A Letter to Someone I Love: Responding to Questions about Why I Believe What I Believe Concerning My LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

Dear _____,

I appreciate the tone of your note, since I often get correspondence that appears much angrier. Let me see if I can address your concerns, if not in a persuasive—then perhaps in a clear manner.

a. You take issue with your opposition to LGBTQ inclusion being labeled “hate,” since you consider yourself to be a loving Christian, someone merely attempting to follow scripture faithfully. Some people may genuinely hate, but you don’t consider yourself to be one of them. You’re also worried that when some people use the word “love” they are twisting it out of shape, making it merely a synonym for “permissiveness.”

I hear you. With respect to the whole “hate” thing: If you don’t hate gay people—as I believe many people do not—it can’t help but be disconcerting to find yourself lumped in as an antagonist with people you don’t even recognize. That’s one reason I don’t use that kind of language. I think it’s possible to disagree on this issue in good faith without hate.

However, the people I work with have been systematically told by folks in the church that they are fundamentally flawed human beings—flawed in an especially appalling way that other people are not. I spoke with a teenager recently who’s family believed they were “loving the sinner, while hating the sin,” when the treatment they sent him to used shock therapy, beatings, and threats to make him “normal.”

Now, you might say that this is surely outrageous behavior that you would never condone, and that it must represent, if true, the exception. I’m not going to lay down any statistics, but I hear horror stories all the time about people (usually Christians) who’ve threatened, verbally and physically abused, ignored, or disowned their friends and family because of sexual orientation.

I also realize that “love” can be a very pliable word, one that is often much tougher than popular culture gives it credit for. Love is not just magnanimous feelings toward another. So while there are, I believe, “good actors” among those who disagree, it might be easier, after hearing as many stories as I’ve heard, to see how being at the sharp end of the stick your whole life one might get “tough love” and “hate” confused, thus tarring everyone with the same brush (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

b. You have some questions about the material contained in Hebrew Scriptures.  Genesis seems to ground the parameters of human sexuality between “one man and one woman” (2:24). Additionally, Mosaic law sets up what appear to be acceptable boundaries to sexuality. Why is it now permissible to discount those boundaries?

As far as biblical arguments go, I think this ultimately is a discussion about authority. Here is the question for some folks: “Is the bible intended to be a timeless and universal blueprint for human behavior, social, political, and economic organization?” We might need to be more explicit about our definitions of words like “blueprint” or “political,” but having said that, I think it’s a defensible characterization of one method of reading scripture.

Another way of reading scripture is to ask the question: “Is the bible intended to lay out the story of God’s interaction with God’s people in an inductive fashion—leaving God’s people to determine how God is moving at different places and times, not by uncritically following rules set down for people thousands of years and thousands of miles removed?” Again, some words might need to be defined, but I think this is also a defensible characterization of another method of reading scripture.

The larger problem—that is to say, why conservatives and liberals often talk past one another—is that these two interpretive strategies are, for the most part, incommensurate. It’s almost impossible to believe both at the same time (e.g., I can believe George is a human or I can believe George is a wildebeest; but I can’t believe both at the same time). Which incommensurability leads me to the more particular problem you and I face: I suspect you feel more comfortable with the former strategy for reading scripture, while I feel at home in the latter.

Consequently, I fear our discussion is bound to get bogged down fairly quickly. Take Genesis, for example. I don’t read the creation story as an attempt to lay out a set of immutable guidelines for human life for all time. Instead I see it as an attempt by exiles in Babylon to try to explain the apparently chaotic world in which they found themselves: why there is evil in the world, to help give justification for how it was that their relationship to creation and the kind of social arrangements they enjoyed had come about, and how it was that God was in the midst of it all.

Now, I expect that you’ll find that to be an unsatisfying reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, a feat taking an amazingly dextrous hermeneutic—just as I find a reading of Genesis through the former lens unpersuasive.

The Mosaic Law, to take another example, is also (at least in the hands of modern Americans) a fairly pliable concept itself. It gets pretty well picked over in terms of which laws are time bound and which are timeless—another case in which hermeneutical gymnastics must be employed (but this time by those who hold parts of the Mosaic Law to be binding, while other parts are disposable—e.g., Leviticus 18:19 or 19:33–4 or 20:10, to name just few).

I read the Mosaic Law as in no part literally binding in all times and all places as such, but as instructive of the kind of just community God was trying to create among bedouins in the desert. Had it been dockworkers in Jersey, I suspect the laws would have looked entirely different. The issue is not the laws themselves, but the kind of worshiping community those laws were intended to create.

