A Theological Statement on Inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ Community in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC)
by Rev. Chris Warren
The inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ community in Christian Churches is an important topic for the Church of the early 21st century. Many have chosen a “side” and have become entrenched. Something like a battle line has been drawn. For the traditionalist, a common sense reading of scripture is clearly against same-sex relationships. For the progressive the whole arc of scripture is clear about inclusion. A careful, culturally-sensitive reading of scripture, sensitive to the culture when scripture was written and the cultural meaning given to similar words in modern usage, must be taken into account before excluding an entire community of people. This paper supports the inclusion of the LGBTQIA community in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Its purpose is to introduce readers who may be unfamiliar with cultural and biblical studies to alternate understandings of passages that have been used to exclude this community from full fellowship in the Church.
Examples from the Church’s History
The Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith (COF) reads in section 1.07: “In order to understand God’s word spoken in and through the scriptures, persons must have the illumination of God’s own Spirit. Moreover, they should study the writings of the Bible in their historical settings, compare scripture with scripture, listen to the witness of the church throughout the centuries, and share insights with others in the covenant community.” The Introduction to the 1883 Confession of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the first independent confession of faith created by the church reads, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it unfettered by the doctrines and commandments of men [sic] which are in any thing contrary to his word. The right of private judgment, therefore, in respect to religion, is universal and inalienable.” This statement was extremely important to a group of Christians who had experienced a difference of conscience with the Presbyterian Church in which the Church had attempted to censure individuals for their independence of conscience regarding the doctrine we have come to know as double pre-destination. At that time those who chose to go against the standing doctrines of the church were considered heretics and radically liberal by the existing church.
The response of these early Cumberland Presbyterians stands in the tradition of the Reformation. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church is a Reformed denomination–reformed and ever reforming. As it is willing to reform, it should be willing to re-visit items that heretofore have seemed to be already settled and perhaps at one time closed to debate.
The doctrine of pre-destination is one of the first in the Cumberland Presbyterian legacy of reform. It was because of non-conformity to this doctrine, that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was founded. Given that the church’s founding was based on re-interpretation of formerly established doctrine, there should be room for a fair hearing of people within this denomination who experience a difference in conscience on a particular matter that is directly addressed in the confession of faith. If for such a matter directly addressed in the Confession of Faith, then much more so for matters such as same-sex relationships and LGBTQIA+ rights that are only indirectly addressed in the Confession, if at all.
The Cumberland Pesbyterian Church broke protocol by ordaining women to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament. For as much as the Church celebrates the CP Church being the first Reformed body to ordain a woman, it must contend with its history of the long-fought battle to have Louisa Woosley’s ordination recognized and to allow her to have a seat at General Assembly. Many referred to the witness of scripture in trying to prevent Rev. Woosley a seat. But a fresh reading of scripture that had at one time been doctrinal allowed the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to continue ordaining women.
Historically the Church has upheld things that are now indefensible like slavery or a geocentric model of the universe. Change in well established doctrines can happen, and it can be for the better.
Interpreting Scripture according to the Confession of Faith
Section 1.07 of the Confession of Faith states, “The interpreter must have the Spirit of God to rightfully interpret scripture.” Disagreeing honestly with another in interpretation does not mean that either party does not have the Spirit of God. Freedom of conscience for the sincere seeker is important if dialogue is to progress. Even the Statement on Homosexuality that is so often quoted from the General Assembly of 1996 ends with this sentence: “This statement is to be understood as a theological and social statement and not to be understood as a rule or principle for ordination but never to usurp the authority of presbytery or session to ordain.”
Section 1.05 refers to the Holy Scriptures as the “infallible rule of faith and practice.” “Infallible” in application to the scriptures means “never failing; always effective.” This is distinct from “inerrant,” meaning that there are no errors whatsoever. Scripture never fails when it is properly used, however, it has often been misused to harm many individuals and groups.
