The following post is number 5 of 10 in the discussion about homosexuality between Jeff Cook and me. In this post, I lay out my approach to the question: “Does the Bible prohibit same-sex relations?”
The word “of” is ambiguous. It could connect the subject with its object—“the sin which is homosexuality.” But “of” could also mean something like “toward” or “concerning.” The “sin which has been committed toward homosexuality; that is, toward LGBTQ people. It’s this second sense that I want to address first.
Gay and lesbian people have been sinned against, and it’s time for the sinners—straight evangelical Christians—to repent. Not every straight Christian is guilty, and not every church has transgressed God’s law of love. But many have. Gay people have been mocked, shunned, abused (verbally, if not physically), persecuted, dehumanized, unloved, and—like the lepers of Jesus’s day—untouched. I have many friends who are gay and their narrative almost always contains the same plot:
I was raised in church, but I was treated like some “other.” When I was searching for Jesus, I was pushed to the margins by His followers and made to feel like some sub-species to the human race. I didn’t find love in the church.
Rarely were my gay friends overwhelmed by love and acceptance and grace in the church. And it wasn’t the church’s stance against sin that pushed them away, but its dehumanizing posture against people. Any responsible Christian must enter into this topic with a soft heart that’s eager to repent—if repentance is needed—for the way in which they or their congregation have mistreated gay people. If you’re not coming at this issue with a compassionate heart that’s zealous to repent from your sin, if you only want artillery to blast your affirming friend or to rile up your opponents on Facebook, then I ask that you go somewhere else. There are plenty of “Christian” blogs that will give you the ammo you’re looking for.
The sin of homosexuality begins by acknowledging, confessing, and repenting from the sin of the church against gay people. Then, and only then, can we explore the other meaning of the phrase.
So what about the “sin which is homosexuality?” Or to frame the question more precisely: Does the Bible prohibit same-sex sexual behavior (SSB)?
In this post, I’m going to describe 5 reasons why I (still) believe that the Bible does not condone SSB, even in the context of a consensual, monogamous union. (I actually have 10 reasons, but for the sake of concision, I’ll only list 5.) These 5 reasons don’t carry equal weight, and I highly doubt that any single one is strong enough to build a case. The strength of these points must be weighed cumulatively.
First, the Bible only affirms and celebrates heterosexual marriage and sexual behavior therein. This of course doesn’t in itself rule out same-sex marriages. After all, I could say that I love the Dodgers and this doesn’t in itself mean that I don’t also love the Giants (perish the thought!). Positive statements about heterosexual unions don’t in themselves rule out the possibility of same-sex unions. However, there several passages that not only mention heterosexual marriage, but celebrate sexual difference as necessary for marriage. These include, but aren’t limited to:
(a) The description of Eve as a “suitable” helper for Adam (Gen 2:18, 20), where the Hebrew word kenegdo (“suitable,” or “like opposite”) captures both similarity (Eve’s a human) and dissimilarity (Eve’s a female). Eve’s femaleness, and not just her humanity, qualified her as a legitimate spouse for Adam.
(b) Jesus’s emphasis on sexual difference in a marriage context: “‘God made them male and female’ (quoting Gen 1:27). ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (citing Gen 2:24)” (Mark 10:6-7). Jesus’s first statement about sexual difference (i.e. Gen 1:27) is odd and out of place unless sexual difference is a requirement for marriage.
(c) Paul compares the roles between husband and wife to the roles between Christ and the church in Ephesians 5:22-33 (cf. 1 Cor 11:3). Sexual difference—male and female—and not just personality difference—type A, type B, etc.—appears to be necessary to make the analogy work.
None of these points, however, carries enough weight by themselves to rule out monogamous SSB. They may point in the direction of heterosexual marriages as God’s design, but if I were a fair-minded judge, I’d need to see more evidence before I smack my gavel on the bench.
Second, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 explicitly forbids SSB with no indication that a specific form of SSB is in view:
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. (Lev 18:22)
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. (Lev 20:13)
Notice that there’s no mention of age difference (man on boy), power difference (master on slave), or coercion (rape). The text itself suggests that consensual SSB is included in the prohibition. This is clear in 20:13, where “both of them have done what is detestable” and therefore “they are to be put to death” and “their blood” is on “their own heads.” While in other ANE cultures, the passive partner (of equal status) may have also been punished, in OT law victims are not typically punished. See Deuteronomy 22:23-27, where both partners of unlawful consensual sex are condemned, while the victim of rape is not condemned. The condemnation of both partners in Leviticus 18 and 20 suggests that consensual SSB is included in the prohibition.
