Portland Lectures #2—The Biblical Message

Ted Grimsrud

Portland Mennonite Church—February 6, 2010

A number of years ago I had an article published in the Gospel Herald, then the weekly magazine of the Mennonite Church.  The article elicited several rather sharply critical letters in response—and I then felt a need to respond in turn to these letters.  In my response I summarized the main point I was trying to make with my article.

Several weeks later I got a personal letter.  The guy wrote that when he read my response he thought, hey, that sounds like a great article, I must have missed it when it came out.  So he went back to read the article—and realized that he had had no idea I was saying what I said I meant to say when I wrote my response!

So he gave me some advice: start by saying what you’re going to say, then say it, then conclude by saying what it was that you said….

So, this is what I’m going to say in this lecture.  As followers of Jesus and as heirs—as Jesus was—of Torah (the Old Testament Law), a central part of our calling is to offer welcome, to offer hospitality, to be channels of mercy to all kinds of people—including, even especially, vulnerable people (such as widows, orphans, marginalized people, people who especially need hospitality.

This call to offer hospitality is the default setting for communities of God’s people, communities of faith.  And this call establishes our starting point (or, maybe better, our first step) in thinking how the churches should relate to what we could call sexual minorities.

The second step for churches, I suggest, is to recognize that such hospitality does not mean simply blind tolerance but involves a call to faithfulness, a recognition that as we receive God’s mercy we give back to God by living lives of service and discipleship.  So the churches do appropriately have moral expectations of their members.

However, this is our big question: Is there any reason why these expectations should be different for those among us who are attracted toward people of their own same sex than expectations for those attracted toward members of the opposite sex?  That is, should the churches’ hospitality toward gays and lesbians be restricted due simply to the same-sexness of their intimate partnerships?

I will look at the main bases for advocating such a restrictiveness—the several biblical passages often interpreted as forbidding all same-sex marriages or intimate partnerships.  And I will suggest that in fact those passages do not speak of our present issue of same-sex marriage.  Hence, those passages do not provide a basis for having a different kind of sexual ethic for gays and lesbians than for straight people, a sexual ethic that does not allow for permanent, covenanted partnerships characterized by mutuality and fidelity.

Discerning Our Starting Point

Our starting benefit of the doubt is important: Do we approach this issue with the sense that gay and lesbian Christians are full participants in the church where we must come up with a clear rationale to prove that they shouldn’t be?  Or do we start with a sense that such Christians are outside the circle of full participation where we must prove that nonetheless it is okay to be inclusive?  Which side starts with the benefit of the doubt?

Let me start with a case study, two women Kathleen and I are friends with.  Let’s call them Ilse and Jennifer.  They both grew up in Anabaptist Christian families, affirmed the faith of their parents, and attended Christian colleges.  They met while in college and fell in love.  They realized they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together so they met with their pastor, did pre-marital counseling, had a union ceremony, and began their lives together as wife and wife.

From all available evidence, Ilse and Jennifer are exemplary people whose relationship witnesses to their faith and their commitment to follow the way of Jesus.  They are each committed to fidelity and mutuality in their relationship.  They haven’t decided for sure yet, but are open to the possibility of having children.

So, the question in approaching the biblical and theological materials is, do we have clear evidence to support the conclusion that there is something deeply morally problematic with this relationship—to the extent that Ilse and Jennifer should be challenged to choose between their relationship with one another and their relationship with the church?

Why the Benefit of the Doubt Should be for Inclusion

My perspective on what our burden of proof should be has been shaped by my pacifism.  I have come to draw on two biblical themes in particular in concluding that the churches’ benefit of the doubt as they examine the biblical materials should lie on the side of inclusiveness.  First is the general value of hospitality.  Second is Jesus’ particular model of welcome. The Bible, beginning with the book of Genesis places great importance on the call to share hospitality with vulnerable people.  And, Jesus himself modeled inclusiveness toward people his faith community labeled as unworthy of full inclusion in their midst.

Throughout, the Bible’s call for God’s people to form communities of healing finds expression in the high priority placed on the virtue of hospitality. A faith community’s hospitality expresses its faithfulness to God.  Practically, in biblical times, human life in a largely harsh, unforgiving physical world was fragile.  Desert people need each other; they rely on hospitality from others for their survival.  Even more, hospitality takes on a profoundly spiritual dimension – our relationship with God is determined by our willingness to live hospitably.  Faith communities that refuse hospitality cut themselves off from their life source.

