Homosexuality and the Bible

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The Bible

In our Judeo-Christian society, the documents known as the Bible serve as the primary guide on most issues. It is interesting that many Christians take literally the references to homosexual acts while interpreting other text with great flexibility. One person reported listening to a nationally known woman speak in her campaign against homosexuality. She spent much time quoting impressively from Leviticus. The listener accepted much of what the speaker had said until realizing that by Levitical standards, the crusader had herself broken many biblical laws: women speaking in church, women teaching men, wearing a dress made of cotton and polyester, and probably others of which he was unaware.

So what does the Bible really say about homosexuality? Actually, very little. Jesus said nothing at all, which is most significant. Considering the relatively small amount of attention the Bible gives to the subject, we must ask ourselves why this is such a volatile issue while other subjects (e.g. judgment, pride, hypocrisy) about which the scriptures say a great deal, receive much less passionate attention. Before looking at specific passages, let us note that everyone understands the scriptures on and through the light of what they have been taught. The Bible was not written in a cultural void, and many of its instructions and laws we simply classify as less relevant today (e.g. prohibition of eating pork).

Nowhere in the Bible is the idea of persons being homosexual addressed. The statements are, without exception, directed to certain homosexual acts. Early writers had no understanding of homosexuality as a psycho-sexual orientation. That truth is a relatively recent discovery. The biblical authors were referring to homosexual acts performed by persons they assumed were heterosexuals.

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The Sodom Story

A chief text for condemnation of homosexuality has been the Sodom story. This story has often been interpreted as showing God’s abhorrence of homosexuality. In the story, two angels in the form of men were sent to Sodom to the home of Lot. While they were there, all the men of the city, “both young and old, surrounded the house — everyone without exception,” and demanded that the visitors be brought out, so that we might know them” (verse 5). Lot begged the men to leave his guests alone and take his daughters instead. The men of the city became angry and stormed the door. As a result, they were all struck blind by the angels.

There are several problems with the traditional interpretation of this passage. Whether or not the intent of the men of Sodom was sexual, the inhospitality and injustice coming from the mob and generally characterizing the community were “the sin of Sodom”. Jesus himself refers to the inhospitality of Sodom. If, indeed, the men were homosexuals, then why would Lot offer them his daughters? What is threatened here is rape. The significant point then is that all rape is considered horrible by God. The story deserves another reading by all of us.

It should be noted that all of the men of Sodom could not have been homosexual or there would have been no need to destroy them since they would have all died off with no heirs. Quite likely they were a mixed group of evil men attempting to be abusive to people who were different. Ironically, lesbian and gay people are often the victim of that sin.

Although the traditional interpretation of the Sodom story fails as an argument against homosexuality, there are several other Old Testament passages which do condemn homosexual acts. Again, it should be noted that these passages do not deal with same-sex orientation, nor is there any references to genital love between lesbian or gay persons.

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Homosexual Acts

Of thousands of Old Testament passages, only two make explicit reference to homosexual acts: Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13. Both of these passages are a part of the Levitical holiness code which is not kept by any Christian group. If it were enforced, almost every Christian would be excommunicated or executed. It has been logically argued that science and progress have made many of the Levitical laws irrelevant for us. For example, Tim LaHaye states that, although Levitical laws prohibit intercourse during menstruation, medical authorities do not view it as harmful; and, therefore, it should not be viewed as sinful. He further explains, “those laws were given 3,500 years ago before showers and baths were convenient, before tampons, disinfectants, and other improved means of sanitation had been invented”. With that, LaHaye makes this law irrelevant and rightly so. Ironically, though, in his book, The Unhappy Gay, the Levitical laws are one of the chief cornerstones. Much of the holiness code is now irrelevant for us as moral law. Thus, having children which was of exceptional importance to the early Hebrews is now made less relevant by overpopulation, just as the prohibition against eating pork and shell-fish has been made irrelevant by refrigeration.

The Bible never addresses the issue of homosexual love, but has several examples of same-sex love. David’s love for Jonathan was said to exceed his love for women. Ruth’s relationship with Naomi is certainly an example of a deep, bonding love. The Bible does value love between persons of the same sex.

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Jesus’ Attitude

In the context of the New Testament there is no record of Jesus saying anything about homosexuality. This ought to strike us as very odd in light of the great threat to Christianity, family life, and the American way that some would have us believe homosexuality is. Jesus saw injustice and religious hypocrisy as a far greater threat to the Realm of God.

