From Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality (Herald Press, 2008), pp. 129-66.
Present-day North Americans are struggling bitterly over sexuality issues. At the heart of the struggle stands the question of how our culture will relate to gay and lesbian people in their midst. Certainly, many other elements of the “homosexuality” issue require attention, but I will focus on only one in this essay—the place in the church of gay and lesbian Christians who are in committed relationships.
Acknowledging the complexity of current discussions, I will use two terms, intended to be neutral and descriptive, of the two sides of the issue of gays in the church.
The first I will call the restrictive perspective. In this view, there should be restrictions placed on the participation of all sexually active gays in the church. These restrictions could range from total rejection to acceptance as participating non-members to restricting the possibility of gays exercising ordained leadership.
The second perspective, the inclusive perspective, holds that the “gayness” of a church person (including being in a committed same-sex relationship) should have no bearing on church participation. Typically, this perspective would argue (1) that moral values such as opposing sexual promiscuity, adultery, and sexual abuse that the church affirms in relation to heterosexual sexual practices should apply to gays, and (2) that covenanted partnerships should be supported.
Many people oversimplistically assume that the basic issue may be broken down to a couple of truisms: “Believe in the Bible and restrict gays; include gays and deny biblical authority.”
However, the reality is more complex. My position, as I will sketch it in this chapter, may very briefly be summarized as follows: A careful, respectful reading of the Bible as a whole supports the inclusive perspective. The Bible’s overall message emphasizes God’s mercy and God’s movement to bring healing out of brokenness to all who trust in God. The Bible portrays God’s welcome of people made vulnerable by social prejudice and exclusiveness as central to God’s merciful movement toward human beings. This movement toward welcome establishes a strong benefit of the doubt toward churches welcoming gay Christians without restrictions based on their gayness. The burden of proof is on those who would have the churches adopt restrictive policies. I will argue that this burden of proof is not satisfactorily met.
When we consider how different people within the church approach the Bible in relation to sexuality issues, we may identify four general tendencies. I would characterize them as follows, thinking especially of how they approach the biblical texts that are usually cited as directly touching on homosexuality.
(1) Restrictive with a more conservative biblical hermeneutic. This view focuses on direct biblical references: “The Bible opposes homosexuality and so should we.” Most, though not all, restrictive writers operate here, including Mennonite Willard Swartley and the author he relies on most heavily, Robert Gagnon.
(2) Restrictive with a less conservative biblical hermeneutic. This view focuses on natural law: “The Bible is not necessarily central; the key issue is that homosexuality is unnatural.” Those in the Roman Catholic tradition tend to fit more in this category. A well-reasoned articulation of this perspective has been made by James Hanigan, who certainly affirms the authority of the Bible but who ultimately bases his restrictive argument more on natural law.
(3) Inclusive with a more conservative biblical hermeneutic. This view focuses on biblical themes: “The Bible does not oppose homosexuality; since it supports inclusion of vulnerable people so should we.” People in this category take the anti-gay texts seriously, but argue that they do not provide a basis for the churches being restrictive based on the best interpretation of those texts. A prominent book that reflects this approach is Letha Scanzoni’s and Virginia Mollenkott’s Is the Homosexual My Neighbor.
(4) Inclusive with a less conservative hermeneutic. This view focuses on liberative texts and dismisses anti-gay texts as inapplicable: “The Bible is opposed to homosexuality (when it mentions it) but we need not be because of the priority we place on liberation.” Most inclusive writers probably fit best in this category including, most prominently, Walter Wink.
We notice here that people on the restrictive side can have either a more or less conservative biblical hermeneutics. This is also true of people on the inclusive side. It is crucial to note that the dividing line is not actually the issue of biblical authority. The dividing line is to be found elsewhere. At least in relation to the perspectives I will discuss in this book, the dividing line seems to lay with understandings of the contentof the Bible.
In what follows below, I will approach the core biblical texts from a perspective closest to the third option sketched above. That is, I will approach the issue with a conservative hermeneutic. I will argue for an inclusive stance concerning gays and the church from a perspective reflecting a high view of biblical authority. I seek to demonstrate that the truism that the only way to reject the restrictive perspective is by lessening one’s commitment to biblical authority is false.
I do not believe that it works to reduce this issue to conservative versus liberal approaches to biblical authority. Actually, the best and most respectful straightforward reading of the Bible supports the inclusive perspective—in my opinion. One can be relatively conservative in one’s view of the Bible and still come to inclusive conclusions. I will argue for the inclusive perspective because of, not in spite of, the Bible.
Our Starting Point
A crucial element of the discussion has to do with the question of our starting assumptions about where the burden of proof lies.
Do we start with the assumption that inclusive people need to prove that gays should be “in” (i.e., full participants)? Must inclusive people prove why it is okay to be inclusive because we should assume that it probably is not? In this view, we could say, gays start outside the church’s circle of unrestricted participation and their supporters must find a basis for getting them in.
Or, do we start with the assumption that restrictive people need to prove that gays should be “out” (i.e., have their participation restricted)? Must restrictive people prove why it is okay to be restrictive because we should assume that it probably is not? In this view, we could say, gays start inside the church’s circle of unrestricted participation and the church must find a basis for restricting their participation. By “unrestricted participation” here, I am specifically referring to restrictions placed on a church person’s participation in the church due only to one’s being gay. The perspective I will present would accept possible restrictions due to sexual misbehavior, but these would apply equally to heterosexual and gay people.
Which benefit of the doubt we choose does not, of course, in itself resolve the issue. It is always possible to overcome the benefit of the doubt—but the kind of argument that must be made will follow from whether one is trying to prove that our default inclusiveness must be overridden or our default restrictiveness must be overridden.
The point we start from then becomes crucial. Hence, we must first focus our attention on our starting point. This starting point should not be arbitrary or accidental. We should examine and evaluate where we start. This is the first big piece of the puzzle of biblical hermeneutics as it relates to the church’s relationship to gays.
