“So, is it ok to be gay and Christian?”
I think that’s a very good question. I will do my best to provide an answer.
First of all, I’ve been studying this topic for over a year now. It’s something I’ve held off writing about until I was quite certain I could speak about it with integrity.
If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you already know that I’m no stranger to controversy. But this topic, unlike any other, is more volatile than anything I’ve ever written about before.
I’ve lost friends and relationships with other Christians over issues like hierarchy in the Church, the Priesthood of All Believers, Christian Non-Violence and the different views of Hell, to name a few.
But taking a position on the issue of Homosexuality has the potential to damage many relationships that I hold most dear, including members of our family.
At one point I nearly backed off completely. But then I felt I heard the Holy Spirit remind me that my calling is not to minimize my own suffering but to help alleviate the suffering of others.
So, here we go.
At one time I took the words of Paul at face value, especially when it came to verses where he forbids a woman to teach, or when he condemns homosexual activity.
But then something happened. First, my friend Jon Zens wrote a book called “What’s With Paul and Women?” which went directly to those passages where it appeared that Paul was clearly against women teaching men, or even speaking out loud in the assembly, and exposed our bad English translations, our lack of understanding the culture of that day, and years of bias against the subject matter.
What emerged was a better understanding of what Paul was actually saying, and better yet, WHY he was saying it.
For me, the topic of homosexuality has taken a similar path. As I’ve gone back to re-examine those passages where Paul certainly appears to condemn homosexuality I’ve begun to notice almost exactly the same pattern as what emerged in the issue of women in church leadership: The Greek words usually translated by our modern Bibles as “Homosexuals” don’t actually correlate to what we would call homosexuality today; There is a cultural phenomenon at work that most never incorporate; and there is a bias against homosexuality that is quite apparent once you consider all the perspectives that have been intentionally silenced over the years.
I’ll do my best to unpack all of that for you here.
For the record: I am not gay. No one in my immediate family is gay. I am not taking a stand against the traditional view of homosexuality based on any emotional imperative or personal agenda.
On the contrary, I am laying my head on this chopping block because I believe that the Christian church has used these few verses as a weapon to marginalize and condemn an entire group of people who should be welcomed into the Body of Christ as brothers and sisters.
I know I will take the hit for saying this. I’m saying it anyway. And I hope to back it up with some very solid Biblical exegesis and relevant insight.
Back to our friend’s question: “So, is it ok to be gay and Christian?”
I would say that, if you define being “gay” as having a same-sex attraction [and only an attraction, not moving further into lust or fornication], then yes, it is ok to be a Christian who is attracted to someone of the same sex.
How can I say this?
Because being attracted to someone, in itself, isn’t a sin. The Bible never suggests anything otherwise.
I know that some take the words of Jesus about “looking at a woman to lust after her” as being equal to adultery, but what Jesus was referring to was exactly what he said: lustful thoughts, not default attractions, are equal to adultery.
In other words: We’ve not committed the sin when we simply experience an attraction to another person. We sin when we allow our lusts to take over and our thoughts become carnal and/or we act on those lustful desires and physically engage in fornication.
But what about those verses you mentioned where Paul seems to very clearly condemn homosexuals?
Let’s take a look at those now.
Starting with Roman chapter 1, let’s look at what Paul has to say:
“Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…” [Romans 1:24-28]
Honestly, I don’t believe there is any reason to believe that what Paul is describing here is analogous to what we would refer to as homosexuality today.
There are plenty of others who agree with me on this. For example, first century Christian, Aristides and second century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr.
Aristides, who lived just 70 years after the Apostle Paul, taught that the issue Paul was addressing in Romans 1 was idolatry and sexual worship of false gods. In the second century, Justin Martyr also affirmed this interpretation of the passage.
Those aren’t exactly “liberal” Christian sources. These brothers aren’t alone, either. People like Bible Commentary expert Matthew Henry, Scottish evangelist Robert Haldane, and orthodox Calvinist, Charles Hodge also agree that what Paul is referring to in Romans 1 is a condemnation of pagan sexual temple practices of prostitution.
