Does the Bible Condemn Same-Sex Intimacy as Sin?
How shall Christians attend to the “homosexuality” issue? I write this essay with the belief that we are, metaphorically, stuck in the middle of a rapid stream right now in the churches, and have no choice but to work to move ahead or risk being totally overwhelmed by the current. One (though only one) important element of such an effort to move ahead relates to thinking.
I will be offering a thought exercise in hopes of fostering more clarity about the issues that are at stake for Christians. I want to focus on what I believe to be a foundational issue in the on-going debate. This is the issue of sin. Is every possible type of relationship that involves sexual intimacy between two people of the same sex by definition sinful?
As we have many types of sexual expressions we may call “heterosexual” (e.g., monogamous marriage, coercive sexual intercourse, promiscuity), we also have many that we may call “homosexual.” I will be concerned mainly with only one type of “homosexual” sexual expression, that which parallels male/female marriage-intimate, covenanted relationships between two people who affirm their own affectional orientation and commit themselves to a long-term relationship.
Recognizing that actual reality contains much more complexity than our labels, I will suggest for the sake of simplicity in this essay that we may see two general ends on the spectrum of ways Christians answer this question about same-sex sexual intimacy being inherently sinful-the “restrictive” perspective and the “inclusive” perspective; that is, “restrictive” and “inclusive” with regard to the participation of gays in Christian churches.
The “restrictive” viewpoint holds that churches should limit the participation of Christians in same-sex intimate relationships. These restrictions could range from total rejection to acceptance only as participating non-members to restricting the possibility of gays exercising ordained ministry.
The “inclusive” viewpoint holds that being in a committed same-sex relationship should have no bearing on one’s participation. Typically, this perspective would also assert that moral values (such as opposing sexual promiscuity, adultery, and sexual abuse) the church affirms in relation to opposite-sex sexual practices should apply to gays.
The basic difference between these two perspectives may be boiled down to a difference about whether or not gay relationships are inherently sinful. Both perspectives would accept that Christians engaging in unrepentantly sinful behavior should have their participation in the church restricted in some sense, if only on the level of the church making public affirmations that such behavior is wrong for Christians. Where they disagree is whether every possible gay relationship is by definition sinful behavior.
Acknowledging this distinction between the restrictive and inclusive perspectives does not solve the problem of knowing how to negotiate this crucial disagreement. In the “thought exercise” that follows, I do not intend to provide a surefire solution. Rather, I intend more modestly to pursue one direction of reasoning that could aid a process of discernment and conversation in an attempt to further our efforts to find more resolution on the big issues.
If the key issue is whether gay relationships are inherently sinful or not, as Christians we are bound to take the biblical writings seriously. That is not to say that the Bible alone will solve the problem. The issues are much more complex. But in this one essay, I will only have space to focus on the one important element; does the Bible condemn same-sex intimacy as sin?
Our Starting Point
A crucial element of the discussion has to do with the question of our starting assumptions about where the burden of proof lies.
Do we start with the assumption that inclusive people need to prove that gays should be in? Must inclusive people prove that it is okay to be inclusive, overriding the assumption that it probably is not? In this view, we could say, gays start outside the church and must find a basis for getting in.
Or, do we start with the assumption that restrictive people need to prove that gays should be out (i.e., have their participation restricted)? Must restrictive people prove why it is okay to be restrictive because it is assumed that it probably is not? In this view, we could say, gays start inside the church and the church must find a basis for restricting their participation.
The benefit of the doubt we choose does not, of course, in itself resolve the issue. It is always possible to overcome the benefit of the doubt-but the kind of argument that must be made will be determined on whether one is trying to prove that our default inclusiveness must be overridden or our default restrictiveness must be overridden.
The point we start from then becomes crucial. Our starting point should not be arbitrary or accidental. We should examine and evaluate where we start. This is the first big piece of the puzzle in terms of biblical hermeneutics as it relates to the church’s relationship to gays.
Reasons for putting the burden of proof on those who would be inclusive (that is, saying that the church’s default position should be restrictive) include:
- The Christian tradition has always operated with a restrictive consensus. Restrictiveness is the historic position of the church.
- The Christian community is called on to oppose sin. Especially in our modern world where moral standards are deteriorating, it is important that the church take a stand against sexual permissiveness.
- A straightforward reading of the Bible makes it clear that the Bible is against homosexuality. Believers and non-believers alike tend to assume that the Bible takes this stance.
Reasons for putting the burden of proof on the other side-to say that the church’s default position should be inclusive-include:
- Jesus modeled inclusiveness. His treatment of people labeled as “sinners” in his world parallels how the church should relate to vulnerable and ostracized people in our day.
- The Old Testament teaches that the community of faith has a special responsibility to care for vulnerable people such as widows, orphans, and other people without access to wealth and power.
- Paul taught that the only thing that matters in terms of one’s standing before God is one’s faith. Christians are those who trust in Christ, period. Not, trust in Christ plus this or that requirement.
