There are only eight Bible verses that directly speak about same-sex relations. But since these relations create enormous anxiety in many human cultures, the are sometimes called “the Big Eight.” I include my comments, which are a bit lengthy, as a reference for folks who wonder about my reading of the Bible around same-sex relations. This is a much longer piece than I posted earlier, and looks at each of the eight passages, as well as making some contextual observations.
February 20, 2014
“A Biblical response to same-sex sexual relationships
Vernon Keith Rempel
The general direction of this informal Biblical study is this: In specific verses, the Bible seems to condemn the expressions of same-sex genital-sexual intercourse to which the writers address themselves. These expressions of same-sex sexual intercourse occur in the context of generational patriarchy (Hebrew culture), ritual prostitution (Hebrew holiness code), and idolatry and licentiousness (Paul’s letters).
But for me, a question is raised because I know people who I have every reason to consider brothers and sisters in Christ who are also gay and lesbian, and sexually active in responsible, loving relationships. In light of this social context – ie. the people I know - the question opens up: What does the Spirit of Christ, whose character we know from the Bible, say today in our context, specifically in answer to these gay men and lesbian women. Are there Biblical and pastoral reasons for the modern church to say something in addition to the instances of rejection of same-sex genital-sexual intercourse in the Bible? I think there are.
The eight primary Bible texts that refer to same-sex genital intercourse
Toward answering this question, I would like to begin by considering the eight direct references to same-sex sexual attraction in the Bible, with preliminary comments about the contexts of the Hebrew and Greek testaments. The eight passages are: Genesis 19:4-11; Judges 19:16-26; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13-14; Deuteronomy 23:17-18; Romans 1:26-27; I Corinthians 6:9; and I Timothy 1:10.
Hebrew Testament context
The accounts of the creation are of particular importance in understanding the Biblical culture and sexual relations. So before considering the verses that directly address same-sex relations, here are some additional passages to consider.
Genesis 1:27,28. God created humans in the image of God, male and female. And they are blessed to be fruitful and multiply. Not having children was considered a curse in the Hebrew culture. Making wombs fruitful that were barren was a paradigm of God’s redeeming work (Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah). The absence of marriage and child-bearing was a sign of doom for Israel (Jer. 16:1-4). To marry and deliberately not have children was unknown in Hebrew culture. Contraceptive drugs, methods, and surgery would have been alien. God punished Onan for failing to carry out the levirate law by refusing to bear children with his deceased brother’s wife (Gen. 38:8-10). In light of these few references it seems likely that “be fruitful and multiply” meant, at least in large part, to perform the sexual seed function of bringing forth offspring. This was done by the man placing seed in the woman. Any kind of sexual activity that was not oriented at least in a general way toward procreation (multiplying) was alien to this creation blessing, including same-sex genital-sexual relations.
Genesis 2:20-24. The woman (Hebrew “ishshah”) is created to be a partner with the man (Hebrew “ish”). The fabric of creation is that the man and woman become one flesh, to join in a “covenant” with each other. Here the emphasis is not on procreation but rather on sexual companionship in every sense: physical, social, spiritual.
Singleness, to deliberately live a single life without heterosexual union, is not reflected here. To refuse to marry would have been the rare exception to the rule, since marriage was the primary social location, the place of economic and generational well-being. The creation account does not say “if you’re going to have sex, get married.” (Paul says that, all the while supporting singleness as the preferred situation.) The creation account reflects marriage and heterosexual union. It is a paradigm and background metaphor for the Hebrew text and for Hebrew society.
The Hebrew texts that directly address same-sex sexual intercourse
Genesis 19:4-11; Judges 19:16-26
In the Genesis account, Sodom is a wicked city (Gen. 13:13). What was its wickedness? The kings of Sodom behave like the other kings of the region, warring with each other. But Sodom is singled out because Abram’s nephew Lot pitched tents near it (13:12), and then apparently lived in the city (19:2). The story of the angel’s visit to Sodom (ch. 18,19) illustrates what’s wrong with the city. It is a violent, perverse, inhospitable city. So much so, that all (19:4) the men of the city wish to rape the angels (male – 18:2) visiting. This incident is an example of Sodom’s wickedness, perhaps a particularly loathsome case for those who included the story in the Hebrew scriptures. Sodom is then totally destroyed and stands ever after as a sign of how wickedness is punished (Deut. 29:23, Isa. 1:9, Mt. 10:15 etc.).