Jesus showed hospitality specifically toward those considered “unclean.”  He portrayed salvation itself as directly tied to such welcome.  One time, Jesus responded to the question about eternal life with an affirmation of following the commandments – which he summarizes as loving God and loving neighbor – quoting Leviticus 19.  When pushed as to whom the neighbor actually is, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  This story packs an amazing punch when we realize that the kind of hospitality illustrated here is risky, unconditional, and counter any kind of boundary line that seeks to separate faithful insiders from outsider “sinners” – remember, Jerusalem-centered Jews considered Samaritans the worst of sinners.

Jesus consistently showed deep-seated and at times costly kindness and respect to particular men, women, and children. He cared for Matthew the tax collector. He cared for the woman at the well. Jesus modeled for us the practice of simply accepting other actual people. He treated individuals with respect. He listened to others, was interested, shared food with them.

Jesus and his followers formed a social organization that stood in sharp contrast to the relatively rigid social boundaries of their culture. They rejected boundaries between righteous and outcast, men and women, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. Jesus’ politics of compassion was founded on a profound understanding of God’s mercy. Jesus’ God, as represented in his teaching, does not discriminate but loves all people.  Jesus’ God is our model – “be merciful, as God is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Jesus’ practice of open table fellowship speaks powerfully across times and cultures. Sharing table fellowship has powerfully and concretely expressed fellowship, inclusion, and communal connection. Jesus practiced a radical openness that ran contrary to the purity-oriented exclusionary practices of religious people of his time (and ours). The symbol of open table fellowship with outsiders, “sinners,” excluded ones, reveals Jesus’ approach with stark clarity.

The centrality of hospitality in the Bible and the way Jesus modeled welcome support holding inclusiveness as our starting point.  However, such a starting point does not resolve the issue concerning gays in the churches.  We must consider whether, in the Christian tradition, might have decisive reasons that should cause us to overrule our starting point and conclude that the churches should ultimately take a restrictive stance—welcome in general, but in some cases such as with gays, restrictive.

If we start with the inclusive assumption and seek to follow a conservative hermeneutic with the Bible, we ask, What do we find if we examine the biblical teaching asking if it provides clear bases for the restrictive position?  Should we overturn the inclusive assumption?

Because the question of whether present-day gays by living in committed relationships are actively sinning seems to be the basic issue in dispute, we need to focus most of all on the alleged bases for asserting that even covenanted, monogamous same-sex relationships are inherently sinful.  That is why my case study of Ilse and Jennifer is important—if we are to accept restrictive conclusions, that is the kind of relationship we should be able to show to be immoral (not the much easier cases of promiscuous gay men).

Is There a Biblical Basis for Overriding the Benefit of the Doubt for Inclusiveness?

In what follows, I will focus on the question of whether the Bible does provide a clear basis for overriding the default position of inclusion that I have presented.  That is, does the Bible clearly condemn what many today are calling same-sex covenanted relationships?

I will focus on six passages seen to speak directly to same-sex sexuality: (1) the story of Abraham, Lot, Sodom, and Gomorrah in Genesis 18–19; (2) a similar story in Judges 19; (3) Leviticus 18–20, the Holiness Code for Israel’s practice; (4) Romans 1:18-32, with its well-known connection between idolatry and sexuality; (5) the list of sins that often is understood to contain reference to same-sex sex in 1 Corinthians six; and (6) a similar list in 1 Timothy one.

Genesis. Genesis 18 and 19 contain two contrasting accounts of hospitality.  In juxtaposing these two accounts – one being Abraham’s hosting of the visitors from God, the other being the men of Sodom’s attempt to gang-rape their visitors – the text focuses on the called-outness of Abraham as God’s channel of salvation for all the families of the earth.

If we consider the connection between chapters 18 and 19, we see that the main point of the story of Sodom is to highlight by contrast the exemplary characteristics of Abraham.  It’s not to underscore as an end in itself the point of the sinfulness of the heathen.  The Sodom story is not about homosexuality; it is about hospitality.

