Oliver Thomas, a retired Baptist minister, has written, “American churches must reject literalism and admit we got it wrong on gay people.” It appears in USA Today where he is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors.
There’s nothing new in churchmen rejecting God’s Word for the world’s word. False teachers inside the church were a problem in the first century. Paul described them as “savage wolves” (Acts 20:28-30).
He wrote something similar 13 years ago. He began his 2006 article with the following question: “What if Christian leaders are wrong about homosexuality?” His 2019 article is similar but with an added twist. Thomas contends that the Bible is riddled with errors, so any moral pronouncements the Bible makes regarding same-sex sexuality are suspect. Does this include laws against murder, theft, tripping blind people, adultery, and kidnapping? Thomas uses slavery as an example of where the Bible is wrong:
The most difficult challenges arise when the teachings of Scripture are contradicted by reason and experience. Slavery is the best — or perhaps worst — example. In hindsight, we can see the obvious. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not leave room for the enslavement of others. But Southerners had Scripture on their side. Slaves were admonished to submit to their masters in the writings of both Peter and Paul. The Hebrew Scriptures likewise considered slavery as part of the divine order.
Actually, slavery is condemned in the Bible if we’re talking about manstealing or kidnapping that set the slave trade in motion. Here’s the biblical prohibition: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him, or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 21:16). That should have been clear to people who supported the slave trade. Following this law would have stopped the slave trade dead in its tracks.
Slavery as indentured servanthood for the repayment of a property crime or a debt is neither condemned in Scripture or in the Constitution. The 13th Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Indentured servitude is better than locking someone up in a cage.
Thomas quotes the Bible in defense of His claim that the Bible is unreliable on slavery and same-sex sexuality: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus (Matt. 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27) and NT writers frequently quote this passage (Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). It’s originally found in Leviticus 19:18, sandwiched between two chapters that prohibit same-sex relationships (18:22; 20:13). Note that Jesus defines the marriage relationship as between a man and a woman (Matt. 19:3-5), the same chapter where He quotes Leviticus 19:18.
Oliver Thomas is terribly confused, inconsistent, and incoherent.
He began his 2006 article by claiming that “homosexuality is … determined at birth and is not to be condemned by God’s followers.” Later in the article he writes that there is “mounting scientific evidence that sexual orientation has little or nothing to do with choice.” The “mounting scientific evidence” is inconclusive at best and fraudulent at worst.1 It doesn’t explain people who have rejected their homosexual behavior.
The Elusive “Gay Gene”
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Thomas’ assessment of the “mounting scientific evidence” for a “gay gene” is correct. How does a genetic cause support the claim that homosexuality is a behavior that should be supported by the church and turned into a civil rights issue? The behavior is irrational in terms of the sexual “equipment” used, self-inhibiting (no progeny except by artificial means), unsanitary, and disease-causing (AIDS). Surely science has something to say about these issues.
Then there is the problem of other behaviors that claim to have a genetic cause. Consider the following:
- “Some of us, it seems, were just born to be bad. Scientists say they are on the verge of pinning down genetic and biochemical abnormalities that predispose their bearers to violence. An article in the journal Science . . . carried the headline EVIDENCE FOUND FOR POSSIBLE ‘AGGRESSION’ GENE.”2
- “Why do gamblers often bet more after a losing hand? Or investors throw good money after bad? The answer may lie in the science of the brain.”3
- “Is racism simply human nature or something learned from society? Neither, says a team of psychologists who, despite criticism, argue that racism represents an accidental side effect of evolution.”4
- A recent article published in The Sciences, a New York Academy of Science magazine, stated that “rape is a ‘natural, biological’ phenomenon, springing from men’s evolutionary urge to reproduce.”5
Why is it that only homosexuality gets a genetic pass? If we follow Thomas’ logic, should we decriminalize violent acts, racism, and rape if some scientist claims that they have a genetic or evolutionary cause? Will he ask the question, “What if Christian leaders are wrong about violence, aggression, racism, and rape given new scientific information based on genetic studies?”
The Galileo Affair
In his 2006 article, Thomas brings up Galileo as a way of trying to demonstrate that the church has been wrong before, so it could be wrong again. What he fails to tell his readers, and is probably unaware of himself, is the church of the 17th century and before had embraced the science of the day over what the Bible taught. The church had adopted an Aristotelian cosmology and interpreted the Bible through its distorted lens.
Charles E. Hummel writes, “The real authoritarianism that engineered Galileo’s downfall was that of the Aristotelian scientific outlook in the universities. Only after Galileo had attacked that establishment for decades did his enemies turn their controversy into a theological issue.”6 Preaching in terms of today’s scientific absolutism, as the church in Galileo’s day found out, is risky.
Jimmy Carter Said Something Similar
Thomas’ article is like one written by former president Jimmy Carter that carried the title “Judge Not.”7 Like Thomas, Carter reserves his jabs for the “religious right.” He considers abortion and homosexuality to be “emotional” not moral or theological issues. He spouts the all too familiar platitude about believing in the “separation between church and state,” implying that civil laws have no religious or moral context. He seems to forget that the civil rights movement was framed in biblical terms and was led mostly by ministers. Carter wrote that “it is much easier and more convenient [for the religious right] to focus on homosexuality [rather than divorce and fornication]” than to acknowledge that the sin of homosexuality “is never mentioned by Jesus.” What’s disturbing is that Carter teaches Sunday school on a regular basis and Thomas was a pastor.