Our culture has given the name “sodomy” to any sexual intercourse regarded as abnormal, most often between men or with animals (heterosexual and lesbian intercourse is not ordinarily called “sodomy” even in forms that might be called “abnormal” by popular definition.)
The story in Judges is similar in that men of a town of the tribe of Benjamin wish to rape a male house guest, a Levite (19:22). This time the host’s virgin daughter and the guest’s concubine are offered. The men refuse but the guest puts his concubine out to them anyway and they sexually abuse her to the point of death. In response, the Levite incites all Israel to war against the tribe of Benjamin and it is punished at the point of the sword.
Affectionate same-sex sexual relations obviously are not reflected in either of these texts. Rather it is same-sex rape. Historically, victorious men in battle have expressed dominance over the vanquished men by raping them. This is the type of act contemplated here: violent sexual abuse of men by other men through sexual rape. This does not mean the text has nothing to do with sexual desire. But whatever it is, it is not love, but rather violence that is expressed in this story.
Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Deuteronomy 23:17-18
These three passages all are part of the holiness and priestly traditions of the Hebrew law. The first, Lev. 18:22, occurs in a chapter on sexual relations addressed to men (except vs. 23b). It forbids in the strongest terms men having sexual intercourse with men, calling it an “abomination” (toevah).
The second, Lev. 20:13, comes in the context of various sexual offenses deserving the death penalty: adultery, incest with daughter-in-law or mother-in-law, male-male sexual intercourse. Several other offenses follow that deserve cutting the offenders off from the people: incest with sister, aunt, or sister-in-law, sexual relations during menstruation. Here again, the same-sex genital intercourse is termed “abomination” (toevah).
Toevah is a strong term of rejection. Depending on the context, it carries ritual, legal, or ethical meaning, including offering of children as sacrifice (Deut. 12:31) and to describe unclean animals (Deut. 14:3 – eg. camel, hare, rock badger, pig). The question for us today is, of course, what is still legitimately toevah to us, and what no longer makes sense to reject in such strong terms.
The Deuteronomy passage is part of a mix of injunctions. Chapter 23 begins with an injunction against allowing eunuchs in the assembly and deals with a variety of mixes, imperfections, and uncleanness as well as a few comments on international relations. In the passage under consideration, “kadesh” is a key word. It is translated “temple prostitute” in the NRSV. The KJV translation is “whore” (female, 17a) and “sodomite” (male, 17b). The other word in question, “keleb,” literally means “dog.” It is translated as “male prostitute” in the NRSV and “dog” in the KJV. Daughters and sons of Israel were not to be temple prostitutes, nor were they to bring monies earned from prostitution to the temple “in payment for any vow” (NRSV).
The same-sex genital-intercourse described here is same-sex prostitution. Such acts would have been (among other reasons?) a fixture in certain ancient-near-eastern religions as a sort of “sympathetic magic” aimed at “reactivating the natural forces of life.”
Greek Testament context
With Jesus and Paul, both single men, the Genesis structure of marriage and family is no longer the fundamental social/spiritual metaphor. This is replaced by the community of the Spirit. All three synoptic gospels record that Jesus considered his true kindred to be “Whoever does the will of God…” (Mk. 3:35). This of course does not mean that Jesus rejected marriage and family out of hand. Rather, it is a point of emphasis: Jesus’ highest value was God’s community, not ordinary family life. Where these conflicted, Jesus was clear, eg.: “Let the dead bury their own dead…” (Lk. 9:60).
For Paul, being single best served the gospel (1 Cor. 7:1-9; 32-38). He made concessions for the sake of satisfaction of sexual desire (7:9), but they were only concessions, not blessings. Paul knew the rigors of the radical call of the gospel and believed they were best served with few concerns for “the affairs of the world” (7:33,34).
