It’s Easter dinner, or Christmas. You’re sitting at a bar, or you’re cruising social media. You’re in a high school classroom, or maybe you’re in Congress. Wherever you are, at some point the topic of queerness arises, and someone winds up for a gut punch with the words “well, the Bible says…”
It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Anyone who has seriously studied the Bible knows this, but there’s a good chance your homophobic friend does not. The reason? A handful of verses, commonly known as the “clobber passages,” are regularly taken out of context to appear to show a Biblical case against homosexuality, which conservative Christians also inexplicably extend to the entire spectrum of Gender and Sexual Minorities (GSM):
Genesis 19 (cf. 18:20)
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
I Corinthians 6:9-11
I Timothy 1:9-10
About half of this comes from Moses. Most of the rest from Paul. None of it comes from Jesus, and the only clobber passage that comes from anyone who even met Jesus is the wildly misinterpreted bit from Jude. I’ll take them all in turn by the end of this post, but first a few ground rules:
1) You are not required to debate homophobes, or give them your emotional labor.
That kind of foolishness is to be avoided (Titus 3:9). If you are a Christian, you should be prepared to talk about your faith (1 Peter 3:15-16) and use actual scripture to do so (2 Timothy 3:16), but if the person you are talking to is not willing to listen, “shake the dust” and move on (Matthew 10:14, cf. Mark 6:11). This is especially true of those who are LGBTQ+, and who have to expend enough energy just living in a homophobic world.
But if you do choose to engage…
2) Consider the source.
Moses, even in his own books, was a failed leader. He famously put his own ego before God’s voice (Numbers 20:7-12, cf. Psa. 106:33). In fact, because of his disobedience, pride and direct misrepresentation of God’s word, Moses was ultimately punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land (Deu. 32:51-52). Even for those who believe that Moses wrote every word of the pentateuch having first heard the message directly from God, there is no denying that Moses—like any human—is imperfect and flawed. To believe against all evidence that Moses is some sort of perfect vessel for God’s word is itself a very un-Biblical principle.
Paul too was a flawed vessel, and even more open about it than Moses. When Paul speaks to the Corinthians about the nature of human knowledge, he tells them, “for now we see only a reflection as in a mirror […] now I know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). Paul also more than once admitted that where he was not quoting Christ directly, the words he wrote in his letters were his own (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:12; 7:25). If Paul himself did not see his words as infallible, why do evangelicals now?
Christians are called to follow Christ. Paul and Moses and all the prophets can and should inform the Christian faith, but no matter what your homophobic friend tells you, their word is not the same as Christ’s word, and they certainly do not somehow outrank him in Christian authority (see, e.g. Hebrews 3:3).
3) It is both anti-Christian and hypocritical to rely on Mosaic law or Pauline doctrine alone.
There is a famous video clip that has been making the rounds of the Internet for years, in which President Bartlett from the TV series West Wing calls out a homophobic talk show host by listing a number of Mosaic laws that have the same author and authority as the verses purportedly calling homosexuality an “abomination.” Of course, no modern Christian would rail against blended fabrics or crop rotation with the same fervor they save for other cherrypicked bits of law, and calling this out almost always leads them to admit that those laws are not for modern people or modern times. Christ speaking out against food rituals (Mark 7:18-19), temple worship (John 2:19-21), judgmental hypocrites (Mat. 7:1-29), empty piety (Mat. 23:1-39), etc exemplifies this. Paul states it directly (Eph. 2:15).
In contrast, Christ fulfills all of the law (Mt. 5:17-20) with a new covenant (Heb. 9:15). This new covenant comes in at least two major reframings of the law and the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. First, in every one of the Gospels, Christ is recorded as calling his followers to love (Mt. 22:37-40; Mk. 12:29-34; Lk. 10:26-28; Jn. 13:34-35). In the Matthew version in particular, Christ explicitly states that on this love of God and neighbor “hang all the law and the prophets.”
Second, fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah, (Je. 31:31-34), Christ states that those who follow his commandments will be given “the Spirit of truth” which is literally “in” them (Jn. 14:15-17). This new “advocate” (id.) opens the way for those who follow Christ’s basic principles of love, grace, acceptance and inclusion to discern for themselves what God’s law really calls them to do.
