The Bible and Homosexuality: Key Biblical Themes 1

While debate regarding social, cultural, medical and scientific knowledge is informative, and should contribute to shaping our responses, it is not determinative; scripture is.  As the church, we do not exist or act primarily in response to changes in human knowledge, but in response to knowledge that is not accessible to humans by our own powers; we are formed by the revelation of God.  That revelation is first and foremost the Lord Jesus Christ, and the testimony of the church to Him in the form of scripture.  That revelation is experienced in an ongoing way in the life of the church through the reading and preaching of scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The mission of the church, Christ’s Body, is to continue to incarnate God’s love by the Holy Spirit’s power, and in this mission the scriptures are an invaluable aid.  They are first and foremost the revelation of God himself.  Secondly they reveal to us who we are in relation to God, and God’s will for us.  In considering this issue, we must attend carefully to what Scripture says.

Key biblical themes: Sex and Sexual Immorality: The Bible is not especially focussed upon sex, but nor is it silent on the matter.  The sexual misadventures of numerous biblical characters are part of the record (David, Samson, Judah, Herod) as are the more everyday difficulties (Jacob and Rachael / Leah, 1 Cor. 7) and delights (Isaac and Rebecca, Song of Songs) of sexual relationships.  While it includes both dire warnings against sexual excess and rhapsodic poetry about sexual love, overall the bible is very realistic about sexual matters.

Marriage/sexual imagery is used in the scriptures:

In the Song of Songs, Ezek. 16 & 23, Hosea 1 – 4, 9, Matthew 22:1-14, 25:1-13, Eph 5:21-33, Revelation 19.7-9 & Ch. 21.  The appearance of wedding feast imagery at the culmination of John’s apocalyptic vision is not just an echoing of Jesus’ parables of the feast of the Kingdom, and the coming of the Son of man being like the coming of a bridegroom, and Paul’s teaching that marriage is modelled on the relationship of Christ and the Church.  It is also a recapitulation of the Eden story, renewing the ‘marriage’ of Eden in its spiritual dimension through the renewed relationship between creator and redeemed creation.


Genesis 1: Male and female are the image of God:  In the Creation accounts special attention is paid to the sexually relational aspect of human being.  The Genesis 1 creation story makes the creation of humanity the culmination of creation, declares that Adam (here meaning human-kind rather than a specific man) is made in the image of God, and then immediately says, “male and female he created them.”  It was theologian Karl Barth[1], in the modern era, who drew attention to the meaning of this fact; that it is in our male/female likeness and unlikeness, separateness and connection that we are human and that we image God; as so often occurs in Hebrew thought the second statement is an interpretation and extension of the first.  Just as God is three-in-unity so we are three-in-unity with God. This relational image of God found in our sexual relatedness is what makes images of marriage and adultery so poignant as descriptions of God’s relationships with his people through the centuries and throughout the scriptures.  It is therefore of high importance to us.

Genesis 2: Our Likeness and Unlikeness make Men and Women Right for each other: The Genesis 2 creation account is less focused upon the ‘image of God’ aspect of our sexual complementarity, and more upon the human aspect; that we are not fitted for isolation, nor is the companionship of animals enough, it is the one who is ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ to whom we are drawn, and for the sake of which we leave our past in order to enjoy (re)-union with the ‘help meet’[2] God has provided for us.  It should also be noted that the command of God to “be fruitful and multiply” in chapter 1 and the “leaving father and mother, and cleaving to his wife, and becoming one flesh” of chapter 2 occur before the fall of chapter 3.  Sex (and the children who come) are commanded and blessed by God, and are neither the cause nor the result of the fall.  There is absolutely no biblical warrant for making eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil of chapter 3 into a symbol for sexual relationships. Thus the creation stories tell us that our sexual complementarity has a vital role in imaging the person of God, and that it is in sexual union that we find a completeness without which life can be very lonely.

Genesis 3:  The Fall corrupted our sexual relationships as well as those with the Earth and God.   Chapter three of Genesis is also significant, as it tells us that sexual relationality was one of the aspects of our life that is ‘cursed’ by the fall; in opting to become morally independent of God (knowing good and evil for ourselves) we find that sexual relationships become competitive and exploitative, and we are ashamed of our nakedness where previously there was freedom and openness.  These aspects of sexuality are writ large in the ongoing story of God and his people both at the national and at the personal level as the scriptures in the box above so graphically illustrate.  Sexual immorality and guarding against it are henceforth a regular, though not a dominant, aspect of scriptural teaching, found in the law, the wisdom tradition, the prophets, and in the teaching of Jesus and his followers.

