What the Bible Says about Homosexuality — by Eloise May
The Content of this Booklet
The content of this booklet is made up of the collective wisdom of many of today's Bible scholars, transposed as much as possible into the everyday language of those of us sitting in the pew. Many scholars offer similar interpretations of relevant biblical passages, but when I have paraphrased or quoted from a particular one of them, I have footnoted the sentence or paragraph.
The bibliography contains only the books that I used in my research. Anyone interested in reading beyond this list -- and there are many more excellent books available -- will find extensive bibliographies within the books that I have noted. In addition to the bibliography, I have added an "about the authors" section to give the reader an idea of the diversity and credentials of the scholars.
What is this booklet about?
It's about understanding what the Bible says and doesn't say about homosexuality. Various viewpoints and findings of today's biblical scholars will be presented in everyday terms (with apologies for the occasional but essential Greek or Hebrew word.)
Who is it written for?
It is written for Christians -- primarily heterosexual Christians -- who, like me, have wondered, are confused, or would just like to know more about what the Bible really says about homosexuality.
Who am I and why am I writing this?
The theologian Martin Buber once counseled a friend not to try to carry on a serious conversation with someone until you have heard their life story. Though my entire life story is not appropriate here, knowing a little about who I am and why I care is important. It will help you know where my biases are. It will help you identify your own biases. (We all have them. They come with the territory.) As you identify them, it will help you judge the truth for yourself.
I am a heterosexual woman, meaning I am a woman sexually attracted to men. I am a baby-boomer, just turned 50. I am a Christian -- I believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is my Savior. (In some Christian terminology, I am a "born again" Christian.) I am a "PK" -- a preacher's kid -- raised in a small Presbyterian denomination that was begun in the 30's when the larger Presbyterian church became "too liberal." My religious upbringing was mostly about correct doctrine, about being right about the Bible, about being "orthodox". I was educated in Christian schools, kindergarten through college, so every day I was taught the Scriptures. I believe that the Bible is to be taken seriously because it is the Word of God.
After graduating from college I learned that one of my friends in high school "had become gay." I knew only that "gay" meant men having sex with each other and that I had been taught that it was a particularly bad sin. I knew this guy well (I thought), knew him to be a sincere Christian, and one of the nicest, most decent friends I'd ever had. It didn't make sense. Several years later, while visiting my parents, I made a point of looking him up. I was curious, but I also wanted him to know that I was still his friend, whatever he had done. I'd heard that he had been kicked out of his church and rejected by his family. Even without knowing much about it, this punishment seemed extreme and unfair.
The story he told me broke my heart. What's more, what he told me and what I thought I knew the Bible to say did not add up at all. I knew I had to find out the truth about "being gay." (For the sake of simplicity, at the expense of accuracy, and with apology, I am using the term "gay" to mean gay men, lesbian women and bisexuals.)
Why do people choose to become gay?
The truth is, they don't. Exceptions can always be found to all such assertions, but being gay is just how they are and who they are, not something they choose to be or become. Do you, if you are heterosexual, remember the day you chose to be turned on by members of the opposite sex? Chances are that even when you were very young you knew there was something very special (and attractive!) about the opposite sex. This is your sexual "orientation." Orientation is distinct from behavior. That's why talking about homosexual "lifestyle" is inaccurate because it assumes gays all choose the same lifestyle. Not so. Heterosexuals choose different lifestyles (e.g. biker, suburban school teacher, mountain hippie.) Homosexuals also choose different lifestyles (e.g. biker, suburban school teacher, mountain hippie.)
We are all either heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual -- or somewhere in between. Kinsey's study in the 1940s concluded that everyone's sexual interest can be placed on a seven-point scale with absolute heterosexual orientation on one end, absolute homosexual orientation on the other end, and bisexual orientation in the middle. The percentages for each point on the scale have been debated for years, but "though most of us tend toward one or the other side, it is probable that the vast majority of us are not exclusively either heterosexual or homosexual." In recent decades, most sexologists have validated Kinsey's continuum.1
What causes homosexual orientation?
While there are many theories, including those stemming from recent genetic, hormonal and biological studies, none has yet given us a definitive answer. Evelyn Hooker, however, who conducted the landmark study of homosexuality in the 1950's, recently said she wonders why we are so anxious to know the cause. Knowing that it's a given should be enough.2
What does the Bible say and what does it mean?
The actual words the Bible uses on this general topic are fairly clear (with the exception of words difficult to translate from the Hebrew and Greek). What the Bible means by these words is definitely not as clear. Many of our best theologians are grappling with this subject, giving us both traditional ways and new ways to understand this subject in light of the message of God's grace in Jesus Christ.
There are very few references to homosexual behavior in the Bible. Depending on the particular Bible translation, homosexual acts are mentioned as few as six and as many as ten times, and in only four settings: the story of Sodom, the laws of Leviticus, New Testament lists of sins, and Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome.
