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Over the past few months on this blog, I have been focusing attention on the issue of Christianity and homosexuality. This is one of the defining issues for Christians right now, and an issue that I have been studying for over a decade. My analysis of the issue thus far has dealt with three key themes: (1) how we should interpret the Bible, (2) the Old Testament texts and (3) the New Testament texts that deal directly with the issue of homosexuality. Still to come in the next few months are discussions of (4) the indirect Biblical references and overall witness of the Christian Scriptures, (5) psychological and sociological issues, and (6) how the church should respond today. (See a full index of blog entries here.)
We’re roughly halfway through this work, and it might be a good time to pause and summarise.
I have also realised that the depth of my analysis may have actually had the opposite effect of what I intended. For some people who oppose the acceptance of homosexuality and same sex marriage, the detail of my analysis could suggest that it takes a complicated and convoluted exegesis to show that God is for gays. For those who support same sex marriage, the detail may have been confusing and suggest that it would be better to ignore the Bible.
Neither of these positions would be correct, so maybe a summary is in order at this point.
Finally, I think a summary is valuable, because I have also been re-reading Dr David Gushee’s superb book, “Changing Our Mind” (2nd edition, 2015). Gushee is one of the foremost Christian scholars of our age to “change his mind” and come out in support of same sex marriage (there are many of them, so he’s not an aberration in the system either). In a speech delivered on 8 November 2014 for “The Reformation Project” conference, he (I believe correctly) suggests:
“… it is best not to get too fixated on the six or seven big passages most commonly cited in the anti-gay teaching tradition. Because when change happened on [issues of Christian prejudice in the past], it wasn’t just about altering the reading of those texts, but changing the conversation to the more central themes and texts related to following the way of Jesus. Thus: We must change the conversation to what it means to live in the way Jesus taught us…. [citing] texts like the Golden Rule, the Double Love Command, the Good Samaritan, and the saying about being our brother’s keepers. They highlighted broader biblical themes like the sacred worth of every person, and our obligation as Christians to be compassionate, merciful, and just.”
This positive approach will be a focus of the second half of this study.
You could, therefore, use this summary as a starting point, only dipping backwards when you want to get more detail, and working from here forwards to the most compelling arguments in favour of God and same sex marriage.
The Place of the Bible in this Discussion
There are many ways to approach the topic of homosexuality and the Bible. For some, it’s easier to throw out the Bible completely, saying that too much of it is outdated and written for another time – they use the Bible for historical reference only. Others argue that although we can extract good principles from the Bible, and that it is a valuable resource, there are many issues that no longer apply. These might include slavery, hygiene rules, treatment of women and now, homosexuality. The danger with this approach is that it can be difficult to know where to draw “the line” between what still applies and what doesn’t, and it ultimately ends up being decided by current realities rather than an appeal to a higher authority.
For me, as with most Christians who call themselves “evangelical”, I recognise that the Bible does need interpreting, and cannot be applied directly without such interpretation, but nevertheless the starting point is a belief that the Bible is the enduring Word of God, applicable across the ages. This does not mean that our understanding of God’s Word is, or ever has been, perfect. Each generation of Christians throughout the ages has to wrestle with our understanding of Scripture, and recognise that there will be times when we must accept the inadequacy of past interpretations and make corrections to our understanding and our practice. An excellent example of this was the Reformation, which caused a split big enough to create an entirely new branch of the church. The early Reformer leaders all agreed that one of the principles upon which the Protestant church should be founded is that we should be “always reforming”.
This does not mean that everything is always up for debate. But it does mean we should always be open and willing to entertain the thought that some of our doctrines and beliefs will need to change from time to time. Where we encounter deep division within the church, with earnest, intelligent and God-fearing people on different sides of an issue, this should be a sign that we might be dealing with one of these issues that needs change from our traditional viewpoints.
In all our discussions, we should be loving, forthright, principled and stick to what we can demonstrate to be true from the Bible. This does not mean that we rely on or defend our traditional interpretations, though. We must always go back to the Bible itself. And when we do so, we always do so knowing that none of us today have “the plain reading” of the Bible – we are all interpreting (see more detail here).
The Old Testament
In the Old Testament, we encounter two stories and two laws to do with homosexuality.
The two stories, while very different, have very similar elements and themes to them. Both stories are about Israelites living in foreign cities who have visitors join them for a night. The local townsmen threaten violence on both the visitors and the Israelites residing in their cities, including physical and sexual violence. These stories include the threat of homosexual rape, as well as horrific treatment of women by all involved, but have nothing to say about loving homosexual relationships. Both Sodom and Gibeah were razed to the ground. The message of these stories is the same for us today as it was then: any form of rape is wrong. Also note that the Bible itself is exceptionally clear about what sins the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were judged for, and they don’t have to do with sexual issues of any kind. (More detail here.)
