Issues related to same-sex attraction are without a doubt the most difficult and volatile issue facing the church today. In the context of these Respectful Conversations, I have been asked to address the question of the Bible’s teaching on this issue from the traditional perspective that same-sex sexual relations are outside God’s design for human sexuality.
I have to admit from the beginning that I am torn on this issue. Like many other Christians, I find that my positive personal experiences with those who identify with the LGBT community are often at odds with the Bible’s apparent teaching on this issue. While I respect those like James Brownson and David Gushee whose personal experiences have provoked them to return to Scripture with new eyes and to change their mind, I personally have found it impossible to reconcile a high view of Scripture and a consistent hermeneutic with this revisionist perspective. I bear no animosity toward any person who is gay or toward anyone who holds an inclusive perspective. I will continue to seek to love all people and live in gracious tolerance toward everyone, even (and especially) those who treat me with animosity or who view my beliefs as insensitive, bigoted or offensive.
On certain issues I am still firmly settled. There is no doubt in my mind that monogamous heterosexual relationships represent God’s design for human sexuality. I firmly believe that homosexual desire (like my own heterosexual inclination toward lust) arises from fallen human nature and is not part of God’s will for human sexuality. This seems to me the clear teaching of Scripture and also makes the most sense emotionally, socially, and psychologically. We live in a fallen world and should not be surprised to see evidence of this brokenness in ourselves and those around us.
At the same time there are many issues on which I am unsettled. At what point does homosexual desire become a sin? My inclination is to say at the same time as heterosexual inclination: when such desire becomes lust. But when does a same-sex relationship become sinful? Can people with same-sex attraction share intimacy? Is homosexual “romance” in and of itself wrong? To what degree should churches welcome same-sex couples? As attenders? Into membership? Into leadership? These are difficult questions, regarding which full agreement among Christians is proving elusive.
Some Points of Agreement
I would like to start with several areas I think we can agree on. First, those involved in this forum agree on the authority and inspiration of Scripture. We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. There are two basic ways to approach the Bible. Some view the Bible as merely human reflections about God. From this perspective, the text is subjective, multivocal and fallible. It represents many voices communicating different and often contradictory messages about the nature of God, his purpose for the world and how human beings ought to live in relationship to God and to one another. It may be inspiring, but it is not divinely inspired. Those on this forum, however, consider the Bible to be God’s Word, a divine message from God to humanity. It is authoritative and infallible, communicating God’s will, plan and purpose for his creation.
Second, however, we agree that the Bible is contextually given. God has revealed himself and his will through limited human agents in diverse cultural contexts and situations. Though God’s nature does not change, his purpose and intention for specific groups or individuals may differ depending on time and place. The most obvious example of this is the old covenant laws that were given to Israel. These commands were meant to regulate and order Israel’s civil and religious life in the Old Testament period and do not necessarily apply to the church. The Old Testament sacrificial system—though explicitly commanded in Scripture—was always intended to be temporary, pointing forward to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.
Even new covenant commands are contextual and potentially limited in application. Most Christians today recognize that commands related to head coverings for women, greeting one another with a kiss, and washing feet as an act of service were given in specific cultural contexts and do not necessarily apply directly to the church today. The point is that biblical commands forbidding same-sex sexual relations are potentially within this category, applying only to certain historical contexts and situations and never intended to forbid faithful and monogamous same-sex sexual relationships.
This brings up what I believe is a third point of agreement. All participants in this discussion affirm that God’s design for human sexuality is for loving, faithful, self-sacrificial, monogamous sexual relationships. Though many within the gay rights movement (as well as the heterosexual community!) claim they have the right to complete sexual freedom and multiple sexual partners, this forum is about whether God ever blesses faithful, monogamous and lifelong same-sex unions.
The Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis
If God’s commands are sometimes limited to specific persons, groups, times and places, how do we determine God’s will for us at any point in time? The answer is by establishing and consistently applying sound principles of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science and art of determining the original meaning of Scripture (through “exegesis”) and how it applies in diverse cultural and historical contexts (through “re-contextualization”). I have elsewhere suggested a variety of criteria for determining whether and how culturally-embedded commands apply to believers today (see my How to Read the Bible in Changing Times [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011], ch. 8). I would consider three of these to be most important and will briefly summarize them here.
(1) Criterion of Purpose: The purpose, or rationale, behind a command determines its application. We might say that the purpose of a command is more important than the command itself. For example, when Paul commands believers to greet one another with a kiss, his purpose is not to make sure that there is a lot of kissing in the church. It is to encourage believers to practice family affection. Whatever way a particular culture expresses family affection would be an appropriate fulfillment of this command.
With reference to our present topic, it will be essential to determine the purpose behind biblical commands related to same-sex relationships. Are the purposes for these commands related to sexual purity per se, or to something else, such as exploitation, abuse, inhospitality, ritual impurity, etc.?
(2) Criterion of Cultural Correspondence: The closer the cultural or historical context to our own, the more likely we should apply the command directly. Many commands in Scripture are related to cultural practices that have direct parallels today. For example, Paul’s command to avoid drunkenness (Eph. 5:18) has direct relevance today. Alcohol abuse causes the same kinds of personal, social and societal problems today that it did in the first century. Other commands, like head covering on women, may not have the same cultural significance today that they did in the first century world.
One of the major questions of debate around our topic is whether the homosexual acts condemned in the Old Testament and in Paul’s writings are analogous to same-sex relationships being advocated by some Christians today.
(3) Criterion of Canonical Consistency: Ethical imperatives that remain consistent throughout the Bible are more likely to reflect God’s universal purpose and will. This criterion relates especially to fundamentally moral commands, which relate to more or less absolute standards of right and wrong. Commands such as those against murder, stealing, lying, cheating, coveting, adultery, exploitation of the poor, and idolatry remain consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments and so are almost certainly God’s will for all time.
Conversely, biblical commands that vary significantly across time and space are not necessarily binding. This criterion can be helpfully applied to various controversial areas that many see as parallel to the same-sex debate, such as the role of women and men and the issue of slavery. It is certainly true that Scripture allows practices like slavery, polygamy, and the subordination of women when they were part of the social fabric of the biblical world. I often tell my students that we do not necessarily have an absolute ethic in Scripture on many issues. God is working in and through fallen human cultures and sometimes allows less-than-ideal institutions to govern life in certain cultural situations.
While many passages in the Bible affirm a patriarchal system and call for male leadership and female submission (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:11–15), there are many others that affirm the equality of women as divine image bearers (Gen. 1:27; Gal. 3:28) and depict women in various leadership roles (Miriam [Exod. 15:20]; Huldah [2 Kings 22:14]; Deborah [Judg. 4–5]; Priscilla [Acts 18:26]; Phoebe [Rom. 16:1]; Junia [Rom. 16:7]; Euodia and Syntyche [Phil. 4:2–3]). While all these passages are debated as to their significance, it is hard to argue for complete canonical consistency on this issue.
Similarly, although the Bible allows slavery (or indentured servitude) in various cultural contexts (Lev. 25:44–45; Eph. 6:5–6; Col. 3:22; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18), there are many indications that slavery is not God’s ideal for human relationships (Gen. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 7:22; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:24; Philem. 15–17). Consider, for example, the Exodus deliverance as the OT paradigm of God’s salvation and the eschatological promise of freedom for those in bondage (Isa. 61:1–2).
By contrast, whenever same-sex sexual acts are mentioned in Scripture, they are consistently and univocally forbidden. There is never a hint that these acts are part of God’s design for human sexuality. God surely knew that this issue would become controversial in the church of the twenty-first century. Yet I have found it impossible to read Scripture in any normal or straightforward manner and reach the conclusion that, contrary to all appearances, God blesses such unions. To be sure, Scripture is not always simple or easy. But what puzzles and confounds me is that, if God in fact intended us to understand Scripture in this way, he could hardly have chosen a more confusing and contradictory way of communicating this.
