Everything is Blurry
What learning statistics taught me about the bible and my LGBT friends (plus a long appendix on why I don't think the bible can be used to condemn LGBT relations!)
Very few real-life statements can be reduced to simply “true” or “false”. Most things carry with them degrees of uncertainty:
I am essentially certain that humans evolved via natural selection
I believe that Medicare for All would most likely deliver better outcomes than our current system
I think that a death toll in the billions from climate change is unlikely but not unlikely enough to ignore.
And things go really wrong when we try to stuff evidence into a binary “true/false” narrative instead of dealing properly with the uncertainty.
If I wanted to convince you that the minimum wage kills jobs, I might point you to this 2003 paper by Sonia Pereira, which found that a ~35% real increase in the minimum wage for certain Portuguese workers led to a ~10% reduction in employment.
On the other hand, if I wanted to convince you that a high minimum wage is good policy, I would point you to this paper by David Card and Alan Krueger, which found that a ~20% increase in the minimum wage in New Jersey led to a ~13% increase in employment.
What is happening here?
The problem is that I’m framing economic research, which is inherently blurry, as a simple binary: a study arrives at “an” answer, which is “the truth”.
In reality, there are lots of factors complicating minimum wage research: does the wage increase affect all workers, or just teenagers? What else is the economy doing at the time? Which industry am I looking at, and where? How big is the increase? Which of the many statistical methods for establishing causality did I use, and how convincing are the assumptions I had to make?
The result is that while we hope these studies approximate the truth, we shouldn’t think of any individual study as providing “the” answer. We need to piece together a whole bunch of sometimes-contradictory bits of information and hope that a fuller picture emerges. And in this case, it does!
(I stole this graph and its caption from Noah Smith’s post, here.)
There is a clear peak in the (-.1,0) box, corresponding to what’s now emerged as a general economic consensus that “higher minimum wages probably reduce employment a bit, but not that much.”
(Actual economists would also look at the differences between studies when lumping them together, but my “consensus” is written broadly enough to remain true when you do this properly.)
Notice that I said “probably”. Seeing the birds-eye view gives us more information than our best estimate, because it lets us look at a range of possibilities: there seems to be a small-but-nonzero chance that the minimum wage will absolutely wreck the economy, and a similar small-but-nonzero chance that it will boost employment to a ridiculous level. And so we should know that even though most of the evidence is against really bad minimum wage side effects, they might be possible and policy leaders should have a backup plan ready just in case.
The blurriness is not bad. It’s something you need to understand to turn your understanding into good policy.
So what does this have to do with the bible?
Christians like to say things like “The world says X, but the bible says Y, so we have to go with Y.”
In many cases I think this is true: prayer and worship are good and important things even if we can’t scientifically prove that God exists. American society encourages us to be materialistic and self-centered, but the bible calls us to a more generous and communal way of life.
But sometimes it’s not entirely clear if the bible says Y. We instead find ourselves with a handful of verses whose interpretation is unclear or disputed, and too often we find ourselves jumping from “it’s possible that the bible means this” to “the bible definitely means this and anybody who disagrees with me is a heretic,” because we’re too uncomfortable with uncertainty.
This is particularly egregious when the interpretation we land on runs counter to our conscience and reason — it’s true that God is my ultimate authority, but if I’m very sure something looks unloving and not super convinced that the bible commands me to do it, it isn’t right for me to submit to the biblical dictate I’m not convinced exists.
But one need not look very far to find examples of the church doing this:
The slavery debate among white Americans in the early-to-mid 1800s generally pitched the “biblical” pro-slavery side against the “this can’t possibly be what God meant” abolitionist side1.
Early Europeans writing about colonialism regularly say things like “I was absolutely horrified and upset about what was going on, but the bible/church says it is good to convert people by any means necessary” and wrongly conclude that their conscience is a sign of weakness.2
Paul’s advice aimed at women living in a very, very patriarchal society has been taken as normative for all women for all time and led to all sorts of terrible things. Some churches still don’t allow women to hold leadership positions or preach.