Sex in Redemption: Jesus and Sexual Sin  What happens to sexuality in redemption?  In relation to immorality, believers in Christ are called to imitate his holiness (I will examine holiness separately below), but more positively, it appears that sexual union is sidelined!  Jesus was clearly in favour of sexual morality, teaching that immorality should be understood in terms of motivation as well as in terms of actions[3].  He was remarkable for his kindness and forgiveness towards those who were the victims of sexual sin, and just as remarkable for his fury towards those who “do not practice what they teach – they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to help them.[4]”  This ‘type’ of person is seen in action in the person of Simon the Pharisee[5], in contrast to the ‘sinful woman’ whose faith saved her.  Jesus appeared to be very compassionate towards those who suffered the tragic nature of everyday life, on the one hand, and very impatient with those who made religious pronouncements on the other.  He was no liberal, but neither was he punitive.

Jesus and Marriage:  As regards sexuality in general, the only appropriate expression of sexuality in Jesus’ day was in marriage, and Jesus’ presence at the wedding feast in Cana, where he performed his first miracle, has been taken as an endorsement of marriage per se.  While this is reasonable, it is also limited.  Jesus undoubtedly did bless marriage, just as he blessed the children who are the fruit of marriage.  Nevertheless, he also made both marriage and family subservient to a higher goal.  Whereas the teaching of the epistles tends to be described as socially conservative[6], the teaching of Jesus can only be described as shockingly radical.  When asked an academic question about the resurrection from the dead, intended to trap him between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he tells them that their conception of the resurrection is totally inadequate because of their assumption that current relationships will continue unchanged.  This is not so, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven[7].”  Earlier, in response to another such ‘trap’ question, Jesus evades looking like either a moral liberal who condones divorce, or a biblical illiterate for ignoring Moses’ teaching on divorce, by pointing his questioners back towards the Genesis mandate for marriage and refers to God’s original intention – but then goes on to commend those who don’t marry for the sake of the kingdom of God[8].  Most radically, Jesus teaches that the call of the Kingdom trumps every other responsibility; even, shockingly, those of family – wife, brother, sister, father, mother, and children.[9]  So while we can see that Jesus upheld marriage as God’s good intention, and taught against those who treated it lightly, or who engaged in sexual sin, he did not give it an eternal status at an individual level.  It is inconceivable that marriage is the only way for us to be in the image of God as per Genesis 1, or else we would be saying that Jesus could not image God as a human being – and he undoubtedly did do so.

The Apostles and Sex:  Similarly, Paul was also unmarried, and did not see marriage as the most important social status.  At the corporate level, Jesus used marriage as an image of the kingdom to come (as shown above) as did the apostles after him; but, like him, they did not see marriage as the greatest good; Paul, especially, highly commended life-long celibacy, but this was in the context of saying that marrying (or not marrying – or slavery or freedom, or being Jewish or Greek) was not as important as our status in Christ[10]. Elsewhere, Paul regularly lists sexual immorality as a significant evil to be avoided[11] as do other Apostles[12], and as did the council of Jerusalem[13].  Marriage, according to the writer of Hebrews, is to be honoured, and the marriage bed to remain undefiled for God will judge fornicators and adulterers[14].

An Essential Passage:  One of the most significant passages in this respect is Paul’s plea to the Corinthians[15] to separate themselves from sexual immorality, specifically a form of incest.  He instructs the church to expel the guilty party, noting that while they can’t either judge the world, or refuse to associate with the immoral of the world, they must do so in the case of those who call themselves Christian.  As Paul develops his argument, he lists various ‘sinners’ as types of those from whom the church must be separate. Initially he uses a list of four (5:10), then expands that list, repeating the first four and adding another two items to it (5:11), then climaxing his argument by repeating the list again and including a further four items (6:10) – it is at this point that we see the inclusion of “male prostitutes, and sodomites” (see below on the 1 Cor 6 passage).  It is sometimes argued that vice lists such as these are incidental to the point of the passage, being simply stereotyped lists of vices that Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews agreed were abhorrent.  However, the inclusion of several specifically sexual sins in this list is quite deliberate, as Paul has a further point to make.  If we notice that Paul first addressed a specific situation of sexual sin, and then continued by addressing an instance of economic exploitation (one believer taking another to court) we then see that this list is heavily weighted towards the condemnation of economic and sexual sins.  Paul’s expostulation that those who perform such sins are denied entry to God’s kingdom is contrasted with the status of the believers as holy, washed, and made righteous (‘justified’) in Christ and by the Spirit of God (6.11).  This echoes the earlier language about holiness (5:6-8) in terms of pass-over holiness, with a reference to Christ’s sacrifice as a pass-over lamb.  The culmination of the argument that follows is of high importance to us: 12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. [16]

