When it comes to homosexuality and the bible, most of my readers will admit that there is only one answer with respect to the church. And while I can see where they are coming from, I must confess that after a few conversations, it is very difficult to believe that we, as a church, have put enough time and thought into properly proving what we believe as the truth. Many of us who feel that we have a strong understanding of what the bible says about homosexuality, really only have a strong understanding of our own side of the issue; and we have trouble addressing or knowing why our opposition believes what they believe.
Most of the people I speak to rarely, if ever, consider the other side of the issue – not only on the topic of homosexuality and Scripture, but of many other topics. Not only is this a disservice to the Christian mandate that we “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15), but it is also a poor way of addressing the validity and truthfulness of issues. With all of this said, let us take a plunge into the argument we do not often hear or consider on the topic of homosexuality and Scripture.
The debate centers upon many texts, all of which are not about Jesus, nor his words: Genesis 19:1-29; Leviticus 18:1-30; Leviticus 20:1-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-17; 1 Timothy 1:3-13; and Romans 1. The reason why, Scripturally, the topic of homosexuality is such a unique topic is because the bible does not speak about it. It does speak about homoerotic behavior, but it hardly ever brings it up. This is in contrast to topics the bible consistently highlights, like economic injustice.1
Sodom and Gomorrah
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is often mistaken as a lesson in homoerotic behavior, hence using the term “Sodomy” for anal penetration. But Ezekiel 16:49 tells us what the sin of Sodom was:
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.
Even when the bible highlights other sins to attribute them to Sodom and Gomorrah, none attribute anything dealing with homosexuality.
Old Testament Law: Leviticus 18 and 20
The Levitical Holiness Code is often used by many to oppose homosexuality – particularly verses 18:22 and 20:13. But verse 18:22 is lumped within the same framework that tells us that:
‘Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness during her menstrual impurity.’
So, there is no way we can tell using this verse which command is a cultural norm and which is commanded because then we would have to negate what happened to Peter when he “…went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them” (Acts 11:3) and later “…when they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). And then in Leviticus 20:13, do we continue the punishment of such a horrendous act of one cursing his or her mother or father:
“‘If there is anyone who curses his father or his mother, he shall surely be put to death.’”
Of course not! Why? Our culture does not accept that kind of punishment because it is too horrendous. I mean, think of how others would react. And good luck spreading the love of Jesus using the death penalty for getting upset with your parents.
But doesn’t Leviticus teach us that homoerotic behavior is an abomination. Well, that’s the word that is used by many translators, but let’s take the actual Hebrew word in context and see what it is trying to tell us here. The Hebrew word used here for abomination is toevah and it refers here to that which is ritually unclean – exactly what we spoke about before. Therefore, we are still left for proof of where the bible says that homoerotic behavior is a sin. Because if homoerotic behavior is an abomination then we would also have to say that other culturally insignificant quirks are an abomination, like not having sex during menstruation, or eating Gentile food, or any other Old Testament Holiness Code.
So, let’s get into the New Testament. Two of the most prominent verses used by opponents of equal rights of homosexuals are 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10.
“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 effeminate (malakos), nor homosexuals (arsenokoites)…” (1 Cor 6:9)
“…and immoral men and homosexuals (arsenokoites) and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching…” (1 Tim 1:10)
The magic words here are arsenokoites and malakos. Although your bible translates these words as a matter of fact, the research into what exactly the words mean is not so established. In fact, arsenokoites is being used for the very first time here – ever. And, thus, it should be of no surprise that it’s a little tough to interpret and translate what it exactly means. Many scholars read and formulate the word like this: arsen (male) koites (bed). They, therefore, conclude that it is obvious that Paul was speaking about men having sex with other men. But, the issue many other scholars have with this method can be seen in our trying to define the word understand. If we break it down to two words: under and stand, we can only conclude that it is ordinal – to stand under something. Therefore highlighting the fact that the approach to determining the actual meaning of the word is likely invalid.
The only reliable way to define a word is to analyze its use in as many contexts as possible. And when this was done by scholars, using both secular and Christian writings, it was found that the phrase arsenokoites refers to some kind of economic exploitation, probably by sexual means: rape, or sex by economic coercion, prostitution, pimping or something of the sort. The author of the study adding that “no one should be allowed to get away with claiming that ‘of course’ the term refers to ‘men who have sex with other men.’”
It is certainly a grey area in the text – something not able to be understood by just passively reading the passage.
The term malakos is a bit easier to understand because it was a common word. It meant “soft” and often connoted effeminacy. Effeminacy, during the time of Paul, was considered a moral failing because it was associated with a lack of self-control and a yielding to pleasure.
So, literally, this is saying that those who are effeminate will not inherit the kingdom of God. But how non-effeminate does one need to be to inherit the kingdom of God? And what if the heart of the effeminate is clear and he still acts effeminate? Is acting effeminate the sin, or is it the issues of the heart these words imply that should be considered: lack of self-control and a yielding to pleasure? If it is the issues of the heart, can we rule out “those gays who act gay [effeminate].” Seriously. Because, maybe you do this, but I know many people in the American evangelical church often have these “Will and Grace” stereotypes of gays that they immediately evoke when the topic of homosexuality comes up. And, just in case you are not aware, not all gay men act effeminate.