With the benefit of hindsight we know that these past instances were wrong, but far too often we put them in a “well obviously the bible doesn’t mean that” box and then go ahead and make the same mistakes. And I think a big fraction of the church is making the same mistake around LGBT people.
First, an aside — I have friends who I really look up to in the celibate gay Christian community, and I want to be clear that even though I disagree with their position (that gay sexual relationships are out of bounds for Christians), I am fully confident that God sees the sacrifice they have made to follow him the way they believe is best, and even if I turn out to be “right” on this question I know that God treasures the devotion they’ve proven through their walk with him more than anything I’ll ever do.
There are two parts of this belief for me:
I think that, in terms of physical and emotional well-being, I believe the evidence is very clear that a fully-affirming sexual ethic shows more love to our LGBT neighbors than a “traditional” one.
I think that the bible is unclear about whether LGBT identities (including sex) are “out of bounds”, and further I think it’s unclear whether we should take the bible’s stance on this sort of question as normative.
I’ll explain a bit of part one here. Part two is in an appendix beneath the “Subscribe Now” button because it’s quite a bit longer.
First, LGBT-affirming policies are unambigously good for the mental health of our LGBT friends and neighbors. Here’s a stark graph: (source)
A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that (if this relation is causal) a lack of LGBT affirmation is causing about a thousand kids each year to take their own lives. This is really really bad, and fits with all the other research in the area.
And the effects on kids who stay alive are still bad: to give just one example from a vast literature, Gattis, Woodford, and Han find that religiosity (unsurprisingly) correlates with fewer symptoms of depression. For LGBT kids, however, they find that this is only true in LGBT-affirming churches — LGBT kids in conservative churches are significantly more depressed than their secular counterparts.
These are not isolated findings. You can find more examples e.g. here or by using Google. I promise you that a substantial minority, if not a majority, of LGBT people you know have been harmed directly by well-meaning churches.
Remember: the majority of gay people you know will continue to be gay for the rest of their lives. If you are straight and affirm a “traditional sexual ethic”, you are asking them to bear the cost of never getting to have a real romantic relationship, never getting married, never having kids, etc. While the church does need to put more effort into being a space of love and growth for single or celibate people, this would be a real and substantial cost even in a perfect church.
If you believe your reading of the bible is worth placing this burden on your siblings in Christ, you’d better be really really certain that you’re correct.
(See the appendix below for why I think you shouldn’t be certain at all.)
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Appendix: The Bible’s Position on LGBT Relationships and Identities is Genuinely Unclear
(content warning — references to sexual assault. None of this is original — its pieced together from a variety of books, articles, and conversations too long ago and too varied to remember exact sources. I will try to add references as I find them. Michael Vines’s “God and the Gay Christian” was probably the first time I heard much of this.)
Most conservative Christian sources cite six “proof texts” to show that homosexuality is a sin. (Trans people usually get lumped into these, because the authors of the bible do not seem to be aware of the existence of trans people and therefore never comment one way or the other. Occasionally people read anti-trans ideas into texts like Genesis 1, but this is of course unsupported by the text.) I will first argue that each of these passages’ interpretation is either unclear or clearly unrelated to homosexuality, and I will conclude by arguing that there are good (and biblical) reasons to rethink the bible’s perspective on this question.
The six texts, as listed by hyper-conservative Christian website gotquestions.org, are Genesis 19:1–13, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.
The first three texts are nearly always cited in bad faith, at least in Christian circles. Let’s see why:
Genesis 19 is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by literal hellfire after the (male) inhabitants attempt to rape two (male-presenting) angels who are staying with Lot (Genesis is weird.)
The fact that parts of the church have regularly interpreted the sinful part of this passage as being “they tried to have gay sex” rather than the fact that the attempted sex was literally rape says a lot about the church, and not in a good way. But in case we missed the message, the prophet Ezekiel will later clarify:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.
(This is a reference to the fact that the angels were foreigners, who were considered marginalized (“needy”) in Israelite culture and therefore deserving of extra care. Ezekiel sees this as part of a pattern in Sodom’s culture of the powerful ignoring the oppressed.)
