Much has been written on the Bible and homosexuality, ranging every opinion under the sun. I am in no way under the delusion that I can meaningfully contribute new ideas to this discussion. I have two primary reasons for writing this. Firstly, I would like to give some clear and accessible responses to common arguments against the plain reading of the Bible, which teaches that homosexual sex is a form of sexual immorality. Secondly, I would like to empower you and give you confidence in your own Bible reading. It disturbs me that the way we interpret scripture in the modern world so often dismisses plain and obvious readings of the text, in favour of complicated and unintuitive alternatives. This mode of interpretation takes the scriptures from the hands of ordinary people, insists that only scholars can read them correctly, and in effect creates something like a new Roman Catholicism. Only certain professionals can understand God’s word, they insist. You wouldn’t appreciate the necessary contexts after-all.
My simple take-home point that I want you to understand is this: you as a Christian are able to read the Bible for yourself and understand what it means. If you are honest with yourself, and you have basic comprehension skills, you will be able to agree on the basic meaning of the text. I don’t mean you will always be right, or that interpretation is always simple. But I do insist that the Bible itself provides you with sufficient context for you to understand it, without you needing an ancient history degree.
For all my study of the original languages, the historicity of the Bible, the philosophy of interpretation and application, and historical theology… my main conclusion for you, as someone who has looked closely at these issues is this: most of the time with occasional exceptions, your popular English translations of the Bible mean what they look like they mean. Where there are nuances and tidbits of insight that you are missing in your English translations, they are not huge and earth-shattering. They do not often completely change the meaning of the text; though they will add clarity and nuance to your reading.
If someone interprets the Bible in a way that completely changes or reverses the apparent meaning on the page in front of you, your alarm bells should be ringing! It is easy for those with fanciful imaginations and the least amount of actual scholarship, to invent some possible context which completely deforms the text. The kinds of things people get away with when interpreting the Bible wouldn’t be tolerated in any other kind of deliberate communication. Suppose my wife Lani sent me a text asking me to hang out the washing, and instead of doing so I thought:
“Well in our household linguistic context, washing actually refers to a range of activities. This certainly includes the clothing in the washing machine, but could also be taken to refer to the cups by the sink. Lani is also well aware that she is speaking to me, an Anglican clergyman. And in Anglican clerical contexts washing actually has a technical meaning, as in baptism. Taking this with the historical linguistic context of the 21st century: ‘hang out’ is also a euphemism for ‘relax’; I think it’s fair to say that Lani is telling me to relax because I am baptised, and I no longer have to worry about condemnation”.
This is obviously absurd. Nobody would take my interpretation of Lani’s text message seriously. And yet this is not that far from what some do to the Bible when it comes to controversial issues like gender and sexuality. People scrabble to find some way that it doesn’t mean what it looks like it means, because what it looks like it means makes them uncomfortable. So when you come across passages which address homosexuality, and they make you feel uncomfortable because they say something unpopular, you need to avoid your basic inclination to find an interpretation which changes the meaning to be more convenient.
Remember that Jesus was not liked, and his teaching was not popular. When you step into God’s light which is his word, and it makes you feel ugly or uncomfortable by revealing how far your inner thoughts are from those of God, you will be tempted to step back into the darkness. You will be tempted to do this by either avoiding those parts of the Bible entirely or by obscuring them behind layers of interpretation until they no longer resemble that light which first made you uncomfortable.
Resist this temptation to hide like Adam did when he first knew his own sin and nakedness. Instead, love God enough to hear his rebuke. You will find things in the Bible that confront you This is okay. You are a human on a journey to become like Jesus, the more you experience these feelings of dissonance between your own life and God’s word the more you will see the Holy Spirit at work in yourself. Revealing the things in yourself which must change, and the areas in which you have room to grow.
When the light shows you that something inside of you is ugly, don’t turn out the light, and don’t change God to suit your own desires. Follow the leading of God’s spirit and change yourself, by seeking to understand God’s word in the context of the gospel of grace; and making it your project to actually see the beauty and goodness in God’s intended design.
With that in view, I am going to give three key texts from the new testament which address the topic of homosexuality before I engage with a sequence of questions. I hope that when you read these you will see for yourself the clarity of what is being said; that it is not actually obscure or difficult to understand, but that its message is plain enough. Plain enough that it may, as I have mentioned, make you uncomfortable.
(English translations below are from the NASB, but they are not dramatically different from what your NIV, or ESV will say. The NASB is however slightly more literal and direct in its approach to translation, which I prefer. I have changed one thing in the 1 Corinthians translation. The NASB translates “μαλακοὶ” as “effeminate”. This is not incorrect, but I feel it is unclear. The word is not referring to cultural effeminacy in all forms, but I think is particularly referring to men who present themselves as women either culturally or sexually or both. As such I have translated “μαλακοὶ” as “men who present as women”. The NIV does not include mention of “the effeminate” because the translation committee felt that this word referred to men who take on “female” roles in homosexual sex as the receiving partner. I think that this is somewhat unlikely as the other word used for “homosexual” would already refer to both parties in the act, (ἀρσενοκοῖται – literally “those who bed with men”).
