“Don’t let your compassion keep you from calling sin what God says is sin.”
~ My former pastor (and other Pharisees and legalists throughout history)
“This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
~ Certain Pharisees
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Jesus replied, "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
~ Jesus Christ
My journey away from the Fundamentalist/Evangelical belief system regarding human sexuality has been a couple decades long, and has been both a gradual process and a series of epiphanies.
On the one hand, my LGBTQ friends and family have been important to this journey. On the other, I believe that equally important to my journey have been the numerous bigots in my life, who have at various times clarified exactly what the foundation of anti-gay teachings really are. I hope to someday give a more detailed and comprehensive account of my journey, personally and theologically, but I figured I would start with this moment, five years ago, that remains seared into my memory. (I use the word “bigot” intentionally: see footnote below.)
Just as background, unlike many (most) Evangelical parents, mine never taught me to hate. I never heard them (to my recollection) advocate for denying them jobs, housing, and healthcare - which is literally the goal of the Culture Wars™. However, like pretty much every Evangelical back in the 1980s - and not just Evangelicals either - they believed that any sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage was sinful. Of course, it was a lot easier back then, before it became much clearer that sexual orientation wasn’t a choice, and couldn’t be “cured.”
My journey through my 20s was a gradual process of coming to understand all of that. As a strongly cishet white male, it was easy to ignore the stories of LGBTQ people, just as it was easy to ignore the stories of women and people of color, and assume that I was “normal,” and others were, well, others.
Those who didn’t grow up in the American Christian subcultures may not be familiar with the terms I will be using, so let me define a few.
I believe that Christian beliefs about sexuality generally fall into four categories (I have written a post about this that I have yet to publish, but intend to this month.)
Denialists. These people, generally Boomers or older, deny that sexual orientation exists, that people are born LGBTQ, and believe that “same sex attraction” can be cured.
Calvinists. I use this term not because all Calvinists believe this, but because it is a Calvinist approach. Basically, sexual orientation isn’t a choice. But God made people gay so that he could burn them in hell for eternity for his everlasting glory. But, considering Calvinists believe that god’s default approach to humans is to burn them for eternity, choosing only to save a small sliver of the population - mostly middle-class white people - what’s a few gays, right?
“Side B.” These are most younger evangelicals who are not “Side A.” This belief acknowledges that sexual orientation is not a choice and cannot be cured, but insists that sex should only be in the confines of heterosexual marriage. Thus, LGBTQ people should either enter heterosexual marriage or remain celibate for life.
“Side A.” Side A believes that sexual orientation and gender identity are God-given traits, and that LGBTQ Christians should live in harmony with how they were created, in a manner consistent with the Greatest Commandment. Thus, LGBTQ people are encouraged to marry, and allowed to participate fully in the Christian community.
Like most Evangelicals, I started out as a denialist, back in the days when we believed in “reparative therapy.” Now, of course, it has been thoroughly discredited. Even the largest group that pushed it, Exodus International, has repudiated it, acknowledging that it didn’t work and caused harm. And, as it has now come out, “reparative therapy” is just another name for psychological and sometimes physical torture.
I switched to “Side B” somewhere along the way. I don’t remember an epiphany exactly - it was probably just listening to LGBTQ friends, particularly one from church who came out at that time. This would have happened sometime in my late teens.
But I can remember EXACTLY when I switched to “Side A.” This is that story.
In May of 2015, my former pastor was working through I Thessalonians, and got to this passage in chapter 4:
3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.[b] The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.
From there, he embarked on a shockingly passionate anti-gay sermon. I mean, his usual practice - something I liked about him - was to explain the different viewpoints and why he believed the way he did. This was done in a calm and dispassionate way, and was the official church approach to theology. “Grace based,” focus on the essentials of the faith sort of thing. Which is why for a long time, that church was a haven for people like us, survivors of abusive theology, looking for an alternative to Fundamentalism, a place where we could have community without being forced to adopt a bunch of doctrinal dogma.
That’s why this was such a shocking sermon. I have never, before or since, heard him preach with such passion and emotion. It was like this was the One Thing That Mattered™, and he must communicate with force that there was no possible other conclusion.
And, at the climax of the sermon, he let loose with what I think he believed was his “money line”:
“Don’t let your compassion keep you from calling sin what God says is sin.”
