Jennifer R. Jensen
Reading Romans 13 as a radical call to do no harm as the holiest way of loving our neighbor.
As I write this essay that you are hopefully reading in the warm Indianapolis sunshine, it is the beginning of the liturgical new year, a chilly November day in Northwest Indiana. I read the lectionary verses this morning from the book of Romans. And while the passage today is probably not the most commonly used to denounce or exclude LGBTQIA+ Christians, in the NIV 1984, words like “orgies” and “sexual immorality” and “debauchery” are definitely bandied about as the lifestyle and behaviors of the queer community. The NIV 2011 tones it down a bit, mentioning “carousing” instead of “orgies.” Verses like this in various places in scripture are pulled out of context and used as weapons against those who are faithfully following Jesus but also identifying as gay, bi, lesbian, or transgender. There are two problems: first, many in the LGBTQIA+ community are faithfully committed to a single partner and are definitely not engaging in orgies or carousing. Second, pulling verses out of context is a terrible practice that detracts from the beauty and harmony of scripture as a whole. That is certainly true of Romans 13: 11-14.
Looking just a few verses back in this chapter, Paul is writing about something different, something bigger than some classes of sin. Indeed, if you start the passage at verse 8, you can see that the essential theme in this chapter is not general sin at all, but rather, the invitation to love one another in a bigger way than ever before, so that the sins he is calling out are specifically in the context of being hurtful to one another, of being anti-love. Paul says in verse 10 that love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. As he continues to describe love and admonish Christians to put aside deeds of darkness and put on the light of love, it is clear that his meaning is inclusive of the previous verses—behave decently, do no harm, skip the behaviors (including drunkenness, dissension, and jealousy) that so often harm us or others. The desires Paul goes on to describe in verse 14 are selfish ones, those that put us in positions to create pain and suffering and that go very much against the idea of doing no harm.
Thus, Paul is defining sinfulness this way: engaging our own desires in ways that cause hurt, pain, damage to our neighbor. Leaping ahead to a Wesleyan, perhaps specifically Nazarene even, definition of sinfulness—willful disobedience to a known law of God—it is not a significant extrapolation to suggest that we can distill sin to disobeying God by damaging someone else through our actions and enhance our understanding of holiness to its broadest definition: obeying God by loving one another and doing no harm to our neighbor. Theologically speaking, if we review scripture in its entirety these two assertions are easily identifiable as to both the character and actions of God, a useful and sound way to interpret all scripture. God is love and God calls us to love in the way that God loves.
A lot of words could be used to split hairs over whether or not LGBTQ+ individuals are born that way or choose it, whether or not there are so-called “clobber” verses and how they can be applied, whether or not being gay and living a “gay lifestyle” are two different things, and why or how that matters to the conversation of inclusion or exclusion. I am quite positive others will explore those themes and discuss the various beliefs and Bible texts to back their perspective up. But if we get our arms around this definition of holiness—obey God by loving one another and doing no harm to our neighbor—it doesn’t matter what anyone believes about any of those things because harm is being done. Harm is being done in the name of the God who loves. Harm is being done by people who claim they love Jesus. Harm is being done intentionally, unintentionally, and with the full backing of an entire holiness denomination that should know better. And it must stop.
Don’t worry, I heard the defensive wheels revving as soon as you read that last paragraph: “But if it’s sin and we don’t speak it they go to hell,” and “it’s not love if we are not pointing out sin,” and “I’ve never harmed anyone in my life, and certainly not in God’s name!” I understand how you could be confused. After all, the voices we’ve heard from the pulpit haven’t always done a great job of helping us understand the reality we live in as well as they could have. The reality of our Christian faith is that we have a long historical precedent of doing harm in the name of God: pastors advocating slavery, Christians participating in passing along misinformation related to Muslims, holiness churches supporting misogynist and racist practices, including funding Ku Klux Klan chapters around the US. Of course, these are all separate and distinct from the issue at hand, but certainly, this is a small list of recent past acts undertaken in the name of Jesus and perpetuating harm to individuals that we should, as Christ-followers, consider our neighbors.
And as for you harming the LGBTQ+ community? I don’t make accusations without receipts, so here are several examples of you, as a Christian, allowing or supporting harm to folks because their sexual preferences, orientations, and/or gender identities differed from your own, or what you believe the Bible clearly says:
- Excluding or disavowing pastors who actively serve their community or preach the gospel from service or ministry—even when they follow celibacy mandates or rules, simply because they identify as gay, trans, or lesbian. This is a horrible exclusion, particularly for someone who is already making a sacrifice to be affiliated with a church. Worse, once they are excluded as leaders of any stripe, they are often treated poorly by their church family—who hold revocation of membership over their heads for any inkling of a relationship, but also refuse to be the community of love they need to continue a life of celibacy.
