A theological response to Franklin Graham from a former York St John University MA Theology and Ministry student Martyn Aryeh Phoenix Denial
Following the cancellation of his speaking events in Liverpool Sheffield, and Glasgow, Franklin Graham penned a letter to the LGBTQ community in Britain.
In response to his letter, I’ve written my own letter, to explain why I believe he’s wrong. Before I get to my response, however, I want to establish my own authority on this subject. Firstly, I am transgender (female to male) and part of the LGBTQ community. Secondly, I am Christian, and have been for almost twenty years. Thirdly — and perhaps most importantly for this discussion — I have a Masters degree (MA Theology and Ministry) with a Distinction grade, from York St John University.
A Response to Franklin Graham
Mr Graham, in your letter to the LGBTQ community, you write that you are not coming to the UK to bring hateful speech to our community, and yet within the first two paragraphs you write that “Jesus Christ came to this earth to save us from our sins” and “God defines homosexuality as sin”. Yes, you acknowledge that all humans are sinners, but in the same paragraph you say that “the penalty of sin is spiritual death — separation from God for eternity”.
Theologically, you are correct that the penalty of sin is death, but can you not see that you are telling the LGBTQ community that we cannot be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning without facing eternal separation from God? You also write that “if we’re willing to accept Him [Jesus] by faith and turn away from our sins, He will forgive us and give us new life.”
Perhaps you don’t realise what your words imply to those of us in the LGBTQ community who are also Christian. Let me tell you what your words sound like to me, a member of the LGBTQ community. To me, you are saying: “Being homosexual or transgender is a sin that means you can’t be in relationship with God. But it’s okay, I’m coming to the UK to tell you the truth about Jesus, and once you realise that He hates sin but is willing to forgive you, as long as you stop all this homosexual and transgender nonsense and ask for forgiveness. If you don’t abandon your LGBTQ status, then I’m afraid God doesn’t love you and won’t allow you near Him.” If that is not hate speech, then I don’t know what is!
An Alternative Theological Viewpoint
As a transgender Christian myself, I have studied the scriptures extensively, and, indeed, explored theological understandings of homosexuality as part of my Master’s degree in Theology and Ministry. I would like to put to you that your claim that God views homosexuality as sin is not based on theological fact, but rather simply one interpretation.
In fact, I can demonstrate another interpretation of Scripture (which formed part of my studies, and for which I received a distinction grade). I could post my entire paper, but rather have opted to include portions of the paper relevant to the matter at hand.
My argument is based on a model of interpretation outlined by Stephen E. Fowl in Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation, which aims to gain a more coherent vision of God in order to discover what God wants for our Christian lives, practices and communities. A cornerstone of theological interpretation per Fowl is that Christians should not ask “what does this text mean?”, but interrogate Scripture to discover ‘what does this text teach us about God, and what does that mean for how we practice Christian life?’.
The basis of Fowl’s model is drawn from Acts chapters 10–15, where the Spirit guides the (re)interpretation of Scripture. Fowl believes that there has to be a willingness to open oneself up to being led, by the experience of the Spirit, into new, perhaps controversial, interpretations. He contends: “experience of the Spirit’s work provides the lenses through which Scripture is read rather than vice-versa”, and this “runs against the grain of modern interpretive presumptions” (ES:114).
For the early church in Acts, the evidence of the Holy Spirit in the Gentiles, and the testimony of Peter and other Jewish Christians, led to reinterpretation of Scripture in an unprecedented way. Reading the Spirit allowed the early church to navigate the difficult issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles without circumcision in a way that would have been impossible without the Spirit.
Keesmaat highlights the importance of this, observing that there were plenty of Scriptures that argued against admitting the Gentiles without circumcision, and no texts that could support such inclusion, meaning that James “made the remarkable move of allowing the Old Testament to be illuminated and interpreted by the narrative of God’s activity in the present” (2004:31; see also Johnson, 1996:105).
In approaching the use of the model of reading the Spirit in the debate on homosexuality, Fowl draws and builds on the arguments of Jeffery Siker (1994) and Luke Johnson (1996), who contend that the “most appropriate […]analogy is to view homosexual Christians today in the same way the earliest Christians approached the issue of including Gentile Christians within the community” (Siker 1994:187).
Siker notes that there are significant parallels between what it meant to be a Gentile in the first century (in the eyes of Jews and Jewish Christians) and how homosexuals are perceived by the church today: “To be a Gentile was […] the same as being a sinner, since the Gentiles did not have the law, since they were by definition unclean, polluted and idolatrous” (1994:187). In the course of Acts 10–15, however, the Spirit of God was perceived to have challenged the cultural assumptions about Gentiles. Siker (1994), Johnson (1996), and Fowl (ES), therefore question whether evidence of the Spirit in work in homosexual Christians might allow current cultural assumptions about homosexuals to be challenged.
