By William C. Hunt
On November 6 Minnesotans will vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define legal marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.” This amendment is supported by many of our fellow Christians who are convinced that homosexual activity is gravely immoral. They have a strong argument for their position. Passages from the Book of Leviticus label sexual activity between men as an “abomination” worthy of the death sentence. (Leviticus 18.22; 20.13) It is instructive to recall that each of the Ten Commandments except for coveting is sanctioned by the death penalty as well. Furthermore, Paul takes up this condemnation in the New Testament, notably in his letter to the Romans. (1.24-27)
Do those of us who oppose the amendment concede that all forms of homosexual activity are immoral but that for the greater good in a pluralistic society gay and lesbian persons should be allowed to enter into same sex unions? Or, do we think that committed, adult, consensual, loving relationships are holy and good and deserving of societal recognition? If the latter, how do we deal with the biblical condemnations?
In my estimation, it all comes down to looking at Christian moral teaching, including the teaching in passages from the Bible, in a developmental perspective. This means looking at scriptural passages in their historical and cultural context and taking into account developments in the intervening millennia. It means considering the taken-for-granted presuppositions of biblical authors and examining them in the light of subsequent discoveries. We have to ask why the biblical authors condemned a moral activity and see if those reasons still apply.
The biblical authors condemned male same sex activity for three basic reasons. First, in a male dominated patriarchal culture where male honor was the core value, they saw this as an affront to male honor, especially on the part of the passive partner. In a culture that made sharp distinctions between appropriate gender roles, the passive partner was dishonoring himself by allowing himself to be penetrated, thus taking on the inferior role of a woman.
The second core value was reproductivity. It was the duty of every male to honor his father by begetting a son to carry on his father’s name. He did so by planting his seed in the fertile ground of his wife’s womb. Homosexual intercourse was seen as planting seed on barren ground.
The third core value was purity – also known as holiness or cleanliness. After the return from the Babylonian captivity Israelite leaders did everything in their power to prevent idolatry. They did this by trying to avoid any activity that, in their minds, was associated with pagan worship. Rightly or wrongly, they considered male homosexual activity to be part of that worship.
Israelite purity also involved culturally conditioned decisions about what was appropriate. Water creatures should have fins and scales, making crawfish and shrimp unclean. One shouldn’t weave a fabric from two kinds of thread, or sow two kinds of seeds in the same field. Animals with cloven hooves should chew their cud, thus making swine unclean. Likewise males, whether animal or human, should mate with females. Moreover, heterosexual intercourse was considered unnatural in any position other than face to face with the male on top. (This may well be what Paul is referring to in Romans 1.26 when he says: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural . . . .” It is doubtful that Paul is referring to lesbian relationships.)
Our modern culture views these ancient Israelite values in a completely different light. We no longer consider males to be inherently superior to females; nor do we have such rigid gender based roles. We judge marriage from the quality of the loving relationship rather than from success in generating male offspring. We no longer connect homosexual activity with pagan worship; nor do we abide by ancient rules of purity.
Added to that, the twentieth century saw a revolution in the understanding of human sexuality that was on a par with the Copernican revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
All this means that contemporary Christians are in a position to review the blanket condemnation of homosexual activity found in the biblical passages and to distinguish violent, exploitative sexual activities from those that are loving, adult, and free. This enables us to see homosexual relationships in a positive light and even envisage same gender unions blessed by the Church.