The other day, my friend and colleague Keith Giles engaged in a lively debate with the folks from G220 Radio on the topic of homosexuality and the Bible. The three hosts took the stance that the Bible condemns all non-heterosexual romantic relationships, while Giles argued for full affirmation of the LGBTQ+ community. After listening to the show in its entirety, I wanted to offer some initial thoughts on the topic by providing 10 things for us to remember when confronting the issue of homosexuality and the Bible.
The Bible is Not Simply a Set of Dos and Don’ts
Many folks approach the Bible as if it is univocal, written by a guy named “God,” and meant to be used as a rule book for life. This is not a good idea. In fact, it’s rather immature. But more than that, it is a dangerous notion. Why? Because the Bible, in all its ambiguity and obscurity, can pretty much be used to say whatever one wants it to say. For instance, if one wants to justify racism and slavery, I’m sure the Bible can be used in their favor (see Exodus 21:2–6; Leviticus 25:44–46). If one wants to justify patriarchy, again, it can, and has been, used for that. The same thing goes for justifying the ostracization and demonization of the LGBTQ+ community. The Bible has been wielded like a two-edged sword to do all these things, especially by those who use it as God’s rule book for life.
The Bible Doesn’t ‘Clearly Say…’
The Bible is clear about some things. I’ll concede that. For the most part, however, it is not. How could it be? There are an unknown number of writers, editors, and redactors, and they are all spread out over a span of multiple centuries, millennia even. They have dissimilar cultural contexts and rarely share the same theologies. Hence, even if one writer makes something clear, another may just come along and muddy up the waters for us. Case in point, take a look at how two prophets, Elijah and Hosea, view Jehu’s slaughtering of the entire house of Ahab:
- 2 Kings 9: The wicked house of Ahab, who was a member of the northern kingdom of Israel, is slaughtered by Jehu after Elijah anoints him for such a task.
- Hosea 1: A handful of generations later, Hosea says that the house of Jehu will be punished for what they did to the house of Ahab.
To that end, the only thing that is clear about large portions of the Bible is that things aren’t so clear. We must remember that.
Context, Context, Context
With everything, context is crucial. If we fail to acknowledge the cultural, political, and theological context with which the many writers of the Bible are speaking from, then we’ll always miss the point. Well, maybe not always: a broken clock is right twice a day, after all. But, you get the point: we simply should not be using our English Bibles to prooftext our way through an argument or debate without first addressing what is going on behind the scenes. This will be important come points 5 through 9.
A common charge against those who affirm the LGBTQ+ community is that we cherry-pick the Scriptures. But guess what? Everyone I’ve ever met cherry-picks the Bible. Even Conservatives. That’s okay, though, because even Jesus and Paul did it. The question, then, is how are we going to cherry-pick the Bible? Are we going to pick the cherries that command us to take up arms against our enemies or the ones that tell us how we should love and bless them? Are we going to pick the cherries that excludes others or includes them? The ones that drive a stake between people or the ones that bring unification and reconciliation?
My point, then, is simply that we need to admit this prior to having discussions on such important matters.
Genesis 19? Let’s Not Even Go There
Now we are getting into the heart of the matter. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, found in Genesis 19, is a favorite cherry some folks go to condemn homosexuality. It’s bizarre, but true. Why is it bizarre? Because it has nothing to do with homosexuality. Not only does the prophet Ezekiel not mention homosexuality in his list of the “sins of Sodom,” but if you actually read the story, you’ll notice the context has nothing to do with what we would call “homosexuality.” Plain and simple, what is going on here is an attempted gang rape by all the people of Sodom, down to the last man. And sure, that’s a no-no. But, again, it has nothing to do with homosexuality.
Levitical Law and Its Application
Another favorite cherry some folks pick in order to condemn homosexuality is Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Respectively, they read:
- Lev 18:22: You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination
- Lev 20:13: 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.
Simple, right? It can’t get much clearer than that. Well, hold on now. In order to address this, I’ll quote something my good friend and Hebrew scholar, Mark Stone, wrote on my Facebook wall a while back:
“Even if one were to grant that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were referencing ‘homosexuality’ in a sense comparable to our modern understanding (and that is a big ‘if’), the book’s own self-reported scope mitigates universal application. These purity laws only apply to nations inhabiting the ‘holy land,’ and are only applicable if you are physically present in the land. Otherwise they are not applicable.”
“In both 18:22 and 20:13, the Hebrew idiom mishkeve ‘isha (‘lie with a woman’) is possibly a technical phrase used only for illicit heterosexual relations, not regular, healthy, non-incestuous and non-adulterous sex. Scholars have also argued that the strange Hebrew phrasing likely refers specifically to male-male anal intercourse, not any other male-male sexual contact. The concern would have been the mixing of two ‘unclean’ substances—viz., semen and excrement—and therefore represented more a ‘cleanliness’ taboo than a moral judgment. This is not unlike other cleanliness taboos, like mixing semen and menstrual blood. All that to say, the Hebrew syntax and vocabulary is bizarre and complicated and most clearly refers to something much more specific than generic, male-male sexual intimacy.”
