Art by Samantha Miller
When St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church’s rector, the Rev. Joyce Stickney, was a teenager, she served and worked at an orphanage and a refugee camp for Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese people in the Philippines. This experience led to her wrestling with the understanding of Christianity that she was taught growing up.
“As a teen, I had all these great experiences working in an orphanage, and I was like, there’s no way these people who are suffering and have been through all this or these poor children whose parents can’t afford to take care of them … there’s no way that God doesn’t love them as much as God loves me,” Stickney said.
Stickney then began to study and “reconstruct,” she said, an understanding of Christianity that better resonated with her diverse experiences in life. She went on to attend seminary school at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and work with the Episcopal Church.
During the course of her career in ministry, Stickney has seen how church attitudes have shifted, becoming more inclusive to those who have been historically marginalized by the church, such as LGBTQ+ individuals.
Looking more specifically at the LGB part of the acronym, Christians have traditionally interpreted Scripture to condemn homosexual behavior; however, conversations are emerging that bring to light that there could be more complexity to this topic than meets the eye.
These conversations involve many components, including:
- Biblical context of scriptures that mention homosexual behavior
- How one’s modern context impacts reading the Bible
- How the church should act toward this topic
- The dehumanization of LGB individuals
- Why conversations about this topic are so controversial
- How to go about approaching these conversations
Recognizing Complexity in Understanding the Bible
Junior Julia Clark is a Religion major and the administrative officer for Crossroads, a student club that provides a space for students to engage in dialogue about LGBTQ+ matters and support one another. She grew up in a Christian household and underwent her own research and exploration of how the Bible discusses homosexuality with the intention of learning how best she could “honor God.”
“Once you start doing the research, the kind of traditional narrative around [homosexuality] really starts to fall apart. And you realize it’s a lot more complex than it seems,” Clark said.
Clark said she appreciates the people in her life — who are also avid Christians — who were supportive of her exploring and looking into the topic of how the Bible talks about homosexuality, even if they were not supportive of same-sex relationships themselves.
In her search for understanding this complex topic, Clark concluded that all of the evidence she found points toward “inclusion and queer affirmation in the Bible.”
Clark said verses — such as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10 — have been translated and historically interpreted in a way that oversimplifies what the Bible is saying about homosexual behavior.
There was no Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek word for “homosexual” or “homosexuality” written in the Bible, according to Jimmy Creech, former United Methodist pastor.
The Bible did not include the word “homosexual” until 1946, according to New Testament scholar David Bentley Hart, researcher and founder of Canyonwalking Connections Kathy V. Baldock and former pastor Keith Giles.
Baldock and others claim that two Greek words arsenokoitai and malakos were combined to be translated as homosexuality in the Revised Standard Version, which was published in 1946; however, the Apostle Paul did not have the modern understanding of homosexuality in mind when writing those Greek words.
Chris Doran, professor of Religion, agreed with Clark that the subject on how the Bible discusses homosexuality is far more complex than what the average American Protestant thinks. As a theologian by training, Doran said he aims to use scriptures to highlight bigger themes and ask bigger questions that consider how people in the 21st century read the Bible.
“The words that the Apostle Paul uses that are often translated as ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ don’t have the same kind of cultural baggage that we have now,” Doran said. “The idea of consenting gay men or women, for example, in the first century — the way that we would think about consenting folks entering into same sex unions — was just very, very rare in the ancient world, so it would not have been considered that way.”
Clark echoed Doran’s sentiment.
“We’re trying to take these ancient texts that exist in their context and in their world, and we’re kind of trying to place them into our context — and especially when a lot of people don’t want to do the real digging to figure out their context, it’s hard if it doesn’t fit,” Clark said.
Clark said she believes the traditional interpretation might largely be the result of people placing their own modern understandings, with years of psychological research on sexual orientation, on the Bible without knowing what the writers of the Bible are communicating.
“In first-century Rome, they did not have that psychological research — they didn’t have an understanding of orientation as we do today,” Clark said.