For what follows, I will be following a line of thought that starts with the inclusive assumption. The Bible’s message of God’s special concern for vulnerable people (highlighted especially in God’s acts to liberate the Hebrew slaves from Egypt; the Law’s direct commandments for the covenant community to pay special attention to the needs of those on society’s margins; the prophets’ critique of social injustice; and Jesus’ welcome to people excluded by the religious structures) support starting with a sense that a strong case must be made for overriding the Bible’s bias in favor of vulnerable people in order to conclude that the churches should take a restrictive stance.
Taking this starting point need not be irreconcilable with restrictive conclusions. If the case for the restrictive view is valid-for example, if the Bible clearly condemns same-sex intimacy as sin-this case should be able to show that our bias in favor of vulnerable people needs to be overridden in the case of the churches’ response to gay Christians. Those who support the restrictive perspective should be willing to show how their argument overcomes a benefit of the doubt in favor of inclusiveness-and does not simply rely on unexamined anti-gay prejudice.
What do we find if we examine the biblical teaching asking if it provides clear and persuasive bases for the restrictive position? Is there a clear basis for overturning the inclusive assumption? Focusing a bit more narrowly, do the “core texts” that explicitly mention homosexuality provide a clear basis for overriding the default inclusivist position?
We certainly also need to look at other issues, probably most centrally the question of whether biblical teaching related to marriage and creation would provide such a basis, and I will discuss this issue in an appendix to this essay. However, none of the texts related to the marriage/creation issue speak of “homosexuality” and none of the “core texts” on “homosexuality” refer to creation/marriage in a clear and direct way.
Since the question of whether present-day gays are actively sinning, seems to be the most basic issue in dispute, then the focus of our investigation should be on that issue. We need to focus on the alleged bases for saying that they are.
If the Bible clearly teaches that gays are sinning, that may be enough for someone with a conservative biblical hermeneutic to override the pro-inclusiveness benefit of the doubt. If such clarity is not forthcoming, then the case for the restrictive perspective will be much more difficult to make.
In what follows, I will focus on the question of whether the Bible does provide a clear basis for overriding the default position of in-clusion that I have presented. That is, does the Bible clearly condemn what many today are calling same-sex covenanted relationships?
I intend here to take a direct approach to the Bible. I am interested in whether, following a reading strategy compatible with a quite conservative doctrine of scripture, one finds clear evidence for asserting that the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy as sin.
To answer this question, we need to ascertain whether the “condemnation” is overtly and explicitly expressed. This question can be answered only by considering the texts that have been cited as directly speaking to the issue.
I will focus on the six passages seen to speak directly to same-sex sexuality. These include (1) the story of Abraham and Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 18-19; (2) a similar story in Judges 19; (3) Leviticus 18-20, the Holiness Code of legislation for Israel’s practice; (4) Romans 1:18-32, with its well-known connection between idolatry and sexuality; (5) the list of sins that often is understood to contain reference to same-sex sex in 1 Corinthians 6; and (6) a similar list in 1 Timothy 1.
I will approach these texts first of all in their broader context within the books they are part of. I believe the literary units within which these scattered references to same-sex sex fall are the most important elements of interpreting those references.
Old Testaments Texts
Genesis 18:1-19:29. Genesis 18 and 19 contain two contrasting accounts of hospitality. In juxtaposing these two accounts-one being Abraham’s hosting of the visitors from God, the other being the men of Sodom’s attempt to gang-rape the visitors-the text focuses on the called-outness of Abraham as God’s channel of salvation for all the families of the earth (Brueggemann, p. 163).
If we consider the connection between chapters 18 and 19, we see that the main point of the story of Sodom is to highlight by contrast the exemplary characteristics of Abraham, not to under-score as an end in itself the point of the sinfulness of the heathen.
We still need to ask what precisely were the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18:20-22, God reports to Abraham that God has heard the outcry concerning the gravity of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. This “outcry” evokes echoes of other cases where the outcry of oppressed people reaches God (for example, the outcry of Abel’s blood, Genesis 4:10, and the outcry of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt, Exodus 2:23). The “outcry” implies social injustice-as later on alluded to in Jeremiah 23:14 (Fretheim, p. 468).
Hospitality had great significance in the desert culture of the Bible. Abraham, in the first part of Genesis 18, shows how hospitality was supposed to be practiced. The moral corruption of the Sodomite community comes through clearly in their refusal to care for Lot’s visitors with generosity; responding instead with exploitative violence.
The inhospitality of the Sodomites is described here in terms of every single man in the city (19:4) seeking to have sex with the visitors-indicating the intent to gang-rape the visitors. Several of the men of Sodom were Lot’s prospective sons-in-law (19:12-14), implying that while “every man” might have been intent on raping the visitors, not “every man” was “homosexual.” The issue seems to be domination over vulnerable outsiders, not same-sex sexuality (Edwards, p. 25).
