After my open support of LGBT equality at Diocesan Convention recently, I have had many great discussions about faith, the Bible, and my stance on relevant issues pertaining to Biblical interpretation. I have attempted to answer all of those as well as possible, but sometimes the context simply does not allow for thorough discussion. This post will be long, but it serves as attempt to get a handle on much of the Biblical text concerning homosexuality. Given more time, I will continue to edit and format this essay, but I cannot give it more time now. This is not intended to be exhaustive, but rather a conversation starter for those navigating the waters of Biblical interpretation.
The basic question is this: “How can you believe in the Bible and not believe that the Bible condemns homosexuality?” There are variations of that question, but that seems a reasonable paraphrase. This essay will attempt to show that there is no clear condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible and certainly not strong enough grounds on which to base discrimination within the Body of Christ. Later posts will deal with Biblical interpretation in general and the faith that springs forth from a less-literal approach to Biblical interpretation.
Let me start here: to say that homosexuality is condemned is scripture is quite simply either a myopic delusion or a blatant lie. Homosexuality is a term not coined until the 19th century (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). The Bible could not have possibly condemned homosexuality, because the concept of homosexuality did not exist. They Bible could no more condemn space travel or Lasik eye surgery. To put that in more plain terms: for someone like Paul, there was no understanding about categories of human sexuality. Instead there was an assumption that all people were born “naturally” to have sex with the opposite sex. Any sexual acts outside of this “natural” form of sexual activity was understood to be an aberration in activity, not an orientation or identity.
Still, various parts of the Bible have some tough things to say about male-male penetrative sex. So it would serve us to handle those.
You shall not lie with a male as with a female; it is an abomination. LEV 18:22, ESV
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood be upon them. Lev. 20:13, ESV
These two pericopae (“pericopes” just doesn’t seem right) fit in the context of Jewish laws about purity. Many know that, by one count, there are 613 “laws of Moses”. These are the ten commandments and the additional case laws concerning all sorts of matters from agriculture to xenophobia (as anachronistic a term as homosexuality when applied to Leviticus, but I needed to list something on the other end of the alphabet).
First, working under the assumption that the reader isn’t Jewish – these laws do not apply to you. These are purity laws for a particular people, not for the whole world. God made the ten commandments as a covenant for Israel after bringing them out of bondage in Egypt, and the other laws followed. If you were Egyptian, those rules didn’t apply to you. If you were Jewish, they did. Second, note that not even most Jews in the world take all of these seriously. How do we differentiate this prohibition of male-male penetrative sex from “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard” (Lev.19:27).
So, for Christians, these two don’t get to play a role in the discussion any more than Christians should heed the warning not to eat the Rock Badger, for it is unclean (Lev. 11:5).
These are for snuggling (carefully) not for food.
It is much more understandable for very orthodox Jews to hold fast to these words, but again, that’s not really what we’re talking about here. That doesn’t mean that these verses disappear just because we aren’t Jewish, they just don’t apply as a binding legal commitment.
Furthermore, these two verses have a historical, religious background that is different from our interpretation above. Namely, these are about setting the cultural boundaries of Israel over-against other, surrounding cultures. Like the command not to eat shellfish, the rule is there to make Israel look different than others. In the process of setting those boundaries the priestly writers took to deify their prejudice. This isn’t holy, this is cultural anthropology. For me, this reveals more about who Israel was – not who God is. Other societies might have condoned male-male penetrative sex (scholars are pretty sure that they did), but Israel would be different. Other societies also ate shrimp, but Israelites didn’t.
A fun exercise is to read through Leviticus and see what the Israelites (or God, depending on your understanding) condemned or condoned. Most of those have no influence on how Christians live their lives, so why do some Christians insist on bringin Leviticus into the conversation?
Also, Bronze Age Israelites had often had a troublesome idea about what was “normal”. The notion that someone could be born with a different sexuality was simply not known. The fact that some people acted different was known, and different was considered dangerous. Again, that doesn’t tell me about God – that tells me about them.
