A Gay-Affirming Christian, Part 4: Confronting the Clobber Passages

A Gay-Affirming Christian, Part 4: Confronting the Clobber Passages July 5, 2016
A Gay-Affirming Christian, Part 4: Confronting the Clobber Passages

This is the fourth and final post in a series arguing for the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships from a Christian perspective. It relies on the positive case established in the previous three posts. If you have not read them yet, please do so before reading this one.

Christians who claim that LGBTQ relationships are inherently sinful usually do so on the basis of a handful of texts in scripture, often referred to as the “clobber passages”: Genesis 1:27, 2:24, 5:2, 18:20–21, 19:1–29; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Deuteronomy 23:17–18; 1 Kings 14:24; Matthew 19:4–5; Mark 10:6–8; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:8–11; and Jude 1:7.

Right off the bat, we can take Deuteronomy 23:17–18 and 1 Kings 14:24 off the list because they refer to shrine prostitution, not consensual sex of any kind. Even the most conservative of today’s Bible translations get it right on these verses, so I won’t spend any time on it.

As for the sins of Sodom, described in Genesis 18–19 and referenced in Jude, a group of men attempted to gang rape angels. Rape is always wrong no matter who the victim is.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 may refer to consensual same-sex activity (though I have heard good arguments to the contrary), but they are found in the Old Testament law, which we as Christians are not under. We are no more bound by these prohibitions than by the prohibitions against eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:11–12) or wearing mixed fabrics (Leviticus 19:19). We are only bound by the law of love.

Genesis 1:27, 2:24, and 5:2 state that God created male and female and that the two are united in marriage. Genesis also explains that God made Eve for Adam because she was “a partner suited to him” (Genesis 2:18, REB). For many people, the opposite sex does make for a suitable partnership, just as with Adam and Eve. However, for some people, this is not true. And Genesis is silent on what such people should do. These passages say nothing to suggest that a male and female marriage is the only acceptable partnership.

When Jesus quoted these Genesis passages (Matthew 19:4–5 and Mark 10:6–8), he did not do so to make a point about LGBTQ relationships. He spoke in response to a question about divorce, not sexual orientation. His purpose was to defend marriage against unnecessary annulments, not to define it against same-sex partnerships.

That leaves us with only three pertinent passages. Honestly, I don’t see an even remotely compelling argument in any of the passages covered above. However, I can easily understand why the remaining passages have been read to condemn LGBTQ relationships. Depending on the translation, they can certainly appear to do just that.

For the sake of argument, I’ll stick with the conservative ESV translation of each passage:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26–27)

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)

Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:8–11)

The first thing we should notice is that all three of these passages come from Paul (assuming traditional authorship). And we should remember that out of all the Apostles, Paul was the most outspoken on the idea that love is our only law.

So why does it appear that Paul is listing a bunch of other laws?

One less-than-appealing possibility is that Paul was inconsistent, affirming love as the only law in some passages but conveniently ignoring that principle in others. Personally, I’d like to give Paul more credit than that.

I think there’s a better way to look at it. When we see such prohibitions listed in the New Testament, they are not other laws in addition to the law of love; rather, they are examples of how to live the law of love.

In other words, Paul is not saying, “Just love one another, but also don’t do these things.” He’s rather saying, “Just love one another; therefore, don’t do things which are unloving.”

And when we look through the items listed, it’s easy to see why Paul viewed them as unloving. They’re all wrongs committed against other people—all except for homosexuality, that is. Consensual LGBTQ relationships are no more harmful than heterosexual relationships, and they have just as much potential for love. So why would Paul include them here?

It’s possible that Paul was simply wrong—that he allowed a poor understanding of sexuality to influence his writing. But I don’t think we have to go there. Again, I’d like to give Paul more credit than that.

This makes me question whether Paul might have had something other than a consensual relationship in mind. And in the Roman culture of Paul’s day, there were plenty of other truly harmful practices he could have been referring to.

For example, prostitution was standard practice, often tied to idol worship, and often including sex with young boys. Additionally, it was common for boys to be paired with older men who would have a sexual relationship with them until they reached adulthood. It was also accepted that men would have many sexual partners—male, female, and children—as long as they only played the role of the “active” partner, and as long as they did not have sex with another man’s wife (because wives were property). The “passive” partner was considered the weaker role, reserved for women or young boys. See “Paul, Homophobia, Gender & Love” from Kurt Willems’ The Paulcast for more on this, along with a balanced perspective for approaching the topic of LGBTQ relationships in general.

