Homosexual. Transgender. LGBTQ. Human sexuality is a religious question that is tearing church groups apart. I believe it is such a divisive question today because most Christian adults have made up their minds whether or not their understanding of Christianity allows for homosexual (or other nontraditional) relationships and practices. We have no room for discussion, no room for truly hearing the perspectives or stories of those with whom we disagree. If others disagree with us, we assume they are speaking out of hatred. Everybody believes they are standing for the truth. No one is willing to change their minds.

This week, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released a document called the “Nashville Statement,” named after the city where they were meeting when they wrote it. This statement was signed by many famous Christian leaders and distributed all over social media. It immediately produced negative feedback among other Christian groups, some of which responded with statements of their own (see the “Denver Statement” for an example). I encourage you to take a few minutes to read both of the statements I’ve linked here. Continue reading

Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

What if it wasn’t for that reason?

Recently, in my personal Bible reading, I came across this famous Bible story in the Old Testament book of Genesis. The quick summary is this: Abraham’s nephew Lot finds himself and his family in the city of Sodom. One day, a couple of (male) angels arrive in Sodom, and Lot insists that they stay overnight in his house. That evening, the men of Sodom demand that Lot surrender these two angels so they can have sex with them; Lot offers his two daughters to the crowd instead.

(Let’s just pause right there. Why do we condemn the men of Sodom for their attempt to rape the angels, but we don’t condemn Lot for offering his two daughters to experience that same abuse?)

The angels then cause the crowd to go blind, Lot and his family escape, the angels disappear, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone (what did the people of Gomorrah do?), Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt, and Lot ends up sleeping with and impregnating his own two daughters. Thus ends the biblical account of Lot. (Read all about it in Genesis 19.)

What is going on here? Why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed?

The popular answer in modern-day Christianity is because the men of Sodom practiced homosexuality. In fact, that’s a fairly historical answer, too; the English word “sodomy” takes it meaning from this biblical story.

But what if it happened for another reason? Can we separate the story of Sodom from the highly-charged, emotional, political, religious issue of homosexuality? Let’s try.

What do we know about Sodom from the Bible? (This a more interesting question than asking about Gomorrah, because scripture always pairs Gomorrah with Sodom, but not vice versa.)

  • Sodom is first mentioned in Genesis 10:19 as a border city in the ancient land of Canaan. (Review the sketchy beginnings of the Canaanites, descendants of Ham the son of Noah, in Genesis 9:18-29.)
  • Sodom then shows up a few times in Genesis 13. In verse 10, it’s mentioned parenthetically as a town that God will eventually destroy. This is important: the Bible is aware of Sodom’s fate from the outset.
  • But Genesis 13:10-13 is all about Abraham’s nephew Lot, who chooses a parcel of land for his family. He settles near Sodom, which is populated with wicked men who were sinning greatly against the Lord – but for undisclosed reasons.
  • Then in Genesis 14, the king of Sodom goes to war with several other kings and against several other kings. It’s all very messy and bloody, but Sodom loses the battle, and Lot and his family are carried off into captivity. Abraham quickly rescues his relatives.
  • The king of Sodom then has a unique meeting with Abraham himself in Genesis 14:17-24. In the middle of this meeting, quite unannounced and unexpectedly, Abraham has a powerful encounter with Melchizedek, priest of God Most High. This story forms the basis for our understanding of the tithe.
  • Things settle down for Sodom until Genesis 18. In this chapter, God promises descendants to Abraham and Sarah, who are old and childless at the moment. After this promise, God mentions to Abraham that he’s going to destroy Sodom because of its wickedness (again unspecified). Abraham bargains with God: if God can find ten righteous people in Sodom, he will not destroy it.
  • Then Genesis 19 happens, and Sodom is destroyed, but Lot and his daughters are saved.

So why were Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed? I think the answer lies in the goal that the book of Genesis is trying to achieve: Genesis is all about explaining how God blessed Abraham and his descendants and made them into powerful nations. And God’s promise to Abraham is that God will bless all nations through him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The reason Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed is that they got in the way of God’s plan to bless the nations.

