When asked by Channel 4 News whether he thought gay sex was sinful, Tim Farron, an Evangelical Christian and leader of the Liberal Democrats, equivocated. ‘We are all sinners’ was his response. A less than whole-hearted endorsement of same-sex relationships.
It was a political mistake. Questioned repeatedly on the subject during the election campaign, he modified his comments, and stressed his support for equal marriage. But the damage was done.
Farron’s resignation speech as leader of the Lib Dems this week showed his ambivalence remained. “To be a political leader, especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017”, he said, “and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”
Traditional Christian resistance to homosexuality has largely rested on doubtful interpretations of a handful of obscure bible verses. Take St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, for instance, in which, according to one modern translation, St Paul apparently claims that ‘neither homosexuals nor sodomites…will inherit the kingdom of God.’ (1 Cor. 6:9-10, New King James Version)
A clear biblical denunciation of homosexuality?
Not really. The words translated here as ‘homosexuals’ and ‘sodomites’ are the Greek words ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’. But the meaning of both is disputed.
‘Malakos’ literally means ‘soft’, and is used elsewhere in the bible to describe King Herod’s luxurious robes. In a moral context, Aristotle used the word in the Nichomachean Ethics to describe a lack of self-control regarding bodily pleasures: a moral failing, in his view, but not one he linked to homosexuality. Catholic tradition is more specific: ‘malakoi’ refers to masturbation.
The second word, ‘arsenokoitai’, is a compound word which seems to have been invented by St Paul. The word has something to do with sex and men, but its meaning is unclear. Martin Luther thought it referred to pederasty (‘Knabenschänder’ is the usual German translation: men who violate boys). Modern scholars argue it is a reference to male prostitution; certainly that is how it was used by other Greek writers in the first few centuries AD.
To see this verse as condemning consensual same-sex adult relationships is a stretch, to say the least. Less a prohibition of gay sex, and more a case of dodgy translation: an illustration of the way cultural prejudice against gay people affects how the bible is read. These are thin strands on which to hang the practice of discrimination.
Against this, we see the example of Jesus. Not only did Jesus never condemn same-sex relationships, but he angrily denounced religious leaders of the day for their practice of exclusion, through which whole categories of people were considered ‘unclean’ or taboo.
We can even speculate on the sexuality of Jesus himself. It was unusual (to say the least) for a religious teacher at that time not be married. The Gospel of John repeatedly refers to the apostle John not by name but as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. It’s a curious description never fully explained. At the risk of anachronism, contemporary biblical scholarship certainly asks the question: was Jesus gay?
The practical implications are simple. Tim Farron was wrong. There’s no clear ‘biblical basis’ for Christian prejudice and discrimination against same-sex relationships. And there are plenty of Christians who understand this. Two weeks ago, the Scottish Episcopal Church (the Anglican church north of the border) finally changed its canons to allow equal marriage in church. They were right to do so.
Without apology or equivocation, it’s time we did the same.