From the archives: Taking God at His Word: The Bible and Homosexuality
(The text below an excerpt from UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question.)
God does not ask us to choose between compassion and faith in the Bible.
Christians are increasingly divided over the issue of the acceptance and inclusion of gay persons into the church. The debate itself is usually framed as essentially pitting the Bible, on one hand, against compassion and social justice on the other. Our Christian hearts, runs the (usually impassioned) argument, compel us to grant full moral and legal equality to gay and lesbian people; our Christian faith, comes the (usually impassioned) rebuttal, compels us to cleave, above all, to the word of God.
Compassion for others is the fundamental cornerstone of Christian ethics; the Bible is the bedrock of the Christian faith. What Christian can possibly choose between the two?
The answer is that no Christian is called upon to make that choice. The text of the Bible on one hand, and full equality for gay and lesbian people on the other, is a false dichotomy. God would not ask or expect Christians to ever choose between their compassion and their faith.
Reconciling the Bible with unqualified acceptance and equality for LGBT people does not necessitate discounting, recasting, or deconstructing the Bible. All it takes is reading those passages of the Bible wherein homosexuality is mentioned with the same care that we would any other passage of the book.
We can trust God; we can trust that God is loving.
And we can trust that we can—and that we certainly should—take God, in this matter, as in all things, at his word.
If there is no clearly stated directive in the Bible to marginalize and ostracize gay people, then it is morally indefensible for Christians to continue to do so. What cannot be denied is that Christians have caused a great deal of pain and suffering to gay persons, by:
Banning their participation in the church, thus depriving them of the comforts and spiritual fruits of the church.
Banning their participation in the sacrament of marriage, thus depriving them of the comforts and spiritual fruits of marriage.
Damaging the bonds between gays and their straight family members, thus weakening the comforts and spiritual fruits of family life for both gays and their families.
Using their position within society as spokespersons for God to proclaim that all homosexual relations are disdained by God, thus knowingly contributing to the cruel persecution of a minority population.
Christians do not deny that they have done these things. However, they contend that they have no choice but to do these things, based on what they say is a clear directive about homosexuals delivered to them by God through the Holy Bible. They assert that the Bible defines all homosexual acts as sinful, instructs them to exclude from full participation in the church all non-repentant sinners (including gay people), and morally calls upon them to publicly (or at least resolutely) denounce homosexual acts.
Without an explicit directive from God to exclude and condemn homosexuals, the Christian community’s treatment of gay persons is in clear violation of what Jesus and the New Testament writers pointedly identified as one-half of God’s most important commandment: to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
The gay community has cried out for justice from Christians, who have a biblically mandated obligation to be just. Because the suffering imposed on gay persons by Christians is so severe, the directive from God to marginalize and ostracize gay people would have to be clear and explicit in the Bible. If there is no such clearly stated directive, then the continued Christian mistreatment of gay and lesbian people is morally indefensible, and must cease.
Heterosexual Christians are being unbiblical by using the clobber passages as justification for applying absolute standards of morality to homosexual “sins” that they themselves are not tempted to commit, while at the same time accepting for themselves a standard of relative morality for those sins listed in the clobber passages that they do routinely commit. Homosexuality is briefly mentioned in only six or seven of the Bible’s 31,173 verses. (The verses wherein homosexuality is mentioned are commonly known as the “clobber passages,” since they are typically used by Christians to “clobber” LGBT people.) The fact that homosexuality is so rarely mentioned in the Bible should be an indication to us of the lack of importance ascribed it by the authors of the Bible.
While the Bible is nearly silent on homosexuality, a great deal of its content is devoted to how a Christian should behave. Throughout, the New Testament insists upon fairness, equity, love, and the rejection of legalism over compassion. If heterosexual Christians are obligated to look to the Bible to determine the sinfulness of homosexual acts, how much greater is their obligation to look to the Bible to determine the sinfulness of their behavior toward gay persons, especially in light of the gay community’s call to them for justice?
