Ted Grimsrud—May 26, 2013
This final part will focus on the main reason many Christians offer for rejecting gay marriage—the belief that the Bible commands against it (that is, that the Bible commands against “homosexual practice” [sexual intercourse], which certainly means marriage is out of the question). The argument I develop in this series of posts proposes that the biblical call to hospitality (part one on hospitality is here) and the positive value we place on marriage (part two on marriage is here) should make us start with the benefit of the doubt in favor of embracing gay marriage—unless we have some overriding evidence that requires us to overcome that benefit of the doubt.
In much of the literature and in most discussions of which I have been part, the basis for arguing against gay marriage is the belief that the Bible does provide clear teaching against “homosexual practice.” This teaching requires Christians to overcome this benefit of the doubt in favor of welcome. Maybe we should be welcoming in general, they may say, but we also must stand against sin (“welcome the sinner but require that the sin be left behind”). And the Bible teaches that “homosexual practice” is sinful. So, I will here examine the biblical teaching to discern whether this belief about the Bible being against “homosexual practice” is well founded.
First, let me suggest that it is not merely semantic nitpicking to note that the Bible does not contain the word “homosexual” (in spite of misleading English translations over the generations). The word is not in the Bible, in part, because the word and what the word conveys (“homosexuality” as an identity, as a way of being, where one’s fundamental affectional attraction is toward people of one’s own sex) are modern notions. In fact, this word is not used in English until 1892. Ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek simply did not have words that mean the same as “homosexual.”
The few places in the Bible that allude to problematic sexual behavior between people of the same sex focus on the behavior, not on the sexual identity of the people involved. Even though many on the restrictive side in relation to gay marriage try to reflect the Bible’s focus on behavior by use of the term “homosexual practice” instead of “homosexuality” or “homosexual identity,” the use of “practice” in the singular still imposes a modern notion of sexuality on the Bible.
“Homosexual practice” implies that there is only one issue at stake, there is only one “practice” common to all “homosexual” people. What matters, then, is that the people involved are “homosexual,” not what the specific “practice” might be. As a consequence, in this view, we do not actually need to pay much attention to the specific issues that are being spoken to in each of the biblical texts that are cited to support the claim that “homosexual practice” is sinful. The point is not to try to understand the particular context of each text in order to understand what kind of practice is being addressed. All we need to know is that the text refers to “homosexual practice”—that’s enough to support the proscription of all possible same-sex intimate relationships.
If we are going to be accurate in reading the Bible, though, we need to try to play close attention to its own way of presenting themes and be careful about imposing modern concepts on the biblical materials. Specifically, in relation to gay marriage and the question whether we have clear evidence from the Bible that proves that the same-sexness itself of same-sex marriage is wrong, we should not start with the modern category of “homosexuality” as if it applies to each and every text with the sense that the Bible only speaks of “homosexual practice” rather than speaks of different types of behavior.
My starting point in considering direct teaching in the Bible about sexual practices that involve people of the same sex is that we need to recognize that the Bible (and Christian tradition) acknowledges a variety of “heterosexual practices”—some considered morally appropriate and some considered morally inappropriate. The existence of the inappropriate heterosexual practices does not invalidate the appropriate practices. We don’t assume a single “heterosexual practice” that encompasses all instances of opposite-sex sexual intimacy.
I suggest we think similarly about “homosexual” sexual intimacy. We should recognize that there are a variety of “practices” and not think one “homosexual practice” encompasses all instances of same-sex sexual intimacy. That is, we should not impose a kind of double standard where we accept distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate sexual practices for straight people but not for gays.
Here’s a short list of some sexual practices—both morally appropriate and morally inappropriate:
(1) Sex within marriage
(2) Affection in dating and courtship
(3) Affection in friendship
(4) Intercourse before marriage
(5) Casual intercourse
(8) Coerced sex
Christians affirm sexual intimacy for heterosexuals in the context of marriage, and also affirm limited intimacy in the context of dating and courtship (#1-2). We also affirm affection in friendship (#3). Traditionally, Christians also believe that sexual intimacy of the type in the list below the line (#4-9) is not morally appropriate. So some “practices” are good, some are immoral.