The concept of an equal, loving, consensual same-sex partnership, though not entirely unheard of, was not at all a common occurrence in Paul’s day. We have very little basis for assuming that this was the kind of relationship Paul had in mind. It is much more likely that Paul referred to specifically harmful same-sex practices like those described above.

Furthermore, the Greek words involved are notoriously difficult to translate. It’s far from a clear-cut case to claim that they simply refer to homosexuality. I won’t go into the technical details here, as this has been covered ad infinitum elsewhere. See, for example, Keith Giles’ helpful articles that treat the subject with greater depth: “Not a Sin?” and “Romans Re-examined.”

As we wrap this up, we ought to remember a fundamental rule of biblical interpretation: always interpret unclear passages through the lens of clear biblical themes, rather than the other way around.

In this case, we have only three passages, all highly debated, that might possibly provide a passing reference to homosexuality. On the other hand, the entire New Testament is filled to the brim with the unmistakable teaching that love is the only law we need. And the law of love gives us no grounds on which to conclude that consensual LGBTQ relationships are in any way sinful.

We’ve additionally seen that everyone is entitled to pursue marriage with a suitable partner. To deny anyone the possibility for such a relationship would be to break the law of love ourselves.

For all of these reasons, I am a gay-affirming Christian.

Posts in the Gay-Affirming Christian series:

  1. Entering the Conversation
  2. The Biblical Case for Marriage
  3. It All Comes Down to Love
  4. Confronting the Clobber Passages

See also, “It’s Time to Speak Out as a Gay-Affirming Christian.”

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  • “Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 may refer to consensual same-sex activity (though I have heard good arguments to the contrary), but they are found in the Old Testament law, which we as Christians are not under. We are no more bound by these prohibitions than by the prohibitions against eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:11–12) or wearing mixed fabrics (Leviticus 19:19). We are only bound by the law of love.” [above]

    “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” [Acts 15:28-29]

    Heresy! The correct comparison isn’t with eating shellfish or wearing mixed fabric. It is with taking communion at a high mass conducted in front of a graven image to which the bread and wine are held aloft, or eating either black pudding or *strangled* shellfish. If the shellfish weren’t strangled, or offered to an idol, you can eat them. But sexual immorality remains taboo. Has the definition of sexual immorality been changed?

    • Hey, John. First, I’m all for constructive disagreements, but there’s no need to throw out the accusation of heresy just because you disagree with something. Consider this your first and only warning. Keep it civil or I won’t hesitate to block your future comments.

      That said, you bring up a valid point that is worth addressing. The Apostles did initially carry over certain restrictions from the law. However, we have to remember that this was very early in the formation of the church. They were still figuring how to move forward as followers of Christ. Though they put such restrictions in place at first, they rejected them later.

      Paul explicitly rejects the prohibition against food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians, and he implicitly rejects the prohibitions against blood and things strangled by teaching that love is our only law. As for sexual immorality, any sexual practice which harms someone else would be immoral because it is unloving. However, consensual same-sex relationships are neither harmful nor unloving, so they are not immoral.

      • I used the word “heresy”, with an exclamation mark, in juxtaposition to referring to “strangled shellfish”, only for comic affect.

        Your reply doesn’t really answer, at least not to my satisfaction, the question as to whether sexual immorality (which the sinner almost always considers “loving” and harmless) has been abolished and, if not, whether sexual morality is redefined in the New Testament.

        If you email me, I’ll be able to tell you about some relevant personal stuff that I should not write about publicly. It concerns a church member near here who is on the brink of being disciplined, because of his living and assumed sleeping arrangements.

        • Given the New Testament’s law of love, immorality of any kind can only be defined as that which is harmful to others. Sexual immorality would then be any sexual practice which causes harm to others. I don’t know if that counts as a redefinition or not, as Jesus taught that this principle of love was the intent of the law all along. However, it certainly abolishes the letter of the law in many places.

          • I wouldn’t try to teach my own children, as children, right from wrong, just by teaching them the philosophy lesson “Ama et fac quod vis”. I might, however, have a conversation with them as adults, about how the rational basis for all those rules in childhood had been my love for them.

            I think you are very brave. God clearly teaches his children in the scriptures, using a combination of rules and philosophy. You would invade his classroom and to begin teaching His children differently: to concentrate on the philosophy and forget all about God’s rules. This being rather than the classic approach, that, confronted with commandments of God’s that we resent, we should humble ourselves to admit that God must know, even if we cannot work it out yet, that the reason for His rules is that keeping them will turn out to have been loving, and breaking them won’t, even if we can’t see why, whilst still looking through a glass, darkly.

          • But we’re not children any more. There’s a reason God allowed himself to be revealed through laws and commands in the Old Testament, but then finally revealed his true self as a person in the New. That which you call brave and imply to be risky is what I call simply following the new mandate given to us by Jesus.