Okay, so far the whole idea of homosexuality or even more specific, homoerotic behavior, as sin hasn’t really held up to critical evaluation very well: namely because it was a part of the Holiness Code that Peter demolished when he ate with the Gentiles, and the fact that the words often assumed as “homosexual” have not been solidified in “for sure” treatise broadly agreed upon by scholars. So, is there anything else? Of course there is!
The most prominent passage used in arguing for and against homoerotic behavior is found in Romans 1:
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 function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the 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.
Many conservative scholars, including those who dismiss the past few passages we covered, see Romans 1 as an official theological statement condemning homoerotic behavior, and it has a direct application for our time. But scholars on the other side of the issue, those who push for the acceptance of monogamous homosexual relationships, argue that the conservative scholars misinterpret what Paul says here. That is, Paul here is speaking of idolatry and not sexuality, adding that Paul’s writing simply echoes many of the cultural assumptions of his time. This is not to say that Paul is justifying the sins of the people. The passage is saying, they argue, that Paul is simply highlighting the universality of sin, and the possibility that, through God’s grace, everyone can receive salvation – this is essentially the Christian message.2
In his treatise, Paul is essentially setting up his readers. He points out that those in Corinth worship everything but God. To be sure that his readers do not take on a sense of self-righteousness, Paul lists the sins that proceed from idolatry: covetousness, malice, envy, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, and therefore calling us all idolaters, pointing the finger to those sins of attitude to which the church sometimes falls victim when we turn our ultimate allegiance away from God – “no one is righteous before God.”3
Natural and Unnatural
“…their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another.”
What is meant here by natural and unnatural? In the Greek, the words are: physis (nature) and para physis (against nature). Paul’s understanding of these words can be found later in Romans 11:13-24 when he uses them to describe the unnatural process of God grafting the Gentiles into the tree of life. That is to say, the Jews were, by nature, chosen by God to carry out his plan of salvation, but the Gentiles were unnaturally grafted into the tree of life by being offered the salvation of Christ. Therefore, Paul, when he addresses the topics of “natural” and unnatural,” is simply speaking about those behaviors which are considered “conventional” – those things which are generally considered acceptable by society or a certain group of people, aka: cultural norms. This is supported by 1 Corinthians 11:14-16:
14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.
In Paul’s culture, a male with long hair should be shameful in front of God. And it is important that we see in both cases where Paul uses the words “natural” and “unnatural” that he is speaking about conventionality, what it meant to be a Christian within a specific culture – what it meant to Paul, a Jew, for a male to essentially take on a trait (long hair) that the women of the culture naturally had. Taking this passage as something that condemns women for having sex with other women is wrong. It could simply be that women were taking on the male / dominant roles in heterosexual intercourse, or even engaging in non-procreative sexual acts with male partners. The entire society of Rome was set up on the dominant force of the male gender. Therefore, in that culture, the women were to be passive and not active in sexual matters.4
In Paul’s culture and time, control and moderation, in all things, was a highly valued behavior. Getting caught up in excesses like too much food or sleep, or giving in to excessive passion of any kind – was viewed as a moral failing. Therefore, considering Romans 1:26-27, it would not be any stretch of the imagination to understand Paul as talking about a community that has given into the excess of their desires – as opposed to a community with wrongly oriented desires. Idolaters fail to allot God the glory and gratitude He deserves, and therefore, God allows them to lose grip of Him, as they choose to replace it with the values, behaviors, and outcomes that come out of worshiping the idols of their choice.5
Regardless of whether or not the arguments that support accepting and blessing homosexual relationships have swayed us, the fact remains that it is not so simple to declare homoerotic behavior wrong. It takes a great amount of delving into both sides of the argument to come to a logical conclusion on this topic. We cannot continue to ignore the fact that the bible is translated from language to language, and many of the connotations are lost along the way. This is why it is important to study, and not simply read the bible. We should seek to bring to light the truth. And it may, in some cases, call for us to set aside tradition based upon a proper interpretation in the context of culture and a changing society.
I did not write this to try to sway anyone or declare my position on the topic. I am simply conveying the argument that most, if not all of us never get to see or consider. And if we fail to consider the other side, how can we rightly say that all the facts have been considered? Are we so proud to believe that what we first learned is truth and should not be challenged? More importantly, if we do not consider the other side, how can we say that we have “rightly divided the word of truth?” This is a hot topic and complex issue within today’s church. We all need to be willing to listen to the other side (whoever or whatever side that is) and understand what they have to say. Without that, we are not giving them the respect they deserve.
 Richard B. Hays. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). 381.
 Jack Rogers. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. (Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.) 72-73.
 Ibid. 73
 Ibid. 74-75
 Ibid. 75-76