Some reasons for putting the burden of proof on those who would be inclusive (that is, saying that the church’s default position should be restrictive) may include: (1) The Christian tradition has pretty much always operated with a restrictive consensus. Restrictiveness is the historic position of the church. (2) The Christian community is called to seek for purity, to exclude unrepentant sin. Especially in our modern world where moral standards are deteriorating, the church must take a stand against sexual permissiveness. (3) A straightforward, common-sense reading of the Bible makes it clear that the Bible is against homosexuality. Believers and non-believers alike tend to assume that the Bible takes this stance.
Reasons for putting the burden of proof on the other side—to say that the church’s default position should be inclusive—may include: (1) Jesus modeled inclusiveness. His treatment of people unjustly labeled as sinners in his world parallels how the church should related to vulnerable and ostracized people in our day. (2) Going back further, the Old Testament clearly teaches that the community of faith has a special responsibility to care for vulnerable and marginalized people—in that setting, the people most often mentioned were widows, orphans, and other people without access to wealth and power. (3) Paul taught that the only thing that matters in terms of one’s standing before God is one’s faith. Christians are those who trust in Christ, period. Not, trust in Christ plus this or that requirement.
In our work of discernment, we need carefully to examine these various points that determine our starting point. These are the convictions that will likely shape how we read and apply the biblical teaching—regardless of whether we have a stronger or weaker view of biblical authority. My perspective in this chapter operates with the assumption that the church’s default position should be in favor of inclusion.
My perspective has been shaped by my pacifism. I originally accepted the restrictive perspective. In the late 1970s, my hometown held a referendum challenging the city council’s gay rights legislation. That election served as a catalyst for changing my thinking. At the time, I supported the referendum (that is, I opposed the gay rights legislation). However, I became distressed at extreme hostility many of my fellow evangelical Christians showed toward gay people. My pacifist convictions led me to reflect on the significance of this hostility. I came to suspect that any moral conviction linked with such hostility needed to be questioned—not necessarily rejected but treated with suspicion.
In time, my views on gay rights changed. I came to draw on two biblical themes in particular in concluding that the church’s benefit of the doubt as they examine the biblical materials should lie on the side of inclusiveness. First, the Bible, beginning with the book of Genesis, places great importance on the call to share hospitality with vulnerable people. Second, Jesus himself modeled inclusiveness toward people his faith community labeled as unworthy of full inclusion in their midst.
The central message of the Bible may be summarized in this way: God created the world in love and means for all creation to be whole. In the face of human rejection of this love, brokenness comes to characterize life on earth. God grieves at creation’s pain and brokenness. God’s justice finds expression in God’s process of making whole that which is broken. God’s “right-making” love (or restorative justice) works especially through communities that know and share God’s love. We see this in the crucial story that comes early on in the Bible—God calling Abraham and Sarah, promising that although Sarah has been unable to bear children, God now will give the couple descendants. These descendants will bless all the families of the earth (see Genesis 12:3). God creates this particular community of the promise in order to use it as a means to bring healing to the entire world.
The rest of the Bible tells of this community of the promise—arguing throughout that God’s promise remains alive. God calls the community of the promise so that all may know the healing power of God’s love. Of course, many resist God’s love—with terrible consequences. God’s judgment falls on rebellious human beings. The story ends with hope for healing, though, even for those who resist God—Revelation’s “kings of the earth” (chapters 21–22), transformed by the work of the Lamb.
Hospitality. 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. This is the first theme that points toward a benefit of the doubt for inclusiveness. 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.
Throughout the Bible, inhospitality evokes God’s judgment. We see this in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as interpreted by Ezekiel (16:49-50), in Amos’s critique of Israel’s injustice toward the poor, in Jesus’ teaching about the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, and James’s sharp words in James 2.
I want briefly to trace this theme of hospitality in the Bible, giving only a few obvious examples of what I believe may be found in detail throughout both testaments.
Two important examples actually are a little ironic in relation to the “gay issue.” Both the Sodom story in Genesis 18–20 and the teaching in the holiness code of Leviticus 18–20 are concerned above all withhospitality as defining faithful living in relationship with God. Hospitality may be defined as “showing kindness in welcoming guests, strangers, and others in need.”
The Sodom story as a hospitality story contrasts the failure of hospitality in Sodom with Abraham’s hospitality as the chosen channel of God’s blessing. First the angels visit Abraham prior to going to Sodom. Abraham models what Sodom should have done. He gives the angels a welcome, showing genuine hospitality. After their visit to Abraham, the next place the angels go is to Sodom. Rather than hospitality, they are threatened with rape.
This story, thus, holds up Abraham as the model of hospitality in contrast to Sodom. As a model, Abraham actually intercedes with God on behalf of Sodom—being so bold as to remind God of God’s loving and just character while pleading with God to show mercy to Sodom. In contrast to Abraham’s exemplary hospitality, the people of Sodom reap judgment due to their inhospitality (see Ezekiel 16:49: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy”).
Leviticus 18–20 is a very different kind of literature than the stories of Genesis. These chapters are the heart of the holiness code in the Old Testament law. And at the heart of this section, in Leviticus 19, we get a clear picture holiness according to Torah.
Leviticus 19 teaches. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (19:2). Some manifestations of this holiness follow: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (19:9-10). “You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (19:13b-14). “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (19:33-34).
At its core, holiness includes hospitality toward the vulnerable people in the community—the poor, the alien, the laborer, the deaf, the blind. Elsewhere we also read of the widow, the orphan, the daughter.
Later in the Old Testament, prophets portray Israel as having lost its moorings, departing from God’s will for their lives. A sure sign of Israel’s crises may be seen in the lack of hospitality, the disregarding of the concerns of Torah for the vulnerable members of the community.
Probably most forcefully, the prophet Amos makes clear that injustice and inhospitality are sure signs that amidst Israel’s apparent prosperity, something is rotten. A catastrophe is coming to the people of Israel, Amos cries, “because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (2:6–7). Amos goes on to assert that when the community is so inhospitable, their very worship is sinful. To tolerate such injustice and then turn to God as if it does not matter is the worst of blasphemies.
Catastrophes are visited upon the people. The great empires, Assyria and Babylon, bring ruin to Israel. According to the prophets, though, the deepest problem did not come from these outside enemies but from within. With its kings, its quest for prosperity, its disregard of the true meaning of holiness, the community had departed from its calling. The community was far, far away from being a blessing to the families of the earth—rather, it imitated the worst injustices of the inhospitable nations of the earth. And the community pays the price.