The point I am trying to make is that I read the Mosaic Law not as a potential source of legislative detail per se, but as a principled (and in this case, general) guide to the way God wants humans to arrange themselves in communities so that God can be rightly worshiped, so that people will have enough to eat, and so that no one jeopardizes the integrity of the community through transgression or misuse of power.

c. You also want to follow up on what Paul has to say about the issue.  Even if one says that the issues in Genesis and Leviticus are discountable as “Old Testament,” what does one do with Paul who seems to have a very decided understanding about human sexuality as precluding homosexual behavior?

In terms of Paul and his relationship to the Roman world, I think we’re going to run into the same difficulties. I take Paul to be expressing outrage at a particular kind of activity in Roman society that had to do with idol worship and men who mentored boys, the payment for which was the obligation of sex—arrangements for which no one I know is arguing.

However, even if you take idol worship and pederasty not to be the target of Paul’s comments, one thing is clear—whatever Paul is addressing, it’s certainly not the kind of mutual, committed, and persistent relationship entered into by two people capable of giving and withholding their consent. He could not mean what we mean, because there was no such convention even conceptually possible until recently. Paul couldn’t hold forth on nuclear weapons or the adverse effects of Nintendo either, because, well … why would he?

Here, you might say, “Yes, but Nintendo and human sexuality aren’t moral equivalents.”

I agree. Where we differ, however, is in the belief that in this instance Paul is talking about human sexuality. I happen to think he’s got his eye on a problem of the way power is exercised in a relationship where people do not have equal standing—that is, between temple prostitutes and those who pay them, or between men and boys. In other words, I think Paul’s reference to sex acts in Romans 1:24–25, for example, is about human sexuality in the same way rape is about human sexuality, which is to say, it’s not. The context in this passage is ritual prostitution at pagan temples. The tip off that this is about idol worship and not about two people who love each other and who are prepared to commit to one another for life is the reference in verses 22–23—which immediately precedes 1:24–25—to the practice of worshiping and serving “the creature rather than the creator.”

The long and the short of it is that what Paul meant by the word translated in some English translations as “homosexual” is not what people who hold the positions I do mean by the word “homosexual.” In fact, I’m reluctant to use the word “homosexual,” since it focuses on the “sexual” part of the issue, which for LGBT people is only one portion of the lives they envision together. Moreover, it is possible to read Paul as speaking not to sexuality per se, but to sexuality-as-it-exists-under-Roman-occupation-with-pagan-temples-as-a-backdrop.

But when Paul does talk explicitly about sexuality, he does so with a particular set of societal expectations in mind about the function sex fulfilled in stabilizing the Empire. Sexual immorality in the otherwise “family values” oriented culture of Rome was seen as subversive, and therefore, potentially corrosive—a charge that Christians by the time Paul shows up on the scene as an apostolic force (who were already viewed as troublemakers, and potentially as revolutionaries) were most anxious to avoid.

Regardless, though, if you are inclined to see Paul speaking for all places and all times, the argument I just set down won’t be convincing. It cannot but appear to be only a capitulation to a certain set of political commitments that appear antecedently to the interpretive act. That is to say, if you don’t already agree with me, what I just said will only look like liberal weasel words. However, if one believes that that’s all I’m doing, then it’s important to be clear once again how one goes through Paul’s letters and determines which parts are meant only for people in that specific time and place, and which parts are for all people in all times and places. What, for example, does one do with 1 Corinthians 8 (a chapter devoted to food sacrificed to idols) or 1 Corinthians 11 (head coverings)? If we’re meant only to read those now as analogs or placeholders for modern problems, how does one arrive at that conclusion about these things, while at the same time holding that other parts of the same document are universally binding?

d. You express some confusion as to why monogamy is the place progressive Christians want to hang their hat when it comes to same gendered relationships. If you allow same gendered relationships, aren’t you opening the door to such practices as polygamy and bestiality? Where are the boundaries?

As to your question about monogamy, I’m not sure why polygamy and bestiality are the logical extension of this argument. I understand that you mean to suggest that same gendered marriage is a step down a slippery slope, the bottom of which holds these practices we all should want to avoid. However, without being misunderstood to be arguing for them, let me first point out that polygamy was apparently a perfectly acceptable arrangement for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob for an unusually long period of time—a problem for those who would argue some version of traditional marriage being rooted in creation and persisting until now in an unbroken conceptual line.

