The Bible and Homosexuality; Analogous issues and conclusions

So where does this leave us?

One commentator says

Whereas re-exegeting the biblical texts that bear upon this issue certainly has shed light on what those texts mean and in some cases leads to a re-reading of them, this seems to me to leave the basic issue unchanged.  What revisionists must contend with is not four relatively isolated texts that prohibit, but a whole biblical witness to human sexuality that permits and affirms. …the vision of male and female in the complementary and productive union for which their bodies equip and prepare them.  No other vision is offered.[1]

Alternatively, though the bible affirms only one model of sexual relationship, does that mean that it necessarily denies the validity of all others? Another writer states

…there is in principle nothing to prevent our affirming the central importance of Christian marriage without necessarily in the same breath condemning other responsible sexual relationships.  Marriage between Christians may be both sacrament and vocation and as such embrace and transform a natural coupling.  It may in a unique way show us something of the Trinitarian mystery while informing us of the true nature of the relationship of Christ to his Church, It is not these things simply because it is ‘natural’, however, nor does its being these things and therefore God’s ideal for us necessarily have to deny the legitimacy of other ways of relating where this ideal is precluded for whatever reason. [2]

In other words, simply because we uphold marriage (or celibacy) as Christian callings and sacraments, does that mean that we therefore reject other forms of sexual relationship?  This is a central question for us.  What does the bible say?  Where do we fall between the two views expressed above?

In reviewing the specific scriptures referring to homosexuality, we see that the bible never, apart from in Leviticus, addresses homosexual behaviour as a topic in itself.  Paul, on three occasions, uses it as an obvious example of vice in pagan society.  Many have noted that the homosexuality referred to in the vice lists, and possibly also in the Romans passage, very likely referred primarily to the forms of homosexual relationship that were known to Paul at the time; pederasty.  It can be shown that other Jews who wrote about homosexuality at that time described such behaviour in such a way that they were clearly influenced by their social surroundings[3].  Thus we can say that Paul was condemning what we would describe today as pederasty – but we should also say that, for him, that was equivalent to condemning homosexuality per se.  What was wrong with these relationships, for Paul, was not just that they were exploitative or non-reciprocal or age-inappropriate, but that they were homosexual – they exchanged ‘the natural use’ of male and female roles in a very specific way.

Finally, then there is the law of Leviticus.  As noted, this is the one occasion where the bible actually focuses (albeit, very briefly) upon homosexual behaviour per se.  Again, like Paul’s statements in Romans, it can easily be read as having very broad applicability[4] – to men, at least.  When we seek to understand the principles and concerns underlying the law as it is given, we can see that it is probably aimed at limiting specific activities (cultic prostitution and abuse).  However it can’t be proven that the original intent was simply to restrict abusive, idolatrous, and dangerous practices, and promote fertility.  The context of Leviticus chapters 18 & 20 within the holiness laws requires us to read them also in terms of the confusion of categories that is inherent in homosexual relations.

So then we come to the specific question facing us; can these scriptures be taken to refer to loving, exclusive, and respectful same-sex relationships today?  This is, after all, what it comes down to.  All the biblical statements against homosexuality could be explained (away) as opposing lustful, exploitative, or idolatrous practices and therefore as irrelevant to the relationships that many gay Christians[5] seek, enjoy, and hope that the church will bless and support.   Is that the best way of dealing with these scriptures?  Do such explanations deal with the scriptures completely, or do the scriptures still speak to those relationships which aren’t prostitution or pederasty?

Analogous issues:  Before we leave the scriptures, we should consider the many analogous issues which are regularly raised in this debate.   An analogous issue is one that is similar in some way to the subject at hand.  By thinking about how we have dealt with this other matter, we throw light upon how we can deal with our current concern.

The most frequent is that of other ‘irrelevant’ laws, as suggested above.  We often hear the argument that the church is reading the OT very selectively in upholding one verse in Leviticus 18, and ignoring a great many of the verses around it.  The proposed analogy here is with laws such as that prohibiting mixing fabric in clothing.  In reading Old Testament law, there are several criteria by which we consider it; firstly, as I have done throughout my discussion of the Leviticus passages, we should consider what good the law promotes, and what evils it seeks to prevent.  While some do so from a materialistic perspective (i.e. how do these laws promote the health and socio-economic well-being of God’s people) this cannot be detached from a spiritual perspective; how do these laws promote God’s glory among his people, and limit idolatry and other sins which separate people from God?  Many OT laws certainly had powerful material benefits, but none of them should be separated out from their religious context.  In this respect we have noted the social and familial benefits of the restriction of homosexual relations in ancient near eastern households, and we have also noted how the Leviticus law might function as upholding God’s good creation of male and female, of God’s gift of life through procreation, and of the separation of God’s people from the surrounding peoples, emphasising holiness.