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural purpose for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned natural relations with 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. 28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
9 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 men who present as women, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 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
8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers 10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, 11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.
After you’ve read these texts closely, and thought about the clarity of what they say; then with these texts in mind we can get to the questions. What I am going to do is ask and answer a series of questions, as briefly and succinctly as I can, which are commonly raised in objection to the plain reading of the Bible. I am not going to be giving the most thorough answers that I am capable of giving, but instead trying to be brief and clear so that you won’t get bogged down in an overly technical argument. If my reasoning below does not satisfy you, please don’t make the mistake of thinking that I have mustered every argument that could be made. There is much more that could be said than the below, but I hope that the concise form of my reasoning will be sufficient to convince you. If you do want more information about any of my responses though, please just ask and I can happily go into further detail with you.
Q1: Isn’t homosexuality just a sin like any other? We all struggle with different sins in our lives, isn’t it unfair to single this one out and demand change if we are more tolerant of other sin?
A1: Good point! And yes, homosexuality is grouped in as one of many sins, you can certainly see that in the lists above. While we are people who seek grace and forgiveness before judgement and ostracization, the overwhelming teaching of the New Testament is that Christians must not tolerate sin in their own lives or in the Church. Now of course not all sin is equal and the Bible doesn’t teach that it is. Though all sin is serious, different sins have different consequences. Murder for instance, generally has more serious consequences than dishonoring your mother or father. Sexual sin is singled out as being particularly destructive in the life of the Church. Paul says “flee from sexual immorality!” and reminds us that we misappropriate our own bodies, and experience great shame and confusion when we dishonor ourselves by participating in immoral sexual behaviour. With that said, all sin needs to be repented of. A Christian cannot call themselves a Christian and go on unashamedly in lying, or greed, or hatred, or any sin; including homosexual sexual activity and identity. James tells us that “faith without works is dead”, and we are reminded that simply believing in Jesus and paying him lip service is not actually what “faith” is. Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7 that not all who claim to be his followers will be saved. Faith is desiring God and living a life of repentance. We will slip up. We will need forgiveness time and time again. But if we cease to hate our sin, and instead celebrate it or practice it without guilt in the name of so-called “grace”, then we have lost sight of the gospel and lost sight of Jesus.
Q2: Is it true that most homosexuality in the ancient world was pederastic? That is, exploitative relationships between older men and younger boys. If this is the case then is Paul rebuking these exploitative relationships rather than homosexual relationships in general?
A2: While it is true that pederastic relationships were extant in ancient contexts (and remain so today), it is unreasonable to assume that these represented the overwhelming majority of homosexual relationships. In Greek culture for instance, it was not at all uncommon for adult males to have sex with one another; consider Sparta. In any case, Romans 1 also includes mention of lesbian relationships (v26) which certainly do not fit this category, unless we are to assume that there was in Rome a historical problem of lesbian pedophiles (hint, there really wasn’t). Furthermore, if we look closely at Romans 1 it is clear that the reason that homosexual sex is sinful is not because it is pederastic, but because it exchanges the natural order for an unnatural one. In verse 27 men “abandon natural relations with woman”, and replace these desires with lust for other men. It is the exchange of man for woman, and woman for man that represents this disorder. It is also clear that nowhere in the text of the Bible is pederastic exploitation connected with homosexuality, in fact, nobody in all Church history ever made this argument or thought that the Bible was saying this until the last century. Furthermore, age gaps are not unique to homosexual relationships! Many heterosexual relationships in the ancient world were exploitative and involved young girls marrying older men; this being the case, if Paul wished to rebuke age differentiated sexual exploitation, why would he specifically address homosexual relationships when this was not a uniquely (or even mostly) homosexual problem? Pederasty is certainly bad, but that has nothing to do with why God prohibits homosexual sex.
Q3: When the Bible uses the word “abomination” isn’t it usually referring to idolatry? If this is true, then when homosexuality is called an “abomination” in Leviticus then couldn’t that also be a specific case in which homosexual sex was part of pagan idolatry? As in the case of a shrine prostitute?
A3: The word “abomination” is often connected with idolatry, but the word doesn’t refer to it exclusively. It is also used to refer to other forms of sexual immorality such as incest, and adultery; none of which were commonly associated with pagan worship rites. The language here in Leviticus is also quite clear, “men who lay with men as though with a woman”. This descriptor is to the point, and I think precludes much speculation of specific cases that might be underlying the relationship. The act itself, just as in the case of fornication (sex outside of marriage), adultery, bestiality, or incest, is expressly forbidden.