Take another look at Genesis 19, specifically verses 9 and 10. The nighttime conflict between the men of Sodom and the two angels ends when the men threaten Lot, not the angels and not his daughters. Lot is rescued by the angels. Lot survives the destruction of Sodom. Lot continues his family line through his two daughters (sketchy as that is). Lot becomes the ancestor of two of Israel’s ancient neighboring nations, Moab and Ammon.

Sodom is destroyed because God has plans for Lot, plans to bless him and to make a nation or two out of him. And let’s not forget the whole sweep of scripture: the entire Bible is about Jesus, whose human ancestry is traced (Luke 3 and Matthew 1) directly through a woman named Ruth, who is a Moabite, the great-grandmother of King David. No Lot means no Moab, which means no Ruth, which means no David, which means no Jesus.

I think the moral question of homosexuality – while still very important – is actually very far removed from what the Bible is trying to accomplish through the story of Sodom.

Just take a look at what the New Testament says about Sodom:

  • Jesus refers back to Sodom and Gomorrah as a way of pointing toward God’s future judgment of all people. And that final judgment has everything to do with how people respond to Jesus himself. (See Matthew 10:11-16, 11:20-24; Luke 10:1-16, 17:20-37.)
  • Romans 9:29 quotes Isaiah 1:9, which refers to Sodom and Gomorrah in a way that gives thanks for God’s provision for his people in the time of his judgment.
  • 2 Peter 2:4-10 mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in a passage that encourages Christians to endure trials in the present world.
  • Revelation 11:8 mentions Sodom in passing as John describes the greatest evil in the world.
  • The only verse in the New Testament that connects Sodom to some kind of immoral sexual practice is Jude, verse 7. But even then the passage is more about God’s final judgment than it is about moral codes of sexuality.

Please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not advocating for free sexual practice among all people; I’m not saying that I approve of homosexual activity.

What I’m trying to say is that the story of ancient Sodom is more about God’s plan to save people through Jesus than it is about creating laws regarding sexual behaviors.

What if we learned to retell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as a story of how God protected his people, created nations, and carved a path in history for the future arrival of the Messiah?

A friend of mine, a music teacher in Indiana, is working on a master’s degree in his field. Recently, he talked with me about what he is reading and learning in his studies: specifically, the importance of posture.

For an orchestra conductor, posture is extremely important. Every arm movement, every change of stance, even the most minute of gestures can communicate messages instantaneously to the members of the orchestra. Bad posture leads to bad conducting, because the messages communicated by the conductor are confusing and inappropriate. Good posture requires the coordination of many muscle groups throughout the body, which in turn requires exercise and discipline. Conducting is no simple task, and conductors must learn how to pay attention to their posture at all times.

I am concerned that Christians have bad posture when it comes to the LGBT issues that we are facing these days. Continue reading

Racially-motivated shootings. The legalization of same-sex marriages. The fear of Islam encroaching on our religious and personal freedoms. A sixteen-month-long presidential election cycle that will divide the nation into two broad camps.

We have many reasons to distance ourselves from other people, reasons which have had a lot of air time in recent days.

But from a Christian perspective – and from my inherited perspective of white, male privilege – I wonder what our response to these things should be. If you are involved in social media at all, you have likely seen more than enough responses to any or all of these topics in the past week or so. Many of these have been so angry and dismissive that it grieves my heart.

Let me offer an alternative response: the example of Jesus in John 4. Continue reading

In recent days, an editorial in the Midland Daily News argued that “conservative Christians need to take a stand” regarding the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage in our nation. The author compared the present situation to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in which Rosa Parks took a stand (by sitting down, ironically) against the cultural requirement that she yield her seat at the front of a bus to a white passenger. This editorial suggests that conservative Christians are being isolated, quieted, and accused of intolerance when they speak against current trends in society.

A few years ago, on an Easter Sunday, we had our usual lineup of special services and activities for that day. A “sunrise” service – I use the term loosely because the sun had already been up for a couple of hours – began the festivities. With awe and humility, we celebrated the mystery of the empty tomb. And then we shared in a special breakfast, a celebratory meal that reminded us of Jesus’s post-resurrection breakfast with his disciples. Our children participated in games, hunted down dozens of Easter eggs, and won a variety of prizes. Finally, our regular morning worship was full of praise and adoration of our risen King and Savior.