Some Bible passages pertinent to this concern are:
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. — John 8: 7
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law — Romans 13:8-10
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you — Colossians 3:11-13
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. — Matthew 23: 23-24
A fundamental tenet of Christianity is that we are all born sinners, that we have no choice but to exist in relationship to our sinful natures. And so Christians accept as inevitable that any given Christian will, for instance, on occasion drink too much, lust, or tell a lie.
As we’ll see below, in the clobber passages Paul also condemns, along with homosexuality, those three specific sins. But Christians don’t think that they are expected to never commit any degree of those sins. They understand that circumstances and normal human weaknesses must be taken into account before condemning any transgression. We all readily understand and accept the moral distinction between drinking socially and being a drunk, between a lustful thought and committing adultery, between telling a flattering white lie and chronically lying.
Even a sin as heinous as murder we do not judge without first taking into account the context in which it occurred. Self-defense, protection of the innocent, during a war—we recognize that there are times when taking the life of another is not only not a sin, but a morally justified and even heroic act.
Christians evaluate the degree of sin, or even whether or not a real sin has occurred, by looking at both the harm caused by the sin, and the intent of the sin’s perpetrator.
They do, that is, for all sins except homosexuality.
Virtually any degree of homosexual “transgression” gets treated by some Christians as an absolute sin deserving absolute punishment. Such Christians draw no moral distinction between the homosexual gang rape in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the orgies to which Paul refers in his letter to the Romans, the wild sexual abandon Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, and consensual homosexual sex between loving and committed homosexual partners.
Heterosexual Christians are being unfair and hypocritical by using the clobber passages as justification for applying absolute standards of morality (and an absolute penalty) to homosexual “sins” that they themselves are never tempted to commit, while at the same time accepting for themselves a standard of relative morality (and applying no real penalty) for those sins listed in the clobber passages that they do routinely commit.
As there is no demonstrable harm arising from sex within a committed homosexual relationship, and there is significant demonstrable harm arising from the discrimination against and condemnation of gay persons, what possible biblical basis can there be for not recognizing the vast moral differences between sex acts done within the context of a loving committed relationship, and sex acts of any other sort?
Here are a couple of Bible passages that any Christian should bear in mind whenever he or she is called upon (or at least emotionally compelled) to render a moral judgment:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. — Matthew 7:1-2
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. — Luke 6:41-42
The Bible isn’t a rulebook, and Christians cannot lift out of its context any passage from it, and still hope to gain a clear understanding of that passage.
It is important to understand that even the most fundamentalist Christian sects do not take the Bible wholly literally. The New Testament is two thousand years old, the old Testament much older. The Bible’s cultural contexts, along with the translation at hand, is always taken into consideration by any Christian serious about understanding this vast and complex work.
To excerpt any isolated short passage from the Bible, and then claim for that passage absolute authority, is to fail to take the Bible on its own terms. If we wish to follow the word of God, then we must take the entirety of God’s words into account. For example, when the Bible itself identifies some of its words as proverbs, it is bestowing upon those words less moral weight than other words that it identifies as commandments. The Bible itself tells us that some of its contents are songs, some visions, some histories, some dreams, some parables, and some commandments. The Bible itself also instructs Christians that New Testament moral directives supersede Old Testament moral directives. The Bible itself tells us that its moral principles supersede any of its moral “rules.”
The context of any Bible passage is as integral to its meaning as the passage itself. It may be appropriate to give equal weight to each clause within a business contract, each step within a set of mechanical instructions, or each rule within a game rulebook. But the Bible itself tells us that the Bible is not a uniform document, with each passage spelling out something clear and specific, and all passages having equal value. The Bible is not a rulebook for being Christian. We would be foolish to fail to understand that not everything in the Bible is a commandment, and that Christians cannot take a small section of the Bible out of its larger context, and still hope to gain a clear understanding of that section. Isolating a clobber passage from its context, and then claiming a sort of moral helplessness because “it’s in the Bible,” is failing to take the Bible either literally or seriously.