Clark and Doran said homosexuality in the historical context of the Bible is more about dominating and exploiting others and withholding hospitality in the form of sex slaves, male prostitutes, or pederasty, which is the Greek and Roman practice of older men engaging in sexual relations with boys. They agreed it is not about consensual unions of same-sex individuals.
“There are lots of clobber passages about sexuality and same-sex attraction in the Bible that people will use that you really have to dig in to understand the context,” Clark said.
“Clobber passages” are passages from the Bible that people have commonly used to argue why being gay is a sin.
“[Clobber passages] have been used to make gay people believe that you cannot be both gay and Christian,” pastor Colby Martin wrote in his book “UnClobber,” according to an NBC article. “Being told that you are not welcome, that you do not belong, or that you are less than, is a clobbering of the heart, soul and mind.”
Those “clobber passages” include but are not limited to 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, 1 Timothy 1:8–10, Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26–27.
To read more about different interpretations of these “clobber passages,” click here.
At St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Malibu, the congregation values inclusivity.
“In 1996, an Episcopal Church court ruled in favor of the ordination of gay men and women who are in a committed relationship,” according to the church’s website.
Everyone is considered full members of the congregation at St. Aidan’s Church, and the church also performs gay weddings.
Stickney said the process of becoming more inclusive and welcoming of LBGTQ+ individuals has been a struggle for many church communities because of the longstanding culture and environment that has historically been non-inclusive and non-affirming.
“It really has taken people who have a prophetic voice and who are willing to really do the work of change to help us move into this direction,” Stickney said. “I think it takes a lot of humility and listening to other people.”
Stickney said she has encouraged people who disagree with St. Aidan’s church’s affirming position to visit and spend time with one another, but she has found that oftentimes, many people are not interested in taking that step.
“I think when you open yourself to breaking bread and loving and sharing life with people who are different from you, you’re converted — you’ve become much more open and inclusive,” Stickney said.
During the course of her career in ministry, Stickney has seen attitudes about the LGBTQ+ community change dramatically. She said she thinks a big reason for this movement toward inclusion and equality is a result of a lot of the work and efforts of the LGBTQ+ community, including science, research and the many conversations society is having.
Zachary Luben is a youth and family minister at the Culver Palms Church of Christ who also comes from a traditional church background.
As a minister for youth, he has explored and read widely to understand what Scripture says about sexuality and gender to learn how to best minister to and serve young students who might be questioning their sexual and gender identity.
“The thing that I strive for is that [the students] will know that I love them and that God loves them, and wherever they are in that process, the community that I serve and the youth ministry that I’m a part of isn’t going to turn our backs on them,” Luben said.
Luben said he aims to create an environment where students can feel safe to ask questions.
“A lot of times, church leaders get into a room, and they talk about how to serve people without actually asking — without really recognizing that there’s a humanity to the people that they’re trying to figure out the answer to,” Luben said.
Recognizing the Humanity
Doran shared Luben’s frustration about the lack of humanization or “wanting to dignify humanity” in the conversation of LGBTQ+ and Christianity.
“We can disagree with each other about a lot of things as Christians, but how is it that we can be so inhospitable to people who are out or closeted?” Doran said. “I find that really frustrating when hospitality is one of the really powerful parts of the Christian witness.”
Stickney shared how she has seen how individuals who identify as queer may never want to go near or trust a church again due to their previous experiences with how a church has treated them.
“I think the church needs to apologize. I think a lot of harm has been done — abuse,” Stickney said. “We need to apologize and make amends.”
Luben said it is important to ask oneself whether one is using the biblical command to love one another to guide the conversation.
“I think we as a church have to wrestle with the fact that we’ve contributed to an environment where people feel like dying by suicide is the better option than staying alive,” Luben said. “I think that’s part of the culture that we have to confront regardless of which side we’re taking in it.”
Luben said another important idea for disagreeing Christians to consider is their shared beliefs, too.
“I have found myself coming back to this understanding of how we may be very, very different people, but if we’re both Christians, our commonality is Christ,” Luben said. “I think if you can actually choose to and work at remembering that in those difficult conversations of disagreement, I think you can disagree and still walk away peacefully.”
