head. As a QUILTBAG ally, would you get mad at me for that?

        • It wouldn’t make me angry, no, but my reaction would be “*sigh* even more straight characters, yaaaay”

        • trevel

          Speaking as a writer myself — the primary characters probably don’t have to be straight. Even if you’ve paired them all off in heterosexual couplings, there’s probably a dude that could be a dudette without any real story shifting (you could obviously also go the other way, but I’m loathe to suggest fewer female characters in a story.) Or one of them could be bi in a heterosexual romance (which is where a lot of bi people end up in real life, for societal and mathematical reasons.) Or those background characters they meet at a space-party could be a gay couple. Or the entire dwarven race could be bi, because they make children by carving them out of stone and bringing them to life through a sacred ritual that has nothing to do with anyone’s genetalia. Or …

          We mostly live in a masculine-dominated heteronormative culture; our default assumptions and basic storylines and tropes tend to be heteronormative and male-focused. Being a good writer is breaking from the normal, first-thought solution; changing the characters from their initial conception. Play with your ideas! What would happen if you swapped gender for ALL the characters? How would the story change? You don’t have to go with your first assumptions; just because you initially envision the protagonist as a white hetero male doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t work as well (or even better) with a hispanic lesbian.

          Granted it’d hurt your sales in the bible belt, but since it’s a sin for them to read anything other than a bible or their pastor’s commentary/autobiography/personal take on Chicken Soup for the Soul, you’re not losing much anyway.

          • Gender-flipping the protagonists would make them all male. The protagonists are a trio of women. (A human wizard, an orc, and a werewolf.) Quite frankly, I’ve only really thought of including romantic/sexual interests for the werewolf because my story concept isn’t about romance or sex. Yes, I could make the werewolf a lesbian, but I’d prefer not to because then there would be potential for sexual tension between the main characters, and that is something I do not care to include at all, partly because it doesn’t matter, and partly because I’ve seen that so much in other stories that I’m sick of it.

          • Helena Osborne

            Meh, or you could be one of the few authors who can have characters who are friends without romantic tension. I mean, it happens in real life. I like dudes, and most of my friends are guys. One of my only female friends is a lesbian, and she’s never hit on me.

            You’re probably well past this by now 🙂 but it gets old to keep seeing the whole “I like your bits, so I must like you, yes?” trope repeated over and over in stories.

  • English versions of the Bible are really funny. In several verses of the Old Testament, for example, they mention animals known to the Hebrews as re’em. We now think they were referring to rhinoceros or aurochs, animals that the Greek translators who created the Septuagint didn’t know about. So they translated it as a monocerous, an aggressive one horned animal mentioned by Greek naturalists. When the Roman Christians translated the Old Testament from Greek to Latin, it became a unicornus. When Tertullian went back to the Old Testament looking for references to Christ, he latched onto the unicorn. And so we get a lot of art and stories about white, pure, martyred unicorns from Christian theology and folklore, all because of a mistranslation. It actually was considered blasphemous to say you don’t believe in unicorns, because it was mentioned in the Bible. Modern translators however note the mistake, and in many translations now a rhinoceros has replaced the unicorn. Similar things have been done in several passages, such as the King James Bible interpreting the “sea monsters” created in Genesis as “whales”, because the modern interpretation is that the Hebrews were kinda dumb and superstitious and really meant whales, despite writing “monsters”. Thus the whole meaning of the verse is changed.

    The same can be said about the verses surrounding homosexuality. The original language, directly translated, is very odd, and it’s only a guess that they were talking about homosexuality. I do think it’s really lazy and disingenuous of literalists to say that yes, we can change the Bible: the Hebrews meant whales when they said “monsters” and the unicorns are actually rhinos or aurochs. I have never seen a literalist argue til they were blue in the face that unicorns exist. But they will not examine the allegedly anti-gay verses because when it comes to that, the translation is too sacred to rethink.

    • Then you haven’t heard Kent Hovind argue (with a straight face) that dragons are real, that when the Bible says “dragons” it means dinosaurs, and that this proves that dinosaurs walked with man. Or something. I’ve learned to never assume what a Biblical literalist will or will not argue.