Episcopal priest, Dr. Tom Horner has written that the Gospels imply in two places that Jesus’ attitude toward lesbians and gays would not have been hostile. The first is found in the story of Jesus healing the Centurion’s servant. The word used for the servant is “pais” which in the Greek culture referred to a younger lover of an older more powerful or educated man. Clearly the story demonstrates an unusually intense love, and Jesus’ response was wholly positive.

The other hint of Jesus’ attitude is seen in his comments about eunuchs. Jesus opposed divorce in opposition to the abuses experienced by women. It is in the context of marriage which Jesus said that “some eunuchs were born so; others had been made eunuchs and still others choose to be eunuchs for the Kingdom’s sake.”

Jesus’ remarks about celibacy and castration are clear, but a male child being born without testicles is a rare birth defect. It is only in our day that the Kinsey Institute has demonstrated that sexual orientation is likely determined prior to birth. It could well be that those to whom Jesus refers as being “born eunuchs” are the people we call lesbian or gay.

Jesus’ attitude toward eunuchs differed greatly from the fundamentalist Pharisees of his day. To them, eunuchs were excluded from the covenant and barred from worship and participating in the community of faith. Jesus’ graceful approach to eunuchs is beautifully pictured in the promise of the prophecy of Isaiah 56:4-8, “To the eunuchs…I will give them an everlasting name that will not be taken away.”

In Jesus’ day there were three types of persons called eunuchs: celibates, those who were slaves and were castrated so that children would not be born to them, and those who were “born eunuchs” or homosexuals. Royal and wealthy households would use castrated slaves to work with and guard the concubines and women slaves. However when assigning slaves to female members of the royal family they would choose homosexual slaves. With female members, the concern was not just unwanted pregnancies, but also rape.

It is against this background that we must read the story found in Acts 8:26-40. In this passage the Holy Spirit sends Philip the Deacon to witness to and baptize an Ethiopian eunuch of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. One of the earliest converts to Christianity was a person excluded for sexual reasons from the Old Testament community.

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Paul’s References

Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18-32 has been taken as the strongest New Testament rejection of homosexuality. He is concerned about the influence of the pagan culture on the Roman Christians. After giving a detailed description of a world that “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator, ” he continues, “Therefore, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lusts for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men and received in themselves the due penalty of their perversion.”

What Paul was referring to was homosexual temple prostitution which was performed by various cults (though far more cults used heterosexual prostitution). Again, Paul is not referring to same-sex love, and he clearly has no concept of persons for whom this lifestyle is “natural.”

Paul’s other reference to homosexual acts is similar to that of 1 Timothy 1:8-11. Both passages contain lists of persons to be excluded from the Realm of God. The interpretation of these passages depends on two Greek words which have always presented a problem for translators. In the King James Version, they are translated “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” In the Revised Standard Version, they were combined and rendered homosexuals; however, these are not the Greek words for homosexual, so that translations reflects the scholars’ bias. The New International Version illustrates the difference in these two words by translating them “male prostitute” and “homosexual offenders”. The Jerusalem Bible uses the terms “catamites and sodomites”. Catamites were youth kept especially for sexual purpose; they were usually paid large sums of money. Neither passage refers to persons of same-sex orientation, but to people who used their sexuality for personal gain.

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The Love of Christ

Jesus did a great deal to change many social customs and ideas. He elevated the position of women, and they were ultimately his best and most faithful disciples. He did this by example and by commandments which were absolutely inclusive of the rights of all people. Yet, in the name of the Christ whose love encompassed all, the Church has been the most homophobic of all institutions. This should not be surprising when we realize that the Church is still the largest institution which is primarily racially segregated.

The final and central message of the New Testament is that ALL persons are loved by God so much that God’s Son was sent as a means of redemption from a disease by which we are all afflicted. The cure for this disease cannot be found in any set of actions. Neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality is redemptive. God’s love through Christ was given to all people.

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The Theological Reflection

For the Christian, sin must be understood as a disease which results FROM a broken relationship with God and which results IN a broken relationship with one another and with ourselves. Hence, Jesus’ supreme command is to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Christianity is not a religion with new rules and laws, but is rather a new relationship with God. Those things which the legalists are fond of labeling “sins” are actually just symptoms of the much deeper disease of alienation and estrangement. Much of the energy of the Church has been spent dealing with symptoms while leaving the disease intact. Jesus did not seem overly concerned about the legal transgressions of those to whom he ministered. Rather, he was much more concerned with healing the physical, spiritual, emotional, or relational brokenness of people. Perhaps if the Church would again give itself to the healing/reconciling ministry of Jesus, then some of the symptoms about which we are so concerned would begin to disappear.

