The Bible and Homosexuality

Interpreting the Bible as a Christian involves seeking the word of God: 1) in a plain reading of the text 2) as understood in the context of the church's understanding of scripture and 3) the commandment to love God and our neighbors. This approach to scripture may help us work out a Christian view of homosexuality.

The passages in the Old Testament Bible that deal directly with homosexuality are the following: Leviticus 18:22 - "You [masculine] shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." And, Leviticus 20:13 - "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them." These texts make it clear that within ancient Israel homosexual acts by men were condemned and punishable by death. However, these texts say nothing about homosexual orientation, as we understand that today, or about lesbian relations between women.

The relevant passage in the New Testament is Romans 1:26-27: "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." In this passage Paul obviously takes it for granted that homosexual acts between men or women are wrong because such passion is unnatural and a form of lust rather than love.

Those who claim to read the Bible as the literal word of God must be asked if they support enforcing all the laws of the Old Testament. Leviticus 20:13 commands that male homosexuals be put to death. Deuteronomy 22 orders death by stoning for a man and woman who commit adultery. Leviticus 15:16-24 makes those who touch semen and menstrual blood ritually unclean. Moreover, prostitution is not condemned but taken for granted in Genesis 38:12-19 and Joshua 2:1-7. And polygamy and concubinage (an unmarried woman living with a man) are regularly practiced in the Old Testament. Therefore, a Christian who advocates a literal reading of scripture should: support capital punishment for male homosexual acts and also for adultery, require Old Testament purification rituals for those who touch semen or menstrual blood, and sanction prostitution, polygamy and concubines.

This sort of logic also requires Christians who read the Bible literally to sanction slavery, as the Bible does not condemn it. The church did that for centuries until the abolitionist movement in the 19th century helped Christians see that the love of God in Christ does not allow one person to own another.

Christians understand that the commandments of the Old Testament must be tested by the New Testament affirmation of God's forgiving love and by Jesus' commandment to love God and our neighbors. This rule of love must be applied even to teachings attributed to Jesus by New Testament writers. Although the Old Testament allowed divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), in the New Testament Jesus categorically forbids it. (Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 19:9) The plain meaning of these texts allows no fudging, if it is to be read literally, and this was the doctrine of the church for centuries. 

In our time, however, churches and individual Christians have come to understand marriage differently. Wives and children are no longer property, sex within marriage is understood as intimate sharing and not merely as justified by procreation, spouse and child abuse are reasons for legal intervention in the family, and ending a marriage that lacks love is not seen as wrong.

Besides writing about homosexual lust, Paul also affirmed that Christ was the end of the law. (Romans 10:4) He called Christians to live a new life guided by the Spirit of God (Romans 7:6). In the 19th century Christians interpreted the Bible to support the abolition of slavery, and in the 20th century Christians found in the Bible reasons for allowing divorce. At the beginning of the 21st century, Christians must ask if the Spirit of God is calling the church to replace condemnation of homosexuality with a more caring and careful understanding of gay men and lesbian women.

Paul assumed that homosexual acts were unnatural and simply the result of human lust. Today we know that sex between males occurs in other species, particularly under conditions of overpopulation. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that a significant portion of our population has a homosexual orientation. In addition, many of us have friends who live as committed homosexual partners and who seem as moral and at least as faithful as many of our married friends. Thus, today we need not see homosexuality as unnatural or as merely a form of lust. Love between two men or two women may have the same character of sharing and commitment that we hope binds a man and a woman in marriage.

As the church condemns slavery and permits divorce, despite biblical teachings to the contrary, the church is now called to recognize that love is the measure of sexuality. Sex where there is no love separates us from God and one another, whereas love brings us closer to God and to one another. Christians have long affirmed that love, which reflects the commitment of Christ to the church, may be expressed physically between a man and a woman in marriage. Now Christians are called to recognize, in Christ, that such love may also bind a man to another man and a woman to another woman. © Robert Traer 2016