The Bible and Homosexuality

Someone recently asked me what the Bible actually says on homosexuality, so thought I'd post the summary. It's not meant as a argument for a particular sexual ethic, just an introduction to the issue from a biblical perspective.

In terms of those parts of the Bible which explicitly refer to homosexuality, there are only a small number. There is an instance in Genesis (Ch 19) where the men of the town of Sodom want to have sex with Lot's (Abraham's nephew) male guests. But as an instance of gang rape it is hardly relevant to discussions of gay marriage, etc. Then there are a couple of references in the Levitical Law (18:22 and 20:13) which basically say that anyone who has sex with someone of the same sex should be put to death (along with people who commit adultery and practice incest and various other things). As the Old Testament Law is obsolete for Christians it is again not possible to draw a direct ethical directive to contemporary life (though there's a sense that the ethics of that Law deserve some proper contemplation if they are not to be just thrown off in a fit of 'progressive' moral arrogance).

Then in the New Testament, there's a reference in 1 Timothy to 'those practicing homosexuality' (NIV) (the KJV actually uses the phrase 'menstealers'!) and in 1 Corinthians to 'men who have sex with men' ('the effeminate' in the KJV!). Both of these references use a Greek term which implies the 'active partner' in a male same-sex relationship. There is a strong opinion among many researchers of ancient Greek language and culture that this term refers predominantly to an older man who would have sex with a younger boy/man, though this is disputed. I tend to think that it is not specifically relevant to a contemporary monogamous homosexual relationship of equal partners.

Then finally, and in my opinion most importantly (in the sense that it is the only specific reference to homosexuality in the Bible that is credibly relevant to the contemporary debate), there is a reference by the Apostle Paul in the opening chapter of his letter to the Romans. This is significant because Romans is the theological tour-de-force of the New Testament, and the opening chapter sets the scene for just how bad Paul thinks the world has got. As one of his crowning examples of how humankind worships the created rather than the creator he states that 'women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.' (1:26-27 NIV) Some have argued that there was no concept of a monogamous homosexual relationship in ancient times and so what Paul was referring to was a culture of promiscuity, adultery or prostitution. There is definitely some debate about this point - I suspect that this view somewhat strains credibility.

I have argued that Paul is using homosexuality in this way because he is trying to make a case for just how stagnant and unjust the world he experienced had become, and that, in a culture which still venerated procreation as a symbol of creative force, homosexuality was the ultimate symbol of the lack of creative life which was indicative of the problem. But that is not a widely acknowledged perspective, and anyway does not take away from the fact that Paul is very negative about homosexuality.

In any case, all of these specific references are dwarfed by the general sexual ethic in the Bible as a whole which assumes that sex is properly expressed in the context of a heterosexual marriage relationship. Commitment and faithfulness are strong biblical themes, and in a world of ancient pagan religions which included many different erotic rites (both heterosexual and homosexual), fidelity to Yahweh and sexual fidelity within marriage were inextricably linked.

It seems pretty clear to me that in biblical times homosexuality wasn't seen as a natural part of a person's identity as it is today - homosexuality was something you did, rather than something you were. So in that sense the contemporary debate is new. Most of the Christian argument over the issue at present is around whether the fact that someone understands themselves to be homosexual in terms of sexual orientation should legitimise homosexual activity. Mainstream Christian ethics at present would say 'it's ok to feel gay (cos you can't help that) as long as you don't actually have gay sex'.

This obviously all raises questions for Christian faith about how the Bible should be used in contemporary life. Was it fair for Paul to use the phrase 'unnatural' when referring to homosexual experience? Could the value of commitment and faithfulness be extended to homosexual relationships as well as heterosexual ones? And specifically when thinking about the ethics of marriage: in a world in which procreation is not an ethical imperative in the same way (in fact if anything there is an ethical imperative to exercise self-control over population growth because of scarce resources), can heterosexual marriage still be ethically prioritised?

Hope that's helpful. Please do comment, or ask any further questions.