Homosexuality and Christianity: What does the Bible Say?
Christianity is divided over the topic of homosexuality. The situation is only made worse by the fact that the issue is more than a spiritual or moral one, but a highly politicized one. In the last 24 hours the rhetoric has become even more intense as North Carolina voted to constitutionally define marriage as an exclusive union between one man and one woman and
publically announced his support of gay marriage. Predictably, Christians are
taking sides and each side is using the Bible against the other. Obama
So, what does the Bible really say? Realistically, the answer to that question depends on who is doing the interpreting but in order to cut through the emotional and highly irrational rhetoric that is flying around, this is my attempt to offer a little perspective on how two very devout and faithful Christians can read the same Bible and come up with such vastly different interpretations.
The questions are multiple. Is homosexuality a sin? Should a homosexual person hold leadership in the church? Should a homosexual be allowed in the church or restricted from the table? Should the church hold “Blessed Union” services, effectively advocating and performing same-sex marriage? Should the church affirm and support same sex marriage? What exactly does it mean to be “gay” or “lesbian”? Is sexual orientation a choice or a genetic predisposition? Do so-called “gay rights” extend to bisexuals or transgendered individuals (women and men who, through surgery or hormone therapy, change or alter their gender)? Is homosexuality a sin or perverse distortion of normal sexual orientation? If the church speaks of homosexuality as a sin, is that engaging in hateful speech and discriminatory language? What should the church’s stance be regarding these complex and emotional issues?
Unfortunately, these questions do not have clear-cut and simple answers. As faithful believers and Christians, the first place believers should turn regarding these complex questions is to the Bible. Neither the Old Testament Hebrew nor the New Testament Greek contain words equating to the English words “homosexual” or “lesbian.” The Bible does not have an understanding of explicit “sexual orientation” as it is commonly understood in a modern context. Many Christian Traditions fervently believe that sexual orientation as it references anything other than normative heterosexual behaviors within the context of a one-man-one-woman marriage is sin and therefore unambiguously condemned by Scripture. While there are legitimate reasons for this conclusion, it necessarily truncates any faithful conversation on the complex matters of human sexual identity. Given the realty that not all Christian traditions adhere to the same theological and moral interpretations, the ambiguity of sexual orientation is left for prayerful discernment in this document.
This does not mean the Bible is silent on the subject, only that English translations are based on conjecture rather than literal translation. That is, at least in part, why the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality are controversial. Its references are not necessarily as clear-cut as many believe. This document will explore all the major Biblical references to homosexuality.
It begins with a story from
that is familiar to many; the depravity and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jude 7 offers a New Testament commentary on the
and Sodom story. Gomorrah Leviticus
and are the
references in the Holiness Code and Old Testament Law that condemn the
practice. 1 Corinthians 6:9
and 1 contain two sin lists that typically include
homosexuality. Most critically, there
will be a look at Timothy
1:10 Romans 1:18-32
which is arguably the most significant argument regarding homosexuality in the
The issues regarding homosexuality and Christianity are more complex than can be adequately addressed in one brief document such as this. The focus of this particular study is limited to the specifics of scripture. Many questions will be left unanswered awaiting further study. It is likely (and expected) that this document will leave open as many questions as it asks.
Finally, this document assumes homosexuality is open for discussion, but does not presume it to be neither good nor bad. As much as each is able, it is vital the reader make the same assumptions; withholding any initial judgment and prayerfully considering all options, theological assumptions, and interpretations. Then, prayerfully coming to a faithful understanding of how one can faithfully approach the matter of homosexuality in the Christian faith while understanding that others may rightfully disagree with one’s own conclusion. Ultimately God has the final answer.
In this document all scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
In this Biblical story men from the town of
are depicted as trying to gang rape the two male guests of Sodom Lot. The explicit implication of homosexual
contact in narrative not only grounds this text as a common reference in
preaching on homosexuality, but the English rendering of Sodom as the root for
the practice of sodomy has further crystallized Sodom and Gomorrah with
homosexual sex and God’s judgment. Yet, a careful examination of the text
reveals much more than homosexual issues. In fact, homosexuality and the act of
sodomy in human sexuality may actually be insignificant when compared to the
Lot extended appropriate hospitality to two male strangers who where journeying through Sodom and Gomorrah. The two guests were in actuality male angels sent from God, but their identity is known only to the readers and not to the main actors in the narrative. When faced with the travesty of his neighbors gang-raping his guests, Lot bargains with the villagers to prevent the crime. In the end of this story, God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah for the depravity exhibited by the villagers.