The two texts from Leviticus are part of a collection of laws intended for the Ancient Israelites. The King James versions (for variety) read:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
There is genuine uncertainty in the translations (see e.g. here, note also that a literal reading of the first law prohibits anybody (of any gender) from sleeping with men and therefore outlaws straight sex too.)
But even if we take the English translations at face value, these are ritual purity codes that Christians believe no longer apply. Just a few chapters earlier, the same “abomination” language is used to describe eating shellfish. If you think it’s okay to go to Red Lobster, you don’t get to cite these passages against gay people.
This leaves three passages in the New Testament, which I think most people come to in good faith, but which I don’t find particularly compelling. The first two potentially include homosexuality in generic “lists of sins.”
1 Timothy 1:10 (with some context) reads:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.
while 1 Corinthian 6:9-10 reads:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The interpretive question (as it applies to these passages) comes down to two Greek words: arsenokoitai (translated above as “men who practice homosexuality” and “homosexual offenders”) and malakoi (translated above as “male prostitutes”).
It is certainly possible to translate these words as relating to homosexuality: arsenokoitai is a compound word whose components translate to “male” and “bed”, and while malakoi literally means something like “soft men”, it can carry some sexual connotations. E. P. Sanders3, for example, argues that the words refer to the “active” and the “passive” partner in gay sex — you can probably fill in the details. (Modern speakers, I’ve learned from my Greek friends, use malakoi to refer to what my British friends call “wankers”.)
But “it is possible to translate” and “the translation is clear and certain” are of course not the same thing. And it is not difficult to find real scholars (e.g. here, here, or here.) who translate the words differently, to refer either to prostitution (and hence, in the Roman context, idolatry) or pederasty (adult men having sex with young boys.)
My point here is not to rehash (or claim expertise to enter) these arguments, but to point out that they exist, and that there is genuine uncertainty about what Paul is referring to.
(This isn’t strictly related to this argument, but I’d like to pause to note that the same text used to condemn LGBT people also condemns “the greedy” — a biblical category that, if you live a typical American life like me, you fall into! The standard here is what John the Baptist sets out in Luke 3: you shouldn’t have more than one shirt, because you should have given all your extra shirts to the poor! So be careful who you denigrate from this passage, because you’re also in it.)
The last passage is also the longest, and is found at the beginning of Romans:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
I wrote a bit about this passage previously, so I’ll limit myself here to noting two things.
First, while I noted previously that this passage is a rhetorical trap Paul uses to catch his adversaries, some scholars have taken this further to argue that Paul is in fact quoting an adversary, who he will soon hit with a “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
Unfortunately the earliest copies of Paul’s letters do not contain punctuation, so we are left to do our best with context clues. The “Paul is quoting somebody” reading does make sense of parts of the text, but I wouldn’t call the evidence overwhelming. As usual, we’re left with blurriness.
Second, this passage is clearly written from an ancient point of view on sexuality. Being ancient does not automatically make something bad, but in this case the ancient perspective included some demonstrably false assumptions.
In particular, this perspective viewed homosexuality either as a sort of “overflow” — a man who indulged his lusts too much would seek out more and more “depraved” ways to satisfy themselves, ultimately having sex with animals or other men — or as something “unnatural”. This is what Paul seems to have in mind in this passage: the Romans, ignoring God, seek to gratify their lust in more and more depraved ways until “even their women” have turned against nature to become lesbians.
This leaves modern readers with a conundrum: Paul references homosexuality to show that the Gentiles have reached the top of the lust ladder and fought against nature itself. But we now know that homosexuality isn’t at the top of the lust ladder — for many gay and lesbian people, it’s an innate trait more-or-less fixed at birth, not the end result of some long hedonic journey, and it doesn’t seem to be associated with being any more lustful. (It’s true that sexuality can be somewhat fluid and change over time, but definitely not by the mechanism Paul has in mind.) And it also isn’t unnatural — the natural world is, to be blunt, pretty gay (the Wikipedia article on gay animals references “more than 450 species” known to take part in homosexual activity) The bible’s framing of the situation is, to be frank, based on incorrect assumptions.