The traditional interpretation of each of these passages is that homosexual behavior is wrong and therefore people who act on their attraction to the same sex, even in loving and faithful relationships, are committing a sin against nature and against God. The interpretations you will learn about in this booklet offer alternatives to the traditional. They will give you new findings and new options to consider. They are what helped me make sense of Biblical teachings in light of my experiences.
The passage that scholars on all sides of the issue agree has nothing to do with condemnation of homosexual behavior is ironically the one that is most commonly understood to do the exact opposite. It is the story of the destruction of the city of Sodom, found in Genesis 19. You will recall the story. How two angels are guests in Lot's home, and all the men of Sodom surround the house and demand that Lot bring out the two men, "that we may know them." Lot offers to give them his two virgin daughters instead, saying, "Do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof." As they press against the door to break it down, the two men reach out, pull Lot back inside the house, and strike with blindness the men at the door. Soon after, the city of Sodom is destroyed by God. What was their sin?
The sin, as described in the story itself, is the attempted same-sex gang rape of Lot's male guests. We know instinctively that the gang rape of a woman by men does not teach us that all heterosexual behavior is wrong. In the same way, we know that the gang rape of a man by other men does not teach us that all homosexual behavior is wrong. What's wrong is the rape. For all of history and even today, the violent nonconsensual rape of another person, male or female, has been used to humiliate, dominate and subjugate. (There is a parallel story in Judges 19. Again the issue is attempted gang rape of men by men, but this time the woman offered as a substitute is gang-raped and killed. A very grisly tale; again and for all the same reasons this story is not about homosexuality.)
Another clue in the Genesis story is the phrase, "for they have come under the shelter of my roof." In Lot's culture, providing hospitality to the stranger meant far more than "being hospitable" means in today's culture. In these desert lands, being taken in meant life or death to the stranger, and it had the privilege of sanctuary. Providing hospitality was an honor and duty of the highest order. The dishonoring of Lot's two guests would have been a gross violation of this sacred honor.
In the New Testament Jesus confirms for us that one of the sins in this story is in hospitality. In Matthew 10:12-15 and Luke 10:10-12, he sends his followers out ahead of him to proclaim the kingdom of God, telling them that if they are not welcomed they should shake the dust of the town off their feet in protest, adding that it will be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for that town.
Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:4-10, in passages condemning false teachers, also refer to Sodom. Jude speaks of those who "indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust" (the New Revised Standard Version footnote says the literal Greek is 'went after other flesh'). Peter uses the phrases "depraved lust," or "unlawful acts." Here the references to Sodom are certainly sexual, and all but one are easily understood to be applicable to everyone's sinful capabilities. The one ambiguous phrase, "went after other flesh," say the scholars, likely refers to Lot's guests, who in the Genesis story, are angels disguised as men.
Old Testament references also help us understand the destruction of Sodom. Ezekial 16:49 says very succinctly Sodom's guilt was that it had "pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." Isaiah 1:10-17 and 3:9 invoke Sodom in connection with rebelliousness and injustice, and Jeremiah 23:14 uses the words adultery, lies, evildoers, and wickedness as being like Sodom. In the Bible, Sodom is used as a synonym for all kinds of wickedness and evil. Even the most traditional interpreters agree that the story of Sodom is irrelevant to the topic of homosexuality.
So how did "sodomy" become a synonym for homosexual intercourse? It didn't start out that way. In early writings, it was used to mean all sexual immoralities, such as incest, adultery, and promiscuity. In the middle ages, it began to take on the meaning of same-gender sex, both in theological and legal writings, because of the attempted same-gender gang rape in the Sodom story. Once in use, it stayed in use, inaccurate as it was and is.
Even though some translations of the Bible use the word "sodomite," they do so incorrectly. There is no such word in Greek or Hebrew, even to describe the residents of the city of Sodom. In Hebrew, the word translated as "sodomite" in the King James Version actually means "male temple prostitute."3
Depending on which translation of the Bible you are using, these verses are sometimes referred to as prohibiting homosexuality. The King James Version incorrectly uses the word "sodomite." (See my reference to the word "sodomite" in the section above.) In the New Revised Standard Version these verses, in a more accurate translation say, "None of the daughters of Israel shall be a temple prostitute; none of the sons of Israel shall be a temple prostitute. You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God..."4
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
Leviticus 18:22 says, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." Leviticus 20:13 says, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them." Both of these verses are clear in what they say: Same-sex intercourse between males is prohibited.
This section of Leviticus, chapters 17 - 26, is often called the "Holiness Code." It also prohibits intercourse with a woman during her period, cross-breeding of animals, sowing fields with two kinds of seed, wearing garments made of two different materials, marrying a divorced woman, tattoos, cursing your father or mother, eating meat with blood still in it, stealing, lying, adultery, witchcraft, and prostitution (to name a few).
