The Bible Does Have Something to say About Homosexuality
Much has been written on the homosexual issue, including many books and articles which have appeared over the past few decades. A bibliography published thirteen years ago, dealing only with homosexuality as it impacts the Judeo-Christian tradition, contained 459 entries!1
As one might expect, these writings reflect all kinds of viewpoints. The viewpoint that concerns us here is the claim made by some scholars in recent years that the Bible does not condemn homosexual behavior.
"The Bible doesn't condemn homosexuality," or, "The Bible doesn't say anything about homosexuality." To someone who knows Scripture, these statements seem surprising when we hear them. Our tendency is to turn up a passage or two and say, "See, it says right here..."
This response is not good enough. When people claim the Bible has nothing to say about the homosexual issue, they usually do not mean that homosexual behavior is never mentioned in Scripture. Instead, they usually mean one of two things, either (1) that homosexuality as practiced today never appears in Scripture, or (2) that even though the Bible does speak against homosexuality, what the Bible says does not apply to the present situation. We suspect that there may be a third group also, people who do not know much Scripture and really believe the homosexual issue is never discussed there.
Our strategy will be to look at the relevant biblical texts, then to discuss what pro-homosexual interpreters have made of them, showing the weaknesses in their arguments and explaining why the traditional understanding is largely true. Following the textual discussion we will discuss the nature of human sexuality in theological terms.
The Sodom Account
The first mention of homosexual behavior in the Bible appears in Genesis 19:1-11, the account of the angel visitors to Abraham's nephew Lot in the city of Sodom. The visitors' mission, which Lot does not know about, is to discover if the rumor of Sodom's wickedness is true, in order to find out if God should punish its people (Genesis 18:20-21). Once Lot persuades the two men to accept his hospitality for the night, the men of Sodom surround the house, demanding that Lot send the visitors out so the Sodomites may "know" them (vv. 4-5).
One Old Testament word for "know" often serves as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Adam, for example, "knew" his wife and she conceived a child (Genesis 4:1, 25), as did his son Cain (Genesis 4:17) and many others. Lot's reply to the men of Sodom shows that he understood their demand in sexual terms: "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing" (v. 7). His offer of his virgin daughters to the Sodomites as substitutes for the male visitors also indicates that their demand was sexual.
An incident appears in Judges 19 which has close parallels to the Sodom account. In this case the near-victim is a Levite from the territory of the tribe of Ephraim, traveling home through Benjaminite territory with his concubine and a male servant. As in the Sodom account, a man of the town of Gibeah, like Lot a member of a different tribe, takes the travelers in to keep them from spending the night in the public square, only to see them besieged by the men of the city, who again want to "know" them (v. 22). Just as Lot did, the man of Gibeah begs his neighbors not to do such a wicked deed (v. 23), and again he offers women as a substitute, in this case his visitor's concubine and his own virgin daughter (v. 24). In the event, the traveler pushes his concubine out the door to be raped all night and eventually to die of the abuse (vv. 25-28). Once again it is clear that the Gibeahites intended homosexual rape, though the offenders in this case were willing enough to abuse a woman instead if they could get her.
Old Testament Legal Passages
In two legal passages, Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, the God of Israel forbids a man to "lie with" another man "as with a woman." From a Christian perspective we are interested in knowing if these rules might be purely ceremonial ones, like the requirement to wear tassels on one's robe (Numbers 15:37-39), or obviously moral requirements, like "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15). We conclude that homosexual intercourse is not only a matter of ceremonial purity here, for it is discussed in the same context with such moral offenses as incest (18:6-18, 20; 20:11-14, 17, 19-21), adultery (20:10), idolatry (18:21; 20:1-6) and bestiality (18:23; 20:15-16). The only apparently ceremonial matter mentioned in this context is Iying with a menstruating woman (18:19; 20:18).
In the New Testament Paul speaks to the issue of homosexual behavior in Romans 1:24-27. Because the people of the Gentile world have largely "suppressed the truth" (v. 18) by failing to glorify God to the extent that they understand him (v. 21), God has "handed them over" to indulge their lusts (v. 2a). Just as pagans have "exchanged" God's truth for falsehood, so also their women have "exchanged the natural use for the unnatural" (v. 26), a probable reference to female homosexuality, and if so the only one in the Bible. Moreover, pagan men "burn with lust for each other," "abandoning the natural use of the female" (v. 27). Here is the closest thing we find in Scripture to a natural law argument against homosexual behavior, and here also is perhaps the clearest statement that homosexual intercourse is wrong.
