Sparked by some brief, but troubling comments made by journalist Chris Hedges at a book promotion event, I began a little series about a week ago on some common misconceptions and concerns about the Bible. Here is the list of reasons Hedges listed when he cautioned against reading the Bible as the revelation of God:
- It was rewritten by Christians over time and especially at the Council of Nicea.
- The Bible is anti-Semitic.
- The Bible, Paul in particular, is bigoted toward homosexuals.
- The Bible supports genocide, especially in the case of the Canannites.
Today I’ll take a stab at the bigotry accusation. Of course this means I’ll once again have to revisit the controversial homosexual issue. In starting out, I think it will be most helpful to examine first what exactly a bigot is.
Dictionary.com says: a person who is utterly intolerant of any differing creed, belief, or opinion.
The American Heritage Dictionary says: One who is strongly partial to one’s own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.
Curiously, I think we can apply this to Christians who sometimes refuse to listen to anyone who disagrees with their perspectives, however you can find people like that in every religion and nation. The hard part here is drawing a line between opinions/perspectives and the hard edge of bigotry. If we find passages in the Bible where Paul lists homosexual behavior as a sin, we do not necessarily have the same thing as bigotry. If a pacifist believes it is sinful to kill under any circumstances, does this belief make the pacifist bigoted toward the army? If a pastor says it is wrong to have sex outside of marriage, does this belief make him bigoted toward the thousands of people who do?
The distinction here is key, and the larger problem rests in how we have applied these texts. In other words, Paul is not a bigot, but we can take his words and use them to be bigoted.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul states:
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
This does not equal hate speech or intolerance of homosexuals. He’s saying that people who “do these things” are not right with God. The same thing happens in the epistle to the Romans.
In Romans 1:25-27 Paul states:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
Paul very clearly condemns the act of homosexual relations, but I cannot find any passage where he is particularly offended by people with a homosexual orientation as a sub-group, calling us to be intolerant of them or to treat them as second-class citizens. I’m sure that practicing homosexuals will not like having their practices listed as sins in the Bible, but I think it is helpful to say that we cannot build any case from scripture about homosexuals being in sin as “people”, but rather the actions they commit. And I hasten to add that this kind of “sin” is listed with many other kinds of sins and immoral sexual acts, and so these sins are not elevated above any other kind of sin.
Having said all of that, Christians debate the interpretations of these passages, specifically the 1 Corinthians 6 passage because some include homosexual offenders with homosexual temple prostitutes tied with idolatry, leaving only Romans 1 as a problematic passage. So even if Paul’s teachings on homosexual behavior are not all that popular today, we go too far in calling him a bigot. If anything, we take his words and use them in our own bigotry. The teachings of scripture about homosexuality are delicate, sensitive topics because Christians have historically not been compassionate toward the homosexual community. However we must take Paul’s writings very seriously when we try to determine what to believe because he is surely not a bigot.