Sunday, March 13, 2016

ET17: The Bible prohibits homosexual sex and several other types of sexual act.

This is the seventeenth post on Christian ethics in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. The third set was on sacraments. This final section is on Christian ethics.
The Bible prohibits homosexual sex and several other types of sexual act.

1. Not only the secular world but many Christian denominations are currently experiencing upheavals in relation to the question of homosexuality. The cause of these upheavals is the tension between biblical and historical prohibitions of homosexual sex and an ever increasing number of people we know who have those desires. So the love of neighbor creates a sympathy for individuals who, if they follow the biblical prohibitions, will never be able to have sexual fulfillment in this life. Yet the love of God urges us to follow the prohibitions of Scripture and Christian history.

2. An important observation is that the Bible always has sexual activity in view in the seven relevant texts: a) Genesis 19:5, b) Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, c) Romans 1:24-27, d) 1 Corinthians 6:9, e) 1 Timothy 1:10, and f) Jude 7. None of these texts are talking about what we now call sexual "orientation" because our paradigms have only shifted to this way of thinking about the subject in the last hundred years or so. None of these texts address sexual desire apart from sexual acts. In every case, it is a sexual act that is condemned.

When we talk about a sexual orientation today, we are asking what gender attracts a person sexually. At present there is a tendency to think that a person will begin to have sexual attraction to one or the other sex as one enters puberty or before. Today, we call this a person's sexual "orientation." [1] In the majority of these individuals, this desire is experienced as a default. [2] That is to say, in most instances, the person did not make any decision to be attracted to a certain gender, nor can a person make him or herself become attracted to a different gender. [3]

The Bible does not address someone who is attracted to the same sex but never has sex with the same sex. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 speak specifically of the act. One of the terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 probably refers to the active person engaged in male homosexual sex, while 1 Corinthians 6:9 perhaps adds mention of a male in the passive role.

Romans 1:26 speaks of the "use" of a woman by a woman and a man similarly trading the "use" of the woman for a man. The context of exchanging "use" implies that "burning with desire" is talking about an act, not an orientation in 1:27. Similarly, that verse uses the verb, "working" indecency. Finally, in Genesis 19, it is an act that the men of Sodom want to commit.

In all seven passages, it is a homosexual sex act that is condemned.

The Bible thus has nothing to say about someone who has homosexual desires but who never expresses those desires in deed. We might extend Jesus' teaching on lust toward another man's wife in Matthew 5:28 to say that it is not God's will for a person to express their homo- or heterosexual desires in thought either. The power of the Holy Spirit can empower a person to discipline his or her thoughts before temptation becomes sin, whether one's desire is heterosexual or homosexual. Temptation is not yet sin. Sin of the sort with which God is concerned always involves a choice, mental or physical.

3. It is thus similarly anachronistic to think that the Sodom and Gomorrah story is about homosexuality as an orientation. It is about men wanting to have a sex act with the same sex. Any ancient reader would have assumed that these men had wives and children, that the act contemplated was a violent act of humiliation to an outsider, an act of sexual domination and rape.

The parallel story in Judges 19 illustrates this dynamic. An outsider comes to town, and the men want to rape him--a homosexual act of rape to humiliate the man (19:22). Instead, they rape the visitor's concubine to death. This fact shows that what is in play here is not a matter of homosexual desire, but the desire to humiliate and dominate an outsider. It is an act similar to what vulgar lore suggests may sometimes take place in prison.

Modern issues lead us to see Sodom and Gomorrah primarily in relation to sex acts, but it is worth noting that the treatment of an outsider was as much or more the concern of the biblical authors. When Isaiah compares Israel to Sodom, there is no mention of sexual acts, only of the way Israel is treating the orphan and widow (Isa. 1:10-17). Ezekiel 16:49 compares withholding help from the poor and needy to Sodom. The only sexual act Jeremiah 23:14 mentions in proximity to the mention of Sodom is adultery.

When Jesus mentions Sodom in Matthew 10:15, it is in the context of the disciples entering a town on mission and being rejected by that town. The parallel to the Sodom story is clear. The angels as the messengers of God entered Sodom and were violently rejected by the city. So if the disciples are rejected by a town, they should wipe the dust off their feet and move on. The sin of Sodom that Jesus focuses on is thus the sin of rejecting God's messengers.

As Westerners, we are prone to miss the importance that hospitality to strangers played as a core value of the ancient world (cf. Heb. 13:2). The myth of Baucis and Philemon illustrates the value, as a region rejects Zeus and Hermes in disguise. As a judgment, the gods destroy the region and reward the elderly couple that showed hospitality to strangers and outsiders by welcoming them into their home. [4]

The only clear place elsewhere in the Bible where the sex act of Sodom is in view is Jude 7. False teachers are said to "defile flesh in their dreaming and reject dominions and blaspheme glories" (Jude 8). This is a difficult text, since the relationship of the false teachers to the angelic realm is in view in the passage. Indeed, the act of the men of Sodom in Jude 7 is to "go after different flesh." Does this mean same sex, in which case it would be a reference to homosexual sex? Or, given the angelic context of both Jude and Genesis 19, does the verse refer to sex with angels in some way. [5]

4. It is difficult to know if any context other than same-sex was in view in Leviticus 18, 20, 1 Corinthians 6 or 1 Timothy 1. No such context is mentioned. The Greek word arsenokoites, used in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, looks like it could have been a word Greek-speaking Jews coined to refer to the male homosexual act mentioned in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. It is a combination of the Greek word for "male" and for "bed."