What do these things have in common and why were they prohibited? The Holiness Code is about purity. "Purity," first, because God required his people to be separate from the pagan culture they left behind (Egypt) and the pagan culture in which they lived (Canaan). Their food laws, festivals, sacrifices, agricultural practices, rituals, and social rules were to be distinctly different from those of the pagans. And "purity," second, because it was required to be pure and undefiled when approaching the Holy God in ceremonies of worship.
Let's look first at separateness from pagan cultures. In the same chapter of Leviticus as "you shall not lie with a male as with a woman," verses 3, 24, and 30 of chapter 18 say that the reason for ritual purity is to avoid the defilements and abominations of pagan nations. A major component of these pagan religions was temple prostitution, both male and female, heterosexual and homosexual. Many have suggested that the explicit same-sex prohibitions of chapters 18 and 20 are specifically intended to prohibit male prostitution as practiced in the Canaanite cults and do not relate at all to same-sex male relationships outside of these purity rituals for worship.5 A similar outcome of understanding these verses in the context of separateness is that since chapters 18 and 20 are all about ceremonial law and rituals of worship to protect the people of Israel from the defilements of pagan religions, they are difficult (if not impossible) to transpose to other social and historical settings and cannot be read as ethical or moral law having anything to do with us today.6
A second aspect of purity in the Holiness Code is the requirement to be pure and undefiled when approaching the Holy God in ceremonies of worship. In this sense, purity means clean and whole, an unblemished specimen of one's kind, unmixed with any other kind (no cross-breeding of cattle, no multi-cloth clothing, etc.). Here defilement is literal and physical rather than moral. Sex between two males is therefore condemned because one partner is required to "lie the lyings of a woman," (the literal translation of the Hebrew), thereby defiling the purity of his maleness. Because he is then defiled, the act is unclean and his partner, too.7 If we understand this condemnation as a ritualistic rather than moral prohibition, it has no application to Christians (or anyone else) today.
You have probably noticed that so far this is all about men. What about sexual intimacy between women? If this is about same-gender sex, shouldn't they be included? Some would say that leaving out the women is further proof that this is not a moral issue, because women are indeed included when it comes to things like prostitution and adultery. While there is truth in this, remember also that in this culture women are truly "left out." They weren't welcome at the worship rituals. In this mother of all patriarchal societies (sorry!) a woman's purpose, as property, was to be a receptacle for "the seed," the lineage for purity and separateness. So another possible interpretation, put forth by David Gunn, is that what was really at stake here was assuring male domination over (and control of) man's seed. Thus, if two men lie together, their impurity is that they are renouncing this dominion over women and the privileged control over male seed.8
So far, all of these interpretations conclude that the two verses in question have no moral application for today. Other interpretations simply say that if some no longer apply (such as eating rare meat), then none need apply.9 But some interpreters, who admittedly would like to dismiss these verses as having no moral foundation, find themselves looking for more certainty. And the best place to look for the answers, they say, is in the rest of the Bible. And so we turn to the New Testament.
The New Testament Interprets the Old
The New Testament -- the life and death and resurrection of Jesus and the teachings of the early church -- helps define what we understand today to be the distinction between the moral laws and ritual laws of the Old Testament.
Jesus gives us an example of making ethical decisions apart from, and even different from, the letter of the law. In the story that is found in Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-27, and Luke 6:1-5, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field on the sabbath. His disciples pick grain, rub it in their hands and eat it. The Jewish leaders point out that this violates the laws of the sabbath. Jesus answers the charge by referring to the story in 1Samuel 21-22 in which David and his companions, fleeing from Saul and famished, eat the holy bread that according to the Holiness Code (Leviticus 24: 5-9) is reserved for the priests. Although David's action had nothing to do with the sabbath, Jesus uses it to justify the disciples' breaking of the sabbath law, saying, in Matthew 12:7-8, "If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath." And in Mark 2:27 he concludes, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath." What is Jesus doing here? In essence, he is reinterpreted legal tradition in light of human needs.10
Another significant reinterpretation of the Holiness Code occurs in Acts 10. Peter, a Jew, has been taught from birth not to eat certain meats. In a vision he is told to eat these meats, and when he refuses, a voice says, "What God has made clean you must not call profane." While he puzzles over this, he is requested to visit the Italian centurion Cornelius, a Gentile told by an angel of God to talk to Peter. Peter goes to see Cornelius, even though it was unlawful for a Jew to associate or visit with a Gentile. When Peter learns that it was an angel of God who told Cornelius to seek him out, he remembers his vision, puts two and two together, and says, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality." From that day on, he begins to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, teaching that they do not need to follow Jewish rituals such as circumcision and avoiding certain meats in order to be followers of Christ. The Jewish Christian world was turned upside down by the inclusion of Gentiles, and the letter of the old law was left behind.
Jesus summarizes the entire law this way: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. The more I think about this, the more I understand that "Love your enemies" and "turn the other cheek" are indeed amazing contradictions of Old Testament ethics! And when Paul reveals in Galatians 3:28 that in Jesus Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, he frees us forever from the exclusivist and sexist mentality of the Jewish law.
