For those who do not know it – the Reading Room at the British Museum in London is a fantastic place. Enclosed within a huge dome, it dominates the centre of the museum complex, and as you walk through the rather small understated doors, you find yourself in a huge open space unimpeded by columns, walls or other obstructions, dwarfed by the vast dome above your head, and surrounded by openness. Your eye is naturally led upwards in an almost spiritual way, encouraged to look beyond yourself, and to remember how small you are. Then around the central hub, long leather topped reading desks radiate out like the spokes of a vast wheel, with students & enquirers of all ages sat quietly reading, thinking, questioning, searching for understanding.
For me as a Christian, the effect of this open space was certainly spiritual, and it was the right place for me to spend my study day each week – to read and pray, to remember how big God is, and how small I am, and yet to do so in the safety, warmth and security of this almost womb-like setting.
Although some might point out that this great edifice was built with a humanist enlightenment agenda rather than a spiritual one, I found God there. As my eyes were led upwards, it was not to the heights of human understanding but to the presence of the creator God, enthroned in the glory of the heavens, and yet present here with us by His Holy Spirit, engaging with us in body, mind and spirit.
So where did I begin? As always, I began with the Bible – the Word of God.
I went back to the scriptures, starting with all the old familiar verses, quoted time and time again on homosexuality – 1 Corinthians 6, Romans 1, Leviticus 18 and 20 (also echoed in Deuteronomy).
I also revisited the other passages of scripture that I had found were often quoted, even though they did not mention homosexuals explicitly – Ephesians 4, Colossians 3, 1Thessalonians 4 and 1Peter 4.
And what I found surprised me! I expected to find myself struggling once again with these passages, but instead I did not. It was as though I was reading them for the first time with the blinkers taken off!
Every time I had gone to these passages in the past, I had done so from the vantage point of being told that they condemned homosexual relationships. They had been rolled out, time and time again to prove that the Bible condemned such activity as sin – as immoral, debauched, and a sign of wickedness. As a result I had always found myself viewing them through this lens – the lens of condemnation – and more than that – of universal condemnation. Homosexual offenders (1Cor6:9) meant all homosexuals involved in a sexual relationship; and because all homosexual sex was immoral & debauched, all the other passages condemning immorality and debauchery applied to homosexuals too!
Yet now, somehow, the lens had been taken away – the blinkers had been taken off – and for the first time I could look at them to see what they did say, not simply to prove what I already thought they said!
The effect was dramatic. Leviticus did indeed say that it is detestable for a man “to lie with a man as one lies with a woman”, but what else was described as “detestable” in Leviticus.
Leviticus 11 is a good example:
“12Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.
13″ `These are the birds you are to detest and not eat because they are detestable: the eagle, the vulture, the black vulture, 14the red kite, any kind of black kite, 15any kind of raven, 16the horned owl, the screech owl, the gull, any kind of hawk, 17the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, 19the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
So apparently, prawns, shrimps and crab are detestable, as are many birds that are often admired today!
It must also be acknowledged, of course that there are other things also described in the Old Testament law as ‘detestable’ which we would still uphold today (eg burning sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to the gods! Deuteronomy 12:31), but the Levitical laws are clearly no ‘open and shut case’ that God would have us follow without question.
So what about 1 Corinthians 6:9?
9Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders.
Who were these homosexual offenders? As I tried to unravel verse 9, it became less and less clear who Paul was referring to. The words he used were highly specialized, and not found in many other places, inside or outside of scriptures. Even Greek scholars find it hard to translate them with any degree of certainty. The context of verse 9 is that of idolatry and prostitution (possibly temple prostitution). Adultery is placed amongst this, but adultery is almost always linked to unfaithfulness in scripture, and often used in the Old Testament to describe unfaithfulness to God by the worship of idols.
I had always been told that ‘homosexual offenders’ in 1 Corinthians 6 meant all homosexuals who had sex, regardless of the context, but I now found this hard to justify. There is a world of difference between a man and a woman having sex together in prostitution, as opposed to marriage, and we would never dream of lumping the situations together – so why do we assume that this verse, which is weighted towards idolatry and prostitution, condemns all homosexual sex, even when in the context of a faithful, committed relationship as an expression of love rather than lust? And how can we justify making the distinction between love and lust in heterosexual sex, but not allowing the same distinction in homosexual relationships? Certainly not from scripture which says nothing to support such a one-sided view.