I sat there stunned for a moment, before it came to me in a rush that this was completely familiar. I had indeed heard this before, regarding another similar issue.
“Don’t let your compassion keep you from enforcing rules!”
And it sure as heck wasn’t Jesus Christ saying that. Rather, he went out of his way to heal on the sabbath, and to excuse his disciples for gleaning - gathering food for themselves - on the sabbath.
It was at that point I knew I was a “Side A” Christian, and there was no going back.
Please don’t try to excuse sabbath breaking as a minor offense - it carried the death penalty in the Torah. See Numbers 15. This was a freaking huge deal. And Christ went WAY OUT OF HIS WAY to break the sabbath to make a point to the “experts in the law.” He pointed out that god required “mercy, not sacrifice.” The point being that the rules are never trumped by compassion. Ever. And you do not EVER sacrifice other people to your rules.
Here are the passages in the Gospels that talk about the sabbath:
Matthew 12:1-14 (both gleaning and healing)
Mark 2:23-28 (gleaning)
Mark 3:1-6 (healing)
Luke 6:1-10 (both gleaning and healing)
Luke 13:10-17 (healing)
Luke 14:1-6 (healing)
John 7:21-24 (healing)
John 9:1-41 (healing)
Re-reading this for this post, I was struck by a number of things about these passages. First, all four gospels contain at least one passage about Jesus breaking the sabbath. All of them. Which indicates to me that it is a very important incident in the life and teachings of Christ.
[By contrast, the number of times Jesus Christ mentions homosexuality, despite it being widely discussed in Palestine and the Roman Empire at the time: ZERO. One would think if it were a core issue, he might have mentioned it? Ditto abortion, by the way…]
My second observation was that the religious leaders were described as “experts in the law. These were people who spent a LOT of time thinking about the Torah and what it meant people should or shouldn’t do. In other words, a lot like our present day Fundamentalists, who spend a LOT of time and energy thinking about exactly what genitals mean - what you can do with them; how the configuration you are born with determines your role in society, the family, and church; and how to use the power of the civil law to punish those who disagree with Fundie rules.
Third, the Gospels include two different categories of rule breaking, and gives analogies for them. The first is healing. One may - indeed one SHOULD - help others on the sabbath. Christ uses the example of rescuing a helpless animal from a ditch, and applies it to human beings. “How much more should one heal a person!”
I take this to mean that when we consider rules, we should focus on the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” thing. How we choose to apply or ignore the rules should be determined by whether it helps or heals others. And no, “making them follow the rules” isn’t love. This is made abundantly clear by the way Christ responds to the advice “can’t they just wait until the next day?” His point was that good needed to be done now. The rule was overruled by the greater law of love.
The second category of rule breaking is even more interesting - and it is the one I have never once heard preached on.
The disciples were hungry, and broke the sabbath by gathering grain. It is implied that Christ himself may have gathered too, and eaten of the grain. This is a REALLY clear violation of the commandment. As in the letter of the law - “don’t gather food on the sabbath.”
Yet Christ literally excused this, citing another egregious instance, where King David and his men ate the sacred bread - that’s another capital offense, by the way.
I find this one particularly fascinating because of this: the disciples weren’t doing good to others. They were satisfying their own needs. They were hungry, and they broke the rule in order to fill the need they had.
AND JESUS CONDONED IT!
This is HUGE!
I think these two instances combine to apply well to our rules about human sexuality.
First, as Christians, we should seek to heal, not harm, with our rules. And we cannot do that simply by reading and re-reading the rules. We have to ask those who are affected what their needs are, and meet them, regardless of whether their needs fit our rules well. The question wasn’t “can we make them wait until the next day?” but “do they need healing now?”
This is where I believe the passage from Luke (and also in Matthew) about not loading people down with burdens is relevant as well. I am astonished at the way heterosexual Evangelicals casually condemn others to a lifetime of celibacy. They would place on them a burden of loneliness that they have zero interest in helping carry. In fact, a number of people I know (of a certain generation, particularly) who are the most anti-gay had shotgun weddings. I mean, they couldn’t even keep their knees together until they turned 20, yet they would condemn LGBTQ people for something they couldn’t even do for a few years?