With all of this in mind, it becomes much clearer that if Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are about shunning the temple prostitution practices of the pagans and about the separateness of males from anything resembling female behavior, we can indeed take them to be part of the ritual law left behind by the good news in Jesus Christ. But before we are too quick to do so, we need to acknowledge that there are those who would point to the three places in the New Testament that specifically mention same gender sex as evidence that the same-sex prohibitions in Leviticus still stand. Let's take a look at these passages.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
In the midst of talking about Christians not taking their differences into the secular courts, Paul begins a long list of reasons why these Gentiles are not the kind of folks you want settling your disputes: They are fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers. As you can see, two of the words in this list are still in Greek. The reason why I (and others) need to use Greek instead of English for the "m" word and the "a" word is that these words are too ambiguous to be translated with any certainty. Studies of the use of these words in other literature show that our current attempts at accurate translation have failed.
Malakoi, and its alternative form "malakos," means literally "soft" or "soft ones." The word appears many times in ancient literature, so we can be fairly certain of its meaning in Paul's day. When used as a term of moral condemnation, it took its meaning of "soft" as being feminine. Women were seen as passive, weak, vulnerable, lazy, -- and what's worse, penetrable. A man to whom this word was applied was often lazy or a coward. Sometimes it meant living a life of decadence. It sometimes meant a man who was penetrated by another man. But it was also often linked with heterosexual sex and was even used as an insult against men who, being too sensitive, loved women too much!11
How has the word "malakoi" been translated in the Bible? Early translations of this word in 1 Corinthians denote weakness of character, such as "weaklings," or "wantons." From the sixteenth to the twentieth century, it was translated "effeminate," which many today think is still most accurate but which by the mid-twentieth century was universally rejected as not an appropriate word. At that time, and with no apparent historical scholarship to back it up, a shift took place in the translation of this word and we began to see "catamite" (call boys), "sodomite," "male prostitute," and various modern terms for sexual or homosexual "perversion" (sometimes for the "m" word alone and sometimes in combination with the "a" word).12
The word "arsenokoitai" is much more difficult to translate accurately because it is used so rarely in other literature. It combines arseno "male" with koitai "lying with." Theories as to its meaning include male prostitutes with men, male prostitutes with women, the male customer of a male prostitute, the active male in a pederastic relationship (pederasty is a man having sex with a pre-adolescent boy), and boy molesters. The reputation of this port city of Corinth at the time was of a human sexual meat market. In this context, it is also suggested that Paul may have meant moral laxity in general (the "m" word) and libertine sexual practices in particular (the "a" word).13 Or, in using both words together he may have meant the younger (soft), passive partner, and the older active partner in a pederastic relationship. The "a" word also has a similarity and possible derivation from two Hebrew words that together mean "lying with a male," which, if true, might mean a link to the Leviticus verses. It is absolutely impossible to know for sure which or how many of these meanings Paul had in mind.
Again, the history of the Biblical translation shows unsubstantiated shifts, from the earlier wording of "abusers of themselves with mankind" to later wording of "sexual perverts," "homosexual offenders", and even "practicing homosexuals" -- terms revealing modern sexual ideology rather than historical scholarship.14
The word arsenokoitai, though infrequently found, occurs in several similar lists of vices in non-biblical documents of the time. Often in such lists of evils, similar kinds of vices are grouped together. In two such lists, arsenokoitai is listed with economic injustices and is not found in the part of the list containing sexual sins, indicating a strong possibility that it relates to economic exploitation by sexual means.15
It is also important to remember that this list of vices and other similar laundry lists that contain sexual sins were describing inappropriate kinds of sexual behavior, both homosexual and heterosexual. In fact, the other known evils in this list -- fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers -- involve activities destructive to others or to oneself. We can easily agree that any activity that has this result does not belong in the Christian's life.16
About the only thing that is clear about these two words is that nothing about them is clear. There is too much ambiguity in the meaning of the words themselves and too much conflicting evidence to use them to help us decide the question of the morality of homosexual behavior.17
"Arsenokoitai" also appears in a similar list of evildoers in Timothy. It is usually translated "sodomite," though there is no such word in Greek. We also know from the story of Sodom in Genesis that sodomite does not mean homosexual. As with the use of this word in 1 Corinthians, its use here is just as ambiguous and tells us nothing decisive about homosexual behavior.
This is the most extensive reference to same-sex intercourse in the Bible, and it is the only one that includes sex between women. Paul says, "For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion one for another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
What reason is Paul referring to in the first phrase of the verse? This section of Romans is a diagnosis of the human condition. People have refused to acknowledge God or thank him. Instead, they have made idols and worshipped false gods. So God gave them up to their own lusts and debased minds, which are their own reward. In addition to the lusts in verses 26 and 27, Paul follows with a long list of twenty-one other evils that are the result of not acknowledging God. Paul knows that every one of us can find ourselves in this list, and then he says, "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." In chapter 3:23 he gets to the punchline: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
That is the context of the Bible text. The context of the culture of the time in which Paul was writing, taken from other writers of the time such as Seneca, Plutarch, and Philo, was the assumption that people who acted this way did so out of insatiable lust, of their own choice and against their natural inclinations for the opposite sex.
