Sunday School: Homosexuality and Leviticus 17-20

Today in my Sunday school class, we continued our discussion of homosexuality. Today’s class began by focusing on the section of Leviticus that includes its two mentions of the prohibition against “lying with men the lyings of women”, usually understood to prohibit same-sex male intercourse.

It was crucial to begin by pointing out that some of the things in this part of Leviticus we do not consider necessary. And in spite of slogans that affirm belief in the whole Bible, it should be clear to those who have actually read the whole Bible that those who claim to do so in fact don’t. We need to be honest that we not only are not doing everything the Bible says, but deep down we don’t think that we should. And so a key question becomes was whether there is any underlying rationale for why some things continue to be practiced while others do not.

One route that is sometimes followed is to defer the matter to the New Testament: those things that are reaffirmed there remain in force, those things that are set aside there do not. But apart from the question of whether all the New Testament authors agreed about what did and did not remain in force, it must be asked whether there is an underlying rationale for what is and isn’t maintained in the New Testament. We will, at any rate, discussion Romans 1-3 next time.

Whether we are dealing with homosexuality, shaving, tattoos or other subjects mentioned in this part of Leviticus, we are not given a clear rationale explaining why these things are prohibited. Sometimes attempts have been made to give a rationale – e.g. pork was prohibited to prevent disease, tattoos were prohibited because infection as a result was far more likely back then. But it must be asked whether such concerns are likely to have been in the minds of the Biblical authors.

A number of issues were touched on but set aside until we can consider them in their own right in a well-informed way. These included whether homosexuality’s acceptance in society threatens traditional marriage, whether this is an issue about which Christians ought to agree to disagree, and whether, even if Christians agreed in viewing homosexuality as a sin, that would necessarily translate naturally into an attempt to impose Christians’ views on others through legislation. The historic Baptist committment to the separation of church and state seems to point in a particular direction on this last point.

Perhaps the most important point to note, however, is how those who claim to be “defending traditional marriage” or “defending Biblical morality” in fact are picking and choosing in ways that suggest ulterior motives on their part. This part of Leviticus includes laws about honesty in business, payment of workers’ wages, and treatment of foreigners living in one’s territory. Why are such topics ignored by some in favor of a focus on homosexuality? Clearly it is not a desire to be faithful to the Bible that is at the heart of this, since the other matters mentioned are scarcely less pressing issues today. Why do those claiming to “defend marriage” not focus more on divorce, which is the subject of much clearer Biblical teaching and is more obviously a threat to heterosexual marriages? It seems obvious that there must be other motivating factors than those claims. Indeed, one possibility is that this simply reflects an instinct we all have, if we are honest, namely the tendency to focus on that which others are doing, to shift blame, find scapegoats, and see the shortcomings of others more clearly than our own. But on this matter the teaching of Jesus is clear: our focus ought to be on the beams in our own eyes, not on the splinters in others’.