In two other places in the Pauline letters we find strong statements against homosexual intercourse. Homosexual behavior appears in two vice lists, one in I Corinthians 6:9-10 and the other in I Timothy 1:9-10. In the Corinthians passage Paul includes "fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, ... thieves, drunkards, slanderers [and] swindlers" among the "unrighteous" who "will not inherit God's kingdom." Along with these he places arsenokoitai and malakoi, two words unfortunately lumped together in the Revised Standard Version ("homosexuals" in the first edition; "sexual perverts" in the second). These words denote the active and passive partners in a homosexual relationship, the first word referring to a man who "beds" another, the second to a "soft" or "effeminate" man, here specifically a male who plays a female sexual role with another man.2The reference to homosexual behavior in the Timothy passage is similar. There arsenokoitai appear alongside people called "ungodly, sinners, ... killers of fathers and mothers ... kidnappers, liars, perjurers" and others. There can be little doubt about the intent of these passages to describe homosexual intercourse as morally reprehensible.
We might think that these passages settle the issue, and perhaps they do settle it for people who believe that the Bible teaches eternally true moral principles in clear, understandable language.3Things are not so simple, however, for those who do not believe that Scripture and morality are related in such a direct, simple way. In 1955 Derrick Sherwin Bailey published an influential book called Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, in which he called into question much of what appeared certain in our understanding of the Bible's teaching on homosexuality.4Based on Sherwin Bailey's ideas, or ideas like his, some people today make surprising claims about the biblical attitude toward homosexual behavior. Even though we do not share the presuppositions of those who think they find scriptural material in favor of homosexuality, we need to examine what they do with Scripture, if only in order to refute it.
In his book Sherwin Bailey does not sound a bit like a gay activist of today, and as many of his points argue against homosexual behavior as those which might seem to argue for it. For this reason we find much in his work to agree with. However, in two major areas his work tends to weaken the traditional Christian understanding of homosexual behavior, and his foundational work has provided others since then an opportunity to take his ideas much further.
The first of these areas is the interpretation of the Sodom account. Sherwin Bailey argues that the traditional Christian understanding of the destruction of Sodom is wrong in that the men of Sodom did not intend homosexual rape of the angels. Because of this supposedly wrong understanding, a picture of the Sodomites has built up over the years which presents them as vicious perverts when they really were nothing of the kind. The sin of Sodom, Sherwin Bailey argues, was inhospitality. However, because of the belief that their sin was homosexual, Christians came to think that God's destruction of their cities shows that God hates homosexual behavior more than other sins. Partly on the foundation of this belief, Sherwin Bailey maintains, Christians built a longstanding attitude toward homosexuals that resulted in severe legal penalties against them, as well as a general abhorrence of them which is unjustified by the biblical text.
We need to examine Sherwin Bailey's study of the Sodom account in some detail, because his understanding of that passage provides a major building block for his thesis. To begin with Sherwin Bailey claims that when the Sodomites said they wanted to "know" the visitors, they did not intend homosexual intercourse with them (pp. 2-4). As we have seen, one of the Old Testament words for "know" sometimes refers to sexual intercourse. Sherwin Bailey points out that this use appears only ten times in the Old Testament (excluding this debated reference and the related one in Judges 19), and five of these always refer to heterosexual intercourse. Further, another word was available which would have made the sexual meaning unmistakable, but the writer did not use it.
So far Sherwin Bailey's argument sounds convincing. In the Old Testament to "know" does not always mean "to have sex with," and other meanings are certainly possible. But the sexual interpretation of the Sodom account does not rest on the meaning of a word alone; contextual considerations, in our opinion, make that interpretation certain. If the Sodomites did not want to rape the angels, what did Lot mean when he begged them "not to do this wicked thing" (Genesis 19:7)? And what was his point in offering his neighbors his virgin daughters instead of the men (v. 8)?
Sherwin Bailey attempts to answer these questions. He points out correctly that Lot, as a resident alien in Sodom, may have brought suspicion on himself by taking in foreigners. His neighbors may have wondered who these men were and whether Lot was planning something subversive. Lot himself may have had no right as an alien to take strangers in without first letting the people of Sodom make sure the visitors were harmless. Sherwin Bailey concludes, then, that when the men of Sodom said they wanted to "know" the visitors, they meant only what they said; they wanted to check up on the visitors and make sure they posed no threat to the city. In Sherwin Bailey's view the "wicked thing" Lot begged them not to do referred to the Sodomites' willingness to "flout the obligation of hospitality" (p. 5) by making Lot give up the visitors he had promised to protect. Lot offered his daughters not as a sexual substitute but as "simply the most tempting bribe that Lot could offer on the spur of the moment to appease the hostile crowd" (p. 6).