The story portrays the Sodomites’ injustice as their brutal inhospitality.  Hospitality had great significance in the desert culture of the Bible.  Abraham, in the first part of Genesis 18, shows how hospitality was supposed to be practiced.  The moral corruption of the Sodomite community comes through clearly in their refusal to care for Lot’s visitors with generosity; they respond instead with exploitative violence.

Every single man in the city (19:4) sought to have sex with the visitors – that is, gang rape.  The sin here is a social sin, characterizing the entire city. Several of the men of Sodom were Lot’s prospective sons-in-law (19:12-14), implying that while “every man” might have been intent on raping the visitors, not “every man” was “homosexual.”  The issue clearly seems to be domination over vulnerable outsiders, not same-sex sexuality.

Judges. Interpreting Genesis 18-19 as focusing on hospitality finds support from Judges 19:1-22.  In both passages, the visitors offer to stay outside and are strongly urged by their hosts not to, the cities are each utterly inhospitable with the exception in each case of a single resident alien, both hosts’ houses are surrounded by a mob from the city who want to “womanize” (humiliate through gang-rape) the guest(s), the hosts both offer virgin daughters to the mob.

A crucial difference between the two stories, though, supports interpreting the concern in these stories as gang rape, not same-sex sexuality.  In the Judges story, the mob relents when they are given the guest’s concubine to gang rape.  To ravage the man’s woman had the desired effect of emasculating the male guest; the concern was domination, not same-sex sex.

These two passages, Genesis 18–19 and Judges 19, are the only two stories in the Old Testament that mention particular men seeking to have sex with other men (and we have no stories at all featuring women with women).  In both cases, though, the desire for sexual intercourse was an expression of the desire to dominate strangers through gang rape, not an example of general “homosexuality.” So these stories provide no evidence that the Bible would condemns Ilse and Jennifer’s sexual intimacy as sinful.

Leviticus. The Book of Leviticus centers on the need for Israelites to maintain clear distinctiveness from surrounding cultures. The book is set in the time of Moses, following the exodus and prior to the entry into the promised land. To survive, the faith community must follow God’s law.  An inevitable consequence of faithfulness to God’s law will be living as a contrast culture in relation to surrounding cultures. This is the issue: How can Israel live as a distinct, separated people in the context of a surrounding culture that rejects their faith?

Leviticus 17–26 is called the “Holiness Code.”  This section sketches the characteristics that should distinguish Israel as God’s holy nation.  Within the Holiness Code, chapters 18 through 20 provide the core teaching, and within that smaller section, chapter 19 plays the especially crucial role of defining “holiness.”

Leviticus 19 gives concrete shape to Israel’s calling to be a holy nation, calling the people to be holy just as God is holy (19:3). Leviticus’ picture portrays holiness in relational terms.  Among the commands: revere your parents; do not harvest the corners of your fields or strip your vineyards bare in order to provide for the “poor and the alien” (19:9-10); do not lie or steal (19:11); do not withhold the laborer’s wages (19:13); treat the deaf and blind kindly (19:14); do not slander (19:16); respect the elderly (19:32); and be inclusive of aliens (19:33-34).  We may sum up the teaching on holiness (as Jesus did) with 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”

To be a holy nation means to imitate God, to love the neighbor, to care for vulnerable ones, and to love even the alien “as yourself.” The core identity of Israel as a distinctive people of God centers on concern for all members of the community; this focus especially includes concern for vulnerable ones, that they may function as community members.  The legislation concerning sexual practices must be understood as part of this context of care for vulnerable ones that lay at the heart of the definition of holiness in Israel.

Two underlying issues motivate legislation concerning sexual practices here: (1) the need to differentiate Israel’s way of life from that of the “Canaanites” and (2) concern about procreation, continuity over successive generations.

Leviticus 18 focuses on differentiating Israelite culture from surrounding cultures.  The chapter begins by asserting that the Israelites “shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan” (18:3).  It concludes with, “do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves” (18:24). The practices forbidden in Leviticus 18 and 20 are forbidden primarily because they are seen as characteristic of the peoples from whom the Israelites must differentiate themselves.

In addition to moral separation from “the nations,” the Israelites also must “be fruitful and multiply” in order to continue as a distinct community.  Each of the prohibitions in 18:19-23 has to do with “wasted seed.”  These mostly all sexual practices that cannot produce children or at least not in a socially approved way, including sex during menstruation, adultery, male/male sex, and bestiality.  The one exception, child sacrifice, is also a form of “wasted seed.”

