Biblical Texts and Homosexual Practices

Biblical Texts and Homosexual Practices 

spectrum | BY IVAN T. BLAZEN

The difficulty of the subject

To speak on the subject of homosexuality in any Christian church today, in particular conservative churches, is a trying venture. The subject bears heavily and personally on questions of sin and salvation, ethics and church membership, identity and relationships. Furthermore, it frequently engenders extreme visceral sensitivities and volatilities. Stark divisions and strong enmities can arise as soon as the subject is introduced and basic opinions are expressed. To give one’s views can be intimidating because of the suspicions aroused. As John Macquarrie, prominent Scottish theologian, once observed, “It’s an old theological trick. You not only tell a man he’s wrong; you tell him he’s a sinner.” In other words, a person would not hold a wrong opinion unless something was (morally) wrong with him. This trick is all too often played when views on homosexuality are expressed that seem at variance with traditional understandings.

In addition, the pastoral task is great. How does one minister faithfully and well both to those in the church who are totally opposed to homosexual activity and those who are homosexual? For them the issue goes to the core of their existence and self-understanding, to questions of guilt and God, and to the possibility of wholeness  and fulfillment in life.

The concern of this paper 

What I would like to make perfectly clear at the outset is that there is no activist agenda in this paper. In the remarks that will be made I seek neither to support homosexual practices nor to condemn homosexual people. My only interest is to better understand the meaning and significance of the biblical texts which lie at the root of the church discussion on homosexuality and hence, to further dialogue. To use a German word, the Bible’s  teaching is the Brennpunkt, the central issue and storm center, for so much of the debate. So to the Bible we go.

The Bible and homosexuality1

At the outset, before passages are considered, it is very important to note two things. First, the Bible has no specific term for homosexuality. This word did not appear until the mid-nineteenth century in Europe and, in the English-speaking world, as evidenced by The Oxford Dictionary of English, not until the early 1890s. The word heterosexual followed in the early 1900s. Why is this the case? Because it was not until the nineteenth century that sexual orientation came into focus as something to be differentiated from sexual activity.2 The Bible speaks only of activity. With this in mind, the modern translation “homosexual” in certain versions of 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, for example, is misleading. Today the word “homosexual” carries with it, as fundamental to its meaning, the concept of orientation. Thus, when this modern concept is read back into 1 Corinthians 6, which says that homosexuals, as well as other types of unrighteous people, will not enter God’s kingdom, the text is not saying that the mere possession of a homoerotic orientation excludes one from the kingdom. Only certain activities are in mind.

Secondly, it must be frankly admitted that the Bible offers no endorsement of the same-sex activities it describes. Monogamous marriage between male and female is the ideal upheld and, in the relatively few places where certain same-sex practices are in view, the verdict upon them is always negative.

The passages bearing directly on the question of homosexual practice may be divided into three categories: narrative, legal, and pastoral. I deal with them in that order.

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Narratives

The first passage that is sometimes invoked is Genesis 9:20–27, which recounts the story of Ham and his father Noah. After the flood Noah becomes inebriated from the wine produced from his vineyard and lies in his tent uncovered. His son Ham observes him in his naked state and publicizes what he has beheld to his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. Rather than going and seeing the spectacle for themselves, they take a garment, place it on their shoulders, walk backwards, and cover their father and, with faces turned away, do not look upon his nakedness. When Noah awakes and discovers what Ham did to him, he curses Ham’s son, Canaan.

It has been argued by some that Ham had committed an act of incestuous, homosexual rape of his father and that this presages and links up with the abominations of the Canaanites, such as are described in Genesis 19 with the homosexual intentions that the townsmen have toward Lot’s visitors.

Leviticus 18:6–23, with its manifold proscriptions against “uncovering the nakedness of” (meaning having sex with) various family members and the injunction against male with male sex, is called in to support the contention that Ham uncovered the nakedness of his father, Noah, by an act of sexual aggression.

This hardly is the case, as two considerations indicate. First, Ham is not said to uncover his father’s nakedness, but to look upon him in his naked state. The drunken Noah had uncovered himself. Second, if the remedy was Shem and Japheth covering their father without looking at him, then the wrong done to Noah must have been observing him in his nakedness.