It has been plausibly suggested that it refers to a male engaging in the active role of male homosexual sex. Accordingly, the word malakos (literally, "soft"), also used in 1 Corinthians 6:9, might refer to someone who regularly serves in the passive role of male homosexual sex. The NIV1984 thus translated the word as "male prostitute." [6]

The simplest way to take these references is as a general condemnation of the male-male sex act.

5. We are thus left with Romans 1 as the crux interpretum, the key passage on this question in the Bible. Once again, if Paul had some specific context in view other than the act in general, it is not clear. He uses male-male and female-female sex as an example of a world where God has let ungodliness spiral out of control.

In the train of thought of Romans 1, Paul begins with a general statement of how the wrath of God is impending on human ungodliness (1:18). While Paul does not mention the Gentiles, a Jewish listener would have heard "Gentile sins" in Romans 1. Paul starts with idolatry as an example of the world turning its back on God. Then he moves to homosexual acts. Then he culminates the chapter with a list of all sorts of wickedness among humans, including greed, envy, deceit, gossiping, and arrogance.

He is building to the claim in 3:23 that all have sinned, that all will die as a consequence (6:23), and that all are in need of Christ (3:28-30). We should not think that any of these sins, then, are singled out. Paul's goal is both to indicate the universal human condition, while also setting up any Jew who might think that he or she has a pass simply because their sins are not as bad as the Gentiles or because they belong to God's people.

It would thus seem that Paul uses male-male and female-female sex as an illustration of the fallen human situation and of the ungodliness that has brought the wrath of God on humankind. [7]

6. Throughout Christian history, these seven references have been taken to condemn homosexual sex. This element of the equation--the position that the church has taken throughout history--is seen to be determinative by many Christians. Even though the passages are few and the context in some instances may not be entirely clear, Christians throughout history have taken the same basic position on this question. [8]

7. We might mention other sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 that the New Testament and new covenant seem to keep in force. When Paul prohibits a man from sleeping with his father's wife, he reiterates Leviticus 18:8. It is likely that New Testament prohibitions of porneia include sexual sins in Leviticus 18 like incest and bestiality.

8. We conclude therefore where we began. The Bible prohibits homosexual sex and several other types of sexual act. However, the Bible does not address those who have homosexual desires but do not act on them. There is no biblical basis for considering those who discipline their thoughts and actions in this area as spiritually inferior in any way to a heterosexual who disciplines his or her thoughts and actions.

Very important for believers is that we act with love in our thoughts and actions toward those whose desires are for the same sex. This is the command of God, that we love everyone, including sinners, including enemies. Loving others does not mean agreeing or approving of their actions. It means that when we are given a choice between action A and action B, and we know A is the loving one, we choose action A.

There will be individuals in our churches who disagree with the "catholic" position on this issue (a position held everywhere throughout history) and with our interpretation of these biblical passages. Those who are members of denominations with the catholic positions have chosen to bind themselves to the positions of their churches. The pastors of these churches, by remaining in those churches, similarly have chosen to bind themselves to hold these positions.

But they must preach and act lovingly toward those who disagree in thought or action in their midst. We cannot in the end force anyone to change their minds or actions. If we want to minister to those who disagree in our pews and if we want reach gay individuals for Christ, we will have to be loving in the way we approach this issue and leave them in God's hands. Some would say that we should not try to have those who disagree on this issue in our churches (1 Cor. 5:11). Those who believe we should minister to such individuals will foster a climate in which we can agree to disagree. The rest is in God's hands.

Next Sunday: ET18. Thou shalt not steal.

[1] The scale developed by Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s and 50s was more complex, rating people on a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual. If his scale has any validity, it suggests that some people do not perceive themselves to have a clear "orientation" toward either the same or opposite sex.

[2] It seems to be the case that, in the vast majority of instances, those who have sought for God to change their orientation have not experienced such a change. For reasons we do not know, God does not seem to answer this prayer with great frequency. Organizations that try to change a person's orientation using psychological, pharmacological, or other means are highly suspect, perhaps even abusive. Although I do not know of any studies, we can wonder how many divorces in the past have resulted in part from individuals attracted to the same sex who married in the closet.

[3] There are clearly people today who experiment with both genders. In these cases, any expression of their sexuality with the same gender does seem to be a matter of choice.

[4] We should possibly hear this story in the background of Acts 14:8-18, when Paul were preaching the very region where the story of Baucis and Philemon takes place.

[5] It would be rather strange if the angels were thought to have "flesh," unless a form of the angels in flesh were in view.

[6] The NIV2011 combines the two words together as "men who have sex with men."

[7] This is the only instance in Scripture where female-female sex is mentioned.

[8] It is true that Christians do not consider many of the prohibitions in this part of Leviticus to be binding today (e.g., mixed thread in Lev. 19:19). The difference in this instance is that the New Testament seems to reiterate the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus as part of God's universal expectation.

1 comment:

Stephanie K said...

Thank you for this post. I have been searching for material on this subject to help me have a strong biblical view on the matter. This was well-timed.