      • YIKES. Does he think that Israel is LITERALLY the bride of God as well?

  • KP

    “Until conservative Christians can do that, I’m not certain that the anti-LGBT-equality movement will truly die.”

    There used to be a large contingent of American evangelicals who defended slavery, and frankly, from a prooftexty inerrantist’s perspective, they probably had the better argument. And then the Civil War happened, which was a truly traumatic event which could have led to some reconsideration of biblical interpretation. But it’s not like it changed everyone’s thinking, or changed their thinking over night. After all, there was still another century’s worth of over Jim Crow, followed by under-the-radar attempts to establish a de facto New Jim Crow (as we saw recently in the Justice Dept’s report on Ferguson, MO), all with massive support from conservative Christians. Jim Crow isn’t exactly slavery as portrayed in the Bible, so I suppose those Christians supporting it could still say that they now believe that overt slavery is against what the Bible really means when read “correctly”, even if they believe in segregation. But I wonder how long it took explicitly pro-slavery Christians to make that change to at least nominal anti-slavery theology. It certainly didn’t happen right at 1865, and it probably took awhile for that theology to literally die out of the population.

    Similarly, I’m guessing that there might be some kind of detente on legalized same sex marriage among conservatives (we’re already starting to see this), but it will take awhile for full acceptance of LGBTQ people within those congregations (and it will probably take place piecemeal in some places (e.g., “ok, we’ll accept already-married folks so we can get their kids into Sunday school but won’t perform the wedding ourselves”, etc.), which doesn’t make sense to me but will to many congregations). To really get to the place we want to be, we may have to wait for the die-off of at least the majority of the conservative leadership over 35-40. And I think there will always be a group who are vehemently opposed to LGBTQ equality, just as there are now still fraternities in Oklahoma who gleefully long for their antebellum Southern roots.

    • Tim

      KP, I agree with you there will be eventual acceptance of legalized same sex marriage among evangelicals. In the US, our society as a whole (including evangelicals) accepted that secular marriage is not really about sex about fifty years ago. Ask (I mean this seriously) an evangelical minister whether he thinks Christians ought to push for legal sanctions against a husband who cheats on his wife, or if he thinks that’s something they should work out between themselves maybe with the help of a counselor? Or (more facetiously) if he thinks a woman whose husband isn’t interested in sex with her should be able to sue and get a court order directing him to do his duty or face jail time? Obviously, no. If evangelicals don’t want those kinds of laws then they’ve already admitted that secular marriage is not about sex, rather it is about providing legal tools to help two (or more) adults live together through joint property law, parental rights (if they are raising kids), inheritance, healthcare, etc. And if secular marriage, from a legal standpoint, is not at all about sex, then the sexual apparatus possessed or not possessed by the individuals seeking to enter such an institution cannot, in all fairness, be of any legitimate concern to the government official distributing the marriage license.

      There are two strong reasons that evangelicals aren’t really, in the end, interested in making secular marriage about sex. First, this isn’t something that really depends on a literalist or more liberal reading of scripture. New Testament teaching may tell Christians not to have sex with temple prostitutes but it doesn’t mandate action to criminalize temple prostitution. In general, the literalist teaching with regard to secular government is, “Recognize temporal authority as serving in general a good purpose for society, and try to be good neighbors and good citizens.” And, second, evangelicals, for the past fifty years, have grown comfortable with personally embracing the agency provided by a legal system of marriage that allows them to manage the workings of their personal sexual morality without government oversight. An evangelical man may believe that he ought not to commit adultery; he’s comfortable that he can make that choice, personally, without being “helped” by the threat of legal sanction.

      This acceptance of secular marriage that is gender blind, however, will not immediately translate into an evangelical acceptance of every consensual sexual choice as being equally moral. I.e. if a Christian husband routinely takes off his wedding ring and goes to a bar where he lies about his intentions and life situation in order to facilitate casual sex with young men he meets there whom he finds sexually attractive, that may well be consensual: the wife is deeply unhappy about this behavior but won’t leave or demand that he change, and a young man who goes to a bar open to the possibility of sex with a charming, sexually attractive stranger is accepting risk that a stranger may not present his intentions or life situation entirely accurately. But a literalist reading would never get you to that behavior being consonant with the ideal purposes of a Christian marriage. Husbands are supposed to love their wives. Loving your wife, in part, means not doing something that she finds deeply hurtful (even if she is semi willing to go along with it).

