On what grounds are homosexual acts condemned in scripture? Does this mean there is no good news for homosexual people in the church today?
As I revisited this article, which I first wrote 16 years ago, I have pondered the change in society's attitudes towards homosexuality and gay issues at large. While not wanting to seem condemning in the manner in which I have approached this essay so long ago, I have to say that despite the pressure of the current debate over homosexual and gay issues I have resisted giving way to what I feel is an un-Biblical position. I must therefore reinforce my original stance on this issue and that is, from a biblical prospective homosexuality is against the will of God. It is not what God intended from the beginning.
That being said I do not see that it is the place for the church to condemn this practice in the world. We are taught throughout scripture that we must live in the world however that does not give us the right to openly condemn the practices of the world.
The teaching is that we should live in but apart from the world. John 17:15-18, Romans 12:1-2. We are the body of Christ.
The biblical mandate and the mandate handed down by Jesus in scripture is that the lifestyle of the homosexual can only be condemned within the Church itself. This lifestyle is no different from any other sort of sexual immorality that may be practised by any member of the church. It is therefore my opinion that all sexual sin should be treated equally under God and that any person involved in sexual sin should be taught to recognise the inappropriateness of that sin while trying to achieve a more Christlike life.
Like all sin, it becomes part of our Christian journey to struggle with and overcome that sin. Not necessarily meaning that we can all at once depart from our sinful nature but rather, it is a continuing process that may take a lifetime to achieve.
The purpose of this essay is to provide any biblical evidence for the condemning of homosexual acts. The evidence if found will be presented along side some counter arguments to try to give a reasonably fair treatment of a topic. It is a topic, which in the worst case can produce such hatred and disgust among some Christians, that it makes one ponder if they truly have with in them some of the love of Jesus. Especially, that love which he felt to be part of any Christian experience.
A biblical ethic of the true nature of sexual relations needs to be given to support the institution of marriage between people of different sex orientation as the only valid sexual relationship.
Finally, any hope that homosexuals should find within the church will be discussed and it is hoped that this will overall present a balanced view of what needs to be found in the church if these people are to find happiness both physically and spiritually.
To be able to understand the grounds on which homosexuality is condemned in Scripture it is important firstly to look at the relevant passages and place them in there proper context. Over time, there have been those from both inside and outside the church who by reapplying these passages have tried to make a case for continuing homosexual practices within the Christian experience.
In a world, which is, increasingly seeing clergy charged with sexual crimes it is becoming paramount that a proper exegesis of these passages be undertaken to provide a clear sexual and ethical framework with which to work.
This discussion is focused over several key passages. These are Genesis 19:1-13, Judges 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11. These passages show the attitude of the biblical writers to God’s commands for a pure sexual relationship between man and women. Note: This point will be dealt with later.
As each passage is dealt with, both the argument for and against homosexuality and its condemnation will be discussed.
Taking them in order, it has been posited that the Genesis account of Sodom and the later account found in Judges of Gibeah are in fact not connected with homosexual acts at all. Clearly, the act of the men of Sodom was so wicked and presented such an affront to God that he was moved to destroy the city. By a single act of judgement, he presented to all future generations his attitude to the sin of Sodom.
Traditionally Christians have held that the sin of Sodom was in fact homosexual practice, which they unsuccessfully tried to impose on the two angels that Lot was entertaining in him home. John Stott raises a counter argument on this issue, highlighting that some have claimed this was not the case at all.
Alan Brash writes, “There is no foundation at all for using the condemnation of the proposed action in the account of Genesis 19 as a prohibition of any form of sexual intimacy between consenting adults of the same gender.” Brash goes onto claim that no sexual sin was ever connected with the Sodom account.
The question may be asked how did such differing views of this passage that on the surface is clearly a condemnation of sexual sin come about. It would appear that a reapplying of the words used in this passage and the Gibeah passage of Judges for “know” have been the means to this end. Brash and other claim that this word is primarily used in the context of “to become acquainted with.”
