Yesterday Jeff Siker, PhD in NT and editor of two books that discuss biblical/Christian views of homosexuality, started his summary and assessment of what the Bible has to say about same-sex relations, in light of the recent vote of the United Methodists not to welcome “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” in their churches. In that post he dealt with the salient passages in the Old Testament; today he moves to the controversial texts of the New Testament and ends with some insightful reflections on the relevance of the Bible for same-sex relations in the modern context.
- 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.”
This is typically seen as the most significant biblical passage that deals with same-sex relations. It includes both women and men. The larger context indicates that idolatry leads to a distortion of natural relationships. That Paul condemns what he knows of same-sex relations is clear. But this raises the question of what Paul understood in his context. Most scholars agree that Paul would have been aware of three same-sex practices found in pagan culture: pederasty (an older man with a prepubescent boy), prostitution (where a man sells himself to be the passive recipient in a same-sex act), and slave prostitution (where a slave-owner rents out his slaves for sexual acts). There is no evidence that Paul is aware of committed consensual same-sex relations between adults that is presumed in same-sex marriage today.
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
This passage is a vice-list that Paul employs to condemn what he sees as unethical behavior. It is a fairly generic list, but it includes two terms (“male prostitutes, sodomites”) that involve debated translations of two Greek words: malakoi and arsenokoitai. The first, malakoi, literally means “soft ones,” while the second term, arsenokoitai, literally means “male bedders.” What mattered in first century same-sex acts between men was who was in the active position and who was in the passive position. Thus, the translation difficulties for modern translators. While “male prostitutes” is arguably a good translation for malakoi, “sodomites” is arguably a poor translation for arsenokoitai, as it invokes the history and use of the word and its connection to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. In my view a better, if colloquial, translation of the two related terms would be something like: “male prostitutes and the men who hire their services.” Regardless, this passage illustrates that Paul does not envision committed same-sex relationships between adults. (Paying a prostitute for sex is not the same as living in a mutually committed relationship that includes far more than sex!) It is instructive to consult multiple translations to see the wide variety of ways that different versions construe the terms in question.
- 1 Timothy 1:9-10
“…the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God.”
This is another vice list, again employing the term arsenokoitai, which is rendered “sodomites” by the NRSV. The same problems arise here as with the same translation in 1 Cor 6:9.
What can one conclude on the basis of these six passages (three OT; three NT)? First, same-sex relations are clearly not a major topic of discussion in the Bible. The topic does not arise in any of the prophetic or wisdom literature of the Jewish scriptures, nor does it arise in any of the Gospels, or anywhere outside the letters of Paul. Second, however, it is also clear that same-sex relations are not condoned. Of course the next question revolves around what the Bible is referring to when the topic is mentioned. As best we can tell, the kind of same-sex relations that are condemned involve sexual violence (Gen 19), idolatry (Lev 18, 20; Rom 1), pederasty, and prostitution (Rom 1, 1 Cor 6, 1 Tim 1). But does the condemnation of some forms of same-sex relations necessitate the condemnation of all expressions of same-sex love? That’s the debate. Just because the Bible condemns adultery it does not follow that all heterosexual relationships are wrong. Nor is the Bible particularly consistent about sexual relations overall. Multiple wives? Concubines? Surrogate wives? Or celibacy as the gold standard? The Bible includes various understandings of sexual relations. It also presumes as normative a patriarchal and androcentric worldview that envisions women as inferior to men.
Third, it is important to note that the very term “homosexual” was not coined until the 19th century in German psychiatric literature. There was no conception of sexual orientation in the first century. Even in the 20th century we have seen a progression of terms to describe same-sex attraction, starting with “faggots” (because they will burn!), and moving to “sexual perverts,” then to the more middling “sexual preference” in the 1950’s and 60’s, and finally to “sexual orientation” in more recent times. The key issue has to do with choice. In the Romans 1 passage Paul clearly thinks that individuals perversely choose to go against natural sexual inclinations. But the language of “sexual orientation” implies that individuals do not choose a sexual orientation so much as they discover a given sexual orientation, whether that be heterosexual, homosexual, or somewhere on the scale. Ironically, using Paul’s logic, for a gay man to act like a gay man is actually living according to nature, not against nature.
Appealing to the Bible alone has thus proven to be tricky at best when trying to discern how to answer questions regarding same-sex relations as currently understood. Contextual readings of the Bible, and awareness of constructions of human sexuality in antiquity, have shown how problematic it is to simply cite Leviticus 18 or Romans 1 and say that the Bible condemns homosexuality. In an effort to make more sense of all this the church has historically appealed to tradition, reason, and experience, in addition to scripture. More conservative interpretations arise from a focus on tradition and scripture. More liberal interpretations arise from a focus on reason and experience. Hence the American Psychological Association deemed in the 1970’s that homosexuality was not a mental illness, but was a naturally occurring sexual orientation. What should the church do with such findings? Or what of how LGBT individuals describe their own self-understanding, especially those individuals who affirm both their faith and their LGBT identity as God-given?
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