There are many issues surrounding the issue of homosexuality (whether it is natural, whether it matters if it is natural, etc.), but here the only issue I wish to discuss is what the Bible has to say about the ethical status of homosexual activity (as opposed to “orientation”). (For information on scientific and social studies I recommend researching organizations such as NARTH that deal with such things).
What the Bible has to say concerning any topic is important if for no other reason than that for many people around the world, the Christian Scriptures are their primary source for morality. With regard to the issue of homosexuality, however, the issue might seem unclear. Many Christians seem to vary from complete acceptance to complete judgment, relegating all homosexuals to hell without question (a variance which is typical, mutatis mutandis, of people in general – see LINK). Both positions are easier to maintain when we keep a professional distance. But we need to be careful not to, as Wilkens and Thorsen put it, reduce homosexuality to depersonalized abstractions – for this only alienates persons with homosexual tendencies, as well as those who love them (as we Christians should have in the first place).
I also wish to point out early on that Christians have certainly done much wrong in their dealings with people involved in this debate, and this is shameful. Whether or not homosexual activity is sinful is a different issue than what should be done about it, and if sinful lifestyles were seen as justification for caricature and even attack then our churches would be in all out warfare! While this is true, we need to also remember that the Bible’s testimony concerning any subject does not stand or fall on people’s misuse of its principles. Thus, here I merely wish to explore what the Bible says about homosexual activity, and respond to a few points of interpretive debate. I am not in a place to offer a holistic response to this important social issue.
It is very important to note that the Old Testament reflects a covenant (like a contract) between God and the ancient nation of Israel. Therefore, one cannot simply flip open the Old Testament and apply its commands to today. However, simply because the specific laws may no longer be in force, this does not mean that the ethical concerns expressed in the Old Testament are not relevant. Bearing this in mind, one does not need to read very far before encountering God’s original will for human couples – men and women were created to complete one another (Gen. 2:24) in sexual union.
Sodom and Gomorrah
A few chapters later a city is destroyed because of its homosexual inhabitants (Gen. 19). In the issue of Sodom and Gomorrah, some will argue that the cities were destroyed because of inhospitality or some other issue. This understanding, however, goes against both the text, context, other clear statements in the Bible and history, to the contrary.
First, that sexual intercourse is the referent in this case is clear from the context. The men wanted to “know” the angels – the context makes it clear that it meant sex here – for the same term is used to describe the daughters as virgins because “they had not known any man.” Besides this, what sense would it make to offer one’s daughters to a crowd who only wanted to “greet” the newcomers? Lot’s answer of “don’t do this wicked thing” makes no sense in response to a simple request by the men to “get to know” his guests. The book of Judges 19:22-25 describes almost exactly the same situation using the same words.
Second, while the prophet Ezekiel does include pride plus a lack of hospitality, saying that Sodom “did not aid the poor and needy” (16:49) as part of the reason for God’s wrath, he bookends these things with the mention of separate abominations that were committed (16:48,50). This term is the same word referring to homosexuality in Leviticus. Homosexual acts and a lack of hospitality both contributed to the destruction of Sodom, but it is obvious that mere inhospitality was not what brought God’s wrath.
Third, Jude 7 records that Sodom and Gomorrah “acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust.” And Lot even offered his two virgin daughters in place of his guests, but the men of Sodom rejected the offer, preferring homosexual sex over heterosexual sex (Gen. 19:8–9).
Fourth, 2 Peter 2:4-10 also includes violence and rape – but the sin in question was said to be daily sins. Are we to think that the men of Sodom and Gomorrah were raping people daily?
Finally, Jewish writings from the 2nd century B.C. label the Sodomites ‘sexually promiscuous’ and refers to ‘Sodom, which departed from the order of nature’. Others state that the Sodomites were ‘polluting themselves and fornicating in their flesh’. Both Philo and Josephus plainly name same-sex relations as the characteristic view of Sodom.
