Does God approve of same-sex sexual activity?

There has been a near universal agreement among Christians for the past 2000 years that the Bible prohibits same-sex sexual activity. In recent years, however, other voices have emerged, taking the contrary view. The purpose of this paper is to first outline and then refute this counter argument.

THE “FOR” CASE

The “for” case is usually made in two-steps.

  1. Love and/or justice requires us to affirm same-sex sexual intimacy
  2. The (apparent) prohibitions in the Scriptures do not apply

1) Love and/or Justice should lead us to affirm that same-sex sexual intimacy is good.

This argument runs as follows:

Advances in science mean that we now know more about same-sex attraction than the ancients. For example, we now know that same-sex attraction is a “normal variation” of human sexual attraction experienced in an ongoing and exclusive way by 1-2% of the population (some would argue for a higher percentage), and that for most gay men and lesbian women, same-sex attraction has no volitional element – they did not choose to be gay/lesbian, and cannot now choose to be opposite-sex attracted. They have been “born this way”, and therefore should be free to live a full life consistent with how they have been made.

Immorality is a matter of choosing wrong instead of right. A gay man or lesbian woman should not be penalised for something over which they have no (moral) choice. Gay and lesbian people have suffered significant oppression and discrimination simply because they are different from the majority. (This has been, and continues to be, psychologically harmful). It is also harmful for LGBTI people if they are not allowed to express (fully) their true sexual identity.

Christians believe in justice and love, and should want what is good for others. Sexual intimacy is a good gift from God. It is unjust to deny sexual intimacy to those who have no opportunity for heterosexual sex, simply because God made them differently. It is unloving to deprive them of the relational benefits of marriage (including but not limited to sex). It is unjust to expect gay and lesbian people to conform themselves to heterosexual norms. It is unloving to stigmatise people for being different through no choice/fault of their own.

2) The (apparent) prohibitions in the Scriptures against same-sex sexual intimacy don’t apply

Advocates for same-sex marriage recognise that the consensus understanding for the last 2000 years has been that the Scriptures prohibit same-sex sexual activity and offer two broad responses to this.

A) Arguments FROM the Scriptures – that Christians have misapplied/misunderstood the Scriptures
B) Arguments AGAINST the Scriptures – the scriptural prohibition is clear, but should no longer apply

A) Arguments FROM the Scriptures

Jesus doesn’t say anything about homosexuality. Christians have misunderstood the (apparent) scriptural prohibitions elsewhere. The scriptural prohibitions are directed against promiscuity and/or exploitative homosexual sex and/or corrupted heterosexual desire and/or pagan cultic practices, but not against a monogamous same-sex relationships. The ancient world (which the Scriptures reflect) understood neither homosexual “orientation” nor the modern phenomenon of a monogamous, lifelong, committed same-sex relationships, and so its prohibitions don’t apply to such relationships.

Genesis 19 – Sodom
This sin of the men of Sodom is attempted homosexual rape, not consensual, loving, monogamous sex. This passage doesn’t say anything about the acceptability of homosexual sex.

Leviticus 18 & 20
These prohibitions are part of the OT cultic regulations that no longer apply under the New Covenant. They may have been directed against specific cultic practices in the nations surrounding Israel, in which Israel was forbidden to engage. But just as we now eat prawns and pork and don’t kill our rebellious children, this law no longer applies. It was specific to ancient Israel and not an ongoing pattern for God’s people under the New Covenant.

Romans 1
Paul’s argument is not directed against same-sex attracted people, because the ancient world didn’t know about this phenomenon. This passage is about corrupted heterosexual desires, and the key message is: “Straight people shouldn’t have gay sex”. This interpretation is based on three key words/phrases in Romans 1:26-27.

  1. “exchange” (μεταλλάσσω) – Paul refers to women and men who have “exchanged natural relations for those against nature.” Gay and Lesbian people have not “exchanged” anything – they have always been that way.
  2. “against nature” (παρὰ̀ φύσιν) – “against nature” does not mean “contrary to the created order”. It means “against the natural desires of the individual” (eg. a straight man having gay sex) or “against the accepted social order” (Vines).
  3. “shameful lusts” (πάθη ἀτιμίας) / “inflamed with lust” (ἐξεκαύθησαν) – if same-sex desire is non-volitional, how can it be “shameful”? Paul’s argument must therefore be directed against only “wrong” lusts – eg. promiscuity – and doesn’t speak to the loving, committed relationship (Vines p.99)

1 Corinthians 6:9
The pair of words ἀρσενοκοῖται and μαλακοὶ̀, which in traditional interpretation are understood to refer to the active and passive participants in male same-sex intercourse, are actually much more specific, and refer only to pederastic or exploitative relationships.
 

B. Arguments AGAINST the Scriptures:

Various arguments of this kind are put forward. For example:

  1. This is another “Acts 10” moment in history. Prior to Acts 10, a “plain reading” of the Scriptures said that Gentile had to become Jews to share the kingdom of God. But a work of the Holy Spirit – evidently manifest in the lives of the Gentiles – overturned this understanding. Likewise in our day, we should discern the work of the Spirit manifest in same-sex unions that show marriage-like commitment and love (eg. Luke Timothy Johnson, Scripture & Discernment).
     
  2. The Bible is product of its time; it is now contradicted by science. “We need to acknowledge that the Bible, for all of its beauty, wisdom and on-going relevance, is an ancient text, pregnant with ancient assumptions and beliefs, many of which we no longer reasonably hold … [We therefore should] feel to re-think the assumptions and beliefs which underlie Biblical discomfort with same sex activity.” (Mascord)                               AND
    Where the Bible has been wrong on other issues, we have revised our understanding
    . In the past, Christians have used the Scriptures to defend slavery and to justify the unequal treatment of women. Christians have since changed their views, and we need do so now in relation to same-sex attracted people.
     
  3. Each reader (or interpretive community) is free to decide which parts of the Bible apply.
    It is the reader who ultimately determines “which parts [of the Bible] are to be taken at face value, and which parts can be modified—or even ignored. As readers of the Bible we engage in a dialogue with the text, a hermeneutical dance” (Jenks, 5 Uneasy, p.72). For Jenks, since the biblical prohibitions clash with his preference for “human liberation”, the Bible must give way.

THE “AGAINST” CASE

The case against affirming same-sex sexual activity covers the same material as the “yes” case, but in a different order. Typically, the “no” case begins with arguments from the Scriptures.

Arguments FROM the Scriptures.

There are clear scriptural prohibitions against same-sex sexual activity, and the re-interpretations proposed by the “FOR” case are unconvincing. Taking the passages listed above in reverse order:

1 Cor 6:9
It is special pleading to say that the words in this passage only refer to pederastic or exploitative relationships, and do not apply to loving, consensual homosexual sex. If Paul had intended to refer to a limited set of homosexual acts, Ancient Greek had a well-established vocabulary for this (eg. pederasty - παιδεραστία, παιδεραστής, ἐραστής, ἐρώμενος etc.)

Instead, Paul coins a new word – arsenokoitēs. The word arsenokoitēs is a compound word made from the components arsenos (male) and koitos/koitē (literally ‘bed’, but often with sexual connotations). If the meaning of this new word derives from its two components, then an arsenokoitēs is a ‘male-bedder’ (i.e., a man who sleeps with a man).

Some claim that it is totally illegitimate to derive the meaning of the word in this way, labelling this as an etymological fallacy. However, while is true to say that the components and origins of a word do not necessarily determine its meaning for all time, in this particular case there are two reasons why the components are very relevant to the meaning in 1 Corinthians 6.

Firstly, this is a “neologism” (a new word). Paul’s usage of the word arsenokoitês in 1 Corinthians 6 is the first recorded instance in extant Greek literature. Neologisms do not have a wide semantic range, because there is (at that initial point) no other uses to broaden the range of possible meanings. When an author coins a new word, it has a single meaning. To the extent that an author wants readers to understand a neologism, he or she relies on etymology and literary context to guide readers to its meaning. The constituent elements of other New Testament neologisms provide a reliable guide to the meaning of the new word. The etymology of neologism, therefore, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to meaning.

Secondly, this particular neologism (arsenokoitēs) joins together two words used in close proximity in the Old Testament (OT) in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

Lev 18:22 - ēthēsē koitēn gynaikos
Lev 20:13 – if a man lies with a man as with a woman … (LXX: meta arsenos koitēn gynaikos).

Given the patterns of Paul’s other neologisms elsewhere in the NT, it is almost certain that the OT context of Leviticus 18:22 and/or 20:13 provides the background source for arsenokoitēs in 1 Corinthians 6:9.

There are no other clues from the context of 1 Corinthians 6 that suggest a meaning other than that provided by the etymology and OT context of the word arsenokoitēs, and the pairing with malakos (which in the context of this vice list probably refers to the passive partner in homosexual sex) supports the meaning derived from etymology and the OT – an arsenokoitēs is a man who has sex with a man. This, like fornication and adultery, is “unrighteous/wicked” (ἄδικοι) behaviour.