Nonetheless, God keeps the community going even through it failures. When Jesus comes onto the scene, the core issue of hospitality surfaces again front and center. For Jesus, the central criterion of faithfulness may be seen in the call to hospitality.
Jesus made a point of showing welcome specifically toward those considered “unclean” (that is, outside the circle of approved religiosity). And this was not simply because he had a soft spot in his heart for strays. Jesus 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 (again, being linked directly with salvation) is risky, unconditional, and counter any kind of boundary line that seeks to separate faithful insiders from outsider “sinners”—remember, the Samaritans were the worst of sinners to Jerusalem-centered Jews.
One other place Jesus directly connects salvation with hospitality. Matthew 25 tells a parable of the day of judgment, the separation of those who inherit the kingdom and those who are excluded from the kingdom. What is the criterion? “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (25:35–36). When did we do these things for you? “Truly, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40).
As portrayed in Matthew 25, showing hospitality leads to salvation; practicing inhospitality leads to condemnation. Hospitality matters.
The Bible teaches from start to finish that the authenticity of the communities that have professed their faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel, may be seen most clearly in the quality of their hospitality. By definition, this hospitality is tested most tellingly in relation to vulnerable people, the people who most need it, we could even say, the people the communities have the most difficulty welcoming. Inhospitable communities separate themselves from God—and reap the consequences.
When applied to the question of whether the restrictive or the inclusive view should be the church’s starting point, the theme of hospitality points clearly toward placing the burden of proof on those holding restrictive views. What bases do we have for concluding that the norm of hospitality toward vulnerable people does not apply to gay and lesbian people?
Jesus’ model. Along with hospitality, the second biblical theme that supports a generally inclusive stance arises from focusing more directly on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He models welcome. Almost everyone affirms that Jesus taught and practiced love. Certainly, Jesus’ portrayal of love stands at the center of his message. We need to look at what Jesus actually did, however, in order to appropriate his message about love. We might discover Jesus’ love may be more distinctive than we have thought.
Jesus consistently showed deep-seated and at times costly kindness and respect to particular men, women, and children. Jesus was not so much a general humanitarian. He did not make big plans for large-scale projects. Mostly, Jesus cared for specific people. 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 in them, shared food with them.
Jesus’ love for particular people, however, most certainly had social consequences. He loved particular people, in all their real-life social aspects, as a political strategy. We may call this strategy the “politics of compassion.” Politics in this sense, may be defined, following John Howard Yoder, as “the structuring of relationships among persons in groups.”
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. God, as represented in Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32), does not discriminate but loves all people. God is our model: “Be merciful, as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Jesus opened participation in this community to all who chose to be part of it—all they had to do was “repent” (turn toward God) and “believe the good news” (trust that God’s mercy is for them). This constituted Jesus’ fundamental message (Mark 1:15). In the ministry that embodied his proclamation, Jesus made unmistakably clear the openness of his community for all who wanted their lives transformed by his mercy.
One clear expression of this openness may be found in Matthew’s gospel. A repeated verse in both 4:23 and 9:35 sets off a discrete section: Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” This section of Matthew shows that the “good news of the kingdom” includes both Jesus’ teaching (e.g., the Sermon on the Mount, 5:1–7:29) and Jesus’ healing. A partial list of the recipients of healing shows the incredible openness of this kingdom Jesus proclaimed: demoniacs, epileptics, a leper, a centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, two Gentile demoniacs, tax collectors, sinners, and the daughter of a synagogue leader.
In these verses, Jesus mostly healed outsiders, people considered unclean or contaminants by the established religion. Jesus offered them mercy just as they were. He was not simply a knee-jerk iconoclast, however. He willingly brought healing to anyone who turned to him, including even a synagogue leader. Jesus’ politics of compassion included all who responded.
Of these aspects of Jesus’ politics of compassion, the practice of open table fellowship perhaps most powerfully speaks across times and cultures. The metaphor of table fellowship resonates deeply in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, as it does in the story of Jesus. Sharing table fellowship has powerfully and concretely expressed fellowship, inclusion, and communal connection. Because of its deep symbolic significance, Jesus‚ practice of table fellowship reflects perhaps most profoundly his philosophy of life.
The important role table fellowship played in all the cultures of Jesus’ world cannot be overestimated. Meals were not simply about people meeting their physical needs. The sharing of meals had become a ceremony symbolizing friendship, close social connections.
Joining for meals expressed one’s acceptance of another as an integral part of one’s community. Usually, people shared food with those of their own social class. Hence, mealtime reinforced social differences, fortifying the boundary walls between insiders and outsiders. People tended to provide hospitality toward those they expected to reciprocate—“I invite you to eat with me fully expecting that you will invite me back.”
Jesus delighted in breaking bread with an enormous variety of people, regardless of their ritual cleanliness. He directly challenged the social and religious exclusiveness associated with table fellowship. He showed radical openness.
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.
Table fellowship for Jesus signified welcome into the kingdom of God. The love feast Jesus welcomed people to join had no prerequisites, no initiation rites, no insistence on purification as a prerequisite for entering. All it took was open hands—the prodigal son’s return, the five thousand’s acceptance of the bread and fish, the sinner woman’s tears (see Luke 7:36–50).
Once it became clear that not all the religious leaders of Jesus’ day would join with his radical openness, he wasted no time critiquing their boundary marker-oriented approach to faith. When the Pharisees restricted access to God’s mercy to the ritually pure, excluding so many, Jesus spoke sharply in opposition. Jesus certainly offered a message of love and compassion, but this positive message carried with it a direct confrontation to those not willing to respond to it with love and compassion of their own. Show others compassion and God will show you compassion; withhold compassion and God will withhold compassion from you.
My referendum experience in the late 1970s opened my eyes to the extent that gays in our society, and also in the church, have often been treated with hostility—and worse. Some of the most vulnerable people in our society surely are sexual minorities—and as such would seem to be people who Jesus and the Old Testament law and prophets would have special concern.
