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The six terrible texts

The six terrible texts


By John M. Gillespie


Once again, the state of Texas is shaking its fist at the federal government. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout all fifty states, Texas governor Greg Abbott fired back, directing employees of the Lone Star State to thumb their noses at the “lawless ruling” of the Court and continue to deny same sex couples equal protection under the law. Citing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, both Abbot and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asserted that permitting the Court’s ruling to be carried out would force Christian Texans to compromise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” and dirty their hands in the business of gay marriage.

Let’s grant for the sake of argument, that same-sex marriage is a grievous sin, explicitly forbidden by the New Testament (Personally, I do not believe that it is). One should not, after all, take any action that may cause another to stumble (Romans 14:13). This argument has been circulating quite a bit over the past year. We’ve heard of cake-makers, restaurant operators, and even auto-body shop owners who have dug in their heels and turned away gay and lesbian customers on the grounds that engaging in commerce with them would irrevocably compromise their religious convictions.

It seems to me that most people apply this “sincerely” held religious belief quite selectively – and at his or her convenience. What business owner keeps a running list of sins on hand and demands a confession of each of his patrons before he agrees to take their money? Does the restaurant owner deny a cheeseburger to a diner on the grounds that he is carrying a little extra weight (Proverbs 23)? Or does the makeup peddler turn away a particularly painted patron lest he encourage her vanity (Jeremiah 4:30)? And in light of Jesus’s assertion that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28), should a newsstand owner hide his copies of Sports Illustrated to protect his customers and himself from the spiritual consequences? And to cite one more example – one that likely hits closer to home for many – do Christian wedding coordinators, caterers, and state employees routinely turn away women and men seeking to remarry? After all, it is very difficult to explain away Jesus’s very clear words about divorce (Matt. 19).

In any case, the ground on which the religiously committed build their case rests on several fault lines. There are six “terrible texts” (to borrow a phrase from Phyllis Trible) in the Bible which supposedly condemns homosexuality. It is important to note that none of them speak directly to committed monogamous relationships. Just three of them are in the New Testament, and none of them issue from the mouth of Jesus.

The Old Testament offers little insight into same-sex relationships. The most often cited text – the grim account of Sodom and Gomorrah, tells us little about how God feels about committed same sex relationships, but clearly demonstrates divine disapproval of gang rape. And those who call for the full implantation of Leviticus 18:22, which calls for the execution of homosexuals, would likely be hard-pressed to submit to Leviticus 20:9, which insists that we stone disobedient children. Likewise, following the whole Levitical code would forbid us from wearing more than a single fabric (Leviticus 19:19), and improperly trimming our beards (Leviticus 19:27).

If we continue to insist on a national policy that will deny basic rights to homosexuals, the New Testament is no less helpful in our pursuit. Although Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes reference to “homosexual offenders,” as the NIV reads, this translation is based on a Greek word so ambiguous that it has defied attempts to find a comparable concept in English. It occurs sparsely throughout ancient literature, and although it is clearly pejorative, it seems to cover a broad spectrum of exploitative sexual practices, and is never so narrowly applied as to single out committed same sex partnerships. A translator of Timothy 1:9-10 faces the same problem. Likewise, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is often offered as the clearest condemnation of same-sex relationships. Situated awkwardly in a passage condemning idolatry, the passage speaks more to an outburst of lusty pagan temple rituals (which almost invariably involved sex between a younger boy and an older man) than to committed same-sex relationships.

However one reads these six passages, their cumulative weight is hardly enough on which to build a complete theology, much less a national policy. In fact, many researchers and Biblical scholars are convinced that the Bible has little to say on matters of sexual orientation and identity, and is completely silent on gay marriage. These are issues that may preoccupy our day, but it was not so with the ancients.

Still, in public discourse, so much attention is given to the supposed condemnation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people that if a Martian were to land on earth today and begin to investigate the world’s religions, he could be excused for believing that sexuality is the primary focus of Christianity. So much attention is given the six texts that we practically ignore the abundance of over 300 passages in the Old and New Testaments that speak of treatment of the poor and upholding social justice. We call undue attention to whatever the Bible says about homosexuality that we miss the Bible’s greater message. A case in point: the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah was not a judgement on homosexuality, as has often been understood, but rather, as the prophet Ezekiel clarified:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy (16:49)

There are Christian leaders who insist that as a consequence of the Supreme Court decision, God’s judgement on America, like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, is at hand. I claim no knowledge of God’s timetable for judgement, nor can anyone. But on the Last Day, when we are called to account, how will we respond? Will we hide behind the six terrible texts and explain to Jesus that we refused to cater a gay wedding, or that we turned a gay couple away from our establishment, or that we denied a loving and committed gay couple a marriage license? I would not be surprised if Jesus, wondering just what we’ve been doing with our time on earth, shook his head and replied:

I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me (Matt. 25:42).

