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Theological Publications






Neither Gay Nor Straight:

 Biblical Christianity

By Robert M. Price


       Ever since I became acquainted with gay religion, especially its "Evangelical" incarnation, I have been intrigued with two problems. These issues, of biblical hermeneutics and ethical standards, seemed to be peculiarly acute in the gay context, but I believed their solution would be important for the larger world of Evangelical, "Bible-believing," Christianity as well. In fact, one might almost say that the particularly gay version of these problems, by putting them in their extreme form, forces consideration of problems too easily ignored by straight believers. It puts the hermeneutical and ethical issues in the starkest possible form so they can be tackled head on. And that is what I want to attempt in this essay, as I consider anew the questions of biblicism and perversion. 

Surely one of the most astonishing things about gay Evangelicalism to outsiders is the claim to hold onto biblicism, the doctrine of verbal inspiration. Witness the following statement of Reverend Bob Darst in the March 11-25, 1973, issue of The Catalyst: "Every portion of the Old and the New Testament - every single verse of every chapter of every book is most definitely the divinely inspired Word of God.”1  Such a theological course seems suicidal for gay Evangelicals, for will they not run afoul of several well-known texts which ban homosexual activity? It must be admitted that gay exegesis has proceeded to turn up alternative exegeses of several of these "problem texts" which have swayed many exegetes with no sexual axe to grind. For instance, only now does it seem obvious that the crime of the "men of Sodom" (Genesis 19:4ff) was attempted rape, not homosexuality per se. And it is finally clear that I Timothy 1:1 0 and I Corinthians 6:9 refer only to specific abuses of homosexuality. 2 So far so good, but the crux interpretum would seem to be the (in) famous Pauline text Romans 1:26-27: 

. . . God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In 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. 

Let us take a brief look at the difficulties of gay exegesis in dealing with this passage. Then we will be able to see what light these difficulties shed on the real task of gay hermeneutics. First, some gay apologists implausibly claim that the apostle Paul means merely to condemn "lust" apart from the context of interpersonal relationships. But this rationalization cannot explain the homosexual focus of the passage. The same might easily be said concerning heterosexual lust. Why isn1t it if this is the point? A slightly more' sophisticated approach seeks to draw the modern distinction between "inversion" and "perversion.” Paul is imagined to condemn only willful homosexual acts on the part of those who are constitutionally heterosexual. Constitutional homosexuals, we are to believe, are not in view at all. This is rather hard to swallow. In a bizarre reversal of the old Moody Science Film claim that the Bible antici­pated the discoveries of modern science, those who argue this way attribute to Paul a distinction he could not have been aware of. But even if he had been, the argument scarcely comports with gay attitudes anyway, since it tends to ignore all the poor stragglers along Kinsey's scale, who are neither absolutely gay nor straight. The se people are implicitly being condemned as perverts in a move that is especially ironic; precisely Kinsey's middle range of homosexual experimentation is invoked by gay apologists to show that they themselves are not so different from the social mainstream! Put plainly, this avenue of approach is nothing but herme­neutical ventriloquism, doing the Bible the dubious favor of attributing one's own views to it. An approach like this virtually invites the suspi­cion that gay apologists are merely making excuses for what they them­ selves know is phony theology. 

But isn't there a more convincing alternative open to gay exegetes? Yes, I believe that there is, though as we will see, it needs more work. In an argument that can easily be mistaken for the one just rejected, some advocates of gay Evangelicalism, notably Ralph Blair and Virginia Mollenkott, have admitted that we as moderns may have a sexual-psycho­-logical sophistication (e.g., the ability to make the invert-pervert distinc­tion) that was unavailable to Paul and other biblical writers. Or as J. Rinzema puts it: "The confirmed homosexual was not re cognized until roughly 1890. The Bible writers assumed that everyone was heterosexual. . . .” Rinzema goes on to conclude that "It is, further, urgent that Christian moralists develop a morality for homosexuality. . . . Homo­sexual people must. . . dedicate themselves to a viable homosexual ethic."3 And in doing so they may safely disregard Pauline taboos along with their cultural frame of reference. 