Genesis 18-19 tells us nothing about same sex affectional orientation, same-sex loving relationships, or even about alleged ancient Near Eastern revulsion regarding a condition modern people call “homosexuality.” This passage is about hospitality-contrasting Abraham’s welcome of strangers and intercession with God over the fate of sinful people with the brutal inhospitality of the Sodomites, paradigmatically expressed in the effort to subject Lot’s visitors to gang rape as a means of humiliating and subjugating them. (Nissinen, p. 49)
Judges 19:1-22. This interpretation of Genesis 18-19 correlates with Judges 19:1-22. George Edwards argues that close parallels between these two passages include in each case the visitors offering to stay outside and strongly being urged by their hosts not to, the city being utterly inhospitable with the exception in each case of a single resident alien, the host’s house is surrounded by a mob from the city who want to “womanize” (humiliate through gang-rape) the guest(s), the offer by the host of virgin daughters to the mob (Edwards, pp. 35-38).
A crucial *difference*between the two stories, though, supports interpreting the concern in these stories as gang-rape, not same-sex sexuality. In the Judges story, the mob relents when they are given the guest’s concubine to gang-rape. To ravage the man’s woman had a similar effect of emasculating the male guest, the concern being domination, not same-sex sex.
These two passages, Genesis 18-19 and Judges 19, are the only two stories in the Old Testament that mention particular men seeking to have sex with other men. In both cases, though, the desire for sexual intercourse was an expression of the desire to dominate strangers through gang-rape, not an example of general “homosexuality.”
Restrictive scholars do not as a rule ground their position on this passage. Stanley Grenz is typical in admitting that at most Genesis 19 refers to “violent homosexual rape,” not “homosexual relationships between consenting adults” (p. 40).
Robert A. J. Gagnon is one who differs with Grenz. Though he goes into great detail on the Sodom and Gomorrah story, Gagnon nonetheless ignores the broader context of Genesis 18-19’s concern with Abraham’s contrast with Sodom, with the implication that the key issue is hospitality, not sexuality.
As is the case throughout his book, Gagnon’s argument rests on his assumptions about the evils of “homosexuality” more than evidence from the biblical texts themselves, which never speak of “homosexuality” as a general category. Gagnon does not consider stories of men seeking to rape women (e.g., the tragic story of King David’s children) as relevant to discerning the moral legitimacy of opposite-sex covenanted relationships. Yet he fails to consider that similarly stories of men seeking to rape men are not relevant to the moral legitimacy of same-sex covenanted relationships.
Leviticus 18-20. The Book of Leviticus centers on the need for Israelites to maintain clear distinctiveness from surrounding cultures. Leviticus challenges the Israelites to live faithfully in this land God gives them.
Following God’s law is absolutely crucial to the survival of the faith community. An inevitable consequence of faithfulness to God’s law will be living as a contrast culture in relation to surrounding cultures. How can Israel live as a distinct, separated people in the context of a surrounding culture that is not friendly to their faith?
Leviticus 17-26 is called the “Holiness Code.” This section sketches the characteristics that should distinguish Israel as God’s holy nation. Within the Holiness Code, chapters 18 through 20 provide the core teaching, and within that smaller section, chapter 19 plays the especially crucial role of defining “holiness.”
In Leviticus 19, Israel’s calling to be God’s holy nation is given concrete shape. The people are called to be holy-just as God is holy (19:3). In following verses this is discussed in relational terms. Among the commands: revere your parents; do not harvest the corners of your fields or strip your vineyards bare in order to provide for the “poor and the alien” (19:9-10); do not lie or steal (19:11); do not withhold the laborer’s wages (19:13); treat the deaf and blind kindly (19:14); do not slander (19:16); respect the elderly (19:32); and be inclusive of aliens (19:33-34). We may sum the teaching up (as Jesus did) with 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”
The core identity of Israel as a distinctive people of God centers around concern for all members of the community; especially concern for vulnerable ones, that they may function as community members. The legislation concerning sexual practices must be understood within this context of care for vulnerable ones that lay at the heart of the definition of holiness in Israel.
Two underlying issues motivate legislation concerning sexual practices here. The first is the need to differentiate Israel’s way of life from that of the “Canaanites.” The second is concern about procreation, continuity over successive generations (Levine, pp. 117, 123).
In Leviticus 18, the focus on differentiating Israelite culture from surrounding cultures is apparent. The chapter begins by asserting that the Israelites “shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan” (18:3). It concludes with “do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves” (18:24). The practices forbidden in Leviticus 18 and 20 are forbidden because they are seen as characteristic of the peoples the Israelites are being commanded to differentiate themselves from.
The second concern is the need for Israelites to “be fruitful and multiply” in order to continue as a distinct community. Each of the prohibitions in 18:19-23 has to do with “wasted seed.” These are almost all sexual practices that cannot produce children within a socially approved family context, including sex during menstruation, adultery, male/male sexual relations, and bestiality. The one exception, the reference to child sacrifice, is certainly also a form of “wasted seed,” or counter to the need for children.
