Heated conversations about homosexuality have been occurring in the church for the better part of the last twenty-five years, reaching a fevered pitch in my own denomination with a vote to recognize same-gendered relationships and ordain ministers in such relationships in 2009. Since then, the issue has not abated and, given the number of states voting this fall to define marriage, in some ways has only grown in significance. Given all these discussion, I have been regularly surprised by how little Christians seem to know about what the Bible actually says about homosexuality. For this reason, and in light of ongoing conversations and the impending votes in my own state and others, I've decided to post on this topic. I've tried in this piece to be mainly descriptive rather than proscriptive, as I continue to think that Christians of good faith can disagree on this topic and still remain in fellowship with each other. You may or may not agree with this conviction and the analysis that follows, and I welcome your response in the comments. For now, though, I want to get to the question at hand: What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?
And the answer, surprisingly, is actually, a whole lot less than you might imagine. That may be hard to believe given the fierce rhetoric Christians often employ when talking about homosexuality, but there are really only seven passages in the Bible that refer directly to homosexual behavior, and none of them are associated with Jesus. Compare that to the more than 250 verses on the proper use of wealth or more than 300 on our responsibility to care for the poor and work for justice, and you appreciate quickly that homosexuality was not exactly a major theme of the Bible. Nevertheless, these seven passages have been poured over by conservative and liberal scholars alike and have occasioned considerable conversation and controversy. In order to review what the Bible actually says about homosexuality, as well as what others are saying about it, I'll group similar verses below and give a brief summary of the major differences in interpretation. Then I'll outline the four most common stances Christians take regarding these biblical passages in general, as these positions greatly influence how one interprets individual verses.
Old Testament Narrative
There are two passages that refer to homosexual behavior that are set in larger narratives. That is, they are part of a story, not a legal or moral code. Each deals with the threat of homosexual rape. The more famous of the two comes from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah found in Genesis 19:1-11. Lot, Abraham's nephew, is staying in Sodom when he is visited by angels. Men from the city come and demand that they be allowed to have sex with Lot's guests. Lot refuses and when he is threatened by the townspeople the angels he has hosted protect him. A similar story occurs in Judges 19:16-30 (minus angels and with a grislier outcome).
There is broad consensus among scholars on both the left and the right (except for the very most conservative) that these passages have nothing to do with homosexuality per se, but rather with hospitality and justice. That is, both scenes represent hosts protecting their guests from severe humiliation and outrageous injustice. Some other parts of the Bible interpret these passages just this way. Ezekiel, for instance, refers to the sin of Sodom not in terms of sexual immorality but rather justice: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (16:49).
The Holiness Code of Leviticus
There are two verses in the book of Leviticus that refer to homosexual behavior. The first reads, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (18:22). While the second goes even further: "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them" (20:13). Again, there is considerable agreement that both of these passages are portions of what is commonly called the holiness code, a set of rules and regulations spanning chapters 17-26 that are intended to set Israel apart from the Egyptians they fled and the Canaanites they were now living among. (There is also overwhelming agreement, thankfully, that however one feels about homosexuality, the death penalty is an extreme and unwarranted response!)
There is considerable debate, however, about three matters. 1) Do these passages refer to consensual homosexual practice (and whether that was even a recognized option in the ancient world), or do they describe the cultic practice of Israel's neighbors and adversaries? 2) Are these regulations contingent because they derive from particular challenges and situations the Israelites faced at that time (the importance of procreation, for instance, given that Israel was a nomadic people dependent on increasing its population for survival), or do they intend to establish universal sexual norms. And 3) even if these regulations were normative for Israelites, do they continue to be for Christians given how many other Levitical codes are contradicted later in the New Testament or have historically been ignored by Christians.
New Testament Ethics
The three passages in question read as follows:
Romans 1:26-27: "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their 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 and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
1 Corinthians 6:9-11: "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God."
1 Timothy 1:9-11: "This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me."
There is considerable debate on at least two questions about these passages. 1) Do they refer to consensual homosexual practice, to cultic prostitution, or to male pederasty (where an adult male has sex with a younger boy, either as a coming of age ritual or on a commercial basis)? 2) Are the NT authors pointing to specific behavior they have witnessed, or are they using a common "catalogue of complaints" against Gentiles (as there are similar complaints in other first-century Jewish writings about Gentiles)?
Of these verses, the Romans passage is often cited as a "lynch pin" text because the Apostle Paul seems to make his argument on the basis of the natural order ("natural" vs. "unnatural" passions). But at another place Paul uses nature to justify his position on the proper length of men's and women's hair and the need for women to wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2-16). As it turns out, arguing from nature was a common rhetorical device in Paul's day, employed by many contemporaries of the Apostle, and was similar to saying today, "The conventional wisdom is...."
Four Basic Views
Most Christians I have talked to fall into one of four groups regarding these verses depending on how they address two questions. The first we've named directly at several points already: Do the passages refer to anything like the phenomena of life-long, monogamous, or mutually consensual same-gendered relationships that we know of today? (It's worth noting that our word "homosexual" was not present in the ancient world but was instead invented in the nineteenth century.) The second issue we've only alluded to: Whether or not the passages refer to the phenomenon we are describing today, are we bound to ethical determinations made by persons living in vastly different cultures and times and whose understanding of the world and of God's activity was shaped and limited by their own cultural viewpoints.
Depending on how you answer those two critical questions, you will likely fall into one of four groups.
The passages in question refer to homosexual practice in all times and cultures and so universally prohibit such practice.
The passages do not refer to homosexuality as we know it today and so cannot be seen as prohibiting it. Other passages therefore need to inform our discussions about sexuality in general and homosexual relationships in particular.
The passages may or may not refer to homosexuality as we know it, but they - and the larger witness of Scripture - imply a view of nature and creation that supports sexual relationship and union only between man and woman, and so homosexual practice is prohibited.
The passages may or may not refer to homosexuality as we know it, but they - and all of Scripture - are conditioned by the cultural and historical realities of the authors and so offer an incomplete and insufficient understanding of creation and nature and so cannot be used to prohibit homosexual practice today. Rather, one needs to read the larger biblical witness to discern God's hopes for caring, mutually-supportive relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
As is often the case, one's larger theological or ideological commitments greatly influence how one reads these seven verses. The first and third positions, for instance, reflect a more conservative view and make it difficult to find anything but condemnation in the Bible for homosexual practice. The second and forth, in contrast, invite a more progressive interpretation of the verses in common and open the way to supporting homosexual relationships as several major mainline church bodies have done.
For Christians who look to the Bible for moral guidance, there are two more questions worth consideration. First, do you see yourself represented fairly in one of the four groups above? Second, can you imagine that someone holding one of the other three positions is also a faithful Christian who loves God and neighbor and searches the Scripture for guidance in these matters, even if you are at odds on this matter? How professing Christians answer these questions will greatly determine future discourse on these matters and, more importantly, how they interact with persons who are gay or lesbian.
Notes: 1) An earlier version of this post first appeared at the Huffington Post on Oct. 10. 2011.
2) For a more detailed treatment of these passages, see "BACKGROUND ESSAY on BIBLICAL TEXTS" for "Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality" by Arland J. Hultgren and Walter F. Taylor Jr., two well respected biblical scholars who disagree on the issues at hand. I have at several points been guided by their work.
3) For those who are interested, I offer a few thoughts on Mark 10:2-6 - which while on marriage and divorce is often cited in this conversation - in my weekly column at Working Preacher.