In the law of God, homosexuality is specifically labeled an abomination and a detestable act (Lev. 18:22; 20:13). This argument states that because we are free to ignore other Old Testament laws (such as wearing blended material or eating pork), or their punishments (e.g., death for disobedient children), then we should be free to ignore those regarding homosexuality as well. Again, while specific laws and their attendant punishments were given to Israel only, this does not mean that the ethical concerns expressed in the Old Testament are not relevant. Ceremonial laws, for example, are not part of God’s universal moral law. While we are not under the ceremonial requirements of Israel, all people are under His moral law. Now, unlike the other examples cited, the New Testament nowhere abrogates the entire book of Leviticus, nor the laws against homosexuality. The Old Testament prohibition against homosexuality is not part of its ceremonial cleansing code – it is part of the sexual purity laws.
That God’s moral laws are universal in scope is clear from the example of God’s wrath against immorality in Sodom and Gomorrah (see 2 Peter 2:8). These people were not Israelites, and did not have God’s written law, yet God held them accountable for breaking the moral law that all people instinctively know (Rom. 2) – a point mentioned in the very passage under question (Lev. 18:27). There is a distinction between separation laws (those that kept Israel set apart from the nations – such as diet and clothing) and moral laws that are universal and binding on all people. Because God Himself repealed dietary laws (Acts 10) and erased the salvific distinction between Jew and Gentile (Gal. 3:28-29), we are free from these ordinances.
This has nothing to do with freedom from universal moral commands, however. If this objection holds then the homosexual should also allow bestiality and incest, which are also outlawed in this same section and not repeated in the New Testament. Finally, Jesus Christ quoted the Old Testament law book of Leviticus as containing one of the most important of all commands (Mt. 19:19 quoting Lev. 19:18). Thus, although parts of levitical law do not apply to people today, the moral law contained in it certainly does.
Some believe that Levitical law applies only in cases where homosexual behavior is linked to idolatrous practices. However, while is true that the Hebrew term qadesh refers to something set aside as holy (e.g. 1 and 2 Kings), it is not even used in the levitical passages under question (even though the author clearly knew this term – see Dt. 23:17). None of these passages specify any kind of “addition of idolatry” to these practices to make them sinful. The Hebrew word for “abomination” (toevah), while usually associated with idolatry, appears in Prov. 6:16-19 in connection with sins having nothing to do with idolatry or pagan ceremony. Finally, most of the laws concerning the sacrifice of children actually do have to do with idolatry – would this same argument apply here? Clearly not. Note also that although lesbianism is not mentioned per se, these passages are referring to homosexual activity and the New Testament clearly includes lesbianism.
Since Leviticus commands the death penalty for homosexuality (Lev. 20:13), then should Christians should be consistent and demand execution for homosexuality as well? Although God commanded the death penalty in Israel, the command to enforce the moral law in this way was given to the government – not to private citizens (Rom. 13). We do not live in a theocracy today, therefore our government is not bound to this specific penalty. Further, while it is the case that God allowed the death penalty for homosexuality, this was often not the practice of Israel – even by godly kings who were commended for their actions (1 Kgs. 15:11-12; 22:46; 2 Kgs. 23:7). We should note, though, that simply because the specific penalty may no longer be in force, this does not mean that the ethical concerns expressed in the Old Testament are not relevant.
The above ethical standards are not dropped in the New Testament, even if specific laws and their attendant penalties were. While the New Testament often sounds just as clear as the Old Testament, and does not suffer from issues of time or misunderstanding of covenants or specific laws, there are several issues that obscure what appears to be fairly straightforward interpretation.
Is “Homosexual” a Word in the Bible?
Some claim that because there is no single word in the original Greek for “homosexual,” we cannot conclude anything about homosexuality from the New Testament (which was written in Greek). However, this is linguistically absurd. There is no single word in English that means “blue snow globe” either, but that does not mean we cannot talk about one. The fact that a particular language uses multiple words to name or describe a thing does not make that language incapable of referring to it. Moreover, would this line of thinking apply to other single words not specifically mentioned in the Bible like “incest” or “pedophile”? Is child molestation (or gay-bashing) acceptable simply because these things are specifically addressed using a single term? Of course not.
