by Terry Bottrell | 8 December 2023 |
Paul’s wonderful discourse in I Corinthians 13 on unlimited, unconditional love also contains some statements on the limits and conditions surrounding human knowledge and perception. In verse 9 he says, “we know in part and prophesy in part.” Verse 12 continues,
Now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; then shall I know even as also I am known.
Christians are to love with no limits, he seems to be saying, but at the same time we must be careful in our judgements, and be open to new knowledge and understanding.
When we are certain of our “truths,” we tend to present people with simplistic dilemmas. It’s either A or B. We allow for no grey, no middle ground, no possibility that a simple “I don’t know at the moment” may be the best response.
I propose that rather than being impaled on the horns of an unwelcome dilemma, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to say: “I don’t know. I don’t sit in judgment. I will let you work out this issue with God, and I’m here to support you if I can.”
As Adventist Christians we are often presented with strong opinions surrounding gender and sexual diversity that can be harmful and unloving. Simplistic answers have been damaging to people who feel challenged in these areas.
Observation suggests to many that a person is either male or female. There are certain genes that manifest as XX or XY. Physical characteristics correspond to these genes. And indeed, for most people, it is that simple.
However for some people, human gender and sexuality isn’t simple. There are four components to human sexuality:
- chromosomal sex,
- phenotypic/anatomic sex,
- gender orientation, and
- sexual orientation.1
Each component is usually correlated with other components in typical sexual development. Someone who is XY will usually identify as male across the other components. However, each of these components is potentially independent.
For example, someone who is born chromosomally male might be anatomically intersex due to a gene mutation. If an embryo is XY, but the Y chromosome doesn’t have a functional copy of the SRY gene, it will develop as female.
There are a large array of sexuality outcomes due to interactions between these four components. People can be born with a single X chromosome, resulting in a condition called Turner’s syndrome. They can have more than two sex chromosomes, which results in a variety of intersex conditions.
This is a very brief outline of some of the interactions that can affect a person’s sexuality. These scientific facts are a caution to us to beware of simplistic answers to questions around sexuality. My best response may be to say “I don’t know. I will let you work out with God what is the best course for your life.”
The sexual attraction component of sexual identity is equally complex. Many factors combine to influence sexual attraction.
There is evidence, though, that biological factors play a large role in determining sexual attraction. Brendan Zietsch, in a recent UQ News article, asserts that a person’s sexual preference is influenced by their genetic makeup. Sexual preference is much more likely to be the same in identical twin pairs who have the same genetic makeup than it is in non-identical twin pairs with only half their genetic makeup being shared.
There is no one “gay gene,” but the combined effect of many genes on a person’s sexual behaviour, attraction, and identity is substantial.2 This biological basis includes not only the X and Y genes, but also biological factors such as in utero processes and the actions of certain hormones.
It is not just about nature, though; nurture also plays a role in interpersonal attraction. A person’s life experiences and psychological profile impact on sexual identity, too.
The point, again, is that it is complex. We only know in part, and rather than judging a person without walking in their shoes, we should love them and let them work out with God what is best for them.
What the Bible writers didn’t know
The Bible writers didn’t have these biological and psychological considerations in mind when addressing issues surrounding sexual identity and behaviour. Crick and Watson’s discoveries that explain the variety in God’s creation were far in the future.
An example of the concerns of the Bible writers can be found in Matthew 19, where the Pharisees were presenting Jesus with a dilemma: can a man divorce his wife if it suits his needs? Did God get it right, or did Moses get it right? Is it A or B? There is no option to provide a nuanced response that takes into account a range of circumstances that affect the correct response. In Matthew 19:5,6, Jesus says …
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate.
His response addresses the key issue of men’s abusing women: it is not appropriate to divorce your wife on a whim, or to meet your own needs. Moses was a pragmatist who allowed divorce for a time because of “the hardness of your hearts.”
Jesus is not making a statement about sexual identity, but presenting a principle—based on their understanding of people at the time—that should govern all relationships. Faithfulness and commitment are key values for all intimate relationships.
What did the Bible writers have in mind when they used the word “homosexual”? Homosexual is an English translation of the koine Greek word arsenokoitai. Arsenokoitai was not translated as “homosexual” in English Bibles until the mid-twentieth century. If we are to understand the word properly, we need to discover how it was used in the time of the biblical writers, as well as the origins of the word itself.
The word is used in Leviticus 20:13 in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament. It is formed from two Greek words: arsen (male) and koite (bed) and it appears to be referring to some form of male same-sex activity.
What forms did this type of sexual activity take in the Greco-Roman world? The focus at the time was not orientation and gender, but power—that is, the status of the people engaged in sexual activity.3
Pederasty with slave boys by dominant males was looked down upon and considered abusive. Temple prostitution sometimes involved male same-sex activity, which Paul condemns. Conquering armies would demonstrate their domination by raping the defeated soldiers.
These are all abusive examples of male same-sex behaviour that would have been the most likely targets of the use of this word arsenokoitai.
To encompass the whole range of LGBTQ+-identifying people within this one word, without regard for the complexity of interactions that occur within the four components of human sexuality, is to commit a serious injustice against people who are trying to understand their own sexuality. When we do so, we are not demonstrating God’s love and compassion.
My point, again, is that Christians should not be afraid to say they don’t know the answers to all these questions. What we do know is that we are to love and accept people, as well as take care to protect the innocent from abuse.
We must be especially sensitive to young people who are struggling with their identity: give them space to work out in their own time their identity, and make sure they know that God loves them regardless of what conclusions we are tempted to make about them.
- Bryan Ness (5/2/2020), “There is more to human sexuality than XX and XY.” Spectrum magazine.
- Brendan Zietsch (2019), “’Gay gene’ search reveals not one but many—and no way to predict sexuality.” University of Queensland News.
- Jonathan Tallon (2018), “Condemned or not? St. Paul, Romans and homosexuality.”
Terry Bottrell is a semi-retired Australian secondary teacher with a degree from Avondale College. He’s spent 30+ years teaching Bible, physical and outdoor education, math, and science for Adventist schools. He and his wife live in Brisbane.