Q4: There are so many laws in the Old Testament. Aren’t we just picking and choosing by focusing on sexual immorality?
A4: This argument might work if the New Testament didn’t include several specific references to homosexuality, but as it stands even if we entirely ignore Leviticus there is enough in the writings of Paul, which were applied to Christians, to show that homosexual activity is sin. With that said, we should not completely discard Leviticus, and we shouldn’t pick and choose from it arbitrarily. Christians are not under “the Law” of the Old Testament, this is true. We are saved by grace, through faith. Many parts of the Law have also been explicitly fulfilled and called no-longer applicable to Christians in the New Testament. Namely things like sacrifices, food laws, and circumcision. But when we say that Christians are no longer “under the Law”, what we mean is that Christians do not have to uphold the religious and civil consequences of the Law.
So for instance, Christians should not stone people to death for committing adultery. Does this mean that adultery is not a sin? Absolutely not. Does this mean that God does not judge adulterers? If they do not repent He absolutely judges adulterers. With that said, it is not our job to uphold the consequences of the Law or to assume that by keeping the Law we can make ourselves righteous. Only faith in Jesus can make us righteous, but real faith will lead us repent, and to follow the “moral Law” which refers to those parts of the Law which are concerned with with moral behaviour; namely the ten commandments as they were understood in Israel.
Q5: But Jesus never even mentioned homosexuality!
A5: Jesus never specifically mentioned all sorts of things. Jesus never specifically mentioned pedophilia, pornography, or speeding in school zones. Apply this logic to any of those cases and see how it goes. But seriously, he did mention sexual immorality multiple times and quite conservatively. Jesus was notably more sexually conservative than others in his time. He even forbade divorce when most sadducees and pharisees permitted it. He was also far stricter than the other Jewish rabbis in his teaching on lust, even saying that lust in the heart was more or less equivalent to adultery. We need to remember that when Jesus uses the phrase “sexual immorality” he is referring to a list of sexual behaviours that are called immoral in the Old Testament. Homosexual activity is definitely included in this list.
Q6: In Romans 1, Paul is rebuking people who give up what is natural to them. If it is natural to someone to have homosexual sex, then isn’t that different than what he is describing?
A6: If we follow this logic, and assume that Paul is really saying that the problem is those who have homosexual sex when it is not “natural” to them, are we to take that he is talking about heterosexual men engaging in homosexual activity? This would be rather strange. I can’t imagine that this problem is an especially common one. Especially when Paul describes that they “burned with lusts for one another”, which would seem to imply strong same sex attraction. This argument is probably the silliest one on this whole list, and thankfully people have stopped using it as much in the last few years. Natural sexual relations refers not to that which “comes naturally to you”. Paul is very clear that to sinners, sin comes “naturally”. The word here is quite evidently referring to God’s intended design being replaced with our own misuse of our bodies, which can take many other shapes than homosexuality, but certainly includes it.
Q7: Jesus and Paul were both teaching in a different time and place than we are living in today. Their cultures were far less developed than our own, and in their time their own teaching was radical. In Judaism for instance homosexuals were stoned to death, so Paul teaching Christians to leave their judgement to God was actually progressive. If we want to be faithful to their teaching, don’t we need to be progressive in our interaction with our own culture?
A7: This is called the “moral trajectory argument” and it is commonly applied to other issues too, notably gender and Bible verses addressing women. The first problem with it in this case is that it is simply not true. Jesus was far more conservative on his teaching concerning sexuality than were the Jewish teachers of his time; I indicated this in A5. But furthermore, books like Romans and Corinthians were written to largely gentile audiences, who were far more sexually permissive than even our society is today. Prostitution, homosexuality, and even pedophelia were largely tolerated in these cultural contexts. Homosexuality much as it is today, was celebrated; this is pointed out in Romans 1. Paul is not writing something that would be seen as “sexually progressive” in his time. Furthermore the notion of social “progress” is a modern one, and ancient writers did not think along these terms. If you wanted to make this argument in a more consistent and honest way, you should say that in his own time; Jesus’s teaching on sexuality was radically conservative. In a world today where our culture is even more conservative than his was, we should be even more conservative and ban sex entirely!
Thankfully this is a stupid way to read and interpret the Bible, and I will not be making this argument. We must acknowledge that the Bible was written to address a particular people in a particular context, but we also believe that the word of God is enduringly relevant and continues to speak today. Furthermore we believe that the fundamental problems of human sinfulness have not really changed. Sexual immorality for the most part looks much as it always did and so our application of the Bible needs to respond to new problems, such as internet pornography, but the principles are already there for us to do this without wildly dislocating the text from its meaning and applying it in ways which would have obviously horrified Jesus and Paul.
