What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality, part I

by Phil Snider

Today I begin a five-part sermon series on the biblical questions that I am asked about most frequently as a pastor. The questions I get the most, in this order, are: “What does the Bible say about homosexuality?” What does the Bible say about hell?” and “What does the Bible say about heaven?” So I figured I would take some time this summer to address them.

As you can imagine, the responses to these questions are varied and complex. I wish I could say that it was all very cut and dry, that there is an easy answer to all of this. But there isn’t.

As Christians, we have a serious responsibility to come to terms with what we believe in relationship to the Bible, scripture, tradition, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Every day we render judgments regarding what we believe is right and true, and if as Christians we claim the Bible to be our authoritative source, then we have the responsibility to listen to its teachings and, to the best of our ability, listen to its guidance. We ought not take the teachings of the Bible flippantly on any matter, unless we are okay with not taking it seriously.

Obviously, not all of us are going to interpret the Bible the exact same way. The question, it seems to me, is not based on whether we have uniformity of interpretation but rather integrity of interpretation. Whatever our personal beliefs might be, we are charged with interpreting the Bible with integrity, to ask how it serves as a guide for our beliefs, which demands understanding it to the best of our ability, in relationship to its original context, and in light of the teachings of Christ.

Today, my role is to help walk you through the biblical texts that talk about homosexuality. Clearly, this is one of the most widely talked about topics in contemporary culture. In just the past couple of months, three of the biggest Protestant denominations in the United States (the United Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians) have consistently made headlines because at each of their church conventions they’ve made resolutions related to homosexuality, from conversations about ordination to marriage to the appropriateness of same gender relationships. These conversations have been very divisive for contemporary denominations and churches, as I’m sure you already know.

One of the things I value the most about Brentwood in particular and the Disciples of Christ in general is a commitment to respecting a variety of interpretations, and still believing that the love of Christ unites us. Goodness knows that those of you sitting here today don’t all agree on this matter! But we make a commitment to be church together, believing that the love of Christ transcends even our differences of opinion; that love, not doctrine, unites us.

My role as a pastor in the Disciples of Christ is not to tell you what conclusion you must make, but rather help give you the resources you need to come to a responsible interpretation. I speak to the church, but not for the church. Ultimately, it is your responsibility to wrestle with what you believe on this matter. What I believe doesn’t have to be what you believe, and vice versa. Again, the question is not about uniformity of opinion but integrity of opinion.

So with that said, let’s venture into the biblical teachings about homosexuality and ask for God’s guidance. One quick disclaimer: The Bible would receive an “R” rating by the standards of today, so in an effort to be sensitive to all the ears in the room, including the younger ones, there are times when I soften the explicit language in the Bible, and I need you to be able to infer with me what the Bible is getting at. So, for instance, I might say “same gender relations” as opposed to something perhaps more explicit. But bear with me in that regard for obvious reasons.

In the Bible, there are five verses that talk about what we refer to as homosexuality (although the ancients didn’t have an understanding of “sexual orientation” in the same way we do today). There are two verses from Leviticus, one from 1 Corinthians, one from 1 Timothy, and one from Romans. A lot of times people throw Genesis 19 into the mix (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah), but for reasons I’ll mention shortly most scholars today don’t think it’s a passage about homosexuality.

Leviticus 18:22 says that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” and Leviticus 20:13 says “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they’ve committed an abomination.”

Clearly, these verses prohibit same gender relations. It’s obvious. It’s explicit. So the easy thing for us to do is say that this settles the matter, and for many people it does. So why in the world would some Christians say this doesn’t settle the matter? Well, the response to this is pretty simple, and you likely know it already: There are a bunch of biblical passages in Leviticus and in the Bible that we don’t follow whatsoever, and we have no problem with it. Many of us eat shellfish. We eat pork. We wear clothes made from two different types of materials. We lend money with interest. All without batting an eye. So why do we hold up some verses as authoritative but completely disregard others? Such a lack of consistency makes it difficult to justify our reasons for condemning one thing as taboo while ignoring other taboos that lie side by side in the text.

