So, recently one of my best friends got engaged to his boyfriend. Yeah, you read that correctly. His. Boyfriend. And almost immediately after you read that, you had some sort of reaction. Maybe you thought, “Aww, that’s so great! I wish them the best.” Or maybe you thought, “That’s so sad. It’s too bad that this has become okay in society’s eyes.” Either way, this sort of thing generates a lot of questions. And as a youth leader who gets the joy of trying to answer such questions from teenagers (and, believe me, they do ask these sorts of questions), I think that it might be a good idea to lay out what I think is a truly biblical theology of homosexuality.
Now, I feel as though I should put out a disclaimer or three. First, there is a lot more to this issue than I could possibly cover on this blog, so obviously this won’t be exhaustive. Second, you might disagree with me, and that’s okay. In fact, if you do disagree, let me know your reasons. I’d love to dialogue with you about it. I don’t know everything, and maybe you see something that I don’t.
My third disclaimer is this – you’re probably going to be uncomfortable with what I say. Almost everyone thinks they know what “the Bible says” until it’s actually laid out in front of them. What I’m going to present is almost guaranteed to make you uneasy, no matter which side of the issue you fall on. I think that when we have an honest look at what the Bible actually teaches, everyone is going to get what they need and nobody is going to get what they want. Which, now that I think about it, sounds exactly like the sort of thing Jesus always did. So, let’s get started!
The Part That Makes Christians1 Uncomfortable
Despite what you may think from how much Christians are always talking about it, there are really only six passages in the Bible that speak to the issue of homosexuality.2 They are Genesis 19:1-13,3 Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and I Timothy 1:10. Now as you may have noticed, the first three passages are in the Old Testament (OT) and the second three are in the New Testament (NT). So, let’s start in the Old Testament… because that just makes sense.
At this point, many people from the gay-affirming side will begin arguing against each passage specifically. However, I find these arguments largely unnecessary. Why? Because when we think of OT passages it quickly raises a much bigger question, “What if I’m not an orthodox Jew living in the Ancient Near East under the old covenant?” Good question. And for those few of us living in the 21st century West under the new covenant4, the usual response goes something like this, “Well, under the OT covenant, there are three types of laws – civil (dealing with the regulations of public life), ceremonial (dealing with sacrifices, feasts, festivals, and religious regulations), and moral (dealing with timeless truths regarding how God wants people to behave).” Under this way of thinking, Christians are still obligated to uphold the moral laws, and prohibitions against homosexuality are seen as moral laws.
The problem is that this way of dividing OT laws into three types just doesn’t work. Sorry, the cat’s out of the bag. Though this hermeneutic has an impressive pedigree going all the way back to Thomas Aquinas (13th century) and even Origen in the 3rd century, it’s just not accurate. How do I know? Because there’s nothing in the Bible itself that separates the laws into these categories.
For example, Leviticus 19:19 says, “You shall not breed together two kinds of your cattle; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material mixed together.” So, are these civil, ceremonial, or moral laws? If you say moral, then it must be immoral to breed a brahman with an angus, and multi-cropping and companion planting must be immoral, and it must be immoral to wear cotton-polyester blends. If you say these are just ceremonial or civil laws, then what do with we do with verse 18, which says, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself”? Clearly, this would have to be a moral law. The problem is that it’s right next to verse 19. Even worse, the only thing separating these two verses is the statement, “I am the LORD. You are to keep my statutes.” So how can we label one verse as timeless, but not the other?5 Ultimately, these categories are pretty arbitrary and subjective to whatever a person wants them to be.
So what should Christians do with the OT Law? Duvall and Hays do a good job of pointing out how OT passages should always be understood within their narrative and covenant contexts.6 And since there are no stories in the OT about Christians struggling with their sexuality and faith, and since Christians are under an entirely different covenant than that of the OT, it really doesn’t do us any good to use OT passages as authoritative rules for modern day Christians.7
So, that takes care of the OT passages. Sorry if you don’t like how brief and all-encompassing that was. If you have a better hermeneutic for the Torah, let me know. Now, onto the NT.
The first passage in the NT that deals with homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27.
For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.
These verses are part of a bigger picture that the apostle Paul is painting (vv 20-32), which describes mankind’s descent into depravity and sin. “Aha! We have you now,” says the traditionalist Christian. “How on earth will the gay affirming people get out this one?” Well, the usual way is by claiming that these verses are not talking about the sort of homosexuality that gay Christians are fighting for. Most gay Christians today are struggling for the right to have monogamous committed marriages under which they can raise a family. What Romans 1:26-27 is dealing with is nothing of the sort.8 What Paul is talking about here are the pagan fertility rituals that were common in ancient Greek and Roman city-states – intoxicated orgies used as a way to garner favor with the gods. How do we know this is what Paul has in mind? Because he explicitly writes verses 26-27 within the context of how people rejected worship of God for that of idols “in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (v 23), and how they “worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (v 25). Clearly, pagan worship is the major issue that Paul is addressing. And every gay Christian I know would say, “Yeah, we’re against that too.” So, is this a good passage to use when refuting modern-day homosexuality? Nope. Admittedly, Paul has nothing positive to say about homosexuality in these verses. However, you really kind of have to stretch the implications of this passage in order for it to cover the sort of relationships that gay Christians today are seeking.
Well, there you have it. Now that I’ve sufficiently made all of my Evangelical friends uncomfortable, tune in next time to watch me do the same for my gay-affirming friends.
1: What I mean by “Christian” here is really conservatives, fundamentalists, Evangelicals, traditionalists, and anyone else in that vein.
2: By contrast, there are over 3,000 verses that talk about issues related to poverty. And since the church has yet to end world hunger, we really don’t have much business trying to tackle such marginal issues as homosexuality.
3: Another interesting thing related to the above footnote is that the sin of Sodom according to the prophet Ezekiel was not homosexuality, but rather the people’s “arrogance,” their “abundant food and careless ease,” and the fact that they “did not help the poor and needy” (Ezek 16:49). So, American Christians, who are the real sodomites?
4: I’m going to be addressing this issue mostly as it relates to homosexuality among Christians, because as Paul says, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Cor 5:12)
5: For a fun exercise, read Numbers 5:11-28 and try to decide which category it would fit in. It deals with adultery, which is obviously a moral issue, but nobody would ever say Christians should handle it this way.
6: J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word, 2nd ed., 331-336. For a helpful look at various Christian approaches to interpreting the Torah, see chapter one of Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook, by Dr. Peter T. Vogt, in which he similarly argues for a paradigmatic approach to interpreting the OT Law.
7: Now, like most orthodox Christians, I believe that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” However, I think that there is a very real difference between saying that a passage is profitable or useful and saying that a passage is authoritative as law, and we need to honor that difference.
8: This does not mean, however, that the notion of relational homosexuality was altogether absent from the ancient Greco-Roman world. Recently, Preston Sprinkle has done an adequate job in his blog series, Homosexuality in the Bible, of showing that gay sex was not limited in the ancient world to pagan worship alone, and that some of the Roman emperors actually had gay lovers. See here, here, and here.