By Pastor Douglas S. Bursch, D.Min
I’ve decided it would be good for me to write down why I support same-sex marriage. I am not attempting to convince anyone to change their opinions or perspectives. Instead, I am trying to communicate why my opinions and ideas concerning same-sex relationships have changed. I hope this will help people better understand my journey and my current ministry trajectory.
Early on in my adult Christian life, I viewed same-sex attraction as contrary to the teachings of the Bible. I didn’t believe someone wasn’t a Christian or couldn’t be a Christian if they had same-sex attraction; I just believed the Bible didn’t condone same-sex sexual or romantic relationships. If asked about my opinion, I would usually say something such as “I don’t believe Scripture condones same-sex relationships. However, I know other Christians disagree with me and I am open to growing in my understanding.” On a practical level, I never preached against same-sex marriage, and I tried to welcome relationships with Christians within the LGTBQ+ community. I am not trying to defend my behavior or stance. I knew at the time that my position was still a rejection of the sincerely held witness and existence of my friends within the LGTBQ+ community. I just need people to know that I truly felt conflicted. On one hand, I loved and respected the faith of my friends who were in same-sex relationships, but on the other hand I thought Scripture did not condone those relationships. I know I could have handled this better, but it is my past and it is how I operated.
In recent years, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with the idea that I might be wrong with my understanding of what Scripture says about human sexuality. As a result, I tried to be more inclusive in my associations and interactions. Even so, I still felt that acceptance of same-sex marriage would put me at odds with Scripture. This tension kept me from theologically and publicly affirming same-sex relationships, even though in my heart I felt affirmation and acceptance of the people I knew in same-sex relationships.
Recently, I’ve realized it is right for me to affirm same-sex relationships and marriages theologically, publicly, and in practice. I no longer believe Scripture speaks against loving, same-sex relationships. I believe in the past I misunderstood the focus of Scripture and misapplied what Scripture teaches concerning same-sex sexual relations. To help you understand my journey, I’d like to share how I now understand certain scriptures dealing with same-sex sexual activity. I am not an expert in queer theology and my thoughts are in not exhaustive or complete. I am still learning and growing. I would encourage each of you to learn and to grow as well. Regardless, our convictions should be open to rigorous examination, with a humble understanding that we are all in process.
The larger cultural context
When reading about human sexuality in Scripture, we need to understand the cultural and relational context of these scriptures. First, the concept of romantic love is rather foreign to the Old Testament and New Testament world. For the most part, these communities arranged marriages based on economic, societal, and family security. The concept of marrying based on loving attraction was simply not a key factor to organizing family units.
We must also realize that human sexual activity had radically different consequences before the advent of effective birth control. Sexual activity, specifically intercourse, was often viewed as primarily an expression of married life because the consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage were rather profound. People who engaged in sex outside of marriage had a much higher risk of becoming pregnant or of impregnating their sexual partner. In an environment where women were often not allowed to participate in the financial system, it was incredibly dangerous for a woman to become pregnant outside of marriage. Besides facing societal scorn, pregnant women had extremely limited means to financially provide for themselves and the wellbeing of their children. With the high probability of bringing children into the world through sex, it is no wonder that sex and marriage became almost synonymous in many cultures.
In a culture that viewed marriage as a strategic societal construct, and did not have effective birth control, sex was understood primarily in terms of procreation, within marriage. Sure, there was romantic love and sexual attraction. However, in arranged marriage environments, sex was primarily presented as an obligation of marriage for the purpose of having children. The concepts of mutual attraction, intimacy, and romance were foreign to most settings. I believe we must understand this cultural reality when interpreting scriptural admonitions concerning sexual activity.
I also believe to better interpret Scripture, we need to examine the family power dynamics that existed during the writing of Scripture. The Bible was written primarily to cultures that considered the eldest male to be the head of the family unit. The oldest living male or the oldest living male with power had a tremendous amount of authority to decide the religious, relational, and work life of the family under his care. People determined their religious, relational, and work affiliations based on the wishes of the eldest male in their family. To go against the wishes of the controlling eldest male was considered shameful and dishonorable.