Thus, the whole of the Sodom and the Gibeah passages are about improper hospitality. Brash gives the account of the sparing of the prostitute who had shown proper hospitality to Joshua’s spies as evidence of hospitality coming before sexual sin.
Likewise, it is said that Isaiah implies that it was hypocrisy and social injustice, which were the sins of Sodom.
Barlett, not wanting to play down the homosexual nature of the proposed attack on Lot’s visitors admits this was part of the story but it was by no means the whole picture. He claims that “to say that the sin of Sodom was homosexuality alone is to over simplify the story.”
It seems incredulous that the same word would be used in relation to “knowing” Lot’s visitors and then three verses later be used by Lot to explain that his daughters had no previous sexual relationships.
The accounts found in Leviticus 18 and 20 have clear overtones of a condemnation of homosexual practice. Stott refers to these passages as being part of the “Holiness Code,” designed to challenge the people of God to obey the covenantal law. Here are two verses that are with out a doubt referring to homosexual practices and its consequences. Leviticus 18:22 claims that it is detestable for a man to lie with a man as one lies with a woman and verse 20:13 proclaims the punishment for the offence.
Without denying this intricate connection with ritual cleanliness of which the passages speak, it is important to note, that this very direct negative attitude to homosexual acts is not discounted. The homosexual lobby today would declare that because of its cultic nature these verses are referring to the prohibition against sacred prostitution and as such have no relevance today as these practises disappeared long ago.
It is clear that the word “abomination” or “detestable” as it is otherwise translated does have a cultic history; however contained within its meaning is the implicit idea of unnatural intercourse.
Hugh Montefiore writes that people would either hold that the Sodom and Gibeah accounts are not about homosexual practise and they are about hospitality. In addition, the passages in Leviticus are about prohibition of cultic prostitution. Or, alternatively, that all these passages directly concerned with homosexual practice while at the same time dealing in their respective context with other issues such as hospitality and ritual cleanliness.
Barlett writes; there are two features of the Leviticus passages that can provide a more sympathetic insight into the apparent attitude of the people.
Firstly, the Holiness Code was compiled to protect the fabric of Hebrew society, their familial structure as yet being unformed and in need of a model. This however is not grounds enough to disregard teaching that has a direct inference as to what is seen as for them the detestable nature of the act.
Secondly, he writes that the Leviticus passages give the people of Israel a norm on which to define themselves against the other nations, pointing out that this reaches it zenith in Leviticus 20:26. Here we see the call to be Holy and separate from the other nations.
Barlett goes onto propose that because Christians follow the Old Testament model they are encouraged to stand for a strong morality that stands against the trends of the day. However, as he rightly goes on to display this is not an open license to allow the acceptance of homosexuality at large just because it goes against the morality of the day.
A conclusion can be drawn from the Old Testament evidence in condemning homosexual acts that those trying to sieve through the gauntlet of evidence will find that it is not hard to be caught up in an emotional whirlpool. In addition then, while trying to justify a lifestyle that has obvious prohibitions from the Old Testament record and at the same time wanting to express compassion for those enthroned in such a life it can be seen that there appears to be few if any exit opportunities.
Turning to the New Testament, grounds for the condemnation of homosexual acts can be found in passages in Romans 1:18-32. Passages such as this as already mentioned are to be considered. Stott brings home the fact that all are agreed that it is describing idolatrous pagans of the Graeco-Roman world. They were Paul bluntly echoes, suppressing the truth so they could practice their own wickedness. As a means of judgement, God gives them over to their depraved minds and practices which includes unnatural sex.
Barlett sees this as Paul trying to convince the Roman Church of the need to recognise the equality of both Jew and Gentile. Moreover, that in retaliation to the idolatrous practices of the gentiles, homosexual practices were sent as a punishment. Tim Stafford is right is writing that Paul’s topic in Romans 1 is not homosexuality just as his topic in Romans 7 is not marriage. However, he is using a biblical doctrine to convey a greater truth in another context. This however does not diminish the biblical truth itself; it does however point out a need for a proper understanding of the intent of the passage.
Stafford believes Paul uses the passage to catch off guard some pious Jews who are condemning others while forgetting to examine their own lives.