Why specifically would the command that the Israelite male “shall not life with a male as with a woman” be included here and what might this command be referring to? This is a cryptic reference. We are given no explanation as to what is in mind beyond what we can glean from the context, i.e., the concern about “wasted seed” and the need to be different from the “Canaanites.” There are no other references in the law codes of Exodus through Deuteronomy to male/male sex.
A number of scholars argue that we should assume that behind these prohibitions of male/male sex is the worldview of the Hebrews that simply understood “homosexuality” as inherently wrong. Hence, there was no need to say why (e.g., Seitz, p. 332 and Soards, p., 57). However, if we do not assume that this is the case and instead ask for evidence, we find little to indicate that the Hebrews viewed “homosexuality” as inherently wrong. There is *no*mention of male/male or female/female sexual relations elsewhere in the Old Testament. If such were seen as inherently wrong, no one apparently ever said so.
From the immediate context in Leviticus 18 and 20, we may see that the problem with male/male sex here is in large part based on the problem of “wasted seed.” This may be part of the reason why we see only male/male sex mentioned and see nothing about female/female sex.
Since we are given no details about why these practices were forbidden, we may at best speculate. The tiny bit of evidence we have does seem to point toward some sort of cultic sexual practices (note especially the reference to child sacrifice in this passage as well as the general concern about “Canaanite” religious practices).
Leviticus 18-20 contain numerous other prohibitions that are rarely if ever understood by Christians to be determinative of the Bible’s overall position. For example, we also find prohibitions of male/female sexual intercourse during menstruation (18:19), wearing clothes made with more than on kind of fiber (19:19), wearing tattoos (19:28), and planting more than one type of grain in a single field (19:19). Christians in the present rarely cite these as proof that the Bible “condemns” these practices once and for all.
The reasons for the prohibition of male/male sex in Leviticus 18-20 seem clearly to be context specific. Though numerous writers who argue that the Bible indeed condemns “homosexuality” claim that the Leviticus prohibition is based on more fundamental theological assumptions, they are unable to marshal direct evidence from Leviticus itself (or from elsewhere in the Old Testament).
Certainly Leviticus 18-20 clearly condemns some sort of male/male sex. But in the absence of a clear universalizable basis for such a condemnation, we do not have enough evidence to generalize from these two rather cryptic references.
These verses at the most give us a basis for saying that the Bible condemns male/male sex in the context of concern for wasting seed (just as it condemns sexual intercourse during menstruation and masturbation) and for mirroring Canaanite religious practices. Nothing about female/female sex is inferred here. In fact, these two reasons for concern do not apply to women. So, whatever the issues in Leviticus might be, they do not appear to be in-principle condemnation of all same-sex sex.
Finally, the obscurity of the prohibition of male/male sex counts against using it as strong evidence that “the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy as sin.” If it is not clear to what and why Leviticus is referring when it speaks of male/male sex, we certainly cannot use it as strong evidence for drawing a conclusion about the biblical stance as a whole.
New Testament Texts
Romans 1:18-3:31. In treating Paul’s discussion of same-sex sex in Romans one, I will take a three-step approach. First, I will discuss the broader argument of Romans 1-3. Second, I will discuss the role 1:18-32 plays in that broader argument. And, third, I will discuss the significance the reference to same-sex sex has for Paul’s discussion.
Debates over the meaning of Romans 1 dominate biblically-oriented discussions of “homosexuality.” What renders these discussions deeply unsatisfactory, from my perspective, is how writers on all sides of the issue seem to lose sight of the forest in their focus on the trees. That is, they argue as if the meaning and relevance of Romans 1 for the Bible’s stance on “homosexuality” relies on the meaning of specific words-assuming that in some sense the main point of Romans 1:18-32 is to address the issue of “homosexuality.”
As I propose below, with a more contextual reading of these verses much of this narrow debate loses most of its relevance.
(1) The argument of 1:18-3:31. The problem the section 1:18-3:20 as a whole addresses is mentioned in 1:18-human injustice (and the solution, presented beginning in 3:21, is the revelation of the justice of God). The Greek word translated “injustice” (adika) is often misleadingly translated “wickedness” or “unrighteousness.” Both of those translations reflect later Christian theological developments that presented the alienation between God and human beings in impersonal, legalistic terms.
For Paul, the alienation human beings have from God is relational more than legal. Human beings have violated their relationship with God. The central manifestation of this alienated relationship is alienation in human to human relationships. Human beings act unjustly toward their fellow human beings as a consequence of the lack of justice (wholeness) in their relationship with God.
Beginning with 1:18 and continuing through the end of chapter three, Paul argues as follows. Human beings outside the covenant live unjustly, deserving God’s wrath (1:18-32). However, those people of the covenant who vigorously condemn the injustices of the outsiders while ignoring their own also deserve God’s wrath (2:1-3:8). Hence, we must conclude, all people fall equally short of God’s justice (3:9-20). Paul’s punch-line, though, comes beginning in 3:21. God’s mercy prevails-mercy revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This mercy is revealed outside the religious structures based on works of the law (though witnessed to by the authentic message of Israel’s scriptures).
