Homosexuality and the Bible: An Election Day Appeal

On Election Day, voters in Maine, Minnesota, Washington and Maryland will decide the future of same-sex marriage. Many of them will cast their vote based upon what they think the Bible teaches about same-sex marriage. But how many actually know?

The disparity between conviction and knowledge is what I like to call the Lynn Westmoreland Syndrome. Remember Lynn Westmoreland? He was the Georgia congressman who co-sponsored a bill to put the Ten Commandments in every U.S. law court. When Stephen Colbert asked him to recite the Ten Commandments, Westmoreland paused, faltered and scraped up a few. It was painful to watch.

Voters have strong opinions, but most, regardless of which side of the debate they occupy, can't tell you where the Bible addresses same-sex marriage. Why? Because, like Congressman Westmoreland, they may not know.

There's a reason for this. Only about seven references to homosexuality -- some as short as a single word -- occur in the Bible, and most of them are difficult to interpret and even tougher to apply to the contemporary world. Still, at the end of the day, it's usually one text to which most Christians hitch their star on the issue of same-sex marriage: the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, where Paul condemns men who burn with lust for men and women who burn for women.

This text is a point of serious contention in the church, for good reason. It's filled with ambiguous words and inscrutable phrases. On the basis of this letter, opponents of same-sex marriage argue that all homosexual acts are "unnatural," immoral and sinful. Proponents of same-sex marriage argue that it would be "unnatural" for gays and lesbians to seek out straight relationships.

The arguments go on ad nauseum. Yet, in all this arguing, no one seems to notice that the pivotal point comes not in chapter 1 of the letter -- what people argue about -- but afterwards, in chapter 2. Chapter 2 begins with utter clarity: people standing in judgment -- and people on both sides of the debate about same-sex marriage stand in brittle, bitter judgment -- have no right to take this stance toward others. Paul writes this in Romans 2:1: "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the same things."

What's the back story to this? The "immoral" people of Romans 1, who burn for short-term same-sex partners, represent the pagan Roman world, which had no coherent moral code. The "moral" people of Romans 2, who judge too harshly, represent the Jewish world, whose Torah functioned as a moral code. Paul lets neither side off the hook because he wants both sides to find unity in the church.

To build unity from the ground up, Paul starts by putting everyone on the same flawed footing. "Immoral" people do what is wrong; that's chapter one. So do "moral" people whenever they judge others; that's chapter two. The chapters are tied at the hip.

When we understand the whole, the point of Paul's letter becomes clear: there is no room in community for righteous indignation, even -- or especially -- when we're sure about being right. Those who stand in judgment had better be careful. It doesn't matter which side of the debate we're on. In passing judgment, we condemn ourselves. Period.

When communities splinter over the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, therefore, they miss the point. Paul penned this letter to make sure people of different backgrounds with divergent moral codes, both Jew and pagan, wouldn't split. Yet with our endless haggling, our eternal debates, our nonstop vitriol, we've transformed an ancient and urgent appeal for unity into a reason to divide, to argue and to fracture community to the core. We've promulgated, in short, exactly what the letter was intended to prevent.

The citizens of Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota should vote their conscience about same-sex marriage on Nov. 6. But after leaving the ballot box, the hard work of reconciliation needs to begin. The apostle Paul knew what we perhaps have now forgotten, that neither side of a divided church wins. A split church, even an extremely "moral" one, is a net loss.