Several months ago when there was a bit of a stir related to a post of mine on 'Jesus and the family', I ended up in a few email conversations with folk who were interested in exploring the connection between the Bible, faith, sexual orientation and familly. Many others who have done a much deeper analysis than this – but here’s my take, for what it's worth.
There’s a lot of wrong assumptions around. One is that the Bible has a lot to say about homosexuality – it doesn’t. The second is that it clearly indicates homosexual behaviour is sinful. It doesn’t. But let’s take a look at it.
Folks who believe homosexuality is inherently sinful quote both OT and NT support for their view.
Using OT texts is always tricky, because we do cherry-pick the stuff we feel is applicable. For example, I have seldom heard a sermon on either: “You shall not round your hair off at the edges nor trim the edes of your beard.” (Lev. 19:27) Nor the specific exclusion of hunchbacks, dwarfs and those with damages testicles from being able to approach the altar to make an offering. (Lev 21:17-20).
There are only a number of few specific texts cited as underpinnings of the view that homosexual behaviour is sinful
1. Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.19) However the act in question in that story is an act of homosexual rape – the rape of a heterosexual male [as well as breaking the rules around hospitality and refuge]. The rape of Tamar was wrong – all rape is wrong, even though Lot seems to miss this when it comes to his daughters.
2. Lev. 18:22 – which in most English translations does seem to indicate that it is an ‘abomination’ for a man to lie with a man as he would a woman. What the text actually says is that it is wrong for a man to ‘lay lyings of woman’ – which could mean something as inclusive as homosexual acts or something as narrowly defined as ‘don’t have homosexual acts in the woman’s bed because it is sacred.’
3. Lev. 20:13. Here again it is ‘lay lyings of woman’ is outlawed but in this case the death penalty is prescribed. Other offenses for which the death penalty was prescribed included gathering sticks on the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36) and improperly eating ritually offered food (Num 18:12)
4. There are numerous references to ‘sodomites’ (e.g. Dt.23:17. 1 K 14:24. 15:12, 22:46, & 2 K 23:7). Here the term ‘qadesh’ seems quite clear that the reference to sacred male prostitution [linked to fertility cults]. In fact in 23:17 the traditional translation of whore/sodomite is curious given the fact that they are male and female forms of the same word.
Out of the entire OT then we have two verses which seem to condemn some aspect of homosexual behaviour, though it is unclear exactly what is being condemned. Interestingly, in contrast, there are significantly more references to usury [Usury was the practice of charging money to use money, ie the collecting of interest.] including Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25:35-37; Dt.23:19; Ps. 15:5; as well as Prov 28:8, Neh.5:11-13; Ezek 22:12. I have yet to meet any evangelical or liberal church that teaches that collecting interest on investment is sinful, or refuses to invest any of its own money to collect interest. In fact many actively participate in the usury system by either taking out a mortgage or setting up an interest-yielding foundation/fund.
homosexuality and the NT
Once again there are relatively few references to homosexual activity – but there are a few, and we need to address these. The most significant of these is Romans 1:26-27: which the NIV translates as Because of this [worshipping things instead of God], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
So let’s look at some of the words
1. shameful lusts [also translated as ‘degrading passions’ etc.] comes from ‘atimas’ [a = not + tima= value/esteem] and‘pathos’ – feeling. So it could be ‘worthless feelings or unworthy feelings, feelings of no value’. Interestingly it is the same word ‘atimia’ that Paul uses to describe men with long hair (1 Cor 11:14). Some see a link to the frenzied state of mind induced in the mystery cults with wine/drugs and music – but this is all conjecture.
2. natural - women exchanging their natural sexual intercourse for unnatural. ‘natural’ comes from ‘phusikos’ which means natural or innate. ‘unnatural’ is from para phusein – which could probably be more accurately translated as ‘unconventional’ ‘deviating from their common practice’. So the reference here is to heterosexual women giving up their natural heterosexual behaviour for homosexual behaviour. This, incidentally, is the only reference to female same-sex relationships/activity in the Bible. In parallel form, heterosexual men are giving up their natural relations with women
3. ‘just reward’ does seem to imply the STD’s rampant among temple prostitutes and in the fertility cults.
Contextually in this passage Paul was talking, not about sexual sin, but about idolatry and he uses this as an example of idolatry and its impact. The language is strong, hyperbole was, after all, was one of Paul’s marks as a writer. It seems likely that Paul probably has in mind the temple prostitutes and sexual habits of the fertility cults in his mind, but it is possible that the reference is broader.
Outside of this passage there are two lists of sins/sinners [1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10], a kind of piling up of greek words two of which are relevant here: malekoi and arsenokoitai. Both of these terms are difficult – here are some of the ways they have been translated:
1. malekoi: effeminate [KJV]; pervert [CEV]; homosexuals [RSV]; male prostitutes [NIV]; those who make women of themselves [Darby] ; guilty of homosexual perversion [NEB]; boy prostitutes [NAC-1987]; sissies [Jerusalem – German ed.]; catamites [Jerusalem, 1966] (catamies refers to boys kept as sexual slaves); self-indulgent [New Jerusalem, 1985]. The term actually means ‘soft’. By soft does Paul mean the morally soft? Or soft-skinned? Soft-living? There is no definitive way to answer. In bible translation, when meaning is unclear or multiple meanings are possible, translators use the context to determine meaning – but in a list one can’t do that.