The second criterion for proper interpretation of scripture, in section 1.07 of the COF, is study of the scriptures in their historical settings. In the twentieth century audiences are unfamiliar with genres from cultures that have little understanding of science, where writing is not intended to be value free reporting and doesn’t even pretend to be. A primary use of cultic writing was to define the boundaries of certain groups and to convince others of belief systems.
While biblical interpretation is to be aided by historical, cultural, and literary understanding, it is not the type of science in which all interpreters will agree. Science can accurately state things such as freezing and boiling temperatures, but scriptural interpretation is not that type of discipline. It is more like art in which one person may see a painting or hear a piece of music and have a different impression of that art than another. Much of this has to do with the background and the culture of the viewer/listener. Many will read the same words in scripture, and, according to their background, their physical, mental, and spiritual make-up, and their experience of God and others will draw different conclusions about the writing. This is true for all readers of scripture (and readers of anything). People bring themselves to the text and can only interpret the text using who they are. No reader is neutral.
The COF section 1.07 further states that we should both “listen to the witness of the church throughout the centuries, and share insights with others in the covenant community.” This statement confirms that history of the church is important, but also affirms that contemporaries in the covenant community should not be ignored. The church’s understanding of many theological and social issues has changed over time because the church was willing to listen to the experiences of previously marginalized groups. It is not dishonoring our faith or our Confession of Faith to rethink matters by including the experiences of those who have been previously excluded from our communities– in this case, the LGBTQIA+ community.
Specific Textual Examples
Scripture has an over-arching message. It teaches that God is love. It teaches that God loves humanity and wants to be reconciled to humanity. It teaches that humans broke the relationship with God and that God worked to repair it in many ways. It teaches that God’s ultimate act of reconciling humanity to God was done through Jesus the Christ. In his life, death, and resurrection, people were given a new relationship with God, replaced by grace.
Starting with the book of Genesis, God created people to have relationship with other people. Many times those who are opponents of full membership of LGBTQIA+ individuals in the church begin with Genesis by quoting that when God first made humans, God created a man and a woman. This ignores the fact that there are two creation stories at the beginning of Genesis, the first being the seven days of creation story which extends from Genesis 1:1-2:4, and then a second story which involves Adam and Eve. These writings were meant to teach, but they are not the same genre as modern history. In these two stories things happen in different orders, and both violate modern scientific understandings of the history of the universe. But the point of the stories is to remind us that God created and sustains all that is.
In the first story, in Genesis 1:27 (NRSV), scripture reads, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
There is, of course, no argument as to whether there are both males and females in the world, and those who believe in scripture agree that God created them both. Without both males and females there cannot be procreation of the species. That being said, in the first creation story, there is no mention of particular people who were created or the number of males and females.
In the second story, only two humans are created. It would be absurd to think that God would create only two of the same sex and from those the earth would be populated, no matter what type of sexual desire or activity was allowed. Even with a limited understanding of sexual reproduction, ancient peoples understood that could not happen.
Before the creation of the second person, God says something powerful. In Genesis 2:18 (NRSV), God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” Clearly, from the beginning of the understanding of humanity, it has been declared that God made humans for relationship with other humans (Levine, Not Good to be Alone: Rethinking the Bible and Homosexuality). Some may argue that Eve, the first woman, was the only suitable companion for Adam. This may well be true. But does this mean that a woman like Eve is the only suitable companion for all men? Or that a man like Adam is the only suitable companion for all women?
Experience teaches us that there is great variety in this world. For myriad reasons, from genetics to environment to other factors we may not yet understand, people are attracted to different types of people. God pronounced that it is not good for the human to be alone. It is good for humans to be in relationship. In the story of Adam and Eve, these two were suitable companions for each other. Given the variety of humanity, it is possible that there could be other types of companionship suitable for different types of people.
To understand the Levitical Codes in their proper historical context, we must understand the culture and mindset of this ancient people. Bodily fluids and completeness are some of the main themes in these codes.
According to Jewish biblical scholar Martin S. Cohen, the ancient Hebrews regarded fluids that came out of the body as sacred. Fluid misplaced was cause for concern or even alarm. This specifically included blood and semen (Cohen 153-164).
