The Bible and homosexuality

  • Question 145, from EJ, United Kingdom
    I have a friend who thinks he is gay but is worried about his beliefs with Jesus. What does the Bible say about being gay and what is your personal opinion?

    There are a number of things to mention before looking at what the Bible ‘says’ or doesn’t say about homosexuality. The first important point to make is that the debate about homosexuality is often highly polarised, with those who have reservations about homosexuality branded as homophobic, while those who want to accept homosexuality as a valid expression of human sexuality have various names applied to them (‘sinners’ being a more tame example). These labels aren’t particularly helpful, but, it is true to say that some Christian organisations do appear to be homophobic, and could be accused of singling out homosexuals for criticism and attack.

    The difficulty about the homosexuality debate, which, for example, is currently problematic in the Anglican Church, is that is more than just a debate over acceptable sexual practices. Traditionally, almost every denomination of Christian Church has interpreted the Bible, as condemning, or refusing to endorse, homosexuality. So, the debate about homosexuality becomes much wider in scope. It is in effect a debate over whether the Bible is the authority by which Christians should live their lives, what exactly the Bible says, and how it should be interpreted.

    The Old Testament
    It has been suggested that the friendship between King David and King Saul’s son Jonathan, may have been sexual. After Jonathan’s death, David mourns for him, and is recorded as saying: “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; dear and delightful you were to me; your love for me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” (2 Samuel chapter 1, verse 26)

    It is up to the reader to decide whether this is ‘proof’ that King David had a homosexual relationship with Jonathan. Or did they just have a very close friendship, which led them to regard each other as a brother? The language is ambiguous at best – in 1 Samuel chapter 20, David and Jonathan renew a ‘covenant’ “out of love” (verse 17). Quite what this means is unclear. We also know that both men were married, and had children; one of David’s wives was Jonathan’s sister (or possibly, his half-sister)[1].

    Another Biblical story that can be interpreted as condemning homosexuality is the tale of Lot’s visitation by angels in Sodom, in Genesis chapter 19, verses 1-26. The angels provoke the men of Sodom to surround Lot’s house and demand Lot give up his visitors to the crowd for sex. Subsequently God sends judgement on Sodom and the city is destroyed.

    Traditionally this story has been regarded as demonstrating the immorality of homosexuality. In fact, the word ‘sodomy’ has entered the English language as a term for anal sex. But, strangely when Jesus mentions Sodom, he does so in a discussion about hospitality, not sexual morality. The ‘sin of Sodom’ may have been the threat of sexual assault and rape, with the inhabitants preying on vulnerable visitors. That it was going to be homosexual rape may be irrelevant.

    The verse from the Old Testament that is probably most used in this discussion is Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22, which says: “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; that is detestable.” Interestingly, this follows 16 statements regarding unacceptable heterosexual relationships, and is closely followed by a ruling against bestiality.

    The context of this ruling against homosexuality is a whole chapter related to idolatry and worshipping other gods. Verse 3 tells the Israelites that they must not do ‘what they do in Egypt, or in Canaan’ and in verse 21, right between the commandments related to heterosexual relationships and the command forbidding homosexuality, is an injunction not to sacrifice children to the Canaanite god Molech. Homosexuality, like child sacrifice and bestiality, was part of Canaanite religious practices, so the reason it’s condemned here may be because idolatry is detestable to God, and the Israelites weren’t to join in.

    Jesus and homosexuality
    Even if the statement in Leviticus is taken at face value, there is the question about how relevant the Old Testament laws are to Christians. Jesus said he did not come to abolish the old laws, but to fulfil them[2]. However, Christians would assert that, through his death and resurrection, Jesus established a new way for human beings to relate to God, which was not dependent on keeping the Law.

    Jesus himself says nothing explicitly about homosexuality. However, the argument that Jesus never condemned homosexuality is an argument from silence. There are many things that Jesus is not recorded as condemning, but that does not imply an endorsement.

    However there are two statements by Jesus which have been interpreted as having a bearing on the subject. They appear in a discussion about divorce in Matthew chapter 19. Firstly, Jesus quotes Genesis saying that God created men and women as distinct genders before saying “a man shall leave his father and mother, and be made one with his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.[3]

    It would appear from this that Jesus regards heterosexual marriage as normative, and God’s plan for human sexuality. Later in the same conversation, the disciples tell Jesus they think it is better not to marry at all. Jesus replies: “… some are eunuchs because they were born so, or made so by men, there are others who have themselves renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven.