The second point, though, is that Christ didn’t condemn breaking the rules to meet your own needs. To be clear, Christ DID teach against meeting your own needs at the expense of other people. This isn’t an excuse to harm others in the name of “meeting your own needs.”
What it is, however, is an indication that god doesn’t consider the rules to be more important than people. David and his men were starving? Eat what is there! The disciples were hungry? Take and eat! (Later, St. Peter would have his vision that the Kosher rules didn’t apply in a way that would prevent gentiles from entering the Kingdom.)
Fourth, I noticed that Christ said the sabbath was made for man, NOT man for the sabbath. Humans don’t exist to serve the rules. The rules are there to serve humans, and human needs matter more than the rule.
Or, as one might put it in this context, “Marriage and sexuality were made for man, not man for rules about marriage and sexuality.”
The way I would apply it to sexuality is this: there is nothing inherently wrong with sexual desire. If god created you with a desire that doesn’t fit the “rules,” then human needs trump the rule. And in that connection, let’s look back at that passage from I Thessalonians.
First, the word translated “sexual immorality” is porneia, which has an...interesting history. The word is thrown around a LOT in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Porneia is used primarily to describe idolatry or selling oneself to another god. (The root of the word combines "sex" and "transaction," that is “prostitution.”) So the Israelites seemed to be continually committing “porneia” with other gods. Esau committed “porneia” when he sold his birthright. (How crazy is that?) Christianity, particularly starting with patriarchal church fathers like Augustine, decided that “porneia” really meant sex outside of marriage, which is...not its clear meaning. To the Greeks and Romans, porneia had become an idiomatic way to refer to “acceptable” extra-marital sex - namely, men sleeping with prostitutes or raping their slaves. (There was a different word, moicheia, to refer to adultery - that is, a man messing with another (free)man’s chattel.) This could be an entire rabbit hole here, but suffice it to say that the cultural baggage of the Greco-roman world combined with the cultural baggage of Second Temple Judaism to create a whole doctrine that is rather foreign to the Torah or to the culture the bible was written in.
I mention this to point out that my pastor - like virtually every Evangelical pastor, simply takes for granted that they know what porneia means - and applied it specifically to same sex relations.
But look at what else is there in the passage that gets glossed over. First, being in control of one’s body. Hey, that’s actually a great idea! Learning to control myself was key to a good marriage. Don’t be like the pagans! This would seem to be a nice dig at the whole “sleep with prostitutes and rape your slaves” idea conveyed by porneia as understood by Roman society. Again, sounds like a good idea: don’t take advantage of the poverty and desperation of sex workers by using them as sex objects, and don’t rape. And finally, “no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.” Come to think of it, a few prominent pastors (and the leader of the cult I was in) need to learn this one. Don’t wrong or take advantage of other people!
And this very thing was mostly glossed over in that sermon in favor of a screed against LGBTQ relationships. Doctrinal purity and the rules were more important than finding ways for people to meet their sexual needs in a way that healed, not hurt them, and didn’t take advantage of others.
All of this important background information, ethical thinking, and application to reality as experienced by LGBTQ people was less important than a passionate screed against gays and their relationships. And all justified with:
“Don’t let your compassion keep you from calling sin what God says is sin.”
And that is how and why I became a “Side A” Christian on that day.
In retrospect, I wish I had walked out of church that day and never returned. It took another year and a half, and a serious incident involving a hate group, to make us leave.
Soon after we left, we found out that there had actually been an intentional shift in the church, away from the “grace based” idea, to a more “traditional” fundamentalist approach. Unsurprisingly, this shift was driven by the wealthy, white, and (mostly as it turns out) racist Boomers who held the actual power in the church. Those bills had to be paid, so those of us who differed from the official line had to be forced out.
That was nearly three and a half years ago, and we have not (and likely will not) ever return to organized religion. But, in retrospect, the beginning of the end was that day five years ago in May of 2015, and that hateful sermon.
I truly hope my former pastor reads this post, and understands the way this sermon backfired on him. And also that his decision to embrace hate then and later cost his religion a number of people, including my children.
Why I use the term “bigot”:
(From Merriam Webster)
Bigot: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices, especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance.
A person isn’t a bigot for disagreeing. A bigot is someone who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his own prejudices. This means that no amount of proof will ever convince them. LGBTQ people giving evidence of how doctrine has damaged them won’t matter. Kids committing suicide over sexual orientation won’t matter. Nothing matters except the rules. Because “salvation” is in the rules.
A person is also a bigot when they treat members of a group with hatred and intolerance. To say that this is the Evangelical approach to LGBTQ people politically is an understatement.
Sure, there probably are a few people who think gay sex is wrong, but who fully support anti-discrimination laws, and genuinely try to help LGBTQ people without condemning or trying to convert them. But….I can probably count them on one hand.
It’s beyond the scope of this post, but I want to mention that one reason I changed my mind is the sheer amount of LYING that Evangelicals do about LGBTQ people. And that includes our former pastor, unfortunately. This whole “gays are all sexual predators” is gross slander, something I thought Evangelicals thought was a serious sin. But I guess it applies only when someone says something unkind about them, not when they falsely accuse people outside their tribe of crimes and predation.
There is a whole rabbit hole regarding the Christian doctrinal superstructure of sexuality, from Augustine’s belief that sex should only be done expressly for procreation, and that one should try one’s best NOT to every enjoy it, to an honest analysis of what marriage actually meant until recently.
One of the theological parts of my journey was to honestly and openly look at the Old Testament and its cultural context and understand the truth:
There are very few restrictions put on male sexuality in the OT. A man could sleep with a prostitute, take a concubine, rape a slave or war captive, take and discard multiple wives, sleep with any unmarried women he wanted (although he might be on the hook for a bride price…) Really, about all he had to do was (1) not sleep with certain relatives (2) not sleep with a male and (3) not mess with another man’s chattel (his woman, ox, or donkey…)
Now women, on the other hand...lots of restrictions for them, of course. They were the property of men.
Oh, and anyone else notice that the OT is silent on lesbian sex? Or that the one possible reference to lesbian sex in the NT was believed by the early church fathers to be a reference to a cult where females penetrated males with dildos? (You don’t hear that in church….)
Anyway, the meaning of porneia is hardly the cut and dried thing that Evangelicals say it is. It’s literally 2000 years of cultural baggage, beliefs about the superiority of males, protection of their female chattel from despoiling, and obsession about legitimate offspring.
Law school disabused me of a lot of false notions, including the belief that a man who sleeps around on his wife is committing adultery. It isn’t, legally, or in the bible. A man could sleep with literally any unmarried woman he wanted, including a prostitute or slave, and it wasn’t adultery. (It would merely be porneia...if even that.) Rather, it was adultery when a man (married or otherwise) slept with the chattel - the wife - of another man. Yep, that’s what it legally means, and how it would be understood in the bible.
There is much more to what I call a “theological superstructure” than meets the eye. And that’s why when you look closely, you see that the foundations aren’t really about human thriving, but are all about beliefs about the inferiority of women, and the perceived need to protect male property. For me, when I really grasped that, the whole house of cards crumbled. I may have to do a series of posts someday about that - I have spent a lot of time wrestling with it, but haven’t committed it all to writing.
Oh, and if you want to know how messed up Augustine was on this subject, consider that he considered a woman who had sex to make an illegitimate son (to support her, etc.) but didn't enjoy it, to be less of a sinner than a woman who wanted sex with her husband for pleasure. Literally. And if you are going to have buttsex, it is less sinful to do it with a prostitute than with your wife...
One final thought:
Just as it is beyond arrogant for us white people to tell people of color how they should feel, what their experiences are, what their needs are and how to meet them, and how they should respond to injustice, so too it is beyond arrogant for cishet people to tell LGBTQ people how they should feel, what their experiences are (including their relationship with god), what their needs are and how to meet them, and how they should respond to injustice.
If your theology of gender and sexuality has not been built from the ground up with the full and equal participation of women and LGBTQ people, then it will - by definition - be incomplete at best and harmful at worst.
The current Evangelical doctrine about gender and sexuality didn’t appear by magic out of the sky. It was developed within certain patriarchal cultures with certain assumptions, including the congenital inferiority of women, the right of some humans to own others as slaves, and a universal embrace of the sexual double standard. It was created and refined over the last 3000+ years exclusively by males holding power in their societies, without any meaningful input from women, slaves, or LGBTQ people. And it shows.