          • “From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.…”
            [1 Tim 3:15-17]

          • I affirm everything in those verses.

          • Here is the “clobber passage” that proves that you *don’t* really affirm everything in 1 Tim 3:15-17. It is taken from the first in this series of four posts.


            If we’re going to talk about this responsibly, we have to start with two non-negotiable acknowledgments.

            First, we have to acknowledge the reality that gender and sexuality are not nearly as simple and straightforward as traditionalists would like them to be. Some people have an innate orientation toward members of their own sex. Some people experience a gender identity that is different from their biological sex. And some people land within a wide spectrum of variations on these themes.

            Being gay or transgender is not a “lifestyle” that people choose. It’s just how people are. Furthermore, attempts at changing this have proven both ineffective and extremely damaging. Many Christians want to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that such things aren’t the case, but this is reality, and the conversation will go nowhere until we acknowledge it.

            I won’t spend any time supporting these claims here. There’s plenty of scientific literature you can find on your own. If you won’t accept this reality, then you might as well stop reading now.


            You wouldn’t want to hear my testimony. You take Stonewall doctrines about sexual orientation on faith, whilst mocking, as too traditional, the sound doctrines of the apostles.

          • I’d be happy for you to share your testimony, John. Your personal story is every bit as valid as the stories of LGBTQ folks.

          • Richard Worden Wilson

            Affirming and fully embracing those verses should lead to the same conclusions they did for Paul and Timothy, not new ones of our own devising.

          • Richard Worden Wilson

            I’m pretty sure Jesus would consider the love of God to be the highest law. Hence defining immorality as that which is harmful to others ignores the harm one may incur from behaviors which harm one’s relationship with God. In this light, which I would consider to be more comprehensibly biblical than what you seem to be asserting, spiritual harm is something only God can properly define, not us. We all need to regularly be reminded that the original sin of Genesis was arguing around God’s stated definition of what was acceptable behavior to establish our own (in Eve and Adam as it were). Allowing Christ and his apostles to redefine the spirit and law dynamic instead of baptizing ourselves as equally authoritative interpreters of God’s will is probably the better way to go–if not many of us should think of ourselves as teachers even fewer should think we are prophets. Throwing out the spiritual baby with the bath of law doesn’t help us grow closer to God in Christ.

      • Richard Worden Wilson

        Hi Chuck,
        I appreciate you efforts here, but think you may be skewing interpretation to get the results you want. To whit, when you say “Paul explicitly rejects the prohibition against food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians” I think you go beyond the evidence and
        overstate the case. Paul says in ICor 10:28″ 2But if someone says to you, “This is offered to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of that one who informed you and the conscience.” What seems implicit here is that if you know or are informed that particular meat has been dedicated to an idol you should NOT partake. If it is not known to be idolatrous it isn’t contagiously idolatrous. Paul doesn’t adopt an antinomian approach to Old Covenant Law, as though his appeal to love trumped every other concern. The point in Acts 15 and here is that Christians should avoid any appearance of participating in idolatrous practices. This is easily validated historically as an ongoing Christian principle and practice. There is no explicit rejection of the Jerusalem council dictum anywhere in early Christian history.

        As for the argument that love is our only law, Paul never asserts as you do that any particular person or group of persons’ definition of love defined acceptable Christian sexual behavior. I think I understand your line of reasoning, but it ignores the harm Jesus and the apostles would have understood to be inherent in behavior to which God clearly objected. Is it not possible that rejecting the beliefs of Jesus and apostolic witness to the will of God is spiritually harmful in ways that you and others do not see? Yours is an argument not seen with any notable presence in mainstream Christian thinking until our (my) generation and the sexual revolution. If we allow God to define what is loving in relation to sexual behavior heterosexual monogamy and celibacy are the only options. This is from both the whole biblical witness and that of the historical Church. Arguing as though from scriptural principles of love and avoiding harm, as we might see harm today, require denying the beliefs of biblical authors and prophets, including Jesus.

        For those who haven’t noticed yet, the next front on the agenda of international human rights organizations is the legalization of prostitution, oops sorry, I should say sex work. Here you have a clear case of consenting adults who see no harm in what they are doing. Your arguments are far as I can see would include these relations as well. Do you agree? Why?

  • Some quick thoughts on the series…

    •If one includes the πορνεία passages that would quadruple the amount of supposed clobber passages– not that one should form an opinion based on some sort of numerical consistency.