      I think evangelicals will eventually endorse secular gender-blind marriage as equitable and right; that probably won’t result in a blanket endorsement of all consensual sex acts.

    • Tim

      With regard to the slavery issue, I think there is a particular type of logical problem with interpretation that affects both liberal and more literalist interpretations. If you ask a simple question like, “Does the Bible endorse slavery?” or “Does the Bible endorse socialism?” I think you can make good cases (either literalist or liberal interpretations) that the Bible endorses both. The Bible endorses the use of human authority in society to facilitate public goods like physical and economic security. Socialist systems are viable means of securing those goods for a population. Therefore, Christians are obligated to support a socialist government if they happen to be living in one. Perhaps even to work toward the establishment of one, if a socialist system seems to them to better provide public goods than alternative systems that are on the table at that point in history. This does not mean; however, that because a particular government is socialist (i.e. France, Israel, North Korea, Iraq (under the Baath party), or the former Soviet Union) that it is therefore immune from critique from a Christian perspective. The Bible endorses responsible use of human authority. But it also condemns tyranny. Humans have trouble keeping opposing ideas like these in an appropriate balance. The tendency is to focus on the side of an idea that you like, find a reading that supports that side, and then run with it to the exclusion of the balancing reading which is equally valid, according to whatever methods of reading you choose to employ.

  • George

    To Sam and All, Don’t distort the Bible to suit your lifestyle. We are very good at chopping and manipulating the scriptures to suit oneself and ratify the way we live and justify ourself as self-righteous.


    • George: I do not publish threatening or homophobic language. I will ban you if you continue to use either.

  • Angela

    I agree with all of this. And yet, I still think the fact that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality (or a number of other things) as highly relevant in illustrating that Jesus appeared to have very different priorities than most Christian churches today. It was a big eye-opener to me when I realized that the church I was raised in claimed to worship Christ, but focused nearly all it’s efforts on things that Jesus never even considered important enough to mention (at least not in recorded scripture).

  • John W. Baker

    When the two disciples met the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, it says that he explained the scriptures to them, verses that referred to himself, which obviously did not mention him by name. I would say what is needed is to ask Christ to explain the scriptures to us, and like the two to read them again for the first time, even reading between the lines, in the light of Christ.

    Can we imagine Jesus, who was executed like a criminal because he ate with sinners and associated with prostitutes, who touched lepers and unclean women, can we imagine him turning away or chastizing anyone who was marginalized or outcast or shamed or despised stigmatized or oppressed or abused by the so-called righteous people?

    If that is what we think of Jesus, we have missed the message of the entire Bible looking for words, because the whole Bible, words notwithstanding, is about him. And he will open our eyes to it if we ask.

    Peter did exactly that btw and testified that “The Lord has shown me clearly that I must not call any man unclean.” Acts 10:29

  • John W. Baker

    “…for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” II Cor. 3:6

  • John W. Baker

    Apologies for over-commenting. Edit at will.

    I agree the Bible is heteronormative (Paul certainly) but I don’t think the Bible says anything about homosexuality as we mean the term. Rom. 1 is about gentile heterosexuals gone wild, engaging in gender inappropriate and public sex (orgies). But Paul gave his copy of Romans to a powerful gentile Christian woman named Phoebe (“Brilliant”) to carry to Rome and read aloud for him in the churches there (Rom. 16). How about that for gender-inappropriate?!

    No, Jesus didn’t mention homosexuals because there was no word for that till German invented one in the 19th century. Jesus did however talk about “eunuchs from birth” (Matthew 19:12), and he certainly wasn’t queer-bashing, queer-mocking, or queer-shaming! About what you’d expect from the shamed messiah who hung around with whores (and possibly married one) and other trash and was executed between thieves. That “king of the Jews” sign over his head was a joke too, of course, like the blank webpage. And don’t even get started shaming unwed teenage mothers around him, coz you’re talking about his mama.