Siker contends that whilst the Biblical consensus on homosexuality is unclear, Acts 10–15 “give us clear guidance regarding the inclusion of those who, even to our surprise, have received the Spirit of God and join us in our Christian confession” (1994:191).
He argues that just as the Gentiles were admitted into the Christian community without circumcision, because of the witness of God and the evidence of the Spirit, homosexual Christians should be welcomed, both into the wider church and into ministry, without being forced to become either celibate or “heterosexual homosexual Christians” (that is, to change their orientation). Siker asks whether the church is “up to the challenge of recognizing, perhaps with surprise and humility, that gay and lesbian Christians, as gays and lesbians and not as sinners, have received the Spirit of faith?” (ibid.).
Johnson observes that God has a habit of acting “in surprising and unanticipated ways, [upsetting] human perceptions of God’s scriptural precedents” (1996:144). In addition, Johnson cautions against “trying to suppress the biblical texts which condemn homosexual behaviour” (1996:145). This is a vital point, and one on which Siker’s argument falls short. Even if there is evidence of the reception of the Spirit in homosexual Christians, we are still left with the question of what this means for the traditional texts used to condemn homosexuality.
However, Siker’s argument fails to look to what I consider to be the most important part of the Acts 10–15 analogy with regards to reading the Spirit. In making his judgment, and placing restrictions upon the Gentile inclusion, James did not look to the many texts which spoke of Gentile exclusion, but rather he was led by the Spirit to reinterpret other Scriptures.
Therefore, to properly use Fowl’s model of reading the Spirit in regard to homosexuality, we must look not to the heated arguments about the interpretation of the proscriptive texts, but allow the Spirit to guide the reinterpretation of other Scriptures that may allow for a clearer theological understanding of how to read Scripture in relation to same-sex relationships. Only by doing this are we fully appropriating the Gentile inclusion analogy and truly reading with the Holy Spirit.
A Very Different Interpretation of a Familiar Text
It is at this point that I wish to bring in my own interpretation of Scripture that I believe opens up a new way of approaching the issue of homosexuality and Christianity. There are several texts that I used in my original paper, such as Matthew 15:21–28, Matthew 19:1–13, and Acts 8, but the crux of my interpretation lies in Luke 10:25–37 — which you may know as the story of the Good Samaritan. Here, I include an entire section of my paper, unedited.
The ‘Good’ Samaritan or the Good ‘Samaritan’?
Although widely regarded within the Christian community as a “moral about how to treat others” (Strahan 2016:75), Luke 10:25–37 offers an insight into Jesus’ own counter-cultural interpretive lens, and provides a model that might be considered to be a baseline for Spirit hermeneutics. Strahan describes this section of Scripture as an illustration of Jesus’ theological interpretation of Scripture, demonstrating “how to interpret the law in a way that leads to life” (2016:75). This function of the text has largely been overlooked by exegetes, with interpretive focus being located in the moralistic/ethical understanding of what it means to be ‘good’. Indeed, many interpretations of this passage fall into the same trap that the Jewish lawyer in the text fell into, in that they see the text as offering a list, as it were, of attributes of being a ‘good neighbour’.
Reading the Spirit in interpreting this passage requires a different approach, however. Moving away from the conventional readings of the text allows us to see the way in which the parable challenges the way the Jewish expert in the law interpreted Scriptures about ‘neighbour’ and highlights the difference between Jesus’ theology and the theology of the Jewish leaders (Strahan 2016). Strahan posits that:
Torah⇒ interpreted via Jesus’ theology ⇒ readings characterised by mercy, action and empathy.
Torah ⇒ interpreted via the leaders’ theology ⇒ readings characterised by ritual purity and separation (2016:79)
Rather than offering morals, this reading of the text suggests that Jesus was not merely teaching about neighbourly characteristics but rather that he was demonstrating a new way of interpreting the Scriptures — a hermeneutic based on a theology of the God of Israel as primarily “a God of compassion, who acts in merciful ways and cares for the lowly”. This new hermeneutic supersedes the Jewish leaders’ hermeneutic based on a theology of God as a God who “is most interested in ritual adherence, values right answers over right actions and favours the deserving” (Strahan 2016:79).
The parable is told in response to the lawyer questioning ‘Who is my neighbour’ (v29). Luke notes, however, that the lawyer was seeking to justify himself, and Bailey (2008:288) posits that the lawyer would have had expectations when he asked the question. A traditional Jewish interpretation of Leviticus 19:18 suggested that the neighbour was limited to ‘the sons of your own people’ — and Gentiles and Samaritans would not have been considered neighbours (ibid.). This is precisely where Jesus’ hermeneutic clashes with the lawyer’s hermeneutic to bring a radical reinterpretation of the Jewish understanding of neighbour.