Paul aims his primary critique toward the religiously smug people of the covenant who need to be convinced that they are alienated from God due to their over-confidence concerning their standing. Paul indicts Gentile sin (1:18-32) in order make his central point-the religious people too are just as much under the power of sin.
That Paul has an ultimately redemptive intent with his critique becomes clear beginning in 3:21. He underscores the sinfulness of both types of people to clear the ground for a new appreciation of the mercy of God. The justice (i.e., right-making power) of God has been shown in an unprecedented way in Jesus.
In 1:18-3:31 Paul challenges his readers to take seriously their own sinfulness, to recognize that the blatant sins of the pagans are not the most dangerous; the sins that arise with religiosity are much more dangerous. Sinful religiosity attempts to construct bases for righteousness that focus on external boundary markers (“works of the law”) and not on trust in God’s mercy that em-powers people to live lovingly and justly toward their neighbors.
(2) The role of 1:18-32 in the larger argument. In the context of Romans 1-3, the discussion of wrongdoing in 1:18-32 serves Paul’s case by making two points. First, readers are set up for what follows in Romans 2-the critique of religiosity. Second, this critique leads to Paul’s punchline: God’s unconditional mercy is revealed in Jesus apart from such religiosity.
In 1:18-32, Paul uses images that likely would have been familiar to his readers. He assumes here that human beings are inherently creatures oriented toward worship. We all serve something outside ourselves-if not God then idols, trusting in things. Should we take the route of trusting in things, we will find ourselves on a downward spiral toward ever-increasing injustice and slavery to our lusts rendering us less than human.
In writing of this process, Paul states that human beings are “handed over” to their injustice-as if God withdraws God’s providential care for these people and simply allows them to reap the consequences of their idolatry.
These consequences find expression in extraordinary injustice, degrading passions and sexual obsessiveness. Idolaters lose self-control-even to the point of women giving up “natural” self-control for unbridled lust and men being consumed by passion for other men (1:26-27). The injustice finds a variety of expressions beyond oppressive sexuality; 1:29-31 lists twenty examples of unjust behavior characteristic of people who choose ungodliness over genuine worship in the God of creation.
We need to notice that this passage does not have as its rhetorical intent negatively analyzing pagan sexuality in order to provide regulations for Christian sexuality. Rather, Paul sets his readers up for what follows in chapter two. When you pass judgment of such terrible sinners, “you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things.”
*(3) Why does Paul focus on same-sex sex?*Even if Paul is not centering on same-sex sexuality, he does clearly seem to see it as in some sense characteristic of the worst of pagan injustice.
However, we are limited in our quest to understand why Paul chose this particular expression of sinfulness by the lack of other passages elsewhere in the New Testament that could help us out. If Paul reflects widespread Christian assumptions about the inherently sinful nature of all possible forms of same-sex sexual relations, we simply do not have any concrete evidence for that (the only possible direct evidence will be discussed below, the lists of vices in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10).
We do have some clues in the Romans one passage itself, though, that hint at what Paul may have had in mind in using the example he does, especially when combined with some extra-biblical historical knowledge.
The entire section, 1:18-32, is concerned with injustice. The type of sexuality to which Paul refers here should be understood as oppressive and hurtful (“unjust”). The “degrading passions” (1:26) are linked with offenses such as murder, envy, strife, and slander (among many other expressions of injustice listed in 1:29-31). The references to sexuality arise in the context of the broader elaboration of injustice that is associated with trusting in things rather than God.
One of the puzzles in the passage is what Paul means with his reference to women in 1:26. Too easily, interpreters assume this is a reference to female/female sexual relations. However, the text itself is not at all clear about this. Literally, we are told that the women exchange “natural sexual desire” for “unnatural.” Then we are told in 1:27 that the men, in a similar way give up “natural sexual desire in relation to women” for unbridled lust for other men.
It is altogether possible that the connection between what the women do and what the men do has to do with their passion and lust, not that the women are necessarily involved with other women. Basically, all we are told for certain about them is that they are in bondage to extreme passion. David Fredrickson argues that the underlying concern for Paul here is to hold up extreme passion or lust as the stereotypical fruit of idolatry. This would be consistent with other uses of the Greek word kresin (translated “intercourse” in the NRSV) in Greek writings of Paul’s time and would also be consistent with Paul’s thought elsewhere where he warns about the dangers of unbridled lust (Fredrickson, pp. 199-207).
Paul’s historical setting provides clues about what Paul may have had in mind in 1:18-32. At the time Paul wrote, the sexual outrages of recent Roman emperors had scandalized many in Rome. He would likely have seen these as reflecting the worst of pagan culture. His readers, living in Rome, could easily have connected Paul’s general comments in Romans one with what they knew about Caligula and Nero.