If Ham’s act was not having homosexual relations with his own father, it nevertheless was an act of complete disregard of parental dignity and authority. Noah’s drunkenness, a wrong itself, did not give Ham the right to play the part of a voyeur and thus denigrate his father. The command to honor father and mother, the leadoff command of the second half of the Decalogue, is already broken by Ham. Such anarchic action on the part of Ham would be mirrored in the abominable lawlessness of the Canaanites (see Lev. 18:3, 24–25). This may be the reason for the curse upon Ham’s progeny, Canaan, instead of upon Ham himself.

Perhaps the sin of Ham should be understood in parallel with that of Adam and Eve. In the earth that God had created, the first couple broke faith with God by rejecting his authority and seeking to go beyond the limits of their creaturehood by attempting to become like God. In a similar way, Ham, just after the renewed earth is established following the flood, rejects the limits inherent in his relationship with his earthly father and puts himself on the level of his father by going into his tent, as if he belonged there, and viewing his nakedness. Did he think this would give him new potency or power?

The narratives of Genesis 19 and Judges 19 have been fodder for the argument against homoerotic practice. The stories are very similar, so much so that some scholars have speculated that they are doublets of the same story. In any case, both stories portray the entire male populations of Sodom and Gibeah as storming the homes of Lot and a Benjamite in order that they may “know” (have intercourse with) the visitors who are spending the night there (Gen. 19:5; Judg. 19:22). Both hosts attempt to dissuade the male crowd, arguing that this would be a wicked act, for it would violate the laws of hospitality for strangers. And both hosts also propose to put out their virgin daughters, plus, in the Benjamite’s case, the visitor’s concubine. “Ravish them as you wish,” the hosts propose. The men of the cities remain insistent on realizing their goals, and rush the door. In Lot’s case the angelic visitors smite the townsmen with blindness so they cannot find the door. In the case of the Benjamite, the host puts out the visitor’s concubine and the men of the city rape and sexually abuse her all night long. In the morning she is found dead at the door.

As these stories are examined, the following conclusions can be reached. First, though homosexual actions are intended, there is not a word about caring homosexual love between two people, which is the issue for many homosexuals. Second, can we seriously imagine that every single male in the towns portrayed was homosexual?3 Third, as the stories are not about love, they also are not about lust. They are about violence in the service of humiliation. The perverse mob is animated not by the satisfaction of lascivious desire, but by the demonstration of power and supremacy over strangers who are perceived as possible enemies. Rape for the purpose of disgracing, subjugating, and dominating is the issue in Sodom.

This rape of males by males would, of course, involve anal intercourse, often an accompaniment of conquest in ancient times. As an example, there is extant an ancient picture portraying the victory of the Athenians over the Persians in 460 BC at the river Eurymedon. A Greek soldier with hardened member in hand approaches a Persian who has surrendered and, with hands upraised and body bent over, awaits his fate.

The urge to violent conquest is clearly implied by the response of the townsmen of Lot, who is attempting to get them to desist. They are unhappy with Lot playing the judge, and exclaim, “Now we will do worse with you than with them” (Gen. 19:9). It cannot be missed that they had intended to harm Lot’s guests.4

Fourth, when God destroys the city after the episode described in Genesis 19, it should not be thought that this is because the city was populated by homosexuals. Prior to the incident concerning Lot and his visitors (19:1-11), God had already intended to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:16–33). Why? The answer given in Genesis is that a great outcry against the cities had come before the Lord (18:20–21 and 19:13). The outcry could only have come from those who lived in and around the cities. It sounds as if there was something more to the issue than Sodom and Gomorrah’s sexual perversity, which in any case is not the real point of Genesis 19:1–11. If so, what would it be? Other parts of the Bible give indications. Ezekiel 16 is quite descriptive. In a critique of Jerusalem as being more corrupt and abominable (cf. 16:18 which refers to abominable idols and child sacrifice) than Sodom, the prophet says:

As I live, says the Lord God, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16:48–49)

Materialism with social injustice is what is involved here. In Isaiah 1:10 (also 3:9), Israel is addressed as  “Sodom” because, as the context shows, while great emphasis was laid on sacrificial rituals and the accoutrements of religion, there was a lack of goodness and justice, which would involve rescuing the oppressed, defending orphans, and pleading the case of widows.