4) Translation matters.
The word “homosexual” did not appear in any Bible until the year 1946. That is nineteen centuries after Christ lived and died. It first appeared in the Revised Standard Version as a translation of the Greek arsenokoitai, but this word had never—not once in history—been translated that way before. In fact, both arsenokoitai and malakoi, the other word now often used to condemn homosexuals, have a long history of usage and translation which almost always points to specific practices, like pedophilia and sex trafficking, that any of us would find abominable today. The modern understanding of homosexuality—loving, consensual romantic relations with members of the same sex—is not contemplated anywhere in the Bible. The word for this, in the Greek of the time, would have been paiderasste, which is not used.
The simple fact is that Biblical translations are political. In Martin Luther’s time, for example, arsenokoitai was invariably translated as a reference to masturbation, because that was the “sin” the translators of the era wanted to rail against. As another example, as late as 1984 the New International Version of the Bible referred to “homosexual offenders,” but changed this in 2011 to “men who have sex with men,” continuing the 20th-century trend of making these passages specifically about homosexuality itself, rather than other “offensive” acts. Undoubtedly, it would have come as quite a surprise to Paul and others that their words continue to be rewritten and changed to meet political needs two thousand years after Christ lived.
5) Context Matters Too
Finally, each one of the clobber passages, in contemporary English translations, does appear damning, but only if taken out of context. The system of chapters and verses we now use to slice the Bible into very small pieces did not come around until the sixteenth century, with Robert Estienne. Before this, while sometimes divided into passages for liturgical reading, the stories told throughout the Bible were generally taken as whole stories. A letter by Paul was a whole document, not a collection of discrete soundbites. A book by Moses was a book, written to a specific audience for a specific purpose. The modern evangelical practice of cherrypicking verses literally could not have happened at the time the Bible was written, because at the time the Bible was written, these verses did not exist.
So here, with context, are each of the clobber passages that are so often misused:
Adam, Eve and Steve
Since 1977, when it was first paraded out at an anti-gay rally, the line “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” has sent evangelicals scrambling back to these verses to support both binary gender constructs and the idea that heterosexual marriage is the only marriage sanctioned by God. I have covered this pretty extensively in a previous blog post, but suffice it to say, this is not a zero-sum Bible. God certainly does create men and women here, but many variations of sex and gender that obviously exist are not mentioned. There is no proscription against them. In fact, the rabbinical age Jewish audience this passage was written for believed the larger story showed that Adam himself was androgynous (Gen. Rab. 8:1) until God removed the feminine element from him. This same pentateuch lifts up marriages rooted in slavery, polygamy, rape, kidnapping, incest and many other circumstances modern readers would find repugnant (see, respectively, Exodus 21:7-11; Gen. 4:19-25; Deut. 22:28-29; Num 31:18; Gen 11:29). In discussing Mosaic law around marriage, for that matter, Christ himself specifically notes that definitions of marriage change over time (Mt. 19:8).
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Gn. 1:27)
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Gn. 2:24)
The Sin of Sodomy
Genesis 19 holds the story of Sodom, which God destroyed for its wickedness. At some point, the word “sodomy” has come to mean anal sex, especially between men, but this apocryphal definition has nothing to do with the actual story of Sodom. It simply isn’t mentioned. The sin of Sodom, both in Genesis and as recounted throughout the Bible (e.g. Ez. 16:49-50; So. 19:14; Mt. 10:14-15) is that its inhabitants wanted to assault strangers in their town, rather than afford them the hospitality required by Jewish law. It is unclear when the contemporary meaning of “sodomy” came about, but we do know that the early Christian church did not believe it had anything to do with homosexuality (i.e. I Clement 11:1).
Man Lying With Man
The parallel verses of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both refer to men lying “with a male as with a woman” as an “abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 even goes so far as to penalize those who do, “they shall be put to death.” For those who have no idea what the book of Leviticus is about, this is fairly damning.