In particular, semen was never to be wasted. Sexual intercourse was intended to have one goal: the procreation of the species. Sexual activity that could not produce offspring was prohibited by the Levitical codes.
This includes male same-sex relationships only, because in the understanding of the ancient Hebrews, the seminal fluid was the making of a baby. In other words, they did not understand that women supplied a portion of the genetic material necessary to make children. Their best knowledge suggested that the seminal fluid goes into a woman’s vagina, it stays in her belly to grow until it becomes a baby, and then it comes out.
When scripture prohibits certain types of sex (never emotional relationships; scripture deals with sexual action, not sexual attraction), the ancients wanted to keep from wasting seminal fluid. This was at the basis for their prohibition against male-male sexual intercourse.
As an example, there is one person who was actually struck down and killed by God for wasting seminal fluid. This happens in the book of Genesis, and it isn’t an example of male-male intercourse. It is, in fact, a case of male-female vaginal intercourse in which the seminal fluid was wasted (Genesis, Chapter 38).
Consistency in reading of scripture is important. If those who advocate the exclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals take this passage, and the Levitical codes seriously, then they should condemn in equal measure any practice of birth control, including coitus interruptus. To my knowledge that is not a widespread ethic in the Protestant church. Why should only one code designed to preserve the sanctity of seminal fluid be upheld when other passages are disregarded?
In regard to the Levitical Codes overall, almost all of them are completely disregarded by modern Christians. Two rather common examples in Leviticus 19 are prohibitions against wearing a garment of two fibers (such as a Cotton/Poly blend) or planting a field with two types of seed. Certainly few regard these commands as being necessary anymore, yet so much emphasis is placed on the prohibition of male-male sexual conduct.
In addition to addressing male-male sex, Leviticus 19 (NRSV) speaks about how we should treat others. Verse nine says not to reap to the edge of fields but to leave the extra for the poor. Verse 10 says only to reap grapes once so that the poor can find grapes left over. Verse 11 says not to deal falsely or lie to one another. Verse 15 says not to be partial to the poor or to the rich. Verse 27 says not to round off your hair or your beard. Verse 28 says not to get a tattoo. Verses 33 and 34 state: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
If Leviticus 19 is to be taken literally in about male-male sex, how can one ignore these other commands?
Israelites practiced blood sacrifices. These are, of course, commanded in the law and ignored in modern religious practice. As Christians we believe the atonement of Jesus eliminated the need to sacrifice. Should Christians use the book of Leviticus for their modern ethics? If so, who decides which commands apply today and which do not?
The question of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) often comes up in this type of discussion. Two angels were sent by God to the city of Sodom to see if the outcry to God about these cities was warranted. In other places in the OT text the word used for “cry out” refers to economic injustice and oppression. Lot invites the angels to stay with him in his home, knowing that the people of the town were evil and would want to rape these newcomers. One can imagine that Lot knew this because it happened to him or to others like him when they settled in Sodom.
There is no hint here of condemnation of a homosexual relationship based on mutuality and love. This is gang rape. The idea that Lot offers his own daughters to keep his guests from being violated may have seemed the lesser of two great evils to Lot, since the mistreatment of a stranger was to be condemned, but it is horrific as well. The men are not interested in Lot’s daughters, apparently, because this act was one of showing foreigners who was powerful in the town. These men would rape the newcomers in order to exhibit power over them.
There is no legitimate way to compare this episode in the scriptures to a consensual sexual act between two adults. To do so is an abomination against the scriptures and against human relationship.
New Testament references that are taken to be anti-LGBTQIA+ are also not speaking of the issue that is before the Church today. The question for the modern Church is whether to accept the same-sex desire of people within the church and whether or not to bless the marriages and unions of people who are in same-sex relationships. This understanding of these types of relationships is new in the history of the world, and it must be thought of in new ways.
In the New Testament world there were many pagan celebrations that involved sexual orgies in which large groups of people had sex with one another. While some have interpreted texts that refer to “abandoning natural passions” (Romans 1, NRSV) to refer to same-sex coupling, these passages may be better understood as referring to these orgies in which the people became frenzied in their sexual state and began having sexual relations with others of the same sex. This sexuality is against the teaching of scripture, because it is idolatry in service to false gods. It has no relation to a committed same-sex relationship like the type celebrated today in the United States. Whether it was cultic orgies or another form of homosexual sex, it is likely that the culture’s understanding of sexual desire was that all had desire, and when it became insatiable it could go in “unnatural” directions. In addition, the cultural ethic was that homosexual sex is debasing for men not because there is an issue with the desire, or even the act itself, but the feminization of one of the parties. In fact, many in the time wrote that it was more feminizing to have sex with a woman than with a man, for the penetrator (Martin 55-57).
The terms often defined in the Pauline Literature, specifically 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are arsenokoitês and malakos. Dale Martin writes that these terms do not likely mean “homosexual” in a modern sense, and possibly not at all. Arsenokoitês is used elsewhere so infrequently as to be hard to define in the Greek, but when it is used, it is included in economic and power sins, not sexual ones. He says it could have some connection to an economic sin that deals with sex, but it is very unlikely it is about a homosexual orientation.
In regard to the word malakos, Martin says that it is used so frequently it is very well defined. But that definition is not “homosexual” either, even though that is how many bibles produced in the twentieth century translate the term. The word actually means “effeminate,” a term that would include males who are penetrated by other males or females (but not those who do the penetrating.) It would also include those who had other qualities that might be considered effeminate, including the desire to have sex with many female partners (Martin 37-47).
Marriage itself is an interesting subject in the scripture we use to inform our modern morals. While people point to the book of Genesis and the passage about Adam and Eve as the ideal, there are several different types of marriage in scripture. The one man/ one woman model of marriage is one of many biblical models, and when we assume or indeed tell people that we believe only in the biblical model of marriage, we are being either ignorant or deceitful.
In all these marriage arrangements, marriage is not a partnership but an ownership. The man owns the woman, all she has, and her sexuality. That is why offenses of having sexual relations with someone else’s wife are in the Levitical property laws. It is a degradation of someone else’s property, not a moral offense in the modern understanding.
Biblical models of marriage include:
- One man/ one woman marriage. It can be found in some couples, like Adam and Eve, Isaac and Rebekah, and Mary and Joseph.
- Marriage of one man and as many wives as he can afford, like the kings or other men of importance in the scripture. See the multiple marriages of David for an example.
- Levirate marriage, in which a man must marry the wife of his elder brother if he dies without producing an heir. His duty is to have a male child with the widow of his brother. This custom is to be carried out whether the younger brother has a wife already or not. This is partially how Ruth and Boaz came together, and the reason for the death of Onan in Genesis 38.
- One man and wives plus concubines. One need only look to the record of Solomon’s life to see that this could add up.
- One man, his wife, and whoever the wife’s slave is. Remember Abraham and Sarah and Hagar or Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel and their “maids” Bilhah and Zilpah.
- A male soldier taking a prisoner of war as a wife.
- Forcing a male and female slave to marry each other.
- A rapist being compelled to marry the woman he has raped.
All of these are allowed by the law and customs of the Israelite people (Robinson, Bible Passages Describing Eight Family/Marriage Types). When one says they believe in a biblical view of marriage, he or she should be careful to explain which biblical view they support.
One more issue with the anti-LGBTQIA+ community’s argument against same-sex relationships or marriages is that it is something Jesus never spoke about. Many may believe they know what Jesus would have said about the subject since they imagine that their understanding of the law is the same as Jesus’ (Matthew 22). That’s a tricky argument since Jesus spent much of his time teaching people who thought they understood the law that it was not what they had imagined it to be–especially the people who were quick to point out “sinners” and those who were experts in the law itself.
But there are things Jesus did speak about that some in church tend to ignore or soften. Jesus said to love one another, specifically to love your enemies (Matthew 5). Many “Christians” exhibit hate toward the LGBTQIA+ community, other world religions, especially Muslims, and political enemies here in this nation. The hatred seems to continue to grow for people who do not share the worldview of some Christians, and they lash out to hurt others under the guise of protecting their own values. What harm is it to a heterosexual couple if a homosexual couple is married? Or if they are in a relationship?
Jesus also said to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor (Luke 18). How many Christians are willing to do that? Shouldn’t this direct command from Jesus be more important to us than worrying about something that this group thinks Jesus might have said if he had been asked?
In contrast to Jesus’ silence about LGBTQIA+ individuals, Jesus spoke clearly about divorce. It was not allowed by Jesus except in cases of marital infidelity. This paper does not argue for stricter standards on divorce in the church, but if modern Christians can re-think something said by Jesus directly like this, they can learn to re-think views on sexuality and marriage and other issues in light of the different time and culture.
From a scientific standpoint, evidence is coming out quickly that shakes up some of the traditional understandings of gender and sexuality. Both social sciences and genetics are complicating the traditional view of gender. If society sticks to a simple and clear two pole system of gender and sexuality, it is not honoring the complexity and diversity of the genetic and cultural material that makes up who we are. Add to this the complex genetics of sexuality, including that there are more combinations of sexuality than the simple XX or XY that most learned in biology, including extra chromosomes that change the nature of one’s sexuality, and we might find that, similar to a geocentric model of the solar system, we need to rethink gender and sexual orientation in light of new evidence (Henig 56-58). As this happens, theology must continue to reform and take new evidence into consideration.
In the end, the only way the church can change its stance on anything is for people to be willing to see things from different points of view. Many understand the point of view of theologically conservative believers on the subject of human sexuality. It is based on their understanding of scripture and their understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. By presenting another, scripturally-informed, point of view, perhaps those who have never considered an alternative may at least see logic in an argument for the acceptance of LGBTQIA+ individuals.
In conclusion, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church has a history of reinterpreting previously established doctrine in light of new scholarship and developments in thought about God. The statements in scripture that have been used to condemn homosexual relationships are not about homosexual orientation or relationship. There are many, many other behaviors condemned, including the food laws, mixture of seeds or fibers in the Old Testament that are completely ignored by modern Christians. Jesus never discusses same sex relationship, but does have harsh words for other things that Christians ignore. It is time to stop reading our own culture into Scripture in order to condemn relationships that are not addressed in our sacred text.
- Confession of Faith and Government of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America. 1984. Memphis: The Office of the General Assembly, 2007. Print.
- Office of General Assembly, General Assembly Minutes, 1996. Statement on Homosexuality.
- Cohen, Martin S. “The Biblical Prohibition of Homosexual Intercourse.” Biblical Studies Alternatively, ed. Suzanne Scholz: Prentice Hall, 2003.
- Harrelson, Walter J, and Donald Senior. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.
- Henig, Robin Marantz. “Rethinking Gender.” National Geographic, January, 2017, pp. 40-73.
- Levine, Amy-Jill. “Not Good to be Alone: Re-thinking the Bible and Homosexuality.” Religion and Ethics.
- Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
- Robinson, B.A. Bible Passages Describing Eight Family/Marriage Types. 2012.
- What should the Christian Community do when confronted with vastly different interpretations of the same scriptural passages?
- How much do extra-Biblical assumptions and cultural issues affect the way we read scripture?
- The author mentions several different types of marriage that were lawful and legitimate in ancient Israel. Would the faithful be comfortable defending all of these practices? How do we make sense of the differences in our current marriage practices?
- What do we think the Cumberland Presbyterian Confession of Faith means when it states, “In order to understand God’s word spoken in and through the scriptures, persons must have the illumination of God’s own Spirit. Moreover, they should study the writings of the Bible in their historical settings, compare scripture with scripture, listen to the witness of the church throughout the centuries, and share insights with others in the covenant community.” [1.07]” What resources or scholarship are consistent with the modern faith community?