Sodom in Ancient Literature
In support of his view that the sin of Sodom was not homosexual, Sherwin Bailey next discusses the approach to the Sodom account which other ancient writers take. He correctly points out that elsewhere in the Old Testament the writers do not emphasize, or even mention, homosexual behavior in connection with the people of Sodom. Two prophetic references to Sodom's sin contain nothing about homosexual behavior. In condemning evils common in the sixth century BC, Jeremiah mentions adultery, lying and condoning evil in connection with Sodom and Gomorrah, but he does not mention homosexual acts (Jeremiah 23:14). In the same way Ezekiel describes the "sin of... Sodom" in terms of its people being "arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before [God]" (Ezekiel 16:49-50). In the Ezekiel passage only the "detestable things" might refer to homosexual behavior but, as Sherwin Bailey points out, the term is general enough that most likely it has "no warrantable homosexual implications" (p. 10). In addition he cites twelve other Old Testament passages which use Sodom "as a symbol of utter destruction, and its sin as one of such magnitude as to merit exemplary punishment," but contain no reference to homosexual behavior (p. 9).
Moving into the period between the testaments, Sherwin Bailey points out three passages from the Apocrypha which refer to the sin of Sodom in terms of pride, inhospitality and moral blindness, but which have nothing to say about homosexual behavior (Wisdom of Solomon Proverbs 10:8; 19:8; Ecclesiastes 6:8). In the same way several authors of pseudepigraphical writings non-biblical Jewish religious works from the period between the Testaments accuse the Sodomites of fornication but not of homosexual behavior (Jubilees 16:5-6, 20:5-6). The first indication that a post-Old Testament writer considered the sin of Sodom to be homosexual appears in the Testament of Naphtali, part of the larger work called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which Sherwin Bailey dates around 109-106 BC (p. 13). There the writer condemns the men of Sodom for "changing the order of nature" (Testament of Naphtali 3:4-5). This statement, Sherwin Bailey believes, forms the background for Jude's remark that the men of Sodom "went after strange flesh" (Jude 7 in Sherwin Bailey's literal translation, p. 16). Although most English translators take this "going after strange flesh" to refer to sexual perversion (so NIV, RSV, NRSV, Phillips, TEV; AV and NASB translate the phrase literally), Sherwin Bailey argues that the sexual intent of Jude's statement is secondary and that his main focus lies on the forbidden mingling of two kinds of "flesh," the human and the angelic (p. 16).
Here then is where Sherwin Bailey's argument leads. He claims that the original Sodom account was not about homosexual behavior, and that later Old Testament writers knew nothing of the homosexual interpretation of the story. Only in the period between the Testaments, and not universally at that, did Jewish writers begin to interpret the sin of the Sodomites as homosexual, an interpretation which influenced the only New Testament reference (Jude 7) which identifies the Sodomites as homosexuals. In Sherwin Bailey's view Christians, beginning with Jude, have condemned homosexual behavior on slender grounds, based on a misunderstanding of the Old Testament text.
We have only briefly summarized Sherwin Bailey's argument, but we have tried to be fair to him. He cites more evidence from the intertestamental and early Christian periods than we can repeat here, but the result of it all is his conclusion "that the Sodom story has no direct bearing whatever upon the problem of homosexuality or the commission of homosexual acts" (p. 28). Here lies one root of the statement so often heard, that "the Bible doesn't condemn (or even, the Bible doesn't say anything about) homosexuality."
What can we make of the claim that the Sodom story is irrelevant to a Christian understanding of homosexuality? To begin with, Sherwin Bailey's argument that the Sodomites did not intend to rape the angels will not hold water. The evidence for a homosexual understanding of the Sodomites' demand is cumulative. They wanted to "know" the visitors. As John Stott points out, most of the uses of "know" referring to sexual intercourse occur in Genesis, which would lead us to expect that meaning here.5Lot referred to their proposed action as a "wicked thing." Such language makes more sense if Lot was trying to prevent a rape than if he were trying to assert his right to offer hospitality. And he offered them his daughters in exchange, an action for which Sherwin Bailey (p. 6) offers no convincing explanation unless the motive were sexual. As Derek Kidner neatly puts it, "it would be grotesquely inconsequent that Lot should reply to a demand for credentials by an offer of daughters."6In the parallel account of the outrage at Gibeah, the wicked men did eventually commit rape, though against a woman. Even if no single piece of evidence is conclusive, all the evidence taken together points clearly to the homosexual interpretation.
