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What Does the Bible Say About Same-Sex Relations?

Ken Howard | OnFaith Voices

I have a very high view of the inspiration of Scripture, yet favor the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the Church.

Let me first say that I am a Jewish-Christian: a Jewish person who became a follower of Jesus Christ, yet still lays claim to his identity as a one of the children of Israel. I came to faith in Jesus Christ because I became convinced of the truth of the Scriptures and his fulfillment of that truth. I do not take Scripture lightly.

A look at the Midrash approach

Partly because of my Jewish background and more importantly because I take Scripture so seriously, when it comes to studying the Bible, I favor the ancient Jewish method of analysis and interpretation known as Midrash. Midrash begins with a literal reading of the text, paying close attention to passages that might appear to be contradictory.

Rather than trying to prove that these are not contradictions (the typical conservative approach) or using them as an excuse to discount the authority of the passage (the typical liberal approach), Midrash recognizes the apparent contradiction on the presumption that God caused them to be placed in the text when He moved the ancient writers to record.

In other words, it sees them not as true contradictions, but as paradoxes — and so seeks to understand and interpret them in that way.

Taking a Christ-centered approach

My theological approach to Christianity is neither conservative nor liberal, but what I call Incarnational. A simple explanation of this approach? It always asks the question, “If Christ, then what?”

It’s an unavoidably Christ-centered approach to Scripture, which takes most literally and seriously of all the words of Christ, using the Truth that is Jesus Christ, revealed in the Gospels, as the lens through which to view the entirety of the rest of the Bible. It is an unavoidably inclusive way of looking at Christian community and Christian unity, because Jesus’ way of being was unmistakably inclusive.

He sought and associated himself with all sorts of unclean and outcast people — tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes, the unclean, and Gentiles both male and female — apparently without any prejudgment and occasionally with statements of praise for their faith in him.

Perhaps Jesus’ most straightforward statement of the inclusiveness of his purpose is found in his assertion, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32, cf. Luke 3:6). Similarly, radical inclusion based on Christ’s love was central to the teaching and practice of Paul and other Apostles — and was integral to early Christian communities.

When using a Christ-centered approach, it’s important that Jesus was silent on the issue of gay and lesbian sexual activity. He says nothing about same-sex attraction or behavior — whether in favor of or opposed to it. Yet Jesus does address sexual immorality, which demonstrates that he did not avoid teaching about sexual or moral issues.

From his silence on same-sex relations, we can draw the following conclusions (in decreasing likelihood): Jesus did not consider it a sin; Jesus did not consider it a significant sin (more like a minor infraction); Jesus did consider it a significant sin, but neglected to mention it; or Jesus did consider it a significant sin, and said so, but the Gospel writers omitted it.

Inclusion should be our default

In his parables, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that humans are singularly poor judges not only of the state of other people’s relationships with God, but also of our own (Matthew 25:31-46). Because of this shortcoming, we are warned against trying to sort out who is for God and who is against, leaving that discernment to God (Matthew 13:18-33), and contenting ourselves with fulfilling God’s Law by obeying His two most challenging commandments: to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28).

Therefore, when the question presented for biblical analysis is the inclusion or exclusion of any group, the default position must be inclusion unless a clear, convincing, and indisputable biblical case (rooted in and consistent with our understanding of Jesus Christ) can be demonstrated. The burden of proof lies on those who would exclude rather than those who would include.

So we begin by examining the biblical case for exclusion of gay and lesbian people from full participation in the life of the Church.

Most biblical authorities would agree that the biblical case for the exclusion of gay and lesbian people rests on the following texts:

  •  Genesis 19 (The story of Sodom and Gomorrah)
  •  Judges 19:14-29 (The story of Gibeah)
  •  Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (“. it is an abomination.”)
  •  Romans 1 (“. God has given them up to vile affections, [including]. ”)
  •  1 Corinthians 6 (“. the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God, [including]. ”)
  •  1 Timothy 1 (“the lawless and the disobedient. [including]”)

When we analyze Scripture in light of context and we question mistranslations for more accurate word meanings, the six passages that are traditionally read as condemning same-sex relations provide a more inclusive reading. Consider an interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

“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.”