This argument can be extended throughout church history. For three millennia the people of God have understood Scripture to teach that same-sex sexual activity is outside God’s will for human sexuality. Are we really to believe that even the most Godly and sensitive of believers have for millennia radically misunderstood and misapplied the Spirit’s voice on this issue and are only now coming to the light? Isn’t it more likely that today—as throughout history—sinful human culture is placing pressure on the people of God to compromise God’s standards of righteousness? There are many Godly believers throughout history who have affirmed the value and dignity of women as divine image bearers and who have viewed slavery as an evil and fallen human institution. Yet there is no such historical precedent for those affirming same-sex unions.
Some Key Biblical Texts
Genesis 1-2. Genesis 2 establishes monogamous heterosexual relationships as the pre-Fall standard for human sexuality. While up to this point in the Genesis narrative all of creation is identified as “good,” here we learn that, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” So from the man’s own body God creates a “helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Eve is brought to Adam and the narrator announces the establishment of the marriage relationship: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). The union is between one man (ʾı̂š) and one woman (ʾiššā).
Advocates of same-sex relationships often claim that this text is not speaking about gender complementarity but about companionship, which can be equally fulfilled in a same-sex relationship. While no doubt companionship is a key component here, in the near context both procreation and gender complementarity are also emphasized. In the first (summary) creation account in Genesis 1, God creates humanity in his own image as male (zāḵār) and female (nᵉqēḇāh) and commands them to procreate: “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it” (1:27–28). God could not have told marriage partners to procreate if he had in mind same-sex partners.
Similarly, gender complementary is emphasized in chapter two. Eve is created as “a helper suitable for him” (2:18 NIV). The rare Hebrew word kᵉneg̱dô, translated variously as “suitable for him” (NIV), “who is right for him” (God’s Word), “who corresponds to him” (NET), “as his complement” (HCSB), could be more formally rendered as “like opposite him.” In context it clearly carries the sense of both similarity and difference. Eve is like Adam and distinct from the animals because she was created from him. She is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). Yet she is also different from him and is his perfect complement. He is man (ʾı̂š); she is woman (ʾiššā). He is male (zāḵār); she is female (nᵉqēḇāh). She was created from his side to be at his side as his equal and partner. In the marriage relationship, the two complement each other and together become “one flesh” (2:24). This binary complementarity and suitability is most clearly evident in the sexual union (male and female body parts fit together) but also likely refers to complementary emotional, psychological and social traits. Though it is true that male and female gender qualities and stereotypes vary somewhat across cultures and between individuals within a particular culture, it is hard to deny that men and women are indeed different—and wonderfully complementary.
As the foundational creation account, these passages establish God’s purpose and parameters for human sexuality. God meets Adam’s need of companionship by creating a woman. The result is a monogamous heterosexual marriage relationship. The foundational and paradigmatic nature of this text suggests that it represents God’s design for human sexuality. By implication, any form of sexual behavior outside of this relationship—whether premarital, extramarital or homosexual—is beyond the bounds of God’s design. Jesus, of course, cites these passages when discussing the fundamental nature of the marriage relationship (Matt. 19:3-12//Mark 10:2-12).
While indicative of God’s ideal, the Genesis account alone would be insufficient to rule out same-sex sexual acts as sinful. Yet such behavior is explicitly forbidden elsewhere in both the OT and the NT.
Leviticus 18:22; 20:13. The most explicit commands against homosexual behavior in the OT come in the holiness code of Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (NIV). Leviticus 20:13 identifies the penalty for such actions as death.
Some claim that these commands relate merely to purity issues rather than to overtly sinful behavior. But the imposition of the death penalty shows that this is far more significant than a purity issue. Purity issues are resolved through the passage of time, ritual washing or offering sacrifices, not through capital punishment. The death penalty is reserved for serious violations of God’s character, his created order, and the covenant between Yahweh and his people. Similar punishments apply to sins like adultery, incest, and cursing one’s parents. Our point, of course, is not that Christians should advocate for capital punishment for any of these sins (these are old covenant punishments related to Israel), but only that they are clearly in a different category than purity concerns.