There may also be concern with Gentile religious practices—especially with male/male sex.  Note especially the reference to child sacrifice, often a part of such practices.

We have little basis here for generalizing about the Bible’s overall view of “homosexuality.”  Leviticus 18–20 contains numerous other prohibitions that are rarely if ever understood by Christians to be determinative of the Bible’s overall position.  For example, in these three chapters, we also find prohibitions of male/female sexual intercourse during menstruation (18:19), of wearing clothes made with more than on kind of fiber (19:19), of wearing tattoos (19:28), and of planting more than one type of grain in a single field (19:19).  None of these are cited by Christians in the present as proof that the Bible “condemns” these practices once and for all.

The main reasons for the prohibition of male/male sex in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 that we have any evidence for seem clearly context specific. Certainly Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 clearly condemn some sort of male/male sex.  However, in the absence of a clear universalizable basis for such a condemnation, we do not have enough evidence to generalize from these two rather cryptic references.

Also, Christians understand Jesus’ message to be our core ethical source.  In seeking to understand and apply Leviticus’ teaching for Christian ethics, the elements that connect most closely to Jesus matter most (in particular, Leviticus’ call to “love your neighbor”.

Romans. When we turn to the New Testament, we find that each of the New Testament texts that are commonly discussed as speaking directly to the issue of homosexuality is found among the writings attributed to the Apostle Paul.

In treating Paul’s discussion of same-sex sexual intimacy in Romans one, I will first discuss the broader argument of Romans 1–3.  Second, the place that 1:18-32 plays in that broader argument.  And, third, the significance the reference to same-sex sexual intimacy has for Paul’s discussion.  Why does Paul use this particular example here?

The section 1:18–3:20 as a whole centers on the problem mentioned in 1:18 –injustice (beginning in 3:21, Paul presents the solution as the revelation of the justice of God).  The Greek word for “injustice” (adikia) is often also translated “wickedness” or “unrighteousness.”  Human beings have violated their relationship with God.  This alienated divine/human relationship manifests itself in alienated human/human relationships.  Human beings acting unjustly toward their fellow human beings follows from the lack of wholeness in their relationship with God.

Beginning with 1:18 and continuing through the end of chapter three, Paul’s argument proceeds as follows: Human beings outside the covenant live lives of deep-seated injustice, deserving of God’s wrath (1:18-32).  However, those people of the covenant who vigorously condemn the injustices of the outsiders while ignoring their own also deserve God’s wrath (2:1–3:8).  Adding these two statements together leads to the inevitable conclusion, all people fall equally short of God’s justice (3:9-20).  Paul’s punch line, though, comes beginning in 3:21.  God’s mercy prevails – as revealed in Jesus.

Paul aims his primary critique toward the religiously smug people of the covenant who need to be convinced that they are alienated from God.  Paul portrays their false view as due to their over-confidence concerning their standing.  Paul indicts Gentile sin (1:18-32) in order make his central point – the religious people too are just as much under the power of sin.

In 2:5-6 Paul speaks of the hard hearts of those who in passing judgment on others, assume that God’s judgment toward them would be favorable.  This is a false assumption; “you, the judge, are doing the very same thing” (2:1).  These religious people were in as much need of repentance as those Paul described in 1:18-32.  They are equally alienated from God and do not even know it.

That Paul has an ultimately redemptive intent with his critique becomes clear beginning in 3:21.  He underscores the sinfulness of both types of people to clear the ground for a new appreciation of the mercy of God.

In the context of Romans 1–3, the discussion of wrongdoing in 1:18-32 serves Paul’s case by making two points.  First, readers are set up for what follows in Romans 2 – the critique of religiosity.  Second, this critique leads to Paul’s punch line: God’s unconditional mercy is revealed in Jesus apart from such religiosity.

In 1:18-32, Paul assumes that human beings are inherently creatures oriented toward worship.  We all serve something outside ourselves—if not God then idols. Should we take the route of trusting in idols, we will find ourselves on a downward spiral.  We will move toward ever-increasing injustice and slavery to our lusts that render us less than human. God “hands over” human beings to their injustice.  It’s as if God withdraws God’s providential care for these people and simply allows them to reap the consequences of their idolatry.