Sherwin Bailey may be on firmer ground, however, in maintaining that the men of Sodom did not practice homosexuality habitually. The Sodomites' attempt on the angels did not necessarily result from their sexual orientation but from a desire to bully the strangers. What we see here is a case of a gang of men trying to humiliate and control men weaker than themselves, in this instance strangers who have no strong local protector, through homosexual rape (cf. Sherwin Bailey, pp. 31-32). This kind of behavior, well known in prisons, may have nothing to do with the offender's sexual orientation. He may be a heterosexual person using homosexual rape as an offensive weapon.7
If this is true, however, it still makes little difference to the issue of homosexuality today. We will argue that, just as it is wrong for a heterosexual to practice homosexuality, it is also wrong for a sexual invert - a "natural" homosexual, if such exists - to engage in homosexual activity. In the biblical account, whether the Sodomites usually practiced homosexual behavior or not, whether or not they would be considered inverts today, their attempt on the angels was wrong and perverse. And in the same way today, whether one is gay or straight, Christian behavioral standards require believers to abstain from homosexual activity.
More than that, Sherwin Bailey's argument implies that a New Testament writer - Jude - may have misunderstood the Old Testament, and that if he did, we have no reason to accept his interpretation. Those of us who hold a high view of Scripture cannot accept such a conclusion. As Stott put it, ". . for those of us who take the New Testament documents seriously, Jude's unequivocal statement cannot be dismissed as merely an error copied from Jewish pseudepigrapha" (p. 23).
In dealing with the clear prohibition of homosexual activity in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13, Sherwin Bailey admits that "the Biblical text condemns such practices in the strongest terms" (p. 37), a position which "cannot be lightly dismissed by the church" (p. 156). From this point, however, he moves to the question of inversion, concluding that Scripture has little to say about the question of people who are genuinely oriented toward others of their own sex (p. 157). He appears to accept the obvious reading of the Leviticus passages without accepting their moral content as permanently normative, which again involves a view of Scripture we do not accept.8
We agree fully with Kidner's conclusion on Sherwin Bailey's argument, that
...the doubt created by Dr. Bailey has travelled more widely than the reasons he produces for it. Not one of these reasons, it may be suggested, stands any serious scrutiny.9
The Question of Inversion
Above we mentioned that Sherwin Bailey's conclusions, if accepted, tend to weaken the traditional Christian understanding of homosexuality in two areas. The first area had to do with our understanding of Scripture, especially the Sodom account, whether it stands as an indication of how much God hates homosexual behavior. The second area is the question of sexual inversion, an area in which Sherwin Bailey makes certain suggestions but leaves it to others to draw firm conclusions.
Sherwin Bailey carefully distinguishes between "perverts," whom he identifies as heterosexual people who choose to engage in homosexual activity, and "inverts," who are people attracted to others of the same sex due to genetic or environmental factors. In dealing with Paul's condemnation of homosexual behavior in Romans 1:27, Sherwin Bailey says that Paul, unaware of this distinction between pervert and invert, condemns the behavior of both (p. 38), but that Paul's words, and those of the rest of the New Testament, simply do not apply to the issue facing us today (p. 157). He concludes that
the Western Christian tradition [including, but not limited to, Scripture]... is ... defective, in that ... it is ignorant of inversion as a condition due to biological, psychological, or genetical causes; and consequently of the distinction between the invert and the pervert. Therefore, ... it assumes that all homosexual acts are, so to speak, "acts of perversion" - a term which does not happily or accurately describe the acts to which the invert may be impelled by his condition.10
At this point an important question arises: Is some behavior objectively natural or unnatural, or is the question of natural behavior purely a matter of subjective taste? Does "natural" as Paul uses the term mean "natural for me" or "natural for everyone"? Some homosexual people would argue that heterosexual contact is unnatural, even disgusting, for them, and that homosexual behavior, because it is natural for them, is justified. What are we to make of this claim?
