‘For There Is No Distinction:’ Homosexuality, Disciples, and the Bible

We Disciples give a lot of authority to the Bible. Our tradition has looked to the Bible for guidance on personal behavior, how to run our churches, and how to structure our corporate worship. Growing up a Disciple, I heard a lot of variations on “we speak where the Bible speaks, we are silent where the Bible is silent.” As a people born of a desire to restore Christianity to a lost or fading past, this approach made a lot of sense: we could take up the formative book of our faith as our standard, looking to it for guidance, while shedding the accumulated weight of millennia of ecclesial distortions and additions. “Just the Bible,” was what I grew up hearing. That’s what’s important. If it didn’t happen in Acts, the thinking went, we should be wary of doing it now.

It’s probably no accident, then, that I turned out to be a Bible scholar and a student of early Christianity. I’m fascinated by the early church, no doubt because that fascination was modeled for me in the Disciples tradition. I really do believe, perhaps naïvely, that the early church was on to something—that it had things figured out in a way that we have yet to recapture. I love, for example, to think about the scene that might lie behind 1 Corinthians 11:18-21. Laying aside the abuses Paul is so upset about, we have a wonderful glimpse into the early church: a communal meal, a real meal and not jut a symbolic one, held on a regular basis, forming the center of the community’s life together. I want to know more about that, and I want to know why we don’t do it anymore!

Christians, and not just Disciples, seem to have concluded that the debate about homosexuality is a debate about Scripture. Ask your average Christian about the issue, and they’ll likely begin their reply with something like, “Well, the Bible says homosexuality is wrong.” Even those who support the rights of gays and lesbians and advocate full inclusion in the life of the church might begin this way. It’s a truism, in our denomination and in Christianity generally, that the Bible condemns homosexuality and that all arguments must depart from that point. The problem is that the truism just isn’t true.

I am far from the first person to point this out, but for some reason it never seems to sink in—perhaps because it’s so opposed to the conventional wisdom that so many of us have received from our churches and our culture. The Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality. This is in part because the Bible largely doesn’t know about homosexuality; homosexuality is a modern notion, utterly foreign to the ancient world where the Bible was written. The Bible knows about same-sex activity, to be sure: men’s desire to rape other men in the story of Sodom of Gomorrah, temple prostitution practices (which probably figure in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and perhaps even Leviticus 18 and 20), and a desire for maintaining purity boundaries (probably the concern of Leviticus, which also draws sharp boundaries around wearing clothes of two kind of fibers, bodily functions, eating certain kinds of clothing, etc.). Reading the Bible for information on the modern idea of homosexuality is like reading the Bible for information on how to fly a 747. Perhaps there might be some general principles that apply, but you won’t find much that’s specific, because time only moves in one direction, and the Bible knows about 747s about as much as it knows about homosexuality—which is to say not much at all.

This surprises a lot of people. They assume that the Bible condemns homosexuality because they have always heard that it does, and because of a vague notion that if they think something is wrong, then the Bible must back up their opinions. Only when people read the Bible for themselves, and study the cultures and contexts from which it comes, do they begin to realize that Scripture is largely silent on the question of men loving men and women loving women.

How then, as a people rooted in the Bible and conceived out of a desire to live the way the Bible describes the early Christians living, should we think about homosexuality? While the Bible is silent on the question of homosexuality, it is not silent on the question of how we are to treat our neighbors and how we are to think about our sisters and brothers in Christ. In Christ, Paul writes in Galatians 3:23, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male nor female.” Here Paul is probably reciting an early baptismal creed, which listed many of the major distinctions that were made in the ancient world—all the ways people were divided from one another—and then declared them null. When the line is repeated in Romans 10:12 and Colossians 3:11, other distinctions are added: circumcised and not, barbarian, Scythian—there seems to be no distinction that matters. There is unity in Christ; there is no place in the church for the artificial boundaries that we place between ourselves. All of God’s people are part of God’s people.

This baptismal creed, repeated three times in the New Testament, is but one of the hundreds of places the Bible points to an ethic of inclusion, welcome, and love as the norm for God’s people. The Biblical witness is overwhelming on this matter: we are to love everyone, period. There are no qualifiers included about how that love can be skipped over when it might damage the church or disturb those who (like me) reside comfortably in the heterosexual majority. There are no restrictions on that love, suggesting that we should love everyone, but loving them doesn’t mean ordaining them. “For there is no distinction,” says Paul to the Romans.

This is the Biblical opinion on homosexuality: “What homosexuality?” This is in part because the Bible doesn’t know about homosexuality, since when the Bible was written homosexuality didn’t exist in its modern sense. But even if it had existed, the Bible would still ask, “What homosexuality?,” because it would be a distinction, a division among God’s people—the kind of thing that Christ obliterates.

If we are to be a people rooted in the Scriptures, then this should be our approach as well: to recognize no distinction among God’s people. And if, as a church, we choose to continue on our path of denying full inclusion to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual people, then we ought to do so with the recognition that we are being un-Biblical—that we are doing so in conflict with the very book we claim to revere.

But I think we should be Biblical. I think we should look to our heritage, which is to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent. The Bible speaks of love, of unity, of no distinctions between us. And the Bible is silent about condemning homosexuality—it is absolutely silent. So let’s be Biblical. Let’s move toward full inclusion of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and questioning sisters and brothers. Let us recognize no distinction.