How would we think about this list in relation to same-sex intimacy? We could agree that all behavior below the line (#4-9) is immoral in same-sex contexts just as it is in opposite-sex contexts. We would probably also agree that affection in friendship between people of the same sex is morally appropriate.
The debate concerns the top two “practices” for gays (#1-2). People on the restrictive side and people on the inclusive side could agree that we should have some kind of line that differentiates between sexual practices that are morally appropriate and those that are not. And we could agree on where that line should fall in relation to “heterosexual practices.” So the issue need not be a debate about whether sexual behavior should not be evaluated morally or whether we can have such a line differentiating moral from immoral sexual practices.
Rather, the issue seems to be more whether we should have the same kind of line, even perhaps at the same place, for “homosexual practices” that we have for “heterosexual practices.” If we are to have a double standard, where we use such a line for “heterosexual practices” but have no line for “homosexuals” but instead say all possible “homosexual practices” are sinful and to be rejected, what is our basis for doing so? And, remember, according to my argument in parts one and two, the evidence for such a stance has to be pretty strong in order to overcome the benefit of the doubt in favor of hospitality and in favor of extending the benefits of marriage to gay people.
I suggest that by far the main rationale people on the restrictive side give for affirming the need to have such a double standard is that this is what the Bible teaches. So, what do we learn from the Bible when we look at it closely? Since there are actually only a small handful of texts that usually are referred to in talking about “homosexual practice,” we can examine them one by one.
Old Testament texts
Genesis and Judges. Genesis 18-19 contain two contrasting accounts of hospitality. First we have the story of Abraham’s exemplary hospitality when he entertains visitors from heaven. Then, these visitors goes to Sodom and Gomorrah and are egregiously mistreated, inhospitality per excellence.
It seems that the main point of the story of Sodom is its contrast with the exemplary characteristics of Abraham, not to underscore as an end in itself the point of the sinfulness of the heathen. Abraham is the father of his people and is presented here as a model for their behavior, too: hospitality in contrast to the inhospitality. The story portrays the Sodomites’ injustice as their brutal inhospitality. Abraham, in the first part of Genesis 18, shows how hospitality was supposed to be practiced.
Every single man in the city (19:4) sought to have sex with the visitors—that is, gang rape. The sin here is a social sin, characterizing the entire city. Several of the men of Sodom were Lot’s prospective sons-in-law (19:12-14), implying that while “every man” might have been intent on raping the visitors, not “every man” was “homosexual.” The issue is domination over vulnerable outsiders, not same-sex sexuality.
Interpreting Genesis 18-19 as focusing on hospitality finds support from Judges 19. In both passages, the cities are each utterly inhospitable with the exception in each case of a single resident alien, both hosts’ houses are surrounded by a mob from the city who want to humiliate through gang-rape the guest(s), and both hosts both offer virgin daughters to the mob.
A crucial difference between the two stories, though, supports interpreting the concern in these stories as gang rape, not same-sex sexuality. In the Judges story, the mob relents when they are given the guest’s concubine to gang rape. To ravage the man’s woman had the desired effect of emasculating the male guest; the concern was domination, not same-sex sex.
These two stories, when read together, reinforce the centrality of the call to hospitality. Abraham’s model of faithfulness contrasts not only with the heathen Sodomites but also with the unfaithful Israelites in Judges 19. The negative example of Israelite inhospitality is meant to reinforce the centrality of hospitality for people who would be faithful. There is nothing here that supports inhospitality toward people such as Ilse and Jennifer.