A funny picture made the rounds on Facebook recently. It pictured a man with a tattoo that said “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” with the biblical reference Lev. 18:22. Yet if you go on to read Leviticus 19, you’ll see that it forbids tattoos! So all of this is very difficult to navigate. And I also failed to mention the second half of Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they’ve committed an abomination, and both must be put to death.” Of course, none of us who follow the sexual ethic commended here follow through with the death penalty for such violations. It would put us in prison, and rightly so! It’s like what the Taliban does, and of course we don’t want anything to do with that. If we follow the ethical admonitions in the first five books of the Bible, then kids who curse their parents have to be executed, as well as brides who aren’t virgins, as well as a bunch of other things we would never do. If you take the sexual ethics found in Leviticus as your guide, are you ready to execute those who commit such acts? Are you ready to own up to all that is demanded in the text? This is why the corny bumper sticker that reads “The Bible says it – I believe it – That settles it” is so non-sensical and unhelpful. So how do we decide which parts of the Bible we follow, and which we don’t? This is no easy matter.

To make things even difficult, biblical scholars also tell us that the ancient Israelites believed that acts of same gender relations kept Israel from fortifying itself against its enemies. Israel was a small, fragile nation, and it needed as strong of a defense as possible. In order to survive it believed in procreating as much as possible in order to increase the number of soldiers in the army. So men were not to “waste” their seed whatsoever, whether with other men or by themselves, because the purpose of sexuality was for procreation. Hence the strict prohibitions. This is also much of the reason why brothers of those who died without children were supposed to have relations with their late brother’s widow, in order to bear children, which is yet another biblical practice that none of us heed today.

And from still yet another perspective, scholars tell us, there were cultic worship practices among devotees to other gods that involved temple prostitution between males, and Israel was not to order their worship practices the same way, but to be set apart. Part of this is also connected to ritual purity codes, and in the same way men were not to have relations with one another, neither were men supposed to have relations with women during a certain time of the month (related to menstrual cycles). So there are a variety of contextual considerations that come into play, and we have to ask ourselves if the same principles that applied then still apply today. There’s no clear cut answer. All of us won’t come to the same conclusions, but we have the responsibility to ask the same questions, and to respond with integrity.

I mentioned earlier that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, from Genesis 19, is sometimes cited as a text prohibiting homosexuality. In the story, the men of Sodom come to assault Lot’s visitors, who they do not recognize as being two angels, and Lot offers to hand over his daughters instead. However, offering daughters instead of the visitors makes no sense if we think of the men of Sodom as “homosexuals.” “These Sodomites are violent bullies,” one scholar writes, “who carry their excesses to the point of attempted rape [assault]. Such behavior still occurs in the aftermath of battle, in prisons, or among violent gangs. Those who perform such forced rapes [assaults] consistently insist that they are [straight], and their actions seem indeed to be intended to assert power rather than to express sexual attraction.” (See William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 98). Here, men in the role of aggressor place conquered or victimized men in the role of the woman, all in order to assert dominance, power, and authority over them, which is a practice that continues today in prisons and in the aftermath of battle, among straight men asserting their dominance over others. A problematic practice indeed, one to be unequivocally condemned, but not one excluded to “homosexual” men by any stretch of the imagination; rather, it is straight men asserting their power over their victims. Hence the reason most biblical scholars don’t view the sin of Sodom as that of homosexuality (indeed, according to the book of Ezekiel, the sin of Sodom is that they “did not aid the poor and needy” cf. Ez. 16:49).

Things get even murkier when we turn our attention to Christian scripture. Here we encounter three texts that condemn same gender relations: The passages from 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are virtually identical: each lists types of sinners who won’t inherit the kingdom of God, including “men who have [relations] with other men.”

