From the upcoming book, BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE. Order sets of five copies at Chalice Press, enter the promotional code “BANNEDQ5” at checkout and get 40% all five books.
What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?
Perhaps nothing sparks more heated debate over scripture than the Biblical position on homosexuality. First off, it should be pointed out that there is no reference whatsoever in any Biblical scripture about homosexuality; rather, it refers in some instances to homosexual acts. And depending on your understanding of sexual orientation, there can be a big difference between the two.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is perhaps the most famous – or infamous, based on where you’re coming from – but it’s important to understand how homosexual behavior was used in the town from which “sodomy” was coined. When a town was conquered, one way that the victorious army would demonstrate their dominance was to rape the women of the village. Sometimes, to add further insult to the defeat, they would even rape the men.
Rather than an intimate act, this behavior actually was a military strategy, though brutal and repulsive, to break the spirits of the defeated culture.
Other references, including those by the apostle Paul, condemn men for lying with men as if they are women. Again, some context helps us understand that certain non-Christian religions of the time conducted ritual orgies as a tribute to their god or gods, and though it can be argued either way, it’s possible that Paul was referring to what he considered heathenous religious practice rather than consensual gay couples.
As for Jesus, he never spoke about homosexuality or homosexual acts, so for those who look principally for him for guidance, we’re left with our own consciences to guide us.
The passages that are commonly used as an argument against homosexuality are Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
However, like all the translations of the Bible, there are all kinds of different meanings from the original words that people use to prove their divergent points. In the 1 Corinthians 6 passage, for example, which is often used, the word for “homosexual offenders”– arsenokoitai–has a wide range of interpretations. In fact, every passage does.
That is one of the crazy parts about being more honest about Bible interpretation; it is subjective and always open for scrutiny if we respect our human limitations and inability to be 100% certain that this what God means. Regarding this issue, it is interesting to me that Jesus was never recorded in the gospels as mentioning homosexuality, yet clearly this has become one of the most significantly “Christian” issues of our time.
I come from a conservative evangelical tradition and have made great shifts in what I believe over the years as I began to realize that I primarily believed certain things because that is what people in power told me. As I started to do my own biblical research (and cultivate close relationship with gay and lesbian friends) my heart began to feel far less certain about what I had been taught. Because my church, The Refuge, is an inclusive community, sometimes people of a more conservative persuasion will ask me, “What we do about the gay people who are part of our community? Don’t we tell them the truth about what the Bible says?”
My answer has become so clear and freeing; I tell them “I know that you see the scriptures that way, and I understand there are some passages in the Bible that point to homosexual behavior as a sin, but it would be a good idea for you to know some other people who see those passages differently, who read the same exact words as you and have solid convictions – as solid as yours – that are completely different from your viewpoint. Maybe you can learn from each other in true community instead of argue over the teaching of biblical truth.”
Over time, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t really know, but I don’t really need to know. I don’t have a simple way to reconcile these passages or dismiss created design and the differences between male and female anatomy. Regardless, I can say all of the unknowns, various interpretations and perspectives do force me to keep turning to and relying on the bigger story, and the bigger story is about Jesus alive and at work, restoring, rebuilding, healing, challenging, moving people of all shapes, sizes, colors and sexual orientations.
The Bible says a lot of pretty mean things about homosexuality: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; that is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22). (I know that the Lord was speaking with Moses here, but the subtle sexism should be noted…it overlooks woman-on-woman action.)
Leviticus goes back for more: “If a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood shall be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13).
And lest we forget the New Testament, Romans 1:26-27 says that men and women who have homosexual relations are considered “unnatural” and pretty much have it comin’ for their “perversion.” Nice to see that women were acknowledged here, though. Progress of a sort, I suppose.
However, there are many laws that aren’t followed today because they are considered antiquated or irrelevant. In Leviticus 19:20, it says that it’s ok to doink a slave-girl as long as she hasn’t been freed and that you feel pretty crappy about it afterwards. And there’s also: “When any man reviles his father and his mother, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:9). I’m sure that the parents of many teenagers are game for that one, but modern law prohibits it and that’s probably a good idea. We see very few stonings these days that aren’t frowned upon, but it was quite the fad back then.
Many ancient laws, from keeping Kosher to circumcision, are considered up for interpretation. Pro-gay rights advocates claim that there have been mistranslations and inconsistent enforcement of laws. Many conservatives argue that these passages should be adhered to strictly.
All I know is that when I hear these words hurled at me and people that I care about, they hurt. A lot.
The Bible explicitly condemns homosexuality, but these few passages leave room for interpretation. For example, Genesis 19—the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah—is traditionally thought to have been a punishment on the cities’ rampant homosexuality. After all, that’s were we got the term “sodomites.” But Ezekiel 16:49 says the sin of Sodom was arrogance, apathy, and neglect of the poor. So was God punishing Sodom for homosexuality in general? For something specific like rape or inhospitality? Or for something else?
Likewise, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 describe “[lying]with a man as one lies with a woman” as “detestable.” Seems pretty clear, right? But it also describes sex with a woman during her period as being detestable. These verses are part of a holiness code to separate the Israelites from neighboring cultures. Some scholars suggest it doesn’t condemn a homosexual lifestyle as much as it prohibits a specific pagan temple practice.
What about the New Testament? Romans 1:26-27 identifies homosexual activity as “indecent,” but the passage seems to address ritual behavior or pagan orgies. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 denies God’s kingdom to “homosexual offenders,” based on a confusing Greek word that probably refers to older customers of young male prostitutes (pederasty).
What’s the point? The Bible condemns specific homosexual acts, but doesn’t address what we typically think of as homosexuality today—homosexual orientation or loving, committed homosexual relationships. This doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it, but only that it is silent on the subject.
José F. Morales, Jr.:
What does the Bible say about homosexuality as we understand it today? Homosexuality as orientation, not simply as choice? Nothing. Well, maybe something.
In the Levitical Code (Leviticus 17-26), homosexuality is called abomination, but so is eating shrimp and wearing mixed fabric. But we somehow don’t get our cotton-blend panties in a bunch whenever we go to Red Lobster. We highlight one verse about “homosexuality” and ignore the rest, and have wrongfully used it to discriminate against homosexuals. Interestingly, most scholars admit that these verses are some of the hardest to translate and understand.
Then comes Paul. Paul reduces homosexuality to pederasty (men using boys) and cultic male prostitution. He had no concept of faithful, monogamous, same-sex relationships, or of sexual orientation. Therefore the Bible says nothing homosexuality as we under…
But wait! Christian biologist Joan Roughgarden argues that we’re looking in the wrong place. She says we need to see how the Bible treats eunuchs, for the term “eunuch” also referred to “effeminate” men, men with both sets of genitals, and men with same-sex attraction. This last one comes closest to contemporary understanding. “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way…” (Matthew 19:12).
In the Law, eunuchs are condemned. But in Acts 8, a eunuch is baptized by Philip and portrayed in the text, and in later Ethiopian Church tradition, as a righteous leader in the Church.
And most powerfully, in Isaiah 56:4-5,8—
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me…
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name…
I will give them an everlasting name…
I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
God is gathering the gays…awesome!