Leviticus. Leviticus 17–26 is called the “Holiness Code.” This section sketches what should distinguish Israel as God’s holy nation. This call to be “holy” (that is, distinct from the nations and embodying God’s will for shalom) provides the context for considering the verses that specifically speak of sexual practices in chapter eighteen.
Two underlying issues motivate legislation concerning sexual practices: (1) the need to differentiate Israel’s way of life from that of the Canaanites and (2) concern about procreation. Leviticus 18 begins by asserting that the Israelites “shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan” (18:3). The practices forbidden in Leviticus eighteen (many reiterated in chapter twenty) are forbidden primarily because they are seen as characteristic of the peoples from whom the Israelites must differentiate themselves.
The Israelites also must “be fruitful and multiply” in order to continue as a distinct community. In the immediate context that refers to same-sex behavior in 18:19-23, each of the prohibitions has to do with “wasted seed”—mostly sexual practices that cannot produce children or at least not in a socially approved way, including sex during menstruation, adultery, male/male sex, and bestiality. The one exception, child sacrifice, is also a form of “wasted seed.”
The prohibition of “a man lying with another man as with a woman” does seem clear on the surface—two men should not have sex together. But we have no explanation of this prohibition. It’s simply listed along with the others. So we need to figure out from the context what likely was in mind.
The main reasons for the prohibition of male/male sex in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 seem specific to the book’s setting, not a general rejection of homosexuality (for one thing, they only apply to men). Certainly Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 clearly condemn some sort of male/male sex. However, in the absence of a clear universalizable basis for such a condemnation, we cannot conclude very much from what is a pretty cryptic reference.
The most we can say is that two men are not be have sex when such sex is linked with pagan religious rituals (which it may have been among Israel’s neighbors) and when such sex inhibits the production of legitimate children. Perhaps we could also see part of the problem being that such sex was likely always adulterous since all men would have been married to women.
Also, Christians understand Jesus’ message to be our core ethical source. In seeking to understand and apply Leviticus’ teaching for Christian ethics, the elements that connect most closely to Jesus matter most (in particular, Leviticus 19’s call to “love your neighbor”—which Jesus himself quotes). Leviticus contains numerous other cryptic commands that are no longer applied to Christians (e.g., no tattoos, no wearing clothes with mixed fabrics, no sex during menstruation, no eating shellfish, no masturbation). So, simply the presence of a single cryptic command in Leviticus is not sufficient to provide a timeless norm for all times.
It is also interesting that this is the only place in the entire Bible where we find a direct command to covenant people not to engage in same-sex intercourse. So, contrary to the widespread assumption that the Bible clearly and often commands against God’s people being in same-sex intimate relationships, all we have are these two cryptic commands in Leviticus eighteen and twenty.
New Testament texts
Romans. Paul makes negative allusions to homosexual behavior in Romans one, but we should try to understand the context for those references in order to apply their teaching. The first three chapters of Romans are concerned with the human problem and its solution in Jesus. Paul argues first that human beings outside the covenant live lives of deep-seated injustice, deserving of God’s wrath (1:18-32). However, those people of the covenant who vigorously condemn the injustices of the outsiders while ignoring their own also deserve God’s wrath (2:1–3:8). Adding these two statements together leads to the inevitable conclusion, all people fall equally short of God’s justice (3:9-20). Paul’s punch line, though, comes beginning in 3:21. God’s mercy prevails—as revealed in Jesus.
The discussion of wrongdoing in 1:18-32 makes two points. First, readers are set up for what follows in Romans 2—the critique of religiosity. Second, this critique leads to Paul’s punch line: God’s unconditional mercy is revealed in Jesus apart from such religiosity. Paul assumes that human beings are inherently creatures oriented toward worship. Should we worship idols, we will find ourselves on a downward spiral. We will move toward ever-increasing injustice and slavery to our lusts that render us less than human. Idolaters lose self-control—even to the point of women giving up “natural” self-control for unbridled lust and men being consumed by passion for other men (1:26-27). The injustice finds a variety of expressions beyond oppressive sexuality; 1:29-31 lists twenty examples of unjust behavior characteristic of people who choose idolatry and ungodliness over genuine worship in the God of creation.
