This is an Other Sheep web page
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson
|An Article by Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson, Other Sheep
Coordinator for Thailand
|"Here I am on the cusp of seventy
years of age . . . a Presbyterian
pastor and missionary" ministering to
fifty or sixty "queers and queens" in
"this northern Thai village context."
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson
with Pramote, his Thai partner
of ten years.
|What’s a Gay Christian
Dr. Kenneth Dobson
|"What's a Gay Christian to Do?"
The problem that we gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) Christians have in the
Church these days is that we are told we are wrong to be the way we are. We will have to do
something about the way we are in order to conform to the Church’s theological standards.
But most of us have been through that. We have done our level best to change and it was the
wrong thing to try to do. Incredible as it first seemed, the thing that actually has to happen is
that the majority Church, the traditional thinkers who are stuck in their thinking and “change
challenged” will have to change. And the first thing that has to change for Protestants is
The basic stance of Christian GLBT theologians is that when Paul and the Pauline writers were
mentioning homosexuality they were talking about the Greco-Roman era custom of male
citizens of stature having sexual relations with young male consorts. There are many famous
examples of this, to the point that it can be deduced it was a normal part of mainstream society
throughout New Testament times. Paul and the Pauline writers opposed it. But what was the
homosexuality that was the object of their opposition? And what, exactly, was their level of
Throughout the classical Greek period (say, 500 B.C. to 100 B.C.) and the classical Roman
period (100 B.C. to 300 A.D.) it was assumed that gentlemen citizens of means had a wife as
well as a young male consort (possibly among others). Those were not times when romantic
love and chivalry abounded. The concern of the times was social order and that meant the
need to preserve clear social distinctions between free citizens, freemen who were not citizens,
and slaves. There were further distinctions between relatives, slaves captured in war, aliens
with liberties and rights in the country (city), sojourners passing through who were citizens of
neighboring countries, complete aliens, and many more. Laws and customs restricted who
could be the citizen’s male consort. It was forbidden for the young protégé to be a citizen, and
that eliminated close relatives. The young fellow might be a slave, of course, but was
generally treated as a son and might, in fact, be later freed and adopted as a son and citizen
with even the right to inheritance. In addition, social custom dictated that the young lover must
be at least an older teenager in age, and willing to accept the passive sexual role. In theory,
the sexual encounters were not to involve penetration, so the essential maleness of neither
participant was violated, but it was especially important that the older citizen maintain his
maleness. Still, the relationship was based on superior versus subordinate power exercised by
a patriarchal male, as was the case with all the social relationships of that time.
The critical point for GLBT Christian thinkers is that this sort of same-sex relationship is not at
all like modern same-sex relationships. So the first point of our argument with traditionalists is
that the New Testament never talks about what we mean by homosexuality nowadays. The
fact that Paul and Pauline writers objected to it is irrelevant from the outset. It is like trying to
discuss what Paul said about exploring for water on the moon. It just isn’t there in the
scriptures. In fact, we agree very much with those who oppose using (and thus abusing)
power and status to subjugate and take advantage of others, sexually, politically, economically
and otherwise. But this is not what is going on in very many same-sex relationships. Most
long-term same-sex relationships are based on caring, concern, love; mutuality, sharing,
equality; consent, agreement, commitment; and other aspects of social, cultural and (yes!)
Furthermore, GLBT theologians are encouraged by several strata of scriptural testimony. In
many, sometimes indirect, ways scripture neutralizes the current social stigma attached to
GLBT relationships and character.
First, a number of same-sex relationships are mentioned in the Bible without reprobation.
Often these relationships were in addition to heterosexual relationships and marriages, and in
some cases even aided and abetted them. David’s intimate relationship with Jonathan (Saul’s
son) is called by David “greater than” his love of women, one of whom (Michal, Saul’s
daughter) became David’s first wife. Ruth’s close relationship with her mother-in-law Naomi,
and the way Naomi helped Ruth generate a new marriage with Boaz, is one of the cleverest
and most complicated romantic intrigues in literature. Mary and Martha were apparently not
married to anyone else, although that is not evidence of their gender orientation. Nor is there
any indication of gender orientation in the numerous pairs of New Testament same-sex
missionary teams, both women and men, whose effectiveness Paul did not want compromised
by scandal of homosexual activity which the Jewish target group would not have accepted.
Second, there is even more encouragement from two New Testament accounts. The first
convert to Christianity was the Ethiopian eunuch. Not only was his sexuality as a trans-sexual
individual no impediment to his inclusion in the new Church, Jesus spoke of these surgically
altered people as having rights in the Kingdom. Then Jesus also talked about those who are
“born eunuchs” without being castrated. These could have been inter-sexuals or (not
impossibly) homosexual/homoerotic persons. Jesus says they, too, along with children, have a
place in the Kingdom. Indeed, they are among the limited number receiving special mention in
The other case involved Jesus assisting a Roman military officer. The distraught centurion
came in person to beg Jesus’ help for his critically ill “boy.” Matthew, who probably witnessed
the encounter, used the Greek term pais which means boy, but that was the term also for the
young lover a citizen might have. That would help explain the urgency of the soldier’s feelings,
which were clearly intense. Luke, who knew Greek language and customs and also the Jewish
cultural biases, steered away from calling the patient pais and called him doulos, meaning a
slave, which does not rule out the fellow being the centurion’s lover. Luke left open the
question of why the Roman was so concerned about a mere slave…maybe he was just a
compassionate individual (that would have been a rare trait in a Roman military career
officer). In the account, the focus was on the faith of the Roman, a gentile. Christ’s validation
of this faith would have scandalized the Jewish readers. But we notice that Jesus was not
aggravated by this Roman’s effrontery, nor by his love for the “boy”, if that’s what it was.
All these cases are ambiguous. They do not necessarily add up to scriptural validation of
homosexuality. But they cannot be expunged from scripture either, nor can they be turned
around as has been attempted, to unequivocally deny that scripture was silent about and
tended to countenance same-sex or same-gender relationships.
More directly to the point are the several so-called clear prohibitions in the Old Testament.
These are often cited by the traditionalists to insist that scripture is opposed to homosexuality.
Some of the interpretations are later impositions, as in the notorious case of Sodom. The
earliest sources of the Genesis story of Lot’s defense of the angels says that the citizens of
Sodom involved in the sacrilege included every last person in Sodom. Translations after the
Church had begun its anti-sex campaign makes the key word “men” turning it into a threat of
homosexual rape. For centuries the traditional Jewish interpretation was that the sin was
against traditions of hospitality, which the citizens of Sodom were going to violate. It was that
which indicated the recalcitrance of Sodom so that not even ten people could be counted who
respected God’s order.
The traditionalists’ trump card is the Leviticus holiness code. Here there are prohibitions
against any number of things we would find irrelevant or ludicrous today. Almost all of these
have been laid aside or reinterpreted except by the most conservative Ashkenazi Jews. Even
fundamentalist Christians understand this, with the major exception of supposed homosexual
practices mentioned in Leviticus. There “the laying of a man as with a woman” is still wrong
and not to be tolerated. It is simply assumed that everyone agrees that this refers
unambiguously to a homosexual sexual act. Yet there is no scriptural or cultural authority for
that assumption. At the time the Old Testament book of Leviticus was written the phrase
referred to the male who lay on the bottom with the female above taking the active role. The
phrase did refer to anything about penetration. And furthermore, the judgment against it was
that it was “disgusting” or “improper” – not the much harsher terms that have been used lately
(after the sixteenth century) such as “abomination.” However, presumably, offenders, for the
good of the holiness of the whole community, could be subjected to harsh punishments,
whether they were ever actually imposed or not.
Even so, GLBT and many other Christian theologians refuse to accept any of the holiness
code as still in effect. It was Paul, no less, who argued most persuasively in favor of it being
laid aside in the new Church. Paul and the Pauline writers were adamant and they prevailed in
convincing the Christian leadership to adopt the theological position that Christ had fulfilled the
legal requirements of the holiness code. The code designated who was a Son of Abraham, a
child of God, and subsequently a Christian. The old signs were that the individual was born to
a family with lineage traced back to Abraham certified by the circumcision of the males, and
that they kept a ritually kosher, pure intake of food. Paul argued that this was no longer
necessary, and that, in fact, it obviated the work of Christ and, furthermore, negated the
salvation-atonement which Christ had accomplished, throwing the believer back onto the
impossible performance of the requirements of the law. So the holiness code of ritual purity
and protection is moot, no matter whether it has been correctly interpreted by traditionalists or
not. It doesn’t apply any longer.
But what does apply? There is an ethics in the Church and in the Body of Christ. It is, of
course, the ethics of love. There is a two-fold standard by which actions (and inactions) are to
be judged. Actions are good if they are in the loving best interests of other human beings,
especially those in immediate or great need. And actions are good if they manifest love toward
God, the source of life and goodness. However, these good actions are the result of, and
never the cause of, our acceptability to God. God’s acceptance of us is unconditional just as a
mother’s love is unconditional. The Gospel good news is that grace is unconditional.
That is, of course, an impossibly high standard to emulate. So our holiness, or sanctification,
is a work in progress whereby we grow in our ability to manifest unconditional love, compassion
and goodness. This is a hopeful, progressive theology, and it is made more effective by
certain attendant features. Primary among the aides to living a holy life are the perpetual
assistance of the Holy Spirit who aids one’s living as a child of God and whose presence
ratifies one’s identity as heirs of the promise (that God will be our God and we will be God’s
people) in place of ratification by the holiness code, and the assistance of a community of faith
whose only valid purpose is to transmit the blessings and provide the benefits of mutuality. To
be clear, the Church is an agent of encouragement and nurture, and not an institution charged
to control and punish.