Others argue that these passages concern not sexual relationships per se, but cultic prostitution, thus violating God’s commands to be separate from the nations. But there is nothing in the context to indicate this. The surrounding laws govern sexual matters generally, not cultic prostitution. The language associated with cultic prostitution used elsewhere does not occur here (cf. Deut. 23:17-18).
Further evidence that these Levitical commands are inherently moral comes from two references to homosexual behavior in the letters of Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10. Both are in lists or catalogs of sins common in the pagan world. Some argue that Paul is not here referring to homosexual behavior per se, but rather to pederasty, slave prostitution or other form of exploitation. Yet the primary term Paul uses in both passages (arsenokoitai) is a compound word combining “male” (arsēn) and “bed” (koitē), a euphemism for male with male sexual activity. Since 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the first appearance of arsenokoitēs in Greek literature, it seems likely that Paul coined the term in intentional imitation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where the Greek translation (the Septuagint) uses these same two terms. “With a male [arsēn] do not lie on a bed [koitē] as with a woman; for that is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22; authors’ translation; cf. 20:13). If this is the case, Paul takes the general Levitical prohibition and applies it in a new covenant context.
Romans 1:26-27. Romans 1:18-32 is the beginning of Paul’s argument that all human beings are sinful and fallen, deserving God’s condemnation. Although God has revealed himself in creation, human beings have suppressed this knowledge. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (1:25). As a result “God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:26a), illustrated with reference to homosexual behavior:
Even their 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. (1:26b-27 NIV).
Paul here identifies homosexual behavior (females with females; males with males) as “unnatural” (para physin), an example of the distortion that results from humanity’s rejection of God. Paul probably singles out same-sex behavior not because it is unique or a greater sin than others, but because it is perceived by most people (i.e. heterosexuals) as unnatural, contrary to their own sexual desires. Having made this point, Paul subsequently lists many other sins that result from our fallen state, including envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, God-hating, insolence, arrogance, etc. (1:29-31).
Some advocates of same-sex relationships claim that Romans 1:26-27 only condemns “perversion” (acting contrary to one’s natural sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual). But this cannot be right. Paul does not say that “certain men abandoned their natural sexual inclination” but rather that “males” (arsenes) abandoned “the natural use” (tēn physikēn chrēsin) “of the female” (tēs thēleias)” (v. 27). Unnatural is explicitly defined as males with males and females with females—i.e., homosexual activity.
Others argue that Paul is here referring only to oppressive and exploitative behavior, like temple prostitution or pederasty, not faithful, loving homosexual relationships. While these practices were well known in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, the immediate context makes it unlikely that Paul is limiting his discussion to these. First, Paul’s reference to lesbianism would make little sense in these kinds of exploitative and abusive relationships. Second, Paul’s reference to mutual desire (“inflamed with lust for one another”; v. 27) rules out an oppressive or exploitative relationship. Most importantly, allusions to the creation account throughout this chapter suggest that Paul has Genesis 1–2 in mind. Paul’s distinctive use of thēlys/arsēn (female/male) instead gynē/anēr (woman/man), echoes the language of Gen. 1:27 (LXX) —“male and female he created them”—supporting the view that “natural” here refers to God’s created order of human sexuality as expressed in Genesis 1–2. Same-sex sexual acts are “unnatural”—that is, contrary to God’s created order.
I’m afraid that this brief essay has just begun to delve into the complex exegetical and hermeneutical issues surrounding these texts. Yet I also fear that since this round is about “biblical understandings,” my post sounds more like a theology paper than a real conversation. So in closing let me just affirm my own desire to learn and grow through dialogue on this issue and most of all to exemplify through it the two greatest commandments—to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself.