Since the earliest days of Christianity, churches have alienated or punished LGBT+ congregants, particularly gay men, based on interpretations of biblical scripture that portray homosexuality as a sin.
In 390 AD, the Christian emperor Theodosius the Great of the Roman Empire ordered gay men to be burned at the stake. In the Middle Ages, Catholic clergy members hunted gay people to punish them for “crimes against Natural Law.”
Essentially, any sexual act not expressly undertaken for the purpose of procreation. By the 13th century in France, the Catholic Church castrated men and dismembered female sexual organs if they were found guilty of homosexual acts. Meanwhile, in England, King Henry VIII passed The Buggery Act 1533, which punished anyone found guilty of sodomy with the death penalty.
Persecution and condemnation exist in modern history as well. In the US, for example, more than 680,000 people have undergone conversion therapy. And in 2016, Christian extremists publicly supported the mass murder of 49 people at a gay club in Orlando, Florida.
Why does anti-LGBT+ sentiment run so deep? We ask theologian Lap Yan Kung and gay pastor Jason Ho to explain the biblical and regional cultural influences behind this historic rift.
MEET THE EXPERTS
Jason Ho: A fifth-generation Christian, JH: is a gay pastor at Blessed Ministry Community Church (BMCC) in Hong Kong, as well as an English language and cultural studies professor at the UOW College Hong Kong, formerly Community College of City University.
Professor Lap Yan Kung: For more than 25 years, Professor Kung has been a theology professor at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). He researches the intersection of religion and society, including Christian ethics and sexuality.
Ariana: Tell us about yourselves.
JH: I was raised in a Christian family here in Hong Kong. I discovered I was gay as a teenager and started dating another man, but this became a conflict at my church. At the time, I was a Jehovah’s Witness [a particularly conservative Christian denomination] and they excommunicated me when I told them about my sexuality.
I was without a church for around eight years. Then about 13 years ago, I found BMCC where Pastor Joe Pang welcomed me. Since then, I have gradually been able to accept my identity as a gay Christian.
LYK: My first encounter with the issue of homosexuality in faith was through my students at CUHK. Some confided in me that they were homosexual and faced personal conflicts at home, in church or in the college residence halls. Learning about their struggles made me realise we need to take a look at what is going on in our society.
What have you heard while working with LGBT+ individuals?
LYK: I have heard many sad stories. One that comes to mind is about a young girl in her early 20s who is a lesbian from a very devoted Christian family. They were a wonderful, happy family until she came out as gay. Her parents blamed themselves, believing that they must be bad Christians and deserve punishment because their daughter is gay.
The girl felt very depressed because she loved her parents so much and felt like she caused their despair. A question challenges me: “What Christian love testifies is not love but divide in the name of love.”
JH: I am a teacher, and every year on the first day of school, I come out to my students. One year, a lesbian student came out after I did, and everyone in the room applauded. It was very meaningful. It also highlights how important it can be to come out – not just for LGBT+ people but also for allies, who accept us. If more people come out, and more LGBT+ allies show support, there is a better chance society and religious communities will become more accepting.
Why is there so much tension between Christianity and sexuality in the first place?
JH: Many centuries ago, the early church fathers [influential ancient writers, theologians and priests who interpreted scriptures] looked at sex and gender through a patriarchal, misogynistic lens. Women had no value aside from childbearing, and they blamed women for bringing sin to the world [in the form of sex]. They argued that a holy person should only have sex to procreate and, since gay sex does not result in procreation, it is considered a sin.
LYK: Yes, according to the biblical understanding, the Book of Genesis [the first book in the Old Testament] laid the foundation. The second chapter explains how God created Adam and Eve as man and wife and encouraged them to procreate. In the Old Testament, men with an intention to avoid procreation are condemned.
When Christians make anti-gay arguments, what passages do they point to?
JH: There are six or seven anti-LGBT+ verses in the Bible that [the LGBT+ community] collectively calls the ‘clobber’ texts. The first one is the creation story [Genesis chapters 1-2], which is all about a man and a woman forming the ʻnaturalʼ relationship. Some read this to mean that those who don’t follow this formula are ‘wrong.’
Then we have Genesis chapter 19, which is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. To summarise: God destroyed these two ‘sinful’ cities where it is believed, by some interpretations, that local mobs would rape ‘foreigners.’ That is where the term ‘sodomy’ comes from. Some early fathers interpreted this story to mean that God forbids gay sexual relationships, but this story is really about how the city treated marginalised people and foreigners.
LYK: You are absolutely right. At the time of writing the Hebrew [Old Testament] and the New Testament, people had no knowledge about homosexuality. They based this on phenomena they may have seen but didn’t understand. So ancient Christians and Hebrews simply say ‘no’ to it, because they’ve always strongly valued procreation.
Can you walk us through Leviticus 18:22?
JH: In this verse, the Bible says, ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.’ If you read that line literally, it seems to be talking about homosexuals. But if you compare 44 translations of those same verses, it has changed over the centuries.
There have been some misinterpretations of Greek terms, such as arsenokoites malakos, which has been translated as ‘homosexuals’ in some texts. However, modern scholars argue that translators imposed meaning on the terms without considering the historical and cultural context. [In context, arsenokoites malakos most likely refers to a person who is a victim of rape, be it a man, woman or child].
These texts have nothing to do with our modern notion of homosexual relationships – of a man or woman falling in love with another person of the same sex. It is not talking about this kind of romantic intimacy or a consensual relationship; it is talking about sexual exploitation.
LYK: We also have to keep in mind that Leviticus 18:22 is part of the larger Holiness Code, which also condemns people who eat shellfish, pigs or shave – these are all considered abominations and sins.
My main argument is that we should not read the Bible literally, but rather analogically [extrapolating philosophical lessons and applying them to situations in everyday life]. Just to give you an example, let’s look at the Acts of the Apostles.
In chapter 10, Peter has a vision: a vessel full of animals falling from the sky. A voice instructed him to eat the animals, but some were ‘unclean,’ so Peter protested. But the voice assured him that all of God’s creations are clean.
After the vision, Peter meets a ‘gentile’ [a non-Jewish person who would be considered unworthy in the Old Testament]. Even though the man was not a Jew, Peter understood that God was gracious and wanted him to accept the foreigner.
This is a very important story for us to understand in relation to LGBT+ issues because the Old Testament made a sharp distinction between the clean and unclean, the eunuch and the ‘normal.’ But God broke down those boundaries and said to appreciate one another. Based on this lesson, I think God would want us to accept people of different sexual orientations.
“Since gay sex does not result in procreation, it is considered a sin.”
– Jason Ho, Blessed Ministry Community Church
How do you reconcile your personal faith with some of these teachings?
JH: Christian churches have made many mistakes – mistakes on spreading teachings and getting involved in social, cultural, political and racial oppression knowingly and unknowingly. Any Christian with a sound mind should not just follow what the church says and does but become a critical thinker and agent of change in the society.
The misinterpretations of the so-called ‘clobber’ passages no longer affect me in a harmful way. On the contrary, different interpretations of these passages have helped me look deeper into the sociocultural backgrounds and contexts in which they were conceived.
LYK: I do not feel any deep struggle with my faith though, sometimes, I find that churches are not doing what God expects them to do when it comes to political issues of gender equality or LGBT+ issues. When the church fails, it reminds us that we have to be more courageous and speak out. I still have my faith. I believe in the teachings and examples of Jesus, who shows us love and calls us to love others. He makes life flourish, breaks down human barriers and values each unique life.
JH: Despite all that’s happened to me, I still believe in Christianity because the Christian faith speaks about God in a language I identify with. The ignorance, fear, and prejudice that some church people perpetuate in their teachings and practices are not going to win. Love always wins. The love of diversity, the love of truth, the love of each LGBT+ person in God’s eyes, the love of justice will always overcome the darkness that has been haunting the church.
What is the situation like in Hong Kong?
LYK: On the issue of homosexuality, Hong Kong has historically followed British laws, and up until 1991, homosexuality was illegal. Interestingly, Hong Kong was not a Christian society. So why did Hong Kong accept this law for so long? One possible reason is that Chinese society shares the view that homosexuality is abnormal. So, I would not say that churches were the dominant community against homosexuality, but society as a whole viewed it as a sin.
Now, society is moving forward but churches are lagging behind. Many have failed to have serious self-reflection and constructive criticism. As a result, homosexuals are not openly welcomed by churches.
JH: In Hong Kong, some churches just tolerate LGBT+ members, while others can’t accept them at all, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then, there are the LGBT+ affirming churches, which recognise the community as equals.
There are Christians who embrace LGBT+ individuals, but I think many churches still do not dare to officially welcome them. For example, I have been contacted by some study group leaders within conservative churches who wanted us to share our experiences, but their management rejected the idea.
“Many churches say ‘no’ to homosexuality because they don’t understand it.”Lap Yan Kung,
Why might that be?
LYK: Churches in Hong Kong place too much emphasis on the doctrines and fail to take the real-life experiences of their members seriously. Many churches say no to homosexuality because they don’t understand it, making a judgment without ever taking the time to listen to people or understand the issue.
That said, there have been some shifts. Until the late 1990s, most churches in Hong Kong said no to homosexuality. But now, it seems to me that more churches are tolerant. They do not officially say yes but they also aren’t saying no – it is improving.
JH: Yes, it’s only in recent decades that more denominations have become friendlier towards LGBT+ people. Some pastors tend to adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. Some are more open-minded, and a few are quite affirming nowadays.
LYK: It seems like the churches with strong ties overseas are more liberal. Whereas, churches with more local congregations, tend to be silent on this. Many churches in Hong Kong won’t take a public position; however, some are starting to have private conversations. Some have admitted that they need to listen to the experiences of LGBT+ individuals and learn. I think that is a good start.
More than 1.3 billion people worldwide identify as Catholic. Since Pope Francis has changed his stance on LGBT+ issues, what could this signal?
JH: It’s good to hear he’s one of the more liberal popes in recent decades. The Catholic Church, as well as other denominations and churches, seem to be more tolerant of LGBT+ people.
But they have to acknowledge the non-sinful nature of LGBT+ communities, repent the wrongs they’ve done to LGBT+ people, and correct the harmful teachings and practices that continue to oppress genders and sexual minorities.
LYK: I don’t think Pope Francis has taken it far enough. What he is saying is that the church should respect LGBT+ people as humans – they are not inferior. They are loved by God and should not be discriminated against. Despite this, Pope Francis makes a first step, and I hope a more open theological reflection on sex will be conducted in the Catholic church.
What are you doing within your own churches to be more inclusive?
LYK: We are both ecumenical, which means we worship within the Christian tradition but don’t follow a specific denomination. Some independent churches, like Jason’s church, BMCC, and my church, One Body in Christ, are trying to be more inclusive.
We also invite pastors from conservative churches to preach to our congregation. When they meet LGBT+ congregants, we believe they will become more tolerant. Unfortunately, our pastor is not welcomed by the conservative churches, which is very sad.
JH: At my church, BMCC, we try to make our faith relevant to society – social justice, gender equality, the environment – and welcome all sexual and gender minorities. Caring about people, society and the environment is the crux of my faith – it is the essence of Christianity. At this stage, we still need to raise awareness in society and within our faith communities, and that is one mission at BMCC.
LYK: Both of our churches are members of the Covenant of the Rainbow – a movement to make churches friendly to homosexuals. For five or six years now, we have been working to demonstrate solidarity with sexual and gender minorities by welcoming them, listening to their struggles, and supporting their civil rights.
JH: more accepting. Society is changing, perspectives are changing. After reading this article, many people who are on the fence may need time to digest. But I would like to say, take your time. And if you want to help, reach out to your LGBT+ friends and family. Tell them you love them, just as they are.
Covenant of the Rainbow
Based in Hong Kong, the Covenant of the Rainbow is a coalition of 11 churches and Christian organisations with a purpose to encourage the Christian community to become more inclusive of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex (LGBTI).