Insatiable lust was certainly part of the most prevalent form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world, namely pederasty, which also often involved prostitution.18 That Paul describes same-sex intercourse to be a direct result of idolatry begins to make a lot more sense when we remember that in his time and culture it was the practice of cult priests and priestesses to submit to sexual acts with either gender as part of the worship of their deities.19 We would all agree with Paul's disapproval of such behaviors, in the same way that we disapprove of heterosexual behaviors involving cultic sex, prostitution, or sexual abuse of minors.
Paul also shared his culture's understanding of same-sex intercourse as being "against nature." Anyone who sought same-sex intercourse was making a free and deliberate choice against his or her natural desire for the opposite sex. The concept of sexual orientation as we know it today did not exist. Paul's words are "exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural." As a Jew in the Greco-Roman world, Paul also found it demeaning and degrading for a male to take a passive role, the one that was "naturally" the woman's. And it was just as bad for a woman to usurp the dominant role that was naturally the man's.
We also learn from other uses that Paul makes of the terms "natural and unnatural" that their use does not make something morally binding. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 he says, "Does not nature teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading...but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride?"20
What might Paul have meant by the phrase in verse 27, "received in their own persons the due penalty for their error?" The writings of Philo tell us that it was believed that same-sex intercourse rendered a man sterile.21 Although this could be the "due penalty for their error" in verse 27, the phrase is more likely to echo a general theme of this passage, namely that evil is its own reward.
So what can we conclude about this passage in Romans? For me, this was the most difficult passage to understand. And yet, in light of all that has been said, the following summaries of the conclusions of three of the scholars do indeed hold true for me:
Jeffrey Siker states that the stark differences between Paul's presuppositions about homosexual behavior and what we know today are many. We can agree with Paul in condemning exploitive forms of same-sex relations which are the consequence of refusing to acknowledge God. But, he concludes, we cannot use these verses to condemn today's gay Christians. Paul was describing homoerotic activity in his day and with his understanding.22
Brian Blount sums it up this way: For Paul, homosexual acts, as he knew them, were symptoms of refusing to acknowledge God. There was no way for a person to engage in homosexual activity and at the same time be "in Christ." If today we can (and we do) acknowledge that the root cause of homosexuality is not idolatry, i.e. that a homosexual person need not be an idolater, and that he/she can acknowledge God's revelation in Christ, then Paul's primary complaint may well be taken away.23
Related to this are the observations of Robert Alexander and Gary Comstock, namely that it is important to recognize when considering these verses, that natural homosexuals have not chosen to be homosexual. Nor have their homosexual orientations resulted from a disrespect for God or from moral degeneracy. It does violence to Paul's perspective to apply his linkage of cultic prostitution and idolatry to the contemporary situation of gays.24
The Story of Creation in Genesis
Does the Genesis account of creation have any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of same-gender sex? Didn't God create us male and female and tell us to be fruitful and multiply, making it clear that the purpose of two sexes is for procreation? Yes, and if any of you are living your life as if procreation is the only reason for sex or you even think that's all sex is for, then, well, I don't believe you. Here are some thoughts about why we have moved beyond that interpretation of the sexes:
Genesis 1 is about humankind in general. (Here the Hebrew word adam means humankind.) It's about being set apart from the rest of creation by being created in God's likeness. Our distinctiveness is not in being male and female and able to procreate, for in this we are like all other species, and unlike God. Heterosexuality is not part of what it means to bear the image of God. Our distinctiveness from the rest of creation is our special relationship to God.25
In point of fact, says Choon-Leong Seow, some people are born unable to procreate. Heterosexuality and our ability to procreate should not be held as essential to our being fully human. Other possibilities are also good!26
In Genesis 2 we read that it is not good for humankind to be alone, and woman is made from man so that he will have a fit companion. "Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh." The shift in Genesis 2 is now to companionship, attraction, and loving intimacy (which sounds very much to me like a reason for sex beyond procreation) . The assumption in Genesis is that heterosexual desire is universal, because this story is not about naming the exceptions or telling individuals how to live. Just like Genesis 1, it is about explaining why things are as they are.27 Genesis explains that humans were made to live in relationship and that God has designed human sexuality for human communion.28
An interesting and provocative thesis about our relationships and the meaning of the creation story occurs in Gary Comstock's "credo" at the end of his book -- a statement of his core beliefs. He says, "God is the mutuality and reciprocity in our relationships, the compelling and transforming power that brings together, reconciles and creates us....In the Book of Genesis, Yahweh creates biological woman and man in Eden, withdraws to let them enjoy their relationship, and intervenes only to punish them when they violate mutuality (woman for being too assertive or dominant, man for being too passive or submissive)."29 The question I cannot help but ask myself when I read this is what if Adam and Eve had learned the lesson of mutuality and had become truly mutual instead of merely reversing their sins by woman becoming too passive/submissive and man becoming too assertive/dominate?