Leviticus is a collection of laws for ritual purity for the priestly Levite tribe in the time of Moses. Other capital crimes in this book include, for example, any form of blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, pretending to be a virgin, cursing a parent, persistently disobeying a parent, disobeying a court decision, and so on. Other banned practices include eating shellfish, wearing mixed fabrics, harvesting the corners of fields, not wearing the proper tassels on your garment, etc. Often evangelicals point to what they see as a distinction between civil, ceremonial and moral law to defend cherrypicking verses, but even then, other banned practices in the same category include stealing, lying, oppressing a neighbor, failing to love your neighbor as yourself, and so on.
Many scholars have pointed to linguistic and cultural clues that might show the interpretation of these passages as referring to homosexuality in the modern sense as erroneous, but those are arguable, and generally moot anyway. No one—not any living person—follows or attempts to follow the law of Moses. To do so would literally mean the end of the human race, as every disobedient son, Sabbath breaker, etc would immediately have to be put to death.
For those who read the King James Bible, written in the early 17th century, Deuteronomy 23:17-18 prohibits “a sodomite of the sons of Israel.” This is among the most blatant mistranslations the King James editors made. The Hebrew word qadesh in no way means sodomite or homosexual, and no student of Hebrew would tell you it does. Every reputable modern translation uses some version of “ritual” or “temple” prostitute instead. In any case, “of the sons of Israel” is a clear reference to Jews only, so evangelical Christians ought not be affected.
In Romans 1, Paul describes “those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” Paul argues that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” have been obvious, albeit invisible, since the beginning of time, and rails against those who in false wisdom dishonor God. Specifically those who “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” were given over to lust and eventually to “unnatural” and “shameless” same-sex acts (Ro. 1:25-27). Paul states, echoing Moses, that these people “deserve to die” (v. 32).
What evangelicals leave out, as before, is the list of other, similar capital offenses, such as envy, gossip, craftiness, insolence, boastfulness, “rebellious toward parents,” and so on. Paul here is talking again about a sort of unattainable, hyperbolic purity. In fact, later in this same letter, Paul famously declares that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v. 3:23, emphasis added). Elsewhere, Paul actually writes that all sex is immoral, quoting “it is well for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Co. 7:1). Paul himself was asexual and firmly believed that all others should be too, but as a “concession,” Paul allowed others to marry if they could not otherwise contain their passions (vv. 6-9).
Worth noting, Paul does not describe what the unnatural and shameless acts are. There is no indication that he is talking about homosexuality itself, as the passage indicated is clearly and unequivocally about lust.
Malakos and Arsenokoites
As mentioned above, Bible translations are political, and reflect the times in which they are created. 1 Corinthians 6:9, for example, lists malakos among those “wrongdoers” who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This is a reference to softness, as in soft, fine clothing (see Lk. 7:25, Mt. 11:8). The King James Version and some others translate this as “effeminate.” The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “male prostitutes.” Others skip it altogether. The next word is arsenokoites, which literally means “male bed.” It appears to be a word Paul made up, as there is no earlier use on record. The King James Version translates this “abusers of themselves with mankind”; the Revised Standard Version as “sexual perverts”; the New International Version, after more recent revision, as “men who have sex with men,” and so on.
The truth is no one really knows what the word arsenokoitai meant to Paul, but elsewhere in Greek literature, it generally has to do with sexual or economic exploitation, which also seems clear from the context of 1 Timothy 1:9-10, the only other place Paul used this word.
After Other Flesh
Finally, evangelicals frequently point to Jude 1:7 as having some relationship to homosexuality. It does not. This is again a reference to Sodom, to sexual assault of strangers, or—as in Young’s Literal Translation—to those who had “gone after other flesh.” There is no reference to homosexuality anywhere in this passage.
These are the “clobber passages,” taken in context. They are about power, exploitation, ritual purity, and a number of other things, but not one of them is about a loving, consensual relationship between two members of the same sex.
This topic will not stop coming up. Evangelicals are deeply invested in their own versions, and in retranslating the Bible until it fits their preconceived ideas. You are going to hear about this again. So print this article out and carry it with you, or invite me to your next dinner party, or better yet, share this article wherever you think someone might need it.
You never know who might be listening.