To be clear, I am not saying this was appropriate or right, I am just pointing out the reality many faced within ancient cultures. If you were not the eldest male, you had very limited choices on what you could do, who you could love, and what you could become. You also were expected to fulfill the wishes of the eldest male as a familial duty or obligation. This system led to very tight-knit family units or family clans and is the backdrop to how people understood concepts of lineage or being from the house of Abraham or David. Unfortunately, concentration of power led to extreme abuses of power, where the eldest male sometimes believed he had a right to use those under his authority, in whatever way he saw fit. It’s crucial to understand this power dynamic when examining biblical admonitions concerning sexual practices.
Interpreting passages used to speak against same-sex attraction
At a fundamental level, I believe the biblical passages some Christians use to speak against same-sex attraction or same-sex sexual activity are not speaking towards the issue of mutually loving same-sex attraction or same-sex marriage. Instead, the Scripture is speaking against sexual practices that involved control, abuse, violence, idolatry, and profound sexual depravity. The story of Lot’s interaction with angels and the people of Sodom demonstrates well what I believe the Scripture is condemning. The people of Sodom used sexuality as a form of violence to have their sexual desires met without procreational consequences. The Scripture implies rather clearly that the people of Sodom demanded Lot allow them to rape the angels they had let into their home. Lot’s response is just as depraved, when he offers his virgin daughters to be raped instead of the angels the people assumed to be men (Gen. 19). This is not a passage speaking against same-sex attraction. This scripture speaks against same-sex violence and demonstrates how some people used same-sex violence to satisfy their sexual desires without the consequences of pregnancy.
Sadly, there are many examples of cultures that condoned same-sex sexual violence as a way for people to satisfy their desire for sexual gratification without dealing with the pregnancy consequences of sexual activity. I am going to describe something rather graphic that might be triggering to people who have dealt with sexual violence. Throughout history, some men who wanted more sexual activity than their marriage provided and wanted to be sexually active without the fear of impregnating someone, would engage in the sexual exploitation of other men. In the context of Sodom, the men believed they had the right to use foreigners for their own sexual gratification. This form of sexual depravity is for the purpose of humiliating foreigners or enemies without having to deal with the consequences of unwanted pregnancies. This passage does not address the activity of mutual attraction or even same-sex attraction.
Throughout history people have used and abused other people for their sexual gratification. This depravity has been expressed in military violence, prostitution, cultic sexual practices, incest, the rich sexually violating the poor, and older people violating the young and vulnerable. I don’t think Scripture negatively addresses mutually loving, mutually submitted, mutually caring same-sex relationships when addressing same-sex sexual activity. Instead, I believe both the Old and New Testament only speak against same-sex sexual activity rooted in violence, control, idolatry, incest, or infidelity. The issue is not same-sex attraction, but sexual abuse and specific depraved acts.
Individuals frequently cite Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as clear prohibitions of same-sex sexual activity. However, even a cursory study of these passages, in their original language, calls into question simplistic interpretations of these scriptures. The Hebrew construct of these verses is so confusing that some scholars suggest we really can’t find a clear understanding of what the original author intended. Even so, various scholars argue for vastly different interpretations of these scriptures. The disagreement between Biblical scholars should at least cause us to pause from making any strong declarative statements concerning the intent of these passages.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both contain the Hebrew phrase משכבי אשה (mishkevei isha) which can be translated “as (one lies) with a woman” or “on the beds of a woman.” The NASB translates 18:22 to say, “You shall not sleep with a male as one sleeps with a female; it is an abomination.” However, some scholars (Bruce Wells, David Stewart, Jan Joosten, and others) believe the verse is better translated to say, “And with a male you shall not lie on the beds of a woman; it is an abomination.” With this translation these scriptures appear to prohibit men from sleeping with men who are already married to a woman. The beds of a woman is the marriage bed where husband and wife sleep. Within this context, it is an abomination or loathsome for a man to sleep with another married man, defiling that man’s marriage and marriage bed.
This interpretation makes sense to me because it fits within the context of the surrounding scriptures. Leviticus 18 and 20 seem to primarily address men who are in control of their family or who have power to do what they want to do within their family. The instructions are primarily to men, informing them that even if they have the power to sleep with other family members or the spouses of other family members, they are not to exercise this power. They are to honor the other family relationships by limiting their sexual activity. Therefore, a man is not supposed to sleep with his brother’s wife or his sister’s husband. As men have more control or say in these relationships, both married men are considered culpable for engaging in sex with each other, in violation of their marriages and existing family relationships.