The hermeneutical strategy just described is strikingly parallel to the "demythologizing" program of Rudolf Bultmann. Only whereas Bult­mann wanted to dispense with the supernaturalistic world-picture of the New Testament, this view seeks to bracket the first- century cultural ethos. Both are held to be merely temporally and culturally conditioned forms in which the gospel was clothed. It would be a mistake to absolu­tize either. This is quite a reasonable and cogent position. The prob­lem is that on the face of it, it tends to suspend the relevance of all the Bible’s ethical instructions. What then is to be the basis for this new "homosexual morality" Rinzema calls for? Put simply, the same device that removes the stumbling block seems to eliminate any further useful­ness of the Bible for ethics. At least this would seem to be true on Evangelical assumptions since the assertions of the text are no longer binding. All are relativized. 

We may use two illustrations to demonstrate the problem here. First observe some of the efforts already made to formulate a gay ethic. Most suggestions from Evangelical quarters attempt merely to modify the biblical picture of marriage.4 The only difference is supposed to be that both partners are of the same sex! But, naturally, it is not so simple. Leaving aside other ambiguities, we must ask what the poor bisexuals are to do. As in the case of the "invert vs. pervert" argument, they are again left out in the cold. 

Second, consider the quandary faced by gay Evangelical churches who suddenly find their more exotic brothers and sisters knocking at the sanctuary doors. What sort of welcome is to be extended to bikers, drag queens, sadomasochists, etc.?5 Smarting from the accusation of "per­version" themselves, gay Evangelicals may be tempted to throw open the gates and say "anything goes.” But if they do this, they run the risk of espousing a gospel of cheap grace. Indeed such a moratorium on moral discrimination is a tacit admission that fundamentalist critics were right-­ - once one dispenses with biblical ethics at any point, chaos follows. In other words, how would one be able to make a demand for repentance? Granted, there are plenty of non- sexual sins to be repented of, but would anything be sexually immoral? Or to put it another way, if homosexuality is no longer a perversion, is anything else? (Of course I am not assum­ing that any of the above-named sexual pursuits are perversions. I merely ask how one would decide.) Perhaps about now gay Evangelicals would welcome some of that ethical guidance from the Bible. 

I want to suggest that such guidance is still there to be found. The moral relevance of the Bible is not exhausted when one makes the herme­neutical decision to bracket the specific injunctions of biblical writers. The solution to the apparent dilemma presented here lies in the fact that the process of "ethical demythologizing II begins already in the Bible itself. It is not a decision of mere expedience, imposed on the Bible from without for the convenience of gay (or other) Evangelicals. 

It is well known that Paul announced the end of the dispensation of Law. “For Christ is the end of the law” (Romans l(10:4a). Yet it is far from clear to many exegetes that this fact substantially affected Paul's ethical views. But perhaps it should have. Virginia Mollenkott and Paul Jewett have eloquently dealt with the same tension in Paul regarding the question of women's roles.6 Those scholars employ Bultmann's notion of “content-criticism” (sachkritik), pointing out that Paul's great manifesto of eschatological equality (Galatians 3:28) tends to subvert his own legalistic and culture-bound prejudices, e. g., that women should stay silent (I Corin­thians 14:34), or should not take authority (I Timothy 2:12). The biblical writer, then, has himself missed the implications of his own main thrust. Similarly Bultmann pointed out how Paul's evidential appeal to eyewitnesses of the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:5-8) is inconsistent with his own emphasis on pure faith (I Corinthians 2:1-5). In what follows I want to indicate the unique relevance of this content-critical approach to the ques­tion of gay Evangelical ethics. In order to do this, I want to lead the reader on what may at first seem a digression. I believe that a brief dip into the field of anthropology will greatly clarify the issues. 

