The arc of Scripture points toward inclusion, not exclusion.
In his 2001 book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, New Testament professor William Webb popularized the phrase “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” to describe a widely-used approach to Scripture.
- Webb argued that Christians should focus less on the isolated words of Scripture and more on the direction Scripture takes relative to its original culture.
- On slavery and women, Webb wrote, the Bible’s teachings may sound somewhat regressive by modern standards, but they move in a liberating direction compared to their surrounding cultures. Hence, by supporting abolitionism and gender equality, we are embracing the redemptive spirit of Scripture.
- But Webb argued that the Bible actually moves in a more prohibitive direction on same-sex relationships relative to its original culture. So as our culture becomes more LGBTQ-friendly, Christians should double down in opposition.
Scripture moves in a positive direction on slavery and women, but doesn’t it move in a negative direction on same-sex relationships?
- It’s misleading to say that the Greeks and Romans “accepted homosexuality” while the early Christians “opposed homosexuality.” The Greeks and Romans accepted specific forms of same-sex behavior that even most non-Christians wouldn’t accept today: prostitution, master/slave sex, and pederasty.
- By rejecting those forms of same-sex behavior, the early Christians were rejecting promiscuity in favor of monogamy. They were rejecting the use of sex to assert one’s status and power, and instead uplifting sex as the sign and seal of a lifelong covenant of self-giving love.
- Given that same-sex behavior in the ancient world was based on the dynamics of power and promiscuity, it’s no surprise that the early Christians rejected it along with extra-marital heterosexual behavior. But same-sex relationships based on mutuality and monogamy are an entirely different question, and one that the early Christians didn’t face.
But even though same-sex marriage wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen then, many of the countercultural principles the early Christians embraced regarding sexuality are consistent with same-sex marriages today: mutuality, monogamy, and covenantal love.
I support equal roles for women, but isn’t that a separate conversation from LGBTQ inclusion?
- Not entirely. As we will see, patriarchal gender norms were a core part of the rationale behind biblical injunctions against same-sex behavior. Consequently, the New Testament’s positive movement on women’s roles undermines the significance of patriarchal gender norms for the church’s assessment of same-sex relationships today.
Is there any explicit support for applying a redemptive-movement hermeneutic to sexual and gender minorities, though?
- Yes. In the Old Testament, those who were sexually different—like eunuchs and barren women—were actually barred from entering the assembly of the Lord (see Deuteronomy 23:1). This was because God extended his blessings to Israel primarily through biological procreation under the old covenant. Consequently, celibacy and infertility were both heavily stigmatized.
- But Christ’s life, death, and resurrection upended that status quo. Now, anyone can become part of God’s family simply through personal faith. Rather than being born into God’s people through procreation, we are now called to be born again through faith in Christ (John 3:3).
- That change had major consequences. Now, eunuchs and barren women are fully embraced in the community of believers. As Isaiah prophesied, “‘Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,’ says the LORD” (Isaiah 54:1).
- In fact, one of the first Gentile converts to Christianity was an Ethiopian eunuch (see Acts 8:26-39), fulfilling these words of Isaiah:
"To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters." -Isaiah 56:4-5
So does that mean that Scripture explicitly affirms LGBTQ people or says it’s okay to be gay, bi, or transgender?
- No. There are no LGBTQ-identified people in Scripture. Given the vast cultural distance between understandings of same-sex behavior then and now, it’s misguided to try to “discover” explicit affirmations of same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in the Bible. (For example, some point to David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, or the Roman centurion and his slave, but none of those examples corresponds closely to what we’re discussing today.)
- Even though eunuchs don’t neatly correspond to modern identity categories like “gay” or “trans,” the New Testament’s trajectory toward greater inclusion of eunuchs offers important precedent for inclusion of gender and sexual “others” today.