We cannot understand the significance of Jesus’ use of a Samaritan as the ‘hero’ in this parable without understanding how Samaritans were regarded in 1st century Palestine. The Samaritans were thought to have emerged, as a race of people, from the intermarrying of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom (following their exile) with Gentiles (Knoppers 2013; also Riemer Roukema 2004). The name ‘Samaritan’, to the Jews, had become a term of reproach and contempt. Such was the animosity between the Jews and Samaritans that the Jews avoided traveling through Samaria, and sharing eating or drinking vessels would make the Jew unclean. Furthermore, Jews regarded Samaritans as half-breeds, heretics and idolaters (Cleaver 1995).
It would have fitted the lawyer’s hermeneutic lens had Jesus told a parable with a Samaritan as the victim upon whom a Jew had compassion — such a parable would have played into the self-righteousness of the religious leaders — but Jesus does the opposite. Rule describes Jesus’ action in making the Samaritan the ‘hero’ as a technique of “arresting strangeness” (2017:5). It forces the listener (or reader) to look through Jesus’ counter-cultural lens, which can be uncomfortable. Such a technique forces a questioning of “assumptions about status and positionality” (ibid.).
Kirk interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan as illustrating “love that erupts outside of the borders of the community of faith” and argues that we cannot understand the “full implications of the parable […] until we recognise that it depicts the religious [leaders] avoiding love for the sake of keeping the law that God gave to Israel” (2011:187).
How then might we read the Spirit in this parable with regard to the debate on homosexuality? There are four key points to raise here:
Firstly, the lawyer was confronted by the truth the Jesus’ definitions of ‘neighbour’ did not marry up with his own. Jesus “challenges the categories of ethnicity and religious status” (Cleaver 1995:7), and, as such, might this parable challenge us to not simply regard the story as a moral from the past, but to question whom the ‘Samaritan’ might be in our culture? It is not too much of a stretch to see that in much the same way as the 1st Century Samarians, homosexuals (and the wider LGBT+ community) have been reviled by the Christian church (and, until relatively recently, by the wider society) and it may well be that in the 21st Century Jesus might tell a parable to the traditionalists with the homosexual as the hero who demonstrates the same boundary breaking love even for those who have persecuted him (Siker 1994; Cleaver 1995; Otto 2014). Indeed, a modern-day parable of the “Good Homosexual” has been frequently retold (Cleaver 1995), highlighting that rather than ostracising homosexual Christians, the heterosexual community may have much to learn from them.
Secondly, the Samaritan/Jew division came about because of a choice that some Jews, in exile, made in marrying Gentiles. Where Gagnon (2001) has argued that the Gentile-inclusion analogy in Acts 10–15 fails because Gentile status is not a choice whereas homosexuality is, it could be argued that Samaritans made a choice, and Jesus demonstrated that, even still, they were capable of an exemplar love that Jewish-legalistic rationale prevented.
Here, the cultural significance of the Samaritans is crucial — they were despised by the Jews because they had intermarried with Gentiles, and were regarded as heretical, idolatrous, half-breeds. Given that much of Paul’s condemnation of homosexual practices was based on the perception of Gentiles as perverse, sexuality deviant and idolatrous, and upon Jewish interpretation of the Levitical laws, the half-breed nature of the Samaritan, whom Jesus in this parable elevated above the law-abiding Priest and Levite, raises two interrelated points. First, Jesus’ hermeneutic breaks through barriers of cultural perceptions and assumptions about race and behaviour, challenging us to question the blanketing belief that homosexual = sinner (c.f. the Jewish assumption that Samaritan/Gentile = sinner). Second, Jesus’ radical reinterpretation of the law calls into question the Levitical basis of Paul’s judgements in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. We do not know how Jesus might have interpreted the Levitical prohibitions, but we have a model here that suggests that at least some of the time Jesus did not interpret Scripture in the ways that he might have been expected to interpret it, and we cannot, therefore, presume that he would have automatically accepted the tradition position (contrary to Gagnon’s (2001, 2003) argument).
Thirdly, the Jewish hermeneutic was backed by Scripture (Strahan 2016:79), but Jesus’ interpretive lens challenged and turned such an understanding on its head, placing the Samaritan’s boundary-breaking love far above the Jewish-legalistic “do the minimum” (Bailey 2008) model. Furthermore, Jesus’ hermeneutic offered a radical reinterpretation of Scripture (in a similar vein to the “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21–48). The parable calls us to apply Jesus’ hermeneutic to our own interpretation of Scripture. Jewish law gave the Priest and the Levite grounds for inaction, much as the traditional interpretation of the homosexual-condemnation texts give the traditionalists grounds for excluding homosexuals. Kirk points out that by restricting love to those who “are living lives pleasing to God”, excluding others on the basis of biblical regulations, or biblically justifying our avoidance of social action we “violate the command to love our neighbour as ourselves” (2011:188).