See for yourself:
“In Isaiah’s time it (idolatry) abounded, witness the abominable idolatries of Ahaz (which some think are particularly referred to here – Isaiah 57) and of Manasseh. They were dotingly fond of their idols, were inflamed with them, as those that burn in unlawful unnatural lusts [Romans 1:27]. They were mad upon their idols [Jeremiah 50:38]. They inflamed themselves with them by their violent passions in the worship of them, as those of Baal’s prophets that leaped upon the altar, and cut themselves [1 Kings 18:26,28]. Justly therefore were they given up to their own hearts’ lusts.” – Matthew Henry [From Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible, Isaiah 57]
“The reasons why Paul refers in the first instance to the sins of uncleanness, in illustration and proof of the degradation of the heathen, probably were, that those sins are always intimately connected with idolatry, forming at times even a part of the service rendered to the false gods.” – Charles Hodge [From “A Commentary on Romans”, by Charles Hodge, 1983 reprint (first published in 1835), Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA, p. 41.]
“The Apostle having awfully depicted the magnitude of Pagan wickedness, and having shown that their ungodliness in abandoning the worship of the true God was the reason why they had been abandoned to their lusts, here descends into particulars, for the purpose of showing to what horrible excesses God had permitted them to proceed.
“This was necessary, to prove how odious in the sight of God is the crime of idolatry. Its recompense was this fearful abandonment. It was also necessary, in order to give a just idea of human corruption, as evinced in its monstrous enormities when allowed to take its course, and also in order to exhibit to believers a living proof of the depth of the evil from which God had delivered them; and, finally, to prove the falsity of the Pagan religion since, so far from preventing such excesses, it even incited and conducted men to their commission.” – Robert Haldane [From “Commentary on Romans” by Robert Haldane, 1835.]
If you doubt this assessment, I invite you to go back and to re-read Romans chapter one, from the beginning. What you’ll observe is a progression in Paul’s argument that begins with a condemnation of pagan idol worship and ends with a description of what that worship involves and how God punishes those who engage in the practice.
So, as I began to look at this passage again, I started to wonder if what Paul was focused on here was anything at all like what we would refer to as homosexuality today.
Now let’s look at 1 Corinthians 6. This is where things get a lot more interesting.
“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.” [1 Cor. 6:9, ESV]
This seems pretty much a slam-dunk, doesn’t it? How can we argue with this? Well, once you start to examine the Greek you’ll begin to see a few problems.
First, the word translated here as “homosexuals” is from the Greek word “arseno-koitai”. This is a word that most NT scholars would say Paul invented. In other words, we don’t exactly know what it means because it’s a compound word made out of two different Greek words which are forced together. Paul never explains or defines this word for us. It literally means “Man” and “To Bed” which our modern English NT translators have wrongly rendered as “homosexuals”.
That term first appeared in our modern English translations in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible back in 1946.
Bibles translated earlier than 1946 render the verse like this:
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (malakoi), nor abusers of themselves with mankind, (arsenokoites)” [1 Cor 6:9, KJV]
As you can see above, the King James Version did not contain the word “homosexuals”. Only later translations and editions changed the word to “homosexuals”
Keep in mind that this shift in the translation came not from better, more convincing scholarship, but from cultural shifts within the Christian church.
Let’s look at these two words in a little more detail.
The Greek word “malakoi”, which is the plural of malakos, and the Greek word “arseno-koitai” are both used in 1 Cor 6:9.
First we’ll examine the word “Arseno-koitai”. As we said, many New Testament scholars have argued that Paul invented the compound word himself, since it cannot be found in any other writings of the time to refer to same-sex attraction or relationships.
There were over a dozen other words which Paul could have used if what he wanted to refer to was your everyday, ordinary homosexuality. I won’t go into the list of words, but there are plenty of other terms for same-sex intercourse in the Greek language that Paul left out of his epistle.
Why did he do that? We don’t know. But for whatever reason, Paul instead, chose to use an unfamiliar compound word – “arseno-koitai” – which is never used in any extant Greek literature with our modern meaning of homosexual.
“Arseno-koitai” is used only once more in the Bible, [1 Timothy 1:10], and Paul never defines its meaning for us.
Are you ready for a big surprise? This next detail might just resolve the mystery of Paul’s invented word for us.
There was a very well-respected Jewish teacher who lived during the lifetime of both Jesus and Paul the Apostle. His name was Philo. He was one of the most widely read Jewish intellectuals in the first century.