Romans 1:26-28
The argument (summarised above) that these verses only condemn corrupted heterosexual desires (“straight people having gay sex”) is a misconstrual of what Paul has written.

Firstly, the argument that the passage only applies to those who have “exchanged” their sexual orientation and does not apply to those who are “born that way” misinterprets the word “exchange” (ἀλλάσσω / μεταλλάσσω). Paul uses the same word in preceding verses to refer to those who have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for idols (Rom 1:23) and “exchanged the truth of God for a lie” (Rom 1:25). It is clear from the context that the “exchange” here encompasses humanity at large, and not merely those who were formerly worshippers of the Lord who then “exchanged” this for idol worship instead. Given the wider context, it would be an untenable reading of these verses to say that they do not apply to those who were idolaters from birth, because they have not “exchanged” anything. Rather, in these verses, Paul diagnoses the global human condition – that though God has revealed the truth about himself to humanity, we supress that truth and exchange the truth of God for the lie of idolatry. Because of this, God has handed humanity over to follow the desires of their hearts for impurity with one another through the dishonouring of their bodies (Rom 1:24). This manifests in all kinds of wickedness (ἀδικία – Rom 1:29), including two examples which Paul highlights in 1:26-27: women exchanging “natural relations for those against nature” and men, “inflamed with lust for one another, committing indecent acts with other men”. God’s judgment is directed against the practice of “wickedness” rather than the act of “exchange” (Rom 1:32).

Secondly, the argument that “against nature” (παρὰ̀ φύσιν) in Romans 1:26 means against “against the natural desires of the individual” (eg. a straight man having gay sex) or “against the accepted social order” runs against the grain of Paul's argument. Romans 1:26-27 contrasts “natural relations” with those “against nature”. In v.27 Paul explains that “natural relations” for men are relations “with women”, whereas those who forsake natural relations become “inflamed with lust [for men]”. That is, in the inner logic of Romans 1:27, it is “against nature” for a man to be “inflamed with lust for men”. “Against nature” is thus an objective standard, rather than a reference to the subjective desires of the individual.

Thirdly, the argument that same-sex desire is non-volitional and therefore not “shameful” is based on a misunderstanding and misconstrual of what the Bible says about “desire”. It is helpful to distinguish between three nuances of the word “desire”, which pertain to both modern English and NT Greek.

  • Innate desire                   eg. orientation or attraction
  • Activated desire              eg. lust
  • Actioned desire               eg. sex

It is true that innate desires are non-volitional, but this is not what Paul is describing in Romans 1. Roman 1:26-27 describes activated desire (“inflamed with lust”) and enacted desire (“committing indecent acts”). There is no condemnation here, or elsewhere in the Bible, for someone who is attracted to someone of the same gender. That is, it is not sinful to experience same-sex attraction. The bible’s condemnation of “shameful desires” is directed at activated desires (lusts) or actioned desires (sinful acts), not at innate desires.

Leviticus 18 & 20

As noted above, there are two prohibitions against homosexual sex in the book of Leviticus.

Lev 18:22 - You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.
Lev 20:13 – If a man lies with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination.

These verses are a general prohibition against male homosexual sex. Leviticus 18 lists a broad range of prohibited sexual activity, including sex with relatives (18:6-18), sex with neighbours (18:20), homosexual sex (18:22) and sex with animals (18:23). Similarly, Leviticus 20 calls on God’s people to “'Consecrate yourselves and be holy” and has broad list of behaviours which defile God’s people, with the stipulation that those who do such things should be “put to death”.

It is certainly true that the coming of Jesus has radical implications for the application of the Old Testament (OT) law to New Covenant Believers. But this does not mean that the OT is irrelevant. The Bible provides its own inner-hermeneutic that helps us to navigate the relationship between the Testaments. For example, in the OT the command to “purge the evil from your midst” (eg. Deut 22:22) for sexual immorality resulted in execution.  Paul echoes this language from Deuteronomy in 1 Cor 5:13, but transforms it in the process, so that the way that the Church should respond to sexual immortality is excommunication rather than execution.  At the same time, the underlying principle of (for example) Leviticus 20 – that God is holy and calls his people to be holy – remains consistent between the Testaments. In this specific case, the fact that Paul echoes Leviticus 18:22 and/or 20:13 in 1 Corinthians 6:9 indicates that holiness under the New Covenant is incompatible with a man lying with a man as with a woman.