The Body in the Apostle Paul’s Theologysoma [body] is a relational concept.  It denotes the person embodied in a particular environment.  It is the means by which the person relates to that environment, and vice versa.  …it is precisely ‘bodiness’ (corporeality, corporateness) which enables individuals as bodies to interact with each other, to cooperate with one another. Redemption for Paul was not some kind of escape from bodily existence, but a transformation into a different kind of bodily existence. …as it is human embodiment which makes society possible, so the church is the means by which Christ makes actual tangible encounter with wider society.

(Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle 1998, 56,61,563-4)

Another View: Bonnington and Fyall (1996, 6) note that modern preoccupation with the body emphasises either pleasure, health, strength, or beauty, whereas a biblical preoccupation with bodily life is “ethical, eschatological, and theological”; “Glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6.20)”

The specific sexual sin targeted here is the use of prostitutes.  The significance for us is that Paul, over and against those who see bodily life as irrelevant to the spiritual life, sees our bodily being as an essential aspect of discipleship.  Paul was clearly dealing with a form of hyper-spirituality, where some of the Corinthians are saying that, either because there is no physical resurrection (1 Cor 15) or because the resurrection has already happened in a ‘spiritual’ sense (1 Cor 4.8), they are no longer subject to normal restrictions, and bodily existence is purely a thing of this world which is passing away.  This explains both sexual immorality in the church, and a push towards asceticism (1 Cor 7:1)[17] as well as the assumption of spiritual superiority because of the more demonstrative spiritual gifts, and the disordered worship (1 Cor 11 & 14).  In contrast, Paul says that our body[18] is the temple of the Holy Spirit and our individual bodies are, literally, members of Christ.  What we do with our bodies matters, and to use them for illicit sex is to use the body of Christ for illicit sex.

In Conclusion:  All this is significant because we must not allow ourselves to simply negate God’s good creation of bodily and sexual human being, but we must see that it is ordered in very specific ways for our benefit, and for the sake of the gospel, and, ultimately, while it can be laid aside for the sake of that gospel it may not be abused without damage to that same gospel.  We “wait for the redemption of our bodies”[19] – we are presently part of the redeemed body of Christ, and yet, though we have the “first fruits of the Spirit” we continue to struggle with sexual temptations.  Our present task is to strive for holiness by God’s power, and to demonstrate Christ’s forgiveness in our fallenness, rather than pretend to the perfection for which we wait.

[1] (Barth 2004, 8, 184 – 185, 194 – 5, 322)
[2] The KJV term ‘help meet’ means ‘suitable helper’ and as has been pointed out many times since, is by no means a description of subordination, as the same term is regularly used of God.
[3] Matt 5:27-30,
[4] Matt. 23:3-4
[5] Luke 7:36-50.  Several commentators have wondered how it was that the woman was able to have such free access to Simon’s house, and how it was that he recognised her.
[6] I have described elsewhere ( how much of the teaching of the epistles regarding family and other social relationships only appears conservative to modern eyes – in its day it was often radically subversive.
[7] Matt. 22.30
[8] Matt 19:1-12
[9] Luke 14.26
[10] 1 Corinthians 7
[11] Rom 13:13, 1 Cor 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2, 10:8, Gal 5:19, Eph 5:3, Col 3:5, 1 Thes 4:3
[12] 2 Pet 2:10; 1 John 2:16; Jude 7,
[13] Acts 15
[14] Heb 13.4
[15] 1 Cor 5 & 6

[16]1 Cor 6:12-20, NRSV
[17] Both these features are found in Gnosticism in the second century, where they are strongly associated with a Greek philosophical dualism between spirit (good) and body (bad or irrelevant).
[18] Here in vs 19 and also in vs 20, the word ‘body’ is singular, but the personal pronoun ‘your’ is plural.  In other words, the body that belongs to all of us – the church – not our individual bodies as such.
[19] Rom 8:23

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