    • Genesis 1-2 represent an archetypal representation of human sexuality, which do suggest the ideal design of marriage as enacted by the Creator God. To suggest an alternative order than what was intended & declared as “very good” is just to put forward an Epicurean view of creation.

    • While Jesus’ discussion in Mark 10 & Matthew 19 is in the context of divorce, his response to the Pharisees is not an answer to what rules govern divorce, but restating of God’s archetypal design. As Dr. Richard Hays says, “Jesus reframed the issue by appealing to the Genesis narrative as constituting the symbolic world within which marriage must be understood.” The responsible reader of Scripture should pay close attention to what Jesus affirms, not just search for prohibitions.

    • You ignored Paul’s language of “exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature”(Rm 1:26). Paul is making an appeal to “natural order”. Paul is hardly making an original contribution to theological thought, but restating what Hellenistic Jewish & Greco-Roman assumed to be true of homosexual activity. The category of “natural & unnatural” plays a major role in Stoic worldview in which moral action is closely identified with living “kata physin” [natural order]. In other words, Paul is using the cultural assumptions of the Roman worldview to build his case that, “no one is without excuse” (2:1) Paul’s choice of homosexuality is not random: it serves his rhetorical purposes by providing a vivid imagery of humanity’s primal rejection of the God the Creator.

    • In Romans 1 Paul actually goes beyond the law in his prohibition. Romans 1 is the only passage in all of the Bible that refers to lesbian sexual relations. If Paul did not have in mind the “kata physic” [natural order], it would not make sense why he brought this up. Also, we should note that by Paul mentioning lesbian activity, he is pushing back against the assumption that women are property, and instead suggesting that women are responsible moral agents.

    •Scripture does not speak to orientation. It stops short at condemning sexual actions. You are right to suggest that the Greek does not refer to homosexuality. No such term existed in either Greek or Hebrew, as orientation is not a category in the ancient world. Presumably, one could have a relationship if it precluded ἀρσενοκοίτης. As John Stott explains, “In every discussion about homosexuality we must be rigorous in differentiating between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ — that is, between a person’s identity and activity, sexual preference and sexual practice, constitution and conduct.”

    • Both you & Kurt Willems are correct in identifying the connotations of prostitution implied by Paul. For example the word used in 1 Cor 6 is μαλακός. Scholars tell us that μαλακός was used in Hellenistic Greek as a pejorative slang to describe the “passive partner”– often young boys– in homosexuality. Where Kurt & you have stopped short is wrestling with Paul’s term ἀρσενοκοίτης. The word ἀρσενοκοίτης is not found in any extant Greek text earlier than 1 Corinthians. While some scholars simply ignore ἀρσενοκοίτης as “unclear” to avoid the implications, a majority of scholars (e.g. Robin Scroggs, Martini, Woo, Wright, Hays, Dunn etc…) have all noted that Paul is translating the Hebrew mishkav zakur (lying with a man) from Leviticus 18 & 20 as it appears in the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, Leviticus 20:13 reads, “Whoever lies with a man as with a woman [meta arsenos koiten gynaikos], have both done an abomination.” As Hays states, “This is almost certainly the idiom from which the noun ἀρσενοκοίτης was coined. Thus, Paul’s use of the term presupposes and reaffirms the holiness code’s condemnation of homosexual acts.” (pg. 382 MVofNT)

    •Throughout the series there has been an assumption that expression of sexuality is necessary for fulfilment. Scripture, however, undercuts our cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment. Scripture, along with subsequent generations of faithful Christians, have testified that lives of freedom, joy, service, are possible without sexual relations. To be sure, the power of sexual drives must be acknowledged and subjected to constraints, either through marriage or disciplined abstinence. But never within the canonical perspective does sexuality become the basis for defining a persons identity or for finding meaning and fulfillment in life.

    • The only paradigms offered by the New Testament for homosexual behaviour are the emphatically negative sketches of Romans 1:18-32; 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Tim 1:10. The New Testament offers no accounts of homosexual Christians, tells no stories of same-sex lovers, ventures no metaphors that place a positive construal of homosexual relations. On the other hand, the NT is full of examples of redemptive counter-cultural affirmations of women, slaves, eunuchs, and children.

    • Chuck, why doesn’t Christian history & tradition bear witness to your interpretation of Scripture? For nineteen hundred years, the church univocally condemned same sex activity. As historian Young’s study on the issue demonstrates, there is not one positive affirmation of same sex activity prior to the 20th century. For example the fourth century bishop & theologian John Chrysostom had some harsh words for those who engaged in intercourse with the same sex. (e.g. “Commentary on Romans, Homily 4) Could you agree that if I would embrace your perspective, I would have to abandon my commitment to tradition & ecclesia universals?