Genesis 19

While it is true that sin of the men of Sodom is attempted homosexual rape (or more precisely, attempted rape of angelic beings in male form), this is does not mean that the episode says nothing about the acceptability of homosexual sex generally. In a terrible situation where the wrongdoing of others leaves Lot with no good options, the fact that he is prepared to offer his virgin daughters in substitution for the rape of his visitors indicates, whilst all forms of rape are abhorrent, there is something especially abhorrent about homosexual rape. The same point is made even more starkly in the parallel episode in Judges 19:22-25. This cannot be reduced to a story about the high value placed on hospitality and the protection of strangers in the ancient world.

What Jesus says about Marriage
In Matthew 19, the Pharisees tested Jesus with a question about divorce. Jesus responded by quoting Genesis 1 & 2 – that God made us “male and female”, and that the two become “one flesh” in marriage, and therefore “what God has joined together, let no one separate”. To break this one-flesh relationship means a person is to committing adultery. The disciples respond to this by saying, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10).

In response, Jesus explains the implications of choosing not to marry – it means living like a eunuch (i.e., someone with no sex life). He continues: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matt. 19:11-12)

According to Jesus, there are only two alternatives – faithfulness in marriage, or abstinence in singleness. That has been the consistent teaching of the church throughout the ages – God created sex for marriage, so those not married are to abstain from sex.

The single heterosexual person and the single homosexual person, therefore, are in exactly the same situation. Because they are not married, their sexual desires cannot be appropriately expressed in a sexual way. For many, this is a struggle and a frustration and, as such, it is one of the many painful consequences of living in a broken and fallen world. The Christian church, therefore, should be seeking to support and encourage our heterosexual and homosexual brothers and sisters who struggle with unfulfilled (and perhaps unfulfillable) desires. However, the mere fact that God made us with desires does not validate our acting on these desires in ways that are contrary to his will.

Indeed, all Christians experience unmet longings to some degree or another. We are also afflicted by any number of disordered desires. Obedience to Christ entails the (often difficult) choice not to act on these desires. Because same-sex sexual activity is contrary to God’s plan for humanity (just as is opposite-sex sexual activity outside of marriage), same-sex sexual desires must not be inflamed or acted upon. However, the experience of same-sex sexual temptation is not itself sin. Sin occurs when immoral behaviour is desired with the heart (activated) or committed with the body (enacted). The majority of those who are same-sex attracted do not experience their orientation as a choice. From their perspective, it seems as if they were “made that way”. But this does not mean they are free to “act that way”. Nevertheless, it does highlight a dimension of their struggle that needs to be appreciated by those who are seeking to support them in remaining sexually pure.

It is also important to note that marriage is not the only or ultimate way to live a fulfilled Christian life. The fact that Jesus Christ lived a single life highlights the goodness of singleness. Christians need to do a better job of acknowledging the gift of singleness and affirming the goodness of celibacy for all who are unmarried.

Arguments FOR the Scriptures.

Given these conclusions above – that the Bible teaches that marriage is intrinsically between a man and woman and that sexual activity outside of marriage is contrary to God’s plan for human sexuality – the next question is this: What weight Christians should give to these conclusions from Scripture in examining the issues around same-sex marriage?

Some in this debate argue that the combined witness of reason and experience, reflected in advances in scientific knowledge about same-sex attraction, demonstrate that Scriptures have “got it wrong” at certain points, and that God’s Spirit is now leading the church to revise its theology on this issue.

The debate turns on the relative priority that Christians give to the testimony of Scripture as a source of knowledge about God and his will. This raises important questions about epistemology (whether we can know and, if so, how we can know the truth about God) and hermeneutics (how the human interpreter is involved in the process of coming to know the truth about God).

Are we free to decide which parts of the Bible should apply today?

Different Christians will approach the question in different ways. In the Anglican interpretative tradition, Scripture has the highest, though not the sole, authority. Richard Hooker, who is often appealed to in this debate as giving equal balance to the “three-legged-stool” of Scripture, Reason and Tradition, in fact gives Scripture the primacy.

What Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason over-rule all other inferior judgments whatsoever (Hooker, Laws, Book V, 8:2; Folger Edition 2:39,8-14).

Reason and tradition necessarily come into play in the process of interpretation, and it would be naïve to think otherwise. But these should be the servant of the Scriptures, not the master. This understanding is expressed and embedded in the “Fundamental Declarations” of The Constitution of the Anglican Church of Australia, which holds the Scriptures to be “the ultimate rule and standard of faith given by inspiration of God and containing all things necessary for salvation” (Part I, Chapter I, paragraph 2).