Greg Abbott, the Texas governor who is urging the faithful to stand firm in their faith needs to take a closer look on the foundations of that faith. Texas, the state over which he presides, ranks among the lowest states when it comes to commitment to public education, social welfare, and programs to aid the poor. Perhaps Abbott needs to consider the plank in his own eye before he points on the specks – real or imaginary – in the eyes of others.



John M. Gillespie is a teacher, history professor, and grateful member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Kingwood, Texas.


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Wayne Helmly

As Prof. Gillespie aptly points out, there are undeniable inconsistencies in the scriptural basis for wholesale condemnation of the LGBT community. Historically, the Church also has made strong Biblical and theological cases for keeping women out of ordained ministry, and excluding divorced and remarried people. Christians have even made a Biblical case supporting slavery. Thomas Merton suggested it was not a good idea to leave scriptural interpretation to those whose inner self is not yet sufficiently awakened to encounter the Spirit, because they will try to use God for their own egocentric purposes and prejudices. This is a caution for both sides.

LGBT persons have been victims of heterosexism for millennia. This, I believe, is rooted in a learned fear that is transmitted from one generation to the next. The decisions of SCOTUS and General Convention are welcome and necessary. But, as we have seen before and in some of these comments, we cannot legislate changes of heart. We can only pray and be the change we wish to see.

I’ve been pondering what I should “be” about all of this. Fr. Richard Rohr famously suggests that what we do not transform we transmit. How can I transform the heterosexism so I don’t transmit the hurt? The Gospels indicate that God in Jesus moved people beyond the “you’re bad, I’m going to punish you” interpretation of Merton’s insufficiently awake, to the utterly new world that Jesus offered, where God’s abundance has made unnecessary any merit or reparation. I pray for the capacity to love those who oppose same-sex marriage. Let us work towards transforming our differences and sharing the love of God first with one another, and then with our hurting world that needs it so much.

Mario Gonzalez del Solar

Professor Gillespie has an axe to rightfully grind with the State of Texas in which he resides regarding its abysmal treatment of the poor. However, his contention that evangelical believers who refuse to (in their view–I agree that doing auto body work is far-fetched) to facilitate homosexual weddings are somehow using the “terrible texts” as cover for their own homophobia is a gratuitous ad hominem argument. The Bible, it is true, has little to say about “sexual orientation” because it is a modern invention, along with light bulbs and Swiffers. However, it does describe human being as “male and female,” joined together in marriage clearly and unambiguously endorsed by Jesus.


Michael Russell said,

“Hooker creates an hermeneutic that allows that even commandment a commandment [sic] uttered by Jesus (divorce for instance) could be set aside if time and circumstance changed the nature of marriage, the end for which it was created or the means for achieving the end were no longer workable.”

Not so. His treatment of marriage justifies customs to which the radical Puritans objected, not the doctrine of what constitutes human being–“male and female.”

Regarding Hooker’s fabled three-legged stool which (purportedly) gives Scripture, tradition and reason equal weight, read carefully the words of the man himself:

“What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeeth.”
–Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity ,
Book V, chapter 8, section 2.

Mark Mason

“The quotation from Ezekiel which Jesus quoted as well is why we may be heading to the likes of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

“However we approach discussing it with others, Anglicans and Episcopalians need to emphasize that Scripture is not the rule of all things simply, so we have little real basis for conversation with those who insist it is.”

So why not leave scripture out of it altogether and just tell them that it is we that bind all things? Would we be quoting scripture for the authority to do that?

Vicky Mitchell

It is the horribly lopsided view of Holy Scripture as pointed out at 300:6 (or 7 if you are a Trans* person ((Deut. 22:5))) that gives this situation the nightmare quality that it holds. My friends in real life who accept but may not like the SCOTUS ruling are the ones giving service and yes money to “the least of Christ’s little ones”. It is those people who have time for the Gospel charge in their lives. The quotation from Ezekiel which Jesus quoted as well is why we may be heading to the likes of Sodom and Gomorrah. Well done piece.

George Hartwell

I am struck, if not amazed, by the quality of the article and by the comments. Ann’s point about ‘binding and loosing’ is right on – the right to establish community interpretation and practice – and it is highly relevant to this debate but this is the first time anyone has invoked it. I also appreciate Michael’s comments on Anglican interpretation (Hooker) which is also highly relevant and, for me, enlightening.

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