This text itself neither condemns nor condones homosexual sex. It is, however, interpreted elsewhere in scripture;
Ezekiel, Matthew, and Luke. Understanding it in context of these other
Biblical references is vital for a faithful interpreter of scripture. This is
important when looking not only at the homosexual implications of the text, but
also while exploring the other—and often overlooked—realities presented in the
While bargaining with the angry mob, Lot tragically and unapologetically offers his own daughters as sexual alternatives to his male guests. This is a bewildering and abrasively offensive turn of events in the narrative. Yet, in its implications, the passage is also rooted in the archaic understanding of women as the property of the male head of the household and does not take into account a necessary mutuality of sexual health. This obscure, but unavoidable reality in the Sodom and Gomorrah story also further illustrates the great danger in making absolute appropriations of the story for moral judgment since there seems to be no condemnation toward Lot for essentially prostituting his own daughters.
Ezekiel is more direct and to the point. God, speaking through the prophet says in , “This was the guilt of your sister
she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did
not aid the poor and needy.” Sodom
Repulsive as it may be for many in the modern world; ancient records indicate battle field rape was a practice in the Ancient Near East. This was the way a victorious army would humiliate and degrade the loosing army. As with rape in general, the crime is not really sexual in nature, but one of violence, hatred, and power. One does not rape out of sexual desire for the victim but out of lust for power over, and the subsequent humiliation of the victim.
The majority of Biblical evidence indicates the “sin” in question at Sodom had nothing—or at least very little—to do with sexuality. Rather, Sodom’s great sin was the inhumane treatment of others, violations of hospitality laws, and wealthy arrogance. It is only in
letter that condemnation of homosexuality is explicitly mentioned. Yet even
then the exact intent can be scrutinized.
Interpreting the Sodom and Gomorrah story into the context of modern Christianity with regards to homosexuality is tenuous at best. In spite of homosexuality’s common association with Sodom there is little specific cause to use the account of Sodom and Gomorrah as rationale for condemning homosexuality.
Jude’s interpretation, however, deserves further
The argument against homosexual conduct in
Jude must be seen in the
broader context of three distinct sins being condemned. Jude
uses historical events as examples of deprived and ungodly behavior.
The first (v.5) recalls the Israelites in the wilderness and their unwillingness to trust God so they could enter the Promised Land.
point here highlights ’s
failure to trust God and the subsequent dire and often deadly consequences. Israel
The second example (v.6) takes on a supernatural tone. Citing the ancient tradition recorded in
Jude calls attention to evil or fallen
angels. Their crime in the eyes of God was sexual union with mortals on earth,
thus giving cause for the great flood which, in turn, serves as the foundation
for needing the flood and calling of Noah.
Such union violates the created order and is therefore sinful and punishable by
God. Jude is specifically writing to
counter false teachers (people in positions of authority, control, and
spiritual influence) who themselves engage in acts of illicit sex with those
under them (often with those under their influence and subsequently without any
legitimate power to refuse sexual advances). Jude’s
point is that they will be judged in the same manner, as were the “fallen”
angels of Genesis.
Finally, the third example (v. 7) recalls
specifically. Within the framework of this reference, there are actually three
implied sins. Gomorrah
1. Use of violence and inhospitable behavior
2. The act of homosexual sexual contact and rape
3. The act or desire of going after “different flesh” (humans toward the angels)
The witness of
can legitimately be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, the practice of
homosexuality can be easily condemned by citing this passage. Jude’s reference to false teachers can also be used
to speak out against homosexual persons having any leadership or teaching
positions in the church. Similarly, the notion of violating the created order
is a frequent condemnation of homosexual activity. Providing that sexual contact is primarily or
exclusively created for the purpose of procreation and therefore must take
place in exclusively heterosexual contexts, any deviation from this practice
would be considered a pursuit of “different flesh” and a violation of God’s
created order. In this instance, homosexual contact of any kind is sin and must
be condemned by the church.