Edit: Susan makes a good point in the comments below, drawing our attention to some other interpretations, and reminding us that the Israelites understood the purity codes as reflecting their relationship with God collectively as well as individually. She also touches on the notion that within Leviticus there were laws that pertained to ritual purity and those that revolved around moral purity. So for instance, if someone offers an improper sacrifice, that sin causes death for that person, not for the whole tribe. Moral purity, however, threatened the whole community with expulsion from the land (Lev. 18:28 and 20:22f). Whatever the root behind the “Do not lay another male as you do a female” line, the possible consequence for the community was to be removed from the land.
Those interested can read much more about some of these ideas in Jewish thought. I would highlight Mary Douglas’ work in Anthropological Approaches to the Old Testament and Implicit Meanings.
Genesis 18:1-19:38 – the story of Abraham’s hospitality and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s important to read the whole thing to get it all in, one-line quotes won’t quite work here.
Frankly, I think anyone who reads this story and isn’t disgusted is blindly ignorant. The story is not about sexuality at all, it is about rape. A gang of men standing outside someone’s door, threatening violence if two visitors are not handed over for gang-rape is not homosexuality (I hope I don’t have to explain that to any of my readers). What’s messed up to me is that people who really want to make this about God condemning homosexuality fail to notice that Lot’s alternative is to let his two daughters get gang-raped instead. These citizens of Sodom were depraved, and God had promised that if he couldn’t find ten righteous people in the city God would destroy them. So, there we go. But, there is no indication, at all, that God is punishing the gay men of Sodom, at best, that is a biased inference.
Secondly, I think it is important to place this in the context of the hospitality story from Gen. 18. Abraham did the right thing in his feeding and caring for a stranger. The sin of Sodom was that their version of hospitality was gang-rape instead. Even if someone were to argue that the text doesn’t say “gang-rape” it might be worth noting that this clearly has nothing to do with male-male consensual sex, much less life-long committed and loving partnerships by people of the same sex.
Worth noting: Much of the Bible commentary on this story refers to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah as greed (see Ezekiel 16:49).
I’m also more than willing to pass on this one simply because the notion of righteousness displayed here includes allowing one’s own daughters to be gang-raped – something which I do not think God loves. So, my guess is that this, once again, shows us more about the people who wrote it than about God.
To my knowledge, that’s it for the Hebrew Scriptures. Next up, Romans:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:21-27
Now this is an interesting text. It’s the only place in the Bible where female – female sexual acts are referenced. This text has several important points of entry for conversation. First, Paul has generally not seen it as necessary for gentiles to follow the purity laws of Leviticus. Why doesn’t he extend that here? Is this a place where his own prejudice has gotten in the way of the Good News of Christ? That obviously wouldn’t be a helpful angle for discussion with those who hold to Biblical inerrancy, but for some that might just make sense.
Paul’s argument extends from an understanding about natural intercourse, but we have to ask ourselves what Paul thought was natural and whether it is the case that after 2,000 years we have the same understanding. Elsewhere, Paul talks about how unnatural it is for men to have long hair – it’s degrading (1 Cor. 11:14). Now, some religious fundamentalists think that it really is unnatural for men to have long hair – and, good for them for being consistent. I think Paul was a product of his times, and he thought it was unnatural at the time – and I don’t have to understand that as an actual condemnation of longhaired men. It would, of course, be interesting to survey the hair styles of this blog’s readers. If a male has long hair, he is likely fulfilling the law of Leviticus requiring long sideburns, but Paul would say that he’s a disgrace. Odd. Short hair and long sideburns, FTW?
But, for me, here’s the real kicker: I don’t think Paul was really talking about specific details of the world’s behavior in Romans 1. I think he was talking about general themes of human failure:
Romans 1:18-31 is a whole section that deals with humanity with regard to the story of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve knew God, ever since the creation of the world, but rather than glorify God they reached after God’s wisdom (knowledge of good and evil). They claimed to be wise but became fools. They, and many of the children of Adam and Eve since, gave up the glory of God for that of animals (i.e. they took up idolatry, worshipping golden-calves for instance). And so, humans were given over to a spiral of idolatry in which they were consumed with passion – that line is the focus of the text – being consumed with passion for one-another is a form of idolatry. This isn’t a laundry list of bad behaviors, these are the result of idolatry. Evil, slander, wickedness, etc are the end result of idolatry. While Paul’s prejudice might have understood same-sex intercourse as unnatural, Paul wasn’t really concerned with intercourse – he was concerned with idolatry.