Furthermore, we GLBT Christians would like to be encouraged by the scriptural paradigm
about how patterns of acceptance change. There is no serious doubt on the part of any of us,
GLBT and traditionalist theologians alike, that circumcision is no longer a requirement for the
people of God who accept Christ and the liberation Christ brings. This precedent proves that
in some cases long-held traditions believed to be God-ordained can be laid aside. Another
New Testament era change in attitude documented in Christian scripture is concerning the
order of the expansion of the Kingdom of God. It seems that Jesus may have instructed that
the Gospel was to be first presented to the Jews in the homeland, in Judea and Galilee,
especially in Jerusalem. Then, when it had been accepted by them, it was to be taken to the
quasi-Jews of Samaria, the land in the middle between Judea and Galilee. Finally, it would be
taken to the Jews in the dispersion in distant lands. That was, in fact, the limit of the plan to
have Jesus accepted as the Messiah, the Christ. However, already, even before the Gospels
were written down, this plan was under revision. The vision was expanding exponentially as
the converts began to multiply from the gentiles, those who had never been and never would
be Jews. Luke, especially, among the Gospel writers, testifies that the signs of gentile
acceptance and Jewish recalcitrance were there from the very start of Jesus’ ministry. So
there is a scriptural basis for change, not just of strategy, but of the Church’s understanding of
Throughout history previously narrow definitions of who have full rights in the Kingdom of God
have expanded. Genealogy was replaced by acceptance of Jesus as the Christ. Then
adherence to the holiness code was replaced by evidence of the Holy Spirit’s activity, as an
indication of belonging. The Greco-Roman social status system was ignored in the egalitarian
assemblies of Christians. Then the borders of the empire were broken and the Kingdom
engulfed kingdoms. Lepers, untouchables, and every class of outcast were included
everywhere the Church moved. Then other barriers fell, even though scripture was called to
bolster discrimination and exclusion from full rights of some groups.
The pattern is clear. The trend is toward ever greater inclusion, expansion of perimeters, and
fuller acceptance. Ironically, even though the Church is the world’s model for democracy and
social equality, each of these shifts toward greater inclusion has taken a hard fight and
sometimes the gains have been temporary before a new campaign had to be launched. The
Church is often its own bitterest opponent in these endeavors. It sometimes almost seems that
inclusion comes at the slowest possible pace and with the greatest possible resistance. A
trend which is inevitable and which the Church ought to be promoting is opposed by the whole
Church, then just by a majority, then just the vested elite or the traditionalists, and finally just
by a radical fringe … unless there is a backlash and a relapse. Nevertheless, those who are
excluded from full participation have history on their side.
But these changes take generations, not just decades. What are we to do in the meantime?
Naturally, there is a wide variety of opinion on whether to be passive, active, aggressive or
militant. The majority, unfortunately, seem to have taken the path of withdrawal from the
Church. The more the churches dither and the more they pander to those who hate us, the
more GLBT Christians remove themselves from the Church and the fewer are the GLBT young
people who get involved in the first place. For GLBT theologians this is not a good choice.
Obviously, the option for the most GLBT Christians who remain in the Church is to stay
committed to the struggle for justice, for equality and for parity. We won’t rest until we have
achieved these goals and rescued the Church from its error in excluding and marginalizing us.
We owe it to the Church which God loves and in which we were born and grew into knowledge
of Christ, to work for the Church’s change of attitude. This is a way of struggle and sacrifice,
and it is not for the faint-hearted or the impatient. Along the way we will try to find
congregations and communities who are open and accepting of us providing welcome and
allowing us to exercise our gifts.
Taking the high road and espousing common cause is a viable option for a few. This essay is
about GLBT Christian theology, but there is a still broader circle that expands the issues in the
discussion and therefore the breadth of the campaign. As if the defeat of the traditionalist
theology were not a large enough goal, there are those who are pondering such theological
issues as the parthenogenetic birth of Jesus of the Virgin Mary, the androgynous nature of
Christ, and the feminine nature of the Creator God. Indeed, why are we so intent as
homosexual, bisexual and transgendered Christians to align ourselves and gain acceptance by
heterosexualists and their predominantly patriarchal leaders? Are the ones who are
discovering a circle with a still greater circumference not our allies? There is really no need to
wait to be permitted into the nave of the Church and a still longer wait to be allowed into the
chancel. If this newly developing community of inquiry hasn’t yet fully realized its theology,
they might value our insight and we would certainly benefit from theirs. Then it would someday
be the role of the ones we left behind to do the catching up.
There is one group, or rather a sector without a group, to be considered. That is those who
are shunned or isolated. This includes those, like me to some extent, who have no welcoming
church community in commuting distance, and who live among non-Christians. Here, too, the
traditional strategy is to evangelize the “non-believers” and “plant a church” and help it grow.
But a second theological option for us is not fundamentally different from the one described
above. It is to seek common cause with those who are here ready to construct a community of
faith inside an existing community. In my case that means I join the Buddhist village as a
Christian theologian affirming all that unites us and seeking opportunities to plant
Christological ideas and help them grow.
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