THE BLOG
10/30/2014 03:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Do Christians Supporting Gay Marriage Say About the Bible?

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In an essay published this morning Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple writes, "I'm proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me." Cook points out that his sexual orientation has given him a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a minority community, that it has made him more empathetic, more confident and not so easily upset by criticism.

Many Christians recognize the unique gifts that gay people bring to our congregations and support marriage equality for gay and straight couples. Other Christians however have questions about this strongly held value.

Last week I met with the minister of a neighboring church at a local Italian restaurant. He ordered the seafood salad and I had ravioli. We have known each other for thirteen years - ever since an arsonist burned down his church and we helped to raise money for the new building. After getting caught up on our personal lives we talked about our churches.

Then my friend looked me in the eye and said enigmatically, "What do you think about theology?" I looked confused and he said, "Your bishop and church, do you agree with them?"

Finally I understood that he was talking about - our church's position on gay marriage. After I told him that I support gay people who want to be able to marry, he insisted a few times, "What about the Bible?"

For me the Bible is not about homosexuality. It certainly is not prohibited in the gospels. Jesus does not explicitly mention it. However at the heart of Jesus' message lies a deep concern for experiencing God as a loving parent. Jesus befriends outcasts, people who were hated in much the same way we see gay people treated today. His great vision of the Realm of God is one in which we care for every person and know that God loves everyone else as much as us.

The apostle Paul writes briefly but also cryptically against "abusers of themselves with mankind" (1 Cor. 6:9-11) and men burning with lust for men (Rom. 1:26-27). Paul writes in a slave society in which people owned others for the purpose of sex, so I have no idea what kind of relationship he is talking about here. But surely he does not have in mind the longterm gay couples we know who live together faithfully and have looked after each other for decades. In any event this issue certainly is not the heart of his message either. Paul wants us to experience the free gift of God's grace that we receive by being part of Christ's body. He tells us about the extraordinary power of sharing in Jesus' resurrection.

Some people cite the Book of Judges chapter 19 as evidence. The author of that book describes another reason to hate the enemies of the Hebrews. In this story of terrible sexual violence, a mob attacks a man's female concubine in place of the male guest he harbors. Again this behavior would probably be even more appalling to us than the original audience but it certainly has nothing to do with gay people who would like to be married.

And finally, there is Leviticus. Chapter 18 describes men lying with men as an "abomination" and chapter 20 says that they should be put to death. There is a lot less ambiguity here than in the other four mentions of the issue in my 2,355 page Bible.

Indeed Leviticus has a lot of rules. "You shall not cheat in measuring weight or quantity. You shall have honest balances" (Lev. 19:35-6). "You shall not steal. You shall not deal falsely. You shall not lie to one another" (Lev. 19:11). These make sense and sound like the Bible we expect.

But what do we make of the other rules? "You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials" (Lev. 19:19). Leviticus prohibits the lawns in front of our houses and our polyester clothes. It forbids making your daughter a prostitute. It also bans haircuts, beard-trimming and tattoos (Lev. 19:26, 29).

Leviticus provides detailed rules about clean and unclean food. I did not say it to my brother pastor but this includes a prohibition of shellfish. While claiming that I do not care about the Bible my friend was eating shrimp that the Book of Leviticus clearly calls an "abomination."

What does Leviticus mean for us today? How do we know which commandments we should guard with our lives and which ones make little sense in our context? Leviticus and the other books of the Hebrew Bible are important to us because they were important to Jesus. When Jesus tells his disciples to strive to "be perfect" or "to love your neighbor as yourself" he is quoting Leviticus.

Leviticus also says, "You shall be holy." This implies the idea that we might in some respects come to embody the holiness we long to experience. People like the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu have this holiness. We recognize it in them. It is in the profound way that they respect the dignity of every person, other forms of life and all creation.

There may no longer be any importance in planting only one kind of seed in our fields or of having only one kind of fabric in our clothes. Still many of these rules about not cheating and lying, about protecting strangers, make complete sense to us. These are about personal integrity, about treating people and the world with dignity.

Followers of Jesus need to strive for this holiness, which many of us glimpse in Tim Cook's brave statement about his hope for a world in which every person is valued and loved.