Neill Elliot points out that among those who assassinated Emperor Caligula was an officer he had sexually humiliated. This person stabbed Caligula several times in the genitals. Perhaps this event is echoed in Paul’s words in 1:27: “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their persons the due penalty of their error” (Elliott, p. 194).
Following Caligula’s death, Claudius’s reign ushered in a brief period of relative moral gravity. However, Claudius was succeeded by another tyrant, Nero. “Paul wrote Romans during the reign of … Nero, whose rapes of Roman wives and sons, incest with his mother, brothel-keeping, and sexual submission to various men and boys prompted his tutor, the philosopher Seneca, to conclude that Nero was ‘another Caligula’” (Elliott, pp. 194-195)
“Surely it is reasonable to suppose, against this context,” Elliott argues, “that by juxtaposing the senselessness of pagan idolatry with a lurid depiction of sexual perversion Paul sought to evoke for his readers the moral bankruptcy of the imperial house itself.” The list of vices in 1:29-31 greatly exaggerates conventional gentile morality. Not all Gentiles did these kinds of things; in fact, few did. However, the vice list is not exaggerated if it is “a description of the horrors of the imperial house” (Elliott, p. 195). We may be confident that Paul did not have pagan morality as a whole in mind in chapter one, because in chapter two he makes it clear that some people outside the covenant (“uncircumcised”) are indeed fully capable of authentically keeping the law (2:27).
Romans 1:18-32 does not provide direct evidence that “the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy as sin.” It is not written as direct ethical teaching prescribing Christian behavior. We twist this passage from its context if we apply it as if it is directly telling Christians what not to do. As well, to use this passage as a basis for judging the behavior of Christians in same-sex loving relationships reverses the role they play in Paul’s overall argument. Paul seeks in 1:18-3:20 to critique judgmentalism, not to foster it.
Even when we look at the discussion of same-sex sex within the 1:18-32 passage, we do not find material that applies to all possible same-sex relationships among Christians. The example Paul gives of the consequences of paganism has to do with injustice, people hurting other people, not with covenanted, loving, mutual partnerships.
The male/male sex Paul had in mind most likely was the kind of unbridled excess characteristic of the worst of the Roman emperors, even if he was not necessarily specifically referring to the emperors. The reference to females in 1:26 most probably refers to female participation in such sex, whether with men or women.
That is, the type of sexual activity associated with injustice and with obsessive lust seems clearly to be what Paul had in mind-not “condemning all same-sex intimacy as sin.”
1 Corinthians 6:1-11 and 1 Timothy 1:10. 1 Corinthians 6 begins with mention that some people in the Corinthian church are taking legal action toward others in the church. In 6:7-8 Paul writes of defrauding, indicating that perhaps the conflicts had to do with economic issues. Paul’s anger stems from the church not taking care of its own business.
Paul speaks harshly of the Corinthian Christians relying upon “unbelievers” to settle their internal disputes. Earlier in chapter six Paul refers to the courts of the unbelievers as unjust (6:1). Richard Hays suggests, “When the Corinthian Christians take one another to court, they are declaring primary allegiance to the pagan culture of Corinth rather than to the community of faith” (Hays, First Corinthians, p. 93).
Apparently, the court system in the Roman Empire favored the wealthy over the poor. The Corinthian Christians initiating the court actions may have been wealthy and aiming the suits at poorer members. Paul writes in 6:9 that the unjust (often translated “wrongdoers”) will not inherit the kingdom of God. The Corinthian Christians are putting themselves in jeopardy because they are acting unjustly in similar ways to those in the world (6:8).
So, when Paul comes to the list of characteristics of the unjust people who will not inherit the kingdom of God his concern is not with sexuality. Rather, he chastises the Corinthian Christians for taking each other to “secular” courts, using unjust nonbelievers to buttress their own injustice. He means in 6:9-10 to emphasize that Christians should not trust their disputes to unjust outsiders.
The items in the list of 6:9-10 merely illustrate what the Corinthians used to be prior to their coming into the church. They have changed due to Christ (6:11). In light of this transformation, they ought to stop acting like adikoi [unjust ones] using the courts to settle their property disputes in favor of the wealthy.
Justice is central to Paul’s point here. Because of their being made members of God’s family (“justification”), believers are called upon to cease acting “unjustly” toward one another (6:8) by going to court before the “unjust” (6:1). As with Romans one, then, the central concern of 1 Corinthians 6 has to do with justice and injustice-and Paul uses the example of the injustice of “pagans” to challenge his Christian readers to faithfulness.
Nonetheless, also as with Romans 1, debates concerning the application of 1 Corinthians 6 to “homosexuality” focus on the meaning of specific words without paying attention to the wider context. Following the common English translations that use “homosexuals” and “sodomites,” some scholars have concluded that Paul has in mind here a general condemnation of “homosexuality” (e.g., Schmidt, p. 96).
I will argue below that these are not adequate translations; my point here is that regardless of what the Greek words malakos and arsenokoites mean, if read in the context of the message of 1 Corinthians 6, they clearly are not being used to make a point about Christian sexual ethics. They are being used to make a more general point about pagan injustice and Paul’s calling Christians to justice.