2. arsenokoitai: Sodomites [Young’s]; homosexuals [NASB]; abusers of themselves with men [KJV]; behaves like a homosexual [CEV]; child-molesters [Jerusalem, German ed.]; persons of sordid morals [Jerusalem Fr. Ed.]; homosexual offenders [NIV]; lechers against men [Wycliffe] The term actually means ‘male-beds’ or perhaps ‘male-bedders’
In the church fathers malakos was not used for either effeminate males but rather for moral weakness [and sometimes for masturbation]. It was never used for homosexual males. The link to boy-prostitutes/sex slaves is possible.
The term arsenokoite, a compound word, does not seem to appear before Paul used it in I Cor – so it is difficult to be certain of its meaning. In compound forms the first word [here arsen = males] is the subject so the term could mean ‘male-lying’
It may be that the link between malekoi and arsenokoitai in I Cor 6:9 could be referencing boy sex-slaves and those who keep/employ/abuse them. This would roughly parallel the list in 1 Tim where it runs: pornoi [male prostitutes]; arsenokoitai [those who keep/abuse them] and adrapodistei – slave traders [those who sell them the prostitutes] – an indictment against the entire sex trade common in the culture.
Of interest is the fact that Paul does not use the common terms for a homosexuality or homosexuals [homophilia] or other less ambiguous terms [there were a number available and in common use]. If Paul had wanted to name homosexuals he would have used the term – it was not in his character to be subtle or coy.
Given the vehemence of the so called pro-family groups, the anti-gay lobby in North America one would have assumed that the scriptural base for their views was strong. In fact, in the NT the two references to not allowing women to braid their hair [1 Tim 2:9 & 1 Peter 3:3] are probably equally well attested, and in the OT the prohibitions of participating in intersest-generating economic activity are stronger. Why don’t we see evangelical/fundamentalist churches condemning the banks? Go after those payday loan-sharks? Why so silent on the epidemic of braided hair? Why would they allow Homecoming videos to be shown in their churches when they feature prominantly that guy with long grey hair? [sorry, bad pun] Why pick on this one issue of homosexuality? Why this one group?
The answer, of course, is that sexuality is so closely linked to our identity as humans. In Western society, particularly British and North American we fear our bodies [this is why we use body language as profanity, we fear the power of the body. In Quebec, by contrast, where the church held such power, people swore by using religious words – they feared the power of the sacred.]
A lot of folks say they believe in the bible as the inerrant word of God – that they follow it fully. That’s fine. I’ll take them seriously if they are serious. But then let’s have no cherry picking, lifting up a verse here to enforce while we ignore other verses because we don’t want to enforce them. Braided hair in church? Not allowed – no French braids, no corn braids and definitely no dreds. Short people or seniors with osteoporosis taking up the offering? Never. Serious questions need to be asked about survivors of prostate cancer to see if they are appropriate for leadership – two complete testicles are essential. I suggest comb-overs definitely constitute long hair and therefore are an abomination – moreover as Paul says, men do not need a covering for their heads, only women do. Perhaps some of our muslim sisters would feel less vulnerable if Christian women would believe the bible and wear their own version of a hijab, but even if it's just babooskas let’s put an end to women coming to church bareheaded. Toupes? I think the answer is clear [this too if these churches followed NT teaching would be bad news for the homecoming crowd]
Why would we have allowed these other regulations to fade while passionately holding on to, or, more accurately, enhancing the prohibitions/judgments against homosexuality. For that the answer lies not in the bible, but in ourselves.
Good as New - a british translation of a number of NT books, plus Thomas provides a very interesting translation of the Corinthians and Romans passages:
It's time you realized that people who choose not to control their conduct aren't ready for God's New World! I'm talking about people who mess around in frivolous relationships, people who worship things instead of God, those who set out to steal another's partner, those who make money out of sex or abuse the young, thieves, loan-sharks, those who eat and drink too much, those who make fun of others. . . [1 C 6:9]
God let them go on to pursue their selfish desires. Women use their charms to further their own ends. Men, instead of being friends, ruthlessly exploit one another. Their stressful lifestyle makes them ill. [Ro 1:26-27].
To this last verse Henson, the translator, adds a footnote:
These verses have been shamefully used as a basis for the discomforting of those with a same-sex orientation. Undoubtedly Paul had uppermost in his mind the callous exploitation associated with the sex-trade centred in his day in the pagan temples. he was not addressing the issue of loving same-sex relationships. Our translation strives to refocus on Paul's concern with the ill treatment of one human being by another, of which sexual abuse is one example, the persecution of minorities another.
I can say amen to that.