Fifth, some homosexuals the Gibeah gang members were! They could switch from sex with males to sex with females quite easily.

Sixth, one can imagine, with reference to the story of Lot’s visitors, that the Lord was as much or more aggrieved by the proposals of Lot and the Benjamite that their virgin daughters or concubines be used to assuage the passions of the mobs, rather than allow an attack upon male strangers. Where in the Bible has the dignity of women, established in Genesis 1, been as unrecognized and disregarded as here?

Legal texts

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are the only specifically legal declarations in the Old Testament against homosexual activity. These texts are enshrined in the so-called Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26), whose purpose was to promote the separation (that is, holiness) of Israel from the surrounding nations and their practices so as to belong to God, and to secure Israel’s obedience to God (18:3–4, 24; 20:24, 26b). “You shall be holy, for I am holy” is the call (19:2; 20:26a).

Leviticus 18:22 prohibits a male from lying with a male “as with a woman” (literally in the Hebrew text, “the lyings of a woman”), for it is an abomination, and Leviticus 20:13, reiterating the thought of 18:22, prescribes the death penalty for the one who commits this offense.

These injunctions are connected in their immediate contexts with a number of laws regulating sexual conduct, including incestuous relations with family members (18:6–18), adultery (18:20; 20:10), relations with animals (18:23; 20:15–16), and intercourse during menstruation (18:19; 20:18). Strangely, and seemingly breaking the sexual string of offenses, the law just before the one prohibiting male with male sex in Leviticus 18 interdicts idolatrous child sacrifice (18:21).

The concept of a man lying with a man, “as with a woman,” which is a translation of the Hebrew expression “the lyings of a woman,” can only refer to one thing: the penetration of one male by another, i.e., anal intercourse. This is admitted by almost all authorities discussing the subject. The Hebrew Bible distinguishes between the “lying of a man,” that is, the role of a man as penetrator, and the “lyings of a woman,” that is, the role of a woman as the penetrated. (Apparently, the word “lyings” is plural in reference to women since they have two orifices.) Thus the man has the active role of giver, and the female has the passive role of receiver. When Numbers 31:17–18, 35, and Judges 21:11–12 distinguish between a young girl or virgin who has not known the lying of a man, and a woman who does, it seems obvious that the difference is that of penetration. 

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So, analogously, for a man to lie with another man the “lyings of a woman,” would seem necessarily to point to the penetration of the other, in this case the anal orifice being substituted for the female vaginal orifice. Interestingly, one of the words for a woman in the Old Testament is neqebah, which comes from the verb nagab, which means to pierce, to bore, or to perforate. On this basis the woman would be the one who is penetrated, and thus the “orifice bearer.”

If the Hebrew texts of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 combined were translated in accord with their meaning, the prohibition would say, “A male who has anal intercourse with another male has committed an abomination and is to be put to death.” This seems quite specific, and thus raises the question, which needs discussion, as to whether the text as it stands can be taken as a general prohibition against all male-to-male affection as well as female-to-female sex, the latter of which has no proscription at all in the Old Testament. And would the text, by extension, prohibit anal sex between heterosexual couples? In brief, is the text restricted or unrestricted in its significance and application? And why would females not be included in 18:22 and 20:13? Might it be that penetration is the issue, and there was not thought to be penetration in the case of female with female sex? Thus, would there be no debasement as there was with males who, by submitting to penetration by other males and becoming like females, had forsaken their role as the active partner and head of the woman—something which would introduce confusion into Israelite society, which was striving for stability and order in a hostile world?

Interestingly, on the topic of confusion, in Leviticus 19, which intermingles moral and ritual laws, we find laws against mixing (just after “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”): animals are not to be bred with a different kind, fields are not to be sown with different kinds of seed, and garments are not to be made of two different materials (19:19). This law is repeated in fuller detail in Deuteronomy 22:9–11, which is preceded by a prohibition of crossdressing, an abhorrence to the Lord (22:5). It is clear that lines of distinction and separation are to be drawn so as to avoid disorder and discomplementarity. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 quite likely belong to this realm.

Male homosexuals sometimes raise the question as to how the Levitical laws pertain to them when they are not at all interested in anal intercourse but in other types of affection. It is a question that requires addressing in the church.

