Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

GLBT Persons in the Church: A Positive Word from Jesus?

It is commonly said by those on all sides of this debate that Jesus said nothing whatsoever pertaining to “homosexuality.”  Traditionalists conclude that Jesus simply accepted the Levitical prohibitions (and the negative view of 1st C. Judaism) without question.  Revisionists conclude that Jesus was unconcerned about same-sex issues and that contemporary Christians are free to take Jesus’ overall liberating views on the dignity and equality of all persons as our guide.

But there is one ambiguous passage in the Gospels in which Jesus MAY have indicated an openess to same-sex covenantal love.  I want to be very cautious here.  I have been told about a Norwegian woman (a Baptist pastor, actually) who completed a Ph.D. in New Testament at the University of Manchester in the U.K.  She investigated this pericope rather thoroughly. But the dissertation has not yet been published and so I have not seen the evidence for her conclusions. So, what follows, is a possibility that bears further investigation–but without that further investigation would be (in Lee’s words about how Richard Hays treats Rom. 1 on the other side of this debate) “too thin a reed on which to build a case one way or the other.”

In Matthew 19, Jesus condemns divorce (except for porneia, indicating some kind of sexual sin, usually thought to be adultery), using God’s created intentions to overturn Mosaic law (which allowed men to seek divorce). The disciples, blown away by the idea that they may have learn conflict resolution with their wives, mutter that it may be better not to marry at all.

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; others have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The one who can accept this word, should do so.” Matt. 19:11-12.

Now, traditionally, this passage has been interpreted to mean that Jesus was advocating celibacy, but that is not clear.

  • The word “eunuchs” is not really an English translation of the Greek ενουκοι. Rather, it is simply a transliteration. 
  • Because of the influence of the KJV, modern English uses the term “eunuch” to mean a castrated male. But did the term have that meaning in the ancient world?
  • In the dissertation to which I have referred (but I have seen only a summary, not the evidence),  a broad range of materials is consulted and it seems that “eunuch” had a much wider meaning in the 1st C. Mediterranean world–referring to any male who deviated from the cultural norm of marrying and begetting children. It was even used to refer to men who married and did not beget children. It was also used, I am given to understand, to refer to men who had longterm male lovers–NOT to pederasts or to temple prostitutes, etc.
  • Now, traditionally, this passage has been used to endorse celibacy, but the topic under discussion is marriage.
  • Jesus says that some are eunuchs (that is, men who do not marry and beget children) because they were made that way by men. These are probably castrated males such as many cultures used for herem guards.
  • Jesus says that some make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the early church, Origen took this to mean that some should castrate themselves and he did so.  Fortunately, most of the church did not follow this pattern.  Those who would be “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” have been voluntarily celibate–as apparently Jesus and Paul were. (In light of his belief that Jesus would return any minute, Paul wished all Christians were “as I am”–apparently meaning celibate, but recognized that it took a special gift of the Spirit. 1 Cor. 7:7–a chapter in which Paul also indicates that an acceptable basis for Christian (heterosexual) marriage is to control one’s otherwise uncontrollable lust! Nice.)
  • Jesus says some eunuchs “were born that way.” Is he talking only of males born with some genital defect? Or is referring also to men who do not marry and have children because they were born with desires for their own sex?

Caution: Even if Jesus has people we would call “gay” or “lesbian,” those with homosexual orientation, in mind as part of the category of “born eunuchs,” the passage does not indicate what Jesus would have them do–except that it is clear that, contrary to his own Jewish culture, he does not order them to marry or condemn them for not marrying.  “Family” takes on broader than biological meaning in Christianity.  But Jesus does not say, “all born eunuchs must remain celibate,” either.

Is this a veiled positive word for gay and lesbian Christians?  I don’t think it is clear, but I do think it is a possibility worth further investigation.

Let those accept this who can.

Next, I will wind up this series by moving beyond reading of the few texts in Scripture relating to this topic to giving a theological rationale for welcoming and affirming GLBT Christians fully into the life of the church, including blessing same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage.

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January 20, 2011 - Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, blog series, ethics, GLBT issues, moral discernment

1 Comment »

  1. […] Matt. 19:11-12: A Positive Word from Jesus? […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: Index « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | January 20, 2011 | Reply


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