Homosexuality is without a doubt the most controversial issue facing the Church today.
The consensus of our nation on this topic has shifted dramatically in just the past few years, as the recent SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage has made clear. Christians are divided over whether to support or condemn Kentucky clerk Kim Davis’ decision to not sign marriage licenses for gay couples. In 2014, Matthew Vines argued that support can be found in Scripture for same sex relationships (God and the Gay Christian).
How do we as Christians reconcile what Scripture seems to clearly teach about homosexuality with the reality that people we know and love identify with the LGBTQ community? And increasingly LGBTQ folks are even “coming out” as Christians.
Recently, New Testament scholar J. R. Daniel Kirk (a friend whose office was next to mine when I first came to my seminary) concluded just as the early church was led by God to embrace Gentiles into “full inclusion” in the body of Christ, so the church today should welcome and affirm Christians from the LGBTQ community. While I agree with what Kirk says at the beginning of his post, “the Bible speaks out with one voice against same-sex intercourse, across both testaments,” despite his compelling argument I can’t agree with his final conclusion.
The inclusion of Gentiles, as shocking as it was to the early believers, was foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis 1. However, God’s ideal for marriage (one man, one woman, together, forever) was established in Genesis 2, and confirmed throughout the rest of Scripture. While it may appear that the Bible supports many “ideals” for marriage, as this infographic suggests, unlike the eventual inclusion of the Gentiles, there are no hints that God’s perspective on marriage changes in the Old Testament, in the New Testament or in the period of the early church. I discuss these non-ideal models of sexuality found in Scripture in my new book, Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan, 2015).
The Story of Sodom
So, what can Christians do who want both to take Scripture seriously and to love LGBTQ folks sincerely? There are a lot of books out there that offer insights on both sides of the issue, but the best place to start is the story of Sodom. Yes, Sodom, where the issue of homosexuality first seems to be mentioned in Scripture.
The city of Sodom is generally known for two things, homosexual behavior and divine judgment (the fire and brimstone kind), but both of these perceptions are actually misleading. As is often the case with Scripture, it’s a bit more complicated. I go into more depth on Sodom’s story in my book, but I’ll retell it here briefly.
When you ask someone who knows their Bible about Sodom, they typically bring up Genesis 19 where the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand that Lot send out his two angelic guests so they could get to “know” them in the biblical sense.
But if you ask someone who really knows their Bible, they’ll tell you Genesis 19 isn’t the first place Sodom is mentioned. In Genesis 13, when Abraham and his nephew Lot have a conflict and need to separate their flocks and herds, Lot picks first and chooses the area near Sodom. The text then informs us that the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners (Gen. 13:13). What did their wickedness involve? We’ll come back to that question.
The last people to be described as greatly wicked were the people of Noah’s day who were destroyed, as you may have heard, by a flood (Gen. 6-7). One might therefore expect something similar to happen to Sodom. Although it can’t be a flood (assuming God remembers the rainbow: Gen. 9:16), but God presumably has other phenomena in his smiting arsenal, including as we’ll see later, fire and brimstone. At this point in the text, we don’t know what their wickedness involves, but the fact that Sodom isn’t destroyed immediately reveals that God was patient, and slow to anger toward the evil residents of Sodom, which shouldn’t surprise us because God is frequently described in this manner (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Psa. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Nah. 1:3). Unfortunately, Christians are not generally described like God in this regard (at least, I’m not).
We don’t have to go far in the text to encounter the Sodomites again as they are part of a five city alliance that was captured in battle by a four-city alliance (Gen. 14). The story is confusing with the names of nine unfamiliar kings and eight unfamiliar cities (assuming Sodom is familiar), but here’s the gist of it—Sodom and their allies need deliverance, and their rescuer is none other than Abraham, presumably because his nephew Lot was among the captives. During their post-battle celebration, the mysterious priest Melchizedek appears and declares that God was the ultimate cause of the victory. Instead of destroying wicked Sodom, God first delivers them in battle, and his servant Abraham risks his life and that of his men to rescue them. As shocking as this is, there’s more to come.
Abraham later hosts a dinner party that includes God and two angels (Gen. 18). While God is musing about his plans to send his angels to see if things are really as evil down in Sodom as he’s heard, Abraham overhears, and begins a negotiation process with God. The patriarch asks how many righteous people would be necessary for God to relent and not destroy the city: 50? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? Along the way, Abraham twice pleads for God to not get angry at him for his bold requests, because no one wants to be the cause of divine wrath—look what happened to Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:1-8). Abraham knew that he was risking his life here, making this the second time that he has done so for the city of Sodom.
God’s Reconnaissance and Warning
Abraham’s behavior toward wicked Sodom is surprising, but not as surprising as God’s. He’s not only slow to anger, but he also wants to make sure things are as bad as he’s heard so he sends his angels to check it out. Why does an omniscient God need to do reconnaissance? It’s hard to say, but it appears that he wants to make sure, as if he didn’t really want to destroy them.
The angels discover that there aren’t ten righteous people in Sodom as the whole city demands to have sex with them (not sure how that would have worked). Fortunately, God intervenes to stop it, as well as to prevent Lot’s stupid counter offer (“Here, take my daughters instead”) from being realized. But the angels aren’t visiting Sodom just to gather intel, they also warn Lot, his family, and anyone else who is willing to listen that judgment is coming (Gen. 19:12-13). Tragically, for Sodom no one other than Lot and his family heed God’s warning.
While we all know what Sodom is known for, the text never actually records homosexual behavior taking place in Sodom. We need to read our Bibles more carefully. What they wanted to do to the angels would have been a homosexual act, but it went way beyond that—a gang rape, a crime of violence and sexual abuse, similar to what the Gibeahites do to the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19 (see my blog post here). The men of Sodom are stopped by God this time, but it would be naïve to assume that this was the first time they had attempted something like this.
In Genesis we see that Sodom was guilty of violence, sexual abuse, and a lack of hospitality since they made it a habit of taking advantage of foreigners. But the book of Ezekiel expands on this list as they itemize the sins of Sodom which include pride, gluttony, and a lack of caring for the poor (Ezek. 16:49-50). That sounds like a description of a lot of people I know, including me. As a prideful person, according to Ezekiel 16, I am a Sodomite.
We are all Sodomites
But in reality, we are all essentially Sodomites, worthy of judgment. Whether it’s pride, or any other sin, we all deserve death just like the residents of Sodom. The gospel isn’t primarily about people of any sexual orientation being worthy of inclusion; no one is worthy. The good news is that despite our wickedness, God extends mercy, as he did to Sodom.
God was shockingly merciful toward Sodom. Judgment did eventually come for the city as they never repented and persisted in their evil (Gen. 19:24), but only after God was compassionate—slow to anger, delivering them in battle, investigating their sinfulness, and warning them of punishment.
Abraham modeled the compassion of God as he twice risked his life for the people of Sodom.
Are Christians today generally known to be like Abraham, interceding on behalf of, and even risking their lives for people who are associated with the sins of Sodom? Tragically, no.
Abraham gives us a bold model of risky love toward all people who desperately need to receive God’s grace.
For a bit more in relation to this subject, see my article, “David Was a Rapist, Abraham was a Sex Trafficker” over at Christianity Today.