Perhaps the worst part about how people take this out of context is that they miss Paul’s larger point: Chapter 1 is about how the world has fallen into idolatry, Chapter 2 is about how God’s own chosen people have turned away from God, and Chapter 3 is designed to explain that, because we’ve all God baggage we can understand more clearly why God sent Jesus: “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23).
So, for me, strike out Genesis, Leviticus, and Romans as dealing with sexuality in a way that informs my opinion about 21st century Christian practice.
That leaves us with:1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind. Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11, KJV
Paul uses two Greek words in long lists of things that he thinks people are doing wrong; it’s a vice list. It’s important that there are two words here, so any translation (such as the ESV) that uses “homosexuality” to cover both terms is clearly not trying to accurately represent the Greek text. BTW, for anyone who thinks that the word of God is inerrant, please answer in the comments below how it is that we can trust the interpretations of those who have translated our Bibles into English. Even if the original authors were inerrant (which I don’t believe is the case) the transmission is through people who have to make decisions about how to transmit the information from one language into another, and they frequently fail to represent the original language. How do we trust them with such certainty as to condemn a fellow human being?
Anyway, the lines usually thought of to be about homosexuality hinge upon two words in Greek.
One is the adjectival form of malakos (μαλακός) possibly meaning “soft” (see Liddell-Scott). It’s the word used in Matt. 11:8 (Luke 7:25) to describe a man’s clothing. It might be fair to define this with an understanding about effeminacy, but the fact of the matter is, we really don’t know what it means. However, it is not fair to read this as having something to do with our modern understanding of human sexuality.
Further, malakos is so uncertain in its meaning that it’s probably not fair to make any solid argument about it. Translators have to make a decision about it, and so they interpret to the best of their ability. It should be of interest that the translations have varied wildly over the past few hundred years, which should indicate that it doesn’t have a clearly known meaning. All of these translations are really interpretations, no matter how faithfully produced.
If malakos does mean soft, then (again) it seems that this has something to do with illustrating prejudice, not God’s will. Really, though, if we’re honest – the Bible doesn’t define the term and our best guesses come from how the term was used in other Greek literature. It’s a mixed bag out there: sometimes “soft”, sometimes “effeminate”, sometimes referring to cowardice, sometimes the result of listening to music (in The Republic, 398e and following), etc. It’s not a clear enough term to base an argument about modern sexual identity or orientation.
The other word in this passage is arsenokoites (ἀρσενοκοίτης). Some think this is a shorthand expression for the prohibition of a man lying with a man as with a woman from Leviticus: a man shall not lay/bed (koites) another man (arsen). This is, however, illogical:
This approach is linguistically invalid. It is highly precarious to try to ascertain the meaning of a word by taking it apart, getting the meanings of its component parts, and then assuming, with no supporting evidence, that the meaning of the longer word is a simple combination of its component parts. To “understand” does not mean to “stand under.” In fact, nothing about the basic meanings of either “stand” or “under” has any direct bearing on the meaning of “understand.” This phenomenon of language is sometimes even more obvious with terms that designate social roles, since the nature of the roles themselves often changes over time and becomes separated from any original reference. None of us, for example, takes the word “chairman” to have any necessary reference to a chair, even if it originally did. Thus, all definitions of arsenokoités that derive its meaning from its components are naive and indefensible. (Dale Martin, Arsenkoites and Malakos)
Once again, we find that we don’t really know what arsenkoites meant in Greek, because it was not used very often in the ancient world and it hasn’t been clearly established what the word means ever since then. There are some decently compelling arguments out there that arsenkoites probably referred to temple prostitution. Jury is still out on those. Another theory is that it refers only to anal penetration, and so does not condemn other male-male sexual acts. If so, one might wonder if there was a Biblical injunction against male-female anal penetration as well; but again, we don’t know because we can’t be certain as to the meaning of this word.