Reading Christian history through pacifist eyes, I found the restrictive assumption of the importance of “this is the how the church has always believed” to be unpersuasive. As I came to see it, the church as a whole has been wrong about warfare for the large majority of its history—as well as slavery. So it could also have been wrong about gays in the church. From a pacifist perspective, I assume that when the church’s position (e.g., supporting war, supporting slavery, supporting restrictiveness toward gays) is hurtful to people it should be treated with suspicion.
As well, in my experience the churches have not used open and respectful processes in its treatment of inclusive congregations, dissenting individuals, or the formulation of denominational or conference statements. I do not believe we have had the kind of open discernment processes and due process that would ensure fairness and gentleness in dealing with the issues. This lack of care in our ecclesial processes also provides me a reason to be suspicious of interests that are protected by less than careful processes.
Certainly all of these points in support of starting with inclusiveness as the default position are debatable. I do not claim to have offered proof that this is where all people of good will should start! I am simply giving the bases for my perspective.
Regardless, 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, we might have decisive reasons that should cause us to overrule our starting point and conclude that the churches nevertheless should ultimately take a restrictive stance.
If we start with the inclusive assumption and seek to follow a conservative hermeneutic with the Bible, then the basic argument might go like this: What do we find if we examine the biblical teaching asking if it provides clear and persuasive bases for the restrictive position? Is there a clear basis for overturning the inclusive assumption? Do the “core texts” that explicitly mention homosexuality provide a clear basis for overriding the default inclusivist position?
Because the question of whether present-day gays by living in committed relationships are actively sinning seems to be the basic issue in dispute, the focus of our investigation should be on the issue of the alleged sinfulness of all possible expressions of same-sex sexual intimacy. We need to focus most of all on the alleged bases for asserting that even covenanted, monogamous same-sex relationships are inherently sinful.
We certainly also need to look at other issues, probably most centrally the question of whether biblical teaching related to marriage and creation would provide such a basis, and I will discuss this issue late in this essay. However, the issue of marriage/creation is at most indirectly related to the issue of the inherent sinfulness of intimate gay relationships. None of the texts related to the marriage/creation issue speaks of homosexuality and none of the “core texts” on homosexuality directly refers to creation/marriage. I want to suggest that if we did not have a sense from the core texts that homosexual intimacy is wrong, we would not be concerned with the marriage/creation argument. So the most basic issue remains the core texts and whether they make the case the committed gay partnerships are intrinsically sinful.
If the Bible makes it clear that gays in covenanted partnerships are sinning, that would be enough for someone with a conservative biblical hermeneutic to override the pro-inclusiveness benefit of the doubt. If such clarity is not forthcoming, that would do a great deal to move the inclusive position from being an assumption to being a conclusion.
In what follows, I will focus on the question of whether the Bible provides a clear basis for overriding the default position of inclusion. Does the Bible clearly condemn what many today are calling same-sex covenanted relationships?
I intend here to take a fairly unsophisticated, direct “plain sense” approach to the Bible. I am interested in whether, following a reading strategy compatible with a quite conservative doctrine of Scripture, one finds clear evidence for asserting that the Bible condemns all forms of same-sex sexual intimacy as sinful.
Old Testament scholar Christopher Seitz argues against the tendency of many on the inclusive side to focus on sophisticated critical readings of biblical materials as a means of evading the “plain sense” of the Bible. Seitz, though, does not give us a clear explanation of what he means by “plain sense.” He appears to equate it with “the time-honored [interpretations] in church and synagogue.” However, I believe that our only alternatives are not either (1) higher-critical deconstructions or (2) uncritical acceptance of “time-honored” interpretations. By “plain sense” I mean a straightforward reading of biblical materials taking most seriously their literary integrity and their place in the overall canonical context. Just as Jesus and Paul challenged time-honored interpretations of their day on the basis of a plain sense reading of Torah itself, I find it most respectful of biblical authority to accept the likelihood that careful reading of the texts themselves might well cause us to reject many time-honored interpretations.
To answer this question, we need to ascertain whether the “condemnation” is overtly and explicitly expressed. The question of whether the Bible clearly condemns all forms of same-sex sexual intimacy can be answered only by considering the texts cited as directly speaking to the issue. 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 intimacy in 1 Corinthians 6; and (6) a similar list in 1 Timothy 1.
I will approach these texts first of all in their broader context within the books of which they are part. I believe the literary units within which these scattered references to same-sex intimacy fall are the most important elements of interpreting those references. I understand the meaning of the Bible to emerge most of all from its literary units—the largest being the most important in conveying meaning: the Bible as a whole, the individual books, then sections, paragraphs, and sentences. Individual biblical words are at the bottom of the list. James Barr wrote many years ago “it is the sentence (and of course the still larger literary complex such as the complete speech or poem) which is the linguistic bearer of the usual theological statement, not the word (the lexical unit) or the morphological and syntactical connection”
Biblical Texts Central to the Debate
Genesis 18:1–19:29. 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, not to underscore as an end in itself the point of the sinfulness of the heathen. So, the point of the Sodom story is not about homosexuality at all; it is about hospitality.
We still need to ask what precisely Sodom and Gomorrah did to be condemned. In Genesis 18:20-22, God reports to Abraham that God has heard the outcry concerning the gravity of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. This outcry evokes echoes of other cases where the outcry of oppressed people reaches God (for example, the outcry of Abel’s blood in Genesis 4:10, and the outcry of the enslaved Israelites in Egypt in Exodus 2:23). The outcry implies social injustice, as later alluded to in the references to Sodom in Jeremiah 23:14 and Ezekiel 16:49.
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.
The text describes the inhospitality of the Sodomites in terms of every single man in the city (19:4) seeking to have sex with the visitors—indicating the intent to gang-rape the visitors. The sin here clearly is a socialsin (not individual), 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.
Genesis 18–19 tells us nothing about same sex affectional orientation, same-sex loving relationships, or even about alleged ancient Near Eastern revulsion regarding a condition modern people call homosexuality. This passage concerns hospitality—contrasting Abraham’s welcome of strangers and intercession with God over the fate of sinful people with the brutal inhospitality of the Sodomites, paradigmatically expressed in the effort to subject Lot’s visitors to gang rape as a means of humiliating and subjugating them. Its ethical exhortation centers on practicing hospitality like Abraham models—not on forbidding loving, committed, same-sex intimate partnerships.
