Whenever I go on a journey there are three things I always have with me – wallet, phone and keys. Whether it’s walking the kids to school, driving across the country or flying to another part of the world I will always have these items. They each have a place in a pocket and when I check a pocket and discover one missing I start to panic. Typically, I have simply put the phone in my wallet pocket and there is no need for concern but there is a moment of uncertainty.
Considering things of faith and theology the thing I travel with is the Bible. I am a Bible believing Christian and the study of the scriptures is important to me. Over the years as I have studied the Bible I have come to understand certain teachings and passages in different ways. The words are the same but I have gained more knowledge about the context of when the words were first written, who they were written by, who they were written too and how the translation from ancient Hebrew and Greek is not a perfect science and so meanings can alter slightly in translation.
Some passages of the Bible are historical accounts whilst others are poetic; there are stories and family histories shared over the period of a few thousand years from the perspective of one tribe or nation. I believe the Bible to be inspired by God and that God continues to use the Bible to inspire. I don’t believe the Bible is a guidebook but I do believe that there are principles and values that tell us about the character of God and how God desires us to be in relationship with him and allow his character to shape our character.
When it comes to human sexuality the Bible has a significant amount to say. There however are just a handful of verses that make direct mention of homosexuality. Looking at the departure board with my Bible in hand this post seeks to go on a journey examining these passages with a view to further passages about human sexuality to follow in due course.
The Old Testament (The Hebrew Bible)
Genesis 19 provides an account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah which includes the verses “Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom – both young and old – surrounded the house.They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.’” (Genesis 19:4-5 NIV).
The term sodomy stems from this encounter as it is implied that the sin of Sodom was homosexual rape. The Old Testament however does not reference the sin of Sodom in this regard, referring instead to rebelling against God and not defending the oppressed, parading their sin, adultery, lying, apathy towards those in poverty, assisting criminals and arrogance. Within the New Testament there are a few references to the destruction of Sodom but it is only in Jude where it states says “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 1:7 NIV).
As I read these passages I have to consider the description of the sin. Gang rape (whether heterosexual or homosexual) is abhorrent. It stems from a place of perversion and is a selfish act on the part of the attackers seeking to over power and fulfil whatever desires they have without consideration of those whom they prey. The passage does not address loving relationships of equal kinship between two people of the same gender.
Leviticus 18 & 20
Leviticus is a book outlining the laws and instructions for the Israelites conducting themselves in the tabernacle and in the camp in which they lived. There are two verses that mention homosexuality:
‘“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22 NIV)
““If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” (Leviticus 20:13 NIV)
Here are pretty clear instructions within the Levitical law. It has been argued by some that Leviticus is out of date and other laws are no longer followed by Christian’s so these too are no longer important. Christian’s no longer follow the instructions “Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” (Leviticus 19:19 NIV). If we did follow this then the gardening I did this morning and the clothes I’m wearing cause me to be a sinner.
However, the verses surrounding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 discuss other aspects of sexual immorality which have not been discarded – such as men not having sexual relations with your daughter, your sister, your mother, your aunt or any animal. If each of these holds up then it is understandable that regardless of a loving context the Bible forbids men having sexual relations with men.
Further investigation leads to the language that it used in the verses. The text in Leviticus 20:13 actually prohibits sex between a man (‘ish’ in Hebrew) and a male (‘zachar’ in Hebrew). The distinction is important. In Ancient Greek culture (for example) it was common for men of particular social classes to engage in social and sexual activity with younger males. A reading of the Levitical verses with this in mind creates the plausibility of a prohibition or pederasty (sexual activity between a man and a boy) rather than a man and a man.
Bible scholars and theologians may disagree about whether these verses prohibit homosexually or not but I suspect all would agree pederasty is against the will of God.
The New Testament
Paul is the only writer in the New Testament to refer directly to homosexuality. Jesus is not recorded to make any comment, nor the original twelve disciples. Paul opens his letter saying that he is writing to all believers in Rome; both Jews and Gentiles (those who are not Jewish). He talks of being thankful for everyone (1:8) and a debtor to Greeks and non-Greeks (1:14). These opening verses express Paul’s concern for the whole world (not just one nation or group of people) and that the Gospel of Christ and God’s salvation is for all. Romans 1:18-32 focusses in on the gentile world and the reasons it is considered unrighteous – they knew God but did not glorify or give thanks to him. Those who abandon God, God allows to follow their own desires (however perverse they may be). It is in this context that Paul writes,
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” (Romans 1:26-27 NIV)
There is debate about the use of the word ‘Akatharsia’ which Paul uses in Romans 1:24 to describe uncleanness (KJV) or impurity (NIV) is commonly used in reference to describe shrine prostitution. This provides the argument that Paul was only writing about specific forms of homosexual practice and not loving, committed relationships. This line of reasoning can be upheld by the subsequent verses which say “they have no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (1:31). In the context of prostitution there is no love or fidelity however within a devoted relationship there is love and faithfulness.
Writing to believers in Corinth Paul says:
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NIV)
The original Greek includes two terms that mean that things are again not a clear cut as a first glance might suggest. The first word is μαλακός (malakós) for which the literal translation is ‘soft’ has been translated as ‘effeminate’ (KJV), ‘homosexuals’ (NKJV), ‘homosexual perverts’ (GNT) and ‘male prostitutes’ (NRSV). The second word ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoítēs) which is a compound word made up of arsen (meaning male) and koites (meaning bed). The literal meaning is not male-bed and is translated as ‘sodomites’ (NRSV/ NKJV), ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ (KJV). The pairing of the two terms leads some theologians to determine that Paul is referring to all kinds of homosexual relations as being a barrier to inheriting the Kingdom of God. However, there is enough uncertainty for others to determine that only homosexual relations that are abusive, involving prostitution or pederasty are deemed unacceptable by Paul and therefore God.
Either way the passage does not only talk about homosexuality. Heterosexual immorality, theft, greed and drunkenness are included and far less commotion is made by most believers and churches today.
Paul writes in his letter to Timothy,
“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practising homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.” (1 Timothy 1:8-10)
It appears clear yet again that (amongst a list of other sins including murder and liars) homosexuality is contrary to sound doctrine (beliefs). Paul uses the same word ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoítēs) and again different Bible translations use a variety of words ‘sodomites’ (NRSV/ NKJV), ‘them that defile themselves with mankind’ (KJV) and ‘sexual perverts’ (GNT).
Final Destination or Lay Over?
When I first looked at the departure board and wondered whether I was prepared to go on this particular journey I was coming from a place that said homosexuality was not biblically permitted and I was challenged by the injustice and persecution faced by those identifying as LGBTQIA by many identifying as Christian. As I conclude this part of the journey I can understand why people maintain this position but I am not convinced that the Bible can be used to make a blanket statement of acceptance or condemnation based solely upon these verses.
I am sure that debates and disagreements will carry on in circular fashion about whether the use of certain words and their potential meaning and implication permit any form of homosexual relations. The case is clear for sexual perversion, prostitution and pederasty – these should not be tolerated. Prejudice, rejection and persecution should also not be tolerated. We should mutually encourage and be encouraged by one another’s faith (Romans 1:11-12).