It is also interesting to note that most of the instructions in Leviticus 18 and 20 deal with sexual prohibitions based upon specific relationships and qualifiers. If these same-sex passages were prohibiting all same-sex activity, they would have simply said, “You shall not sleep with a male” or “With a male you shall not lie.” The fact that these phrases have further descriptors or qualifiers implies they are referencing a particular kind of same-sex activity. In this context, that activity seems to be between married men.
I’ve also noticed these passages say nothing about same-sex sexual activity between women. If this was simply a passage against queer sex, both male and female same-sex activity would be mentioned, especially considering the passage mentions female bestiality. I believe women are not mentioned in the context of same-sex activity because these passages are dealing with a very specific activity between men in power that was most likely the result of married men having same-sex affairs in defilement of their heterosexual marriage beds.
When interpreting Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 we must also examine the context of these passages. Leviticus 18 starts with the warning “You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes” (v.3). Same-sex sexual activity was a part of the cultic rituals and societal practices in Egypt and Canaan. For instance, Egyptian culture would have found it acceptable for a master to sexually violate (rape) his male slave. The author of Leviticus might also be saying, you were once slaves, you will not violate your slaves the way you were violated, or the way others violate their slaves.
As I previously mentioned, the eldest male in a home was considered the ruler of that home and entitled to make the rules and regulations for everyone under his roof (male/female, young/old, free/slave, wife/concubine). Children and women did not have autonomy to do as they pleased. The rules in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 primarily address the male head of the house. A basic summary would be that regardless of you being the head of the house, you cannot have sex with your children, your extended family, or any other people who are under your familial authority. This would include both female and male family members. Although these behaviors might seem obviously wrong to us, the teaching still needed to be written down because of the power society yielded to the oldest male of every family.
Even if one disagrees with my conclusions, the confusing reality of these passages makes them problematic in formulating a strong prohibition of same-sex relationships and marriage. Scholars also argue that even if these passages do prohibit same-sex activity with the threat of death, they also command adulterous relationships to be punished by death. Most Christians living today do not believe Christ condones putting adulterous people to death. In fact, there are many Old Testament prohibitions that we no longer follow in light of the message of Christ. These prohibitions include how we treat divorce, adultery, breaking the Sabbath, marriage with non-believers, and many other activities. Regardless, I personally no longer believe that these Leviticus passages speak against loving, same-sex attraction and marriage. I also believe they are far too confusing to use as a definitive answer against same-sex relationships.
People also use the similar teachings in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10 to condemn same-sex sexual relationships. However, these passages are more complex when examined carefully.
(9) Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, (10) nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (11) Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
Paul uses two Greek words in this passage that are difficult to understand and translate. The first word μαλακοὶ (malakoi) means “soft” or “effeminate.” Conservative scholar Gordon Fee explains in his 1 Corinthians commentary that this word probably refers to a younger, passive partner in a pederastic sexual relationship. The most common form of same-sex sexual activity in the Greco-Roman world revolved around pederasty where an adult male would sexually violate a young boy or teen. This word seems to refer to a form of pederasty or to young men who worked as male prostitutes for older men who desired to have their sexual desires gratified.
The Greek word ἀρσενοκοῖται(arsenokoitai) is an even more confusing word Paul uses in this passage and in 1 Timothy 1:10. The term is not present in other literature and could be a word Paul invented. Fee points out the word is a compound of “male” and “intercourse,” that can be translated “males who have intercourse” or “intercourse with males.” This means it might be prohibiting male prostitution or a form of male same-sex activity. Some scholars believe Paul lists malakoi and arsenokoitai together as a way to refer to the practice of older men sleeping with young boys or teens, which was a common practice in the Greco-Roman world. I agree with these scholars that Paul is addressing pederasty or male prostitution that was also frequently associated with cultic practices.
Once again, these passages are a far cry from denouncing mutually loving same-sex relationships between consenting adults. Also, these passages do not speak to the same-sex activity of women, which makes the warning seem to be about a very specific cultural practice, rather than a general prohibition of same-sex activity.