Further, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 Paul seems to have coined a term for homosexual (arsenokoites) from two Greek words (arsenos – “male,” and koiten – “sexual relations”) that literally mean “sexual relations between men.” These are the words used in the Greek version of the Leviticus passage against homosexuality. So even when there was not a single word in Greek equivalent to the modern English term “homosexual,” Paul invented one.
Jesus on Homosexuality
Often the statement is made that “Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality,” therefore He was unconcerned or we do not know His stance on the subject. Jesus did, however, affirm that God’s plan was for the joining of a man and a woman (Mt. 19:3-8). Further, if we took Jesus’ specific words as recorded in the New Testament as our sole ethical guideline we could get away with anything Jesus did not directly address. Jesus did not specifically address abortion, drug use, bestiality, abusive spouses, incest, or pedophilia – yet most will concur that these acts are immoral.
Contrary to the above assertion, some argue that Jesus approved of homosexuality. A rather late development in this discussion relates to the story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant in Mt. 8:5-13 (cf. Lk. 7:1-10). It is argued that the Greek word used to refer to the servant of the centurion is pais which has three possible meanings: “son or boy;” “servant;” or a particular type of servant – a “boy lover.” It is then argued that pais must refer to a young gay lover and that Jesus healed him anyway.
This understanding cannot be maintained by the text. The standard work on Koine Greek (BAGD) gives the following possible definitions for pais: The relation between one human being and another from the viewpoint of age: ” boy” or “youth”, from the viewpoint of descent: ” son” ,of social position: ” servant,” or slave”, in relation to God: (men as God’s servants / slaves, angels as servants of God, of Christ in his relation to God). So pais could be used to refer to a young male slave because it means young male (even in America slaves were often simply referred to as “boy”), but any sexual aspect must be discovered by additional evidence (of which there is none).
Further, according to the same standard source, pais can also mean “girl.” Moreover, if we take this argument to its logical conclusion, then we would also have to conclude that Jesus approved of having young boys sold as sex slaves as well. Even if this were not a linguistic falsehood, the fact that Jesus healed someone does not in any way mean that He condoned their lifestyle. This certainly does not mean that Jesus hated homosexuals or anyone else involved in sin of course: Everyone that Jesus healed was a sinner!
In another version of the pro-gay Jesus view, we must look at Jesus’ words on divorce in Mt. 19:4-12. After Jesus’ harsh words against divorce, His disciples responded that it would be best for a man not to marry a woman. Jesus said that, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Some argue from this that three classes of men exist who would not marry women: (1) those who have made themselves “eunuchs” for the kingdom of heaven (i.e., those who foreswear marriage to better serve God), (2) those who have been “made eunuchs by others,” an apparent reference to castrated males, and (3) eunuchs who were “born that way.” Some believe that this last class indicates homosexuality, and therefore that Jesus is listing people born gay alongside another honored class (eunuchs for the kingdom), and accepts them as a natural part of God’s creation order.
First, Jesus has just described the creation order for marriage – and it is clearly heterosexual. So, even if some men are born with homosexual tendencies this is not part of God’s original purpose in creation or marriage. Second, the standard work on Koine Greek (BAGD) lists these as possible definitions for the Greek term: a castrated male, an impotent male or a celibate male. There is nothing, either implicitly or explicitly, about homosexuality in this definition range. The Greek term derived from this term (euneuxia) was used exclusively by Christians to mean state of being unmarried. So “born eunuchs” could refer to men born without testicles or simply men with low sex drives – there is nothing in the context that indicates these are homosexuals. Jesus here is simply saying that these are the kinds of men who can avoid marriage – there is nothing implicitly honorable about it at all. The fact that these eunuchs exist does not make them honorable any more than it makes castration honorable.
Paul on Homosexuality
Paul clearly denounces homosexuality as a sin against human nature when he writes, “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” (Rom. 1:26-27). Paul also includes homosexuals in lists of those who will not enter heaven: “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 9:6-11; cf. Rev. 21:8).
Paul’s wrings seem to be clear regarding homosexual activity, but some will argue that the pertinent Pauline passages on homosexual activity are not referring to monogamous, loving relationships – but rather the abuse of homosexual activity such as prostitution or rape. However, in Romans 1:26-27, for example, Paul says nothing about rape, prostitution, pedophilia, or any other kind of sin in connection with homosexual acts. In fact, the argument of Romans 1:16-32 is based on the universal creation – specifically the natural function of male and female bodies, and its corruption by those who do not acknowledge God.
