Wednesday, November 22, 2006

When religion loses its credibility

This commentary from USA Today made the email-rounds earlier this week but today is the first time I've had time to post it here -- it's a real "keeper!"

When religion loses its credibility

What if Christian leaders are wrong about homosexuality? I suppose, much as a newspaper maintains its credibility by setting the record straight, church leaders would need to do the same:

Correction: Despite what you might have read, heard or been taught throughout your churchgoing life, homosexuality is, in fact, determined at birth and is not to be condemned by God's followers.

Based on a few recent headlines, we won't be seeing that admission anytime soon. Last week, U.S. Roman Catholic bishops took the position that homosexual attractions are "disordered" and that gays should live closeted lives of chastity. At the same time, North Carolina's Baptist State Convention was preparing to investigate churches that are too gay-friendly. Even the more liberal Presbyterian Church (USA) had been planning to put a minister on trial for conducting a marriage ceremony for two women before the charges were dismissed on a technicality. All this brings me back to the question: What if we're wrong?

Religion's only real commodity, after all, is its moral authority. Lose that, and we lose our credibility. Lose credibility, and we might as well close up shop.

It's happened to Christianity before, most famously when we dug in our heels over Galileo's challenge to the biblical view that the Earth, rather than the sun, was at the center of our solar system. You know the story. Galileo was persecuted for what turned out to be incontrovertibly true. For many, especially in the scientific community, Christianity never recovered.

This time, Christianity is in danger of squandering its moral authority by continuing its pattern of discrimination against gays and lesbians in the face of mounting scientific evidence that sexual orientation has little or nothing to do with choice. To the contrary, whether sexual orientation arises as a result of the mother's hormones or the child's brain structure or DNA, it is almost certainly an accident of birth. The point is this: Without choice, there can be no moral culpability.

So, why are so many church leaders (not to mention Orthodox Jewish and Muslim leaders) persisting in their view that homosexuality is wrong despite a growing stream of scientific evidence that is likely to become a torrent in the coming years? The answer is found in Leviticus 18. "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination."

As a former "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" kind of guy, I am sympathetic with any Christian who accepts the Bible at face value. But here's the catch. Leviticus is filled with laws imposing the death penalty for everything from eating catfish to sassing your parents. If you accept one as the absolute, unequivocal word of God, you must accept them all.

For many of gay America's loudest critics, the results are unthinkable. First, no more football. At least not without gloves. Handling a pig skin is an abomination. Second, no more Saturday games even if you can get a new ball. Violating the Sabbath is a capital offense according to Leviticus. For the over-40 crowd, approaching the altar of God with a defect in your sight is taboo, but you'll have plenty of company because those menstruating or with disabilities are also barred.
The truth is that mainstream religion has moved beyond animal sacrifice, slavery and the host of primitive rituals described in Leviticus centuries ago. Selectively hanging onto these ancient proscriptions for gays and lesbians exclusively is unfair according to anybody's standard of ethics. We lawyers call it "selective enforcement," and in civil affairs it's illegal.

A better reading of Scripture starts with the book of Genesis and the grand pronouncement about the world God created and all those who dwelled in it. "And, the Lord saw that it was good." If God created us and if everything he created is good, how can a gay person be guilty of being anything more than what God created him or her to be?

Turning to the New Testament, the writings of the Apostle Paul at first lend credence to the notion that homosexuality is a sin, until you consider that Paul most likely is referring to the Roman practice of pederasty, a form of pedophilia common in the ancient world. Successful older men often took boys into their homes as concubines, lovers or sexual slaves. Today, such sexual exploitation of minors is no longer tolerated. The point is that the sort of long-term, committed, same-sex relationships that are being debated today are not addressed in the New Testament. It distorts the biblical witness to apply verses written in one historical context (i.e. sexual exploitation of children) to contemporary situations between two monogamous partners of the same sex. Sexual promiscuity is condemned by the Bible whether it's between gays or straights. Sexual fidelity is not.

What would Jesus do? For those who have lingering doubts, dust off your Bibles and take a few hours to reacquaint yourself with the teachings of Jesus. You won't find a single reference to homosexuality. There are teachings on money, lust, revenge, divorce, fasting and a thousand other subjects, but there is nothing on homosexuality. Strange, don't you think, if being gay were such a moral threat?

On the other hand, Jesus spent a lot of time talking about how we should treat others. First, he made clear it is not our role to judge. It is God's. ("Judge not lest you be judged." Matthew 7:1) And, second, he commanded us to love other people as we love ourselves.