These consequences find expression in extraordinary injustice, degrading passions and sexual obsessiveness.  Idolaters lose self-control—even to the point of women giving up “natural” self-control for unbridled lust and men being consumed by passion for other men (1:26-27). The injustice finds a variety of expressions beyond oppressive sexuality; 1:29-31 lists twenty examples of unjust behavior characteristic of people who choose idolatry and ungodliness over genuine worship in the God of creation.

This passage does not have as its rhetorical intent negatively analyzing pagan sexuality in order to provide regulations for Christian sexuality.  Paul does not write Romans 1 as a constructive statement on Christian sexual ethics.  Rather, Paul sets his readers up for what follows in chapter 2.  When you pass judgment on such terrible sinners, “you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things.”  Paul does not set out here to make normative, timeless pronouncements that directly speak to 21st-century questions about the moral legitimacy of a relationship such as Jennifer and Ilse’s.

Even if Paul does not center on same-sex sexuality, he does seem to see it as in some sense characteristic of the worst of pagan injustice.  But why?  We have some clues that hint at what Paul may have had in mind in using the example he does, especially when combined with some extra-biblical historical knowledge.  The entire section, 1:18-32, focuses on injustice.  The type of sexuality to which Paul refers here has to be understood as oppressive and hurtful.  The “degrading passions” are linked with murder, envy, strife, and slander.  The references to sexuality should be seen in the context of the broader elaboration of injustice that is associated with trusting in things rather than trusting in God.

One of the puzzles in the passage is what Paul means with his reference to women in 1:26.  Too easily, interpreters assume he refers here to female/female sexual relations.  However, the text itself does not clearly state this.  Literally, it tells us that the women exchange “natural sexual desire” for “unnatural sexual desires” without specifying the actual form such an exchange takes.  Then we are told in 1:27 that the men, in a similar way give up “natural sexual desire in relation to women” for unbridled lust for other men.

It is altogether possible that the parallel between what the women do and what the men do has to do with their passion and lust, not that the women are necessarily involved with other women.  Basically, we are told that they are in bondage to extreme passion.  Paul holds up extreme passion or lust as the stereotypical fruit of idolatry.  It is not self-evident why Paul would offer same-sex sex per se as his paradigmatic case of the consequences of pagan idolatry.  Same-sex sexual intimacy is peripheral to the Bible.  It makes more sense that Paul had something else in mind that he thought would touch his readers’ antipathy.

Considering Paul’s historical setting provides clues about what Paul had in mind in 1:18-32.  At the time Paul wrote, the sexual outrages of recent Roman emperors had scandalized practically everyone in Rome. He would likely have seen these as reflecting the worst of pagan culture.  His readers, living in Rome, could easily have been expected to connect Paul’s general comments in Romans one with what they knew about emperors Caligula and Nero.

Among those who assassinated Emperor Caligula was an officer he had sexually humiliated.  This person stabbed Caligula several times in the genitals.  Could this event be echoed in Paul’s words: “Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their persons the due penalty of their error” (1:27)?

Following Caligula’s death, Claudius’s reign ushered in a brief period of relative moral gravity.  However, Claudius was succeeded by another tyrant, Nero.  Paul wrote Romans during the reign of Nero, whose rapes of wives and sons, incest with his mother, brothel-keeping, and sexual submission to various men and boys prompted his tutor, the philosopher Seneca, to conclude that Nero was “another Caligula.”

So, Paul may be evoking the emperors when he juxtaposes pagan idolatry with a lurid depiction of sexual perversion.  The list of vices in 1:29-31 greatly exaggerate conventional gentile morality.  Not all Gentiles did these kinds of things; in fact, few did.  However, the vice list is not exaggerated if it is a description of the emperors.  After all, in chapter two Paul states that some people outside the covenant are indeed capable of authentically keeping the law.

So, to use this passage as a basis for judging the behavior of Christians in same-sex loving relationships turns the role it plays in Paul’s overall argument on its head.  Paul’s concern in 1:18–3:20 is to critique judgmentalism, not to foster it.  The example Paul gives of the consequences of pagan idolatry focuses on injustice, people hurting other people.  Paul’s critique centers on injustice, not on covenanted, loving, mutual partnerships.  The type of sexual activity associated with injustice and with obsessive lust seems clearly to be what Paul had in mind—not condemning all possible same-sex intimacy as sinful.