Not only did family lose pride of place in the Greek Testament, so did Hebrew law. Baptism replaced circumcision as the defining act of membership in the children of God, thus enfranchising both foreigners (the nations, Greeks) and women. Food that was an “abomination” to the ancient people was offered to Peter on a sheet to signify that the old Hebrew boundaries needed to give way to the new community in the Spirit (Acts 10). And a eunuch is brought into the “assembly” after all (this was forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1 but reversed in Isaiah 56:4,5), now by way of baptism (Acts 8:26-40). In the Greek Testament, Hebrew family and law may continue to exist, but they are no longer the defining institutions. Rather it is the community of the Spirit of Christ celebrated in a baptism which particularly rejoiced in the breaking down of old divisions: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28).
In the broad scope of creation, sin, and redemption, it would not be too much to say that Christ’s redemption results in a new social paradigm and metaphor, that of the body of Christ or community of the spirit. This replaces the ancient sexual/familial pattern of marital patriarchy as the central definition of human relations in the character of God, now known in Jesus Christ.
The Greek texts that directly address same-sex sexual intercourse
In his first chapter of Romans, Paul is arguing for the universality of the gospel. All people may know God through God’s creation (1:20). So nowhere does wickedness have an excuse. People could have honored God. But they did not and became “futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened” (1:21). “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images”… (1:23). “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity”… (1:24) “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions”… (1:26). These degrading passions included same-sex intercourse. The people incurred a penalty “in their own persons” for it. And furthermore “They were filled with every kind of wickedness”… (1:29).
Here is the only place in the Bible where female same-sex sexual attraction is explicitly addressed. Male or female, the reason people turned to such practices is because they did not acknowledge God. As one commentator puts it “What [Paul] discusses here is same-sex practices which are both idolatrous and lustful.” Paul clearly considers this same-sex sexual attraction to be a leading example of the peoples’ idolatry.
I Corinthians 6:9, I Timothy 1:10
In I Corinthians, the Greek words in question are “malakoi” and “arsenokoitais,” both rendered “sexual perverts” in the RSV and “male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites” (arsenokoitais) in the NRSV. The context is Paul’s rebuke of the people for taking their disputes outside the church to settle them. He calls this “wrong” (6:8) and then proceeds to list other wrongs which will keep people from inheriting the kingdom of God: fornication, idolatry, adultery, male prostitution, sodomy, thievery, greed, drunkenness, reviling, robbing.
“Arsenokoitais” is the word used in I Timothy, translated “sodomites” in the RSV and NRSV. The context is that some people, desiring to be teachers of the law (vs. 7), have pursued “speculations” (vs. 4). Possibly this was a Jewish gnosticism which would promote an elaborate, speculative cosmology over against a practical faith. Against this, the writer argues that instruction in law is good if its goal is “love” (vs. 5). The law can support acceptable social behavior. A list of vices, shared by pagan, Jewish, and Christian writers, is included to illustrate wrong behavior. This list includes “sodomites.” (NRSV)
Summary of the eight passages
All eight of these Biblical passages condemn the same-sex sexual attraction to which they address themselves. In the Hebrew Testament, two passages concern rape. One refers to cultic prostitution. One passage is a general prohibition, as part of the holiness code. In this passage same term is used to reject same-sex sexual attraction and unclean animals. In the Greek Testament, all direct references occur in Paul’s letters, none in the gospels. In Romans, Paul considers homosexulity a result of idolatry. In other places, it is a part of a list of vices. It is not discussed, but only listed.
What would Paul do if….?
Paul’s writings will raise the question of the acceptability of same-sex sexual attraction most forcefully for Mennonites, who have high regard for the priority of the Greek Testament over the Hebrew Testament (although we have also tended to give the gospels, especially the sermon on the mount, priority even over Paul, if not formally, then in practical usage).
So regarding Paul, and as another way of framing the question, I think it is interesting to ask: “What if Paul knew of a same-sex couple who was apparently of the Spirit of Christ in their every intent and commitment? As I stated at the beginning of the study, this is my experience. So I wonder, how would Paul have responded?
First of all, it is possible that Paul would consider same-sex sexual attraction a moral defect in an otherwise Spirit-filled person. In that case I think he would argue that the person should abstain from sexual intercourse.
