In the press coverage following President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage last week, reporters gathered reactions to the president’s words. In the coverage I heard, people opposed to same-sex marriage uniformly said they opposed it because the Bible condemns homosexuality. I wondered how many of them actually knew what the Bible says—and more importantly what it doesn’t say—on the many issues related to sexuality. Furthermore, I wondered how many people who support civil rights for LGBT people really know what the Bible has to say or not say.
During FCC’s process of becoming Open and Affirming to all people, we studied what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. Not all FCC members were present for those discussions, however, and we have had many new additions since that time. So I feel like it’s time for a brief refresher on the subject. I suspect some FCC folks are tired of all of the media blitz on same-sex marriage this election year. If so, just skip this column and file it away until you have energy to spare for it. For those who can read this brief overview now, I hope it serves as a primer on biblical interpretation in general and the Bible and homosexuality in particular.
Genesis 19 and Judges19—In these two horrific passages, a stranger or strangers arrive in a town and are threatened with gang rape by the male inhabitants. Male-on-male gang rape, however, is nothing like the kind of loving and committed relationships that many LGBT people have today. The Genesis 19 story is infamous, because it tells the story of Sodom’s destruction. The terms “sodomite” and “sodomy” have a long and convoluted history through centuries of church tradition and western law quite apart from the Biblical text itself, so a careful reader of the Bible should make sure that linguistic and legal history is not read back into the text.
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—These two verses prohibit male to male sexual relations, but the problem with all arguments from the Levitical laws is determining their relevance for today. There are some laws in Leviticus that match up with contemporary cultural norms, but there are many laws that do not. How does one fairly determine which, if any, of these laws are relevant for contemporary cultural debates? The Jewish religion, for which these laws are central, has a complex history of interpretation of them. Within the different sects of Judaism, there are a number of groups who affirm same-sex relationships. Given the divergence of belief with in Judaism, perhaps Christians should be careful with their interpretations. (There is also the issue in 20:13 of capital punishment for male to male sexual relations--do we really want to go there?)
1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10—Although the terms in these two verses which are often translated as “homosexual” or “male prostitute” are clearly negative in the view of the author, scholars differ regarding their translation. The 1 Corinthians verse uses the Greek term “malakos” which generally means “soft.” Although English translations tend to interpret this term as the “passive” partner in male homosexual acts, comparisons with how the term is used elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature reveal a variety of meanings. The term could mean an “effeminate” male or even some other slang word with a less clear meaning. The term “arsenokoites” is used in both verses and has been variously interpreted as “male prostitute,” “pederast,” “homosexual,” etc. Elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature the term seems to point towards economic exploitation sometimes with a sexual connotation and sometimes not. Given the lack of clarity on how to translate these terms Bible readers should be cautious in their own interpretations.
Romans 1:26-28—If there are Bible verses directly relevant for the contemporary debate, then they are found in Romans 1. Here Paul writes about homosexual acts to illustrate how human beings have distorted God’s original created order. He indicates that heterosexual relations were the original norm of God. Yet, it should be noted that he does so in service to a larger point, namely that all people have fallen short of God’s original intentions lest any decide to judge others.
Given that the verses from Romans are the only ones that really can be considered relevant for the contemporary debate, what do we do with them? It’s worth considering briefly a few more factors in interpretation.
- · Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.
- · The Biblical authors presuppose that everyone is heterosexual. The concept of a sexual orientation or that people could be born homosexual or heterosexual developed only within the last 150 years or so. As far as the Bible is concerned, there are no homosexuals just heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts. Like many concepts of science, psychology, neurology, genetics, etc. a concept of being born gay or lesbian was completely unknown to ancient writers.
- · There are at most seven references to homosexual acts in the Bible. Compare that number to the hundreds of verses on greed. Why does homosexuality get so much attention when we pay so little attention to our use of wealth? There are many verses that condone slavery in the Bible, yet we view slavery as abhorrent. Why do we reject some verses but not others?
There is MUCH more to say about sexuality and the Bible, but at least this column provides some basics. As you hear various views on sexuality this election year, consider the source and ask yourself if that person has really bothered to know what the Bible says or has considered what it means to responsibly interpret it.
Grace and Peace,