09 March 2015

Can gays really be Christians?

The following was posted on Quora as a response to the question, “In the Bible it states, "thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind, it is an abomination", Lev 18:22. Can someone be gay and be a genuine Christian, that is, accepting the Bible as the word of God, or that it contains the word of God, and doing ones best to follow it?”

The thing about such Biblical literalism — aside from the fact that this passage may well not say anything like the English translation you quote, as Lana Fisher correctly points out — is that you have to first understand what the Bible is and how it came to be. That in turn greatly affects how it should be interpreted.

The first question is, did the Bible create the Church of God, or was it the other way around? Did someone sit down and write it, and then we Christians all agreed to follow it as written? Or was it more like the Church already existed and then decided which existing writings were canon?

Any cursory reading of Church history shows that it was plainly the latter. The Bible did not fall from the sky fully formed, but took centuries to find its present form (and even now Christians can’t fully agree on which books belong to it, like the Biblical apocrypha). The various books that make up the Bible — along with many others, like the Gnostic texts — were floating around with varying degrees of acceptance by the early Christian congregations, but no “Bible” existed yet. Various lists circulated in those days containing books considered canon; they generally lined up, but there were sometimes significant differences.

Then the Church got together in a general council and decided on what books should be compiled into the Bible. Not only that, but they picked up on the already existing practice in Judaism (which evolved into modern rabbinical Judaism) of following an established tradition of how to interpret that canon — that is, the interpretations of learned experts approved by the Church took on a kind of canonicity of their own. Joe Shmoe can interpret the Bible any way he likes, but in the eyes of the Church, only that established tradition matters and Joe Shmoe has no authority to claim the Bible says this or that.

Thus the Church began that tradition with what we now call the Church Fathers, learned men (and they were generally men, or at least few writings from the period from women survive) who began to interpret the Bible based on that earlier Jewish tradition. And here is where it gets really interesting for this question.

The Church Fathers generally rejected a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible. Let that sink in a minute and read this quote by Origen of Alexandria, one of those Church Fathers (emphasis mine):

15.  But as if, in all the instances of this covering (i.e., of this history), the logical connection and order of the law had been preserved, we would not certainly believe, when thus possessing the meaning of Scripture in a continuous series, that anything else was contained in it save what was indicated on the surface; so for that reason divine wisdom took care that certain stumbling-blocks, or interruptions, to the historical meaning should take place, by the intro­duction into the midst (of the narrative) of certain impossibilities and incongruities; that in this way the very interruption of the narrative might, as by the interposition of a bolt, present an obstacle to the reader, whereby he might refuse to acknowledge the way which conducts to the ordinary meaning; and being thus excluded and debarred from it, we might be recalled to the beginning of another way, in order that, by entering upon a narrow path, and passing to a loftier and more sublime road, he might lay open the immense breadth of divine wisdom. This, however, must not be unnoted by us, that as the chief object of the Holy Spirit* is to preserve the coherence of the spiritual meaning, either in those things which ought to be done or which have been already performed, if He anywhere finds that those events which, according to the history, took place, can be adapted to a spiritual meaning, He composed a texture of both kinds in one style of narration, always concealing the hidden meaning more deeply; but where the historical narrative could not be made appropriate to the spiritual coherence of the occur­rences, He inserted sometimes certain things which either did not take place or could not take place; sometimes also what might happen, but what did not:  and He does this at one time in a few words, which, taken in their “bodily” meaning, seem inca­pable of containing truth, and at another by the in­sertion of many.  And this we find frequently to be the case in the legislative portions, where there are many things manifestly useful among the “bodily” precepts, but a very great number also in which no principle of utility is at all discernible, and some­times even things which are judged to be impossi­bilities.  Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit in order that, seeing those events which lie on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to the investigation of that truth which is more deeply concealed, and to the ascertaining of a meaning worthy of God in those Scriptures which we believe to be inspired by Him.
(Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis IV.15, 3rd century AD — Source: ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second)

* — What is meant here is that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the Church as well as through our individual consciences.

To summarize Origen, we need guidance and understanding in interpreting Scripture, because sometimes the Bible was meant literally, sometimes it wasn’t. Clearly Jesus was being quite literal when He said to love our neighbors and to love God, but the Earth was plainly not created in six calendar days and the Flood didn’t really destroy the whole world. What matters is the spiritual truth contained in the narratives.

He also wrote, with another Church Father, Gregory of Nazianus, supporting him:

For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.
(Origen of Alexandria, De Principiis IV.16, 3rd century AD — Source: ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second)

St. Augustine wrote similar things roundly criticizing a literal interpretation.

So…how do we decide? We refer back to earlier precedents in the writings of the Church Fathers, while also allowing for a range of opinion to exist. Only where the Church has definitively spoken in a general council is there any one possible interpretation binding on all Christians. The Church decides, not individuals, and only when it is in consensus. As Vincent of Lérins said in his famous rule of catholicity — i.e. that which is established canon and binding — id teneamus, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; hoc est etenim vere proprieque catholicum:

[6.] Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally.
St. Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory, 434 AD (Source: NPNF-211. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian)

Dogma — in other words, something Christians must believe because the Church has decided so — is therefore only that which the Church has proclaimed in general council.

Which brings us to this question of homosexuality in particular. Has there ever been a general council that has defined this text to say what you think it says? Is homosexuality a sin or abomination? Of the seven ecumenical councils (i.e. those recognised by the Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, and in theory Anglicans), none say anything about homosexuality. Nothing. De nada. There were regional councils that did condemn “sodomy” at various times, though what they meant by that term changed over time, so we can’t even be sure that they meant homosexuality per se (e.g. a loving long-term relationship, as opposed to just having extramarital sex with people of the same gender or pederasty or beastiality or any of the many other things the term was applied to). But there has never been a definitive dogmatic statement from the whole Church — a statement establishing that this has been believed “everywhere, always, by all” — declaring that homosexuality as we understand it today is in fact a sin and that this passage means what you say it might mean. In fact there is some evidence that same-sex relationships in some forms may have been tolerated, even celebrated (see Adelphopoiesis), particularly in eastern Europe. At times the Roman Catholic Church has actually worked to decriminalize homosexual relations between consenting adults, like by supporting the Wolfenden Report in the UK in the 1960s or the National Federation of Priests' Councils in the USA noting their opposition to “all civil laws which make consensual homosexual acts between adults a crime”. Thus any claim to homosexuality being dogmatically defined as sin fails St. Vincent’s simple test — and thus a range of opinions is perfectly OK.

To answer your question based on the above: Yes, it is entirely possible to be gay and be a faithful Christian, unequivocally. I certainly hope many more do so, and am glad to personally know a great number of gay Christians (both clergy and laypeople) who enrich our church’s life. As for the great pain that many Christians have caused gays by claiming otherwise, I am deeply sorry and hope that their wounds will heal, whatever path they take.