For most evangelicals, the texts of Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy are pretty obvious in meaning in relation to homosexual sex:
Lev. 18:22: "You will not lie with a male as you bed with a woman--it is an abomination."
Lev. 20:13: "The man who lies with a male as with a woman--it is an abomination. Take the two, dying they will die. Their blood is upon them."
Romans 1:26-27: "For this reason, God handed them over to dishonorable passions, for even their females exchanged the natural use for the unnatural. And similarly, even the males, leaving the natural use of the female, burned in their desire toward one another--males with males doing that which is shameful and receiving among themselves the punishment which is required for their error."
1 Cor. 6:9: "Do you not know that ... nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai ... will inherit the kingdom of God."
1 Tim. 1:9-10: "Since we know this, that the law does not exist for the innocent but for the lawless: ... adulterers, arsenokoitai ..."
For most evangelicals, these verses seem very straightforward and seem to have a fairly obvious meaning: that the Bible consistently considers homosexual sex to be against God's will. It seems to me that this is the right interpretation. All these Scriptures refer to males having sex with males, and Romans 1 also refers to Lesbian relationships.
You might be surprised, however to learn of some of the interpretations, both scholarly and more popular, that have been advanced with alternative understandings. I wish to address these as fairly as I can in the next few posts. If we are right in our interpretation, as I believe we mostly are, then we have no reason to be defensive or to have a chip on our shoulder. And if we had turned out to be wrong, then we would have needed to accept that, right?
This latter truth is very revealing, I think. While I believe evangelicals have correctly understood these passages for the most part, I think that a lot of the emotion and anger associated with the issue belies a certain kind of culture that is independent of the issue. It is the same kind of emotion and anger that would ensue if I started arguing we shouldn't have American flags on the pulpits of our churches. It is a cultural package that has little to do with God. In this case it is mainly a coincidence that these cultural sentiments happen to coincide with the right biblical interpretation!
Sometimes when I am discussing my understanding of various passages on women in the New Testament, a person will bring up the bluff that my hermeneutic would lead us to accept homosexuality as well. Of course I disagree, as does William Webb in his recent book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuality. There are a number of significant differences between the two issues.
Yet this argument makes me smile. The process of determining points of continuity and discontinuity between the biblical world and our world is beyond reasonable doubt. IF that process implied that the Bible's teaching did not work its way out in our world on this issue the same way it did in their world, then the implication would not be that our hermeneutic was wrong. The implication would have to be that our position on homosexuality was wrong!
Argument 1: William Countryman: Impure, not Sinful
Countryman argued in his 1988 book, Dirt, Greed and Sex, that the Levitical holiness codes were about purity and impurity and that Paul no longer considered these dynamics to be in force.
This argument is often leveled at the use of Leviticus on this issue. So it is often pointed out that Leviticus 19, just one chapter over, says not to trim the edges of your beard (19:27) or wear clothing that mixes linen and cloth (19:19). Most Christians don't have problems with goatees or polyester. What gives?
Although I don't know if Countryman mentions this, but it also occurs to me that much of the clean/unclean legislation functions from a worldview where the things of the world belong in certain places and don't belong in others ("after its kind"). Blood belongs in not out. Eels don't have fins and are unclean. Snakes don't have legs and are unclean. Birds that don't fly just aren't right. Male parts go with female parts and so forth.
However, even if all of this is true, the fact remains that Paul considers all the sexual prohibitions of the OT to be in force. Paul doesn't require circumcision--wow! He doesn't require Gentiles to keep the Jewish sabbath--who knew!! But he retains with force all the sexual prohibitions of the OT. You might accuse him of inconsistency, but this is what he does.
It would be an incorrect reading of Paul to think that because he says we are not under law that the law is no longer relevant to Christian life. Quite the contrary. It is a Luther misunderstanding of Paul. Paul affirms a certain universal core of the law that he refers to in one place as "Christ's law." And the difference for him between before and after is more that we are able to keep this law after the Spirit arrives, while we were unable to before.
I'm not sure what Countryman does with 1 Corinthians 6:9 (I can imagine something like some of the options I will discuss subsequently). But if Paul refers to those who engage in homosexual relations (arsenokoitai), then he considers such habits enough to keep one out of the kingdom of God. That would undermine Countryman's whole argument.
Countryman's argument with regard to Romans 1 is that Paul is is strictly speaking of impurity rather than sinfulness, setting up a self-righteous Jew in chapter 2, and thus that Paul doesn't actually consider male-male relations in Romans 1 inappropriate. He is starting with where the audience is, as he often does, in order to modify their understanding. So he starts with their categories of clean and unclean and then moves to abolish the applicability of the categories.
1 Cor. 6:9 in itself would prevent this interpretation. Even so, it is very difficult to see how Paul can approve of something he puts in the category of "what happens when you don't acknowledge God as God and he hands you over to dishonorable passions." And why does Paul speak of "punishment"? With all respect to Countryman, I just don't think this argument works.
More to come...