1 Corinthians. With 1 Corinthians six, we should also look at the allusions to same-sex sexual activity in the wider context of the passage.  When we do, we see that Paul, as in Romans one, does not to give direct ethical guidance to Christians concerning homosexuality in general.

Chapter six begins with mention of some people in the Corinthian church taking legal action toward others in the church.  In 6:7-8 Paul writes of defrauding, indicating that perhaps the conflicts had to do with economic issues.  Paul’s anger stems from the church not taking care of its own conflicts internally.  Paul speaks harshly of the Corinthian Christians relying on “unbelievers” to settle their disputes. Paul refers to the courts of the unbelievers as unjust.  When the Corinthians Christians take one another to court, they declare primary allegiance to the pagan culture of Corinth rather than to the community of faith.

Quite likely the Corinthian Christians initiating the court actions were wealthy and the lawsuits were aimed at poorer members. Paul writes in 6:9 that the unjust non-Christians will not inherit the kingdom of God.  The Corinthian Christians imitate such unjust unbelievers when they act unjustly in similar way (6:8).

So, when Paul comes to the list of characteristics of the unjust people who will not inherit the kingdom of God he does not have sexuality per se on his mind.  Rather, he chastises the Corinthian Christians for taking each other to “secular” courts, using unjust nonbelievers to buttress their own injustice.  In 6:9-10, Paul drives home his view that Christians should not trust their disputes to unjust outsiders.

The items in the list of 6:9-10 illustrate what the Corinthians used to be prior to their coming into the church.  They used to be unjust, and now they have changed due to Christ (6:11).  In light of this transformation, they ought to stop acting like unjust people using the courts to settle their property disputes in favor the powerful within the church.

As with Romans one, then, the central concern of 1 Corinthians 6 has to do with justice and injustice—and Paul uses the example of the injustice of “pagans” to challenge his Christian readers to faithfulness.  He simply does not, in either place, focus on constructive ethical guidelines for sexuality, and even less does he center his concern on condemning all possible same-sex intimate partnerships as sinful for Christians.

Still, we do have these references in 1 Corinthians 6:9.  The NRSV translates the Greek words malakos and arsenokoites as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” respectively.  The TNIV has “male prostitutes” and “practicing homosexuals.”  However, the meanings of these Greek words in the text are far from clear.

Paul simply, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, gives a list of examples of injustices characteristic of pagan judges.  He does not describe how any of these different examples are problematic.  Since the general context here is injustice, even if malakos and arsenokoites have sexual connotations (which is not certain in the case of malakos), most likely they connote sex of an unjust and exploitative type.

Malakos is a fairly common term, meaning literally “soft” with no intrinsic sexual connotations (see Matthew 11:8 = “soft clothing”).  It is often used in a negative moral sense such as “laziness, decadence, or lack of courage.”  Most often, perhaps, it is used, with negative connotations, of men being effeminate.  By itself, malakos could easily in 1 Corinthians 6:9 simply be a general term for “morally lax,” linking with some of the other terms in the list such as “thieves, the greedy, and robbers.”  It could have sexual connotations—a man allowing himself to be used like a woman (probably for economic gain).  But there is nothing to require this meaning, so the use of malakos here is scarcely clear evidence that Paul condemns “homosexuality” in general.

Our second term, arsenokoites, is on the one hand even more obscure than malakos, while on the other hand it would seem quite likely to have more overt sexual connotations.  Outside of 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the obviously derivative use in 1 Timothy 1:10, the word is never used in Paul’s writings, never used in the rest of the New Testament, and never used in other surviving first century Greek writings.

Numerous scholars suggest that Paul himself may well have coined this term, combining two words from the Septuigent translation of Leviticus 20:13:  arseno- (“male”) and –koitai (“sexual intercourse”).  Some assert that Paul created this compound word in order to refer the active partner in the homosexual act.

Certainly, Paul may have coined this word.  We have no basis to say he did not—or that he did.  However, to see in this word the meaning of “the active partner in the homosexual act” goes far beyond the evidence.  There is no parallel use anywhere in any extant first-century Greek literature.  Neither 1 Corinthians 6:9 nor 1 Timothy 1:10 hint in any other way that Paul’s concern was with “homosexuality.”  He’s clearly not self-consciously articulating a thorough going general position on Christians and homosexuality.