Using the four Old Testament passages to condemn all homosexual acts is not in keeping with any Christian directive from God, nor with the practices of contemporary Christians.
The Bible’s first four references to homosexuality occur in the Old Testament.
While continuing to be spiritually inspired and influenced by the Old Testament, Christians were specifically instructed by Paul not to follow the law of the Old Testament, in such passages as:
The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. —Hebrews 7:18-19
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. — Galatians 3:23-25
So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another … — Romans 7:4
For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. — Romans 6:14
In practice, Christians do not follow the dictates of the Old Testament. If they did, polygamy would be legal, and things like tattoos, wearing mixed fabrics, eating pork, and seeding lawns with a variety of grasses would be forbidden. If Christians followed the dictates of the Old Testament, then today if the parents of a new bride could not, upon her husband’s request, prove that she was a virgin, that bride would have to be stoned to death. Christians would also have to stone to death any Christian guilty of adultery. And the Christian day of worship would be Saturday, not Sunday.
Clearly, Christians no longer cleave to the rules of the Old Testament.
Therefore, the use of the four Old Testament passages to condemn all homosexual acts is not in keeping with any Christian directive from God, nor with the practices of contemporary Christians.
In the clobber passages Paul condemns the coercive, excessive, and predatory same-sex sexual activity practiced by the Romans—and would have condemned the same acts had they been heterosexual in nature. Because Christians’ understanding and practice of New Testament prescriptions naturally and inevitably evolve along with the society and culture of which they are a part, at any given time in history Christians have always selectively followed the dictates of the New Testament.
Whenever a specific biblical injunction is found to be incongruous with contemporary mores, a reshaping of the conception of that injunction is not only widely accepted by Christians, it’s encouraged, as long as the new thinking is understood to be in keeping with overriding timeless biblical moral principles. This is why Christian women no longer feel morally constrained to follow Paul’s directives to leave their hair uncut, to keep their heads covered in church, or to always remain quiet in church. It’s also why the Bible is no longer used to justify the cruel institution of slavery, or to deny women the right to vote.
Just as those thoughts and understandings of the New Testament changed and grew, so today is it becoming increasingly clear to Christians that the three New Testament clobber passages (each of which was written by Paul in letters to or about nascent distant churches), when understood in their historical context, do not constitute a directive from God against LGBT people today.
Here are the three references to homosexuality in the New Testament:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. — 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine. — 1 Timothy 1:9-10
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. 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. — Romans 1:26-27
During the time in which the New Testament was written, the Roman conquerors of the region frequently and openly engaged in homosexual acts between themselves and boys. Such acts were also common between Roman men and their male slaves. These acts of non-consensual sex were considered normal and socially acceptable. They were, however, morally repulsive to Paul, as today they would be to everyone, gay and straight.
The universally acknowledged authoritative reference on matters of antiquity is the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Here is what the OCD (third edition revised, 2003) says in its section about homosexuality as practiced in the time of Paul:
“… the sexual penetration of male prostitutes or slaves by conventionally masculine elite men, who might purchase slaves expressly for that purpose, was not considered morally problematic.”
This is the societal context in which Paul wrote of homosexual acts, and it is this context that Christians must acknowledge when seeking to understand and interpret the three New Testament clobber passages. Yes, Paul condemned the same-sex sexual activity he saw around him—because it was coercive, without constraint, and between older men and boys. As a moral man, Paul was revolted by these acts, as, certainly, he would have been by the same acts had they been heterosexual in nature.
The Bible’s clobber passages were written about same-sex acts between heterosexual persons, and do not address the subject of homosexual acts between a committed gay couple, because the concept of a person being homosexual did not exist at the time the Bible was written.
