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Rev. Patrick S. Cheng, Ph.D. Headshot

Sin As The Closet, Grace As Coming Out: Rethinking Sin And Grace For LGBT People Today

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Sinners. That's what a lot of Christians call lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. As an openly-gay theologian and ordained minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches -- an LGBT-affirming Christian denomination that is open to all -- I unfortunately know all too well what it means to be labeled a sinner, as well as the incredible damage that this label inflicts emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually upon my LGBT sisters and brothers.

According to traditional Christian theology, we are all sinners. Since at least the writings of Augustine of Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries, the doctrine of original sin has dominated Christian thought. According to this doctrine, Adam and Eve first sinned by disobeying God by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The original sin of our first parents unleashed death into the world, and ever since, sin has been passed on, virus-like, through reproduction (and specifically sexual pleasure) to all subsequent human beings. This is why we are all in need of God's grace in Jesus Christ: to save us from original sin and its consequences of death and eternal suffering.

So, if we are all sinners, why are LGBT people singled out as particularly atrocious examples of sinners? The answer lies in what I call the legal model of sin. That is, sin has been traditionally defined as a transgression of God's laws, whether revealed in the Bible or understood according to natural law. According to this legal model of sin, those people who break God's laws are deserving of temporal punishment -- up to and including physical violence -- as well as eternal punishment.

The first legal model of sin is the Biblical model. According to many Christians, LGBT people are sinners because they disobey God's laws as revealed in the Bible. This is, of course, the favorite argument for many evangelical Protestants. Although there are over 31,000 verses in the Christian Bible, the vast majority of anti-gay prejudice in Christian theology is derived from only five verses: Gen. 19:15, Lev. 18:22, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9, and 1 Tim 1:10. Borrowing from Phyllis Trible, the prominent feminist scholar of the Hebrew Bible, I call these verses the queer "texts of terror" because they are the source of much terror for LGBT people.

Although some people may feel a sense of security in looking to the Bible for definitive guidance on what constitutes sin for LGBT people -- even if such comfort is based upon 0.0016% of the total number of verses in the Bible -- the problem is that there is a wide spectrum of views among Biblical scholars and Christian theologians about how to interpret the Hebrew and Greek words of the original Biblical texts that refer to same-sex and gender-variant activity.

Take, for example, Gen. 19:15, the verse from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that is traditionally used to condemn LGBT people. In that verse, the men of Sodom insist upon getting to "know" their angelic visitors. The Hebrew word at issue here, yada, sometimes means "to have sex with," but far more often means "to know" in the Hebrew Scriptures. What if the men of Sodom were sinners because they were xenophobes (see Ezek. 16:56)? That is, what if they literally wanted to "know" the background of their visitors because they hated foreigners or strangers and wanted to inflict physical harm upon them? Even if yada is interpreted as "to have sex with," however, I think we can all agree that rape is sinful, whether it is between people of the same or different sex. And rape is not what same-sex couples are about today.

As we can see in just this one verse from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, scriptural interpretation is an extremely complicated matter, and one cannot simply treat the Bible as a divine statute-book that is self-interpreting, even assuming that one is fluent in Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. This is the reason why we have courts in the secular law context; the jurisprudence of original intent notwithstanding, the interpretation of legal statutes is rarely a simple or obvious matter.

The second legal model of sin is the natural law model. According to many Christians, LGBT people are sinners because they disobey God's laws as understood in the natural law. This is a favorite argument for many Roman Catholic theologians, and it finds its roots in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. Natural law, according to its adherents, is the innate sense of right and wrong that God has implanted into each of us, whether or not we are exposed to the Bible.

Take, for example, the natural law argument that homosexuality is wrong because it does not lead to procreation. According to natural law theorists going back to the Middle Ages, anyone can observe the animal kingdom and conclude that God's intended purpose for sexual activity is procreation. Because same-sex activity does not lead to procreation, it is a violation of God's natural laws and is thus sinful.

The problem with this natural law argument, of course, is that scientists and biologists now know that non-procreative same-sex activity occurs in over a thousand species in the animal kingdom. Furthermore, the natural law argument does not take into account the fact that infertile and elderly people can have non-procreative sex, and yet they are not considered to be sinners or intrinsically disordered. Again, natural law arguments are not as simple or as obvious as they may first appear.

I believe that it is time to shift away from a legal model of sin (whether Biblical law or natural law) and towards a christological model of sin. Under this model, sin is defined not by Biblical law or natural law, but rather by our opposition, as Christians, to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. That is, sin is a mindset; it is a mode of existence that stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the good news of the Word made flesh. In other words, sin is a matter of deliberately turning one's back on what God has done for us in salvation history.

For example, let's begin with the doctrine of revelation. According to Christian theology, God reveals Godself most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, it follows that sin is the closet, or the resistance to revealing ourselves fully to God and to others. Indeed, as feminist theologians have argued for decades, sin is not just a matter of pride and raising ourselves up too high, but it is also a matter of excess shame and hiding our true selves from others.

If sin is defined as the closet, then sinners are those people who use the institution of the church to deflect attention away from -- and cover up -- their own hidden sexual secrets and crimes, as we have seen repeatedly in the ugly sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Sinners are also the closeted fundamentalist ministers and preachers who virulently condemn LGBT people on the one hand and yet engage in hidden same-sex activities on the other.

By contrast, grace is defined as what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, which is coming out. For Christians, God reveals Godself most fully in the incarnation. Whenever we come out as LGBT people, we also become the living embodiment of God's revelation of the Word made flesh. We are able to love others fully because we realize that we are first loved by God. And that, for me, is what the good news is all about.

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