Still, we do have these references in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The NRSV translates the Greek words malakos and arsenokoites as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” respectively. However, the meanings of these words are far from clear. Paul simply gives a list of examples of injustices characteristic of pagan judges. He does not describe how any of these different examples are problematic.
Malakos is a fairly common term, meaning literally “soft” with no intrinsic sexual connotations (see Matthew 11:8-”*soft*clothing”). It is often used in a negative moral sense such as “laziness, decadence, or lack of courage.” Most often, perhaps, it is used, with negative connotations, of femininity (Martin, pp. 118-119).
By itself, malakos could easily in 1 Corinthians 6:9 simply be a general term for “morally lax,” linking with some of the other terms in the list such as “thieves, the greedy, and robbers.” It could have sexual connotations-a man allowing himself to be used like a woman for economic gain. But there is nothing to require this meaning, so the use of *malakos*here is scarcely clear evidence that Paul is condemning “homosexuality” in general.
Our second term, arsenokoites, while more obscure than malakos, would seem likely to have more overt sexual connotations. Outside of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the obviously derivative use in 1 Timothy 1:10, the word is never used in Paul’s writings, never in the rest of the New Testament, and never in other first century Greek writings that we know of.
Numerous scholars suggest that Paul himself may well have coined this term, combining two words from the Septuagent translation of Leviticus 20:13. According to Donald Wold, Paul “pulled together two terms used in the Leviticus text: arseno- (‘male’) and -koitai (‘sexual intercourse’). Paul creates this compound word in order accurately to capture the meaning he sought-the active partner in the homosexual act” (Wold, pp. 189-190).
Certainly, Paul may have coined this word. We have no basis to say he did not-or that he did. However, to see in this word the meaning of “the active partner in the homosexual act” goes far beyond the evidence. There is no parallel use anywhere in any extant first-century Greek literature. Neither 1 Corinthians 6:9 nor 1 Timothy 1:10 hint in any other way that Paul’s concern was with “homosexuality.” All we have is this single word.
Dale B. Martin surveys the few scattered uses of arsenokoites in the second century and concludes that it tends to be used in vice lists in the contexts of other terms generally dealing with economic injustice or exploitation. Such usage fits 1 Corinthians 6 (Martin, p. 120).
Martin concludes, arsenokoites “seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex. Sibylline Oracle 2.70-77 probably provides an independent use of the word. It occurs in a section listing acts of economic injustice and exploitation. ‘Do not steal seeds….Do not arsenokoitein. Do not betray information. Do not murder’” (Martin, p. 120).
The use of arsenokoites in 1 Timothy 1:10 follows from 1 Corinthians 6:9. Here, too, we find a list of vices with no further explanation. Whatever the term means in 1 Corinthians, it likely has a similar meaning in 1 Timothy. In both cases, the vices listed tend toward violations of justice, not violations of rules governing sexual conduct for those otherwise living just lives. If the lists refer to sex at all, it is likely that what is being condemned is exploitative sex used for economic purposes-as an expression of injustice.
1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 do not show that “the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy as sin.” Neither is speaking in a clear and direct way about same-sex intimacy at all.
Our central question has been whether these few texts speak clearly enough to support concluding that “the Bible condemns same-sex sex as sin.” In looking at each of the key texts, we have found reasons to doubt that they support such a conclusion.
The story of Sodom underscores the importance of hospitality toward people in need. The problem with the Sodomites’ action lies in their inhospitality, expressed through their brutal intent to gang-rape their city’s guests, not in their being “homosexual.”
Leviticus 18-20 contains the Bible’s only direct prohibition of male/male sexual expression. However, the fact that we are told only that males “should not lie” with males means that the prohibition here cannot be understood as a universal condemnation of all same-sex sexual expression since this text does not speak to female/female sexual expression.
Most likely: This prohibition reflects (1) a concern with “wasting male seed,” given the premium ancient peoples placed on population growth in an environment where life was very fragile and (2) a concern that Israelites remain distinct from “Canaanite” religious practices. It makes the most sense to understand Leviticus to be addressing some contextual issues rather than to be issuing some general condemnation of “homosexuality.”
Romans 1:18-32, in the larger context of Paul’s argument in the first three chapters of Romans, speaks of problematic behavior among non-Christians as a means of making the point to Christians that they, too, are sinners when they are judgmental toward others.
The male/male sex Paul had in mind most likely was the kind of excess characteristic of the worst of the Roman emperors. Mention of females in Romans 1:26 likely refers to female participation in such wild sex, whether with men or women. The type of sexual activity associated with injustice and with obsessive lust seems to be what Paul had in mind.
Like Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 gives a description of problematic behavior characteristic of non-Christians-for the sake of making a rhetorical point about Christian behavior in the area of relating to one another justly.