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  • Fr. Terry Donahue, CC

    …those who claim to be “defending traditional marriage”… in fact are picking and choosing…The fact that some opponents of same-sex marriage are inconsistent in their other views has no bearing on the fundamental question of whether same-sex marriage is morally right or beneficial to society.whether… that would necessarily translate naturally into an attempt to impose Christians’ views on others through legislation.Much legislation “imposes a view” of morality or what society will promote. Should William Wilberforce have abandoned his quest to “impose a view” on British society and end the slave trade simply because it flowed from his Christian belief in the dignity of the human person? Certainly not!As recently as 2006, countries such as France have decided against same-sex marriage on secular grounds. What was the reasoning of the French National Assembly? Here are a few reasons based on their Report on the Family and the Rights of Children( Edited English translation: Because marriage is a natural institution that is a foundational building block for society. Marriage “is a framework with rights and obligations conceived in order to welcome the child and provide for his harmonious development.”2) The decision to allow same-sex marriage is linked to the decision to allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt children. If one is allowed, the other is necessarily allowed, since the right to have and raise children is essential to marriage.3) The purpose of adoption is not to provide a child to a family, but rather to provide a family to a child. Society is called to promote the best possible situation for raising a child:“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” (United Nations, Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 3, 1989)4) The best environment for raising a child is to have two parents: one male and one female. The male-female nature of marriage corresponds to a biological reality which helps the child develop his/her identity as necessarily coming from the union of a man and a woman.When a society says that same-sex marriage is equivalent to heterosexual marriage, it is necessarily saying either that a child does not need a mother, or does not need a father – that there is no unique contribution to the raising of a child provided by the father or provided by the mother.Certainly there are circumstances which result in single parent families, and many single mothers and fathers do a tremendous job in raising a child on their own, often making heroic sacrifices after the death of (or being abandoned by) their spouses. But these circumstances are not ideal, and society would never promote that situation in its laws about marriage. For the same reasons, society has the duty to establish laws governing marriage that promote the best environment for the raising of children: a father and a mother in a stable, public, committed relationship.Fr. Terry Donahue, CC

  • Scott F

    “4) The best environment for raising a child is to have two parents: one male and one female. The male-female nature of marriage corresponds to a biological reality which helps the child develop his/her identity as necessarily coming from the union of a man and a woman.”Ha! There is no evidence that a one-man/one woman marriage is in anyway “natural”. Given the fact that half of all (US) marriages end in divorce and the fact that even animals that scientists believed were purely monogamous (foxes) actually bear offspring fathered by males other than their mates, I would say that humans are more likely naturally “serially monogamous.” Read your Bible. As a history book it teaches us that many humans “naturally” tended toward polygamy. So let’s drop the biological claim – it doesn’t hold water.As to raising children, does this mean that only marriages that produce children should receive government sanction? Furthermore is there an extensive body of research that shows children growing up warped by the parenting of same sex couples when done in a context that does not include public condemnation of their family arrangement? Lastly, is there likely to be such a difference in outcomes between same sex parenting and other forms of parenting; so-called traditional, single parent, step-parent, grand-parent, etc parenting that it should banned outright? Are we saying that children from these families grow up to be ax murderers or that they end up with the kind of issues we all struggle with as adults. Let’s face it, none of our upbringings was ideal and each of us could benefit from some counseling every now and again.As Jim pointed out with Bible-based arguments, the French (like many US States) are developing ad hoc rationales for decisions that they have already settled on from reasons of fear and misunderstanding.

  • Raycol

    To assist in assessing the references to homosexuality (men having penetrative sex with men) in Leviticus and other parts of the Bible, I would like to suggest using the biblical “no-harm test” i.e. asking whether it causes harm. This test is based on Romans 13:9-10, summarized as “If you love (act for the welfare of) your neighbor, including not harming your neighbor, you then fulfill (meet all the requirements of) the Old Testament commandments”.Your neighbor is any person you come into contact with. In a sexual relations context, “your neighbor” means the person you are having sex with and any third party, e.g. the partner of that person. Of course, you also should not harm yourself.The no-harm test is supported by the Golden Rule, i.e. “Treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31). If you do this, you will not harm others.It would appear that homosexuality passes the no-harm test in circumstances where no harm is caused to the participants. The test can also be used to assess other Bible difficulties, e.g. the Bible’s acceptance of the system of slavery, i.e. people owning other people (Lev 25:44-45, Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-25; 4:1; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-19, 1 Cor 7:20-24). Obviously, the system of slavery fails the no-harm test.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thank you for your comments!Fr. Donahue, it may or may not be possible to make a persuasive secular case that heterosexual marriages with children are the ideal. But seeing as we do not prevent divorce or being a single parent through legislation, either here or in France, I don’t see that this would necessarily stand in the way of an argument that homosexual marriages should be legal.My point (in the context of the Sunday school class) was the problematic character of the cases that claim to be making their argument from the Bible. It still seems clear to me that those who single out homosexuality while ignoring so many other issues that are the focus of more attention in the Bible are doing so for underlying reasons. While one cannot stop them from making the claim, one can at least make clear to others that they are not simply “doing what the Bible says”, “believing the Bible” and so on. I’m not at all opposed to the imposition of morality on society through legislation. What I think it not permissible in a democratic society with freedom of religion is the imposition of certain specifically Christian values on a society that does not embrace them.Raycol, thanks for sharing the idea of the “no harm” test. Of course, not everyone is persuaded at present that homosexual relations do not cause harm. Indeed, both in the comments thus far and in the Sunday school class, the possibility that it could somehow threaten heterosexual marriage was raised (although I am at present not persuaded). At any rate, I’m glad that the commenters so far seem to agree that, in the context of a democracy with freedom of religion, one may legislate morality and one must find a secular case if one wishes to do so. And so I do hope that commenters will discuss that aspect of this topic, since that’s the conversation that needs to happen in the context of the U.S.