- Refusing to acknowledge the pronouns or new name of a transgender person. This is particularly true if you are the family member of a person who identifies as gender non-conforming. This causes harm in several ways. Not only increasing the likelihood of at least a suicide attempt (42% of transgender adults in a 2016 study confessed to an attempt) it also increases the risk of drug abuse and alcoholism (26% in the same study reported this as a means to cope with transgender-related discrimination). It seems that actively participating in actions that increase the likelihood of self-harm and illicit substance dependence ought to be a no-brainer. It is not difficult to adjust to new pronouns, to new names, to new identities, and it is far easier than comforting the grieving parent of a deceased child.
- Actively misinforming others or believing that drag queens or kings, trans people, or LGBTQIA+ people are recruiting children or grooming them or abusing them, while simultaneously rigorously ignoring sexual abuses and misdeeds occurring in a church or parachurch organization. Churches have shown themselves to be far more dangerous to children and young adults, especially when accountability is non-existent. How many churches hold up the pastor(s) as unquestionable authorities and yet rail against men dressing as women, as though makeup on a man is more scary than unbridled power? The truth is that the performers at a drag show are far less dangerous than the Christians who bomb power plants or shoot unarmed attendees at those shows. The constant errant narrative of “grooming” by LGBTQIA+ people is hurting not only the LGBTQIA+ community, but children who are being harmed by others, and those who believe the falsehoods and take other lives in an effort to “save the children.”
- Opposing adoption or foster parenting by LGBTQIA+ parents. Although same-sex couples are legally able to adopt in all 50 states, faith-based agencies will still deny or obstruct adoptions or foster care by gay or lesbian couples. This is harmful, again, to children. In Kansas where foster care is run by contractors statewide, agencies are permitted to refuse LGBTQIA+ couples to foster, if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs. This is in a state that has had children sleeping in agency offices. It seems counter intuitive to think that a child is better off sleeping under someone’s desk versus in a bed, simply because the potential parents are the same gender.
- Dead-naming a trans person or deliberately using the wrong pronouns. Doing this is an intentionally hurtful thing and respecting pronouns and names is the bare minimum of not doing harm. It is not unprecedented nor is it unbiblical: Jacob became Israel in Genesis, which was representative of an entire nation. I don’t think God would have thought it was hard to call them by the right name, nor do I think God appreciates you dead-naming a trans person as a way of proving your rightness. It’s harmful and not loving.
If you review the short list I have provided and determine that in the interest of being a Jesus follower, it is far more important to be judgmental about the sinfulness of homosexuality than to consider the harmfulness of these behaviors, I wonder who it is that you do follow, because it isn’t Jesus. Jesus told everyone not to harm children. Jesus also admonished the disciples about criticizing someone who was healing in Jesus name but not part of their group. Scripture tells us that God hates lying, and in Acts we see the Holy Spirit moving particularly against those who lie in conjunction with their faith. When we see God giving us instruction, so explicitly, against things that actively harm others and then we do things that actively harm others, we are not serving the Church or following God or being Christlike—indeed, we are being anti-Christ.
I am of the opinion that, in accordance with the already issued statement of the Church of the Nazarene, being LGBTQIA+ is not a sin. Identifying as having a particular sexual desire, as ascribing to a non-binary or transgender identity is also not a sin, as for the most part these are cultural and not sexual constructs. Where they are sexual constructs (i.e. someone is undergoing gender-affirming medical care), they are still not a sin. Indeed, the acceptance of the eunuch in Acts for baptism seems to be a pretty clear indication that gender is a non-issue for Christ followers. And when we look at where there is harm being done, we have to ask are the LGBTQIA+ individuals the ones who are being unloving? Are they the ones excluding others? Are they the ones who are rejecting and judging? To that end, if we return to my original assertion that being holy has a broad definition—obeying God by loving one another and doing no harm to our neighbor—then the only way to be holy is to be 100% affirming. Because at the moment, we are the ones, as supposed entirely sanctified Christians, who are doing the most harm.
I am an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, and I know full well what I risk, just by writing this essay. Losing my credential will be disheartening, but the day was coming when I would have to turn it in voluntarily, because the Holy Spirit continues to whisper that holding it is doing harm, because silence is acceptance.
I have an obligation to love first, to stand for a holiness doctrine that does no harm and loves my neighbor: my lesbian neighbor, my gay neighbor, my bi neighbor, my trans neighbor, my queer neighbor, my intersex neighbor, my asexual neighbor. My neighbor. Because love does no harm to a neighbor.
Rev. Jennifer R. Jensen is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. She serves as an associate pastor on the Northwest Indiana district and bi-vocationally, works as a consultant for computer software. She has a business degree from Olivet Nazarene University and a Master of Education.