Paul critiques the Corinthian Christians for relying on secular courts for resolving their conflicts. He tells them, don’t go to the courts run by unjust unbelievers. He then gives a list of vices that characterize these unjust unbelievers. This list tends toward exploitative behavior, especially of an economic sort. Included in the vice list are two obscure words that may have sexual connotations. However, the context makes it likely that if they do, Paul had in mind exploitative sex, not same-sex intimacy in general.
In the end, the evidence supports the conclusion that the Bible does not in fact “condemn same-sex intimacy as sin.”
If this is the case, the restrictive perspective loses much of its basis. Where might this leave the churches? It would appear that we do not have clear bases for dogmatic conclusions. Speaking to my Mennonite context, I would hope for two outcomes. The first would be to recognize that we need on-going, open, and safe discernment processes where we recognize the diversity that currently exists within our denomination. The diversity runs too deep and too wide for us to find unanimity on the inclusive/ restrictive debate in the near future. Hence, our biggest immediate challenge is to find a way to step back from fearfulness and threats to break fellowship and listen to each other.
The second outcome would be movement toward a more congregational polity, similar to that practiced by the former General Conference Mennonite Church, recognizing that membership issues should be decided on the congregational level. On the “homosexual issue” especially, given the complexity of the arguments and diversity of conclusions throughout the denomination, the most legitimate context for discernment is the face-to-face, directly accountable level of the local congregation.
Neither of these outcomes, (1) fostering safe and open discernment processes respecting the existing diversity within our denomination and (2) accepting that membership issues are a matter of congregational discernment, will resolve all the issues. However, they seem to me to be prerequisites for the Mennonite Church to move beyond the chaos which surrounds us now.
Appendix: The Biblical Perspective on Marriage
Many writers representing the “restrictive” perspective argue that part of their basis for arguing that “the Bible condemns same-sex intimacy as sin” is their understanding of the Bible’s normative portrayal of male and female marriage. In this brief excursus, I would like to reflect on this argument a bit more.
Stanley Grenz asserts that the importance of marriage is built into creation itself according to the Genesis one and two accounts. This is God’s means of populating the earth (“be fruitful and multiply”) and of providing for human companionship. Departure from this norm, thus, threatens the very fabric of human community.
It is at this point that Jesus’ teaching is understood to speak most directly to sexuality issues. Jesus directly quotes from Genesis in asserting the centrality of opposite-gender marriage to be God’s will for human life. Jesus did not actually need to say more than simply that God requires sexuality to be expressed in the context of opposite-gender marriage relationships (Grenz, pp. 103-105).
This point about the normativity of opposite-gender marriage lays at the heart of many restrictive writings on our topic. However, the applicability of this point must be challenged for several reasons.
(1) Using the creation account and other allusions to opposite-gender marriage as a basis for condemning all same-gender sexual expression is making a point that the texts themselves do not make. None of the biblical allusions to marriage or male/female sexuality say that therefore same-gender sexuality is wrong. And none of the texts that allegedly reject same-gender sexuality directly refer to the creation account. So, the restrictive writers are using texts that make particular, contextual, points to speak authoritatively about altogether different points.
(2) Logically, believing that the biblical norm is procreative sex between males and females in the context of monogamous marriage does not necessarily force one to believe that other expressions of sexuality are wrong or threaten that norm. Our faith communities now, at least implicitly, accept as morally legitimate some forms of non-procreative sexual expression (e.g., sex between infertile married partners, sex when the partners are using birth control, masturbation) without understanding them to threaten the biblical norm. So, there would seem to be no reason why faith communities would have to assume that another form of non-procreative sex (between two people of the same gender) is inherently threatening to the norm.
(3) Restrictive writers, in drawing upon what they see as a normative biblical view of marriage, ignore the Bible’s portrayal of marriage in varied ways. An obvious example is the biblical portrayal of polygamy. The Bible portrays polygamy as a norm for marriage throughout the Old Testament-and never overtly rejects that relationship pattern in the New Testament. The Bible also seems to assume a strongly patriarchal notion of marriage, in which wives are essentially thought of as their husband’s property.
So, the restrictive writers’ view of marriage (one man/one woman, relating as equals) is clearly not the only biblical position. Such an understanding of marriage cannot be seen as inherent from the beginning of creation. It is an understanding that has evolved over time. If this is the case, one is not rejecting biblical authority or the order of creation simply by questioning whether same-gender committed relationships are inherently wrong because they violate “the biblical view of marriage” as only between one male and one female.
(4) The restrictive position seems to assume a static, timeless notion of normativity in relation to marriage-as if one ancient text sets the once-and-for all standard. I have pointed out above that the Bible does not actually have just one view of marriage. As well, human history reflects a fluidity of understandings of marriage. Understandings of marriage are thoroughly culturally embedded and not based on a clear “order of creation.” So, we have no clear, absolute, once-for-all standard for marriage that provides an essential criterion for judging same-gender committed relations as inherently contrary to God’s will.
For all these reasons, we are led to conclude that the biblical perspective on marriage does not provide clear bases for “condemning same-sex intimacy as sin.”
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