I have been a minister in the Uniting Church for over 40 years and one of the groups of people I have had particular pastoral care of is the LGTBIQA members of the Uniting Church. This was the focus of my D.Min dissertation which I completed in 2001. The title was “Can the Church listen?: listening to the voices of Gay and Lesbian members in a way that creates an inclusive church.” I am also the only heterosexual member of National Executive of the Uniting Network since its inception in 1994. Uniting Network is a network of LGTBIQA members of the Uniting Church their friends, families and supporters. I am also their archivist. I have always had the approach of listening to their voices and this is important when it comes to their reading of the Scriptures. I was most surprised to find such a large number of Lesbian and Gay theologians and Biblical scholars who have written theological books.
I know there are a number of negative texts such as the prohibition of “men lying with men as with a woman” (Lev 18:22) and that such men should be put to death (Lev 20:13), or prohibiting sexual immorality between same-gender people (I Cor 6:9-10, I Tim 1:10. Rom 2:26-27). I am not going to deal with them, but simply to say that they belonged to a very different culture where the male-female norms were reinforced by rules that emphasised the importance of procreation and forbade sexual acts outside marriage. They do not refer to the loving relationships between two free consenting adults.
The word “homosexuality” as a concept was not invented until the 1860s. My focus is on gay and lesbian people who we as a society have acknowledged as having a valid sexual orientation and that we affirm and celebrate them as individuals, as leaders in society and that they have loving and faithful relationships just like other people. This also is the stance of the Uniting Church and I am glad we are allowed to officiate their marriages under the present law.
When gay and lesbian people read the Scriptures, they look for and discover stories about people like themselves who were sexually different. One group of men who stand out as both affirmed and discriminated against because of their sexuality are eunuchs. The word “Eunuch” (saris) is used 28 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and 8 times in the Christian Scriptures. Generally it has two meanings: One is as a court official in royal households with positions of responsibility and the second is as a person who had been castrated. Either way eunuchs played an important role in the life of any royal court.
EUNUCHS according to Rev Nancy Wilson
One documented fact is that there were boys who were raised to become court servants, and they were castrated so they could safely administer the palace household and be trusted not to impregnate the queen or princesses. They were castrated in order to preserve social order, to safe-guard caste and class, through preserving the royal bloodline. Such castrati sometimes would still have heterosexual sex without ejaculating sperm, although many became functionally homosexual. It may also be that young men who were noticed to be gay were also groomed for these positions because it would be obvious that they would not be interested in impregnating the queen or princesses. If many ancient cultures managed to acknowledge the special gifts of gay and lesbian people, why not the cultures of the ancient peoples who are referred to in the Bible?
So the term eunuch may have referred to a role that was stereotyped as one meant for castrati, gay men, or occasionally safe, highly efficient trustable straight men.
Nancy Wilson Our Tribe: Queer Folk, God, Jesus and the Bible, p126
Nancy Wilson is a Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church in the USA
For the Hebrew people the law prevented crippled and blind people along with those who had been castrated or disabled, from worshipping with the people of God because they were blemished or incomplete (Lev 21:20, 22:24). On this basis eunuchs along with others were excluded from the worshipping community. Deuteronomy 23:1 “No one whose testicles are crushed or penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
Whatever the sexual orientation of eunuchs it is obvious that they were people who were seen as sexually different, ostracised by the community and denied access to the worshipping life of the community. For this reason, there are many parallels with the way gay and lesbian people were excluded from churches in the past and are still being treated in the same way within the life of some churches today.
When the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon there were obviously many eunuchs who returned with them. Some of their own people may have been made eunuchs during the exile. Some of them might have been both eunuchs and foreigners. So, in Isaiah 56:1-8 the prophet sets out a new tradition that includes eunuchs in the worship life of the community after the exile. This is a beautiful example of scripture overturning scripture.
As we come to recognise the subtle differentiation of the place and types of eunuchs in the Bible we can now appreciate the statement by Jesus where he identifies the two types of eunuchs mentioned in Matthew 19:12 “those who were born eunuchs and those who were made eunuchs by men.” This passage certainly shows that Jesus was aware of the different types of eunuchs.
Add to this a very important story of the early church where this same move to include eunuchs is repeated in Acts 8:26-39. Interestingly the Ethiopian eunuch in this story was reading from the prophet Isaiah 53 which refers to someone who is “cut off” from the land. An obvious reference to eunuchs or to people who couldn’t have children and to people who were sentenced to death by capital punishment. The passage is in close proximity to Is 56 which we read this morning..
The eunuch had reason to believe that there was hope that those who had been cut off - who had not been eligible - would now be eligible. When he asked Philip what was to prevent him from being baptised (he was ineligible before on two counts: being Gentile and being a eunuch), Phillip is silent in the text and simply baptises him. And we don’t even know his name. The nameless eunuch, the patron saint of Ethiopian Christians, a black gay man, becomes the first African Christian, and the most clear and complete fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 56, that God’s house would become a “house of prayer for all people.”
Nancy Wilson Our Tribe: Queer Folk, God, Jesus and the Bible, p131
What we have is two stories in the Bible that give us theological permission to affirm that people who have sexual orientations other than heterosexuality are welcome to be members of our worshipping communities. This has not been an easy road. In the Uniting Church it started with the churches before union supporting gay sexual law reform in the1950s and all the different law reforms that have taken place since then. Literally hundreds of laws had to be amended so that laws pertaining to the benefits of marriage were available to same gender couples and de facto relationships. This culminated in the great debate leading to the 2016 postal referendum on marriage equality and the passing of the marriage equality legislation of 2017.In 2018 the Uniting Church Assembly here in Melbourne affirmed that Uniting Church ministers would be allowed to officiate at same gender marriages. I am proud to belong to such a church.
- Why do you think that eunuchs are considered important to gay and lesbian people?
- In what way is the treatment of Eunuchs in the Isaiah 56:1-8 useful in understanding a way in which the people of God can change their acceptance and inclusion of people who are sexually different?
- What do you think Jesus meant when he said “some are eunuchs from birth?”
- What relevance does this story of the Ethiopian Eunuch have for the inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the church today?