The essays you read here are based on my own preparatory notes with some of the conversation from the class considered.
What follows is part TWO of our discussion, which looks at the biblical passages often cited in reference to “homosexuality.” For part ONE of our discussion, which focuses on the Bible and how we Episcopalians view/read it, please click HERE.
*** Please Note: This particular entry will be dealing with explicit statements on human sexuality and sexual practice.***
Now that we have addressed how we Episcopalians read the Bible, the next logical step for us is to look at what the Bible itself says on the topic of “homosexuality.”
This will be divided into two sections: The Old Testament and The New Testament. The relevant passages themselves will be posted, followed by commentary.
Before we proceed, I hope you will notice the sparse amount of material here. The Bible doesn’t really say all that much on this topic. As you will see, much of even this is a degree of “reading in” to what is on the page.
What follows is everything The Bible has to say on the matter:
The first place to start is with the famous story of “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Indeed, it is from this story that we get the term “sodomy”—which itself has served as the basis for an antiquated term for homosexual males: “sodomites.”
The two messengers entered Sodom in the evening. Lot, who was sitting at the gate of Sodom, saw them, got up to greet them, and bowed low. He said, “Come to your servant’s house, spend the night, and wash your feet. Then you can get up early and go on your way.”
But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the town square.” He pleaded earnestly with them, so they went with him and entered his house. He made a big meal for them, even baking unleavened bread, and they ate.
Before they went to bed, the men of the city of Sodom—everyone from the youngest to the oldest—surrounded the house and called to Lot, “Where are the men who arrived tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may have sex with them.”
Lot went out toward the entrance, closed the door behind him, and said, “My brothers, don’t do such an evil thing. I’ve got two daughters who are virgins. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them whatever you wish. But don’t do anything to these men because they are now under the protection of my roof.”
They said, “Get out of the way!” And they continued, “Does this immigrant want to judge us? Now we will hurt you more than we will hurt them.” They pushed Lot back and came close to breaking down the door. The men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house with them and slammed the door. Then the messengers blinded the men near the entrance of the house, from the youngest to the oldest, so that they groped around trying to find the entrance.
(see also Judges 19:16-24 for a nearly identical story)
So here is the classic story that forms the basis of much Christian thinking about homosexuality.
The “sin of Sodom and Gomorrah” is famous even within the pages of The Bible as an example of profound, unspeakable wretchedness committed before God. In the passages prior to this, Abraham (Lot’s uncle) is visited by God and told that the two cities are on the chopping block. Abraham is told that “their sin is very serious” and serves as the basis for their destruction.
But this all raises the key question: what is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah?
That the men have sex with men (are “homosexual”) is often understood as the wickedness that causes God to burn with rage at the two cities. But what does the Bible itself say?
Our first reference comes just before the passage we read above: Genesis 18:20 says, “The cries of injustice from Sodom and Gomorrah are countless, and their sin is very serious! I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me” (from the Common English Bible).
So, it is “the cries of injustice” that cause God to be angry. What is that injustice?
Later on, Ezekiel the prophet, speaking the Word of God, will say of Sodom and Gomorrah: “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable practices in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it” (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NRSV).
The “sin” listed here is failure to help the poor and needy in spite of wealth. They were arrogant (“haughty”). Yes, there’s a mention of “detestable” things that folks could use to fuel the “homosexuality” angle, but we’ll look at that in a moment.
Even Jesus, in the gospels (in a story recorded by Mark, Matthew, and Luke), speaks of the sin of Sodom. But He does so in terms of hospitality, telling the disciples He’s sent out that any city that does not welcome them will face a harsher sentence than what was experienced by Sodom and Gomorrah.
And given that Jesus is our final authority in how we read the Bible, we are left with the realization that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is not “homosexuality” but inhospitality.
A little context here goes a long way:
Sodom and Gomorrah are first mentioned in Genesis 13, when Lot moves there. Even then they are mentioned as “very evil and sinful against the Lord.”
Next, they are depicted in Genesis 14 as having been conquered and ransacked by a coalition army comprised of soldiers from five kingdoms as part of a civil war. Abraham comes to their assistance to free Lot and winds up helping them achieve victory and a return of their wealth.