Judges 19:1–22. Interpreting Genesis 18–19 as focusing on hospitality (and inhospitality) finds support from Judges 19:1-22, a passage one could see as the earliest commentary on Genesis 19. Close parallels between these two passages include these points: In each case 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 a similar effect of emasculating the male guest, the concern being 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 condemns all possible same-sex sexual intimacy as sinful.
Scholars who tend toward restrictive views do not as a rule ground their positions on this passage. Stanley Grenz in Welcoming but not Affirming is typical in admitting that at most Genesis 19 refers to “violent homosexual rape,” not “homosexual relationships between consenting adults” (40). If this is the case, the debate over the meaning of the term “to know” (Genesis 19:5)—whether it means sexual intercourse or not —is of little importance to the issue of whether the Bible condemns all expressions of same-sex sexual intimacy. However, Robert Gagnon, Bible and Homosexual Practice, does uphold the long-held association of this text with a general condemnation of all same-sex sexual intimacy.
Leviticus 18–20. The book of Leviticus centers on the need for Israelites to maintain clear distinctiveness from surrounding cultures. The book places itself in the time of Moses, following the exodus and prior to the entry into the promised land. Leviticus challenges the Israelites to live faithfully in this land God gives them.
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. 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 and 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.
The concept of biblical holiness is best understood relationally. Holiness in Israel characterizes God as a relational God. Holy people are people who live in right relationship with God and with other people. The community of faith actualizes its holiness as it fosters interpersonal relationships characterized by whole-making justice.
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 that vulnerable ones may function as community members. The legislation concerning sexual practices must be understood within 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 are almost all sexual practices that cannot produce children within a socially approved family context, including sex during menstruation, adultery, male/male sexual relations, and bestiality. The one exception, the reference to child sacrifice, is certainly also a form of wasted seed, contrary to the need for children.
We still must consider why specifically the list includes the command that the Israelite male “shall not lie with a male as with a woman” (Leviticus 18:22, also 20:13) and what this command might possibly refer to. This is an obscure reference. We are given no explanation as to what is in mind beyond what we can glean from the context, i.e., the concern about wasted seed and the need to be different from the Canaanites. There are no other references in the law codes of Exodus through Deuteronomy to male/male sex.
However, from the immediate context in Leviticus 18 and 20, we can with some confidence say that the problem with male/male sex here is in large part based on the problem of wasted seed. This may be part of the reason why we see only male/male sex mentioned and see nothing about female/female sex.
Since we are given no details about what the context for these forbidden practices was, we may at best speculate. The tiny bit of evidence we have does seem to point toward some sort of cultic sexual practices; note especially the reference to child sacrifice in this passage as well as the general concern about Canaanite religious 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 the immediate context of the above two commands, 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). These are rarely if ever 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 at all seem clearly context specific. Though numerous writers who argue that the Bible indeed condemns homosexuality claim that the Leviticus prohibition is based on more fundamental theological assumptions, they are unable to marshal direct evidence for this claim from Leviticus itself (or from elsewhere in the Old Testament).
See, for example, Donald Wold, Out of Order, 104. Wold builds his elaborate argument for making Leviticus’ prohibition a universal condemnation of all male/male and female/female sex on the use of the Hebrew term zakar (“male”). However, he does not cite any direct Old Testament discussion of same-sex sex, only inferences based on what the Old Testament says about opposite-sex relationships. Such inferences perhaps are relevant for our present-day hermeneutical task of discerning and applying biblical teaching for our sexual ethics. However, mere inferences provide little basis for making a positive case that the Bible in principle condemns homosexuality.
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. These two verses are not sufficient in themselves to conclude that the Bible condemns homosexuality as a broad category including both men and women.
The most we can say for sure is that these verses give us a basis for saying that the Bible condemns male/male sex in the context of concern for wasting seed, just as it condemns masturbation and sexual intercourse during menstruation in that context, and for reflecting Canaanite religious practices. Nothing about female/female sex is inferred here. In fact, these two reasons for concern do not apply to women. So, whatever the concerns in Leviticus might be, they do not appear to be in-principle condemnation of all same-sex sexual intimacy.
The obscurity of the prohibition of male/male sex counts against using it as strong evidence that the Bible condemns all possible same-sex sexual intimacy as sinful. If it is not clear to what Leviticus is referring when it speaks of male/male sex nor why, we certainly cannot use it as strong evidence for drawing a conclusion about the biblical stance as a whole.
Finally, as numerous pro-inclusion writers point out, Christians understand Jesus’ message to be their core ethical source. In seeking to understand and apply Leviticus’ teaching for Christian ethics, the elements that connect most closely to Jesus (in particular, “love your neighbor”) matter the most.
Each of the New Testament texts commonly discussed as speaking directly to the issue of homosexuality is found among the writings attributed to the apostle Paul.
Romans 1:18–3:31. In treating Paul’s discussion of same-sex sexual intimacy in Romans 1, I will first discuss the broader argument of Romans 1–3. Second, I will discuss the place that 1:18–32 plays in that broader argument. And, third, I will discuss what significance the reference to same-sex sexual intimacy has for Paul’s discussion. Why does Paul use this particular example here and what might that have to say to us?
Debates over the meaning of Romans 1 dominate biblically oriented discussions of homosexuality. Richard Hays asserts, “the most crucial text for Christian ethics concerning homosexuality remains Romans 1” (Moral Vision, 383). Arguing for the opposite conclusion from Hays’s restrictive view of homosexuality, Victor Paul Furnish also pays close attention to Romans 1 in his chapter, “Homosexuality,” in Moral Teaching of Paul.
What renders these discussions deeply unsatisfactory from my perspective is how writers on all sides of the issue seem to lose sight of the forest in their focus on the trees. That is, they argue as if the meaning and relevance of Romans 1 for the Bible’s stance on homosexuality relies on the meaning of specific words—assuming that in some sense the main point of Romans 1:18-32 is to address the issue of homosexuality.
As I propose below, with a more contextual reading of these verses much of this narrow debate loses most of its relevance.