It’s no secret that Paul was highly educated as a Pharisee under Gamaliel. We know because of the works he quoted that Paul also read other philosophers and thinkers of his day. He most certainly would have been well-versed with someone like Philo who, no doubt, held great influence over the Pharisees and Rabbis living in first century Jerusalem.
Here’s what’s most fascinating about Philo. In his commentary on Leviticus 18:22, he argues that what Moses was condemning was shrine prostitution, and he specifically used the term “arseno-koitai”.
That’s right. It seems that Paul did not invent this compound word. Philo did. And when Philo used the term, he used it to refer to the practice of pagan temple prostitution.
Now, let’s look at the other word that Paul uses in 1 Cor. 6, “Malakoi”.
The word “malakoi” occurs four times, in three verses in the New Testament. In Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25, Jesus uses the word to refer to soft clothing. Jesus never used the word in reference to homosexuality.
The best translation of the word into English is “effeminate”, not “homosexual”.
In the first century, this term is normally used as an epithet against heterosexual men. As in, “You punch like a girl” or “Don’t cry like a girl”. The word is never used to refer to someone who is homosexual. It is always used to describe a heterosexual male whose behavior is more feminine, or soft, than male.
Plato, for example, in his “Republic”, wrote famously that too much music made a man soft [malakoi], and feeble; unfit for battle. He did not argue that it made him a homosexual.
Aristotle also warned about the dangers of men becoming too soft [malakoi] by over-indulging in pleasures rather than balancing out their lives with acts of physical and mental discipline. Again, he was also not saying that lack of exercise or hard work might make someone turn gay.
Even Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian [and contemporary of Jesus and Paul] used the term “malakos” to describe men who were weak and soft through lack of courage in battle. [See “Wars of The Jews”, 7:338; and “Antiquities of The Jews”, 5:246; 10:194.]
Want to know what’ even more interesting about how first century people understood this term? It turns out that “malakoi” was most often used in reference to men who shaved daily and had no beards. These were often ridiculed and accused of wanting to look like women with clean-shaven faces.
If this is what Paul had in mind in 1 Cor. 6:9, then the reference is more about cultural norms of the day – which is similar to what Paul writes about when he condemns short hair on women and long hair on men and calls this “unnatural” or “against nature”.
“Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for her hair is given her for a covering. But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” [1 Cor. 11:14-16]
Is a man with a clean-shaven face an abomination before God? Is he going against his own nature? Or is this an example of First Century cultural norms being equated with God’s eternal purpose?
I think these are worthwhile questions to explore. I also think that the conclusions that many Christians have accepted today are seriously lacking in the necessary study and critical thinking required to justify many of our attitudes towards those with same-sex attractions.
If this were a court of law, I believe that the evidence above is certainly enough to warrant a reasonable doubt about the true meaning of these passages we often use to condemn people who are not like us.
As I said before, I think this topic is very similar to doctrines like Hell and Women in Ministry. At one time you and I might have read the scriptures and said, “It says right here…” without knowing that what we were reading was:
- A) Not exactly what was said in the actual Greek
- B) Lacking historical background information regarding the culture of those people and
- C) Unduly influenced by NT translators who had a bias towards the subject matter
In conclusion, here’s what I’m saying – People who experience a same-sex attraction are not condemned by God. Many of them are our brothers and sisters in Christ. They should be embraced and welcome into the Body of Christ, regardless of who they feel any attraction to. In fact, their attraction to Christ as Lord and Savior is the only one we should take into consideration at all.
Hopefully, we could all agree that as ambassadors of Christ we need to love homosexuals and share the love of Jesus with them rather than attack and condemn them.
Maybe you don’t agree? I don’t know. But for me the Christian’s job is to share and show the love of Jesus to everyone – regardless of their struggle with sin – and allow the Holy Spirit to A) Convict people of their sins and B) Transform them into the image of Christ. Neither of those is the job of the Christian, and therefore, not my job either.
For the record: Being gay is not a sin. Being attracted to someone of the same sex is not sinful.
Christians need to stop assuming that someone who identifies as Gay or as LGBTQ is any more a sinner than they are – because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, remember?
It’s time for Christians to accept one another without judgment or reservation.
Thanks for taking the time to wrestle through this with me.
Keith Giles is the author of several books, including “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb.”