Q8: The Bible is just one of our sources of theology. We also need to look at our experiences in life and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t the evidence of faith and belief among gay Christians show us that God’s Spirit has accepted homosexuality and that we should too?
A8: Absolutely we ought to look at our experiences in life and reconcile them with what we believe. I actively encourage that we think about God in the whole context of our lives and not just in our times spent reading the Bible. With this said, the Spirit of God does not contradict the word of God. And if our experiences are found to contradict God’s word, then we have misunderstood something. The Bible at numerous points refers to homosexuality as a form of sexual sin; and this being the case, if we feel that we have seen genuine repentance and faithfulness among practicing homosexual Christians, then I think we have a skewed definition of repentance and faithfulness. I have known unrepentant adulterers, liars, gamblers, and all kinds of people living in sin without remorse that have called themselves Christian, this does not legitimize their behaviour and Jesus taught us to watch out for all forms of hypocrisy.
I am of course not talking here about those who struggle to repent of their sin, we all do. If someone is same sex attracted, this is no barrier to their genuine faith and repentance any more than heterosexual lust is. The desire to sin sexually in some way or other lives in most of us. But all of us must align ourselves to God’s word and not allow sin to reign in our mortal bodies. If you want to look for evidence of the Holy Spirit in somebody’s life, look for repentance according to the word of God. That’s what the Holy Spirit looks like when he works. Not showy spirituality, fancy words, emotional prayers, or even Church attendance alone… look at their life and ask yourself, is this a life of repentance and desiring God’s will first. Do their lives match the scriptures? If you can answer yes, then you have met a genuine believer.
Q9: Homosexual people have a choice between two sins. Lying is spoken of more in the Bible than homosexuality. Shouldn’t they rather be honest to themselves and who they really are, than lie about themselves to prevent a smaller sin?
A9: If you are a Christian, then you are not lying about yourself when you live like a Christian. All of us struggle with sinful desires, but these do not constitute our identity. The real you, the one whom God knows, the you who you are called to be, is not like the old man Adam who followed his own heart; but is shaped in the image of the new man Jesus who in all things obeyed God. Sin in Romans 1 is described as “exchanging the truth of God for a lie”. When you live a life of sin you are not being true to yourself, even if it’s what you naturally desire; you are telling lies about your true identity which ought to be in Christ. Live honestly, openly, and stand in the light. Tell no lies. Keep no secrets. Live in faith and repentance.
Q10: The Biblical authors never envisioned that a homosexual relationship could be monogamous. What they were rebuking was promiscuity. Shouldn’t we permit homosexual relationships if they are still waiting to have sex before marriage and pursuing sexual purity?
A10: All sorts of homosexual relationship existed in the ancient world, and while none of them were called marriage, much as today, monogamous homosexual relationships have always existed in some form or other. In any case, Paul explicitly singles out the natural exchange of genders in sexual activity, and makes no reference to promiscuity in his characterization of homosexuality in Romans 1. Neither does Leviticus. Furthermore promiscuity is already addressed multiple times and in other places, why would Paul refer specifically to homosexuality in addition to promiscuity if he was really only rebuking the same thing?
Q11: All love images God. Faithful, other centered, homosexual love is not different. Why should we oppose any form of love when God is love?
A11: Love as God defines it is other centered sacrifice. True love has none other than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends. The height of love in the world is not romantic love, but Jesus’ love for you and for me. Please be aware, Jesus’ love was obviously not sexual! We need to be very aware that in our culture, it is common in our politics to intentionally shift the use of words so that we can creep new meaning into them. Like a legislative “rider” that politicians will sometimes employ (attaching a controversial law as a small part of a bigger bill to get it voted through parliament), post-modern social commentators intentionally restrict and alter the definitions of words in order to conflate dissociated concepts. This is nothing new, Aristotle referred to this as a “revolution within the form”.
The word love has become all but meaningless because by this process. Love when defined Christianly is not sex, and when we say “God is love” we are not saying “God is sex”. Sex and love should have something to do with each other, of course. But sex practiced “lovingly” and with consideration for God’s love, has many boundaries and restrictions upon it.
We do not and never will oppose genuine sacrificial love between any two people on earth. Love everyone more! And when a gay couple marry it is not their love which we should oppose. We can hope and pray that these two people really will love each other. Nonetheless, we oppose the idea that sex (and consequently marriage, which is explicitly a sexual union), has any place in this relationship. Don’t let people trick you by sneaking sex into your definition of love. Love is love! Sex is not. Parents should love their children, and yet if a parent used the excuse that “love is love” to legitimize a sexual relationship with their child, we would obviously see that something had gone wrong in their use of the word. Men should love men. Women should love women. The way that love plays out in all of our varied and different relationships will look different in each context, no two are quite alike; and yet sex has a very particular purpose in God’s order which should always exist alongside love, and yet is not love in itself.