However, even if this passage directly speaks against homosexuality, we must look at the other activities that are also listed. Paul mentions that those who commit adultery or those who are drunkards are in the same category as these men who sleep with other men. Much of the church seems to gladly welcome Christians who have divorced and remarried, regardless of the context of how this happened. We also recognize many people struggle with alcoholism up until the point of their death. We certainly don’t exclude adulterers or alcoholics from the church or the kingdom of God. This passage is far more complex than frequently preached. Regardless, I do not believe Paul is speaking against loving, mutually honoring same-sex attraction.
Individuals also frequently use Romans 1:26-27 to argue against same-sex relationships. As I study this passage closer, I believe it does not speak about mutually loving same-sex attraction or sexual activity. Instead, Paul addresses cultic practices in Rome. First, Romans 1:26 states, “For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged natural relations for that which is contrary to nature.” Although some assume this verse speaks of lesbian activity, it is most likely speaking of specific cultic practices that were common in the Greco-Roman world. Specifically, female temple prostitutes would engage in non-intercourse sexual activity with men as part of cultic temple worship. For clarity’s sake, I need to be sexually graphic in my explanation. Paul’s use of the word “unnatural” seems to refer to female temple prostitutes offering their bodies for oral or anal sex. This allowed for sexual gratification without the threat of procreation. Pastor Rick Brentlinger points out that early church leaders and theologians such as Aristides, Justin Martyr, and Philo of Alexandria all believed verse 26 was talking about non-procreative temple prostitution.
In verse 27 Paul writes, “and likewise the men, too, abandoned natural relations with women and burned in their desire toward one another, males with males committing shameful acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (v. 27). Paul seems to be saying that men also participated in these non-procreative cultic behaviors with male temple prostitutes to have sex beyond the bounds of their marriage. I am also led to believe Paul is talking about cultic sexual practices when reading these verses in their larger context. Romans 1:18-32 speaks about the primary issue of people abandoning God and turning to idolatry. Corrupt sexual practices were common in Greco-Roman idol worship.
I do not believe Romans 1:26-27 speaks about mutually loving same-sex attraction, sexual activity, and marriage. However, even if one believed this passage prohibited same-sex sexual activity, they would also need to place this understanding within the larger context and the other prohibitions listed. Paul lists greed, gossip, and disobedience to parents within this list. As far as Americans are concerned, we live at a level of prosperity that is most likely greed in the eyes of God and the poor of this world. Many of us have not obeyed our parents or have engaged in gossip, envy, or strife. Nonetheless, these behaviors are seldom, if ever, treated in the same manner people treat issues of human sexuality. Regardless, I do not believe this passage, or any biblical passage, speaks against loving same-sex attraction, sexual activity and marriage.
To be clear, I have not written this short and incomplete paper to convince anyone to change their views concerning human sexuality. Instead, I tried to write a brief explanation for why I personally affirm same-sex romantic relationships and ultimately same-sex marriage. Although I have much more to say and write, I tried to limit this paper to only a few foundational ideas and points. I am not an expert in this field of theology, but I have spent many years engaging the Scripture as a pastor, writer, and scholar. I am continually trying to learn and to grow in my understanding of what Scripture says about human sexuality. Although some might disagree with my conclusions, I think we can at least agree that Scripture is more complex when addressing human sexuality than what we often present in our popular debates and proclamations.
I personally believe human identity and sexuality are complicated issues. I think our entire being is formed by our genetics, our experiences, the communities that raised us, the choices we make, the God who leads us, and many other factors we don’t fully understand. I believe that regardless of our sexual identity, we should facilitate environments where individuals can learn how to express their sexuality in healthy, loving, God-honoring ways. Regardless of our sexual orientation, we should encourage each other to grow in our love of God and each other.
For me, I have tried my best to find scripturally sound answers concerning human sexuality. Where I have confusion or uncertainty, I am embracing love and acceptance. I feel confident that I can stand before God knowing I have done my best to love those He entrusts to my care. If I am wrong in any of my conclusions, I know that His grace is sufficient for me now and forever. Thank you for reading these thoughts. Peace, mercy, truth, and love to each of you. In the name of our precious Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.