This passage does not seek negatively to analyze pagan sexuality in order to provide regulations for Christian sexuality. Paul does not write Romans one as a constructive statement on Christian sexual ethics. Rather, Paul sets his readers up for what follows in chapter two. When you pass judgment on such terrible sinners, “you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things.” Paul does not set out here to make pronouncements that directly speak to 21st-century questions about the moral legitimacy of a relationship such as Jennifer and Ilse’s.
Paul’s concern in 1:18–3:20 is to critique judgmentalism, not to foster it. The example Paul gives of the consequences of pagan idolatry focuses on injustice, people hurting other people, not on covenanted, loving, mutual partnerships. The type of sexual activity associated with injustice and with obsessive lust seems to be what Paul had in mind—not condemning all possible same-sex intimacy as sinful.
1 Corinthians. With 1 Corinthians six, we should also look at the allusions to same-sex sexual activity in the wider context of the passage. Chapter six begins with mention of some people in the Corinthian church taking legal action toward others in the church. Paul’s anger stems from the church not taking care of its own conflicts internally. The Corinthian Christians rely on “unbelievers” to settle their disputes. Paul refers to the courts of the unbelievers as unjust. When the Corinthians Christians take one another to court, they declare primary allegiance to the pagan culture of Corinth rather than to the community of faith. Paul writes in 6:9 that unjust non-Christians will not inherit the kingdom of God. The Corinthian Christians imitate such unjust unbelievers when they act unjustly in similar way (6:8).
So, when Paul comes to the list of characteristics of the unjust people who will not inherit the kingdom of God he does not have sexuality on his mind. Rather, he chastises the Corinthian Christians for taking each other to “secular” courts, using unjust nonbelievers to buttress their own injustice. In 6:9-10, Paul drives home his view that Christians should not trust their disputes to unjust outsiders. The items in the list of 6:9-10 illustrate what the Corinthians used to be prior to their coming into the church. They used to be unjust, and now they have changed due to Christ (6:11). In light of this transformation, they ought to stop acting like unjust people using the courts to settle their property disputes in favor the powerful within the church.
As with Romans one, then, the central concern of 1 Corinthians 6 has to do with justice and injustice—and Paul uses the example of the injustice of “pagans” to challenge his Christian readers to faithfulness. He simply does not, in either place, focus on constructive ethical guidelines for sexuality, and even less does he center his concern on condemning all possible same-sex intimate partnerships as sinful for Christians. In Paul’s list of injustices characteristic of pagan judges, he does not describe how any of these different examples are problematic. Since the general context here is injustice, even if a couple of the words have sexual connotations, they most likely they connote sex of an unjust and exploitative type.
If we refer back to our list, we will actually notice that the types of “homosexual practices” alluded to in these texts all fit below our line differentiating heterosexual practices that are morally appropriate from those that are not. These texts refer to “practices” that would also be wrong for heterosexuals: Genesis nineteen refers to coercive sex (#8), Leviticus eighteen and twenty refer to casual sex (#5) and adultery (#7), Romans one refers to promiscuity (#6), and 1 Corinthians six refers to prostitution (#9).
Just as the existence of heterosexual practices that are immoral does not render all heterosexual practices immoral, the existence of some immoral homosexual practices in the Bible should not lead us to see all homosexual practices as immoral. I would suggest that the sexual intimacy in a relationship such as Ilse and Jennifer’s is as likely to be morally valid as that in any healthy heterosexual marriage.
I believe that the Bible, especially the message of Jesus, calls the churches to welcome and hospitality. This call inclines Christians to be inclusive with regard to gay and lesbian, with the implication that the churches apply the same moral standards concerning intimate relationships to same-sex partnerships as they do to opposite-sex partnerships.