Thomas, like Carter, makes a typical hermeneutical mistake by arguing that since Jesus did not condemn homosexuality, then neither should we. Let’s follow this logic and see where it takes us. Jesus did not condemn rape, kidnapping, incest, or bestiality. The New Testament assumes the validity of the Old Testament moral law, including its ethical demands regarding adultery, homosexuality, and abortion. What did the early church use before the gospels were written? The church at Corinth did not have the letters Paul wrote to Galatia and Ephesus. The Christians at Berea examined “the Scriptures daily” to see whether Paul’s theology was orthodox (Acts 17:11).
The Scriptures were what we call the Old Testament. Older or Earlier Testament is a better description. Jesus’ words and Paul’s letters are filled with allusions and quotations from the Old Testament, what was simply described as “Scripture” (Mark 12:10; Acts 8:32; Rom. 4:3; 1 Tim. 4:13; 5:18; James 2:8; 2 Peter 1:20). Paul tells us what we should think of all of God’s Word, the Old Testament included: “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Paul was not a New-Testament-only believer, and he did not preach a New-Testament-only ethic.
The New Testament, therefore, must be read and interpreted against the backdrop of the Old Testament. There is no New-Testament or red-letter ethic. This means that Jesus’ carefully chosen words have an Old Testament context. The word “fornication” (porneia) includes numerous sexual sins under the general heading of “uncleanness.”
[Fornication] is used in the LXX for homosexuality, for consanguinity, and by Paul for “uncleanness” and “lasciviousness.” In Rom. 1:29, it refers to sexual sins in general; in I Cor. 6:13–18, it refers to relations with prostitutes (vss. 15, 16) and to sexual sins generally; in I Cor. 7:2, it means adultery and mental or physical sexual disorders through forced continence and bad relations between husband and wife.8
In 1 Corinthians 5:1 the word “fornication” is used twice to refer to a sin which was being tolerated by the church: a man was having sexual relations with his stepmother, something Jesus did not specifically condemn but which is condemned under the general prohibition of “fornication” (see Lev. 18:8; Deut. 22:30; 27:20). In Paul’s list of sexual sins in Romans 1:29, the apostle includes fornication, a term which meant all acts of sexual immorality, including homosexuality. So then, the Old Testament (Deut. 24:1), Jesus (Matt. 5:32 and 19:9),9 and Paul condemn fornication (1 Cor. 7:2), which includes the sin of homosexuality.
If God Made Homosexuals, Did He Make Pedophiles?
Thomas appeals to Genesis 1:31 where it states, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Thomas comments: “If God created us and if everything he created is good, how can a gay person be guilty of being anything more than what God created him or her to be?” This is sloppy logic. Let’s play fill-in-the-blank: “If God created us and if everything he created is good, how can a pedophile, rapist, murderer, or thief be guilty of being anything more than what God created him or her to be?”
Thomas then moves to Romans 1 where he writes: “[T]the writings of the Apostle Paul at first lend credence to the notion that homosexuality is a sin, until you consider that Paul most likely is referring to the Roman practice of pederasty, a form of pedophilia common in the ancient world. Successful older men often took boys into their homes as concubines, lovers or sexual slaves.”
What a minute! Earlier Thomas argued that in terms of Jesus’ ministry we “won’t find a single reference to homosexuality.” We won’t find a single reference to pederasty or pedophilia, so, to follow Thomas’ logic, Jesus couldn’t be condemning this practice.
Notice how he frames his argument: “Paul most likely is referring to the Roman practice of pederasty.” The text doesn’t say this. Here’s how Paul puts it: “and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom. 1:27). He doesn’t say “men with children”; it’s “men with men.” If Paul wanted to say, “men with children,” there are several Greek words he could have chosen to make the point.
How does Thomas’ argument comport with Paul’s description of the homosexual actions of women who “exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural” (1:26)? Men having sex with men, women having sex with women are described by Paul as “unnatural” behaviors; unnatural in terms of creation, and unnatural in terms of biblical law.
Thomas makes two final points. First, he appeals to Matthew 7:1 and Jesus’ command not to judge. Once again, it surprising for a pastor, even a former pastor, to quote a verse as if the passage does not have a broader context. In 7:2, Jesus says that judging must be applied consistently. If we only cite what Jesus says in 7:1, then Thomas’ entire article is in violation of its out-of-context application since he is judging those who are judging.
Second, Thomas points to Jesus’ command “to love other people as we love ourselves” (Matt. 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27) as a new example that we should follow. Jesus did a whole lot of judging (John 5:30) and loving, and He tells us to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24), so we can’t assume that love and judgment are mutually exclusive actions.
- For example, “Is There a ‘Gay Gene,’?” (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality): http://www.narth.com/docs/istheregene.html). [↩]
- Dennis Overbye, “Born to Raise Hell?,” Time (February 21, 1994), 76. [↩]
- Faye Flam, “Study: Reckless gambler, blame your brain,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 22, 2002), A18. [↩]
- Dan Vergano, “Racism may have evolutionary link,” USA Today (December 11, 2001), 11. [↩]
- Dan Vergano, “‘Natural, biological’ theory of rape creates instant storm,” USA Today (January 28, 2000), 8D. [↩]
- Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 122–123. [↩]
- Jimmy Carter, “Judge Not,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (February 27, 1996), A17. [↩]
- Rousas J. Rushdoony, “Fornication,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. Philip E. Hughes (Marshallton, DE: The National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972), 4:232. [↩]
- Fornication is not a synonym for adultery (see Matt. 15:19; 1 Cor. 6:9; Gal. 5:19; Heb. 13:4). [↩]