Was Jesus a Bigot? A Response to Sarah Bessey on Affirming Homosexuality

Out of the blue, my sister recently sent me an email asking for my thoughts on an article she had read. It was a popular post by author Sarah Bessey called “Penny in the Air: My Story of Becoming Affirming.” In it, Bessey shares about two pivotal factors that moved her from a traditional Christian stance to one that affirms homosexual unions.

The first factor was her exposure to interpretations of Jesus’ encounter with the Gentile/Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28Mark 7:24-30) that see him as exhibiting racial prejudices which the woman corrected. If this interpretation is correct, it implies that the Jesus we see in the Gospels was a man of his times, plagued by the prejudices of his culture. Therefore, we can disagree with some of his teachings that reflect Jewish cultural assumptions that we’ve since moved past.

The implication that Bessey and other progressively-minded readers draw from this take on Jesus is that they are then free to disagree with Jesus’ definition of marriage as between a man and a woman (Mark 10:6-8). The second factor that changed Bessey’s mind was her encounter with a lesbian minister who prayed for her. Bessey felt especially touched by this person’s prayer, and concluded from this experience that Christians should affirm homosexual unions.

I thought it would be worthwhile to share my response (with some editing for clarity) here. (Shared with my sister’s permission, and at her encouragement to do so.)


Shannon,

The question of whether to include and affirm (two separate decisions!) people who are LGBTQ+ in the church is wrapped up in so much cultural pressure right now, so it’s of the utmost importance that we use careful discernment and make sure that we’re being led by God’s Spirit and not just the social currents.

I’ve definitely done my share of wrestling with this topic. I’ve seen both a college friend and a former small group student come out as gay and affirming. Since then I’ve read a number of essays, articles, books, and commentaries on both sides of the affirming/non-affirming aisle. I’ve prayed and studied and prayed, desiring above all to make sure that what I believed really was God’s heart on the matter and not just the traditions/interpretations I’d been brought up in.

Through it all, I am still 100% convinced that there is no biblical basis for affirming homosexual practice/homoeroticism. It is always unequivocally denounced in Scripture, despite many revisionist attempts to overlook that. But I also understand that people who are same-sex attracted or who struggle with issues of gender identity are absolutely invited to receive the love and grace of God in Christ and should very much be welcomed into our churches. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness. We all continue to wrestle with disordered desires in our lives and must be given space to grow in holiness.

But we are not allowed to disagree with what God has called sin. Inclusion is not the same as, nor does it necessitate, affirmation. The former is biblical, the latter is not (despite so many attempts to argue that you can’t have one without the other).

Regarding the article you sent me: I understand the heart behind it, and I can relate. But she makes a number of very problematic statements and comes to what I believe is ultimately a flawed conclusion. The most worrisome part is her handling of the passage about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, so I’m going to focus mostly on addressing that.

She’s following a fairly recent liberal interpretation that sees Jesus as a racist who gets his perspective corrected. This view runs completely against the entire New Testament, which repeatedly stresses that Jesus — being fully God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14; Col 1:19-20; 2:9) — did not sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 Jn 3:5). That means he could not have committed the sin of dehumanizing someone else out of racial prejudice, which in turn must mean that he was doing something else entirely when he spoke to that woman the way he did.

We have to keep in mind that Jesus had already begun ministering to Gentiles prior to this point in his ministry. He delivered the demonized man in Gentile territory (Mark 5:1-20) and healed a Roman centurion’s servant (Matt 8:5-13). He ministered to Samaritans who were hated by the Jews (John 4). So it simply won’t do to say that Jesus was a prejudiced bigot. The Syrophoenician woman didn’t “change Jesus’ mind” or convince him to start opening up to Gentiles. Bessey is completely wrong when she says this was “Jesus’ first conversation with a Gentile,” even if we limit the discussion to just Mark’s Gospel as she wants to in her article.

So why did Jesus respond so brusquely to the Syrophoenician woman when she asked him to heal her daughter? As interpreters have long pointed out, Jesus’ words to the woman are tinged with irony. He was speaking (as wisdom-teachers of the time often did) with a challenge or riddle intended to draw wisdom out of the other person. That’s why his final response to the woman is, “Because you have answered this way…” (Mark 7:29). He was testing her.

No doubt the entire exchange was a teachable moment for Jesus’ disciples and the Jewish crowds who were observing — i.e., Look how the Gentiles receive the blessings promised to Israel, based on their simple and persistent faith, even when they have no right to expect anything! This episode is recorded right after Jesus criticized the Pharisees for elevating tradition over people, so I very much believe he was allowing this entire conversation with the Gentile woman to play out in a way that actually lampooned the Jewish prejudices!

Jesus sets up the typical Jewish attitude as a foil so that the woman can knock it down — with Jesus’ full approval, in the sight of the Jewish onlookers.

This is the reading that makes more sense to me, in light of Jesus’ overall character, his ministering to Gentiles prior to this conversation, and his critiques of Jewish prejudices that weren’t in line with God’s purposes. If I’m correct, then Jesus didn’t “change his mind.” He wasn’t “corrected” by this woman, because he wasn’t truly prejudiced against her in the first place.

But you know what? Let’s assume for a moment, just for the sake of argument, that the human Jesus was exhibiting ethnic prejudice and that the woman changed his mind. Doesn’t it follow that we can challenge anything Jesus taught if it happens to go against our modern sensibilities? Do we throw out his definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman, for no human to set asunder (Matt 19:4-6)? Should we agree to disagree that he’s the only way to the Father (John 14:6)? Dare we assert that all his statements about eternal judgment aren’t true?

If we deny Jesus his infallible authority as the Son of God, as the one who reveals to us the Father (John 1:18), then we are left with agnosticism about anything spiritual (which is precisely where so many of these liberal interpreters wind up). It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see how such an approach to Christ could still be considered “Christian.” I would also mention that even if one wanted to disagree with the human Jesus of the Gospels on homosexuality, they should consider that it was the Spirit of the exalted, post-resurrection Jesus who spoke through the apostle Paul when he wrote his epistles, which explicitly forbid homosexual practices.

If it sounds like I’m coming across a bit strong, it’s because the line of reasoning in Bessey’s article is deeply dangerous. It sounds very attractive; it makes us think we can point to a passage of Scripture (out of context) and find blanket permission to redefine right and wrong so we don’t have to do the hard work of loving sinners while still calling sin “sin.” It makes us feel like we’re even more loving than Jesus.

But Jesus is love. He loves perfectly. He loves perfectly “yesterday, today, and forever” because his character doesn’t change (Heb 13:8). He loves us too much to affirm behavior that won’t fulfill us in what he intended us to be. He never sets aside the “truth” side of the “full of grace and truth” equation (John 1:14).

So I definitely can’t agree to Bessey’s interpretation of Scripture. But what about the experiences she claims, of having a lesbian pastor pray for her in a way that she felt was “a conduit for the Holy Spirit that night?”

I noticed that she didn’t specify whether this pastor was a practicing lesbian who was actively engaging in lesbian sexual relationships, or if she was simply same-sex attracted but celibate. I actually wouldn’t have a problem with the latter. One problem in the modern Western (Protestant) church is that we don’t have as much of a robust appreciation for celibacy as Jesus and the apostles did. And straight pastors also experience desires and temptations that aren’t godly without acting on them (although sadly many do act on them).

But we must be very careful when interpreting experiences! I can’t deny that this woman experienced something that was powerfully affecting to her, but I can say with complete confidence that not all “charismatic” or spiritual experiences are truly from the Holy Spirit. The Bible frequently warns that people may claim to be speaking by God’s Spirit who in fact aren’t (Deut 18:20-22; 1 Thes 5:20-22). We’re told to “test the spirits to see if they are from God” (1 John 4:1), and we will recognize them “by their fruit” (Matt 7:15-20). Denying God’s word on the matter of sexuality would certainly qualify as a bad fruit if you ask me.

I can’t stress enough how much we have to be careful of our sinful tendency to try and find loopholes to justify what we want to be allowed. The very first temptation to ever occur began with the words, “Did God really say…?” and with the offer to redefine good and evil in our own eyes.

My heart is to see as many people as possible find life and freedom through relationship with Christ Jesus. At times, that means challenging people to submit to God’s design for blessing and fulfillment — a design that involves denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following him. It’s counter-intuitive, but that’s what the Christian faith is all about — dying to ourselves now so we can live to God for eternity. Many questions remain about how to help each other live that out, but that’s where we must do the hard work of pastoral ministry; of learning how to encourage one another daily to pursue holiness and to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18).

I’m deeply grateful you desired to hear my position on this, and I really hope it is fruitful for you as you seek God’s truth. I also want to share some other resources that I’ve found tremendously helpful that go into more detail:

These first two links are the best articles I’ve found on why the Bible cannot be reinterpreted so as to affirm homosexual practice/homoeroticism — this one by a New Testament scholar (The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing), and this one by a church historian (The Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Practice: A Summary and Evaluation).

On the practical/ministry side of things, please do yourself a favor and check out the amazing wealth of resources put together by the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender! They cover just about every topic you can think of from a place of biblical faithfulness and pastoral experience. Many of the blog posts are written by counselors or by celibate, same-sex attracted Christians sharing their firsthand experience.

Let me know what you think, and I look forward to talking more about it in person when you visit! Love ya, Sis.



Categories: Contemporary Issues/Ethics

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8 replies

  1. Very well taught and explained through the Holy scriptures.

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  2. I can’t say I find the challenge or riddle reading of the episode very convincing. Surely Jesus’ words come at least in part (if not whole) from a place of religious conviction rather than ethnic prejudice? I mean, I think we could even say Paul had some animosity against pagans who remained pagan (2 Cor 6).

    What should we make of Jesus’ statement that unrepentant believers should be treated as Jews of the time treated gentiles (Matthew 18:17)? Does Jesus implicitly affirm the division between Jew and gentile here?

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    • You bring up some good points. So if I’m understanding you correctly, you would make a distinction between a religious conviction (even though it involves, in this case, preserving ethnic boundaries) and ethnic prejudice?

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      • I wasn’t very clear, but yes. The little parable about the table, the children, and the dogs, in addition to the woman’s wise addendum about the crumbs, seems to follow the Biblically-supported pattern of Jew first, then Gentile. God’s specific blessings (and curses) come to Israel and then through Israel to the nations (Numbers 24:9, Genesis 12:3).

        I suppose this is a religious/theological (and perhaps coincidentally ethnic) “prejudice,” but one that is ultimately accurate. I don’t think, however, there is any thought of superior and inferior people groups here—but it does seem that Jews thought paganism was a dehumanizing force upon gentiles (cf. G.K. Beale’s We Become What we Worship).

        So I’d say Jesus’ illustration is a legitimate one, it just isn’t complete without the woman’s observation about the dogs and crumbs. So perhaps then Jesus has set up a kind of a riddle—I just don’t think the woman’s correct answer is meant to discredit the parable’s hierarchical ordering of things.

        I also think the 1 Kings subtext illuminates the passage: https://scribesofthekingdom686237748.wordpress.com/2018/09/18/children-first-then-the-dogs-the-literary-origins-of-marks-syrophoenician-woman/

        Ultimately though the story of the Syrophoenician woman, like the gentile-centric ministries of Elijah and Elisha, is intended to humiliate Israel and turn her back to God out of jealousy so that she might regain her privileged place in the messianic age (cf. Romans 11:11).

        But as an aside, I’m also hesitant as to whether we can really say that Jesus and people of his time were ethnically egalitarian in our modern sense. I suspect they would have been more comfortable with acknowledging biological differences among people groups than we are today.

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        • Interesting thoughts. Thank you for sharing. The possibility of an intertextual link with 1 Kings is pretty insightful; I’m curious how much of that Mark’s audience would have picked up on.

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          • Hard to say. But I think the Elijah-Elisha connections with Jesus’ healing ministry are pretty extensive and of course purposeful (Adam Winn has a short book on that topic). If Mark’s quotations of and allusions to the Septuagint are any indication, I suspect he believed there were Jews in his audience who could recognize and interpret Biblical subtexts in his work.

            Scriptural reading and interpretation was more of a communal experience back then, I believe.

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  3. It’s a bit on the rarer side to see Christians who consider homosexual behavior as sin but take a more egalitarian position on women in church leadership. What “moral logic” do you think stands behind the Bible’s opposition to homosexual?

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    • The way I understand it is that Gen 2:24 establishes the norm of marriage between a man and a woman. This is before sin and rebellion enter, whereas hierarchical/patriarchal elements don’t show up until after sin and as a consequence of sin (Gen 3:16). While marriage will not continue after the resurrection (Matt 22:30), it continues to be the God-ordained context for sexual expression in this age (1 Cor 7; Heb 13:4).

      On the other hand, Paul seems to present hierarchical distinctions as relativized in light of the eschatological inbreaking of the life to come in Christ (Gal 3:28). I believe this is why we see women serving at high levels of ministry in the New Testament, along with trends that undermine the institution of slavery (1 Cor 7:21; Philemon). In other words, there’s biblical precedent for women in ministry and for abolition. But there is no similar precedent anywhere in Scripture for loosening restrictions against homosexuality, because it goes against God’s abiding creation norm. We see Paul present homosexuality as a violation of the created natural order in Rom 1:26-28.

      So the logic seems to be that God has ordained male-female unions to be normative for the entire duration of this current world, whereas other elements like patriarchy and slavery were not part of his original creative intention and therefore are not normative and should not be upheld. That’s how I understand it, anyway. I know that affirming scholars (most notably James Brownson) have tried to undermine attempts to ground the prohibition of homosexuality in the overarching moral logic of Scripture, but I haven’t found such arguments convincing. There are ways of holding to a form of gender complementarity without defending patriarchy (hence the “complementarity without hierarchy” camp). Anyway, that’s my two cents.

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