We need to move carefully here, neither abandoning the idea of natural law nor making too much of it. We hold as a hermeneutical principle that natural law is a valid theological category, if only because biblical writers make use of it from time to time. We do not want, however, to go beyond Scripture and make natural-law claims without biblical support. Simply put, if a biblical writer makes a natural-law claim, our view of Scripture leads us to consider it valid; if someone else makes a claim based on natural law, we feel free to question it.11It is clear that Paul did not mean "natural for me" when he spoke against men who "abandoned natural relations with women" (Romans 1:27); he was talking about an objective condition of depravity experienced by people who rejected God's will. Since this is so, it goes a long way toward settling the issue for those whose view of Scripture does not allow us to claim that we know better than the biblical authors because of their supposed ignorance of some aspects of the human condition.
We will have more to say about natural law later, but for now we may say that Paul's alleged ignorance of the matter of sexual inversion does not invalidate what he says about sexual behavior. If we believe that God gave the writers of Scripture, if not all knowledge, at least enough knowledge to avoid error, we will hesitate to second-guess them. If Paul did know about sexual inversion, he believed it to be the consequence of sin, so that God
gave them [Gentile sinners] over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones, [...and] the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another...
- Romans 1:26-27
On the other hand, if he did not know about sexual inversion, he still condemned perverse behavior as a violation of God's will. The "lusts" Paul talks about are "shameful" and "unnatural." If we could speak to Paul today and enlighten him - as though he really needed instruction - on the matter of sexual inversion, would he really change his approach and agree that homosexual activity might be "natural" for some people and "unnatural" for others? We believe not.12
We have seen that Sherwin Bailey's conclusions, though based on a carefully nuanced examination of primary sources, will not stand up in the main. The Sodom account in Scripture does refer to an attempted homosexual rape, and the biblical condemnations of homosexual activity, based as they are on a concept of objectively natural behavior, may not be criticized as defective.
Robin Scroggs, a New Testament scholar, has dealt with the New Testament evidence, setting it in the broad context of first century Greek and Roman attitudes toward homosexual activity.13When he concludes that "Biblical judgments against homosexuality are not relevant to today's debate" (p. 127), he agrees with Sherwin Bailey, who concluded that "it can hardly be said that the New Testament speaks" to the problem of sexual inversion.14We need to examine this conclusion in detail, since it serves as a foundation for the claim that a Christian can be a practicing homosexual without doing wrong.
Scroggs begins with a helpful summary of various attitudes that students of this issue hold toward the biblical evidence. To begin with he describes four different views held by those who believe that "the Bible opposes homosexuality" (p. 7),
- "The Bible opposes homosexuality and is definitive for what the church should think and do about it" (p. 7).
- "The Bible opposes homosexuality, but it is just one sin among many. There is no justification for singling it out as more serious than other sins castigated in the Bible, but because of which ordination is not denied" (p. 8).
- "The Bible opposes homosexuality but the specific injunctions must be placed in the larger biblical context of the theology of creation, sin, judgment, and grace" (p. 9).
- "The Bible opposes homosexuality but is so time and culture-bound that its injunctions may and should be discarded if other considerations suggest better alternatives" (p. 11).
It appears to us that views #1 and #2 are compatible. This is, in fact, the conclusion we have reached: that Scripture does indeed identify all forms of homosexual intercourse as sinful, but not as a special category of sin. We believe that Christians today must do all they can to avoid and discourage homosexual behavior yet deal with it in a pastoral way. In the same way, views #3 and #4 appear compatible with each other though not with our views #3 being a theological attempt to find room for legitimate homosexual behavior today, and #4 a sociological attempt to do the same thing.
Next Scroggs describes two views held by those who believe that "the Bible does not oppose homosexuality" (p. 11):
- "The Bible does not oppose homosexuality because it does not speak of true or innate homosexuality but rather of homosexual acts by people who are not homosexuals" (p. 12).
- "The Bible does not oppose homosexuality because the texts do not deal with homosexuality in general" (p. 12).
As before, it appears that one could hold both of these views at the same time. We have dealt with #1 already under "The Question of Inversion," answering Sherwin Bailey's arguments on the subject. #2 represents the viewpoint closest to Scroggs' own conclusions.
New Testament Evidence
In examining three New Testament passages on homosexuality (l Corinthians 6:9-10; Romans 1:26-27 [I Timothy 1:9-10]]), Scroggs holds the "beginning presupposition that these passages all oppose one form or another of pederasty, insofar as they speak of male homosexuality" (p. 101). This assumption, which runs throughout his work, colors his conclusions at every point. As Scroggs sees it, homosexuality in the New Testament world consisted only of relationships in which the strong exploited the weak. The strong person might be an older man who corrupted a youth, or a slave owner who used a slave against the slave's will, or the customer of an "effeminate call boy," but in every case mutual caring and unselfish concern were absent.
