Stop Arguing About the Bible and Homosexuality

“Nothing in regard to controversial matters ha(s) ever been settled by the Bible.” –William Lloyd Garrison

Gays and lesbians will never “win” the argument over what the Bible says or does not say about homosexuality. The good news is: we don’t have to.

It will not be arguments over the Bible that will ultimately secure the civil rights of gays and lesbians. Sure, those arguments are being made and they can be loud and raucous, but the Bible is not the “other side” of the issue of homosexuality. Just like in the days of slavery, it has been made out to be the “other side” of the issue because those who oppose homosexuality can seem to find a vast ammunition dump of verses to use in the battle over gay and lesbian rights. They load their Bibles and use them to shoot down any arguments against biblical authority on this subject.

If you think making a pro-gay argument from the Bible is difficult, try to make an anti-slavery argument from it. There is precious little in the Bible that can be made to speak against the owning of another human being as property. Not that the abolitionists didn’t try. They did – valiantly. They twisted the scripture with expert ease. They made Paul condemn slavery in Colossians 4:1 where he writes, “Masters give unto your servants that which is just and equal.” The abolitionists, according to J. Albert Harrill, argued that the words “just” and “equal,” “revealed that Paul understood slaves to have natural rights; since chattel slavery means absolute denial of rights and justice, Paul implicitly condemned the institution.” In this way, Paul sowed the “secret seed” that Harrill said, “later bloomed as the Enlightenment philosophy championing inalienable rights, a cornerstone of antislavery and abolitionist theology.” [1]

If you think gay and lesbian scholars have little to work with, try making a case from that scrap of shaky evidence. It makes arguments about temple prostitution and gang rape absolutely rock solid. At least we don’t have to talk about “secret seeds” and make excuses for Jesus and Paul not coming right out and saying gay and lesbian people are just alright with Jesus. We at least have plenty of evidence to support our argument that Bible writers were talking about abusive sexual practices when they spoke of homosexual acts. No “secret seeds” and semantic wrangling needed.

Despite the slim exegesis of abolitionists slaves were eventually freed. In the end, it wasn’t biblical arguments and expert exegesis that freed the slaves. The slaves were freed because the conscience of the majority of Americans could no longer countenance the owning of other people as property. The idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – that originally was not extended to slaves – gradually came to be recognized to encompass them as well.

And so it will be with gay and lesbian Americans. We will not win our rights by having the best biblically based argument. We will never triumph in that arena – but we don’t need to. As the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison so boldly proclaimed, “Nothing in regard to controversial matters ha(s) ever been settled by the Bible,” and neither should it.

The Bible still speaks with approval about slavery. It still speaks with approval about the subjugation of women and division of the races. It still forbids divorce and proscribes the death penalty for adultery. The Bible has not changed. What has changed is our conscience. We find it unconscionable to own other people and to deny rights based on gender or race. We find it unreasonable to say that women or people of different races deserve harsher treatment in society. We understand that it is sometimes best for a marriage to end and partners to go their separate ways. We understand that sexual infidelity, while harmful and painful, is not an infraction worthy of death. In many churches, it is no longer a bar to ordination. In all these areas, our conscience has trumped biblical authority, and it will be the same with gay and lesbian rights.

A quick look at the polls shows that acceptance of gays and lesbians grows stronger with each passing year. A Gallup poll, taken in June 2008, shows 55 percent of those polled believe gay and lesbian relations should be legal and 57 percent said it should be “accepted as an alternative lifestyle” (whatever that means). In addition, 89 percent believe gays and lesbians should have equal rights in the job market.

The challenge remains over the issue of same-sex marriage – simply because the fallacious religious argument has been made the “other side” of this issue by the media. Only 40 percent say gay marriage should be permitted, while 56 percent oppose the idea. The other religiously fueled argument – whether homosexual relations are “moral” – split respondents evenly at 48 percent.

What those who fight tooth and nail for the supremacy of biblical authority don’t realize is that while their arguments may hold some weight in the church, in society, they’ve already lost the battle. It will only take a few more years for all of those numbers to climb well into the majority. Polls are consistently showing that young people have no problem accepting gays and lesbians. As the old guard dies off, so will their arguments. Eventually, they will seem as quaint as the pro- and antislavery arguments.

Certainly, gays and lesbians face a rougher time within the church where issues of biblical authority are not as easily disregarded as in the secular world. Here the matters are weightier, but I think the same rule applies – only in slow motion. In the time of slavery, churches split over the issue – some for it and others against it. We see the same thing happening now, but eventually, even those churches that sprung up around support of slavery have found themselves apologizing for their slave holding and racist pasts. I expect (perhaps not in my lifetime) that many churches now dividing over the gay and lesbian issue will find themselves, hat in hand, years down the road asking for forgiveness for how they treated gays and lesbians.

That’s not to say that the Bible still is not authoritative. I’m not advocating tossing the Bible as Garrison did when he declared the book “a lie and a curse on mankind.” [2] I still believe the Bible to have authority in many areas of morality and spirituality. The Bible can be a solid guide on how to follow Jesus and love God, ourselves and our neighbor. It simply can’t be used as the authority on areas where God has spoken a new word and has raised our conscience.

For gays and lesbians this means we don’t need to worry about the soundness of our biblical exegesis – even though our scholars have produced extremely sound theology that is much stronger than the average abolitionist had. Ultimately, though, we don’t have to make our argument from scripture, because the conscience of those in this world is rising. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that it’s ridiculous to discriminate in housing, jobs and even in marriage, against a group of people who are only different in who they choose to spend their lives with.

We should not be spending our energy arguing the Bible or even worrying if the Bible condemns us as gay and lesbian people. It might well condemn us. But it is a book that also approves of slavery, the division of the races and the subjugation of women. In all of these areas we have heard – and heeded – a fresh revelation from God and disregarded what the Bible does or does not say about these matters without disregarding the Bible itself.

Notes: 1. Harrill, J. Albert. Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social and Moral Dimensions, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2006, p. 172.

2. Ibid. p. 176