What does Jesus say?
Jesus says nothing about same sex intercourse, either its use or misuse. While we cannot say that everything Jesus fails to mention is therefore good or moral, it seems implausible that he would have failed to mention it if it is the vile sin some would have us believe.
What do the texts that we have reviewed say about homosexuality?
In essence, nothing. There is nothing in these texts that says that homosexuality is wrong. In fact, we have seen that there is no mention of the condition of homosexuality at all. What the Bible does say, in the Sodom story, is that same sex gang rape is immoral. It says in Leviticus that homosexual acts were condemned when they violated ancient Hebrew purity and holiness codes. We know from Paul in Romans 1 that a homosexual act that springs from the ungodliness of refusing to acknowledge God as God is thereby wrong. Homosexual prostitution and pederasty are also condemned in the Bible. All of these condemned acts are about the misuse of sexuality. Just as misuse of heterosexuality does not make it wrong to be a heterosexual, misuse of homosexuality does not make it wrong to be a homosexual.
The Bible's Message
But we can't stop here. Knowing this much is not enough. Choon-Leong Seow says, "We must not simply quote texts when we have to deal with difficult ethical issues. This is not the way the Bible is intended to be used. Rather, we must always interpret scriptures in the light of our understanding of the gospel."30 There are other teachings of the Bible still to consider.
The example and teachings of Jesus
Jesus taught us over and over again to love God and our neighbor as ourself. By example he showed us that this includes "socializing" with outcasts, and time after time he showed them their worth. He also taught us by parable, like the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the one where all the men of God pass up a man along the side of the road who has been robbed and beaten. A Samaritan stops to help him, taking him to safety and care. Jesus is teaching us many things in this parable, but one of them, says Herman Waetzen, is this: "Instead of drawing lines in order to build an ordered and safe world, the challenge is to act for and with those who are in trouble, disadvantaged, or marginalized."31
The teaching of the apostles
We have talked a lot about what the Apostle Paul had to say. What we haven't yet said is that his deeper message was one of "radical newness and inclusion:"32 He said, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28). In 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, he tells us that we are all members of Christ's body and therefore of one another and in Galatians 2:14-20 and 3:10-13, 24-29 that Christ has freed us from the law of Moses. Peter, in Acts 10:28, declares that "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."
In Acts 8:26-40, there is the story of the eunuch. John McNeill offers this summary and explanation: "The Holy Spirit led the apostle Philip to encounter the eunuch, who was reading Isaiah. The author of Acts intended to show how under the new covenant, the church, led by the Holy Spirit, would reach out to include all those who were excluded by the Old Testament's procreational covenant. The eunuch symbolizes all those excluded from the Old Testament community because they were sexually different. The eunuch believed in Christ as the Messiah, was baptized, received the Spirit, and went off 'full of joy.'"33
Jeffrey Siker makes a similar and interesting comparison when he asks us to consider how the homosexuals of today may be compared to the Gentiles in Paul's time: The Jews and the Jewish Christians believed that Gentiles were by definition sinful and unclean in the eyes of God. (Paul says in Galatians 2:15, "we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.") But much to everyone's shock, God had poured out the Spirit on Gentiles as Gentiles. (Acts 10:45-46) Siker says, "My experience of various gay and lesbian Christians led me to realize that these Christians have received God's Spirit as gays and lesbians and that the reception of the Spirit has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Indeed, the church has long honored as esteemed brothers and sisters in Christ many gays and lesbians who were simply never known as such. I once thought of gays and lesbians as Peter and Paul thought of 'Gentile sinners,' but now, with Peter, I am compelled to ask, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?'" (Acts 10:47)34
Is there anything on this subject to be learned from church history?
The historian John Boswell has written several extensively researched books on homosexuality in the history of the church. In Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality he shows how the church in its early centuries was not condemning, or even intolerant of homosexuality.35 In fact, in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe he documents same-sex covenant ceremonies held in the church that predated and coexisted with heterosexual marriage ceremonies. (Marriage was only a civil ceremony and not a church ceremony in the early centuries after Christ.)36
What about "healing ministries" to make gay people "straight" -- or at least celibate?
There is much evidence and personal testimony that unless a person is close to the bisexual middle of the Kinsey scale so that these ministries can assist in choice-making, it just can't be done. Time after time gays who have claimed to have changed their orientation have stepped forward later to admit that the intense group pressure to say they'd been "cured" was so overwhelming that they gave in and said they were, or they have admitted they still have to fantasize about the same sex in order to have sex at all, or the eventual self-hatred caused by the lie of saying they'd been "cured" was worse than the self-hatred about being gay, so they went back to admitting to being gay. John McNeill says, "To pray for a change in sexual orientation is about as meaningful as to pray for a change from blue eyes to brown....The real choice that faces gays...is between a homosexual relationship or no relational intimacy whatsoever."37 James Nelson adds that "'Therapies' that attempt to change persons from homosexual to heterosexual are now discredited by reputable scientists. Such procedures may change certain behaviors, they may make some people celibate, but they will not change deep feelings and most likely will produce great psychic and emotional confusion."38
And what about celibacy? For me, a helpful answer is in trying to imagine celibacy for myself if the church told me that my heterosexuality was inherently sinful. This would be difficult to accept, to say the least. ("Unjust" is a word some have used in this context.)