In writing against these evils, Scroggs maintains, Paul could only have been thinking about the kind of exploitative relationships he knew about in his world: "Paul... must have had, could only have had, pederasty in mind" (p. 122, author's emphasis). In fact Scroggs' whole argument depends on "what Paul is thinking about" (p. 116, cf. p. vi), and we learn what Paul is thinking about by doing the kind of background study already presented.
Here lies Scroggs' point. Although Paul's opposition to homosexuality "is not to be denied" (p. 116), the fact that he considered homosexual behavior unnatural and wrong springs mainly from the kind of homosexual behavior he knew about. Since Paul did not explain why he opposed homosexual activity, "Paul's theology leaves one in the same ambiguous position that the church finds itself in today. Theological or ethical assertions without adequate rationale," even those contained in Scripture, are not sufficient grounds for making moral decisions today (p. 117). To put it crudely, we do not have to listen to what Paul said on the subject because he did not sufficiently explain himself. Even though the language Paul used in Romans 1:26-27 condemned homosexual behavior generally, Scroggs believes Paul really intended to condemn only pederasty in particular. Scroggs' final conclusion is that "biblical judgments against homosexuality are not relevant to today's debate" (p. 127), because the writers of Scripture were not arguing against the kind of homosexual relationships which (we are told) predominate today: relationships between people of a similar age, in which mutual love and faithfulness are the norm.
In dealing with the New Testament evidence' Scroggs makes use of a sound hermeneutical principle which we believe he has taken too far. The principle is this: In order to apply biblical teaching to today's situations, "the context today must bear a reasonable similarity to the context which called the biblical statements into existence" (p. 125). This is a good principle.
For example, the Old Testament prohibition of tattooing and certain kinds of haircuts (Leviticus 19:27-28) likely springs from some association with ancient near eastern religious practices, pagan actions Israel was supposed to avoid out of devotion to God. Since in our present cultural context these actions no longer carry any pagan meaning, Christians today are not much concerned about these matters.
In interpreting scriptural statements about moral behavior, Scroggs maintains, the main issue is "What are the authors against?" (p. vi). If Paul opposed only one particular form of homosexual activity, we may not take his words to prohibit homosexual activity generally. Scroggs' arguments tend to support the position he describes in these words: "The Bible does not oppose homosexuality because the texts do not deal with homosexuality in general" (p. 12, emphasis added), only exploitative pederastic relationships in particular.
But we believe Scroggs applies this principle too narrowly. He maintains that since the only type of homosexual behavior the biblical authors knew about was pederasty though in talking about it they appear to condemn all homosexual behavior we have no idea what attitude they would take toward today's mutual and caring homosexual relation-ships (p. 122). We would say, in contrast to Scroggs' viewpoint, that the authors condemned homosexuality in general terms in order to fight both the pederasty of their day and any kind of homosexual intercourse in any day. Since they spoke against homosexual activity in general terms, we conclude that they were against all kinds of homosexual intercourse. If they had only objected to dehumanizing pederasry, which Scroggs believes was the only variety of homosexuality they knew, they would have had ample opportunity to say so. Since instead they spoke against homosexuality generally, we ought to take their words at face value.
An imaginary example may serve to make our position clearer. A few decades ago when premarital sex was less approved socially than now, a common scenario involved a young man getting a girl pregnant and then "running out" on her, refusing to take responsibility for her or their child. Suppose a Christian writer of that day wrote, "God hates premarital sex." An interpreter of those words a thousand years later might reason like this: "The primary model of premarital sex in mid-twentieth century America involved a young man impregnating a girl and then leaving her. Since this was the only kind of premarital sex the author knew about, his general statement that 'God hates premarital sex' must refer to that situation alone, so that we cannot learn from the writer's statement what he would say about premarital sex generally." A better way to understand the writer's general statement, however, would be the conclusion that what he said in general terms he meant in general terms. We believe we should extend the same courtesy to the apostle Paul as to our imaginary writer.
At this point a few words are in order about whether some biblical characters were gay, as some pro-homosexual writers maintain. To begin with, not one individual named in the whole Bible is clearly identified in the text as a homosexual, even for the purpose of condemning his/her behavior. None of the alleged homosexual pairs in Scripture Cain and Abel, David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and the "beloved disciple," the centurion and his servant, or Paul and Timothy will stand any scrutiny; the evidence cited is flimsy at best.15We suspect that the suggestion that some or all of these people may have practiced homosexuality represents an attempt by some homosexuals to claim biblical support for their way of living.