And what of the term “abomination”? This concept, occurring many times, and for which there is more than one word, is applied to 1) idolatry and its practices, 2) moral transgressions, and 3) breaking purity regulations and taboos. An example of breaking the purity code would be having intercourse with a woman during menstruation (Leviticus 18:19 in the light of 18:27, 29) and eating what is unclean (20:25). An example of a taboo would be Deuteronomy 24:1–4, where a woman, after being divorced by her husband and marrying another, may not return to her first husband after being “defiled” by a second marriage. This is said to be abhorrent to God and something that brings guilt upon the land.

In what way is male homosexuality an abomination? Into which category does it fit? Perhaps the question is not good since it is derived from modern distinctions that the Hebrews did not hold. As Leviticus 19 shows, moral and ritual laws are not set into types but are intermingled.

Thus, when all due consideration has been given to them, the Levitical texts raise as many questions as they may be thought to answer.

Pastoral materials

First Corinthians 6:9–11 contains a vice list such as was common in the Hellenistic world. In the Corinthian passage Paul insists that maintenance of these vices as part of one’s habitus disqualifies a person for entrance into the kingdom of God. This is a serious matter, indeed, over which one should not be deceived, Paul declares. The possibility of deception could arise easily out of the theology some of the Corinthians had. From notices in Paul’s letter it is clear that, like the heretics of 2 Timothy 2:18 who held that the resurrection was already past, the Corinthians had embraced what we may call an “overrealized eschatology.” In arguing that there was no future resurrection of the body (15:12, 35), they had embraced the thought that a spiritual resurrection, raising them above all the contingencies and temptations of the present time, had occurred. Thus they were already reigning with Christ in the heavenly realm (4:8), to which speaking in tongues, not only in the tongues of men but especially of angels, gave witness (13:1). In this state of eschatological fulfillment they claimed that “all things were lawful,” (6:12; 10:23), which is to say that nothing done in the body could hurt their already accomplished spiritual transformation. Their continuance in resurrection life was guaranteed by baptism, which was efficacious even for those who were dead (15:29), and the Lord’s Supper which, in the language of the apostolic father Ignatius in the second century, was “the medicine of immortality.” This rather magical view of the sacraments is countered in 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul presents the story of Israel’s privileges, which included prototypes of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but which did not keep Israel from falling. So, concludes Paul, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (10:12).

Because of this theology with the danger of immorality inherent in it—certain Corinthians thought it was quite all right to visit the prostitutes, for example (1 Cor. 6:12–21)—Paul says:

Do not be deceived. Fornicators, idolaters [the latter being the cause of the former in biblical thought], adulterers, malakoi,
arsenokoitai, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor. 6:9–10).

The words in italics are transliterations of the Greek, and the question is how they should be translated. The chart (below) gives an indication of the possibilities and also the difficulties of translation: 

1 Corinthians 6:9: Translations of Two Greek Words Relating to Homosexual Practice
Version malakoi arsenokoitai
KJV (King James Version) effeminate abusers of themselves with mankind
NKJV (New King James Version) homosexuals sodomites
RSV (Revised Standard Version) homosexuals homosexuals
RSV (later edition) sexual perverts sexual perverts
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) male prostitutes sodomites
NIV (New International Version) male prostitutes homosexual offenders
TNIV (Today’s New International Version) male prostitutes practicing homosexuals
NEB (New English Bible) homosexual perverts homosexual perverts
REB (Revised English Bible) sexual pervert sexual pervert
TEV (Today’s English Version/Good News Bible) homosexual perverts homosexual perverts
SV (New American Standard Version) effeminate homosexuals
NAB (New American Bible) boy prostitutes practicing homosexuals
NJB (New Jerusalem Bible) the self-indulgent sodomites
Moffatt catamites sodomites
J. B. Phillips the effeminate the pervert
An American Translation (New Testament by J. Edgar Goodspeed) sensual given to unnatural vice

Every translation is an interpretation, of course, so the issue is to understand the meaning of the terms. Bearing on this is the question of the relationship between the two terms. Are they separate from each other, each having its own island of meaning, as some translations might seem to suggest, or are the two terms connected with each other, so that each sheds light on the other? (As can be seen, some translations use one word or phrase to encompass both terms: “homosexuals,” “sexual perverts,” or “homosexual perverts.” One might observe that these three translations can have a range of meanings. They are not simply equal to each other.)