So, I ask you. Would you want to be discriminated against? Would you want to lose your job, housing or benefits because of something over which you had no control? Better yet, would you like it if society told you that you couldn't visit your lifelong partner in the hospital or file a claim on his behalf if he were murdered?

The suffering that gay and lesbian people have endured at the hands of religion is incalculable, but they can look expectantly to the future for vindication. Scientific facts, after all, are a stubborn thing. Even our religious beliefs must finally yield to them as the church in its battle with Galileo ultimately realized. But for religion, the future might be ominous. Watching the growing conflict between medical science and religion over homosexuality is like watching a train wreck from a distance. You can see it coming for miles and sense the inevitable conclusion, but you're powerless to stop it. The more church leaders dig in their heels, the worse it's likely to be.

Oliver "Buzz" Thomas is a Baptist minister and author of an upcoming book, 10 Things Your Minister Wants to Tell You (But Can't Because He Needs the Job).


Pfalz prophet said...

Wow, great find, and terrific post! Now, how do we spread the word to, or at least open a discussion with, those who today are being falsely taught, as I was for so long a long time? I am still picking false teachings out of my brain like so many porcupine quills.

MadPriest said...

To be honest, I don't like the "choice" idea. The reason for any sexual preference or activity is irrelevent. Any morality based solely on what somebody says is wrong (even God), or on what is written somewhere, is arbitrary. God does not appear to act arbitrarily, in fact, he has a plan. At the heart of his plan is the welfare of his creation. Therefore, after years and years of study I have come to a very simple conclusion - an immoral act is an act that hurts somebody. If you apply this hypothesis to the words of Jesus it fits - any other hypothesis never fits completely. Jesus made things simple - we like to complicate things. The teachings of Jesus are so straightforward that they can be understood by a child. But the Church doesn't want children (or anybody) to understand, they want them to rely on the Church to tell them what to believe. If everybody understood the simple words of Jesus then there would not be a reason for all the profesional Christians to stand between Jesus and his people. Then what would they do?

john4woman said...

"Scientific facts, after all, are a stubborn thing. Even our religious beliefs must finally yield to them as the church in its battle with Galileo ultimately realized."

As is apparent to anyone who reads even casually, scientific "facts" are shifting sand.

Deviations from the normative binary sexual design are just that. I love my GLBT brothers and sisters enough to welcome them but to invite them to repent and follow Christ with the rest of us sinners.

Weiwen Ng said...

I think I posted something similar on another blog in response to the same article or a similar one. but here goes.

because fundamentalists teach that being gay is a choice and a sinful one, there is incentive for pro-LGBT Christians to prove that sexual orientation/gender identity is inborn, that it is not a choice. the psychological research leans to sexual orientation being decided very early on and resistant to change.

however, perhaps it's irrelevant whether sexual orientation is a choice or not. some people are born alcoholic, and there is no healthy method of expression of alcoholism. conversely, some people choose to abstain from sexual activity until they are married. I do not, but for some people, it is a healthy choice because of their culture and personal beliefs.

the point is not whether you choose to be gay or you're born that way. there is evidence that there are biological aspects to sexual orientation, but overemphasizing them to thwart the conservatives may devalue our freedom of choice. we might end up locking ourselves into a rigid model of sexual orientation that might later be disproven.

the Bible says that you shall know them by their fruits. the writer didn't mean the limp-wristed kind of fruit, but the fruit of love, compassion and justice. can we see those fruits in the LGBT community? if so, then it's OK to be gay. if not, then they're expressing their gay-ness improperly.

Jeff Martinhauk said...


I don't know what scientific method you were taught in high school, but the scientific method I was taught gave me specific instruction that a scientific theory could only become scientific law if experiments could be repeatable with the same outcome over and over again.

The same cannot be said of Biblical interpretation. Critical analysis of Biblical texts reveals that followers of Yahweh have changed dramatically over the last 5000 years; within that tradition Christianity has changed dramatically over the past 2000 years. That is not what we teach from our pulpits. It is simply an error in "facts" if you are implying that religion has left people with more accurate information than science has. Would you agree that sun is the center of our solar system? Or is that "shifting sand"? Would you agree that the earth is round? Or would you insist, much like the early church, that because the Biblical model describe a canopy hanging over it that it must be flat, and that any other description is "shifting sand"?

Science has come up with repeatable experiments to conclude to everyone except the very stubborn that both of these things are true. "Shifting sand," it is indeed-- science shifts the sand to force us to realize just how big God is, and that no matter how hard we try we cannot know the whole truth; and we are doomed if we ever thing we do know it.


Pisco Sours said...

John? We already do, thanks ever so.

