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The Bible and Homosexuality

The Bible and ‘Homosexuality’

This is simply another re-issue of a paper I have used in various other contexts to contribute to the debate on homosexuality and ordination. It is just a very basic starting point, and doesn’t really ‘take sides’, but includes some references to other material that may be helpful.

I will use the word ‘homosexuality’ in inverted commas throughout this paper to indicate that we cannot assume that the Bible directly refers to what we have come to call ‘homosexuality’ today. When the Bible addresses the misuse of sexuality (which it does not do as often as it does many other areas of human failure), it does so most often in terms of porneia (exploitative, abusive and promiscuous sexuality, which is often connected with, and called, idolatry), rather than questions of sexual orientation or technique ‘between consenting adults’. There is no doubt that sex has again become an idol for many in our age, but I think that often the Evangelical defence of heterosexuality is just as guilty of this idolatry as the aggressive sectors of the Gay community. I don’t think that sexuality (of any kind) should be spoken of as the defining aspect of our personality. We are made in God’s image as persons/humans who have been given the potential for sexual relations-a potentiality that is never realised, or remains very ambiguous, for many. The old Evangelical line that ‘until you’ve found the perfect partner, you’re not in God’s perfect will’ feeds this Western romantic idolatry and devalues the Biblical affirmations of singleness. This has alienated many in our Churches, and distorted the finding of relationships within community into some bizarre game of Divine ‘Perfect Match’.

Nevertheless, there are a few Biblical texts that seem to refer to sexual activity between people of the same gender. It seems that Jewish legal codes were unique in the ancient world in specifically banning ‘men-lying-with-men-as-with-a-woman’ (= ‘homosexuality’?) and in prescribing the death penalty for offenders (cf Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). On the other hand, female ‘homosexuality’/ ‘lesbianism’ is not mentioned in the OT (nor in British Law-apparently Queen Victoria had any references to lesbianism struck from the British Statutes before she’d sign them, because she didn’t like to think that it actually happened!). Of course there are problems if we attempt to derive a position on ‘homosexuality’ directly from these OT texts, since they are part of the purity codes which Jesus continually confronted (eg Mark 5:21-43 and the rules concerning menstruation, and Mark 7 and the food/washing laws). It would also seem somewhat arbitrary for us to endorse the laws concerning ‘male same-sex genital activity’ and not those connected with wearing mixed-yarn garments (Lev 19:19), eating ‘black-pudding’ (Lev 17:12), clean and unclean foods (Lev 11), women and childbirth (Lev 12), shaving hair and marriage by capture, and so on. Many of the Levitical laws we would want to affirm unequivocally (eg banning child sacrifice and incest)-but the point is that we have to re-evaluate each tradition separately, based on the further revelation of God through Jesus. We cannot develop an ethical response to this question by simply commencing uncritically with the OT prohibitions of male ‘homosexuality’.

The Gospels say nothing specifically about ‘homosexuality’. Indeed there are only 3 texts in the NT which might be related to the topic-1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10 and Romans 1:18-32. The meaning of the word first found in Corinthians and then the Timothy text-arsenokoites (= man-bedder/lying with a male; the modern terms arse and coitus are a later development)-is much disputed. The word seems to pick up the Greek translation of the Leviticus texts about ‘men lying with men’, but some argue that it carries the added connotation of male prostitution and the economic exploitation of sex rather than ‘homosexuality’ (between consenting adults) as such. The other term used in the Corinthian text, malakos, means ‘soft’ or ‘effeminate’ (in a first-century sexist way), and although it is used occasionally as the slang word for the ‘passive homosexual partner’ (who were younger men/boys in Greco-Roman culture where pederasty = boy/servant ‘lover’, was common), it is also used of men who eat too much, read too many books or engage in heterosexual sex too often! Thus it can be argued that what Paul is opposing is exploitative ‘homosexual’ relationships (eg male prostitution and older men abusing young boys/slaves)-just as he also opposes exploitative heterosexual relationships-rather than opposing the possibility of a loving, long-term relationship between two same-sex adults. Indeed, there is no clear evidence of any specific reference to same-age, same-sex sexual relationships in Paul or in any other ancient literature. Rather it is pederasty that is the focus of criticism, and the assumption in most ancient literature seems to be that this exploitation of young males by older men occurs when those men have grown weary of promiscuous heterosexual relations.