Secondly, we should consider how the laws impacted upon the people of God in their specific culture; this tells us something about the intended impact of the law.  A notorious example of this is the separation of kinds of fabric in clothing, or seeds in horticulture in Leviticus 19.  Many people point to these laws today, and say that as they serve no purpose, we have (rightly) discarded them, and should do the same with other OT laws.  I hope I have shown, however, that the impact of such laws was not meaningless in their original context, but served to remind God’s people in everyday life of the holiness (i.e. separateness) of their God and therefore of his People.   We have to ask ourselves if the intention of this OT law is still relevant in our society, and if so, how we would express that relevance today.  What do we believe to be the intention of the Leviticus law?  How relevant is that in our society?  How should that be expressed today?  It is abundantly clear that God’s call to holiness is by no means redundant.  How do we show our distinctness from society around us in relation to issues of homosexuality?

Thirdly, we should consider the way in which those specific laws were dealt with in the New Testament, and thus seek the guidance of Jesus and his Apostles in our interpretations.  In our specific case, it is clear that the Leviticus law against homosexuality was seen by Paul as still relevant, and his writing makes direct reference to it through the use of the word arsenokoites.

Jesus didn’t ever mention homosexuality, but nor did he mention idolatry so we should not take his silence on the matter to imply his indifference to it.  Also, as we have seen, in sexual matters generally Jesus didn’t just affirm the OT teaching, but moved it from the realm of action to that of attitude.  He also shifted marriage from being simply a legal contract, subject to law, and referred to it as part of God’s creative intent of the creation of maleness and femaleness, strongly affirming the creation mandate to marry, and to be one flesh.  At the same time he made marriage a subservient institution to the over-riding importance of the Kingdom of God.  NT teaching generally is strongly pro-marriage and also strongly pro-celibacy.   Thus, we have to say that comparing the Leviticus laws on homosexuality (or incest, or bestiality) to ‘other irrelevant laws’ doesn’t really work.

Gentile inclusion  Another key analogy that is found in the debates[6], is the inclusion of the gentiles in the (previously) completely Jewish early church; how the witness of the Apostles to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of gentiles led them to re-examine the scriptures, and come to a new decision about the requirements of the law for all Christians, thus welcoming into the church those who were previously banned, without requiring the gentiles to conform to the standards of behaviour that had previously been thought to be normal (Acts 15).  While the key point is that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to be Christian (or, in our analogy, homosexual people wouldn’t have to become heterosexual), a substantial secondary point is that the Jerusalem council took some pains to provide clear instructions on what ethical expectations they did have[7], if the whole of the Torah was not relevant in its literal form; they didn’t have to stop being gentile and start being Jewish, but they certainly had to change their lifestyles in ways which were costly, and which led, eventually, to martyrdom for some[8].  If we were to push the analogy, then, we would have to say that homosexual people are certainly welcome in the church – as is anybody who is filled with the Holy Spirit of Christ.  But the church should have no problem in saying that the characteristics of the individual’s life which were seen to be sinful prior to their conversion are still seen as sinful after and need to be repented from. 

A much closer analogy may be the case of Eunuchs;[9] banned from the temple (Leviticus 21.20) and from citizenship of Israel (Deut 23.1) by OT law, these men were still an everyday part of civic life, serving in various capacities (2 Kings 23:11; Jer 38:7) as they did throughout the middle-east.  There was a word to them from the prophet Isaiah:

3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;

and do not let the eunuch say,

“I am just a dry tree.”

4 For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off. [10]

And this word was fulfilled in Acts ch. 8, when the Ethiopian eunuch was baptised, and set off to found the first church in Africa.  The parallel here is, like that in Acts 15, that a group of people thought to be unacceptable to God, (in this case because of sexual ‘difference’) are now accepted as God’s people without any alteration to the essential point of difference that previously excluded them.  There is nothing here, however, to suggest that there was anything about Eunuchs apart from their inability to procreate that excluded them from God’s people previously; that is, they were identified by a ‘negative’ quality – something they lacked rather than a positive quality (something they did or were).  In other words, Eunuchs didn’t have to cease any specific behaviours in order to enter the church.  Would the same be said for homosexually oriented people?

Women’s Roles, Race, and Slavery are issues which are occasionally brought up in this debate.  The question is usually framed that, if the church was wrong about slavery and racism, and if the church was wrong about the role of women, and if the church now interprets some scriptures differently than it did fifty years ago, could the church be wrong again, now?[11]

In response to this argument, others have pointed out that to say “wrong on slavery and women, and therefore wrong on homosexuality” is to draw an unwarranted conclusion reached on other grounds.  Simply because a teaching is traditional doesn’t make it wrong, or that which it denies right.[12]  And of course the converse is also true – just because a teaching is traditional doesn’t make it right.

The value of the analogy is that it teaches us to be careful that our reading of scripture is not simply an acceptance of social norms (often, given the inherently conservative nature of the church, the norms of the previous century), but is a genuine attempt to discover the fullest meaning of scripture taken on the whole.