In Greco-Roman culture, the context in which St. Paul (the author of these letters) was situated—same-sex activity was quite common. Often, as a rite of passage, adolescent boys were subjected as passive partners to older men of power and prestige. The older men would display their power by relegating these adolescent boys to the passive role of women—further establishing the patriarchies of Greco-Roman culture. When the boy became an adult, he would switch roles, and then he would marry a woman and have children. This practice was so common that the legendary Greek philosopher Plato took all of this for granted and praised the virtues of courage and honor that resulted from such relationships. And while these practices were common, they are once again in stark contrast to the kinds of relationships that are shared today among mutually consenting adults, so we’re left wondering. One scholar reflects on St. Paul’s writings and says that “. . . though some scholars argue the point, [it seems] fairly clear that Paul considered these practices sinful. Some Christians conclude that that settles the matter [while] others feel that Paul simply reflected the prejudices of a Jew who had come into contact with [Greco-Roman] culture. . . . Paul condemned what he saw . . . [but] we are not sure why Paul condemned what he saw. Would he have felt differently if everyone involved had been an adult? If the relation had been understood as between equals? . . . Such questions have no obvious answer.” (see Placher, 99).

The last remaining biblical passage about homosexuality, from Romans 1, says that “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men…” This is, by the way, the only mention in the Bible about women laying with women.

Here Paul says that such activity is unnatural — that it goes against the created order — and this is one of the strongest arguments that is still made today. But appealing to natural law is a dangerous path to tread. After all, Paul’s writings have also been used to argue that slavery and patriarchal structures are natural. As the theologian John Caputo comments, “Natural law theory is notorious for serving the interests of the natural law theorists, for starting with a conclusion and then working back to the idea of ‘nature’ that provides them with a suitable cover” (see Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 110). In the cases of slavery and patriarchy, it’s convenient for men who already have the power to define what nature means. And when it comes to such situations today, don’t we gladly admit that Paul reflected an ancient bias that no longer holds? All of which raises the unavoidable question: If Paul got the “natural law” wrong when it came to slavery and women, who’s to say he got it right when it comes to homosexuality? There is no obvious answer. Critics often object at this point and say that the only way to populate the species is intercourse between a man and a woman, so the natural law is clear. But if the only purpose for sexual activity is the procreation of the human race, should we then condemn sexual activity between married senior citizens or younger couples who are infertile? And if science ends up showing us that a person is born gay, that a person doesn’t choose one’s sexual orientation, that it is natural to be gay, then would Paul’s argument still hold the same way? Again, we are left with questions that Paul never considered.

Whether we look at passages from the Old Testament or the New Testament, we quickly see that none of this is cut and dry, none of it is black and white. I wish it was; that would make my job much, much easier. Would St. Paul—or the writer of Leviticus for that matter—say the same principles apply to two adults of the same gender sharing a monogamous, mutual, loving relationship? I wish we could conjure St. Paul up from the dead to settle these matters for us, but we simply can’t. We have to trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, in the light of Christ.

Next week, in part 2 of this sermon series, I will reflect on how we consider handling all of this as part of the church, as those trying to be a faithful witness to Christ in the world today.

For now, we’re left with the responsibility of prayerfully considering where the Holy Spirit is leading us. Not all of us are going to agree, at which point it is all the more important for us to remind ourselves that our unity is not based on uniformity of opinion, but on mutuality of love.

One thing I find helpful when encountering difficult passages of the Bible, one thing I find helpful when considering how best to interpret them, is a line from the orthodox theologian Karl Barth, who once said “The Bible is the Word of God insofar as it conforms to the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ.” And as we go from this place today, as we reflect and discern, I encourage you to consider the words from Jesus that Charlie shared a few moments ago during our scripture reading from the gospel of Matthew. When Jesus was asked “What is the greatest commandment?” his simple response was “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

As you consider where the Holy Spirit is leading you, even in recognition that not all of us are going to be led in the exact same directions, the mark of Christ—the mark of love—must be our north star. When it comes down to it, each and every one of our judgments as Christians is to be consistent with the ethic and character of Christ—the ethic and character of love, for on this hangs all the law and the prophets. This is our measuring stick, this is our authority, this is our canon, and this is how we are called to make decisions. As St. Augustine once said, “If love is the only measure, the only measure of love is love without measure.” So where is love leading you?

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