Our argument against homosexual behavior so far has been a negative one. But as Stott points out,
... the negative prohibitions of homosexual practices in Scripture make sense only in the light of its positive teaching in Genesis 1 and 2 about human sexuality and heterosexual marriage. Without the wholesome and positive teaching of the Bible on sex and marriage, our perspective on the homosexual question is bound to be skewed.16
The more we understand of God's original creative plan, the more it becomes apparent that homosexual behavior involves a perversion of that plan.
God created the human race in two complementary sexes. Man and woman together make up "humankind" (Genesis 1:27 NRSV). God intends them to "be fruitful" (Genesis 1:28), to find companionship with each other (Genesis 2:18) and to realize that in a deep sense they are part of each other (Genesis 2:23).
Marriage is a part of God's plan for his creation: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24 NIV). As Walter Trobisch has pointed out, the "leaving" involves a public commitment, the "cleaving" (AV for "being united to") involves lifetime faithfulness, and the "one flesh" comes as the result of the union.17Sexual love is a good thing, if enjoyed in a context of public, permanent commitment. No one who reads the Song of Solomon can come away with the impression that God hates sex.
Earlier we mentioned the idea of natural law and suggested that we as biblical interpreters should accept the concept but not take it too far. Specifically, we said that natural law arguments are valid if a biblical author, such as Paul, uses them, and arguable if another writer uses them. Such caution in expanding the area covered by natural law may help us at this point.
The Genesis account suggests that heterosexual marriage is natural and says nothing about homosexual activity. If this were all the Scripture we had, we might believe that because heterosexual marriage is right, homosexual unions are wrong, but we could not be completely sure of the biblical attitude toward homosexuality. Yet when we see another biblical writer drawing a distinction between natural and unnatural relations (Paul in Romans 1:26-27), we go back to Genesis with our earlier impression strengthened. The New Testament writer confirms the natural-law interpretation of the Old Testament passage.
We would not want to go any further, however. We could spin out questionable natural-law interpretations of Genesis for a long time, e.g., that family planning is wrong ("be fruitful" in Genesis 1:28) or even that nudity, since natural, is good (Genesis 2:25). These interpretations are arguable, since no New Testament writer confirms them. The principle of accepting natural-law arguments if they are confirmed by New Testament writers, and questioning them if they stand alone, will go a long way toward helping us construct a clear, supportable biblical theology that (in theory) all Christians could agree on.
In summary, then, we may say this: Homosexual behavior is wrong because God, through his inspired writers, forbids it. It is wrong also because something else is right. God created heterosexual marriage, with all its responsibilities and all its joys, for his children to enjoy.18
So far we have surveyed the Scriptures to find evidence for a biblical view of homosexuality, attempting to make valid theological statements about human sexual nature and behavior. We have found that since the fall of the human race some people have experienced sexual inversion. Thinking theologically, we conclude that such people should regard their orientation as a perversion of God's original creative plan and not "the way God made us." If their inversion does not spring from conscious choice but from genetic or environmental factors, they do not need to repent of their orientation, but they do need to control their behavior and seek healing for their inversion. We have seen that the writers of Scripture regard homosexual behavior as sin, whether it results from one's orientation or from conscious choice.19However, we have found no evidence that homosexual activity occupies a special category of sin; instead, it is morally equivalent to heterosexual fornication. Each of us has his or her own temptations; it is not wrong to be tempted either homosexually or heterosexually, but it is wrong to sin with someone of the same or the opposite sex.
No doubt what we have written seems judgmental to some readers. If so, we need to understand clearly that God's grace covers every kind of sin for the believer in Jesus who decisively turns from sin and toward God. God can forgive homosexual sin as well as heterosexual sin, sin which is socially acceptable and sin which is not. But the first step in receiving forgiveness is to recognize our wrongdoing as sin. We have tried here to show that homosexual behavior is wrong in God's eyes, not in order to condemn but to enable people to receive God's grace and extend it to others.
- Tom Horner, Homosexuality and the Judeo-Christian Tradition: An Annotated Bibliography, ATLA Bibliographical Series 5 (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1981).