1 Timothy. The use of arsenokoites in 1 Timothy 1:10 follows from 1 Corinthians 6:9.  Here, too, we find a list of vices with no further explanation.  Whatever the term means in 1 Corinthians, it likely has a similar meaning in 1 Timothy.  The usage in 1 Timothy offers no clues as to what that precise meaning might be.  In both cases, the vices listed tend toward violations of justice, not violations of rules governing sexual conduct for those otherwise living just lives.  If the lists do refer to same-sex sexual activity, most likely they focus on exploitative sex as an unjust act.

Neither vice list in 1 Corinthians 6 or 1 Timothy 1 provide direct, constructive ethical guidance for Christian sexual practices.  Rather, they offer challenges for living justly, for turning from injustice.  Most clearly, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul argues not about sexuality, but about not trusting Christians’ disputes to unjust people.


Our central question has been whether these few texts speak clearly enough to conclude that the Bible calls all same-sex intimacy sinful.  In looking at each key text, we have found reasons to doubt that they support such a conclusion.

In the end, the evidence we examined points to the conclusion that the Bible does not in fact condemn all possible same-sex intimate relationships as sinful.  These “direct texts” do not provide a clear basis for overriding the implications of the Bible’s teaching on hospitality and Jesus’ ethic of welcome.  They do not overturn the benefit of the doubt toward including gay Christians in covenanted relationships in the churches without restrictions.  They do not give us bases for excluding people such as Ilse and Jennifer from full participation in the church.

So, to conclude, this is what I have argued:  The Bible, especially the story of Jesus, calls the churches to welcome and hospitality.  This call inclines Christians to be inclusive with regard to gay and lesbian, with the implication that the churches apply the same moral standards concerning intimate relationships to same-sex partnerships as they do to opposite-sex partnerships.

When we examine the main biblical passages used to support overturning this inclination and restricting the participation in the churches of those in same-sex partnerships, we see that those passages in fact do not provide bases for overturning the inclination toward inclusiveness.

8 thoughts on “Portland Lectures #2—The Biblical Message

  1. Brad

    Well done Ted. You’ve trumped those who would use the Scriptures to condemn on their own terms: a careful regard for the text that honours what is actually there. The hospitality connection to salvation itself was both a mind-blower in its simplicity and certainly provides a sane approach to entering the issues that the church must grapple with. Thanks for this,


  2. The Dave

    I recently wrote something for my Mennonite church with very similar conclusions – “Jewish-Gentile Table Fellowship: A Model For The Relationship Between Homosexuality and Church Membership.” Part I is here:(http://www.echoofeden.com/media/2010/02/Fellowship1.pdf) and Part II is here: (http://www.echoofeden.com/media/2010/02/Fellowship2.pdf). My paper is more concerned, however, with what scripture says based on ancient historical, sociological, and textual analysis, and how that relates to the boundary-markers of the Christian community, than hospitality. Hospitality strikes me as a modern concern, not a scriptural or ancient Christian one reflected in the texts. Also, it seems strange that one should argue as a Mennonite for a stance that is at first inclusive when some of the defining aspects of our Anabaptist tradition are the separateness or division between kingdoms and the use of the ban to exclude and restrict participation and membership. I am jealous, though, that you were the one to bring up the Holiness Code instead of I and grateful that you covered the aspect of justice/injustice that the focus of my paper had to overlook. Hopefully our works can be mutually enlightening and further the cause of Christ in the body.

  3. Rev. Tony W. Bouwmeester

    Thank you Ted. Very well done.

    Cocerning Sodom and the so called sin of Sodomy I would mention:

    EZE 16:49 ” `Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

    Clearly scripture itself interprets the sin of Sodom and what happened there. This interpretation clearly notes the sin of Sodom in that Sodom did not practice hospitality and helping the poor.

  4. Jonathan Montgomery

    With all due respect to you, I would have to disagree with your conclusion that would suggest that the scripture does not condemn the practice of homosexuality. You have isogetically concluded that the issue of Sodom was about hospitality and gang rape. There is no Biblical basis for this. While I do agree that the church has placed too much emphasis on the gay issue and has forgotten way too many other sins, that it has caused a divide for the church and the gay community. As christians, we are called to repent from our sins, which means to do a “u-turn” from our sins. As we grow in our knowledge of what the Bible considers sins, then we are to work on turning away from those sins in our lives. We all have sins that we are to turn away from. For myself, being a heterosexual, i haven’t had the issue of homosexuality to deal with, but i have had the issue of sex outside of Biblical marriage, which is also considered a sin and an abomination in the Bible. However, the church never addressed my sins and placed me in a position where i had to change my ways or not be included. You have so gracefully pointed out other sins that we have simply glossed over in today’s society. I, however had to start being obedient to scripture if i’m going to say that I am a christian, and that means addressing my sins and turning away from them. This is an ongoing, lifetime experiance for all Christians.

