There is an old joke that asks, “What do you call a man who loves another man?” The answer: “a Christian.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that Christians are foremost among those who object to a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman?

By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, deciding whether gay marriage should be legal across the country—a decision that will alter the social fabric of the nation. Such a decision will be a huge win for gay marriage advocates, but the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community will continue to fight legal battles over equal rights for decades. And they will continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the church.

A majority of American voters say they support a Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry, but the issue remains far from settled among socially conservative religious communities that have repeatedly proclaimed biblical support for human injustice. Christine Smith writes:

Through its theologies, biblical interpretations, and sexual ethics, the Christian church is one of the primary institutions that provide a foundation for social and ecclesiastical oppression of lesbians and gay men.

(Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance)

Yet a growing number of other Christians are challenging traditional religious thinking, rejecting homophobia and heterosexism because of a different set of theological and biblical perspectives. The result has been enormous conflict in the church. Sexual issues are tearing churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago. Long after this matter is settled in secular society, churches will continue to argue over the struggle between ancient revealed truth and contemporary human justice.

every sperm is sacred

According to Genesis, God created sex between Adam and Eve to insure the propagation of the human race. “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.’” (Genesis 1:28) For a small nation struggling to become great, reproduction was vital to the people of ancient Israel. Any sperm not used for procreation defeated Yahweh’s promise to Abraham that “I will give you more descendants than can be counted.” (Genesis 17:2) Acts of coitus interruptus (Genesis 38:9) and gay sex (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13) were condemned. These and other texts led later theologians of the Roman Catholic Church to forbid masturbation and artificial birth control. As the unemployed Catholic father sang to his sixty-three children in Monty Python’s film “The Meaning of Life”:

Every sperm is sacred.
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

Humankind has certainly been fruitful. By the time of Jesus, the global population had reached about 200 million people. We are now at over seven billion and will expand to eight billion in the next nine years. It’s time for God to say, “Enough already!” Yet some churches adamantly oppose the use of contraceptives and argue that the only legitimate reason for marriage is procreation.

Religious conservatives seem to be obsessed with sex. It’s all about the naughty bits. But where does love come into the equation? Marriage is far more than sex. Just ask anyone who has been married for thirty years. Sexual infatuation quickly fades; but love, partnership, and companionship form the bedrock of a lasting relationship. The discussion about same-sex marriage ought to be more about who you love, honor, and cherish than about what kind of genitalia they are equipped with.

straight men having gay sex

In the coming years scientists will likely prove that naturally occurring genetic and physiological causes determine our human sexual orientation. If homosexuality is not a question of “lifestyle choice,” then we have to deal with the validity of scripture in understanding the world around us. Is the Bible God’s unchanging and literally true word, or is it the product of human authors in Hebrew and Greco-Roman communities who wrote through the lens of their cultural biases? We must ask ourselves whether the Bible represents God’s final word to us on this and other topics, or whether the God of love still speaks to us through scientific knowledge, reason, and human compassion.

The few biblical passages that condemn homosexual behavior were shaped by a pre-modern worldview in which sexual orientation was unknown and unimaginable. Humans were either male or female. A naturally-occurring continuum of variation between these polarities was inconceivable. In a patriarchal system obsessed with shame and honor, the idea of a man taking on the sexual role of a woman was shameful and detestable. (Because women did not count, lesbian sex is never mentioned or condemned.) But let’s be clear—all condemnation of gay sex in the Bible assumes a situation in which both men are heterosexuals. If everyone is heterosexual, then engaging in homosexual sex would be seen as “unnatural” or as the Hebrew Bible says, an “abomination.” But for homosexually-oriented men, gay sex is a natural expression of their longing and desire; for them heterosexual sex would be an unnatural act.

holiness barriers

In the New Testament, we witness a struggle between two ways of being religious. For the Pharisees, religion was based on a life of holiness, purity, and separation from everything unclean—food, animals, activities, and people. The contrasting religion of Jesus was one of love and compassionate action. Jesus was constantly criticized for healing unclean people and sharing meals with socially condemned “sinners”—a sign of his acceptance and even approval. The Pharisees were scandalized by his impropriety, but Jesus never minded creating a scandal. In one interchange, Jesus told the Pharisees that prostitutes would enter the kingdom of God ahead of sanctified religious leaders with a holier-than-thou attitude. Unfortunately, this is still probably true. Good church folks may be very surprised by who they find ahead of them in God’s reign.

Pre-modern patriarchal systems of leadership, control, and domination are still in place, especially in the church. It is men who most often make the rules about who is in and who is out, who can lead and who can’t. Some of us still remember when Christians used the color of one’s skin to define acceptability into church fellowship. More recently, it is a person’s gender and sexual orientation that are used to define acceptability into leadership positions. In regard to marriage, many of the same churches voicing opposition to same-sex matrimony were also opposed to inter-racial nuptials not that long ago.

Between the holiness codes of Leviticus and Paul’s comments in Romans, the church has created a separation—a barrier—to the full inclusion of LGBT Christians. To be accepted, many churches demand a holiness requirement of celibacy. Homosexuals are welcomed into fellowship only as long as they deny their sexuality and live contrary to their nature. If they express their love in a sexual relationship with a committed partner, they are considered moral failures and are decidedly unwelcome. In most churches, clergy are forbidden to bless same-sex relationships. In far too many Christian denominations, gays and lesbians are considered unworthy of ordination. Civil society is moving much faster than the church to accept homosexual people as full citizens with the same rights and privileges as heterosexuals.

no longer straight and gay

Like race and gender, sexual orientation is part of the diversity of the human family. And it should be part of the diversity in the church. To paraphrase Paul: in Christ there is no longer white or black, male or female, straight or gay. For Paul, all people had become equal members of the remarkable new family that God was creating. All were necessary parts of the body of Christ. And all were equally sinful. Paul would likely say to church today as he did to the early church in Rome,

What shall we conclude then? Are we heterosexuals any better? No, not at all! We have already made the charge that everyone—straights and gays alike—are under the power of sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one who is righteous, not even one.’ (My paraphrase of Romans 3:9–10)

It was also Paul who said,

Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you. (Romans 15:7)

In this debate, we are observing the pre-modern worldview of the biblical writers coming face-to-face with the scientific inquiry of modernity in an increasingly secular society. As scientific studies move forward and we learn more about human sexual orientation, the church may once again find itself on the wrong side of history. As we enter the postmodern age, those clinging to the ideas and absolutes of the past will lose more and more credibility, particularly among the young. We know that increasing numbers of young people view the church negatively based on a vocal minority who display intolerance and hostility toward gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons, and a lack of compassion for the injustices they daily suffer. All too often, the public face of the church has failed to live up to the injunction to “love one another.” As younger generations continue to embrace new social and sexual realities, the rigid and unchanging Christianity of the conservative church will most likely be left in the dust.