On this particular Easter Sunday, two middle-aged couples visited our congregation. Both couples visited us with other family members who are regular members of our congregation. And in both couples, the partners are of the same gender.

I’m not sure if others in the congregation realized this at the time, but I was aware – and happy – that we welcomed both a gay couple and a lesbian couple into our Easter Sunday worship service. After all, any time we join in worship, we do so in honor of Jesus Christ, not in honor of our particular worldview or political opinions. Everyone is welcome to worship the Lord.

In recent days, a pizza shop in Indiana closed its doors after its owners stated that they would not serve pizza at a same-sex wedding reception. The intense furor and passion around this story – by those supporting the pizza shop and those opposing it – has been amazing to witness. It seems that everyone has an opinion on this, whether or not they can even identify Walkerton on an Indiana map.

A few years ago, in another place, Tara and I built a close relationship with a wonderful young woman who is now in her early twenties. I’ll call her Nicole. She spent a great deal of time with us due to some instability in her own home. She loved us at least as much as we loved her in return – and probably more. And even now that we are far apart, we still remain in contact with Nicole and count her as part of our family.

Nicole is a lesbian. She “came out” to the world last year. She has shared with us some of the joys and pains of her relationships that have succeeded and failed. Because of her sexual orientation, she has experienced some emotional distancing from some friends at her local church, which I consider an unfortunate development in her life.

Nicole has held down a job for the past few years and works hard at what she does. She has purchased her own car, she pays her own rent, and she contributes to society in a number of ways. Nicole is a regular person, with regular needs, regular laughter, and regular tears. And for some reason, she counts us as part of her family too.

In recent days, the Indiana state legislature passed Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. No small amount of media coverage has accompanied this bill since it was signed by Indiana’s governor a few weeks ago. Again, everyone has an opinion on this, whether or not they are experts in law or politics. I, for one, am not concerned about this law; its worst elements will be corrected and its best intentions will be honored. In any case, I firmly believe that we cannot legislate morality (that is, make people behave by creating laws). Ban same-sex marriage, legalize marijuana, ban assault rifles, legalize gambling: the systems we form do not create morality and goodness. The law is not the ultimate measure of right and wrong. On the other hand, the law should uphold the cause of justice for all people, a goal that is much higher than any Senate Bill.

Many years ago, and in a very different place, a carpenter’s son crouched down and drew designs in the dirt with his finger. The people eagerly awaited his response to the most pressing moral question of the day: what should they do with a woman caught committing adultery? The conservative religious leaders wanted to stone her to death, as the religious law required. And if this carpenter’s son did not give the officially correct answer, then they could silence him as a radical progressive. Rather than taking sides on the issue, this carpenter’s son, this teacher, this divine reformer recognized the humanity of all those around him and called each of them to a higher moral standard:

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

“Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 7:53-8:11 NIV)

I believe the recent editorial’s appeal to Rosa Parks is inappropriate. After all, people on the other side of this moral question can make precisely the same appeal as an argument to stand up against discrimination. Comparing conservative Christians (or the LGBT community, for that matter) to Rosa Parks is comparing apples to oranges; it is a rhetorical device intended to create an immediate victory. After all, who can argue against Rosa Parks?

But Rosa Parks’s victory was not immediate, nor, indeed, is her struggle finished. The issue of racial reconciliation and justice has not been resolved in twenty-first century America. Similarly, the gay and lesbian couples who visited our church, my friend Nicole, conservative Christians, and other Christians are all involved in an ongoing struggle over the question of homosexuality.

In some ways, this struggle is similar to the conflict in John 8. Jesus’s answer to the question in that story is not “black and white” or “quick and easy.” He understands both the value and the imperfections of each individual around him. He creates a new way of answering the moral dilemma: not by adhering to religious law, not by accepting sexual immorality as the new norm, but by extending love and grace to everyone. He desires justice for all and calls each person to higher standards of righteousness and holiness.

Perhaps we would do well to learn to imitate him in how we think about, discuss, and act on the important moral questions of our day.