(1) The argument of 1:18–3:31. The section 1:18–3:20 as a whole centers on the problem mentioned in 1:18—human injustice (beginning in 3:21, Paul presents the solution as the revelation of the justice of God). The Greek word translated “injustice” (adika) is often also misleadingly translated “wickedness” or “unrighteousness.” Both of those translations reflect later Christian theological developments that presented the alienation between God and human beings in impersonal, legalistic terms.
However, Paul has in mind here a deeply personal problem. The alienation human beings have from God isrelational, more than merely legalistic. 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 justice (wholeness) in their relationship with God.
Beginning with 1:18 and continuing through the end of chapter 3, 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 punchline, though, comes beginning in 3:21. God’s mercy prevails—mercy revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God reveals this mercy outside religious structures that are based on works of the law (though the authentic message of Israel’s scriptures witnesses to it).
Paul aims his primary critique in these three chapters 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.
Throughout Romans 2, Paul makes it clear his deepest concern in Romans. In 2:5-6 he 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). Paul sees this false assumption as indicating that these religious people were in as much need of repentance as those he described in 1:18–32. They are equally alienated from God and do not even know it.
Paul strongly believes that keeping the authentic law genuinely counts in God’s eyes. Later in Romans, he defines the law as loving one’s neighbor (13:8–10). So he states in 2:26 that Gentiles who keep the true requirements of the law will be considered part of the covenant even if they have not been circumcised.
In chapter 3, Paul concludes his critique by stringing together a litany of Old Testament passages underscoring that both types of people he has described are alienated from God and living under the power of sin. He means both the ungodly pagan living in blatant bondage to lust and the religious self-seeker living in self-deceived bondage to works of the law as the basis of their standing before God.
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. The justice (i.e., right-making or healing power) of God has been shown in an unprecedented way in Jesus.
In 1:18–3:31 Paul challenges his readers to take seriously their own sinfulness and to recognize that the blatant sins of the pagans are not the most dangerous. Rather, the sins that arise with religiosity carry much more danger. Sinful religiosity attempts to construct bases for righteousness that focus on external boundary markers—works of the law—and not on trust in God’s mercy that empowers people to live lovingly and justly toward their neighbors.
(2) The role of 1:18–32 in the larger argument. 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’s allusions likely would have been familiar to his readers. He assumes here that human beings are inherently creatures oriented toward worship. We all serve something outside ourselves—if not God then idols, if not trusting in God then trusting in things. Should we take the route of trusting in things, 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.
Paul describes this process here by saying that God “hands over” human beings to their injustice—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 twenty-first-century questions about the moral legitimacy of two Christians committing themselves to each other in a covenanted, same-sex intimate partnership.
(3) Why does Paul focus on same-sex sex? 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.
However, we are limited in our quest to understand why Paul chose this particular expression of sinfulness by the lack of other passages elsewhere in the New Testament that could help us out. If Paul reflects widespread Christian assumptions about the inherently sinful nature of all possible forms of same-sex sexual relations, we simply do not have any concrete evidence for that. (The only possible direct evidence in the New Testament, the lists of vices in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, will be discussed below).
We do have some clues in the Romans 1 passage itself, though, 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 (“unjust”). The “degrading passions” (1:26) are linked with offenses such as murder, envy, strife, and slander, among many other expressions of injustice listed in 1:29–31. 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 intercourse” for “unnatural” 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 intercourse with 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, all we are told for certain about them is that they are in bondage to extreme passion. Some scholars argue that the underlying concern for Paul here is to hold up extreme passion or lust as the stereotypical fruit of idolatry. This would be consistent with other uses of the Greek word kresin (translated “intercourse” in the NRSV) in Greek writings of Paul’s time and would also be consistent with Paul’s thought elsewhere where he warns about the dangers of unbridled lust.
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 a few intriguing clues about what Paul may have 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 1 with what they knew about 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 Roman 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.”
Surely it is reasonable to suppose, against this context, that by juxtaposing the senselessness of pagan idolatry with a lurid depiction of sexual perversion Paul sought to evoke for his readers the moral bankruptcy of the imperial house itself. The list of vices in 1:29-31 greatly exaggerates 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 horrors of the imperial house. We may be confident that Paul did not have pagan morality as a whole in mind in chapter 1, because in chapter 2 he makes it clear the some people outside the covenant (“uncircumcised”) are indeed fully capable of authentically keeping the law (2:27).
Ultimately, then, in considering 1:18-32 in its broader context we discover a number of reasons why it does not provide direct evidence that the Bible condemns all possible intimate same-sex relationships as sinful. It is not written as direct ethical teaching prescribing Christian behavior. We twist this passage from its context if we apply it as if it directly tells Christians what not to do.
Beyond applying these verses in ways they were not intended, to use this passage as a basis for judging the behavior of Christians in same-sex loving relationships turns the role they play in Paul’s overall argument on its head. Paul’s concern in 1:18–3:20 is to critique judgmentalism, not to foster it.
Even when we look at the discussion of same-sex sex within the 1:18–32 passage, we do not find material that applies to present-day covenanted same-sex relationships among Christians. The example Paul gives of the consequences of pagan idolatry focuses on injustice, people hurting other people. Paul’s concern centers on injustice, not on covenanted, loving, mutual partnerships.
Also, it is not likely that Paul has in mind female/female sex in general. The male/male sex he had in mind most likely was the kind of unbridled excess characteristic of the worst of the Roman emperors, even if he was not necessarily specifically referring to the emperors. The reference to females in 1:26 most probably refers to female participation in such sex, whether with men or women.
That is, 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 6:1–10. As with Romans 1, with 1 Corinthians 6 we have the responsibility of looking at the allusions to same-sex sexual activity in the wider context of the passage. When we do so, we will see that Paul’s purpose here is not to give direct ethical guidance to Christians concerning homosexuality in general.
Chapter 6 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 business internally.
Paul speaks harshly of the Corinthian Christians relying on “unbelievers” to settle their internal disputes. Earlier Paul refers to the courts of the unbelievers as unjust (6:1). When the Corinthians Christians take one another to court, they are declaring primary allegiance to the pagan culture of Corinth rather than to the community of faith.