    The story that comes to mind for me is the the story when the Pharisees brought the adulterous woman to Jesus and they are ready to stone her to death (funny how they didn’t bring the man, huh). Jesus then begins writing on the ground and one-by-one the crowd leaves. Then Jesus says to the woman, Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
    The key words are “…leave your life of sin” Jesus still acknowledges that she has led a life of sin and he holds her accountable to leave that life. That should be how the church handles homosexuality and all sexual sins. Not to condemn, I agree, but to hold accountable in a loving way. However, the woman is still left with the responsibility of leaving her life of sin. Just like I had to do when facing my own sexual immorality and just like any other person who becomes a follower of Christ. The scripture tells us that a “little leaven, leavens the whole loaf”. We are standing on dangerous ground when we try to explain away what the Bible says is a sin, instead of doing our best to acknowledge what is sin in our lives and working to turn away from those sins. Myself, i made the decision to stop having sex until I got married. This was quite a challenge for me, because I was quite the partier. But i had to do it because that passage in Romans not only speaks to my homosexual friends, but to me and my “straight and having sex outside of marriage” friends as well. The blessing in all of this is that we are saved by Grace and our acceptance of Jesus’s death as payment for all of our sins. God bless you, my brother in Christ. (please forgive me for my typing and grammar. I’m not much of a writer :-))

    1. Rev. Tony W. Bouwmeester

      Dear Jonathan.
      Sorry you are wrong.
      The Bible itself does interpret Sodom’s sin of inhospitality:
      EZE 16:49 ” `Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

      Furthermore Jesus Himself mentions Sodom in the context of hospitality:
      MT 10:11 “Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16 I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

      Scripture condemns sexual immorality but you have not given the burden of proof for the case of a lifetime partner being sin. in your case it would also condemn heterosexuality on account of multiple partners.

  5. James

    Greetings Brother!
    Quick question – Anabaptist are very dedicated to letting Scripture interpret Scripture – ex head coverings/peace over war, etc; but you seem to be holding to that position (which I have no problems with), but then you somewhat counter this to interpret homosexuality is sanctioned in teh Bible? I think this is stretching exegesis and hermenutics to an extreme isn’t it? I agree 100% that our doors and hearts need to be open to homosexuals and all marginalized; afterall – I have looked at a woman with lust therefore I have already committed adultery in my heart with her is just as sinful. **But I am not certain if bending to the culture around us to re-interpret Scripture is what Christ had in mind – ex – taking life is wrong, right? Now regardless of what changes happen thru our “culture” I would hope to not see anyone start interpreting that “murder is okay b/c not murdering was just for a certain culture in the past,” etc. Moreover we have general revelation – the fact that we just know there is a God, and with that biological anatomy procreation is not possible with like sexed creation, we also have concious revelation and of course Divine (all sanctioned in the Scriptures); so I just feel that while today’s church-ianity needs to get back to its source in Christ, we also cannot pick and choose interpretations of the Bible. *I have tried in everyway possible to interpret a “just war” out of the Scriptures, but alas, I cannot seem to; likewise we can easily interpret that Christ is here for adulterous/theives/liars/homosexuals and all of us who are all sinners; I cannot interpret Scriptures to accept any of these as “good,” and my guess is that you cannot and would not make a case for the telling of lies or stealing actually being sanctioned/supported in the Bible; *but you would say we need to be there to help and support one another and let the Holy Spirit convict them if they need to quit telling lies or stealing, etc, so I just suggest we have that same thought process in our exegesis approach instead of picking and choosing. I applaud your dedication though as I have several homosexual friends that church-ianity has made them feel very unwelcomed, and look forward to a little more exegegis approach. Sincerely – James

  6. Pingback: Jesus, His Followers, and “Other” | A Year in Burkina Faso

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s