Jesus gives us some help with the subject of celibacy in Matthew 19:10-12. After a discussion with the Pharisees on the subject of divorce, the disciples conclude that it is better not to marry. Then, starting with verse 11: "But he said to them, 'Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.' Victor Furnish offers this interpretation of Jesus' words (the parentheses are mine): "In addition to those who lack the needed sexual organs (eunuchs from birth) or have become sexually disabled (made eunuchs by others), singleness is appropriate only for those [males] to whom celibacy is 'given' for the purpose of serving God's kingdom more fully."39 This passage has most commonly been taken to mean that celibacy is a gift given to a few so they may serve God's kingdom more fully.
A Final Word and Testimony
Coming full circle, let's go back to my gay friend from high school, and to all our gay brothers and sisters beside us in our churches, and those outside the church who, like everyone else, should be welcomed in to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. These are the faces, the friends, that make this more than a theological debate.
I want to end with the testimony of Professor Choon-Leong Seow, taken from his own essay in his collection of essays called Homosexuality and Christian Community. At first, it will seem a bit off subject, but you will easily see the connection.
"I used to believe that divorce is wrong under any circumstance, simply because that is what the scriptures teach. I could -- and still can -- quote chapter and verse from the Bible, particularly the words of Jesus. I have since learned from friends and loved ones what horrible traps bad marriages can be. People suffer enormously; some people even kill themselves because of bad marriages that they cannot otherwise escape. Some people suffer physical abuse in such marriages. Some are even killed. Unlike the friends of Job, I am not willing to uphold dogma at all costs, certainly not when I know that people are suffering and dying. I have gone back to reread the scriptures and I have heard the gospel anew.
"I also used to believe that homosexual acts are always wrong. Listening to gay and lesbian students and friends, however, I have had to rethink my position and reread the scriptures. Seeing how gay and lesbian people suffer discrimination, face the rejection of family and friends, risk losing their jobs, and live in fear of being humiliated and bashed, I cannot see how anyone would prefer to live that way. I do not understand it all, but I am persuaded that it is not a matter of choice. Seeing how some gay and lesbian couples relate to one another in loving partnerships, observing how much joy they find in one another, and seeing that some of them are better parents than most of us will ever be, I have reconsidered my views. I was wrong.
"From the testimony of homosexual persons and from various reports, I have learned that there is an extraordinarily high rate of suicide among homosexual persons. People are dying every day because of society's attitudes -- indeed, because of the church's stance. Many people hate themselves because of what society and the church say about them. I know of many homosexual persons in the ministry who have been very effective for the cause of Jesus Christ, but they suffer tremendous guilt because they have to keep their secret from the church they love dearly...They are hurt by the church. I cannot believe that we are called to perpetuate such pain and suffering in the world...For me, there is nothing less than the gospel at stake."40
It is not easy to give up a belief held all of our lives and taught by much of the church. It was not easy for the followers of Jesus to understand they were to love their enemies, but this is how he reinterpreted the law. It was not easy for them to understand why it was ok for the disciples to pick grain on the sabbath, but he challenged them to see the sabbath differently. It was not easy for Peter to understand that he was no longer prohibited from eating unclean meat and socializing with Gentiles, and that in fact he was being asked to bring the Gentiles into the family of God. Even though it turned his world upside down, he did it.
Augustine wrote, "Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all." (Christian Doctrine 1.35.40)41 Let us be true to the double love of God and neighbor, for that is what we are called to do for the sake of the love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
1 James B. Nelson, "Sources for Body Theology: Homosexuality as a Test Case," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate , ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 85.
2 Sylvia Thorson-Smith, Reconciling the Broken Silence: The Church Dialogue on Gay and Lesbian Issues, (Louisville, Kentucky: Christian Education Program Area of the Congregational Ministry Division, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1993), 46-47.
3 Victor Paul Furnish, "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 19.
4 Robert Alexander, Seeking God's Wisdom About Christian Homosexuality, (Phoenix: Evangelicals Concerned Western Regional Fellowship, 1993), 12-13.
5 Robert Goss, Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 92.
6 Alexander, 12; AND Lisa Sowle Cahill, "Homosexuality: A Case Study in Moral Argument," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 64.
7 Victor Paul Furnish, "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 20.
8 Patricia Beattie Jung and Ralph F. Smith, Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), 74.
9 A.K.M. Adam, "Disciples Together, Constantly," Homosexuality and Christian Community , ed. Choon-Leong Seow (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 124.