More importantly, anyone who uses 1 Cor. 6 to talk about why homosexuals are going to hell is missing the point altogether.
Paul writes: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor [malakoi] nor [aresenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Much like in Romans – Paul’s point isn’t really about how men having sex with other men are sure to be left out of the kingdom (NB that he doesn’t use the word hell at all), but that none of us really deserve the grace that is given to us in Jesus. Some of us have done things that the Bible condemns (all of us if we’re honest) – we are not righteous, but we are justified (made righteous) in the name of Jesus. It would be foolish for me to argue that Paul did not understand male-male sexual activity as wrong. Of course he did, but that’s doesn’t mean I must enshrine his litany of sins as my own. Not any more than I must understand that men with long hair are disgraceful.
That’s a pretty sweet deal that Paul is getting at, about how we’re justified by Christ cause we’re in no shape to do it ourselves. Cool indeed despite his prejudice, and it seems like that would take the wind out of the sails for anyone who insist they love the sinner and hate the sin (which, BTW, isn’t Biblical – further proving the notion that some have a tendency to say that they follow every word in the Bible but usually follow lots of words that they think are in the Bible, even if they aren’t).
Almost there, and I’m over 3,000 words, so I’ll be brief:
1 Timothy 1:10 – This passage uses arsenkoites also, and we don’t know what it means here either. In any case, I’m not sure that I can read this as condemnation of homosexuality. Paul indicates in that certain actions go against the gospel that was entrusted to him. Note that very few of the things that he mentions are condemned in the Gospel texts that we have in the canon. This is the Gospel according to Paul, or at least according to someone writing in Paul’s name (Google “1 Timothy authorship” to see some of the debate, or check out earlyChristianwritings for a brief overview). This letter to a particular group of people at a particular time with a particular set of prejudices.
Other things worth considering in 1 Timothy:
That women should not be allowed to teach or have authority (1 Timothy 2:12, based on a poor understanding of the Adam and Eve story).
That women will be saved through childbearing. (1 Tim. 2:15)
Widows are a burden on the church (1 Tim. 5:16, not sure James would agree with that to say nothing of the Prophets: e.g. Isaiah 1:17)
Slaves are to consider their master as worthy of respect, especially if the master is a believer. (1 Tim. 6:1-2)
I do not highlight these as to say that the author of 1 Timothy is a backwoods Christian fundamentalist whose writing has no bearing on our lives today. I simply mean to point out that whatever the context of this letter, we must ask if the situation to which it is address is the same as ours today. In the case of slavery, the answer seems to be “no”. In the case of understanding the role of women, the answer seems to be “no” (though I realize some Christians hold fast to this as well). Whatever the sexual activity listed in chapter 1, I’m certain that the author of 1 Timothy could not have known of the same sort of loving, life-long, committed relationships between same-sex partners that we have in modernity.
So, I don’t see any condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible. I see plenty of places where there are words that are unclear, and I see plenty of places where male-male penetrative sex is depicted negatively in explanations of biased socio-cultural boundaries. I do not understand any of this as having as being necessary binding upon all Christians.
As I have stated elsewhere and will write again in further posts about this topic, at no time do I suggest that we remove these texts from the canon or treat them as something other than Scripture. But, to assume that all scripture necessarily informs our moral understanding or is a building block for ethics is naive. There are atrocities in the Bible, gang-rapes, genocides, the wholesale slaughter of men, and women (non-virgin women) and children in holy war, and all sorts of sexual relationship are condoned as long as they don’t cross the boundaries set by ancient Israelite culture. We don’t have to say that because God seemed to appreciate Jephthah’s child-sacrifice that we are also called to child-sacrifice.
There are moral mandates that are very clear in the Bible and those are worth talking about, such as the command to love and the imperative to forgive. I’ll address those in my next post. This post serves only to show that the argument “homosexuality is clearly condemned in the Bible” is simply false and serves the agenda of those who continue to repeat this as a slogan of prejudice.
Additionally, some will ask where I get off questioning the Biblical text at all. I’ll be sure to post about the in the future as well. I’ll link to it as soon as that post is written.
Thanks for reading, and please leave your comments below.