All kinds of views reign as to the meaning of the two terms in their individuality or connectedness. But certain broad agreements are found. First, the idea of one sexual partner being active and the other passive is dominant among the Greeks and Romans, as well as among the Jews. Second, the prevailing form of homosexual behavior in Paul’s time was that of an older man and a younger boy, in other words, pederasty. Applying these two points to 1 Corinthians 6:9, the two pairs, active and passive, older man and younger boy, go together well and may describe what we have in the text. There were various forms of pederasty in operation when Paul spoke.5 In addition to what may be termed platonic pederasty, where there was no sex, but the prepubescent boy in a number of ways accompanied and served the older man, there was also sexual pederasty, which was lauded in Greek society. Here the boy, in addition to other services, gave the older man sexual favors. The form of sex here was intercrural, the older man moving through the thighs of the younger. Besides this there was slave pederasty in which boys, often products of military conquest, were herded into houses and utilized for sexual purposes by older males. In addition, and quite prominently, was prostitution pederasty in which boys became “call boys,” and received payment for their services. Some of the translations of the text reflect this practice. If this is what is present in Paul’s statement, and it is a pretty good guess that it is, then the malakoi (derived from a word meaning “soft”) might refer to young boys, and the arsenokoitai (also found in 1 Timothy 1:10), to the older males who used them. These would be the passive and active partners, respectively, in pederastic sex. Moffatt’s translation captures this in an excellent rhetorical way with his “catamites and sodomites.”

If this be the case, and the word “if” has to be used, what Paul was condemning was quite specifically a form of prostitution, in which both buyer and seller are included. This would fit in with the subject of prostitution, which Paul deals with further in 1 Corinthians 6:12–21, namely, the Corinthian male practice of sexual relations with female prostitutes. The net effect would be that both kinds of prostitution, and all who engaged in them, would be condemnable. The question, however, is how a reference to male homosexual prostitution would be applicable to other forms of homosexual activity in which commitment and love are present. This is a significant issue for study and interpretation in the church.

Among more conservative commentators there is a tendency to move from the more specific and restricted interpretations to a general interpretation that encompasses all homosexual active and passive participation in sex.

It is important to say that even if the text is specific (homosexual prostitution) rather than general, this does not of itself legitimate other forms of homosexual activity. In other words, to point out that a particular action is wrong does not make all other actions right.

The picture is complicated, of course, by various other explications of the two terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9. It is well known that malakos can legitimately be translated “effeminate,” and refer to men who, in a state of moral weakness and materialistic wantonness, prettied up their faces and dolled up their bodies in order to sexually attract other females or males. Could Paul be referring to this?

The other term, arsenoikoitai, is found in Hellenistic literature in lists of economic injustices, where it can refer to forms of sexual exploitation for gain.6 Pimping might be an example of this. Then again, since the word is not found anywhere before Paul, and since the term is a combination of two Greek terms employed in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, arsen and koite (separated in 18:22 but standing together in 20:13, as translations of the Hebrew miskav zakur), it has been surmised that Paul may have been the one who coined the term. Possibly, then, 1 Corinthians 6:9 flects a Pauline affirmation of the continued validity of the Levitical laws regarding male samesex activity. If so, we may ask if Paul would be assuming anal intercourse among the Greeks, just as among the Hebrews, though this was not the usual Greek method in pederastic sex. This leads to a larger question: Would Paul’s use be restricted or unrestricted, a specific reference to one kind of sexual activity or a general term for every form of male with male sexual activity? And now the largest question: Does Paul’s statement speak to the issue of committed homosexual love among those who are of a same-sex orientation? Since Paul describes only actions, how does the discovery of orientation affect the issue, if at all?

Romans 1:26–27 is considered the most important scriptural text on homosexual relations. It is important to locate this passage in the general thrust of 1:16–32 as a whole, which is a description of Paul’s theological assessment of the moral state of humankind. Up against the righteousness of God, which is being revealed dynamically to persons of faith through the preaching of the Gospel (1:16–17), Paul places the wrath of God, which is being revealed from heaven against all those who unrighteously suppress the truth. Clearly, unrighteous humanity needs God’s righteousness to be delivered from the results of this suppression. What is the truth that is being suppressed? In carefully worked out steps Paul shows that humans have subverted the truth of the eternal God revealed in the created world, to whom is due the honor of worship and the giving of thanks. Replacing the glory of the immortal God, mankind has turned to idols of humans and other creatures. This leaves humans inexcusable and with resultant futility of thought and darkness of mind (1:19–23).