On the other hand, there are some contextual issues that favor a different interpretation.
writing in the Greco-Roman tradition, would have been keenly aware of the
popular homosexual activity of his time. It was common in the culture of the day
for men to have young sexual partners in relationships that constituted
exploitation, male prostitution, and sexual slavery. Given this context, and
the direct implication of homosexual rape in the Sodom story, Jude could be writing against the specific practices
of rape and exploitation. Given this reading, Jude
is not speaking at all about the practice having adult consensual sex with
members of the same gender. In this instance, homosexuality as is commonly
understood today, would not be sinful and therefore it must not come under
judgment by the church.
A cursory glance at the two verses in Leviticus that condemn homosexuality leave little doubt as to what was being said. reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” reads, “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.”
These references belong to the Holiness Code of Leviticus and make up one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament. Many of these laws are not followed today; not even by Jews. This reality results from the fact that many laws require the Jerusalem Temple and its sacrificial system. There are also many laws interpreted as unnecessary in modern culture. Likewise, Christians disregard many of these laws (for example the dietary regulations, purification regulations, regulations regarding menstruation, and strict 8-day circumcision) on the belief that in
Christ and his sacrifice on
the cross, they are redundant.
For the Christian, in dealing with the prohibitions in Leviticus, the question must be one of how much or what part of the Law is applicable. Do the verses that condemn homosexuality apply in today’s world or not? Due to the fact that some of these laws are still followed by the church and others are disregarded, any decision on the applicability of the Holiness Code is easily defendable or refutable. Consequently, as with much of scripture, one must prayerfully consider how God is leading on the matter and trust the Spirit for an answer. Understandably, not all Christians will “hear” the same answer from God on this so respect for diversity may be the most critical thing!
Both Corinthians and
homosexuality in lists of other sins. These lists are of “people that will not
inherit the ” and those guilty
of “lawless behavior.” The term
translated “homosexual” in the Greek text has come under some scrutiny. Some
imply that it cannot refer to people exchanging sex with members of their own
gender. The Greek indicated in these passages comes closest to the modern
understanding of the word “homosexual.” It literally translates “one who lies
with a male.” Yet, there is some ambiguity to the precise meaning of this word,
thus prompting some scholars to disregard an absolute specificity of
It is most probable that
Paul (author of both
books) was thinking of the Holiness Code and the Leviticus passages mentioned
above when writing. This being the case, a very solid argument could be made
that Paul was reinforcing this part of
the Levitical Holiness Code as law as essential for Christians to follow. Given
this argument, homosexuality cannot be acceptable and must be condemned by the
Note however, that the exact meaning is ambiguous. Although the Greek distinctly implies some sort of homosexual contact, the exact meaning of the text is unclear. As has been noted previously, forced and coerced sex between grown men and boys was common in the Greco-Roman world of the First Century (See
7 above). The Greek wording is also found in
non-Biblical references associated with inhumane sexual exploitation. Given the cultural context of its day, it is
possible that Paul is not condemning
consensual sex, but rather the unholy and despicable practice of child sexual
exploitation, sexual slavery, and rape. If
this is the likely translation, it is reasonable to argue in favor of accepting
consensual sex between adults. In this instance the church should not condemn
homosexuality providing it conforms to the same moral and healthy standards
applied to heterosexual sex.
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and 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.
28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32)
Any Biblical conversation regarding homosexuality must take seriously this passage from Romans. Unlike the other passages, this one is much more direct and distinctively theological in its makeup.
This entire passage is essentially setting up an argument that will not be resolved until the second chapter of Romans. In this section
Paul is categorizing the
consequences of failure to properly glorify God and verse 21 is the pivotal
verse in the passage. It reads “for
though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but
they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”
By the time
Paul gets to homosexuality, the direction of his
argument has shifted from cause (not honoring God) to consequence. Rather than
provoking God’s wrath through homosexuality, the sinful behavior categorized is
the inevitable result of failing to glorify God. It does not bring God’s wrath; it is God’s
wrath—that is the inevitable consequence of a fallen and depraved human race.