That brings us to the question: Is homosexuality a symptom of brokenness? In some few cases perhaps so. Yet, obviously pointing fingers of blame and accusation is not Christ’s way. Rather, Jesus accepted people as they were and allowed love and acceptance to work its miracle. However, most lesbians and gays have been lesbian or gay for as long as they can remember. For them, it is as much a natural characteristic as their eye color or their handedness. Kinsey Institute research has suggested that homosexuality may well be genetic or a least linked to some prenatal factors. Certainly most competent psychologists would concur that sexual orientation is set prior to the age of five in most persons. It is, therefore, not a matter of choice, so it cannot be a moral or ethical issue.

Many Christians insist that God can change/cure the homosexual. In the book, The Third Sex, there are six reported cases of homosexuals whom God has “cured”. Of these six, at least four are known to have returned to their gay life style. Many lesbians and gays spend most of their lives trying, with no success, to persuade God to change them. It is like trying to get God to change your eye color. What option then is left to these persons? They have been told that they can’t be gay and be Christians; and since all efforts have failed in their struggle not to be gay or lesbian, then their only recourse, according to the Church, is that they can’t be Christian. So the Church has discounted or discarded as much as 10% of the population.

If they are excluded from the life of the Christian community, who then will tell them of God’s inclusive love and of Jesus’ reconciling death? Are they left to assume that God is so narrow-minded as to exclude them for something over which they have no control and for a choice they did not make? When will the Church finally be brave enough to say with Paul, “in Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” gay or straight. God has enough love for all!

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The Bible and Homosexuality

By Rev. Mona West, Ph.D.

Lesbians and gay men face discrimination because of societal attitudes. Unfortunately, these attitudes are often taught by churches and, sadly, the Bible is frequently used as a weapon to “bash” lesbians and gays. It is important to remember that such hurtful things are not a reflection of Christ, or the way God wants the church to be, or even what the Bible really says.

Only a small number of passages in the entire Bible reference same-sex sexual activity (six out of sixty-six books of the entire Bible). Obviously this topic was not of great concern to the biblical writers. Yet these verses have been used to justify hatred, condemnation and exclusion of God’s lesbian and gay children.

The word ‘homosexuality’ is a modern term and did not exist during biblical times. Biblical writers had no concept of sexual orientation or sexual development as we understand those today. Therefore, passages that reference same-sex sexual activity should not been seen as comprehensive statements concerning homosexuality, but instead should be viewed in the context of what the ancient world that produced the Bible understood about sexual activity.

Sexuality in the Mediterranean World

Biblical scholars have employed the social sciences to study the relational and gender patterns of the ancient Mediterranean world—the world that produced the Bible. Professor Mary Tolbert summarizes that research with the following words:

The single most important concept that defines sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world, whether we are talking about the kingdoms of Egypt or of Assyria or whether we are talking about the later kingdoms of Greece and Rome, is that approved sexual acts never occurred between social equals. Sexuality, by definition, in ancient Mediterranean societies required the combination of dominance and submission. This crucial social and political root metaphor of dominance and submission as the definition of sexuality rested upon a physical basis that assumed every sex act required a penetrator and someone who was penetrated. Needless to say, this definition of sexuality was entirely male—not surprising in the heavily patriarchal societies of the Mediterranean.

In these societies sexual acts between men did happen, but they happened in order to show dominance of one group of men or a man over another, especially during times of war. It was not uncommon for men who had conquered a foreign army to rape them in order to show they were dominant and of a higher status.

The Story of Sodom in Genesis 19

This understanding is helpful when we read the story of the city of Sodom, Lot, and the visitors (or angels). The men of Sodom want to ‘know’ (yadah – a Hebrew word that can mean sexual intercourse) the foreigners who have come to Lot’s house. In essence they want to rape them in order to show their social and cultural dominance over them.

This story is not a condemnation of homosexuality, but is a story about rape and inhospitality. In other biblical texts (Ezekiel 16:49, Luke 17:28-29) Sodom’s ‘sin’ is not identified as homosexuality, rather, their sins were pride, failure to help the poor, and lack of hospitality to foreigners.