But that is not all. Three times over, like a bell tolling in the night, it is said that in consequence of God’s rejection by humans, God has judicially administered sentence upon humans by giving them up, essentially turning them over to themselves (1:24, 26, 28). Humans want autonomy, and God gives them precisely that. The consequences of the divine handover are degradation of their bodies (1:24), homosexual passions and practices (1:26–27), and a host of debased actions (1:28–32). These consequences flowing from God’s handover are sometimes viewed in terms of a kind of automatic operation of cause and effect in a moral universe. This is too modern a conception. The text is clear that idolatrous humankind meets up with God’s judgment. God is not pictured passively in Romans 1. According to 1:18, the headline text for the passage, God reveals his wrath against unrighteous people. This wrath is expressed precisely in the threefold mention of his giving over of the Gentile world. Further, we may note 1:27, which speaks of “the penalty which was fitting for their error.”

There is another threefold repetition in the passage. The word “exchanged” is found three times, twice in reference to God (1:23, 25), and once in reference to humans (1:26). As humans willfully and rebelliously exchanged the truth of God for a lie and the worship of God for idols, both males and females also willfully and perversely exchanged “natural” (kata phusin) sexual relations with the opposite sex for sexual relations that are contrary to nature (para phusin). No one can miss Paul’s point that the fact of a vertical exchange with the true God is mirrored in the horizontal exchange of their true sexuality.

Romans 1 is not a prescriptive ethical text but a theological statement describing the fallenness of humankind. The homosexual relations Paul refers to are for him an illustration of this fallenness in which the Creator’s design is deliberately distorted. Undoubtedly this is why he describes homoerotic activity as “contrary to nature” (para phusin), or “unnatural,” over against that which is “in accord with nature” (kata phusin) or “natural” in 1:26–27. The reference seems to be to the way God made things. True, the meaning of the word “nature” here has been debated. Some have argued, in part on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11:14 (“Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory”) that the word “nature” can refer to custom or convention rather than creation. No matter how that discussion turns out—and one can also argue that 1 Corinthians 11:14 is a reference not to custom but to the creation account in Genesis 2 and inferences from it (cf. 1 Cor. 11:7–8)—it seems clear from the context of Romans 1 that creation is in mind (see 19–20). However, it must be noted again that Paul makes no reference to sexual orientation, but only to actions. The perception of orientation had not been born. Instead of two types of people, one with a heterosexual orientation and the other with a homosexual orientation, Paul seems to conceive of only one kind of sexual person (undoubtedly, from our modern standpoint, a heterosexual), and this person can act either in harmony or out of harmony with nature’s design, which is innately present in him or her. This has a bearing on the church’s discussion today, and the question is whether Paul’s statements need to be seen together with genuine new knowledge concerning homosexuality that was not present to him. Is it the case that one simply acts in or out of accord with the sexual drive God established at creation and implanted in people? The drive of homosexuals is essentially different, for whatever reason, from that of heterosexuals.

What Paul regards as sinful is those who “exchange” what he considers to be natural to them for what is not natural to them. This looks as though same-sex types make a personal decision to rebel against their creationdesigned, natural sexual bent, just as they willfully turned away from the true God they knew from the revelation of himself in the natural world (Rom. 1:19–20). If this is a correct characterization, can we just take over this argument in our time without a thorough dialogue as to how these ancient, inspired words relate to the sexual knowledge we have gained and the sexual concerns we must address today?

A major element in Romans 1 that must be understood is that homosexual practice and the other wrongs listed are not presented as the cause for God’s wrath, but as the effect of it. The primary cause that leads to God’s judicial handover of humankind, and which in turn leads to the various malpractices Paul depicts, is idolatry. Humans have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped the creature rather than the Creator (1:25, 23). This false worship is an act of gross ingratitude to God (1:21). Consequently, God gave up those who did not want him.