So Sodom and Gomorrah are a people who ought to know the importance of assisting people in need. But instead, they use their power to abuse people by raping them as a form of domination (much like is seen in some forms of prison culture today).
What clearly happens in Sodom and Gomorrah is not exemplary of two people of the same sex being in love with each other and desiring a life together before God. This isn’t even categorically “homosexuality.” This is rape. Men raping men rather than expressing peace and hospitality to them.
And that systemic culture of raping foreigners in their midst is the detestable act that God speaks of in the beginning. Which all of us would most certainly understand as profoundly evil.
So this is not a passage about “homosexual orientation” (meaning, a person romantically and physically attracted to a person of the same sex), but about an astounding culture of violence and domination.
We must remember that in the ancient world there didn’t exist Hyatt Hotels or Motel 6. When people travelled they needed to rely on the hospitality of strangers. Travel was already dangerous enough with thieves on the roads. This is why the Torah places an emphasis on welcoming the stranger, saying “remember that you were strangers in Egypt.” God is interested in God’s people creating a trustworthy society where travelers can sojourn without fear of exploitation or abuse.
This underscores the great evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here was a people who had experienced the violence of inhospitality themselves and who were given an opportunity to change, but wound up becoming more wicked than before.
Leviticus 18: 19-24
Here we have the go-to passage on homosexuality. This one serves as the clearest example of “the Bible says this is wrong.” I’ve put the passage in a bit of wider context to show how it plays in a larger category of sexual sins in The Torah:
‘Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness during her menstrual impurity. You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord. You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination. Also you shall not have intercourse with any animal to be defiled with it, nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it; it is a perversion.
‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. (see also Leviticus 20)
How are we to interpret this?
The first issue that any Christian using Leviticus for this discussion has to account for is what St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2: “[Jesus] canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person […]” (Ephesians 2:15). This means, as St. Paul writes elsewhere, that we are “no longer under the Law.” The Law forbids the eating of shellfish, the wearing of mixed fabrics. It also requires that parents stone to death overly disobedient children and that victims of rape marry their assailants.
There are many things in the Law that Christians are quick to say “this no longer applies.” But on issues like homosexuality, they will point at the Law and say, “see?”
But that is a discussion for another time. For the purposes of debate, we will consider what the Law says here.
If we can learn anything from the rabbis it’s that every word of scripture counts.
So, to begin with, this law speaks only to men. Indeed, there is only one verse where lesbian activity is even discussed (see the New Testament section below). Which means that this law is not speaking of “homosexuality” in categorical terms. Rather it is condemning a practice that applies specifically to males—namely, that a man cannot “lie down” with another man as that man would “lie down” with a woman.
The Hebrew word “shakab” means “to lie down” and has a wide range of connotations. It is frequently sexual, but not exclusively—in the Bible it most often refers to sleeping. Context clues us in to the fact that it is sexual (since this prohibition appears in a list of sexual sins). So, a man cannot have sex with another man as he would with a woman. That is the literal reading of this law (so far). Now we have to determine what “as he would with a woman” means. And this is where things get tricky.
For starters, it is impossible for a man to have sex with a man in the way he’d have sex with a woman because men, in general, do not have female genitalia. However, one can easily make the jump to see that, perhaps, the Law is talking about anal sex. A male using the male body as though it were a female’s body. This reads a bit euphemistically, but it seems sound.
This gives us two possible interpretations. The first should be clear: the Bible is forbidding male anal sex. This is the common take-away for many interpreters and the basis for anti-gay views in Christianity (and some parts of Judaism). However, this interpretation doesn’t seem to be as nuanced as the text. Because a woman also has an anus and the law says nothing about forbidding anal sex with a woman. So, it seems that there’s something else going on here. Further, anal sex is not an exclusive practice of male same-sex relationships (contrary to what much popular culture would indicate). So, even if this law is condemning a particular practice, that condemnation does not necessarily apply across the board to “homosexual orientation” and/or practice.