So what do we do? I read this passage much like I read Genesis 1 — a passage framed in light of an outdated story, but whose overall message (in this case, that a Christian faith based on looking down on “sinful” outsiders is hypocritical and misses the point) still rings true. You are free to disagree with my reading, but I think it’s difficult to argue that “the bible clearly teaches” the opposite.
There is one final point that makes the idea of a “biblical view on homosexuality” misleading: Christian ethics can and do change over time, so “directly copying all the rules in the New Testament” is not a real approach to Christian ethics. (For an extreme case often cited in seminary courses, we generally do not insist that all Christians need to “bring the cloak that [Paul] left with Carpus at Troas, and [Paul’s] scrolls, especially the parchments.” ) I wrote about this previously, so again I’ll only make two short notes.
The first is that, again and again, the bible outright changes its own rules as new situations arise. For an example I learned from Cheryl B. Anderson speaking on The Bible for Normal People podcast, early Jewish law taught that God would punish not only sinners, but their descendants. This made sense in its historical moment, because it was a vivid way for God to impress upon his people the grave consequences of sin.
But by the time the prophet Jeremiah was preaching, we have a radical shift:
“In those days, it will no longer be said: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the children are set on edge.’ Instead, each will die for his own iniquity.
What changed? Had God forgotten his promise to punish even the third and fourth generation for the father’s sins? No, the context changed. A people in exile do not need to be convinced that sin has consequence. They need to be convinced that God still loves them and will care for them even though their forefathers sinned. So the old tradition is reinterpreted, and even changed, to better serve the needs of a new context.
If you pay attention, you will see that the bible is full of this. The Old Testament and gospel writers do this, Jesus does this, Paul does this, and the author of Revelation reinterprets nearly every text he cites. The wooden “the bible says this so we have to do exactly that” is not the “traditional” point of view. It is new, something that only started to exist in the past few hundred years, and so we are not leaving “the traditional” Christian faith behind when we introduce nuance.
Second, Christian tradition is full of changes even to New Testament rules as the cultural context changes. In Acts 15, the Christian leaders decide that, while Gentile converts do not have to follow the traditional Jewish law, it is extremely important that they not eat meat that has been strangled or still contains blood. This made a lot of sense in an ancient Jewish context where blood represented life, but we no longer make the same symbolic connection and so we no longer worry too much about a rule the early church found fundamental to the faith (blood sausage, anyone?).
Similarly, we now recognize that Paul’s instructions on gender are kind of… outdated. Even the most conservative churches I’ve attended don’t require women to wear hair coverings or remain silent (although the latter passage is sometimes used in sexist churches to keep women from preaching), nor have they required men to have short hair.
Why? Because the cultural context changed, and whatever Paul was using these commands to teach in his context no longer makes any sense in a context where we (seek to) recognize the full humanity and equality of women.
And the evidence for making this sort of change in modern Christianity is overwhelming. Paul and other early Christians followed their culture in believing that homosexuality was an “unnatural overflow” of lust. We now know, without a doubt, that this is not true, and it should change our interpretation of the sinfulness (or potential God-approved-ness) of LGBT people and their behavior. Since we also know without a doubt that the traditional ethic has caused deep and lasting harm, we ought to move on to something more affirming that lets our LGBT friends and neighbors bring their whole selves to God.
In summary, there are three passages in the bible that can conceivably be read as banning gay sex for Christians. Two of them depend on contested translations of uncommon words, and the third is based on demonstrably incorrect assumptions about what homosexuality is. Even granting an anti-LGBT reading of these passages, there is a good argument that given what we now know about LGBT identities we should interpret them differently than the earliest Christians did, a move which would be full of precedent (even within the bible itself.)
I believe that this makes “the biblical view of homosexuality” a deeply uncertain and blurry idea, in contrast to the available empirical evidence which clearly and convincingly finds that traditional Christian teaching on LGBT identities causes real, observable harm (especially to teenagers.)
In light of this, I believe that the best way for Christians to “love thy neighbor” is to fully and unapologetically affirm LGBT identities.
Here is a second subscription button because the bottom of the post looked weird without it to signify the end.
See The Civil War as Theological Crisis by Mark Noll.
See Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination for many many examples.
See Paul: the Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought, chapter 12.