(Leviticus 20:13)

A look at historical-cultural and Scriptural contexts

Reading these verses for the first time, without the context of the surrounding verses, one could certainly read them as straightforward condemnations of same-sex sexual activity. However, examining Leviticus 18:22 in the context of the entirety of chapter 18, reveals several indications that what is condemned in the verse is not same-sex sexual activity.

When we consider the historical-cultural and Scriptural contexts of the passages, the connotations seem quite different. The historical-cultural context makes it clear that a major thrust of the teaching found in Leviticus is meant to dissuade the Israelites from adopting pagan practices of the people among whom they lived. The Scriptural context also makes this clear.

It seems clear that the abomination described in Leviticus 18:22 is not same-sex sexual relations, per se, or even male-male sexual relations, but a sexual form of worship of false gods. Within the context of Leviticus 18, this seems to be literally a prohibition against a male Israelite participating in anal sex with a temple prostitute as the penetrator. What is condemned here, then, is not same-sex activity, per se, but sexual activity applied to the worship of pagan gods — of which all forms of worship, sexual or otherwise, are forbidden.

Translations that do suggest Leviticus 18:22 is a condemnation of homosexuality (e.g. The Living Bible — “Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin”) or homosexual activity (e.g. The New Living Translation — “Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin”) are literally incorrect.

A look at the biblical precedent

We can also gain insight into same-sex prohibitions from other Bible passages regarding prohibitions. Divine commandments found in the Hebrew Scriptures take one of two forms: apodictic or casuistic.

Apodictic commands, such as the Ten Commandments, are limited in number, but absolute and general in scope, applying to all people in all situations for all time. Casuistic commands, on the other hand, are contextual and case-specific, applying to some groups of people, in some situations, or for a limited time, but appear in the Scripture in greater numbers. The Levitical “Holiness Code” and rules for sacrifice are two of many examples.

When apodictic commands apply to both men and women, they are written in a form that is either gender-neutral (e.g. “You shall not kill”) or contains parallel prohibitions for males and females (e.g. nocturnal emissions make males ceremonially unclean, while menstrual flows make females ceremonially unclean).

If Leviticus 18:22 were intended as an apodictic command against all same-sex activity, by both sexes, for all time, it would have been constructed differently: either as a single, general command against all same-sex sexual activity (omitting the male-with-male reference), or including containing parallel prohibitions for both sexes (adding a prohibition against female-with-female sexual activity).

Reading this text literally and assuming it is a prohibition against same-sex sexual activity, we can only interpret this as prohibiting male-male sex, but permitting female-female sex. As this seems an unlikely interpretation, we must assume that it is not a prohibition against same-sex activity, per se, but against some other kind of activity, which happens to include a sexual component (this is where contextual analysis comes in).

Crushing our culturally-created expectations

There are many factors that color the way we interpret Scripture. Every unexamined assumption we bring to our examination of Scripture threatens to undermine our objectivity. Our cultural assumptions are perhaps the hardest to recognize. They become the unnoticed lenses through which we view everything. Sometimes they clarify our perceptions, but more often they distort them.

The Midrashic approach to the study of Scripture takes a more literal, yet paradoxical, approach, which forces us to question our assumptions. Equally important to obtaining a clearer vision of Scripture is being sure we are examining it through the right lens — and there is no better lens than the Gospels: specifically, the words and actions of our incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ.

When we begin our Scriptural study of the issue of gay and lesbian inclusion with Jesus, rather than in the laws of Leviticus or the letters of Paul, the view is quite different.

A mentor of mine once quipped that “whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, pretty soon they will try to figure out how to exclude a fourth.” The Church’s perennial problem is that it has more often than not placed the burden of argument on those currently excluded to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God wants them included.

Given the radical inclusiveness of Christ’s ministry, the burden of proof should rest on those who advocate exclusion. To put it plainly, Scriptural arguments against the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people fail to rise above a “reasonable doubt” threshold. They are based on a handful of texts from the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament — none of which are taken from the Gospels or the words of Jesus. Most are either mistranslated or taken out of context.

When examined in context and properly translated, a strong case can be made that none of them has to do with same-sex sexual relations, per se, but rather with offenses against God. This does not constitute a convincing argument for the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from full participation in the life of the Church.

Read the full-length piece at the author’s blog, Paradoxical Thoughts .

Image courtesy of Shutterstock. 

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.

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