- Robin Scroggs, in The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), pp. 62-65, 106-109, argues that these two words refer in a restricted sense to homosexual prostitutes (malahoi) and the men who use them (arsenokoitai). However, even if Paul does not refer to homosexual behavior generally in this passage, he certainly does so in Romans 1:26-27, which Scroggs appears to admit (116-117). P. Michael Ukleja, "Homosexuality in the New Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 140/4 (October-December 1983): 350-358, argues for the more general meaning of the two words which we believe is correct. See also two articles by David E. Malick, "The Condemnation of Homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27, Bibliotheca Sacra 150/3 (July-September 1993): 327-340, and "The Condemnation of Homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9," Bibliotheca Sacra 150/4 (October-December 1993), pp. 479-492.
- Marva J. Dawn, Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), in a useful "hermeneutical excursus" (pp. 96-98), deals with the question of how the present-day church should deal with the biblical passages on homosexuality.
- Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green, 1955); reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975. John R. W. Stott, in "Homosexual 'Marriage,"' Christianity Today 29/17 (November 22, 1985), p. 22, refers to Sherwin Bailey as "the first Christian theologian to re-evaluate the traditional understanding of the biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality."
- Stott, 23. See also Scroggs, p. 73, who although in general he concludes that Scripture does not forbid homosexual behavior today, still "believe[s] the traditional interpretation [of the Sodom account] to be correct."
- Derek Kidner, "Additional Note on the sin of Sodom," in Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1967), pp. 136-137. See also Coleman, p.34.
- John White, Eros Defiled: The Christian and Sexual Sin (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1977), p. 112, calls temporary homosexuality associated with prison life and similar circumstances "situational homosexuality." Eleanor Daniel, What the Bible Says About Sexual Identity (Joplin: College Press, 1981), pp. 161-162, prefers to call such people "contingent homosexuals."
- For an argument that the Leviticus passages are normative for Christians as we believe, see P. Michael Ukleja, "Homosexuality and the Old Testament," Bibliotheca Sacra 140/3 (July-September 1983): 259-266, especially 264tf. on "The Relevance of the Law."
- Kidner, p. 137.
- Sherwin Bailey, pp. 172-173; author's emphasis. Freud used the terms "inversion" and "perversion" somewhat differently; see Peter Coleman, Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality (London: SPCK, 1980), p. 13.
- An alert reader might notice that Paul uses a natural-law argument in favor of women keeping their hair long, and men cutting theirs, in 1 Cor. 11:14-15, and that we find an argument from creation, similar to a natural-law argument, for the silence of women in church in 1 Tim. 2:13-14. If we say that we are bound to condemn all homosexual behavior because Paul argued against it on the ground of natural law, are we also obligated to keep our hair short (or long, as the case may be) and keep women quiet in church on the same grounds? We believe these are different cases.
Paul condemns homosexual behavior as sin in Rom. 7:26-27. while he does not discuss variations in hairstyle or women's speaking in church on the same terms. We might say that for Paul, homosexual behavior was a moral matter, while hairstyle was a symbolic one - standing for a wife's submission for her husband (see 1 Cor. 11:5,7) - or a customary matter (see 1 Cor. 11:16), while the question of women speaking in church was a practical, not a moral, issue (see 1 Cor. 11:5, 14:33b-35). Paul's use of a natural-law argument in discussing a non-moral issue does not necessarily imply that he considered hairstyles or women's silence part of the moral order of creation.
- Coleman, p. 91, calls that attempt to read Paul as only condemning homosexual acts by heterosexual people "an attempt to read the old texts with modern presuppositions."
- See note 2.
- Sherwin Bailey, p. 157.
- Both Daniel, pp. 171-173, and Sherwin Bailey, pp. 56-57, agree that the evidence is weak. For an argument that David and Jonathan did have a homosexual relationship, see Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), pp. 26-40.
- Stott, p. 24, (author's emphasis).
- Walter Trobisch, I Married You, in The Complete Works of Walter Trobisch: Answers about Loue, Sex, Self-Esteem and Personal Grouth (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1987), pp. 376-386.
- Marva Dawn's near-poetic description of "sexual Shalom" (pp. 161-168) paints a compelling picture of God's design for sexuality as revealed in Scripture.
- Here we must part company with Helmut Thielicke, who in his work The Ethics of Sex, trans. by John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) refers to homosexuality as a "borderline situation" (p. 199). Although he argues that the homosexual orientation is a perversion of the created order (pp. 282-283), he seems to leave the door open at least for the theoretical possibility that a given individual might live an ethically responsible life as a practicing homosexual (pp. 283-286). In practical terms, however, Thielicke admits that "Christian pastoral care will have to be concerned primarily with helping the person to sublimate his homosexual urge" (p. 287, Thielicke's emphasis).