And finally, regarding the specific sort of relationships actually being prohibited in Leviticus, Stone concludes:
“Leviticus 20:13 specifically forbids that a ‘male’ (‘ish) have sex with a ‘male’ (zachar). This is curious, as the two words both mean a generic male. Why use the different vocabulary? The best way to understand the curious shift in vocabulary is to read it in the broader context (this also applies to 18:22). Essentially, the use of zachar is to clarify that all the ‘male versions’ of sexual abominations enumerated in the previous (and likely forthcoming) verses are also proscribed. Ergo, the homosexual prohibition applies to sex with father, son, and brother and to grandfather-grandson, uncle-nephew, and stepfather-stepson, but—and this is the crucial bit—not to male-male sexual intercourse in general. To make such a claim is blatant eisegesis, not to mention grossly anachronistic. This applies mutatis mutandis to female-female as well.”
What would Jesus do? Well, I’m not 100% sure, but I do know he never talked about homosexuality. That said, he did talk about marriage, namely in Matthew 19. And the type of marriage he talked about was between a “male and female.” Guess what, though? There is a context. And that context is divorce, not a grand expose on proper sexual orientation.
What’s going on is that the Pharisees, like they were wont to do, are trying to trap Jesus by using their Scriptures against him. So, what does he do? He uses the Scriptures back against the Pharisees. Typical Jesus, am I right? However, to take Jesus’ response and then apply it to our post-Enlightenment understanding of “homosexuality” would be completely out of context, not to mention grossly anachronistic.
Maybe Romans Doesn’t Say What You Think It Says
Here’s where anti-LGBTQ+ folks think they’ve won the argument—with Romans. The passage du jour, of course, comes from 1:26–27, and reads:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse with 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.”
Uh oh! It’s clear, Paul is not down with homosexuality. The wrath of God is coming down against the gays.
Well, again, not so fast.
First off, if Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell is correct, then the passage that runs from Romans 1:18–32 is not even Paul; rather, it is Paul writing as the false teacher he is rebuking. In other words, Paul is being rhetorical. If that is the case, then, we can’t even use the list of vices mentioned in the text as proof for any sort of moral or immoral behavior.
However, even if we don’t go so far as Campbell does (I do, though), then what we must realize is that Paul isn’t even talking about what we would call “homosexuality.” Again, context. What’s really going on here has nothing to do with gay men or women joining together in a loving, non-coercive union. Instead, the context, as Steve Chalke points out, is “idolatry, promiscuity and shrine prostitution.”
Corinthians Is More Complex Than You May Think
Now we get to what is probably the most difficult passage in all the New Testament—1 Corinthians 6:9–11. The NIV translation reads:
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.”
The problem with this translation is this: “men who have sex with men” is a poor and incomplete understanding of the Greek terms malakoi and arsenokoitai.
Malakos, on the one hand, can be translated as “soft” or “effeminate.” As New Testament scholar David Bentley-Hart points out in his recent New Testament translation:
“A man who is malakos is either ‘soft’—in any number of senses: self-indulgent, dainty, cowardly . . . physically weak—or ‘gentle’—in various largely benign senses: delicate, mild, etc. Some translators of the New Testament take it here to mean the passive partner in male homoerotic acts, but that is an unwarranted supposition.”
Arsenokoitai, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to translate, given that Paul sort-of made up the word. Again, here’s Bentley-Hart on what the word may possibly mean:
“Precisely what an arsenokoites is has long been a matter of speculation and argument. Literally, it means a man who ‘beds’—that is, ‘couples with’—‘males.’ But, there is no evidence of its use before Paul’s text . . . It would not mean ‘homosexual’ in the modern sense of a person of a specific erotic disposition, for the simple reason that the ancient world possessed no comparable concept of a specifically homoerotic sexual identity; it would refer to a particular sexual behavior, but we cannot say exactly which one.
My guess at the proper connotation of the word is based simply upon the reality that in the first century the most common and readily available form of male homoerotic sexual activity was a master’s or patrons’ exploitation of young male slaves.”
Again, with that context in mind, it’s no wonder Paul denounced such coercive acts. But that’s just it; this is about coercion, not necessarily what we would today call “homosexual.”
Without Love, We Are A Clanging Gong
All of this brings me to my last point. We as Christians should, above all else, love others. I know many will claim that denouncing homosexuality is the loving thing to do, but it isn’t. End. Of. Story. How can I so boldly say this? Well, simple: I know and love tons of LGBTQ+ folks who can pass the 1 Corinthians 13 love test:
They are patient, they are kind. They aren’t envious, they do not boast, and are not proud. They don’t dishonor others, are not self-seeking, are not easily angered, and keep no records of wrong. They do not delight in evil but rejoice with the truth. They always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere.
That’s how I see it, anyway. Perhaps you disagree. My former self would disagree with the current me, so I understand that it’s all a process.
Peace, and may we better learn how to love others as we want others to love us.