MOD NOTE: I have been deleting and editing a lot of comments because you are not sticking to the topic. This post is about one thing — EXAMINING WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY. It is not about our personal reflections or ethical considerations of the subject. All I want to do is look at what the Bible says. If you disagree with my interpretation, that is perfectly acceptable, but the proper way to respond is to set forth your interpretation and show why it’s better. Stick to the topic at hand, please.
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In last week’s discussions, a number of comments asserted that the Bible is crystal clear about the subject of homosexuality. Others questioned that claim. It might be worth our while to look at the texts and discuss what we see.
The first point to note is that the Bible only has six passages which speak directly to homosexual relations. Others, of course, have implications for the debate, such as texts from Genesis 1-2, which describe God making humankind in his image, male and female, blessing them that they might be fruitful and multiply, making Adam and Eve and bringing them together to be “one flesh.”
This text certainly sets forth God’s blessing upon the union of woman and man in marriage and the bearing of children through that union. An argument can be made that the union of Adam and Eve is indeed the “high point” of the Genesis 2 narrative, the culmination of God’s plan for humankind and the relationship that best portrays his own nature and character.
More about this Scripture in this afternoon’s post.
What about the passages in the Bible that directly address homosexuality? There are six:
- Genesis 19 — the story of Sodom
- Leviticus 18:22 — prohibition of “lying with a man as with a woman”
- Leviticus 20:13 — law stating that lying with a man as with a woman is an abomination, punishable by death
- Romans 1:18-32 — Paul’s description of Gentile ungodliness, including “exchanging the natural function for the unnatural”
- 1Corinthians 6:9-10 — Paul’s statement that “sodomites” (NRSV) will not inherit God’s kingdom
- 1Timothy 1:9-10 — Paul’s statement that “sodomites” (NRSV) are among the “lawless and disobedient”
What do these passages from the Bible tell us to guide us in our moral consideration of homosexuality?
Genesis 19, which tells of the angels’ visit to Sodom and the rescue of Lot from the wicked city, says “But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them'” (19:4-5, NRSV).
We get our word “sodomy” from this incident. The men were calling for Lot to send out his visitors and these men of Sodom intended to rape them. In panic, Lot offered his daughters to the men, but they became enraged and stormed the house. As I read this passage, it may or may not signify that homosexual relations were characteristic of those who lived in Sodom. What is clear is that they were violent, cruel, and willing to use such shameful and degrading tactics as homosexual rape in their opposition to Lot.
An illustration of what I think is happening here — Responding to reports from the former Yugoslavia, Sudan’s Darfur region, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Liberia, in June 2008, the UN Security Council voted unanimously in favor of a resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war. The resolution described sexual violence as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group.” I think that is more like what is going on in Genesis 19 than a mere description of people who had same-sex attraction or practiced regular homosexual sex. It may be the case that they were homosexuals, but I’m not sure the text warrants certainty about this.
Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Leviticus 20:13 says, “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 is upon them.”
These statement are clear prohibitions of male-male intercourse. But they raise some tough questions for those who would try to use them as ethical standards for people today. They are part of the Levitical law, which is notoriously difficult to apply under the New Covenant for many reasons. One of those reasons is that the contexts of these passages pose questions and dilemmas for our moral reasoning. For example, in Leviticus 18, this verse closely follows one that forbids husbands and wives from having sex during a woman’s menstrual period, and considers that every bit as much an abomination as homosexual sex, bestiality, and sacrificing one’s children by fire to the god Molech. In Leviticus 20, the list of death-deserving offenses parallel to male-male sex includes cursing one’s father and mother, and failing to make proper distinctions between clean and unclean animals. If we are going to say that the church is bound to Levitical law, I’m not sure it is appropriate to cherry-pick which clean/unclean distinctions we are going to keep.
In the New Testament, there are two passages in Paul’s epistles with sin lists that some translations and interpreters link to homosexuality.