[Moreover, though we don’t any longer sanction coterminous polygamy, because of the high rate of divorce—which cuts across all theological lines—it’s hard to argue that we’re not already practicing serial polygamy.]

But setting aside the issue of what appears to have been the temporary biblical sanction of polygamy, the assertion that allowing for committed relationships between people of the same gender takes away an important hedge against more objectionable practices like polygamy and bestiality (you might also add incest and child molestation, to complete the poker equivalent of an unbeatable hand) runs into problems.

For one thing, the kind of same gendered relationship I am describing meets the demands of just relationships (which I take to be at the heart of the vision of the reign of God, and therefore a hermeneutical key) because it requires a kind of mutuality available only to two people in a position to give and withdraw their consent. Mutuality and an equitable distribution of power isn’t a component of the other sexual relationships you name. So, to compare same gendered relationships with these other things is to make a comparison between things that differ not in degree but in kind.

For another thing, nobody I know of is arguing for those things.

Here you might say: “Ah, not yet. But that’s exactly my point. If you allow same gender relationships, you will have taken down an important barrier to someone advocating for just these sorts of practices.”

But the fact that nobody is advocating for these things is my point. The slippery slope argument suggests that there is a set of causal relationships between two actions, such that if you do one thing, you will eventually find yourself doing the other. What this fails to account for, however, is that there are gradations of difference (steps, if you will) between the two acts—none of which must necessarily lead to the next. Just because you pierce your ear, that doesn’t mean that next thing you know you’ll wake up with ear spacers and a host of pierced body parts.

The objection to that might be: “But once you open the door to piercing, what’s to stop you from continuing to get pierced, until you end up ineligible for airport security? The point is: you could now if you wanted to.”

My response to that objection is: “Yes, but I don’t want to. If your real worry is ear spacers and excessive body piercing, then you should concentrate your efforts on outlawing those things, and not in trying to set up hedges back up the line.”

I’m not sure where the confusion about those who are for same gendered monogamy lies, unless the love between same gendered people is reduced purely to the sex act—a move I’m not clear why anyone would make, since we don’t even do that with Brittany Spears or the Kardashians. LGBT people who want to get married want pretty much the same things everyone else wants—love, companionship, joy, somebody to clean your Depends when you’re too weak to do it for yourself. They want to raise families, celebrate old-fashioned Christmases, go to their kids’ t-ball games, and grow old together.

And a bunch of them want to go back to church. As odd as that might seem, many of them still want to see the face of God in the very the place that has told them (and nobody else, it should be noted) that their faces are not welcome—in many cases, not even human.

But they also want not to be bullied, fired, turned out of their apartments, or made to leave restaurants just because they happened to love someone with the same anatomical make up. They don’t want to be told over and over again that the way they were born is aberrant, or ill-formed, or mentally ill, or reprobate in ways different from everybody else.

You see the problem, though. These arguments aren’t compelling on their own. What makes them compelling is when you come to know and love people who are otherwise no different from you.

Disclaimer: This part is going to come off a little strong. And I’m not speaking directly to you, since I think you’re a wonderful and genuinely loving human being, and since I don’t know whether you have gay or lesbian friends—and by friends, I mean, people you hang around with, go to the pool or play basketball with … that is, people you love.

This is the problem I have with the generalization of the “love the sinner and hate the sin” argument abstracted from real life: It’s an easy argument to make from afar. It’s easy to talk about loving someone in a notional sense, while still saying things that harm and belittle them—because you never have to sit across the table from them and explain why what you said (or didn’t say) isn’t really hateful, but loving and “for their own good.”

I would be much more inclined to take an interest in what the average person who “loves the sinner and hates the sin” said if that person were taking opportunities to spend time actually loving the sinner—in the here and now, after picking up the groceries, and putting the kids to bed. If the only love we ever show another is telling them why they’re wrong, we have misunderstood love. (I heartily believe telling someone they’re wrong can be the most loving thing to do. But if that’s the only time they hear from us, we’ve seriously “underserved the population.”)

Coincidentally, the reason I think younger generations are increasingly convinced the LGBT thing as an issue is so uninteresting is because they know and love LGBT people, all kinds of them—people they go to school with, people who are parents of their friends, people who’ve come out to their families, people who don’t stand for the collapse of society, but who just seem normal and everyday to them. Young people don’t see these folks as threats, but merely as people struggling to get through life with a bit of love and a shred of dignity still intact.

I suppose that’s enough for now. I hope that, while perhaps not entirely persuasive, that gives you a sense of not only where we differ but why.