It is critical to our reading of the New Testament’s three clobber passages to understand that while Paul would have known about sex acts that took place between persons of the same gender, he would have had no concept whatsoever of homosexual persons. Virtually no one in Paul’s time was “out”; no one lived, or in any way publicly self-identified, as a homosexual. Paul had no reference point for an entire group of people who, as a fundamental, unalterable condition of their existence, were sexually attracted to persons of the same gender, and not sexually attracted to persons of the opposite gender.
Here is the opening of the OCD’s article on homosexuality:
“No Greek or Latin word corresponds to the modern term ‘homosexuality,’ and ancient Mediterranean society did not in practice treat homosexuality as a socially operating category of personal or public life. Sexual relations between persons of the same sex certainly did occur (they are widely attested in ancient sources), but they were not systematically distinguished or conceptualized as such, much less were they thought to represent a single, homogeneous phenomenon in contradistinction to sexual relations between persons of different sexes. … The application of ‘homosexuality’ (and ‘heterosexuality’) in a substantive or normative sense to sexual expression in classical antiquity is not advised.”
We can be confident that Paul was not writing to, or about, gay people, because he simply could not have been, any more than he could have written about smartphones, iPads, or televisions. We do not know what Paul might write or say today about gay people. All we know is that in the New Testament he wrote about promiscuous, predatory, non-consensual same-sex acts between people whom he understood to be heterosexual.
The Bible does condemn homosexual (and heterosexual) sex that is excessive, exploitive, and outside of marriage. It does not, however, address the state of homosexuality itself, much less the subject of homosexual acts between a married gay couple. Christians, therefore, have no Bible-based moral justification to condemn such acts.
Because there was no concept of gay marriage when the Bible was written, the Bible does not, and could not, address the sinfulness of homosexual acts within the context of gay marriage.
The Bible routinely, clearly, and strongly classifies all sex acts outside of the bonds of marriage as sinful. But, because when the Bible was written there was no concept of gay people—let alone, then, of gay marriage—the Bible does not, and could not, address the sinfulness of homosexual acts within the context of marriage.
By denying marriage equality to gay people, Christians are compelling gay couples to sin, because their intimacy must happen outside of marriage, and is therefore, by biblical definition, sinful. Christians, in other words, cause gay people to sin, and then blame the gay people for that sin. By any decent standard of morality that is manifestly and egregiously unfair.
Being personally repelled by homosexual sex doesn’t make homosexual sex a sin.
In addition to the Bible, many Christians cite as evidence of the inherent sinfulness of homosexual acts their own emotional response to such acts. It is understandable that many straight people find homosexual sex repugnant (just as many gay people find heterosexual sex repugnant). It is normal for any one of us to be viscerally repelled by the idea of sex between, or with, people for whom we personally have no sexual attraction. Young people, for example, are often disgusted by the thought of senior citizens having sex. And who isn’t repulsed by the idea of their own parents having sex? (When, rationally speaking, we should rejoice in the fact that they did—at least once!) But it is much too easy for any person to mistake their instinctive reaction against something as a moral reaction to that thing. Outrage isn’t always moral outrage, though the two usually feel the same.
It may feel to a straight Christian that their instinctive negative reaction to homosexual sex arises from the Bible. But all of us necessarily view the Bible through the lens of our own experiences and prejudices, and we must be very careful to ensure that lens does not distort our reading of God’s sacrosanct word.
“The greatest of these is love”
The overriding message of Jesus was love. Jesus modeled love, Jesus preached love, Jesus was love. Christians desiring to do and live the will of Jesus are morally obligated to always err on the side of love. Taken all together, the evidence—the social context in which the Bible was written, the lack of the very concept of gay people in Paul’s time, the inability of gay people to marry, the inequity between how the clobber passages are applied between a majority and a minority population, the injustice of exclusion from God’s church on earth and from human love as the punishment for a state of being over which one has no choice—conclusively shows that choosing to condemn and exclude gay people based on the Bible is the morally incorrect choice. That evidence should instead lead Christians to the most obvious, and most Christian of all positions, stated so beautifully by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.