One of the easiest sets of anti-gay biblical texts to dispense with is the Levitical prohibitions. Often gay apologists are content to point out that Leviticus makes other stipulations that no straight Evangelical is prepared to obey, and leave it at that. For instance, when Troy Perry was challenged by an antagonist who carped, "Do you know what the Bible says?”  he replied, "I sure do! The Old Testament says it's a sin for a man to wear a cotton shirt with woolen pants, to eat shrimp, oysters, or lobster, or your steak too rare.”7 As clever and to the point as such a response is, it is actually counterproductive for a gay Evangelical, since the thrust of it is to debunk the scriptures. "Look, it says such absurd things here, how can you trust it there?" And this is not exactly in the interests of Evangelicals of any stripe! A much more fruitful approach to the dicta of Leviticus is provided by anthropologist Mary Douglas.8 She argues with great ingenuity and cogency that the Levitical taboos, like all such prohibitions, represented an attempt to reinforce the inherited cognitive categories into which the people had organized the world around them. The very process of constructing a worldview involves organizing the disparate phenomena encountered in experience. The ancient He brews, like other tribes and civilizations, had to provide "a place for everything, and [to put] everything in its place.” The rules of holiness and abomination were a codified effort to guar-d those categories, to keep the world from falling into social and moral chaos. Everything had to be kept in its allotted place at all costs. This concern extended to virtually every area of life. "You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff" (Leviticus 19: 19). This was also the rationale for dietary restrictions. "Unclean" animals were those which didn’t seem to obey the "God-given” categories. For instance, shellfish were off limits since they didn't quite meet the requirements for true fish. They lived in the sea, but they didn't have scales and fins. Pigs didn’t qualify as true "cattle' since despite their cloven hooves, they didn't ruminate. Even sexual “perversions” are to be seen in the same light. Bestiality transgressed the animal/human division; homosexuality confused the man/woman divide. In fact the word "perversion” in Leviticus comes from a Hebrew word (tebhel), which means “mixing or confusion.”9 So the whole Levitical system of "abominations" represented what in an individual would be termed a low tolerance for ambiguity. But crossing or confusing reality-categories need not denote only abomination. Paradoxically, such breaches can also signify the in-breaking of the Holy, of transcendence. Another anthropologist, Edmund R. Leach, explains that religions often make use of anomalous "hybrids" to straddle the categories "this world/ other world.10 These half-and-half creatures include virgin/mothers, divine/human saviors, winged/men (seraphim) and incarnate / spirits. They mediate between heaven and earth by virtue of their breaching the unbreachable wall between them. (We might also think of God’s speech in Job, chapters 39-40, where it is the most strange and bizarre of God’s creatures which, instead of being unclean as in Leviticus, are the best symbols of God’s awesome Otherness.) In theo­logical terms, anomalous creatures like “virgin mothers" are paradoxical symbols which function as "limit-language," directing our attention to the margins of earthly experience where God is acting.11 So when the categories are transgressed, this may mean not abomination but the inbreaking of the divine.  

All this takes on a surprising relevance when we recall just what is the distinguishing mark of the new age of salvation according to Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Christ has inaugurated the Kingdom of God, the sure sign of which is the abolition of all the “taboo" distinctions! This is precisely the meaning of Paul's claim that Christ has abolished the (Levitical) law. Seen this way, the bracketing of Old Testament strictures against homosexuality is in complete accord with Paul's own theology. 

And this obliteration of all legalistic categorization must imply the overcoming of the gay/straight dichotomy just as surely as that of the male / female distinction. The resulting scenario would be something like the new “androgynous” form of consciousness predicted by June Singer, where (a la the variation along the Kinsey scale) sexual attitudes and orientations are no longer dichotomous, but form a graded continuum. All options are legitimate.12 

Though we have seen that in the case neither of homosexuals nor of women did Paul follow this insight consistently, he did pursue the ethical implications in general. He did address the question of the basis for “liberated” ethical behavior in a fallen world. First, and let us get this straight, there is for Paul strictly speaking no longer any perversion: “All things are lawful for me” (I Corinthians 6:12). Let us not shrink from this; it means exactly what it seems to mean. But Paul did not advocate going "beyond good and evil.” No, one must still live in this world until the Kingdom is fully come. He recognized that under mundane conditions, liberty in Christ might become mere libertinage. And as Angela Carter has aptly observed, “The lonely freedom of the libertine. . .is the freedom of the outlaw, a tautological condition that exists only for itself and is without any meaning in the general context of human life.”13 The continued need for ethics, even when "all things are lawful,” arises from the fact that the Kingdom is not yet consummated, but only inaugurated, like a beachhead on enemy territory. One must reckon with that "general context of human life.” So life in Christ is informed by the New Age in which it proleptically participates, but it cannot simply be lived as if the old age were swept away. Paul deals with this circumstance not by reimposing law, but by invoking an altogether different principle--that of prag­matism or "expediency.Such words sound strange in the context of Christian ethics, but they come from Paul himself. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient" (I Corinthians 6:12). But Paul’s utilitarian concern is not selfish. He curbs his freedom for the sake of others because he doesn't want to cause anyone to stumble. And he is care­ful what he does with his body which is the property of the Lord (I Corin­thians 6: 136). 