So what about Romans 1?
Here at least there appeared to be some theology going on – some attempt to understand the purposes of God and the waywardness of human nature. The central verses are 26 & 27:
26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
This was the ‘why’ of the Biblical verses according to what I had been told. It explained how people became homosexuals – that homosexual attraction was the result of a perversion of natural, God-given attraction and emotion. It was the rationale behind ‘homosexual healing’ which sought to re-orientate homosexuals into heterosexuals by a combination of prayer, confession, forgiveness and self-discipline.
But wait a minute, verse 26 begins with the words “Because of this…” – because of what?! I read backwards and found a very different rationale.
Why had God given them over?
In Romans 1 it is clearly because …
In Romans it was idolatry (worshipping other gods) which led people to God’s wrath, shown here as in so many places in scripture, by God abandoning them to the consequences of their own choices.
But the homosexual Christians I knew had not exchanged the glory of God for created idols. They were prayerful, devout, committed Christians, worshipping God faithfully, and giving him the glory. For the first time, I saw what my gay Christian friends meant when they told me that they did not recognize themselves in the Biblical passages which condemned homosexuality – and indeed what I read was not describing them.
Then I went on to look at the verses following verse 27.
28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
Did my gay friends fit this description? Had God given them over to such depravity? Had they become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, envy, murder, deceit and malice? Were they gossips, slanderers, God-haters, inventing ways of doing evil? Were they senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless?
I thought of my Christian Union colleague at university. I thought of the homosexual priests I had worked with in London. I thought of Jeffrey John, and the way he had been Christ to me and held me close to God when my faith was falling apart, despite the pain in his own life at that time. Could I even begin to describe them in this way? No – I could not, and would not.
So who was Paul writing about? Well the answer was staring me in the face – Rome! The epistle is of course a letter to the church in Rome – the centre of the Roman Empire – the seat of power. It was also the centre of Roman religion, the political institutions, the Emperors & the ruling classes. And these ruling classes were famous for their ruthless greed, intrigue and debauchery. It was this pagan society which Paul was writing about. Roman society and the Greek philosophical world of pederasty and exploration, were the environments in which Paul saw homosexual activity, alongside all the idolatry of the Greco-Roman world. It was not born out of love, or orientation, but out of pagan practices, greed and lust.
Needless to say – this is not the same as considering how to approach the question of loving self-giving homosexual relationships.
It is true of course, that homosexuals can be lured into promiscuity and immorality, just like anyone else. It might even be argued that in the moral vacuum which we have created by condemning all sexual relationships by homosexuals, we may be guilty of pushing the gay subculture in that direction, resulting in some of the more extreme expressions of same sex sexuality. But heterosexuals are by no means immune from such temptation, as witnessed by the exponential rise in pornography over the last 30 years. That does not make all heterosexual expression wrong – neither does it make all homosexual expression wrong.
The Christian faith rightly stands against pornography and debauchery because it impoverishes our humanity, transforming people into mere objects of lust. But the church has always encouraged and blessed expressions of mutual love and self-giving, the ultimate expression of which is marriage.
I now saw that Romans 1 does not condemn gay and lesbian people seeking to give and receive love in a mutual, and life-giving relationship. In fact it has nothing explicit to say about it at all, in common with the rest of Scripture. And if the Bible does not condemn loving faithful, committed same sex relationships, why do we condemn them?
I knew that I had to go further than I had before. Now I had to go beyond my grudging acceptance of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters while believing they had got it wrong.
The voice of God to Peter on the roof of Simon the Tanner’s house, echoed in my ears when the blanket of ‘unclean animals’ was lowered 3 times -“Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15)
I can only relate the profound effect that had upon my life in the words of the famous hymn, ‘And can it Be?’ Although I am not gay, this revelation was a deep and surprising moment for me in my walk with Christ – another ‘conversion’ along the road of pilgrimage in my Christian life. And so for me, a huge weight was lifted, and the light of Christ shone into a new part of my life.‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay Fast bound in sin and nature’s night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.’
Now, I had to do something about it …