It is just here that a serious issue arises. If God punishes—and no less a word than this fits the passage—idolatrous mankind by giving it up, and immorality is the result for people apart from God, how does this fit the situation of homosexual people who have not rejected the true God and are not idolaters, but who worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? How can they have the effect of a cause, idolatry, which they do not have in their lives?

We must also ask what the purpose of Romans 1:26–28 is in the larger framework (Rom. 1:16–3:26) of which it is a homosexual practices ˙part. When isolated from this context, 1:26–28 has often been used only to condemn and even to hurt homosexual people. Clearly, Paul does see the actions he describes in 1:26–28 as wrong, but is his purpose primarily to denounce? Not if the point of the larger context (1:16–3:26) is consulted. Paul begins this section not in the negative, but in the positive, with his thesis statement in 1:16–17 announcing the theme of all of Romans. Paul declares that the Gospel message is the instrument for conveying to people of faith God’s righteousness (i.e., God’s saving activity which puts people right with himself). As such it is the power of God that leads to salvation. Then, after a description of the unrighteousness of all mankind, both Gentiles and Jews, he returns in 3:21–26 to the theme of God’s saving righteousness for people of faith. This righteousness is mediated through the event of Christ’s sacrificial death (3:25), which is just what the Gospel (1:16) announces.

In the face of this, what is the purpose of Paul’s description of the lostness of humans in 1:18–3:20? It cannot be missed—these are the very people God cares about, wishes to put into a right relationship with him, and to heal. His love for them transcends his judgment upon them. Instead of being repelled by them he draws nearer to them, and in his Son offers his life for them (3:25). According to 4:25 Christ was handed over (the same word as in Romans 1) to save those who had been handed over. The message of Romans is that of John 3:16: “God so loved the [fallen] world that he gave his only son….” Is not the inference clear? If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another instead of judging and condemning each other, which in any case is wrong, since we who would judge are doing much the same (Paul’s argument in Romans 2.) According to 2:2, the Jews (named as such in 2:17) declare that God’s judgment rightfully falls on the Gentiles who practice what is described in Romans 1. Paul shows in Romans 2 that it falls on the Jews as well, for they too are sinners. Paul’s argument levels all people in regard to lostness, just as it does with respect to salvation, for they are all saved by the same grace (see 3:22–23).

Therefore, the whole point of Romans 1:16–3:26 is to speak of healing love for everyone, and that includes those with the homoerotic practices Paul describes in Romans 1:26–28.

In view of this, we can surely say that there is not just one moral question up for discussion, viz., the moral status of homosexual people and practices, which is the only issue usually discussed. There are two questions, and the second is: What is the moral status of those who relate to homosexuals without Christian caring, healing, and self-giving love? While the church continues to study the whole issue of homosexual orientation and practice to understand better the nature of the issue and how to deal with it, there is one thing that can and must be done. In the name of Christ we are all called to treat homosexuals with the same love we have experienced in Christ Jesus. “Welcome one another as God in Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7).


ivan blazenDr. Ivan T. Blazen is a professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University. Prior to this appointment he was for many years professor of New Testament in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary of Andrews University. He also taught at Pacific Union College. He has done extensive graduate study at a number of universities and seminaries, including Andrews University and the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary; Union Theological Seminary in New York City; the University of Heidelberg in Heidelberg, Germany; Drew University in Madison, New Jersey; and Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, where he received his PhD. In addition to his teaching and writing, he is currently writing a book on Romans. Two of his major concerns are to give the Bible a fair hearing in its own time and place, and to apply biblical teaching to the practical concerns of everyday life.

References:

1. All biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise indicated.

2. See Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 57.

3. Alfred Kinsey in his book Sexual Behavior of the Human Male argued that about 10 percent of the male population is homosexual. Current research indicates that Kinsey’s figure was incorrect, and the percentage must be revised
downward. See the Family Research Institute’s article “The Numbers Game: What Percentage of the Population is Gay?” at http://www.familyresearchinst .org/2009/02/the-numbers-game-what-percentage-of-the-population-is-gay/.

4. Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Minneapolis: 
Fortress Press, 1998), 73b.


5. See Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality 
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 29–43.


6. Dale B. Martin, “Arsenoikites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” 
in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality, ed. Robert L. Brawley (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 124–125.

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