Barlett goes on to propose that what Paul wanted to do in this passage was to convict the Gentiles of their sin and not certain sexual practises.
Likewise, Stott sums up the arguments for the view of Barlett and others as being;
1). Paul was unaware of the modern idea of “inverts” (those having a homosexual disposition) and “perverts” (those who are heterosexually inclined but indulge in homosexual practices).
2). Paul is portraying the reckless behaviour of people that God has given up and this has no relevance to committed loving homosexual relationships. The aspect of “invert” and “pervert” will discussed later as the matter of what good news homosexuals can find in the church is discussed.
Continuing, the next passages in the Pauline corpus that need to be dealt with are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Stott calls these “two ugly lists of sins which Paul affirms to be incompatible in the first place with the Kingdom of God. And, in the second with either the law or the gospel.”
W. Harold Mare highlights that in the Corinthian passage particularly in verse 11 that Paul is saying, this is how the people used to be. He is pointing out specific kinds of sexually immoral people: the adulterers (moichoi), the male prostitutes (malakoi) and homosexuals (arsenokoitai). It can be seen in comparing the differing groups that it is possible to see how unchristian and sinful their actions were towards one another.
Ralph Earle in his exposition of the one Timothy passage again highlights the use of the word “arsenokoitais” or male prostitutes by Paul. He goes a step further is tying its use here with the same word in 1 Corinthians where he writes that it is clearly stated that homosexual offenders will not inherit the Kingdom of God. It is this particular sin he writes, for which God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah and is widely recognised as the major downfall of the Roman empire. He goes on to state that as much as some try to unfetter themselves from passages such as these, the evidence speaks for itself. This may be an extreme position seemingly without any grounds for dialogue and it is attitudes such as these that reduce those trapped in a homosexual lifestyle from every finding love and hope in the church.
Gordon Fee brings to the fore that there has been much discussion over the use of the words “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai.” The word "malakoi" has the basic meaning of being soft, but with time, it has become a pejorative epithet for men who were soft and effeminate. For example those of a younger age who were the passive partner in a pederastic relationship. This was according to Fee the most common form of homosexual relationship in the Greco-Roman world.
Brash would want to say that Paul should have been cautious not to take this as a straight condemnation because he was unaware of the concept of an “invert” or, some one who had a disposition towards this type of behaviour.
The latter word according to Fee is difficult to translate. It is a compound word of male and intercourse. The difficulty is over whether male is the subject or object of verb to have intercourse. Thus is it simply males who have intercourse, ie. Male prostitutes, or is it intercourse with males, ie. Homosexual relationships. Fee concludes that the right translation would appear to fall down on the side of homosexual relationships in both cases. This he tempers however, with his understanding of Paul’s words that only those who persist in these relationships will fail to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Donald Guthrie passes over the 1 Timothy passage with hardly a mention of the debate, merely stating that Paul was obviously referring to homosexuals because a century later Ephesus was known for it large homosexual population. It must however be kept in mind that the list of people who needed restraint is much larger than just homosexuals alone. Montefiore draws a positive conclusion for the issue of both Old Testament and Pauline ethics on homosexuality. His conclusion is that “Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality must be seen not only as an endorsement of Old Testament law but also in light of his view of human sexuality. Which, is derived from the teaching of Jesus?”
Stott concludes on these passages by moving the reader towards a deeper understanding of the reason why the Christian must condemn homosexual practices. He rightly concludes that there needs to be not only detailed exegesis on those passages mention (and any other biblical material that has relevance) but also an understanding of what was the intended sexual relationship into which men and women should enter.
The question is then! What was the relationship intended by God between man and women? The Genesis account of creation highlights the equality of the sexes, showing the intimate way in which they are given stewardship of the earth. Genesis chapter 2 affirms the complementary nature of the relationship between the sexes and this Stott calls the “basis for heterosexual marriage.”
What are the reasons for sexual relationships that can put forward?
Firstly, there is what Stott calls “the need for human companionship,” or as G.C. Meilaender puts it, “the relational purpose of marriage.”