We have evidence that the court system in the Roman Empire systematically favored the wealthy over the poor. 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 (often translated “wrongdoers”) 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. He makes an essentially rhetorical point in 6:9-10, intending to drive home his view that Christians should not trust their disputes to unjust outsiders.
The items in the list of 6:9-10 merely 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 adikoi (unjust people) using the courts to settle their property disputes in favor the powerful within the church.
Justice is central to Paul’s point here. Because of their being made members of God’s family through justification, (6:11), Paul calls believers to cease acting unjustly toward one another (6:8) by going to court before the unjust (6:1).
As with Romans 1, 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 intend in either place to 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.
Nonetheless, also as with Romans 1, debates concerning the application of 1 Corinthians 6 to homosexuality focus on the meaning of specific words without paying much attention to the wider context. Following the common English translations that use “homosexuals” and “sodomites,” some scholars have concluded that Paul has in mind here a general condemnation of homosexuality.
I will argue below that these are not adequate translations; my point here is that regardless of what the Greek words malakos and arsenokoites mean, if read in the context of the message of 1 Corinthians 6, they clearly are not being used to make a point about Christian sexual ethics. They are being used to make a more general point about pagan injustice and Paul’s calling Christians to justice.
Still, we do have these references in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The NRSV translates the Greek words malakos andarsenokoites as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” respectively. The TNIV has “male prostitutes” and “practicing homosexuals.” However, the meanings of these words are far from clear. It seems doubtful that they are best understood as alluding to the broad categories implied by these translations.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, simply 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 at least in the case of malakos), most likely they connote sex of an economically 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 is condemning 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 Septuagint translation of Leviticus 20:13. According to Donald Wold, Paul “pulled together two terms used in the Leviticus text: arseno- (‘male’) and –koitai (‘sexual intercourse’). Paul creates this compound word in order accurately to capture the meaning he sought—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.
All we have is this single word. Arsenokoites likely combines words that originally meant “male” and “sex act.” However, many compound words have different meanings than simply the sum of their parts. This may or may not be the case for arsenokoites.
One scholar surveys the few scattered uses of arsenokoites in the second century and concludes that it tends to be used in vice lists in the contexts of other terms generally dealing with economic injustice or exploitation. Such usage fits 1 Corinthians 6, where the list includes vices such as “thieves,” “greedy,” and “swindlers.”
Hence, arsenokoites seems to have referred to some kind of economic exploitation by means of sex, perhaps but not necessarily homosexual sex. Sibylline Oracle 2.70–77, likely written in the second century C.E., probably provides an independent use of the word. It occurs in a section listing acts of economic injustice and exploitation. “Do not steal seeds….Do not arsenokoitein. Do not betray information. Do not murder.”
1 Timothy 1:10. 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 latter usage 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 refer to same-sex sexual activity at all, most likely they condemn exploitative sex used for economic purposes—as an expression of injustice.
Neither the 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. 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 do not show that the Bible condemns all possible same-sex intimate partnerships as sinful. Neither speak in a clear and direct way about homosexuality at all.
Conclusion concerning the core texts. My 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, I have found reasons to doubt that they support such a conclusion. The Bible does not in fact condemn all possible same-sex intimate relationships as sinful. Of course, even if my interpretations are correct, we have not resolved the issue. All I have shown is that the “direct texts” do not provide a clear basis for overriding the application of the Bible’s teaching on hospitality and Jesus’ ethic of welcome to including gay Christians in covenanted relationships in the churches without restrictions. I have not tried to argue that, in fact, Paul, Jesus, and Leviticus offer a clearly pro-gay stance that could override a benefit of the doubt toward being restrictive. Hence, the importance of reflecting on our starting point as we examine these texts.
We must also briefly consider two other themes that often also come up in restrictive arguments. Does the biblical view of marriage, understood as establishing marriage as normatively and exclusively being for one man and one woman for life, implicitly but clearly prohibit same-sex partnerships that parallel heterosexual marriage? Do all same-sex intimate partnerships contain inherently harmful elements that provide a clear basis for understanding them to be immoral?
The Biblical Perspective on Marriage
Many writers representing the restrictive perspective argue that part of their basis for arguing that the Bible condemns all possible intimate same-sex relationships as sinful is their understanding of the Bible’s normative portrayal of male and female marriage.
In his book Welcoming But Not Affirming, Stanley Grenz, echoing what numerous others also say, asserts that Genesis 1 and 2 establish the importance of marriage as built into creation itself. God populates the earth (“be fruitful and multiply”) through heterosexual marriage, and heterosexual marriage provides for human companionship. Departure from this norm, thus, threatens the very fabric of human community.
It is at this point that the restrictive argument understands Jesus’ teaching to speak most directly to sexuality issues. Jesus directly quotes from Genesis in asserting the centrality of heterosexual marriage to God’s will for human life. Jesus did not need to say more than simply that God requires sexuality to be expressed in the context of male/female marriage relationships to make clear his rejection of all possible same-sex intimate relationships.
This point about heterosexual marriage as norm lays near the heart of many restrictive writings on this topic. However, its importance may be challenged for several reasons.
(1) Using the creation account and other allusions to male/female marriage as a basis for condemning all same-sex sexual expression makes a point that the texts themselves do not make. None of the biblical allusions to marriage or male/female sexuality say that therefore same-sex sexuality is wrong. And none of the texts that allegedly reject same-sex sexual intimacy directly refer to the creation account. Admittedly several of the restrictive writers see allusions to the creation account’s portrayal of marriage both in Leviticus and in Romans 1, but such allusions are quite oblique—if they exist at all.
The restrictive writers use texts that make particular points to speak authoritatively about altogether different points. We may legitimately use texts indirectly as secondary evidence for a case; however, such indirect use does not seem strong enough by itself to make a case.
(2) We may agree that the Bible presents procreative sex between males and females as normative in the context of monogamous marriage. However, logically, we are not necessarily forced to conclude from this that all other expressions of sexuality are wrong or are threats to the norm.
Our faith communities now, either explicitly or implicitly, accept as morally legitimate some forms of non-procreative sexual expression (e.g., sex between infertile married partners, sex when the partners are using birth control, masturbation) without understanding them to threaten the biblical norm. So there would seem to be no reason why faith communities would have to assume that another form of non-procreative sex (between two people of the same sex) inherently threatens the norm.