The (older) argument that Leviticus is referring to temple prostitution is weak, since there is no mention of temple prostitution in the context. Plus, as Stephanie Budin has pointed out in her aptly titled book, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, there’s little to no evidence that this sort of thing existed in Israel or Canaan at this time.
Some say that the Levitical laws are no longer for today. But this needs to be proven not assumed (and few do). Plus, most of the laws in Leviticus 18-20 are still authoritative for Christians, including theft (19:11), lying (19:11), taking the Lord’s name in vain (19:20), oppressing your neighbor (19:13), cursing the deaf (19:14), showing partiality in the court of law (19:15), slander (19:16), along with many others. And all—and I do mean all—of the sex-laws in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still authoritative for Christians.
So does the New Testament do away with the Levitical laws against same-sex relations? The burden of proof rests on interpreters who say it does. There’s simply no historical evidence to show that the laws concerning sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 and 20 were done away with after Jesus came.
Third, Judaism from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D. unanimously and unambiguously maintained the Levitical prohibitions against all forms of same-sex relations. Affirming writers point out that the only form of same-sex relations available to Jewish (and Christian) was pederasty—men having sex with teenage boys. And this is true except for the word “only.” Yes, Jewish writers often spoke out against pederasty (Josephus Ant. 1.200-201; Philo, Laws 3:37-42). But why? Was it just the age differential, and not the gender, that was the problem? Surely it was both. After all, Leviticus 18 and 20—the source of Jewish prohibition—doesn’t mention age or power differences. Plus, teenage girls were given in marriage to older men all the time, and the Jews saw no problem with this. The problem with pederasty was that it was both oppressive (in Roman culture more than Greek) and it crossed the Creator’s gender boundaries.
In any case, pederasty wasn’t the only form of same-sex relations common in their day. Josephus speaks out against same-sex relations in the context of marriage laws (Apion 2.199), and several other Jewish writers prohibited homosexual relations without reference to age distinctions (Letter of Aristeas 152; Ps. Phoc. 3; b. Sanhedrin 58a, Sifra Ahare 9:8, and Sifra on Leviticus 18:3). Furthermore—and most importantly—pederasty didn’t exist among female same-sex relations, which were often consensual and non-exploitative. Still, Jewish and Christian authors unanimously prohibited female same-sex relations on the same grounds that they prohibited male same-sex relations.
Consenuality, mutual love, commitment, and faithfulness were never thought to trump God’s design for sexual relations. Not until the late 20th century.
Quick interlude. These first three points could still be overturned, I believe, by the New Testament. There is enough discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, or between Judaism and Christianity, to allow for an early Christian ethic that moves beyond its OT or Jewish roots.
However, as we’ll see this is simply not the case. The New Testament maintains its continuity with both the OT and Jewish prohibitions of same-sex sexual relations.
Fourth, Romans 1:26-27 agrees with both the Old Testament and Jewish (as well as Stoic) standards for sexual conduct, which rule out all forms of same-sex relations:
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful desires. Even their females exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the males also abandoned natural relations with females and were inflamed with passion for one another. Males committed shameful acts with other males, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The main question is this: Are Paul’s words limited to a specific form of same-sex relations (pederasty, master-slave, prostitution, rape, etc.)? Or does his description include all forms, including consensual, monogamous, faithful same-sex relations.
Quite honestly, I believe that the burden of proof actually rests on me to show that Romans 1 includes consensual relations. I’m not sure that my non-affirming friends have truly felt the weight of the affirming argument here. I might just light myself on fire the next time I hear a traditionalist try to refute the affirming argument by just quoting Romans 1 louder and louder and louder. Friends: No one’s disputing what Romans 1 says. The question is what it means and how it applies. My hat goes off to my affirming friends who respect God’s word enough to put hundreds of hours into actually studying it. Many conservatives have not devoted such time.
In any case, I believe my affirming friends are still wrong. Here are four reasons why Romans 1 includes consensual relations.
(a) There were many Greek words used to describe pederasty (paiderastes [“the love of boys”], paidophthoros [“corruptor of boys”], paidophtoreo [“seducer of boys”]), and none of them are used here. Neither is there any explicit mention of master-slave relations, rape, or prostitution. In fact…
(b) Paul uses language of mutuality throughout the passage: “passion for one another,” “Males…with other males” (not masters with their slaves, or creepy men with innocent boys), and “received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” If Paul only had in mind same-sex sexual relations that were driven by dominant and oppression, he certainly doesn’t make this clear. Plus…
(c) As stated earlier, female same-sex relations were largely consensual, and yet Paul considers these to be “against nature” (1:26) and parallels these (e.g. “likewise,” 1:27) to male same-sex relations. The view that Paul only has in mind same-sex relations that are driven by excessive lust (Brownson, Vines, and others) could, in theory, apply to male-male relations in 1:27 (although points [a] and [b] above must be refuted), but doesn’t make sense of female-female relations in 1:26. Moreover, the excessive lust view doesn’t take into account…
(d) Paul’s language of exchange (see 1:24, 26, 28). Paul doesn’t say that people exchanged non-lustful, consensual forms of sexual relations for lustful, oppressive forms. Rather, he says that they exchanged opposite sex relations for same-sex relations. According to Paul, this is rooted in humanity’s exchange of their Creator (1:19-24) and the Creator’s intention for sexual relations. Paul’s not just singling out an idolatrous form of sex; rather, he’s saying that all humanity IS idolatrous based on how it has exchanged God’s will for its own. And this includes not just the same-sex sins of 1:26-27, but ALL the sins in 1:29-31—some of which you and I have probably violated today.
Yes, that’s right folks. Straight people are condemned in Romans 1 too. If you circle around LGBTQ people with Romans 1:26-27 etched into your stone, you mock the word of God and offend your Creator unless your stone also contains Romans 1:29-31 and you’re reading to throw it at yourself. After reading Romans 1, both straight and gay people should join arms in crying out to King Jesus: “Lord, please save us!” and “thank you Jesus for your one-way love.”
Fifth, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 says that straight people who are greedy, slanderous (including Facebook and blogs), and addicted to porn (i.e. sexual immorality) need to repent. You can’t rely on your summer-camp confession to get you into the New Creation. And hypocrites who ignore the log in their eye while trumpeting the sins of others will incur an even worse judgment. Repentance, in other words, should be a lifestyle for every believer in Christ.
Same-sex relations (specifically male-male sexual intercourse) also makes the list of sins in both passages. The two Greek words malokoi and arsenokoites are translated pretty well by the ESV as “men who practice homosexuality,” or even better by the NIV as “men who have sex with men,” although I’d replace the last word (“men”) with “males.” (Paul’s words aren’t limited to adult relations.) This translation is confirmed by the fact that arsenokoites is derived from Leviticus 20:13 (LXX, where arsen and koite are used), which prohibits all forms of same-sex relations. Later Christian use of this term (including Latin, Coptic, and Syriac translations of 1 Cor 6:9) confirms this meaning.
In summary, none of these arguments can stand alone. But cumulatively, they constitute some of the main reasons why I believe that God’s design and will for sexual relations is that they would exist only within a marriage covenant between one man and one woman from different families.
Two final thoughts.
First, does everything I’ve argued for contradict my opening plea for straight Christians to repent from our unloving posture? I don’t think it does. Never in the history of Christianity has agape love meant that in order to love people, we must approve of their behavior and desires. Never. Jesus didn’t teach this. The NT writers didn’t believe this. It’s nowhere in the Bible, yet everywhere in our 21st century secular culture. Equating love with unconditional affirmation of behavior is not part of a Christian worldview. I do believe, however, that unconditional love and even acceptance does reflect the love of Christ. And there’s a difference. Most importantly, dehumanizing other people based on their sexual orientation is Satan’s gift to creation.
Second, what if someone is born with a same-sex orientation? Certainly, if the biblical writers were aware of such a thing, then they would have encouraged such people to pursue their same-sex desires within the context of same-sex monogamy. Or so the argument goes.
Since I’m already past my word limit, I’ll respond to this second question by quoting Justin Lee, an affirming gay Christian:
Just because an attraction or drive is biological doesn’t mean it’s okay to act on…We all have inborn tendencies to sin in any number of ways. If gay people’s same-sex attractions were inborn, that wouldn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to act on them, and if we all agreed that gay sex is sinful, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that same-sex attractions aren’t inborn. “Is it a sin?” and “Does it have biological roots?” are two completely separate questions (Lee, Torn, 62).
Editors Note: This debate is also featured at Patheos Head to Head. For more debates on this and other topics visit our Patheos Head to Head main page.