At this stage a question arises regarding the appropriate application of the word “natural.” Many advocates of gay rights contend that homosexuality is not a chosen lifestyle but a true representation of what is natural for a gay or lesbian person. In other words, heterosexuality is the unnatural way of expressing sexuality for one who has been created as a homosexual. Medically and scientifically there is mixed evidence to support this claim and researchers and interpreters who claim research evidence are frequently biased by preconceived assumptions regarding the nature of homosexuality. Likewise, within Christianity, there is mixed information. Some churches become havens for “natural” homosexuals, advocating the created beauty of each person regardless of sexual orientation. Other churches boast of “curing” homosexuals through
Jesus Christ and vehemently condemn the “unnatural”
practice. (In the extreme is the practice of organizations such as the Westboro
Baptist Church under the leadership of .
This organization has made the outright condemnation of homosexuality the
central and most essential component of their entire theology and have,
subsequently, garnered headlines and media attention in their efforts to rid the
world of the practice completely. Arguably, many of the most Conservative
churches who openly oppose gay rights also condemn the distinctively hatful practices
and destructive theology of fringe groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church.)
Making up a vast middle ground in
theological tradition, many churches are relatively ambivalent regarding
matters of homosexuality. They may, or may not, accept the practice, but
generally it is not a matter of primary concern or focused attention. (In many
cases, they wish it would just go away and feel there are more important
matters of faith to think about.) Fred Phelps
Theologically an argument in favor of homosexuality is a little more difficult to make in Romans. The understanding of “sexual orientation” as is commonly understood today was completely unknown in antiquity in spite of the fact that there were then, as now, people who felt drawn toward same sex relationships. For
Paul, there was clearly an understanding that
homosexual sex was a chosen perversion and distortion of God’s created order.
This does not necessarily rule out the possibility of reading a modern
understanding of sexual orientation into Paul’s
intent, but it must be done with the knowledge that such readings go beyond Paul’s worldview. As with the discussions above,
sexual abuse and distortion of sexual practice and human dignity may have also
influenced Paul in his ideology. Some interpreters
of Scripture are comfortable with making this theological leap, others are not.
It is important, however, to remember all serious interpreters of Scripture
(regardless of conclusion) are likely very passionate in both their love of the
Bible and God.
Looking at this text in the broader context of Romans, one must see it as a building crescendo toward the pivotal statement in 2:1 which reads, “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” It is here that
Paul’s argument reaches its pinnacle. This statement,
and not necessarily any previous statement, is what Paul
intends to carry the most theological and spiritual weight.
Holding pejorative judgments against homosexuality when contrasted with the claim in 2:1 radically neutralizes all sin as being simply sin, while simultaneously universalizing sin to all of humanity. In other words, there is no difference between the sin of homosexuality and any other sin and no person is without some sin.
Clearly, it is easy and logical to make a strong argument against homosexuality using
Considering it a definitive distortion of the created order, it is
logical to adopt Paul’s treatment of
homosexuality as unquestionably sinful.
Such judgment, however, must be tempered with Paul’s
equilateral treatment of sin. It may be
a sin, but it must not be elevated as particularly worse or more despicable
than any other sin. (To quote Jesus in “Let anyone among you
who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” ) John 8:7
On the other hand, one can make the interpretative application of “sexual orientation” and apply it to the argument; yet only with the understanding that no such concept existed when
Paul was alive. This is, however, substantially more tenuous
than the opposing argument. The only way this argument may have any validity is
with the assumption that homosexuals are genetically predisposed toward
same-sex relationships and therefore heterosexuality is truly the unnatural
course for them to follow. Many interpreters clearly understand the argument in
the context of sexual orientation to be the most valid application and based on
matters of rape, exploitation, and sexual slavery as the real sins indicated in
Romans rather than the blessing of a loving, mutual, exclusive, and intimate
relationship between two consenting and sexually healthy adults.