Now, the fact that the law specifies “as with a woman” suggests something emasculating. This is a major concern in the Torah. Indeed, a man who’s been rendered “infertile” is not allowed to come into the Lord’s presence (see Leviticus 21:17ff, Deuteronomy 23:1). The concern seems to be more about a man’s “maleness” than it does with sexual activity. To treat another man as though he was a woman, to emasculate him, is what is considered “abominable” (the Hebrew word which, incidentally, is also used in reference to non-kosher foods in Deuteronomy 14:3).
But there is another aspect to this that deserves further investigation:
In the ancient world it was believed that children came from men. Their semen was seen as a seed (which is why this is the word used in Hebrew) to be planted in the fertile “soil” of the woman’s womb. So the law is very concerned with how semen is used.
As was mentioned above, men were the primary “givers” in procreation, women only serving as the soil for the seed to take root in. Even past the invention of the microscope, people believed that a man’s semen contained a tiny, fully formed human. This speaks also to the Law’s prohibition on bestiality. In a world where people believed in half-human/half-animal beings (like satyrs), the concern was that an animal’s seed might impregnate a woman and create something inhuman.
So this Law is concerned with responsible use of one’s body for the purposes of procreation. We will talk about this further in the next part of this series (on marriage). So, if anything, this seems more in line with a condemnation of abortion than it does homosexuality in that the passage seems to concern itself with what one does with their bodily fluids considered to be very seed of a human life.
This aspect is also partially understood in the Torah’s cleansing rituals. If a man has a nocturnal emission, he is to ritually purify himself. Same if anyone touches blood. Both of these fluids are tied to life, the shedding of life. And the shedding of life always carries with it, in the Torah, a need to for purification.
Ultimately, however, the final verse provides the context we need: “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled.” The giving of children over to Molech, male prostitution, bestiality, these are all examples of idolatrous practices. So the Law is interested here (and elsewhere) in providing the means for Jews to define themselves over and against the idolatrous peoples they are going to encounter and remove from the Promised Land.
Again, the concern here is not categorical “homosexual orientation.” It is, rather, the responsible use of the tools for life and the defining markers of cultural uniqueness.
Now that we’ve looked at what the Old Testament has to say on the subject, we turn now to the New Testament.
The first passage for our consideration is another one that is commonly cited by opponents of same-sex marriage:
Romans 1: 25-28 (CEB)
They traded God’s truth for a lie, and they worshipped and served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
That’s why God abandoned them to degrading lust. Their females traded natural sexual relations for unnatural sexual relations. Also, in the same way, the males traded natural sexual relations with females, and burned with lust for each other. Males performed shameful actions with males, and they were paid back with the penalty they deserved for their mistake in their own bodies. Since they didn’t think it was worthwhile to acknowledge God, God abandoned them to a defective mind to do inappropriate things.
There’s a lot here to wade through.
Firstly, this passage is unique in all the Bible because it is the only place where female same-sexual practice is referenced.
Secondly, Paul’s arguments hinge on the concepts of a few key words here: “natural,” “traded” (other translations say “exchanged”), and “lust.”
To begin, let’s look at “lust.” Lust is a clearly condemned sinful practice that happens among all sexual orientations. There’s nothing explicitly “homosexual” about lust. That these women and men are acting out of lust is clearly a sinful thing and lust is something that all Christians (whether “progressive” or “conservative”) will agree ought to be condemned.
So here, as we have seen in the Old Testament, what Paul is condemning is not mutual love but lust-based actions. And lust is always going to be selfish and wicked.
Indeed, this lust is of such potency that it causes women and men to make an exchange. They give up sexual desire for the opposite sex and turn it toward their respective sexes.
Many Christians will see this as a prescriptive statement about homosexual orientation, evidence that people “choose” to act according to their forbidden and sexual desires. However, reality does not fit in with this notion.
The experience of LGBTQ people, backed up by psychological science, tells us that they do not “choose” their sexual orientation any more than someone chooses their gender or their race. While the precise “causes” of same-sexuality (as well as bi- and asexuality) is still not known, researches are in agreement that it is something human beings are born into—it is something not of one’s choosing.
At the same time, this fact does not diminish Saint Paul’s condemnations. Because while he might not be condemning “homosexuality” as we understand it today, he is clearly still condemning a perversion. Because he is speaking of people making a choice to perform certain acts with their bodies, choices rooted in lust rather than love.