Clark shared she personally struggled reconciling her relationship with God and her sexual orientation because she grew up believing that homosexuality is clearly a sin.
“I think when it’s kind of drilled into our heads that this is the one way — this is the only thing that can possibly happen, this is the only way to faithfully interpret Scripture, this is the only way to be a Christian — it’s really harmful to gay kids, gay people in general,” Clark said.
Clark shared she has friends who are gay and believe that same-sex relationships are a sin, so they commit themselves to celibacy. She said even though she personally believes same-sex relationships are not a sin, her gay friends who believe otherwise also appreciate knowing that there are other interpretations.
“I wasn’t out looking for a way to justify a relationship. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I wanted to know the truth,” Clark said.
Doran said he believes churches and individuals should wrestle with the question of why they seem to struggle in particular to have conversations with people who have differing views about sexuality and gender identity.
Luben said he thinks people and churches might have trouble navigating discussions surrounding this topic because what is at stake are understandings of life, scripture, family and history.
Another reason Luben said he thinks this conversation can be so highly charged is because there may be a fear of acknowledging the ambiguity of the topic; one might not actually know for certain the correct answer.
“God’s at work in all things, but I don’t necessarily think that means we don’t have to struggle with the ambiguity in our churches, and I think that can be unsettling for some — and it’s even unsettling for me,” Luben said.
Coming from a science and theology background, Doran said he asks why Christians may question science.
“For so many centuries, Christians were the ones asking all the really hard questions about life — all the hard questions about science,” Doran said. “It’s only been recently that American Protestants and particularly evangelicals, but other Protestants as well, have gotten really skeptical about engaging hard questions.”
Doran said he wants to ask and engage with the difficult questions.
“As someone who has a PhD, who studied science and studies theology, I want to ask really hard questions and to know that the rest of Christian history did that — and now we’ve kind of clammed up over the last few several decades, I think that’s real kind of scary to me,” Doran said.
Luben said despite all these fears of what else might be at stake when having these conversations, he encourages people, especially Christians, to think about this topic anyway.
“I do think we owe it to ourselves and to the other people in our lives to really wrestle and try to understand — or at least give the reasons why you believe what you believe when it comes to this topic and a lot of other topics,” Luben said.
He said even if people may not end up with perfect or complete answers, he believes “there’s something worth the struggle.”
Clark also agreed with Luben about how it’s important to give the topic the respect and time that it deserves by studying and trying to understand the complexity of it.
Stickney said she believes Christians should strive to not be complacent but to be humble and know that there is always more to know.
“I think it’s important to commit as Christians to go outside the margins, and not just a token effort … but claim people who are different from us and nurture a lifelong friendship with them,” Stickney said.
Luben posed a question that he asks himself when considering difficult questions about faith.
“For me, it’s a question of ‘Am I recognizing the image of God and the person who is in front of me or the person I’m thinking about if I’m not willing to at least ask the big questions and really wrestle with the material that’s out there?’” Luben said.
Other Potential Resources on this Topic
“Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time” by Sarah Ruden
“Changing Our Mind” by David Gushee
“Surprised by Hope” by N.T. Wright
“The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns
“God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” by Matthew Vines
“God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge — A Response to Matthew Vines” by Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.
“A Letter to My Congregation” by Ken Wilson
“Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God” by Megan K. DeFranza
“Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction” by Caleb Kaltenbach
“The Bible and same-sex relationships: A review article” by Tim Keller
“Tim Keller on Homosexuality and Biblical Authority: Different Crisis, Same Problem” by Peter Enns
“Torn” by Justin Lee
“Bible, Gender, Sexuality” by James V. Brownson
“Outside the Lines” by Mihee Kim-Kort
“Does Jesus Really Love Me?” By Jeff Chu
“Love is an Orientation” by Andrew Marin
“Us Versus Us” by Andrew Marin
“Coming Home to Faith, to Spirit and to Self” by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation
“Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” by Kathy Baldock
“Homosexuality and the Church,” a study by Larry Bethune, pastor at University Baptist Church
“Evangelicals Open Door to Debate on Gay Rights,” — New York Times article written by Laurie Goodstein
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