The two laws that appear to prohibit male same sex activity are part of a package of laws known as the Holiness Code, which were specifically focused on keeping Israel away from the pagan religions of the nations that surrounded them. In particular, the worship of Molech was a feature of the Ancient Near East, and this involved ritual prostitution, temple homosexual activity, incest of various forms and child sacrifice. Leviticus 18 to 20 form the heart of the cultic laws prohibiting a variety of activities associated with these pagan religions. It is in this context that the Old Testament prohibits male same sex activity. The lessons still apply today: no-one is to have sexual intercourse as part of a religious ceremony, and religious prostitution is always wrong. In fact, any prostitution is wrong. (More detail here and here).
These are the lessons we learn from the Old Testament. They still apply today. But they do not apply to loving, same sex couples who wish to have sex within the bounds of a lifelong, committed, covenantal relationship.
The New Testament “clobber passages”
There are three passages that reference homosexuality directly in the New Testament. Along with the OT passages discussed above, these are sometimes called the “clobber passages”. All three of them build on and reinforce the messages of the OT laws about cultic sexual practices.
In 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, the Apostle Paul lists sins, and amongst the various sins listed are two words that we translate as references to male homosexuals. But neither word is one of the obvious and commonly used words of the day for homosexuality. This is surprising, since homosexuality was a well-known and widely practiced activity, and there would have been no need for Paul to obscure his meaning. In fact, it appears that Paul actually made one of these words up himself – it is arsenokoitēs in Greek. There is no known use of it in the Greek language before he uses it, and not many afterwards.
When an author has a number of well-known terms to use, but chooses to create a new word instead, he must have a specific meaning in mind, and we need to take him seriously in ensuring we understand what he really wanted to say. Most scholars agree that arsenokoitēs is a conscious reference to Leviticus and the Holiness Code prohibitions on cultic shrine prostitution. The literary context reinforces the view that Paul has an abusive form of sexual exploitation linked to temple rituals in mind when he uses this word. This is what his original readers would have understood. And this law still applies to us today: young men (and women) should not be forced into sexual slavery or temple prostitution. (More details here.)
The other word Paul uses in only 1 Cor. 6 is malakos, which literally means “soft”. When used metaphorically, as Paul uses it in 1 Cor. 6, it typically refers to people who are morally weak. When paired with arsenokoitēs, the word refers to young boys who voluntarily prostituted themselves, submitting themselves to being the passive recipient in temple sexual rituals and maintaining an effeminate, or “soft” appearance; or to “catamites” – young male sexual companions of Greek or Roman men, who deliberately kept themselves looking pre-pubescent or feminine in order to remain in the relationship. It is clear that Paul has abusive and coercive, and most likely cultic, sexual relationships in mind. These laws still apply today: no-one should use sex coercively or for material gain; sex is meant to be enjoyed in a monogamous, lifelong, covenantal relationship. (More details here.)
Neither arsenokoitēs nor malakos can in any way be made to refer to loving, consensual, monogamous same-gender sexual partners or to same-sex relationships in general. Paul knew of such relationships as they were common at the time, and says nothing about them in his letters. (More details here.)
Neither of these passages has anything to do with lifelong, monogamous same sex relationships.
So, we get to Romans 1, which for many people is the most significant passage against homosexuality (and is also the only one of these verses that mentions female same gender activity).
The plain reading of Romans 1 makes it clear that Paul has in mind people who have taken their sexuality to excess and gone “against nature”, descending into sexual depravity. If God is against homosexuals, then each of these three things would be true of them, according to the passage. This is not the reality for the vast majority of homosexuals seeking God’s blessing for their marriages. (More detail here.)
So, what was Paul referring to?
Paul’s purpose in the letter to the Romans is to encourage Jewish and Gentile Christians to be more accepting of each other, and to be careful not to judge each other based on issues that are merely cultural preferences or in built bias. The purpose of Romans 1:16-32 is to outline a typical Jewish critique of Gentiles, with a progression from abandoning God and turning to idolatry, which leads to socially unacceptable behaviour, which slides downwards to sinful, wicked actions and eventually ends in complete moral collapse. Romans 1 cannot be understood without Romans 2 (nor the rest of the letter, actually), where there is a radical shift from the third to the second person (from “them” and “they”, to “you”), and a direct and specific command not to judge others on the basis of the content in chapter 1. This is a central theme of the letter, and from the context of the whole letter it’s clear that Romans 1 cannot and should not be used to condemn homosexual activity, just as Paul instructs the Gentiles not to judge their Jewish-Christian brothers and sisters on the basis of their hygiene and food regulations, and especially the circumcision ritual.