- The first is 1Corinthians 6:9-10 — “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
- The second is 1Timothy 1:9-10 — “the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching…”
The word Paul uses in both texts, rendered “sodomites” by the NRSV, is a rare one and therefore difficult to pin down as to its exact meaning in Paul’s cultural context. Luther translated it “defilers of boys,” seeing in it an abusive and exploitative kind of pederasty. A second word in the Corinthians text, translated as “male prostitutes” by the NRSV, and “effeminate” in some other translations, literally means “soft.” Luther rendered this obscure word, “weaklings,” and the New Jerusalem Bible brings out its general ethical significance by using “self-indulgent.” Dr. Brian Peterson comments: “Basically, one was considered ‘soft’ if one allowed desires to gain control. This language of ‘soft’ was used to describe men who ate too much, slept too much, and those who engaged in too much sex, whether with boys, or men, or multiple women, or even with one’s own wife.” Some translations have taken one use of this in ancient culture — those who submit as passive partners to pederasts — but the word is broader than that.
That brings us to Romans 1:18-32.
Genesis 19 is about forced homosexual rape as a weapon of conflict. The Leviticus texts are problematic because they are part of the old covenant law that includes many prohibitions we don’t consider binding. The words Paul uses in a couple of his sin-lists don’t really speak to homosexuality except for specific abusive and exploitative forms of immoral behavior. However, Romans 1 may be clear. The key words are found in 1:24-27 —
Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of 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 over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. (NASB)
In context, the sexual behavior described in these verses is part of a long diatribe detailing the idolatry, immorality, and depravity of the Gentile world. It began when the nations did not honor God or give him thanks as their Creator, but foolishly trusted in their own wisdom and became idolators. In the broader context of Romans, Paul is setting forth a description his fellow Jews would have wholeheartedly commended. Romans 1:18-31 is Paul’s “orthodox” portrayal of the Gentile world from a Jewish point of view.
The big problem is idolatry. Out of that idolatry, all kinds of immoral and destructive patterns of behaving and relating arose. In addition to the sexual behavior he notes “unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful…” So the first thing to note is that this diatribe is describing homosexual behavior that is rooted in idolatry and linked with a whole host of deadly sins that reflect “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (1:18).
The second point to note is that the homosexual behavior described in Romans 1 grows out of “degrading passions” and “burning desires.” It does not reflect any kind of faithful, committed relationships but portrays people out of control sexually, surrendering to intense lustful cravings.
The third point is the most difficult for anyone who might want to find sanction for homosexual relations in Scripture. Paul describes both men and women abandoning the “natural” function for the “unnatural,” suggesting that male-male or female-female sex is contrary to natural law and the design of the Creator. Male and female bodies were made sexually complementary and the union of male and female fulfills the Creator’s design for spouses to become “one flesh” and produce children. That is the “natural” pattern.
One final point must be made about this Romans passage.
Romans 1:18-32 shows a great deal of formal arrangement, and it shares many similarities with tracts against Gentile idolatry in Jewish literature of Paul’s day. Brendan Byrne has an impressive list of parallels in his Sacra Pagina commentary.
In the letter of Romans, 1:18-32 serves an important rhetorical function. One of Paul’s main purposes in writing the epistle was to justify his worldwide ministry to the Gentiles and to help bring peace to Jew-Gentile relations in the Roman congregations. The first part of the apostle’s argument is designed to help his self-righteous Jewish audience understand that they are equally bound by sin and in need of the Good News of Christ despite their possession of God’s law. With that in mind, Romans 1:18-32 functions as a rhetorical trap. Byrne describes how this works:
These parallels show that in 1:18-32 Paul argues out of a defined tradition in Hellenistic Judaism. Within the framework of the intra-Jewish dialogue that he is conducting at this point and for his own rhetorical purposes, he is beguiling the implied reader with a conventional polemic against the Gentile world and its idolatry. He is not directly targeting the Gentile world and certainly not the Gentile believers in Rome. He is not even “demonstrating” the sinfulness of the Gentile world; he takes that for granted. As in Gal. 2:15 (“We are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners”) and before springing his rhetorical trap (2:1), he induces his Jewish dialogue partner at this point to sit back and say, “Yes, that’s the Gentile world we all know.”
When Paul gets to 2:1, he “springs his trap” as he turns to his Jewish audience and addresses them with these words: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.” In other words, in Romans 1:18-32, Paul describes the sinfulness of the Gentile world using terms that get the most passionate agreement from his Jewish audience, so that he could then turn the tables on them and prove that they are just as guilty as the Gentiles they condemn.
Whatever we make of Paul’s words in Romans 1, we must keep these points in mind. Do they have any impact on the way we view homosexuality today, in our own cultural contexts? From my perspective, Romans 1 is the only text in the Bible that directly speaks to the subject, and it appears that even this passage must be read carefully and interpreted in its context.