Or, secondly, as with eating meat fed to idols, he might consider it not intrinsically immoral, but as potentially dangerous to the life of the community. The issue of meat was a question of cultic law. Same-sex sexual attraction, while not only that, was perhaps partly that. If it was like meat fed to idols to the extent that if it was not clearly a moral defect, it would be morally debatable and would have to be debated on grounds of what sustains and what endangers community. In this case, seeing a person with same-sex sexual attraction and also Spirit-filled, he might not consider same-sex sexual attraction a moral defect but rather a hard to understand expression of nature. He may have counseled forms of restraint or some accommodations.
He might then proceed by discerning what is best for the community. Here he would have at least two choices.
1) He could conclude that same-sex intercourse is dangerous in a given community in light of various pastoral and mission concerns, just as he did with certain worship actions of women (eg. 1 Cor. 14:34). In this case, he would again argue for abstinence.
2) Or, it is possible he would articulate a covenant in which people sexually attracted to their same-sex could properly enjoy sexual intercourse. This would be a concession for same-sex intercourse, just like the one Paul gave for heterosexual intercourse, which he thought was a detraction from full concentration on the promotion of the gospel.
3) I think it would have been outside of Paul’s ethical framework to simply affirm joyful sexual union, as we do for opposite-sex marriage (union) (and might for same-sex union). His understanding of the urgent time in which he lived would not permit what to him seemed to be the distraction of any sexual union.
A biblical basis for loving same-sex genital relations
In a proper reading of the Bible regarding a particular issue, I think it is important to address carefully any direct references to the issue, however marginal or infrequent they may be. The eight verses examined above do not constitute a major argument or direction in the Bible – they are only eight verses. But they do clearly offer windows into the Biblical writers background attitudes to same-sex genital intercourse.
But what about a broader reading of the Bible? What is the “direction of the text” or the “sense of the whole?” Such a re-reading of the text should be familiar to Mennonites who have had to defend their rejection of violence against the panoply of violence in the Hebrew Testament, making arguments of the priority of the life of Jesus and the evidence of the first church.
Reading the Bible
First some general notes on reading the Bible. One question is how to give the Bible authority in our lives. Often, people have attempted to shore up Biblical authority by making assertions about the nature of the text – that it is inerrant, inspired, etc. Some of these approach the common orthodox view of the Koran – that it is of divine origin passed untouched through human vessels. Better than making assertions of this sort about the Bible, I think that we honor and experience the authority of the Bible when we care for what it says. We demonstrate our care by the amount and quality of attention that we give to the Biblical text. Amount of attention means taking time to read the text and thereby to know its content. Quality of attention is defined by how free we are to let the text speak to us in its own terms, how much we are aware of our own context (bias), and how much we are willing to put forth effort in our reading. Simplistic “it’s obvious” readings do not strengthen Biblical authority. Neither des overly complicated scholarly sophistication that at the end of a large pile of words seems to have forced a meaning onto the text. Simple, winsome readings that resonate with the authority of the Spirit of Christ are the proper goal of good interpretation.
Another consideration is that of experience. The “three-legged stool” of authority in the Roman church was scripture, tradition, and reason. To this, John Wesley added a fourth – experience – thus defining the Methodist quadrilateral. Mennonites have tended to plead that we are only Biblical, offering ourselves only a one-legged stool (which certainly keeps you awake, but isn’t very stable). But I want to apply the fourth “lateral” of Wesley to the question at hand. Regarding same-sex sexually attracted persons, as has been also the case of divorce and remarriage and leadership by women, experience is a critical question, I think.
I would argue that experience is always a guide to Biblical interpretation. There have been no Bible readers anywhere, ever, that have not brought their own bias, based on experience, to the Bible. Some students will freely acknowledge this and factor their bias into their consideration of “Biblical truth.” Others make a claim to having absolute, heaven-sent, word-for-all-times-and-places truth. I think such a claim is completely unsupportable. It looks and sounds solid and important. In fact, it amounts to nothing more than pleading for a bias, because of a desire for certainty or to support a desired social requirement. In all human endeavors, whether religion, politics, or science, there is this reductionist impulse: “Let us discover an unarguable truth that needs no further discussion.” I do not think human beings are granted access to any such truth. Instead, we are invited to bring all of ourselves – our experience – to the table. And then we may struggle to craft a community of understanding out of that meeting.