Adding to this interpretation is the fact that Paul calls some things “evil” in Romans 1, but when referring to the sexual issues, he uses a different word, calling them “shameful”. In Jewish thought, “unnatural sex” (or “going against nature”) was any sexual activity that could not result in insemination, including but not limited to having sex with a woman during her menstrual period, oral or anal sex, and masturbation. Lesbian sex would also have been considered “unnatural” for the same reason. For Paul, these are cultural issues (for the Jewish readers of his letter), and are not moral judgements. Paul even uses the phrase “against nature” to refer to something God does (later in Romans 2:12) and to the length of men’s hair in another letter (1 Corinthians 11:14). It clearly is not a moral category for Paul, but a cultural one. (More detail here – this is a very important part of the argument, so I advise you do look at this one in detail.)
Paul has a progression of thought in mind through the first few chapters of his letter. He says this:
You Jews think that the Gentiles have some pretty disgusting social practices, including homosexual sexual activity, and you think yourself better than them because their idolatrous past has led many of them to battle with some pretty awful sins – and even though they didn’t have God’s law written down for them they should have known better. But you Jewish Christians are no better. Consider how some of your practices – especially circumcision – look to the Gentiles. And if you don’t actually obey God’s law, there was no real value in having it in the first place. In fact, you’re probably even worse off than the Gentiles. So, therefore, all of you, listen: you’ve all sinned. And you all need God. And the great news is that there is only one way to get to God, and that’s by faith in Jesus, who died to save us all. Your cultural heritage neither helps nor hinders you in approaching God by faith through Jesus. Good news indeed.
We cannot extract Romans 1:26-27 from this context and make it say something that Paul never intended to say. All Paul is saying about the sexual issues in Romans 1 is that the Jews considered them inappropriate. (More detail here).
In addition to this understanding of Jewish thinking at the time and Paul’s progression of thought through his letter, we need to add one vital point, which links this passage to the other six we have looked at above: this passage is also clearly framed in the context of idolatry, cultic temple practices and Roman pagan activities in which same-gender sexual activity played a major part. Paul deliberately and consciously positions his argument in Romans 1 in the context of temple idolatry, and we’ve seen above what that means.
Again, all these laws still apply today: sexual expressions should not be excessive, lust-filled or publicly displayed, but rather private and loving; cultic or ritual sexual activity is always wrong, as is prostitution; Christians should be respectful of cultural expressions, without being captive to them, but should never judge someone else’s spirituality on the basis of cultural practices, including different sexual practices and expressions.
A good summary of Paul’s opening chapters and, in fact, the whole letter to the Romans comes in Romans 14:13-14 (similar to 2:1): “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.”
As with all the other passages above, Romans 1 does not apply to loving, lifelong homosexual relationships.
Complete Consistency and a Bible That Applies Today
Note the complete consistency we have seen throughout the Scriptures as we’ve looked at the verses that talk against homosexuality. They all reference temple prostitution, and/or abusive sexual activity. They all apply today. And none of them are talking about same sex marriage.
You can support same sex marriage without giving up the Bible.
I believe there are many Christians who don’t have an issue in their hearts with gay marriage but firmly desire to remain Biblical. They will not accept gay marriage if it means giving up on the Bible or ignoring parts of it. I hope I’ve shown so far in this study that we don’t need to do that.
The Bible is clear: marriage is designed to be a covenant relationship that mirrors our relationship with God. It is a key institution in society, and should be entered into by two people who commit themselves to companionship, love and lifelong devotion, and to complete sexual fidelity only to each other. This requires people to marry within the bounds of their in-built sexual preferences, with hetero- or homo-sexual marriages being equally acceptable to God.
Romans takes us even further than just this acceptance: Those who do not accept homosexuals and same sex marriage covenants are judging them on issues of personal preference and cultural heritage. And they should stop! Romans 15:7: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (NIV)
Where to from here
It’s not enough, however, merely to show alternative interpretations of these seven passages. Those who oppose same sex marriage rightly claim that this has been the church’s position for centuries (although, as we will see soon, it has never been the unanimous position of the church), and they talk about the importance of marriage as both institution and ordinance. It is to these issues we will turn next. And we will discover that God does not just allow gay marriage; He actually designed it, affirms it and blesses it too.
But before we do that, we will have a brief interlude with a speech from Biblical ethicist and theologian, David Gushee.
Previous article in this series: Other Interpretations of Roman 1
Next article in this series: Dr David Gushee’s speech at the Reformation Project conference, 8 November 2014
Click here to see the index of the full series of blog posts on the issue of Christians, the Bible and homosexuality.
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