Paul’s similar statements in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 also do not include these other elements. Other arguments against Paul’s statements are even less likely, and their variety suggests the lengths that some will go to explain them away. One says Paul is only referring to men with boys – but Paul never uses those words, instead he says “men with men.” Another is that Paul did not know about “natural homosexuality” and that this refers to heterosexuals who are not following their natural inclination – but this so-called “natural homosexuality” was known well before the time of Paul (it can be seen in the works of Plato). Another attempt is made by saying that as long as a homosexual does not end up denying God that his/her actions are acceptable – but this would also extend to the rest of the passage and mean that Christians could “invent evil” and “practice wickedness” and even murder so long as they do not deny God in the process. This is clearly not biblical teaching.
Because of Paul’s teaching on God’s grace (Rom. 6:14), claiming that because we are under grace we are free from the laws against homosexuality. But this is a very dangerous claim. If this were the case, then not only homosexuality but murder, rape, theft, etc. would all be acceptable to God so long as the person committing them was a Christian! Further, in the very same chapter in his letter to the Romans, Paul upheld the value of the law and righteousness specifically because of grace (e.g. Rom. 6:1-2; 6:15; 7:12). He even approvingly quoted levitical law (13:8-10), and approvingly cited statements of the moral law in many of his other letters as well (1 Cor. 7:19; 2 Cor. 6:16; Gal. 5:14 and others).
One Final Consideration: Why single out homosexuals?
This issue is saved for last because it is here, I think, that Christians have made two major errors.
On the one hand there are those who, favoring homosexuality, simply relegate it to the “sin” category along with all others. This equalization strategy exists to put homosexuals on the same moral plane as any other sinner. The problem with this view is that all sins are not equal. The Bible teaches that there will be varying rewards for God’s servants in heaven (Matt. 5:12, 46, 6:1-27; Luke 6:23, 35; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:24; Heb. 11:26) as well as degrees of punishment in hell (Luke 12:47-48; Matthew 16:27; Revelation 20:12-15 and 22:12). In fact, Matthew 10:15 says there will be more tolerable suffering in hell for Sodom and Gomorrah than for others. The basis of rewards and punishments are the good and bad works that are done in this life. Sexual sin is one of the worst ones according to 1 Corinthians 6:18. Sexual sin is listed in most of the strongest warning passages in Scripture, and homosexuality is seen as worse, for it is unnatural sexual sin (as opposed to fornication, adultery, etc.).
On the other hand are those who, perhaps taking their cue from the above passages, consider homosexuals to be the worst of all sinners and use this to excuse their unloving attitude. But this does not follow.
First, some sins listed along with homosexuality and others are all too common in Christianity, as can be seen below:
- “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” (1 Cor. 5:9-11, ESV).
- “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11, ESV).
- “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” (Eph. 5:3-5 ESV).
- “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have…” (Heb. 13:4-5, ESV).
- “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur” (Rev. 21:8, ESV).
Second, the Church’s goal should always be love and reconciliation. The homosexual who thirsts for righteousness should be accorded the same helps that other struggling sinners get. This does not mean that active homosexuals should be allowed leadership roles in the Church (just as no adulterer or liar should), or that those who believe that their lifestyle must be accepted by the Church should be appeased (just as no adulterer or liar should), or that Church discipline should not be exercised when called for (just as it should with adultery or lying). What it does mean is that all of us sinners need help and love, and the Church should be the place to find it.
“The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.” – (Catholic Catechism, 2357-2359)
It is very important to note here that when the Bible refers to sin it refers to behavior, not simply a person’s desire (1 Cor. 6:11; James 1). The issue is not with how someone feels, it is with what someone does. It seems to be the case that the Bible is not pro-homosexuality, but this does not excuse anti-homosexual [person] sentiments. There are plenty of sinners inside and outside the Church, and no person should be vilified due to their inclinations alone. God offers a way to live Christianly regardless of which sins we struggle to avoid.