The Bible, Sexuality and Gender

Many Christians have believed and most churches have taught that you cannot be a Christian and express your love for another person of the same sex in a sexual relationship. They believe that God has condemned this through the Bible and traditional Church Teaching.  So what does the Bible actually say?

Only a small number of passages in the entire Bible reference same-sex sexual activity.  Obviously this topic was not of great concern to the biblical writers.  Yet these verses have been used to justify hatred, condemnation and exclusion of God’s lgbt (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) children.

The word ‘homosexuality’ is a modern term and did not exist during biblical times.  Biblical writers had no concept of sexual orientation or sexual development as we understand these today.  Therefore, passages that reference same-sex sexual activity should not be seen as comprehensive statements concerning homosexuality, but instead should be viewed in the context of what the ancient world that produced the Bible understood about sexual activity and human relationships.

Social science research into gender and sexual relationship patterns of the ancient Mediterranean world of the Bible have shown that in these societies sexual acts between men did happen, but they happened in order to show dominance of one group of men or a man over another, especially during times of war. 

The Old Testament

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah

Understanding the cultural context is helpful when we read the story of the city of Sodom, Lot, and the visitors (or angels) in Genesis 19.  The men of Sodom want to ‘know’ (yadah – a Hebrew word that can mean sexual intercourse) the foreigners who have come to Lot’s house.  In essence they want to rape them in order to show their social and cultural dominance.

This story is not a condemnation of homosexuality, but is a story about rape and inhospitality.  In other biblical texts (Ezekiel 16:49, Luke 10:11-12; 17:28-29) Sodom’s ‘sin’ is not identified as homosexuality, rather, their sins were pride, failure to help the poor, and lack of hospitality to foreigners.

The Holiness Code

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are part of the Holiness Code, a ritual for Israel’s priests, that attempted to spell out the ways the people of Israel would act differently than their Mediterranean neighbours.  In light of the previously mentioned sexual practices of Israel’s neighbours, it becomes clear that this prohibition in Leviticus was an attempt to preserve the internal harmony of Jewish male society by not allowing them to participate in anal intercourse as a form of expressing or gaining social and political dominance.  These verses in no way prohibit, nor do they even speak, to loving, caring sexual relationships between people of the same gender.

Much is made of the term ‘abomination’ but again we need to be clear about it’s meaning at the time it was written.  For the writers of Leviticus, an ‘abomination’ is that which God found detestable because it was unclean, disloyal, or unjust.  Several Hebrew words were so translated, and the one found in Leviticus, toevah, is usually associated with idolatry, as in Ezekiel, where it occurs numerous times.  Given the strong association of toevah with idolatry and the Canaanite religious practice of cult prostitution, the use of toevah regarding male same-sex acts in Leviticus calls into question any conclusion that such condemnation also applies to loving, homosexual relationships.

 

Rituals and Rules

Rituals and Rules found in the Old Testament were given to preserve the distinctive characteristics of the religion and culture of Israel.  But, as stated in Galatians 3:22-25, Christians are no longer bound by these Jewish laws.  By faith we live in Jesus Christ, not in Leviticus.  To be sure, ethical concerns apply to all cultures and peoples in every age.  Such concerns were ultimately reflected by Jesus Christ, who said nothing about homosexuality, but a great deal about love, justice, mercy and faith and taught the importance of love and commitment in relationships.  He condemned the Pharisees for keeping only to the letter of the law and for ignoring the fact that the law served a higher purpose.

 

The New Testament

It is only in the letters from Paul that we find any mention of same-sex sexual activity.

Idolatry and Unnatural Practices

It is important to read the verses in Romans 1 within their larger context.   At the beginning of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul was attempting to lay out for the Roman church his theology of grace (all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but are justified by the gift of grace in Christ Jesus, 3:23).  He is writing to a Jewish and Gentile audience.  In chapter one he tries to demonstrate the Gentiles’ need for God by pointing out behaviours that keep them alienated from God.   In chapter two he does the same thing for his Jewish audience.

Significant to Paul’s discussion is the fact that these “unclean” Gentiles exchanged that which was “natural” for them, physin, in the Greek text, for something “unnatural,” para physin. “Unnatural” in these passages does not refer to violation of so-called laws of nature, but rather implies action contradicting one’s own nature.  In view of this, we should observe that it is “unnatural,” para physin, for a person today with a lesbian or gay sexual orientation to attempt living a heterosexual lifestyle.

Romans 1:26 is the only statement in the Bible with a possible reference to lesbian behaviour, although the specific intent of this verse is unclear.  Some authors have seen in this passage a reference to women adopting a dominant role in heterosexual relationships. Given the repressive cultural expectations placed on women in Paul’s time, such a meaning may be possible.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11

Prostitution and pederasty (adult men with boys) were the most commonly known male same-sex acts in the Greco-Roman culture.

In I Corinthians 6:9, Paul condemns those who are “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind,” as translated in the King James version.  It is only in later translations that we find the use of the word “homosexuals.”

The first word – malakos, in the Greek text – which has been translated “effeminate” or “soft,” most likely refers to someone who lacks discipline or moral control.  The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament but never with reference to sexuality.

The second word, Arsenokoitai, occurs once each in I Corinthians and I Timothy (1:10), but nowhere else in other literature of the period.  It is derived from two Greek words, one meaning, “males” and the other “beds”, a euphemism for sexual intercourse.  Other Greek words which were more commonly used to describe homosexual behaviour are not used here.  The larger context of I Corinthians 6 shows Paul extremely concerned with prostitution, so it is very possible he was referring to male prostitutes.

What is clear is that the type of relationship the apostle Paul is referring to in these passages is based on abuse and inequality and is not the same as mutually loving relationships between people of the same gender.

The rarity and ambiguity in references attributed to Paul make it extremely unsound to conclude any sure position in the New Testament on homosexuality, especially in the context of loving relationships.  Consequently, it is much more reliable to turn to the great principles of the Gospel taught by Jesus Christ.  Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. Do not judge others, lest you be judged. The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love . . . against such there is no law.

When dealing with matters of biblical interpretation it is important to always keep in mind the role of the authority of the Bible in matters of faith and practice.   While the Bible is an important witness to the relationship between God and humanity, it is not the ultimate revelation of God—Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is.