Traditionally-oriented Christians are often portrayed as homophobic because of their opposition to same sex marriage and the various things that go with it. While it's true that there are some Christians who really think that "God hates fags", in my experience they are relatively few. Most of the conservative Christians I know, and most of the conservative Christian writings I've read on the subject, are quite clear that God loves LGBTI people as much as he loves anyone else. They will also tell you, if you ask, that same-sex relationships or encounters are not in a special category of sin - they are no more evil than, say, heterosexual adultery or stealing.
However, after saying all these nice, loving things and providing an assurance of God's love, acceptance and forgiveness they will be immovable on one thing. A same sex relationship, they will tell you, cannot possibly be right. While there are lots of wrong ways to do heterosexual relationships there is also a right one, in the context of a permanent monogamous marriage. Hence, people who enjoy straight sex are able to continue to do so. People who enjoy gay sex, on the other hand, must refrain. This leads so many of them into frustration, both sexual and otherwise.
Of course not all Christians hold this view, and there is a fierce debate going on in sections of the church about whether this traditional attitude should still apply. The Uniting Church here in Australia now ordains gay clergy, and the Anglican church worldwide is in the grip of a polite but fierce dispute on the issue which has just seen the more liberal churches of North America censured by their more conservative counterparts elsewhere in the world.
If you scratch any Christian you are likely to find a legalist just beneath the surface. This doesn't just apply to conservative Christians or Evangelicals, nor does it apply exclusively to Christians. The main difference between "liberal" and "conservative" Christians is that the strength of the reaction will depend on where you scratch. For example, the liberal Anglo-Catholics who run the Brisbane Anglican diocese are likely to be pretty relaxed about same-sex relationships, but try suggesting that communion should be celebrated with non-alcoholic grape juice.
What defines legalism is not its moral strictness, but the idea that morality is codified in a set of objectively defined rules or laws. Hence the seventh commandment says "you shall not commit adultery". A legalistic approach to this law defines the key term, "adultery", as sexual relations with a person to whom you are not married. There will then be a further set of rules around what marriage is and what it involves. If you find out what these rules are, and follow them, then you will be acting morally. This is the approach to morality taken by most of the church and pretty much any evangelical.
A good example is a little booklet I've just read called Beyond Stereotypes: Christians and Homosexuality by the Australian Evangelical Alliance Working Group on Human Sexuality. It was originally published in 2009 but has been distributed again just recently as a contribution to current debates on the issue.
The Working Group consisted of seven people, six of whom are ministers or theologians while one is a clinical psychologist. Only six are listed as authors with the seventh, Kings Cross pastor Bill Lawton, clearly disagreeing with its contents. His dissenting view is included as an appendix.
The main part of the book (minus appendices) takes up seventy pages, and opens with some general material. This material affirms that we are all broken people saved by God's grace, that LGBTI people are made in God's image like everyone else and are just as much loved by God as the rest of us, and that we all need to repent of our various sins. In particular, they are clear that the church needs to repent of its lack of love towards LGBTI people and its complicity in various acts of persecution.
It then tries to answer its central question - what is a Biblical/Christian view of homosexuality? This is a considerable challenge, because there is not much to work with. Jesus has nothing to say on the subject. There are three passing references in Paul's letters. 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 contain lists of sins. The one in 1 Corinthians includes something the NIV translates as "homosexual offenders" and the NRSV as "sodomites". The list in 1 Timothy includes something the NIV translates as "perverts" and the NRSV once again as "sodomites".
The meaning of this term is hotly debated. Some interpreters suggest it applies to any sex act between men, while others suggest it implies something more than that - for instance, pederasty. This is an interesting linguistic discussion but ultimately unhelpful for a non-linguist like me. It seems clear to me that interpreters choose the translation that suits their preconceived view - conservatives choose the wider application, progressives the narrower one.
A different kind of ambiguity floats around the remaining reference in the first chapter of Romans. Here, the reference is clearly to same sex relationships, both between men and between women. Some have suggested that the context suggests cultic practice rather than general life, but once again the choice made here seems to depend on the readers' preconceptions. The more important point is that the context is not a moral instruction like those to Timothy or the Corinthians, it is part of Paul's case that everyone is sinful. The conclusion it leads to is not that people should give up their same sex relationships but that a completely new righteousness has been revealed through faith in Jesus Christ.
How do the solid evangelicals speaking on behalf of the EA handle this ambiguity? To my astonishment, they start with the harsh and unambiguous condemnation of male homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, reiterated with the addition of a death penalty in Leviticus 20. I was astonished because the idea that this might be relevant to us is such a difficult one to sustain. Anyone who has waded through Leviticus knows that it forbids many things and mandates many penalties that we would never enforce, from the puzzling bans on mixed fabrics, mixed crops and certain hairstyles to the horror of stoning disobedient children.