    The last thing I want to say is that I that while I disagree with you on the Biblical interpretation, I share your commitment to love and welcome all. I know that our society has been so polarized this issue that it seems their can be no middle ground. But I believe we can both work towards healthier attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Please know that it is possible for someone to believe that homosexual sexual expression is wrong, a sin, just as they believe that heterosexual sexual expression outside of marriage is sin, and that doesn’t make them a bigot, or homophobic in the least. I believe we can form mutually respectful friendships between our communities without demanding absolute agreement on all issues. And it is this mutually respectful diversity that will, in the end, provide us all with the most opportunity for growing, loving, and learning. Thanks for a challenging series Chuck!

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Paul Walker pretty well hits all the bases in a grand slam theological performance of what most reasonable bible interpreters would think. Sorry, that might seem a bit snippy, but I did want to commend his portrayal of the Genesis to Jesus arc of biblical witness regarding marriage.

    it is sort of true that: When Jesus quoted these Genesis passages (Matthew 19:4–5 and Mark 10:6–8),
    he did not do so to make a point about LGBTQ relationships. He spoke in
    response to a question about divorce, not sexual orientation.”
    However, to say that “his
    purpose was to defend marriage against unnecessary annulments, not to
    define it against same-sex partnerships” just beggars the question: would any Second Temple Jew that had any regard for the Law even think it necessary to argue against “same-sex partnerships”? That is rhetorical–the obvious answer is “no.” If same sex relationships were verboten then clearly same-sex marriage would be unthinkable. So, Jesus didn’t need to argue against such relationships because NO ONE in the Jewish community was arguing for them. Naturally, that doesn’t in any way imply that he would not have done so if someone had, but since no one did he didn’t need to say anything about that. Come on, do you really think this line of reasoning has any historical or biblical legitimacy at all? Aren’t you just grabbing at straws?

    To ignore the fact that for Jesus marriage was inherently and necessarily heterosexual is a kind of historical denial virtually equivalent in seriousness, though obviously differing in intent, to holocaust denial. It just beggars the mind.

  • RidingTheLine

    Cool series. I ventured here on the recommendation of a Disqus friend.

  • Jack Richards

    This was my response from a beloved brother who forwarded this article to me. Take it for what it is worth.

    I think the spirit of the message is on point. Love being the primary driver, consideration and concern about all people should engulf us. Gone are the days of condemnation, the days of hate from the mouths of thoughtless and careless men that think that godly change can occur by laying the condemnation and punishment of the devil on a world that is fallen and needs redemption (matt 25:41). No, those mouths must be stopped, with faith, love and peace the catalyst of those who call on his name. It does no good to condemn them as such, nor adulterers, liars, pimps, prostitutes or anything else that is contrary to sound doctrine. It is only by showing MERCY and OVERFLOWING grace (1 Tim 1). Christ came into the world to SAVE sinners.

    That being said, according to the argument, love being the primary reason for Homosexuality being affirmed, I could easily say as an adulterer that I love all the women I have slept with and they love me, or a polygamist, etc. To say there is nothing wrong with Homosexuality is to say that there is nothing wrong with other lifestyles where love can be attributed to choice and the choice being affirmed by love.

    There is a clear delineation in the New Testament as regards to conduct among believers in lifestyle. God knows what is best, and there is sound reason to believe that because Paul mentioned Homosexuality many times among those things that are wicked, we should refrain from such things and publish the lifestyle of a holy walk with God, while showing Mercy & Grace among those who have yet to understand the reason for such a walk. That walk calls for suffering, for denying of self, for picking up the cross and following the Spirit. We are created new men and women, in Christs image. In Christ we are no longer ignorant, and much more is required from us (to much is given).

    Outside the church and inside the church, Gays should be loved, but for them there is a crucifix that is waiting that all Christians must hang on to find redemption. It cannot be refused.

    What we need to realize is death (the old life) has been swallowed up by life. Walking with Christ will provide the sufficiency needed.

    Now is Homosexuality a sin? Yes. To say anything else is to disregard too much for the sake of affirmation.

    With that said we are to to bear all (Gays), believe all (Gays), hope all (Gays), endure all (Gays) and we are never to fail them. Changing our conduct is God’s work and he will accomplish it in all who call on him by applying the cross to our lives. That includes all the straight people like me.

  • Rebecca Current

    As a queer (formerly Evangelical) Christian myself, I really appreciate this series. Voices of affirmation are so, so important for LGBTQ people in these traditions (especially youth, I think), particularly when those voices come from within, broadly speaking, the same strain of Christianity. So thanks for undertaking to express your affirmation this way. 🙂