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16.4.07

A Homophobic Sermon With A Pro-Gay Lesson

Yesterday I went to check out the Presbyterian church, and I ended up hearing the first overtly homophobic sermon I've heard in 26 years of going to church. (The non-UU churches I've been to studiously avoid taking a clear position on any politically charged issue.) What made the sermon interesting, though, was that the Bible passage that the pastor was preaching on struck me as supporting acceptance of homosexuality.

The sermon was based on 1 Corinthians 10. The context, the pastor explained, is that the Apostle Paul is writing to the Corinthian church to instruct them in how to draw the line such that they avoid engaging in idolatry but are not burdened by excessive puritanism. The core of the sermon was these three verses:

19Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons.


Here, the pastor explained, Paul is saying that things, such as certain foods, used to worship idols are not intrinsically evil. However, Christians ought to avoid those things if partaking of them would entail participating in -- and thereby condoning and supporting -- idolatry. This is all good, but the homophobia came in when the pastor went looking for an example to illustrate idolatry in the modern context. Paul talks in this chapter about food sacrificed to pagan gods, since that was the most prominent form of idolatry in his time. Today, however, idolatry usually consists of the "worship" of things like money or selfish sexual gratification. The pastor said that just as the Christians in first-century Corinth could eat food sacrificed to idols but must not engage in the sacrifices themselves, modern Americans can maintain friendships with homosexuals but must not support the practice of homosexuality by, for example, supporting a gay pride parade.

The applicability of the homosexuality example is called into question, however, by a few verses later on that elaborate Paul's anti-essentialist criterion for when things are acceptable:

23"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

25Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."


Paul here is proposing a strikingly pragmatic and consequentialist outlook. Nothing is intrinsically bad, but some things may not be "beneficial" or "constructive" toward the end of "seek[ing] ... the good of others." He talks in terms of food, as that's the running example of idolatry in this chapter. But it seems to make perfect sense to apply the same line of thinking to sexual practices, since they were recognized then as, and are today, often connected to idolatry.

When we apply this passage to sex, an interesting thing happens. Paul tells us, "Do anything described in Dan Savage's column without raising questions of conscience, for, 'Your bodies are the Lord's, and everything in them.'" There are no sexual practices that are intrinsically immoral, only those that are not constructive toward loving thy neighbor. If you are not using your sexuality to pursue an idol (e.g. selfish sexual gratification at the expense of others), then it is permissible. Questions of pragmatic-consequentialist constructiveness are settled not by looking for proofs in the Bible but rather on the same grounds as secular argument. And on secular grounds, the case for acceptance of homosexuality is clear-cut. Indeed, opposing homosexuality is condemned by Paul's criterion, because it is an idolatrous privileging of one way of life without proper consideration of the good of others.

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