The authors' response is a kind of modified version of the idea that the Law of Moses can be divided into categories - ceremonial, civic and moral. They don't spell this out but they imply that the ceremonial law doesn't apply because it is specific to the temple worship which is replaced by Jesus' death on the cross, and the civic law is specific to the ancient Israeli nation. They also appear to add a fourth category - laws which are based on ancient medical practice and which are superseded by modern science. However, they regard the moral law as still in force, including the laws relating to marriage and sexual relations.
This scheme then leads them to interpret Jesus' silence not as neutrality or disinterest, but as a tacit endorsement of the Levitical law. Their approach seems to be that when Jesus or the apostolic authors specifically contradict or modify a law (for instance, disobeying the Sabbath regulations, declaring all foods clean, denying the validity of divorce or negating the death penalty for adultery) we should consider that law as repealed. Where they say nothing, we should assume the law still applies.
Hence, since no-one has modified the laws on homosexuality (and Paul has even made comments which could be interpreted as endorsing them), they are still in force. Their conclusion - Christians cannot endorse same-sex relationships. This doesn't mean we should be ungracious towards gay people or persecute them (Levitical death penalty notwithstanding), but if they are serious about their faith they have only two acceptable alternatives - heterosexuality or celibacy.
There are so many problems with this approach that it's hard to decide where to start, but their reading of Leviticus is as good a place as any. At the most obvious level, it doesn't answer the original objection - the laws about mixed crops or fabrics and the mandated hairstyles are not clearly in any of the superseded categories. But there is a bigger problem because not only is this law limited to men (lesbianism is not forbidden), but it appears in a list which regulates a polygamous marriage system. Read it and you'll see what I mean.
Yet later in their book the Working Party affirms that "monogamous heterosexual marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for full sexual relations today". How do they get from Leviticus to here? It's not at all clear. Monogamy appears out of nowhere. If you want to make a legal case, you need to be way more pedantic than that.
However, this is a mere quibble. My main problem is with their approach to the relationship between Christianity and the Law. The picture they paint is of Jesus and the Apostles engaging in a kind of divine law reform program. Some laws are made redundant by Jesus' death and resurrection. Others are more or less explicitly removed from the statute books by the sayings of Jesus or the writings of his followers. New laws are added to regulate the life of the emerging cross-cultural Church. Punishments are tempered by Christian mercy. From an ethical point of view the laws are significantly revised but they remain laws which must be obeyed.
The thing is, I'm pretty sure this is not what Jesus and the apostles were doing. Otherwise why would Jesus say something like this from Matthew 5:17-19?
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away not one letter, not one stroke of a pen, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
This doesn't sound like a law reform program to me. The Law is described as eternal and unchanging. Every tiny detail must be respected and carried out. Even the Pharisees, those fanatical upholders of the law, do not go far enough.
"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
How is this possible? The rest of the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear. It's not enough to obey the letter of the law. You have to get at what's behind it. It's not enough to refrain from having sex with someone to whom you are not married, because every time you look at someone lustfully you have already committed adultery. Most men commit adultery every day. We can't help it. It's not enough to refrain from actually killing someone, because whenever you are angry you have already committed murder. How many of us are innocent of this crime?
This is the message of the story of the woman caught in adultery, shoehorned into John's gospel. When the arresting party/lynch mob challenge Jesus on the application of the law, citing the Levitical principle which says she should be stoned, he doesn't suggest the penalty is too harsh and that it should be mitigated. Instead, he challenges them on their own record. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone."
His brother James states the general principle.
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails at one point of it has become accountable for all of it.
And the practical outworking of this, as stated by Jesus in Matthew 7 and in a slightly different way by James, is that we are not in a position to judge others. James puts it this way:
Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver or judge who is able to save or destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?
There is no repealing or revising of laws here, no suggestion that there is any failure in the law that needs to be fixed. Rather, the failure is in us. We are totally unable to fulfil the law. The more we understand its depth, the more we understand how far we are from keeping it.
This is a hard message for us to hear, and even harder to apply. The law is so deceptively easy-looking, because it seems to be objective. I can look at the external circumstances and judge whether what I am doing is OK. Do I have a receipt for this computer? Yes I do, so I obviously own it and am not guilty of theft. Can my wife and I produce a marriage certificate? Yes we can, so we are not in an adulterous relationship. My gay friends, on the other hand, are clearly in sinful relationships. These distinctions allow us to order our lives.
The trouble is that they are false. This is the point Jesus is making when he critiques the Pharisees in Matthew 23.
For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence....you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
The point is not that some parts of the law do or don't apply to our situation. The point is that we need to stop pretending we can somehow approximate obedience to the law. In particular, we need to stop drawing an arbitrary line which says that this breach is within the acceptable limits while this other one is beyond the pale. Is my flawed marriage more acceptable than someone else's flawed same-sex relationship? Is it OK for me to benefit from an exploitative industry as long as I have a receipt? Is it OK for us to ordain people who have trouble controlling their anger but not those who are in same sex relationships?
This cup is so shiny! Why does my stomach feel sick? This tomb is so beautiful and well-maintained! What is that smell?
(I have written more on legalism and my preferred alternative here and here).