When Jack Rogers hears someone talk about the “gay lifestyle” he thinks of Playboy millionaire Hugh Hefner.
“Hugh Hefner lives in a mansion with a lot of pretty women with whom he can have sex. His is a life of promiscuity but he’s straight,” Rogers said. “Then I think of my friend, Soulforce leader Mel White. He lives with his partner Gary Nixon in a committed, monogamous relationship and he’s gay. Which lifestyle would we say best emulates what we would want to live as Christians?”
To Rogers the answer is obvious – now. But in the early ’90s he wasn’t so clear on what he thought about homosexuality. As a former professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary and Moderator of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), Rogers, a self-described evangelical Christian, had been steeped in theology and knew his way around the Bible. But, the issue of gays and lesbians in the church hadn’t been on his mind until he was asked, and reluctantly agreed, to serve on a task force at his church in Pasadena, California as they explored becoming a More Light church.
The exploration was an intensive nine month process where the 15 member panel explored the scriptures and other aspects of homosexuality. The board members ranged from a gay man to a heterosexual man who vowed to bar the door so lesbian evangelist Janie Sparr could not visit their church. In the end, the church decided against becoming a More Light church, but Rogers found that more light had been shed on the subject for him personally.
“One major factor was that we had many different people at the table,” he said. “When you hear many voices looking at the scriptures you realize there is not one pat answer. I began to see the tradition of interpreting the Bible in an anti-GLBT way didn’t hold up when you looked at particular texts in their literary, cultural and historical contexts.”
Take the classic story of Sodom and Gomorrah for example. Everyone knows it condemns homosexuality, right?
“But when you study it you see that Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned many other times in scripture but never in connection with homosexuality,” Rogers said. “The other biblical passages in the Old Testament refer to the sin of Sodom as greed, lack of hospitality, excessive wealth and indifference to the poor. And Jesus refers to the sin of Sodom, which was in his view the failure of cities to give hospitality to his traveling disciples.”
Rogers’ own growing understanding of the Bible and homosexuality led him to take a semester off to study the issue more closely. He wondered how the church had dealt with and finally resolved other divisive issues like slavery, segregation, the ordination of women and divorce and remarriage. What he found in all those cases was a pattern that is still present today when the church battles over homosexuality.
“Those who oppose homosexuality claim that (1) the Bible records God’s judgment against the sin of homosexuality from its first mention in Scripture; (2) people who are homosexual are somehow inferior in moral character and incapable of risking to the level of full heterosexual ‘Christian civilization’; and (3) people who are homosexual are willfully sinful, often sexually promiscuous and threatening and deserve punishment for their own acts” (p. 34).
What changed in those other cases was not the Bible, but how churches began to view the Bible. Rogers traces the biggest shift to the 1940s with the introduction of Karl Barth and his “neo-orthodox” theology which held that “revelation of God comes not in an inspired book, but in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate” (p. 38).
When a Christological view of the Bible is adopted, Rogers said more light is shed on controversial subjects.
“Looking at the Bible in a Christ-centered way instead of looking at it as an encyclopedia of oddly assorted facts, any one of which you can pull out and make a universal law caused the church to change. When the church moved from a literalism to looking at the Bible through the lens of Jesus’ redemptive life and ministry, then we repudiated the racism and the sexism. But when we come to a new issue we lapse back into the old ways of literalism and that’s what we’re doing now.”
Rogers’ book calls the church back to its neo-orthodox roots and challenges the church and its members to again look through that lens of Jesus’ redemptive life and ministry and discover afresh what the church discovered about past controversial issues.
“You discover that Jesus never goes out on a moral crusade against people who are marginalized by society,” Rogers said. “He does the exact opposite. He brings in people who are considered outcast by his society including women and people with disabilities and people who weren’t Jews. This was a big deal because you weren’t supposed to have anything to do with these people because they were manifest sinners.”
As someone who has read plenty of books about homosexuality and the Bible, I most often read them with one eye toward the objections of those who oppose homosexuality. There were many places in Rogers’ book where anti-GLBT people could object so I asked Rogers about a couple of them.
Rogers uses the fact that homosexuality is seen in the animal kingdom to argue that God intended to create homosexuality as a natural part of creation. Often, however, critics have charged that homosexuality in the animal kingdom is due to the fall and was not part of God’s original intent for humans.
Rogers replied that if conservatives want to make that argument, then they must understand that all sex is tainted by the fall.
“So, some parts are more tainted by the fall than others? That’s bad theology. Augustinian theology says everything in life is tainted by the fall but everything in life can be redeemed by Jesus Christ’s spirit in our midst,” he answered.
Rogers also argues that Jesus would never turn away someone who is “despised, discriminated against, and distraught to the point of suicide” (p. 57). But, say conservatives, it’s true that Jesus turns away no one but we’re expected to repent of our sin!
Rogers said such an objection is based on the false assumption that homosexuality as such is a sin.
“The Bible condemns sexual immorality and all kinds of immorality. We need to be clear to whom particular scriptures apply. To talk about Christian people who love Jesus and who love the Bible and are living faithful Christian lives and then say, ‘Oh, but they’re sinners because of the way that they have their affection for another person.’ That’s putting the boundary in the wrong place. We need to be against promiscuity and other immorality, but immorality is not associated with a person’s sexual orientation,” he said.
Finally, Rogers quoted a 1983 Presbyterian report that states, “No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons either within or outside the church” (p. 62). But, anti-GLBT Christians assert that they are acting in love and are not trying to support contempt for GLBT people when they tell them they need to repent.
“Again, it’s the assumption that homosexual behavior as such is sin and that it is hurtful and destructive,” Rogers replied. “The ex-gay people that you’ll run into will tell you the stories about the terrible lives they lived until they began to love Jesus and get all cleaned up. They were probably abusing drugs and sexually promiscuous and needed to get cleaned up. But, the fact that people have told them it was their homosexuality that was causing these things is a false premise when there are other people who live decent lives as citizens and godly lives as Christians and that a faithful covenant relationship with another person where you’re committed to each other for life turns out to be a helpful, nurturing and positive thing in a person’s life. GBLT people can live a very wholesome life and there is plenty of evidence for that.”
Thanks to Rogers, his book contains plenty of evidence that GLBT people who love God and live a lifestyle that is pleasing to God are not condemned by Scripture. In these days of vicious assaults on GLBT people from both the government and the church, it’s always good to have the evidence on our side.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.