Genesis 2:18 claims that it is not good for man to be alone because God has created us as social beings. In the Genesis 2 account, the reader finds that God provided woman as someone to complement man, and in relation to whom he will come to know himself. The two were to come together and become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). This is the bond used throughout Scripture and it becomes the model for God’s relationship to his people.
It was with this helper or companion that God pronounced as suitable for him that man was to join and become one flesh, so that they could consummate their love and procreate their children.
Secondly, it reveals the divine provision to meet this human need. Having stated that a suitable companion for man was not to be found in the existing creation God created women as a complement for him. Thus, a special creation was necessary. God thus bought her to him, they were joined, and man was lonely no more.
Thirdly, from within the account of Genesis 2 there is the institution of marriage itself. Stott highlights the poem of Adam and points out how the subsequent verse talks about flesh of my flesh and becoming one flesh. This highlights the union of man and woman in sexual contact not only being a union but a reunion of the one flesh. This union or reunion was part of the procreative process and thus an intricate part of the marriage context.
It would seem then that there are two aspects to human sexual relationships, love and procreation. Love is seen as primary, but that love is reflected in the procreative act, which is expressed through sexual intercourse. This is distinctly human in all aspects. Without love, the sexual union for procreation would be nothing other than an animalistic union, which fails to express the place that man and woman have with in the created order. They were, after all created a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8). Jesus himself recognised the Old Testament tenant of marriage in his rebuttal of the hardness of the Pharisees hearts (Mark 10:5).
It is hoped that through this discussion it has been displayed that beyond other biblical passages that directly condemn homosexual acts, there is also the evidence that from the beginning of creation that sexual relations for humans were intended to be of a complementary kind. They were not intended to be between same sex couples but between those of the opposite sex and thus fulfilling the command of God himself that the two could reunite and become once again one flesh.
Well then, what hope or good news is there for homosexuals in the church today.
The hope for homosexuals today must lie in the love of Christ expressed through the Church. It is here that clear understanding of what homosexuality is not is important. There lies a vast gap between those who would be called “inverts” and those called “perverts.” The invert would be someone who has a disposition towards homosexuality and a pervert would be someone who is heterosexual by disposition but submits to lustful acts and takes part in homosexual acts.
Montefiore writes about homosexuality being a handicap just like all handicaps and that those involved in the homosexual lifestyle need to be loved and treated according to the handicap. He insists that they be given no condemnation but admiration for the way they accept their handicap. This may be a simplistic way of describing the problem of dealing with homosexuals but one has to start somewhere and move away from the condemning attitudes of the past.
John White writes, that nowhere in Scripture is man or women condemned for having homosexual feelings but it is the act not the urge that is to be condemned. In this way, a homosexual male or female is in the position of responsibility when it comes to controlling their sexual urges. The heterosexual who fails to control those urges is in need of forgiveness just as a homosexual who fails to control their own urges. In other words it is a two way street. One cannot condemn one act without condemning both. White goes on to point out that there are homosexual men and women who live a life of loneliness and chastity as they struggle to live with what life has thrown their way.
Hence, “does the logic of this problem require that Christians abandon their historic stand on homosexuality and declare to be good what they have in the past condemned”? This is the question that William Muehl asks and the answer must be no. What is needed in especially the church today is toleration tempered with love. Alternatively, in other words we need to love the sinner and hate the sin.
Many are working successfully in helping homosexual people find the source of their handicap and reorientate them into a proper understanding of sexuality, one that is honouring both, to themselves and God. Even if tomorrow a supposed homosexual gene were to be found, it would have to be a mutated gene that has changed from the original because of the fall.
In conclusion then, the hope of homosexuals lies within the church itself. Here there needs to be a change of attitude that allows these people to live as part of God’s family. At the same time, there needs to be a firm teaching on the true biblical ethic of sexuality and it must be imparted in a manner that provides all with(including heterosexuals) the opportunities to live their lives to the fullest.
Mare, W. Harold, “1 Corinthians”, The Expositors Bible Commentary. 12 Volumes (ed Frank E. Gæbelein: Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).