Regarding same-sex sexual attraction, then, I think we need to speak in a self-disclosing manner from our own experience of sexuality and from our relationships with others. If our only experience of same-sex sexual attraction is of the chaotic, libidinous extremes that fit well into our sensationalism-addicted media environment, then the Biblical connection between “their senseless minds were darkened” (Romans 1:21) and same-sex sexual attraction makes sense. Or if the only gay or lesbian folks that we know personally are manipulative whiners or “poor souls” or angry cynics, then it will be more difficult to see a challenge to the Biblical understanding (although those conditions may make some sense in the midst of a society that is full of hateful speech and behavior toward gay and lesbian people). But if we know people who seem to be wonderful, creative, constructive people who explicitly want to live Christ-like lives and at the same time are lesbian or gay in sexual orientation, then a clear challenge is posed. The Biblical prohibitions don’t seem to fit this experience. Experience here stands in tension with the text.
What I bring to the study of same-sex sexual attraction, among other things, is the experience of gay and lesbian friends who seem to me to be as a good or better candidates as many others to be faithful bearers of Christ’s witness in the world. Their sexual lives are characterized by emotional and relational health. They are contributors to church and society. They are people I want to know and whom I want my children to know. I want to experience their presence and gifts in my community.
This experience, then, stands as a fundamental challenge to the Biblical rejection of same-sex sexual attraction as outlined in the eight texts examined above. I do not see my friends sexual experience reflected in those eight passages. Rather, my mind’s eye turns to such passages as Galatians 3:28 (In Christ there is neither male nor female….); Ephesians 2:11-19 (you who were far off are brought near); Luke 10:29-37 (the good Samaritan) and so on. In other words, I think that the Bible moves in a direction which opens the experience of Christ to all people in ways that reject many old definitions.
And furthermore (and this is critical), the Bible does not reflect the completion of that task in the church. What Christ begins, the church continues. The church is in its infancy in the books that comprise the New Testament witness about the church. It is only beginning to form. The reason we have the books that we do in the Bible is that they were close to the source, close to Jesus Christ and the first followers of Jesus Christ. But it was not the end; rather it was the beginning. It is the foundational and first word of our tradition, but not the total word. For that, we must look to our daily lives as we seek to live out the Word in our communities and relationships today.
In our day, in our turn as members of this movement called the church, we ask ourselves how we may live in the same Spirit as the early church. What will we reject and accept? Which old barriers are false? What is harmful in our day? Who do we want to embrace as bearers of the Spirit of Christ in the world today?
1) It is possible to interpret “be fruitful and multiply” in a more general sense, but this does not seem to me to be the sense of the text
2) Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation commentary) p.47
3) One example of this is the legal protection of widows and orphans, who were economically marginalized without family, and therefore required special care.
4) This story is a particularly terrifying account of the place of women in that society. Lot offers the rapacious men a true prize, two virgin daughters. That he offers them, even in their prized virginity, is a sign of his hospitality to his guests. But it is also a sign that the daughters, although prized, were subordinate and could be countenanced by Lot as “bargaining chips.” Phyllis Trible discusses both this and the story in Judges 19 in her book Texts of Terror.
5) Usually the reference is to the sin of “Sodom and Gomorrah.” These were apparently twin cities of the region.
6) Brown, Driver, Briggs, p. 1072
7) Ronald E. Clements. Deuteronomy in New Interpreter’s Bible, p. 462
8) Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66 (Old Testament Library), p. 313 makes this connection. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says that eunuchs “shall not be cut off”, if they keep God’s commands, whereas this was the law in Deut. 23:1.
9) See Walter Wink’s discussion of Jesus’ challenge to what Wink calls “The Domination System”, including the domination by patriarchy in families – The powers that be, pp. 75ff.
10) See bibliography: England, p. 32
11) See Markus Barth’s discussion of “catalogical parenesis” or “exhortation by catalog”, in Anchor Bible “Ephesians 4-6, pp. 550ff.
12) Harper’s Comment. p. 1238
13) Harper’s Comment. p. 1238