Following this, Saint Paul is clearly claiming that what these women and men are doing is “unnatural.” But what exactly does Paul understand “natural” to mean?
This is particularly tricky because “nature” has been (and remains) a fluid concept. For many in the Ancient World, “nature” referred to something ordered. Today, we tend to view “nature” as being something wild, un-contained, somewhat disordered (or having its own order over and against human concepts of order which are often seen as means of containing and controlling).
Paul uses “nature” to describe something a couple of key places in his writing. In I Corinthians, he writes: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him?” (I Corinthians 11:14a NRSV).
This reveals to us the differences between how we understand “nature” and how Paul understood it. Because, for us, long hair is “natural”—meaning, hair naturally grows, therefore long hair can only happen by virtue of hair doing what comes naturally. So, Paul’s concept of “natural” is an iffy concept for us today.
But Paul speaks of “nature” in another place in Romans: “If you [Gentiles] have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Romans 11:24 NRSV).
So Saint Paul acknowledges that God does something “unnatural,” something “contrary to nature,” in bringing the Gentiles into the Promises of salvation.
And all of this really helps drive home Saint Paul’s larger point in Romans 1 and 2. You see, we’ve gotten far too caught up in the particulars of what Paul writes here that we’ve lost the big picture of what he’s trying to do. He’s not actually interested in condemning particular sins or people—indeed, Paul is quite wary of risking the creation of a new Law so much so that he often avoids precise language in instances where he does condemn particular behaviors.
Paul is, instead, building a crescendo in order to hit an arrogant church with a dose of humility.
Saint Paul is writing to a church made up of a mix of Jewish and Gentile Christians, at a time when Gentiles were relegated to second-class status in The Church. He opens his letter playing to the Jewish Christian elitism (and maybe even a degree of general Christian elitism shared by both Jews and Gentiles in The Church). The description we get in Romans 1:18-32 is something that clearly describes the Roman and Greek pagan aristocracy. He is hitting a number of Jewish beliefs about idolatry: that it willfully ignores the revelation of God of Israel and is the result of self-imposed spiritual blindness, even somewhat mocking the Greek philosophers (“claiming to be wise they became as fools”). In Jewish thought, idolatry is conceived of in terms of adultery and sexual immorality (largely due to the fact that many ancient religious practices involved temple prostitution) and that the worship of idols will lead people to debased sexual practices (this is indicated by the life of Solomon in I Kings 11, who turns to idols due to his love of “foreign women”).
So one can easily read this passage as Paul whipping his crowd up. It is important to keep in mind that Paul’s letters were meant to be listened to, not read on a page. They were written for his assistants to read to the churches, performed somewhat like a sermon.
Here’s Paul saying, essentially, “you all know how wicked those pagans are; how ugly and twisted their practices are.” And Paul’s audience is nodding along. They’re thinking “alright alright, Paul’s really giving it to those disgusting pagans! I like this guy!”
And this builds and builds and builds… until Paul drops a bomb in Romans 2:1—“So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things.”
So Paul’s using biases and generalizations to drive home a particular point: all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). And God has demonstrated an enormous and scandalous grace in doing something contrary to nature by bringing in the Gentiles, a people seen as unclean and detestable by “the faithful.”
So these first two chapters of Romans aren’t exactly about condemning same-sex love. They’re about reminding a self-righteous Church that they are as dependent on God’s grace as “those people” that they want to condemn.
Now the next two passages will be discussed in tandem, because the issues in them are something they have in common:
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (NASB)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? 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. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
1 Timothy 1:8-10 (ESV)
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality*, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
Looking at these passages it seems things could not be any more clear. After all, the word “homosexual” shows up. It is obvious that the Bible condemns this as sin.
The things to look at here have to deal with translation, particularly the words “effeminate” and “homosexual.”
“Effeminate” is the English translation of the Greek word malakia which means “soft.” Interestingly, this word is sometimes omitted in English translations of the Bible, seemingly subsumed into the phrase “both participants in same-sex intercourse” (as in the otherwise excellent Common English Bible translation).