Leviticus

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (18:22)
“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.” (20:13)

These verses are part of the Holiness Code in the Old Testament book of Leviticus (chapters 17-26) that attempted to spell out ways the people of Israel would act differently than their Mediterranean neighbors. In light of the previously mentioned sexual practices of Israel’s neighbors, it becomes clear that this prohibition in Leviticus was an attempt to preserve the internal harmony of Jewish male society by not allowing them to participate in anal intercourse as a form of expressing or gaining social and political dominance. These verses in no way prohibit, nor do they even speak, to loving, caring sexual relationships between people of the same gender.

The Writings of the Apostle Paul

“So do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

“The law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:9-11).

There are two major issues to consider when one approaches these passages: translation and sexual practices of Greek culture. A comparison of these verses in several translations of the Bible indicates that there is some confusion about how to translate two Greek words in these lists of vices Paul has enumerated. The two words are arsenokoitai which is rendered in various translations as “homosexuals,” “sodomites,” “child molesters,” or “perverts” and malakoi which is rendered in various translations as “catamites,” “the effeminate,” or “boy prostitutes.”

These Greek words are difficult to translate in the context of these passages. Malakoi is a common term and means “soft.” It can refer to clothing (Matthew 11:8) or moral matters, meaning “undisciplined.” Arsenokoitai is a rare word and is made up of arseno meaning “man,” and koitai meaning “bed, lying, or having sex with.” When put together the word may mean “male prostitutes.”

When these words are placed in the context of Greek culture in which Paul was writing, the passages have very specific meanings. As we have seen earlier, the Mediterranean world had a definition of sexuality that was based on dominance/submission and unequal status. Greek culture fine tuned that definition with regard to status. Proper sexual relations occurred between people whose status was unequal. In addition there was a practice in ancient Greek culture known as pederasty in which younger men were socialized and educated through a close relationship with an older man. These older men were the boys’ (age 12 or 13) patrons and, often, their lovers. These relationships were seen as the key to raising up the next generation of city leaders and there were strict rules about how long the relationship should last and the roles of families within these relationships. Evidently there was some abuse happening in these relationships and young boys were being exploited and kept by the patron well after the boy had grown into adulthood (which would have made him an equal, hence violating the code of sex only among unequals).

These abusive relationships are what the apostle Paul is referencing, not mutually loving and caring relationships between people of the same sex.

Romans 1:26-27

“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 for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

By now it should be clear that these verses must be read in the cultural context of the Mediterranean world that understood socially acceptable sexual behavior to happen only one way: among unequals with the dominant partner always an adult male.

It is also important to read these verses in Romans within their larger context. At the beginning of his letter to the church in Rome (where he had not yet visited) Paul was attempting to lay out for the Roman church his theology of grace (all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but are justified by the gift of grace in Christ Jesus, 3:23). He is writing to a Jewish and Gentile audience. In chapter one he tries to demonstrate the Gentiles’ need for God by pointing out behaviors that keep them alienated from God. In chapter two he does the same thing for his Jewish audience.

Paul’s reference to natural and unnatural sexual acts must be taken in light of Mediterranean sexuality. He is not attempting to give an ethical teaching concerning homosexuality. He is trying to meet his Gentile audience on their own terms; using the example of some people who are not upholding the dominant/submissive model as an opportunity to talk about all persons’ need for the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Issues of Biblical Authority

When dealing with matters of biblical interpretation one always needs to keep in mind the role of the authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice. While the Bible is an important witness to the relationship between God and humanity, it is not the ultimate revelation of God—Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is. We must guard against what some scholars have called bibliolatry—making an idol out of scripture.

One way to guard against bibliolatry is to realize that while the Bible may be at the center of matters of faith, it must also be in ‘conversation’ with tradition, experience and reason. These four sources of faith have become known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, so named after their originator John Wesley, founder of the Methodist heritage.

We must read and interpret scripture with the aid of the history and tradition of the Christian church. We must also bring reason—philosophical and rational thought–to bear on applications of scripture to real life situations. And last and most importantly, scripture must be weighed alongside human experience—especially the experience of God’s grace.

It is time we stopped making an idol out of the Bible. It is time we bring philosophical and rational thought—especially what the sciences have told us about sexual orientation and identity development—into conversation with the Bible. It is time we listen to the experiences of God’s gay and lesbian children who know with all their hearts that God has created them just as they are.

Resources

Brooten, Bernadette (1996). Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Helminiak, Daniel (1994). What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. San Francisco: Alamo Square Press.

Scroggs, Robin (1983). The New Testament and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Tolbert, Mary (2002). “Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: Biblical Texts in Historical Contexts.” Paper delivered at Lancaster School of Theology, published on the web at www.clgs.org.

Wink, Walter (1999). Homosexuality and the Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

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