Both the biblical text and the history of Christian interpretation tell us that we can and do get things wrong when it comes to interpreting the Scriptures. Especially for those in the Protestant tradition, we affirm that it is possible both for the church to misinterpret the Scriptures, and for the church to be led astray by the false values of the world. The text of Scripture, therefore, needs to be given its own voice, heard on its own terms and received as the word of God, even if its message clashes with contemporary values. Indeed, if we believe that it is possible that our own heart might be devious and perverse and beyond understanding (Jer 17:9), and if we believe that it is possible that, in the process of interpretation, we might in fact be seeking to hear only what our itching ears want to hear (1 Tim 4:3), then our hermeneutical approach ought not to presume that, where the plain meaning of the text clashes with what we and the world around us want the text to say, that it can’t mean what it says. Otherwise, our hermeneutic will preclude us from hearing God’s word say anything that doesn’t sit comfortably with the prevailing cultural context.

Instead of a “hermeneutic of resistance” – which either says that “the Bible is simply wrong” or that we must “resist the Bible’s ‘plain sense’”[1] – we should adopt a hermeneutic of humility. This means a humility that is willing to submit to the authority of the Scriptures and a humility toward our interpretations (both ancient and modern). Humility means viewing our traditional interpretations as provisional and open to correction in light of greater understanding. There is a hermeneutical gap between ancient text and modern world, and we must “mind the gap” in our interpretation. The same principle also works in reverse. That is, humility also means that we must view with suspicion our modern interpretations that happen to conform to the prevailing culture and so naturally appeal to us, lest we interpret away the gap between the ancient text and the modern world to suit our modern tastes or preconceptions.  Any way of reading Scripture that empowers the individual reader or the voice of modern culture to declare either that “the Bible is simply wrong” or that it cannot mean what it says is not an Anglican way of reading Scripture.

Has the Bible been wrong on other issues like slavery and women?

Proponent for change argue that Christians need to revise their views about same-sex marriage in the same way that we have revised our views on slavery and the status of women.  However, the parallel fails at the critical point, because the reason why we have revised our views on slavery and the status of women is because Christian have been persuaded that our older interpretations of the Bible were wrong, and have become persuaded by a “better” interpretation.

With regard to racism and slavery, the reason why change has occurred was NOT because our Christian forebears concluded that “the Bible commands these things, but the Bible is simply wrong” (a hermeneutic of resistance), but because they came to be persuaded that we (the church) had wrongly interpreted what the Bible, taken as a whole, had been saying all along. Old interpretations failed to appreciate the shift between Old Covenant and New Covenant on slavery and how this affects ethnicity and equality. Old interpretations failed to see how the New Testament sowed the seeds for the disintegration of the institution of slavery. We changed our minds (over many centuries and with much heartache) through a process of listening in humility to the Scriptures, and hearing afresh that God made all people in his image, Christ died for all people, and send his saving gospel out to all people.[2]

The same can be said in relation to the status of women. The reason why change has taken place in the church is NOT because we said “the Bible clearly teaches that women are second-class and inferior, but the Bible is simply wrong”. Rather, we have now come to see more clearly that the Bible affirms the fundamental equality of men and women, and that this message was in the Scriptures all along. In humility, then, we accept that there have been points on which Christians has misinterpreted the Scriptures in the past. New interpretations have come about not because we have abandoned the Bible, but because Christians were persuaded that their old interpretations of the Bible were wrong, and were persuaded by a better interpretation.

But in the case of same-sex sexual intimacy, no case has been made for a better interpretation. It is clear from the analysis of the arguments above that the Scriptures prohibit same-sex sexual intimacy, and that proposed alternative interpretations are without substance. Therefore, there is no real parallel between this issue and the issues of slavery and the status of women.

Is this another “Acts 10” moment in history?

All of this leads to the conclusion that this is not another Acts 10 moment in history. There is no reason to think that God’s Spirit is now leading the Church to abandon the clear teaching of God’s word in this matter. We should reject a hermeneutic of resistance that seeks to assert that the Bible is simply wrong and that we can discard what it says. Instead, we should follow a hermeneutic of humility that is willing to listen to what God has said to us in his word and does not seek to resist or overthrow that word because it puts the church out of step with the world around us.

 

 


[1] The phrases in quotes come from Richard Trelor, Five Easy Pieces, pp.26-27.

[2] See further the comprehensive treatment in William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).