I must say, I really do appreciate you taking the time to ask these important questions. I hope my writing voice doesn’t come off to you as an entirely self-satisfied smartass. I don’t mean it that way to you—it’s kind of a force of rhetorical habit. I really do respect what you believe about this stuff—which is, as you know, pretty much the stuff I grew up believing too.

However, I really don’t want our differences on this issue to jeopardize our relationship, and from my standpoint, they need not.

At any rate, I love you and I look forward to continuing our conversation.

I love you.


This entry was posted in Christianity, ethics, LGBTQ, Social Justice and tagged , , , , by Derek Penwell. Bookmark the permalink.

About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a former lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, from Chalice Press, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, dmergent.org, and blogs at his own site at derekpenwell.net.

11 thoughts on “A Letter to Someone I Love: Responding to Questions about Why I Believe What I Believe Concerning My LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters

  1. Pingback: A Letter to Someone I Love: Responding to Questions about Why I Believe What I Believe Concerning My LGBTQ Brothers and Sisters | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. Derek, you are right that to the real issue is biblical authority. It would be so helpful if we could have this debate about biblical authority without using LBGTQ people as the ping-pong ball which we hammer back and forth across the table.

    • I agree with you, Steve, that LGBTQ people should be spared the indignity of being an “issue” (or theological “ping-pong ball,” if you like). My purpose in writing, I hope it is clear, is not to perpetuate that state of affairs, but to seek to help it find an end. Not to respond theologically to an injustice, I suspect you agree, isn’t really an option.

  3. Great post Derek.

    Very heartfelt, kind and considerate. I would be interested in hearing a story about someone who has moved from the conservative end of the spectrum on the marriage equality/traditional marriage debate to the liberal end. I’m curious as to whether there are any folks out there who have made that particular move who would be interested in sharing it.

    As you know, my particular perspective on the issue is that the primary issue is one of oppression, systemic in nature, which holds captive both the oppressor and oppressed. For that reason only a dismantling of the system itself will set all of us free. And for me, I see the imperative of that work directed towards the front lines of marginalization, rather than pleading/arguing/negotiating with the dominant culture. From a tactical standpoint, it is actually the most effective and loving thing we can do for an oppressor, because it breaks her or him free of the bonds of blindness and prejudice.

    But I cannot ignore the compassion you express here and humbly applaud you for it.


  4. Pingback: Approaching Scripture as Jesus Did

  5. Just like the hermaneutical principles you outlined as he basis for “walking past each other,” so does the definition of sexuality. If it is “a choice” then it can be legislated/changed/repressed. If it is an expression of one’s created being, then, “Loving the sinner,” rings hollow. I maintain you can’t love me without loving ALL of who I am…including my sexual orientation.

  6. How can you credibly discuss what God’s intentions might be when you presuppose something that the text does not support? Your statement “Instead I see it as an attempt by exiles in Babylon…” indicates immediately that you choose to disbelieve the scripture at face value as God’s written word of truth, or even as mere history. Regardless of how any of us see it, there is only one standard that is valid, and that is God’s. The scripture tells us over and over again that we have had this written word amongst us since well before the exile, beginning with “Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said.” (Exodus 24:4). We are not at liberty to pick and choose what we want to believe, what we choose to accept, any more than we can decide on our own to disregard parts of the law of gravity. If I believe I can walk off a cliff, my belief will only be good for the short trip to the bottom, after which there is no more physical “I” to deny arrogantly the immutable law. When you stand before God at judgement, the excuse that some scholar told you that what God meant was “xxxxxxxxxx” will not stand up. The Judge’s “What did I tell you” will leave you without excuse.

  7. bgridley:
    “Face value” can only mean something in regards to the original ancient hebrew, aramaic, and greek. Even then, “face value” is impossible because there are words which we still cannot define. Then there are the word plays, puns, and jokes – which can be understood only if the language has multiple meanings. Of course, we are completely removed from the original vocal inflections – which words were said earnestly and which were said sarcastically – which were said truly sadly, mock sadly, or with a wink and a twinkle in the eye? Our understanding is molded and guided by our own cultural paradigm. Our experience and understanding of the cultural context in which the scriptures were written is so distant and incomplete as to be almost useless and non-existant. Our understanding of the scripture can only be what we make of it and not what was intended by the original authors.

    BTW – the first five books of the Old Testament were written by at least four (4) different authors.

  8. Good stuff, but does it truly apply to YOU and your immediate family? Have you ever been able show true compassion and love and failed miserably? I think yes… Hippocrite

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