Gene Robinson has argued that it refers to people being morally weak. The antonym of this word in Greek is karteria, which means “patient endurance.” So, rather than saying that someone who is “effeminate” will not enter into the Kingdom of God, it appears that Paul is referring to someone who is “soft-willed” rather than “enduring with patience.” To put this in concert with one of Jesus’ parables, this would be the seed that falls on rocky ground (see Matthew 13:20-21).
In regards to “homosexual,” many translations, use this word to translate the Greek word arsenokoites, which is the combination of “men” and “bed” (arsen referring to “male” or “man” and koites meaning “bed”—it’s where we get the word “coitus” used in English).
The first edition of the New International Version of the Bible (in 1973) was the first English translation to translate arsenokoites as “homosexual.” Prior translations, like the King James Bible, used phrases like “abusers of themselves with mankind” (in 1 Corinthians 6:9) and “them that defile themselves with mankind” (1 Timothy 1:10).
The problem with using the word “homosexual” to translate this term has to do with the fact that, like with what is read in Leviticus, arsenokoites, in its literal sense, refers specifically to males (whereas “homosexuality” is a gender-neutral term). Secondly, “homosexual” was a word that was invented (in German) in the late 1800s for use in a psychological dictionary when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder. So “homosexual” is already a loaded word referring to something that is likely quite different from what Saint Paul is talking about.
The other major problem with using “homosexual” here is that, from what we can gather, arsenokoites is a word Saint Paul invented. It shows up nowhere else other than the Greek New Testament (and, of course, ancient Greek Christian commentators quoting it). What, precisely, Paul was referring to here is lost to us.
One can easily make the case that it refers to male sex slavery/prostitution. Koites can also refer to a bed-chamber, suggesting perhaps one being a “kept man.” So the case could be made that Paul is condemning a practice of engaging in abusive and exploitative male same-sex relationships.
But we don’t actually know for sure.
Now that we’ve looked at all the Bible has to say on the matter, I want to reiterate a couple of key points:
—The Bible only ever explicitly condemns sexual acts between males (lesbian activity only really alluded to).
—What the Bible does condemn turns out to be somewhat vague, or at least not what we’ve popularly interpreted/translated it to mean.
—The term “homosexual” is a bad term to translate a vague Greek word.
—What the Bible condemns is something that does not look like mutually-shared, mutually offered same-sex relationships.
This last point is crucial. The Bible is clearly condemning something, and something wicked. What precisely that condemned thing is, is not completely clear.
Or is it?
How are we to know?
Jesus tells us that the Law is summed up in this statement: Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.
Elsewhere we are told that love is defined this way: Jesus gave Himself for us.
So this means that the Law, as Christians are to understand it, is to be read through a lens of love—a love defined by the actions of Jesus Christ.
This goes back to what we discussed in Part One: Anglican Christians read the Bible primarily through Jesus, understanding scripture to be about our salvation more than anything else.
The former rector of The Chapel of Saint Andrew, The Rev. Steve Zimmerman, in his own essay on human sexuality in The Church (entitled Authority and Sex in the Church and written in 2000) writes of Anglican understandings of the Bible:
“[Martin Luther] expressed his view of scripture by saying, ‘The Bible is the manger, in which the Christ child is laid, in which there is also, much straw’ […] The Anglican view of the character of the Bible’s authority also comes closer to Luther’s, than to Calvin’s and the Reformed tradition [in that Anglicans] agreed with Luther that the Bible’s authority lies in its witness. Anglicans, however, emphasize scripture’s witness to Christ, not just to the gospel of justification by faith. Scripture bears witness therefore to a person, Jesus Christ, the living Lord, not a message.”
So what this means for us is that the conversation is primarily about this question: does the love of two men or two women look like the love Jesus Christ embodies?
In light of that, we can hold those kinds of same-sex relationships up to what is written in the Bible, in the passages above, and can clearly see that those relationships—rooted in Christ-like love—are not reflected there. Indeed, those kinds of same-sex relationships help further reveal the kinds of evil being condemned in scripture.
We’re not talking about relationships based on lust or exploitation or violence. We’re talking about relationships based on the mutual offering and receiving of love, in like manner to Jesus Christ. And now the question becomes: are those relationships compatible with Christian views on marriage?
To read part THREE, on the development of marriage, please click HERE.