(3) Restrictive writers, in drawing upon what they see as a normative biblical view of marriage, ignore the fact that the Bible portrays marriage in quite varied ways. An obvious example is the biblical portrayal of polygamy. The Bible at least implicitly presents polygamy as a norm for marriage throughout the Old Testament—and never overtly rejects that relationship pattern in the New Testament. The Bible also notoriously seems to assume a strongly patriarchal notion of marriage, in which wives are essentially thought of as their husband’s property.
Present-day Christians today tend to affirm a view of marriage (one man, one woman, equal partners for life) that does not have overt biblical precedent. This understanding of marriage appears to be a human cultural construct and not an obvious biblical option. The understanding of marriage as one man, one woman, equal partners for life has evolved over time. If this is the case, it cannot be a rejection of biblical authority or the order of creation to question whether same-gender committed relationships are inherently wrong because they violate “the one biblical view of marriage” as only between one male and one female.
(4) The restrictive position seems to assume a static, timeless notion of normativity in relation to marriage—as if one ancient book sets the once-and-for all standard. I have pointed out above that the Bible does not actually have just one view of marriage. As well, human history reflects a dynamic of many understandings of marriage evolving as human constructs. Human understandings of marriage are thoroughly culturally embedded and not based on a clear “order of creation.” We have no clear, absolute, once-for-all standard for marriage that provides an essential criterion for judging same-gender committed relations as inherently contrary to God’s will.
I’m not implying that that one man, one woman, equal partners for life is not the norm for today’s Christians. I do believe in this ideal for marriage. I believe in this normative ideal because it seems closely to cohere with important general biblical themes concerning commitment, fidelity, trust, mutual accountability, and the role of sexual intimacy in emotionally binding marriage partners together.
The ideal of marital fidelity and equal partnership also seems to me (from personal experience) to offer potential for fruitful living and healthy faith communities—and violations of marital ideals (infidelity, abuse, neglect) reap profoundly harmful consequences.
Nonetheless, it seems only honest to recognize that our present ideals cannot simply be read rotely as timeless, direct “biblical absolutes for marriage.” They have emerged over time in the interplay of theology, practice, cultural dynamics, self-reflection, social science, and other factors.
Many on the inclusive side believe that same-sex couples are as fully capable of living with commitment, fidelity, and mutual accountability as heterosexual couples—and should be supported in doing so by their faith communities.
Our understandings of marriage in the churches—assumed by the restrictive position and read back into the Bible as the one biblical view—surely accurately draw upon some biblical themes. However, as we consider such values as companionship, fidelity, mutuality, friendship, buildings block for community, childrearing, and procreation, we see that these attributes may also characterize same-gender committed relationships along with heterosexual marriages.
Numerous restrictive writers cite evidence that same-sex sexual intimacy links directly with damaging health consequences. However, these consequences do not seem to be actually to be inherent to the “same-sexness” of the relationships.
Certainly great human harm does result from the sexual behavior of many gay men—both physical problems and emotional problems clearly related in large part to the consequences of promiscuity. However, I find it difficult to see how any of these problems are related to the same-sexness of the partnership per se. Promiscuous heterosexuals have the same kinds of problems—and non-promiscuous same-sex partners do not.
It does seem to be a matter of empirical fact that there do exist same-sex partnerships for both men and women that are healthy and life giving. I know several such relationships among my own friends—including a couple still going strong after forty years. This empirical reality directly challenges the notion that same-sex partnerships are inherently harmful.
Some sexual behaviors among heterosexual people are harmful—coercive sex, sexually-transmitted diseases, promiscuity, unfaithfulness. Heterosexuals struggle to remain committed in covenanted relationships; divorce rates soar. However, we do not, in light of these problems, generalize about “heterosexual practice” being wrong.
Harmfulness within heterosexual intimate relationships challenges us to seek ways to foster more healthy relationships; such harmfulness does not lead us to deny the validity of heterosexual intimate relationships. We know that most human beings flourish best when they are in healthy marriages.
I see no logical reason why we cannot approach same-sex partnerships in the same way—critique the harmful practices, support the healthy ones.
I have tried to defend my conclusion that none of the three basic arguments commonly used to support the restrictive position are strong enough to overturn the biblical bias in favor of inclusiveness. If I am on the right track, where does this leave the churches?
Speaking to my Mennonite context, I recognize that regardless of the validity of my argument in this chapter, my denomination, Mennonite Church USA, is far from accepting it. My main hope would be simply that the perspective I have presented here could play a role in the MC USA’s on-going discernment processes.
At this point, I hope for two short-term outcomes. The first is that we could reach a consensus that we need on-going, open, and safe discernment processes in which we recognize the diversity of perspectives that currently exists within our denomination. The diversity runs too deep and too wide for us to find unanimity on the inclusive/restrictive debate in the near future. Hence, our biggest immediate challenge is to find a way to step back from fearfulness and threats to break fellowship and listen to each other.
The second short-term outcome would be movement toward a more congregational polity. Similar to the polity practiced by the former General Conference Mennonite Church, it respects that membership issues should be decided on the congregational level. On the homosexuality issue especially, given the complexity of the arguments and diversity of conclusions throughout the denomination, the most legitimate context for discernment is on the face-to-face, directly accountable level of the local congregation. As was the case with the General Conference, once a congregation is welcomed as part of the denomination, the discernment within each congregation would be respected and not put under threat of being challenged by the broader conference and denomination.
Neither of these two outcomes—a safe and open discernment processes and leaving membership issues to congregational discernment—will resolve all the issues. However, they seem to me to be prerequisites for the Mennonite Church to move beyond the chaos that surrounds us now.
Additionally, I hope that most of us might agree on the importance of the church’s role in supporting its members in their intimate relationships. Today’s American Christian churches encounter major challenges in the face of failed heterosexual marriages and sexual misbehavior of all kinds.
I believe that all of us who believe in fidelity, monogamy, and sexual intimacy only in the context of covenanted relationships should make common cause—welcoming committed same-sex partnerships and calling all in the churches to faithfulness and high ethical standards within covenanted relationships.