THE Christian debate about human sexuality has primarily revolved around a small number of sexually specific biblical texts. What effect might it have if we were to select our material differently?
Take, for example, St Mark’s Gospel. Jesus conducts exorcisms and heals people. He tells people that their sins are forgiven — which is understood by the religious authorities as blasphemous, since only God can forgive sins. He spends time with people identified by others as sinful, such as tax collectors. He does not uphold religious disciplines, such as fasting and sabbath observance.
Jesus’s interventions in his society and faith community were radical, and were not appreciated by everyone. Early in his Gospel, Mark explores two responses: those of Jesus’s family, and of the scribes from Jerusalem.
Jesus’s family were worried that he was “out of his mind”, and they wanted “to restrain him”. Like the Gerasene demoniac, who also had to be restrained, Jesus was breaking boundaries: he was disruptive, a risk to himself and to social order. He retreated to deserted places.
Jesus was also perceived as undermining religious observance and good morals. He assumed authority beyond his station. He was not eating properly, and was losing sleep.
THE scribes’ concerns about Jesus were very different. They saw him as a blasphemer. He kept the wrong kind of company. The scribes were concerned about doing and saying the right thing, and Jesus did not conform. He had more popular authority than they had, and they felt threatened.
It is possible that the scribes were cynical and hypocritical, and cared nothing about true religion. In this instance, their accusations that Jesus was demon-possessed were nothing more than deliberate and vindictive attempts to damage his reputation. I suspect, however, that the truth was more complicated than that. Whatever self-doubts they may have had, I think the scribes genuinely did think that they were upholding what was right.
THE human heart has a capacity to persuade itself that it is in the right when, actually, it is wrong. It can find faults in others while remaining blind to its own failings. Jesus speaks about this in various places in the Gospels, not least in the parable of the mote and the beam (found in Matthew and Luke, but not, interestingly, in Mark).
Mark draws our attention to this through Jesus’s engagement with the scribes. Oblivious to the evil in their hearts, they perceive themselves as guardians of the true faith. They argue that Jesus does not bring good news of the Kingdom of God, but rather that he is an agent of the kingdom of Beelzebul.
Jesus responds with an argument concerning the inevitable fall of a kingdom divided against itself, and with a parable about how to plunder the house of a strong man; but the scribes see no wisdom in this, and Jesus offers a warning. They have rejected the source of the forgiveness that they themselves desperately need; they have seen the work of the Holy Spirit as the work of an unclean spirit. They have turned good news into bad news.
AT THE end of chapter 3, Jesus asks who are really his family, and tells us that they are those who do the will of God. The trouble is, all the characters in this story thought that they were doing God’s will. So, how can we know if we are doing the will of God? Mark does not offer us a simple formula for knowing God’s will, but emphasises the liberating freedom to do God’s will which the Kingdom of God brings. This Kingdom is good news. It can appear to be madness, it can appear to be completely contrary to traditional religious respectability, but it brings healing, forgiveness, and life.
What, then, is the good news for those who do not conform to sexual or gender stereotypes? Science shows us that homosexuality is not a medical disorder but a part of the natural diversity of God’s creation. It is not something about themselves that people can change; nor can it be changed by psychotherapy or medication. Many Christians testify that it does not even seem to be changed by prayer. Similar considerations apply to transgender identity (a very different condition, not to be confused with homosexuality).
THE stigma and prejudice that gay, lesbian, and transgender people have suffered in the Church and wider society have been enormous. The scientific evidence shows that they have suffered significant harm as a result of this in terms of its impact on their mental health. I cannot read Mark’s Gospel without thinking that Jesus would have been concerned about this. I cannot read the science without thinking that I am a part of the society and the Church that bear responsibility for it.
Many Christians have been deeply unsettled by texts, drawn mainly from the Old Testament and the Pauline epistles, which appear to assert that their homosexual desires, or transgender identity, might place them outside God’s Kingdom. Mark’s Gospel, however, encourages us to entertain the possibility that their salvation might be completely contrary to traditional religious expectations.
Jesus sided with sinners, and appeared to break the law. In doing so, he did not abolish biblical morality, but radically challenged traditional interpretations of it.
SOME of us have not been unsettled enough. The human capacity to invert right and wrong in the name of religion is no less pernicious now than it was when Jesus warned the scribes of the dangers of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. To accuse others and not ourselves is to miss the point entirely. Have we turned the good news into bad news for gay, lesbian, and transgender people? Are we deceiving ourselves about both the biblical texts and the scientific evidence that show that we are all in need of forgiveness?
This works both ways, and there is no place for casual disregard of clear biblical teaching. Self-righteous liberalism is no less a problem than self-righteous biblical conservatism. The texts that are explicit concerning same-sex relationships, however, were written in a pre-scientific culture. They are amenable to very different interpretations now, just as are the Genesis creation narratives. Mark encourages us to entertain the possibility of reading such texts differently.
MY PURPOSE here is not to suggest that this is the last word on what the Bible has to say about human sexuality, but, rather, to plead that we might move away from a narrow focus on sexually specific texts and turn to what we find at the heart of the Gospels. Our interpretation of the Bible can helpfully be informed by what science teaches us about human sexuality. Sometimes, it can provide good news of freedom, forgiveness, and new life in ways that we did not expect.
Jesus seems to have been willing to challenge traditional interpretations of scripture. More importantly, he challenges us about our human tendency to exonerate ourselves and blame others. At the very least, we need to learn to pursue our disagreements with humility. We need to entertain the possibility that it might be Jesus with whom we are arguing.
Professor Cook is a member of the Social and Biological Sciences Thematic Working Group, one of the thematic groups working under the aegis of a co-ordinating group to formulate the proposed Episcopal Teaching Document on Human Sexuality for the Church of England. The views expressed here are his own.