Even so, the argument that Paul only refers to exploitative or promiscuous same-sex relationships is more difficult to sustain in connection with the Romans 1:18-32 (26-28) text, which contains a descriptive reference to men-lying-with-men. This text includes perhaps the only Biblical reference to ‘lesbianism’, though this is not totally clear since the emphasis may be that the women are no longer under the authority of their husbands (‘their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural’ Ro 1:26), and the exact nature of the unnatural relations is unclear (bestiality is quite possibly being referred to, given what we know of the lewd entertainments at some Greco-Roman dinner paties). However, it is clear that the wider context shows that Paul is not prescribing ethical standards in Romans 1-3 so much as describing what he sees as the fallen condition of humanity (Gentile and Jew, see Romans 3:9)-so some argue that in Rom 1:26-28 he merely reflects the typical Jewish perceptions of ‘pagan Gentiles’ before hitting his Jewish colleagues with the truth that they are no better off (Romans 3, especially v.9 again)-even if they don’t practise ‘homosexuality’, amongst other things. All have fallen short-all are saved by grace-whereupon ethical standards must be worked out anew in the light of that grace, so the argument goes.

This interpretation has to be taken very seriously because it has analogies with the sort of processes we go through to interpret Paul’s mixed messages about the position of women and slaves. There are Biblical texts in both testaments that can be used to support the continuation of slavery and the subordination of women, but we rightly point to other texts (particularly those stories of Jesus), which clearly show otherwise. As God’s people, we are responsible to make these ethical decisions (to ‘bind and loose’, Jn 20: 22-3) in the light of God’s clear concern for the marginalized incarnated in the life of Jesus-even when it means overturning other scriptural traditions.

It is true that even recent interpreters supporting homosexuality tend to concede that Paul probably did reflect the traditional Jewish opposition to ‘homosexuality’ (so Furnish, for example), but they would point out that he also failed to see the full implications of the Gospel for slavery. But even if we are not totally convinced by these ‘pro-homosexuality’ interpretations and conclude that the modern understanding of ‘homosexuality’ is to a large extent the same as that which Paul opposes in these texts (which is an extraordinary leap across the centuries, from 1892 backwards, when the word ‘homo-sexual’ was first coined), we should note that the terms malakos (once) and arsenokoites (twice) occur far less frequently in the NT vice lists and exhortations than references to greed, pride, gossip and heterosexual lust and promiscuity. We should also bear in mind Paul’s postscript to one of these vice-lists: ‘. and such were some of you’ (1 Cor 6:11). Therefore, even if we still view ‘homosexuality’ as sinful, there are certainly no grounds for Christians to victimise ‘homosexuals’ as such or to regard them as more sinful than others-or to refuse them church membership or training. Do we refuse membership (or even ordination) to those who have a tendency to gossip-and occasionally yield to the temptation? What is our record on expelling all ministers who have a tendency to commit adultery or fornication? As Hays-who opposes the ordination of homosexuals-puts it: “If they (‘homosexuals’) are not welcome (in the church), I will have to walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those entitled to cast the first stone.”

It is possible to argue for more than the ‘love the sinner/hate the sin’ approach, however, on the basis of the ‘Jerusalem Protocol’ (as Ken Sehested calls it). Just as the undeniable presence of the Holy Spirit in/with (unclean) Gentiles forced the Jerusalem Church to accept them into the community of faith, so it is the Spirit’s presence with/in homosexual Christians involved in Church life today that is forcing many to reconsider their understanding of this issue.

So just what is the Spirit saying to the Churches?

The wider context is always helpful to return to in this debate. The clear focus of NT exhortations about sexual ethics (which themselves must be balanced by the far more frequent exhortations about wealth, pride, gossip, divisive behaviour, and so on), focus on porneia-promiscuous, abusive and exploitative sexuality (whether hetero- or homo-, but predominantly the former). There are no grounds for a fear-driven ‘witch-hunt’ of those in our churches who have a same-sex orientation/temptation. Indeed, more positively stated, there is a clear mandate in the ministry of Jesus to prostitutes and the adulterous for us to support ‘homosexual’ persons in our church communities and to fight for justice for ‘practising homosexuals’ under our legal system-and especially to care for those who may be suffering from AIDS/HIV (whether hetero- or homo-). Our ethics-if we wish to follow Jesus-should be formulated from our position of solidarity with those living and suffering in the margins of society.