  • Drew Tatusko

    Fr. Donahue,What gets glossed over in the propositions you list is that the evidence supports a maximal family system in which social diffusion is kept at a manageable level. It is not about gender per se, it is, however, about maximizing the nurture a child can receive from a parent. I make that case here:;=2397The issue is not, in fact nature, it is social control of the organization that claims a specific kind of access to God, eternity, healing, wealth, etc. – or a combination of them all.It is also nature and how social fitness actually work together. If the function of marriage is no longer for the sole purpose of increasing social fitness with economy in terms of fusing together family power structures and economies, or for the purpose of population replacement, what is the function of marriage? Functionally, if it is primarily for the purpose of pro-creation, then those marriages that have no intention to reproduce ought to be encouraged to have babies or abstain from sex (the primary reason for disallowing birth control which occurs in more than just Catholic settings).With the case in France, one also has to take into account the organic social role of the Catholic church that due to its fusion with the political authorities has become as resisted as the people's resistance to the government. Areas that do not have such an organic religion in their political structures will take on a rather different character. What we have had in the States over the past several decades is what I would call an organic religious "wedge" from various fundamentalist lobbys who have made inroads into political structures to push specific religio-political agendas that are now being dismantled from the inside out. Different political structures will result in different manifestation of how morality is legislated by virtue of their historic relationship to ecclesiastical bodies. Which is to say, it does not matter that France made that decision. It can still be utterly wrong, and even if right, wrong for another religio-polticial social structure.

  • terri

    James…I think I read one of your other posts about this subject in which you explained the theory of the prohibition against male same-sex intercourse as sinful because it is a cultural humiliation of sorts….treating a man as a woman…something lesser than his gender would have been worth in that particular time and space.How then do people use that theory in light of female same-sex relations?Meaning….if women are prohibited by Romans, how would that fall in line with the theory? Wouldn’t that seem to undermine such a view?

  • James F. McGrath

    Terri, that’s a really good question. Since the key issue that caused Greeks to frown upon homosexual relationships between men of equal status was precisely the fact that one would demean himself by taking the female, passive role, it may well have been the seemingly anomalous character of two individuals “by nature passive” that led Paul to mention this. But it is also worth noting that Romans 1 seems to be the only place that female-female relationships are mentioned; that this behavior that it seems Paul’s Jewish contemporaries would have joined him in condemning is the punishment for Gentile rejection of God, rather than the cause of God’s ire; and finally, it is only when one stops at the end of Romans 1 (which no ancient reader would have done, since there were no chapter divisions) that one misses what Paul is doing: not condemning Gentile sin so much as getting Jewish readers to join in such condemnation so that Paul can turn the tables on them and show that they have condemned themselves.Finally, there does seem to generally be a difference between how heterosexuals regard same-sex male relations and how they regard same-sex female relations. [Apologies if the humorous video I linked to causes offense to anyone. If you can bear to watch it until the end, you’ll see why I thought it was relevant to this point…]