As regards women and slavery, a reading of the scriptures within the context of their times reveals that the provisions of the bible in their regards were essentially humanising, and, by comparison with their context, profoundly liberating.  Thus we came to see that scripture contained within it a tension between the social norms of the day as reflected in scripture and the liberating power of God as regards slaves and women.  Is there any similar tension as regards homosexuality?  As far as our reading has gone, the only visible tension in the scriptures regarding homosexuality is that between the social norms of their day that accepted various homosexual behaviours, and the consistent biblical emphasis upon faithful heterosexual relationships as the only acceptable form of sexual relationship.

Contraception, Usury and Divorce; Finally, it is sometimes pointed out that the church has accepted, fairly uncritically, social norms without much reflection on the biblical material.  Why, it is asked, don’t we do the same as regards homosexuality?  Is it not simply ‘homophobia’?  While it is true that modern innovations, such as consumer capitalism, contraception, and convenience divorce, have been accepted and even blessed by churches, that is not a good argument for saying that we should do the same with every trend; rather, we should revisit our stance, perhaps, in regards to some of these other matters, and strive for a higher standard of holiness than we presently do.  It is valid, however, to note that there is a greater reluctance to accept change on sexual standards that don’t affect the majority.  In fairness, we need to consider whether we would be so quick and simplistic in our thinking about homosexuality if it affected as many of our members as does divorce and contraception.

This concludes our survey of the key scriptural texts, themes, and additional, analogous issues.

Conclusion

In presenting this material, my aim has been to fairly, clearly, and comprehensively communicate the arguments that are frequently heard and used in debate within the church about homosexuality.  I have not covered every aspect of the debate, but I hope I have covered the core issues in such a way that decision-making will be well-informed and careful.  While I have critiqued arguments on both sides of the debate, I’m sure that my own opinions are reasonably clear. Nevertheless, I hope that the arguments speak for themselves, and that others will be able to sort through them and come to their own conclusions.


[1] (Wright 2002, 142)

[2] (Patterson 2000, 136-7n)

[3] (Scroggs 1983, 78 – 79, 88 – 96)

[4] One commentator notes that Jewish exegesis carefully delineates exceptions to the laws so that they can be applied easily – but that there are no exceptions recorded for this law, concluding that “A text without exceptions in Jewish literature probably really is a text without exceptions!” (Ron 2003)

[5] I am aware that some see the phrase “gay Christian” as an oxymoron; I use the term as it is used by those who own it.

[6] See, e.g. (Rogers 2006, 89-90) (Goddard, 2001) (Siker 1994, 154-156)

[7]  Of note here, is that while the word translated ‘sexual immorality’ (porneia) listed among the prohibitions for the gentile believers in the Acts 15 narrative is not explained by the text, but it may arise from the Leviticus purity regulations (17.1 – 18.30) which applied not just to Israelites, but also to the aliens living among them (ch 17.8-16, 18.26).  If that was the case, then it points to all the sexual boundaries listed in Leviticus 18.

[8] Rev 2.13.

[9] (McNeill 1994, 57) offers this analogy.

[10]Isaiah, 56:3, NRSV

[11] (Rogers 2006) is an excellent example of this type of argument.

[12] (Goddard, God, Gentiles and Gay Christians; Acts 15 and Change in the Church. 2001, 13)

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  1. #1 by Clare Flourish on November 27, 2013 - 11:50 pm

    “consistent biblical emphasis upon faithful heterosexual relationships as the only acceptable form of sexual relationship.”

    Where? Mt 10:36: A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

    There is concubinage in the Bible, and Levirate marriage seems more interested in property than in the relationship. There is never any comparison of heterosexual relationships with life-long loving homosexual relationships, because there was no conception of those loving relationships, just of anonymous sexual encounters.

    You may say what you say about slavery, because the exegetical work has been done. Evangelicals were passionately arguing for slavery throughout the 19th century The work is now being done around sexuality: once it is pointed out that “It is not good for the man to be alone” applies to gay men as well as straight men, you can indulge in a tis/tisn’t argument, but more people will see and accept the gay interpretation.

    • #2 by Ardie Bea on November 28, 2013 - 12:36 am

      Thanks for your comment. Do you want to unpack that Matthew quote a bit? I don’t quite get it.

  2. #3 by Clare Flourish on November 28, 2013 - 1:53 am

    Oh, come now, Ardie, after all your scholarship…

    Jesus brings a sword, and turns the world upside down. Jesus speaks against divorce, and splits households. The model of marriage is turned upside down too. This does not mean that marriage is wrong, but that it is unreliable. Nothing is reliable in such a world. The temple was about to fall.

    • #4 by Roger Driver-Burgess on November 28, 2013 - 8:32 am

      Ok, I see where you’re coming from. Yes, you’re right, in that Christ made all human institutions – including God-given ones like the Sabbath, and Marriage, relative to himself and the coming Kingdom. The question now is not “How do I conform to some institution?” but “How am I transformed (by the renewing of my mind) into Christ?”

  1. The world turned upside down | Clare Flourish

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