    This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that heterosexual marriage is fine for those who are heterosexual, but some are ‘born to be different’. However, it does seem fairly clear that Jesus is actually talking about people who were born incapable of having children or who have been castrated, and not about homosexuals. The alternatives presented here are marriage or celibacy, and both are acceptable to God. This is quite a liberating message within the culture he is speaking in, which often discriminated against men and women who were unmarried.

    Homosexuality in the rest of the New Testament
    The letters of St Paul provide the other traditional support for the position that homosexuality is sinful. He writes: “Because of this, God gave given [people who worship false gods] over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.[4]

    Elsewhere, Paul writes: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.[5]

    One interpretation of this is that the word Paul uses that is translated as ‘homosexual offenders’ could alternatively be translated as ‘male prostitute’ (it literally means ‘sodomite’), in which case it may not be a blanket statement against homosexuality. However, Paul also uses the Greek word ‘malakoi’ which means ‘voluptuous persons’, a term for male prostitutes who dressed as women. So it does seem that Paul is making a distinction between those who sell their body for homosexual sex, and those who engage in homosexual activities for pleasure rather than business.

    These verses do seem quite a clear indication that Paul thought homosexuality was incompatible with Christianity and akin to significant sins like idolatry. He does go on to remind his readers that they too once did these things – until they were redeemed through belief in Jesus Christ, so although these words sound judgmental, Paul does point out that the only difference between people who do those things and the people he is writing to (members of the church) is the saving power of Christ.

    It’s also worth noting that many Christians who would use these words of Paul to establish heterosexuality as normative, and strongly criticise those who are homosexual, do often ignore other clear directives from Paul6. Paul’s own history as an ultra-orthodox Jew may have left something ingrained in his attitudes towards sexuality. Before converting to Christianity, he was a Pharisee, and it is unlikely that his views on human sexuality developed since his conversion. Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul admits that some of his views are his own, not revealed to him by God[7]. Paul’s opinions on homosexuality may similarly reflect Paul’s own beliefs and perhaps should not be taken as divinely inspired.

    In conclusion…
    Homosexuality is a sensitive issue, but superficially, the Bible does not treat homosexual relationships any differently to heterosexual relationships, and in fact there is far more teaching on heterosexual sexual relationships. It would appear the only sexual relationships unequivocally endorsed by the Bible are those that take place between husbands and wife in marriage, and even then the laws in the Torah place limits on sexual intercourse between married partners[8].

    As homosexual relationships obviously lie outside the ‘approved context’ for sexual relationships, they lack Biblical endorsement. However, given how much more emphasis there is in the Bible on heterosexual purity and faithfulness, it seems odd that homosexuality is given such prominence in contemporary debates relating to human sexuality.

    Notes & references
    1 Saul’s daughter Michal, was given in marriage to David (1 Samuel chapter 18, verses 20-27), although interestingly, David had already made a ‘covenant’ with Jonathan (chapter 18, verses 1-4) and turned down an initial offer of one of Saul’s daughters in marriage (chapter 18, verse 18).
    2 Matthew chapter 5, verse 17
    3 Matthew chapter 19, verse 5, quoting Genesis chapter 2, verse 24. Jesus’ reference to the creation of distinct genders is in verse 4 and refers to Genesis chapter 1, verse 27.
    4 Romans chapter 1, verse 26-27
    5 1 Corinthians 6, verses 9-10
    6 For example: 1 Corinthians chapter 11, verses 5-7 which instructs women to cover their heads while praying, although men conversely should pray with uncovered heads. It’s worth perhaps mentioning that bishops tend to wear their mitres while praying, in apparent contradiction of Paul’s instructions.
    7 E.g. 1 Corinthians chapter 7, verse 12
    8 E.g. Leviticus chapter 18, verse 19 forbids a husband and wife having intercourse when the wife is menstruating.

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  • 1 comment

    1. Patrick Gillan Aug 16

      I enjoyed very much your explanation on this issue and so good to read a piece that is not condeming.As a gay Christian man in a longterm relationship I have struggled with this issue over many years including when married and then divorced.Having had to leave ministry caused tremendous pain.However I am now at peace with God having gone through30 years through,exorcism?Healing?Christian counselling and a visit to a psychiatrist!God has embraced me and I am now back in church.The challenge I may have ahead is when and if I apply for membership?Will my fellow Christians tolerance stretch that far?

      God Bless!

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