Biblical Perspective: A Broad Approach
The Biblical argument for the acceptance of homosexuality is very complex; particularly when held against a long tradition that has been virtually universal in its condemnation of the practice. Likewise, this is not the first time the church has faced the possibility of transforming reversals of traditional prejudice and practice. For example, teachings in scripture that imply discrimination against women have long been used to religiously mandate the doctrinal practice of a created inferiority for woman in society. The many discussion in this study indicating a cultural belief regarding women as property rather than as fully human is the most vivid example. Similarly, in terms of slavery, the long-held practice of human slavery was strongly validated through fervent scriptural interpretation. In the United States, a bloody war was fought, in large part, to resolve the bitter tensions arising from the diversity in genuine Christian interpretation and application of scripture in regards to slaves. For many, newly developing and culturally changing attitudes toward homosexuality indicate a similar shift in process.
One may also cite the seismic rifts created in the church as classic thinkers such as
Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Keppler, Isaac Newton and
all challenged the long-held and Biblically supported belief that the Earth was
flat and existed at the center of the universe. Similarly, after the writings
of Galileo Galilei and scientific theories of
evolution have taken center stage, Christians have bitterly divided over
matters of creation and the biological origins of human life. When it comes to
great changes in the way Christians think based on changes in how the world
views itself, this is nothing new—not the controversy it causes, not the
painful division that results, and not the entrenched viewpoints of conflicting
sides of the debate. Truly, we have been down this road before! Charles Darwin
It is, however, more complicated than previous issues such as establishing the equality of women in church life, abolishing the practice of slavery, rethinking the physical makeup of the unversed, or rethinking the physical means by which humanity came to exist on earth. These issues have great tension within the canon of scripture with verses clearly advocating and prohibiting the concerns. All Biblical references to homosexuality, however insignificant or prominent, are all inherently negative. There is no Biblical passage explicitly expressing God’s acceptance of homosexuality and those who favor an understanding of homosexuality as sin are legitimate in pointing this fact out.
Some may point to the great love
David had for Jonathan
as a possible illusion to homosexuality.
In this passage, David is
lamenting the death of his dear friend.
“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love
of women.” (2 Samuel 1:26) Although there is no way to absolutely refute
this claim, greater evidence does not seem to support it. For purposes of
discussing homosexuality and Christianity it is most likely irrelevant to the
Noteworthy in the Biblical witness is the fact that at no time does
Jesus Christ even mentions
the subject. For Christians, this absence of comment must be taken into serious
consideration. There are, of course, two plausible explanations for the absence
of comment. First, Jesus assumed
everybody already knew the practice was an abomination and therefore had no
reason to bring it up. With that rationale, the church would have to lean
toward condemnation. Second, the practice is of such little consequence in the
mind of Christ that it is not worth singling out.
With that consideration, the church would lean toward acceptance.
Whether the church accepts homosexuality or condemns it,
ministry must be taken into consideration.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus
exhibited preferential compassion toward the sinner and outcast while rejecting
legalistic religiosity. The church must balance any stance on homosexuality
with the same compassion manifest by Christ himself.
It may have to come down to proverbial practice of “loving the sinner while
hating the sin” or simply—and perhaps more compassionately faithful—loving the
human as created by God, regardless of differences in sexual orientation.
Regardless of how any individual may feel or how the church as a whole may choose to side, the issue is real and very volatile in the
. The issue of homosexual
inclusively is one of the reasons driving decisions by many congregations divide,
leave or join denominational traditions, appoint or remove leaders, and
approach ministries. At the level of the larger church bodies such as General
Assemblies, Conferences, Presbyteries, or similar gatherings the issue is
destructively polarizing as individuals and congregations on both sides of the
debate demand universality of their own opinion. On many occasions, the rancor
has become anything but Christian
Church Christian in
its tone and out of fear, anger, and hatred manifest from both sides of the
debate, many Christians have become unfortunate victims of the fracas. Worst
yet, the issue will also likely not go away any time soon.
The call and the challenge for churches at this time is neither to condemn nor embrace homosexuality in the church, but simply to understand the issue in its entirety. With prayer as our means, the Holy Spirit as our guide, and the Bible as our foundation, we are able to more fully explore and study this important and vital issue facing our church today.