10 Choon-Leong Seow, "Textual Orientation," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 20.
11 Dale B. Martin, "Arsenokoites and Malakos : Meanings and Consequences," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 124-125.
12 Ibid., 124
13 Jung and Smith, 76.
14 Dale B. Martin, "Arsenokoites and Malakos : Meanings and Consequences," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 118-119.
15 Ibid., 120-121
16 Herman C. Waetjen, "Same-sex Sexual Relations in Antiquity and Sexuality and Sexual Identity in Contmporary American Society," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 110.
17 Jung and Smith, 76.
18 James B. Nelson, "Sources for Body Theology: Homosexuality as a Test Case," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 80.
19 Alexander, 15.
20 Choon-Leong Seow, "Textual Orientation," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 25-26.
21 Jeffrey S. Siker, "Gentile Wheat and Homosexual Christians: New Testament Directions for the Heterosexual Church," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 143.
23 Brian K. Blount, "Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality," Homosexuality and Christian Community, ed. Choon-Leong Seow (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 35.
24 Alexander, 16 AND Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apology (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1993), 93.
25 Victor Paul Furnish, "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 21-22.
26 Choon-Leong Seow, "A Heterosexual Perspective," Homosexuality and Christian Community, ed. Choon-Leong Seow (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 17.
27 Victor Paul Furnish, "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 22-23.
28 Jung and Smith, 87
29 Comstock, 127 & 129
30 Choon-Leong Seow, "Textual Orientation," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 19.
31 Herman C. Waetjen, "Same-sex Sexual Relations in Antiquity and Sexuality and Sexual Identity in Contemporary American Society," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 114.
32 Brian K. Blount, "Reading and Understanding the New Testament on Homosexuality," Homosexuality and Christian Community, ed. Choon-Leong Seow (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 37.
33 John J. McNeill, "Homosexuality: Challenging the Church to Grow," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 57.
34 Jeffrey S. Siker, "Gentile Wheat and Homosexual Christians: New Testament Directions for the Heterosexual Church," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 145-146.
35 James B. Nelson, "Sources for Body Theology: Homosexuality as a Test Case," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 80.
36 Chris Glaser, "The Love That Dare Not Pray Its Name: The Gay and Lesbian Movement in America's Churches," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 157.
37 John J. McNeill, "Homosexuality: Challenging the Church to Grow," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 50-51.
38 James B. Nelson, "Sources for Body Theology: Homosexuality as a Test Case," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 85.
39 Victor Paul Furnish, "The Bible and Homosexuality: Reading the Texts in Context," Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, ed. Jeffrey S. Siker (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 23.
40 Choon-Leong Seow, "A Heterosexual Perspective," Homosexuality and Christian Community, ed. Choon-Leong Seow (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 24-25.
41 Dale B. Martin, "Arsenokoites and Malakos : Meanings and Consequences," Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 130.
ABOUT THE SCHOLARS
The late Robert Alexander was an evangelical Bible scholar, teacher and lecturer.
Lisa Sowle Cahill is Professor of Theological Ethics at Boston College.
Victor Paul Furnish is University Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
Chris Glaser is a workshop and retreat leader, speaker, writer and consultant based in Atlanta.
Patricia Beattie Jung is Associate Professor of Theological Ethics at Wartburg Theological Seminary and a Roman Catholic laywoman.
John J. McNeill is a psychotherapist, former Jesuit priest and Professor of Psychoanalytic Theory at the Institute of Religion and Health in New York City.
Dale B. Martin is Associate Professor of Religion at Duke University.
James B. Nelson is Professor of Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary, Minneapolis.
Choon-Leong Seow is Henry Snyder Gehman Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Jeffrey S. Siker is Associate Professor of New Testament in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.
Ralph F. Smith is Associate Professor of Liturgics and Dean of the Chapel at Wartburg Theological Seminary and an ordained Lutheran pastor.
Sylvia Thorson-Smith is a Presbyterian elder and lecturer in religious studies and sociology at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa.
Herman C. Waetjen is Robert S. Dollar Professor of New Testment at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Alexander, Robert. Seeking God's Wisdom About Christian Homosexuality. Phoenix: Evangelicals Concerned Western Regional Fellowship, 1993.*
Brawley, Robert L., ed. Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Comstock, Gary David. Gay Theology Without Apology. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1993.*
Everding, Dr. H. Edward, Jr. Interpreting What the Bible says about Homosexuality: Reflect, A Series of Faculty Reflections on Contemporary Issues. Denver: Iliff School of Theology, 1995.
Goss, Robert. Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Jung, Patricia Beattie, and Smith, Ralph F. Heterosexism: An Ethical Challenge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.*
Seow, Choon-Leong, ed. Homosexuality and Christian Community. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.
Siker, Jeffrey S., ed. Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.*
Thorson-Smith, Sylvia. Rconciling the Broken Silence: The Church Dialogue on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Louisville, Kentucky: Christian Education Program Area of the Congregational Ministry Division, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1993.*
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
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