Here then is the biblical basis for .sexual ethics in an eschatological context where nothing is perverse- - “I will not be enslaved by anything" (I Corinthians 6:l2b). This is a fine sounding principle, as all principles are until one is forced to get specific. But what real ethical guidance is offered here? Listen to the thoughts of Troy Perry, rejected by a lover: 

It was hopeless, useless to even try to go on. I couldn't remember God. I felt as though God did not exist, so why even try to talk to Him. I had lost something I had loved more than any­ thing else in the world. That was the problem, of course. Benny had taken God's place. I had equated him with God. He was “God” in my life, the driving force. 14 

This emotional enslavement led Perry to attempt suicide. Pauline sexual ethics would indicate that such emotional idolatry, whether com­mitted by heterosexual or homosexual, is "inexpedient, It and therefore off-limits. And the same would apply to any sexual pursuit, "kinky" or conventional. Nothing would be ruled out en bloc, as if any practice could be prejudged as being enslaving for everyone, an implausible diagnosis often directed against masturbation, for instance. And naturally, if one I s own freedom is to be safeguarded, how much more doe s this apply to others? Christian freedom is never to be used as a cloak for the exploitation of others. That mutuality forms part of the liberated Chris­tian ethic should go without saying. 

So moral discrimination will still be possible. Sexual activity will come to be evaluated not on the basis of biological mechanics or biblicist taboos, but rather (case by case) on the flexible bases of Pauline expedi­ency and mutuality. 

All in all, then, I have tried to show that the hermeneutical bracket­ing of anti-gay biblical texts is actually quite a biblical thing to do. This became apparent when Paul’s doctrine of the supercession of the Law in Christ was interpreted via anthropological insights as to the dual role of "categorical transgressions.” The very boundary-breaches which under the Law denoted ethical abomination, came to herald the inbreaking of transcendence, of Christ’s Kingdom (Galatians 3:28). The resulting state of affairs finds no place for the stigma of "perversion" since "all things are lawful. It Thus since legal prescriptions are no longer in play, a new and highly flexible basis for moral judgment is introduced, i.e., enlight­ened "expediency.” This pragmatic approach is governed only by the twin concerns of deference to others and refusal to be enslaved by com­pulsive pursuits oneself. Pauline eschatological pragmatism thus offers a norm for biblical morality that survives the sweeping away of the Law with its moral taboos. The whole scenario should be of interest to various segments of Evangelicalism. But it provide s gay Evangelicals with a set of hermeneutical tools with which both to clarify their position vis-a-vis "Bible-believing" critics without, and to negotiate moral standards within.  




1 Quoted in Ronald M. Enroth and Gerald E. Jamison, The Gay Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), p. 40. 

2 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); see especially Appendix I, "Lexicography and Saint Paul, "pp. 335-354. 

3 J. Rinzema, The Sexual Revolution (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 105, 106. Also, d. Ralph Blair: "Evidently the apostle thought that people who were really heterosexual were doing sexual things with people of the same sex and were thus going contrary to their natural or expected way.". . . certainly the apostle never dealt with homosexual orientation or with gay life styles as we know their variety today." An Evangelical Look at Homosexuality (New York: Evangelicals Concerned, Inc., 1977), pp. 9, 10. 

4 For instance, a form of "homosexual marriage" is suggested by Rinzema and by Virginia Mollenkott and Letha Scanzoni in Is the Homo­sexual My Neighbor? (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978).

5 See Enroth and Jamison, pp. 78-82. 

6 Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, Women, Men, & the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1977); Paul King Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975). 

7 Thomas L. P. Swicegood, Our God Too (New York: Pyramid Books, 1974), p. 225. 

8 Mary Douglas, "Pollution" and “The Abominations of Leviticus” in William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt, Reader in Comparative Religion, An Anthropological Approach (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1972), pp. 196-201, 201-205.  

9 Mary Douglas, “The Abominations of Leviticus”, p. 203.

10 Edmund R. Leach, Anthropological Aspects of Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse" in Lessa and Vogt, pp. 206-219, 2120 

11 See the discussions of "limit language" in David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury Press, 1975); and Ian T. Ramsey, Religious Language (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967). 

12 June Singer, Androgyny, Toward a New Theory of Sexuality (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1977); see especially chapter 20, "Androgyny Experienced in Homosexuality, Bi:sexuality and Heterosexuality." Also see the interesting, albeit rather utopian, blueprint for a future androgy­nous society in Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex (New York: Bantam, 1972). 

13 Angela Carter, The Sadean Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1980), p. 99. 

14 Troy Perry, The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I'm Gay (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), p. 96. 


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