Fourthly, the location of the parable within the Gospel of Luke has significance for reinterpreting the text with regard to homosexuality. The parable follows on from Jesus rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and thanking his Father for hiding “these things from the wise and the intelligent and [revealing] them to infants” (Luke 10:21). Wisdom and intelligence (and, perhaps, the most diligent of biblical interpretations) do not necessarily lead to the same theological understandings that Jesus (and, by extension, the Spirit) would have us come to. In fact, it could be argued that reading with the Spirit might well require the laying down of our intellectual understandings and interpretative agendas.
The parable is followed by the story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha. Here, there are two pertinent observations. First, in allowing Mary to sit at his feet and be taught, Jesus broke gender boundaries and subverted the Jewish cultural norm that saw women as unfit to be taught by a Rabbi — such an honour was reserved only for men who had proved themselves deserving. Jesus consistently, throughout the Gospels, broke boundaries and norms: eating with ‘sinners’, teaching women, healing on the Sabbath, challenging the established interpretations of the law. Why should such boundary-breaking not extend to ‘God-fearing’ homosexual Christians living righteous lives in faithful, monogamous relationships? Second, Jesus chided Martha for being “worried and distracted” (vv41–42) by the wrong things. Might it not follow, then, that by being caught up in an interpretative battle, of which there seems to be no end, the church is also being distracted by the wrong things, and, in so doing, missing the interpretative work of the Spirit in homosexual Christians?
Reading the Spirit requires a willingness to be challenged in the assumptions that we make about Scripture, in light of evidence of the Spirit at work in the heart and lives of those that we might, on a traditional scriptural basis, have otherwise excluded from our ecclesial communities. What this alternative reading of the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan has demonstrated is that Jesus’ hermeneutic and theology often turns traditional interpretations on their head. As Christians, it should be clear that our theology and hermeneutic should be closely matched with that of Jesus, and this should therefore give us an interpretive lens that reflects mercy, action and empathy. Further, if the Spirit is given to us by Jesus (John 14–16) then it should logically follow that the Spirit would also lead us to reinterpretations of Scripture reflecting these characteristics.
What the parable of the Good Samaritan does not provide, however, is an answer to the question of whether homosexual Christians should be accepted into our Christian communities without any restrictions. Acts 15 points to there being caveats to the Gentile inclusion, and it might therefore follow that Scripture may give us caveats to the homosexual inclusion also. With regard to this, we might look to John 8:11, where the woman caught in adultery is told to “sin no more”. The ‘sin’ is presumed, therefore, to be adultery. In response to this, Kirk posits that the homosexual inclusion, with deference to biblical standards, should have the caveat of either abstinence for single heterosexuals or, for couples, “lifetime loyalty to one partner who is also in Christ” (2011:184). This suggestion counters arguments that the acceptance of homosexual Christians promotes sexual immorality, and challenges the homosexual = sinner belief that undergirds much of the traditional argument against homosexuality.
Furthermore, we might look to Galatians 5’s depiction of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and point out that good fruit and bad fruit cannot coexist simultaneously. If the fruit in the life of the homosexual Christian is ‘good’, displaying “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (vv22–23), then the assumption that all homosexuality is, in itself, sinful, must be false. This is not a blanket endorsement of homosexual practice (for all sexual practice, homo- and hetero-sexual, has the potential to be immoral) but rather a (re)interpretation of Scripture that allows faithful, God-fearing homosexual Christians to be accepted and welcomed into the Church.
I accept that conservative Christians may never come to accept the idea that homosexuality could be anything other than a sin that must be completely turned away from in order to avoid eternal separation from God, but my prayer is that you, and others who condemn me and the rest of the LGBTQ community might come to an understanding that Jesus may not support your condemnation of an entire section of humanity.
I did not choose to be transgender, and I did not choose to be attracted to other men. Yes, although I was born in a female body, I identify as male and therefore identify as homosexual. I do not believe that Jesus condemns me. I do not believe that my Heavenly Father would allow me to continue to operate in the gifts of the Spirit were I eternally separated from Him. If He does not condemn me, then why would He choose to condemn my brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community? It’s for this reason that I believe that the Spirit does work to challenge existing assumptions about who is and isn’t included in God’s Kingdom. Just as the apostles had to challenge their beliefs about gentiles in the book of Acts, the church of Jesus must also challenge long-held beliefs about homosexuality.
After all, had Peter and James not decided to include Gentiles in the church, you, Mr Graham, would not be part of the church of Jesus Christ and would be facing the same eternal separation from God that you like to threaten the LGBTQ community with.
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