Certainly Christians should oppose the aggressive ‘homosexuality’ seen in some of the ‘Gay’ street marches and the promiscuous ‘homosexuality’ that is found in some of the night clubs and bars-but our protests will only be legitimate insofar as we spend even more time protesting against the aggressive and promiscuous ‘heterosexuality’ that dominates far more of our media and society. Furthermore, we should be able to expect that Christians will show the world how discussion on these issues can be carried out in a loving and truthful way, so that fear, ‘homophobia’ and ‘heterosexism’ do not dominate the debate as so often happens, but rather the ‘the spirit of love, peace and a sound mind’.

See further the following recent publications on the topic:

Some references:

Jeffrey S. Siker (ed), Homosexuality in the Church. Both Sides of the Debate, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994. An excellent collection of articles (those by Hays and Furnish on the Biblical material especially) including a selection of Denominational statements on homosexuality. The editor writes a concluding chapter detailing why he changed from an anti- to a pro-homosexuality position-including a discussion of why the analogy with alcoholism is inadequate.

Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Edinburgh: T & T Clark (HarperCollins), 1996. Already a classic text for NT ethics. The chapter on homosexuality is the best defence of the ‘no-to-homosexuality’ position (most compassionate and fair), I think. Surely as Christians we can at least move this far!

Robert L. Brawley (ed), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality. Listening to Scripture, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. Another excellent collection of articles (those by Waetjen, Seow and Martin on the Biblical material especially).

Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? Compassion and clarity in the homosexual debate, Leicester: IVP, 1995. Was regarded by some evangelicals as the best defence of the traditional Church position against homosexuality. Includes a detailed Bibliography and chapters on medical/social questions as well as the Biblical. I would rather say that Richard Hays’ article (in Siker above, and re-written in his The Moral Vision of the New Testament) is the most sensitive presentation of the traditional evangelical position against homosexuality.

Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, Nashville: Abingdon, 2001. Replaces Siker as the most recent and comprehensive defence of the traditional evangelical position against homosexuality. Lacks the compassion and fairness of Hays’ work (to my mind).

The July 1991 issue of Sojourners contains powerful testimonies on both sides of the ‘homosexuality’ question, and “The Jerusalem Protocol” by Ken Sehested (Baptist Peace Fellowship, US) is a passionate call for justice.


1. Nor do the Sodom and Gomorrah stories help us much either. At most, they indicate disapproval of threatened homosexual gang rape (and a surprising lack of disapproval of Lot offering his virgin daughters instead, to protect the visitors), though the main issue in the story seems to be the lack of hospitality to strangers. In the Bible and other Jewish literature, Sodom stands condemned for its pride, wealth, failure to welcome visitors, and fornication (in general, rather than homosexuality in particular, cf Ezekiel 16:49, and the strange reference in Jude 7 to ‘other flesh’ = the angels?). It is a much later development that coins the word ‘sodomite’ meaning ‘homosexual’. In fact neither of the terms ‘sodomy’ or ‘homosexuality’ are Biblical (or even first-century) terms or concepts. ‘Homosexuality’ was first used in the last decade of the nineteenth century which is why the term will be used here in inverted commas to remind the reader that it is not a Biblical word or concept, nor should it (or ‘heterosexual’) be the primary category for defining personhood. 2. The texts in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount that Thomas E. Schmidt (Straight and Narrow? Compassion and clarity in the homosexual debate, Leicester: IVP, 1995) refers to are rather less clear. At best they might be used against paedophilia (‘anyone who causes these little ones to stumble.’), but this is a problem for ‘heterosexuals’ just as much as ‘homosexuals’. 3. See Dale B. Martin, “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” in Robert L. Brawley (ed), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, 117-136. It is thus very difficult to know how to translate the term in today’s world-perhaps ‘indulgent’ or ‘lazy’ would be best. 4. See Herman C. Waetjen, “Same-Sex Sexual Relations in Antiquity and Sexuality and Sexual Identity in Contemporary American Society” in Robert L. Brawley (ed), Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996, 103-116. 5. See the articles by Hays and Furnish in Jeffrey S. Siker (ed), Homosexuality in the Church. Both Sides of the Debate, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994. 6. Again, see Hays and Furnish for a sensitive ‘anti-‘ and ‘pro-‘ position on these texts. 7. Hays, “Awaiting the Redemption of Our Bodies”, in Siker (ed), Homosexuality in the Church, 14.

Keith Dyer


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  1. thankyou keith

    Posted by jacob | June 9, 2016, 10:25 pm