Hiram said...

Ah, yes, the “shellfish argument” again. The fact that Jesus declared all foods clean in Mark 7:19, and that God gave specific notice that the bans against “unclean food” and “unclean people” (the Gentiles) were lifted in Acts 10:9-16, and that the Jerusalem Council lifted dietary restrictions (apart from ingesting blood and eating strangled animals) seems not to carry any weight. And so often those who invoke the shellfish argument sound as though they, after centuries of biblical studies, have discerned a problem that has never been dealt with before – when in fact it was dealt with as early as the Jerusalem Council, and was taken up by the Fathers and the Reformers.

As for “Jesus never said anything about homosexuality:” He did, in condemning “porneia” in Matthew and Mark (15:18-20, and 7:20-21), which was a term that included all sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman. By the Rev. Thomas’ reasoning, bestiality is acceptable, for Jesus never spoke against that either, using the precise term. There are plenty of places where Jesus said, “You have heard it said, but I say to you,” where Jesus points out a tradition or a false understanding of a commandment, and then shows the true way to look at the commandment, or deepens the requirement of the commandment. The Ten Commandments, after all only forbid the acts of adultery or of murder, but Jesus tells us that lusting in our hearts or calling someone a fool is morally equivalent to adultery or murder. Jesus never relaxed a standard regarding relationships or a moral requirement.

The Rev. Thomas also says, "If God created us and if everything he created is good, how can a gay person be guilty of being anything more than what God created him or her to be?” He sounds like Dr. Pangloss, who held that whatever is, is right. Did someone cut Gen. 3 out of his Bible? Or has he somehow skipped over Romans 1:18-23, where Paul notes that sin has darkened human hearts and minds? There is also Rom. 8:19-21, describing a broken creation yearning to be made whole.

There are doubtless congenital reasons behind an attraction to members of the same sex. But they are not the only reasons, or else separated twin studies would show a 100% correlation of the objects of sexual attraction – and such studies do not show anywhere near that correlation. Something else must be at work, not simply genetics or uterine environment.

However, even if same-sex sexual attraction were 100% congenital, it does not follow that it is permissible to act on that attraction. No one chooses his or her sources of temptation, but God does not tell us, “When you find your desires agonizingly irresistible, you have my permission to act on them, regardless of anything else I may have seemed to say.” If God forbids same-sex sexual activity – or indeed, any sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage – then it is up to us to resist temptation (through relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer, and common sense) and to not engage in sexual activity outside of marriage. Is that difficult? To be sure! But it is also God’s desire. He seeks our best, and so he asks us not to settle for second best, but to be obedient to his revealed will.

Of course, it is wrong to harass those who have a particular area of temptation, simply because they are so tempted. Too often, those who are sexually attracted to members of the opposite sex have relied upon the social tools of scorn and exclusion to make the lives of those who are attracted to members of their own sex miserable, so that they will refrain from same-sex sexual activity, or at least keep it out of sight. The church should be a place where, regardless of the nature of one’s struggle against sin, a follower of Jesus should be able to be open about his or her area of struggle, and find help and support in growing in obedience.

We are all sinners, and even after we have accepted our redemption through the work of the Lord Jesus, we are in need of care and help as we grow in him, being transformed in character and being led to ever greater obedience and service. No one is perfect, and everyone struggles in at least one area (usually more!), and we need one another’s help. In fact, I think that there are a number of areas of temptation where the help of others is utterly essential – a struggle with alcohol, for instance, or with overeating (one of my areas of difficulty) – and, I believe, in sexual purity. Sexual activity is inherently relational, and any move away from God’s desire for proper expression of sexual activity also requires others to help one get back on track. Easy? No. Possible? Yes. (Check out for one ministry that helps people dealing with same-sex attractions.)

Jeff Martinhauk said...

Hiram -

I don't personally believe it is ALL nature nor ALL nurture. It is a combination of the two, which explains much of your reasoning. But just because something isn't ALL genetic isn't the point.

The point is that Biblical analysis of the text alone isn't sufficient. There is a lot behind the text, and you know it. You pull it out when it is convenient for you, and you ignore it when it isn't. It simply isn't convenient for you on this issue so you ignore it.

Porneia can mean lots of things, on that you are right. But there not same-gendered relationships with both partners equally in power for us to compare this to, for starters. Women were not treated the same in marriages either-- the way they were treated in many cultures of the day would make us shudder but we don't judge marriage by that standard either.

I know-- let's solve the problem by legalizing marriage and then by your definition we won't have this problem because our relationships won't qualify under your definition of "porneia".