In anticipation of the United Methodist Church’s upcoming Called Special General Conference on Human Sexuality, I have been leading a Sunday school class for my church on the theology behind the conference. We met for our second class on Sunday, and having already unpacked all of the letters of the acronym LGBTQIA, we jumped into the Bible to examine all five times that homosexuality is referenced.
Considering the fact that many people in the room were shocked to discover how minor of a topic homosexuality is in the Bible, I wanted to make some of what I taught available to a wider audience via this blog. Below you can find the passages in question (all from the NRSV) and some of my thoughts regarding exegesis and interpretation.
This is not meant as an exhaustive theological resource regarding homosexuality and the Bible, but merely as a brief reflection.
Homosexuality And The Bible
The Bible hardly ever discuss homosexual behavior. In terms of emphasis, it is a minor concern when compared with other moral or ethical concerns such as economic injustice, adultery, slavery, and divorce. There are only five direct references to homosexuality in the entirety of the Bible – two in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament. Though, specifically, the references are only found in Leviticus and in the Pauline corpus.
“You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Interesting, the holiness code in Leviticus only prohibits male homosexual intercourse. This is not to say that females were not engaging in homosexual relationships, or weren’t being persecuted for homosexual relationships, its just not mentioned. The holiness code contains a great number of specific prohibitions though later we find the listed punishment for such behavior.
“If a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Here we discover the punishment for male homosexual relations: death. However, this is not the only behavior that caries the weight of such a stiff penalty – Adultery, incest, and bestiality were also treated with the same and ultimate punishment.
Regarding the two references in the Old Testament, quoting two verses from Leviticus does not necessarily settle the question for Christians today. There are a great number of laws, commandments, and expectations made of God’s people that were disregarded even by the first century in the Christian church. These include such things as circumcision and dietary practices. Some will make the case that the argument against homosexuality should be similarly abandoned because the are part of a purity rule and culture that is no longer morally relevant today. And that leads us to the New Testament…
1 Corinthians 6.9-10
“Do you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The two parts of significance, in NRSV English, are male prostitutes and sodomites. Which come from the Greek MALAKOI and ARSENOKOITAI respectively. Different translations offer additional interpretative moves, but for the de facto translation in the UMC, the New Revised Standard Version, MALAKOI (male prostitutes) is not a technical term that literally means homosexual. When it does appear in Greek writing from around the time 1 Corinthians was written, in was used as a slang term to refer to the passive partner, often young boys, in homosexual activity. Which raises the question about agency in terms of whether or not these types of relationship were willful, or if they were forced upon a young and therefore powerless boy. Or, to put it another way, there is certainly a question about whether it’s the homosexual behavior or the rape involved that Paul is drawing attention to.
Interestingly, ARSENKOITAI (sodomite) is not found in any Greek text outside the Bible earlier than 1 Corinthians. Though there are some connections with the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament) when homosexual behavior is mentioned in the previous passages from Leviticus. The English rendering of “sodomites” is particularly striking because it can refer to homosexual acts, but it also used to refer to oral sex which also takes place between heterosexuals.
1 Timothy 1.8-11
“Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and the sinful, for the unholy and the profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
ARSENKOITAI (sodomites) appears again in this list of prohibited vices that include everything from lying to slave trading to murder. Which, coming from Paul, is interesting considering the fact that he was murdering Christians prior to his Damascus road experience. Moreover, when compared with other items listed, Paul considers the act of lying to be equally bad with homosexual behavior which I have yet to hear ever mentioned during conversation in the UMC about the incompatibility of individual Christians.
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received their own persons the due penalty of their error.”
This is the only passage in the entirety of the Biblical witness that refers to lesbian sexual interactions and other that Leviticus is the passage most often cited when the debate about homosexuality is raised in the church. In Romans 1 Paul is not setting out to establish a new holiness code, or a new sexual ethic, nor is Paul warning the Christians in Rome about God’s judgment of those who engage in particular behaviors. Instead, Paul is assessing the disorder of humanity – at the root of Sin is a refusal to be grateful for God.
Or, to put it differently, here and elsewhere in the Pauline letters, homosexual acts are no worse than other examples of whatever Paul might deem unrighteousness. It is to be regarded similarly with coveting, gossiping, or even disrespecting one’s parents.
In all of these references in scripture, they are almost always read in isolation and are used in a proof-texting manner; someone will lift the verse out of context and apply it in any way they see fit. This is no more striking that in Romans 1 which is often raised without reading into the first verse of chapter 2. It’s like Paul is pushing all the buttons to get everyone’s attention and then the real zinger comes with Romans 2.1 but we forget to read that far:
“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things!”
Therefore, for Paul, the self-righteous judgment against homosexuality is just as sinful as the homosexual behavior itself.
There is no easy path forward for the United Methodist Church, but I believe Paul’s witness about our own self-righteousness is a cautionary word toward anyone who believe they know who is, or who is not, compatible with Christian teaching, whatever that means.
Or, to quote Jesus (who incidentally has nothing to say about homosexuality):
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?”