The issue of homosexuality has been a hot topic in Christianity for a good number of years. Today, homosexuality is accepted by an ever-growing segment of society, including an ever-growing number of Christians. A recent study by Pew Research found that a little over half of American Christians believe homosexuality is OK. However, homosexuality is something Christianity has traditionally considered to be wrong.
A number of years ago, the people of the state I live in voted on whether to legally recognize homosexual marriage. The debate surrounding that, or at least what I heard of it, was mainly among Christians. On one side, there were Christians who were absolutely sure that homosexual marriage is wrong in God’s sight. On the other side, there were Christians who were just as sure that homosexual marriage is something God favors.
The homosexual debate has been going on in Protestant denominations for decades. In the past 15 years, a number of what used to be major Protestant denominations have officially changed their position and now state that God accepts homosexual behavior as a morally acceptable lifestyle. That change, though, led to turmoil inside those denominations. It resulted in splits within those denominations, and, although those denominations were already declining before those changes, the changes led to greatly increased rates of decline.
So we have two groups of Christians, who use the same Bible, on opposite sides of an issue.
I thought it would be good to look and see what the Bible actually does say about homosexuality and then try to understand how these opposing groups of Christians deal with what the Bible says.
There are only a few explicit references in the Bible to homosexuality, and some of these refer to homosexuality only secondarily and are not speaking about homosexuality per se.
Homosexuality in the Old Testament
One of the most quoted verses from those who oppose homosexuality comes from Deuteronomy 23: 17. It says, ”There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel, or a sodomite of the sons of Israel.” Whether this is a reference to homosexuality or not depends on what the word “sodomite” refers to. That word, in English, can indeed refer to homosexual activity. However, the Bible was not written in English; it is translated into English. So what we need to do is go back to the language the Bible was translated from, in this case a form of ancient Greek, and when we do that, we see that the word which, in many Bible is translated into English as sodomite, actually means “sacred prostitute.” That’s also the literal meaning of the word “whore” in that passage. So actually, this passage does not refer to homosexuality, and neither does it refer to prostitution. It refers to what’s known as “sacred prostitution.”
Pagan religions in the ancient world sometimes used sexual acts in their religious practices. The Old Testament sometimes refers to those who participate in these pagan sexual religious practices as “sacred prostitutes.” Historians are not sure exactly what all these practices were, but they were some kind of religious practices that involved sex. The Hebrews of the Old Testament were supposed to worship God alone and not take part in any pagan religious practices, including pagan religious practices that used sex. And so really, what this verse says is, “Do not take part in pagan religious sexual practices.” This passage is not talking about homosexuality.
A similar passage is found in First Kings 14: 24, “And there were sodomites in the land, and they did according to all the abominations of the nations which the Lord cast out before the children of Israel.” In this verse, just like in the one in Deuteronomy, the word which is rendered as sodomites actually refers to those who take part in pagan religious sexual activity. It’s not a reference to homosexuality.
The same is true of this passage from First Kings 15: 12, “Asa took away the sodomites out of the land.” In other words, Asa took away the people who engaged in pagan worship using sexual practices.
None of the passages we’ve looked at so far really refer to homosexual behavior. Depending on which Bible translation you use, though, depending on how it’s translated into English, it might seem like they do. But they don’t.
So let’s look at some other things from the Old Testament. In Genesis chapter 19 and Judges chapter 19 are two accounts that are similar. In both accounts, travelers are staying the night in a house, and during the night, men of the city come by wanting the owner of the house to send the male travelers out so that they can rape them. These references are obviously to homosexual behavior, but I think it’s important to note that they are technically references to homosexual rape. They are not about homosexual behavior between consenting adults.
Incidentally, our words “sodomy” and “sodomite” come from the incident in Genesis 19. It happened in Sodom, and that’s where our words “sodomy” and “sodomite” come from. It’s also interesting to mention that our society today does accept and sometimes even relishes homosexual rape. It’s common in the prison system here in the United States, and I’ve heard a number of people laugh at the thought of a criminal getting what he deserves when he gets to prison. We know homosexual rape is rampant within the prison system, and, a good segment of society thinks it’s OK; in fact, many people relish the thought of criminals being raped in prison. It’s seen as part of their punishment.
But anyway, let’s move on to something else in the Old Testament. Leviticus 18: 22-23 says, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind, it is abomination. Neither shall thy lie with any beast to defile thyself. Neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto; it is decadence.”
Even going back to the original language, this means what it says. It is a prohibition of homosexual behavior, and it is coupled and more or less equated with having sex with animals. Homosexual behavior and having sex with animals are put in the same category.
Let’s look at another passage from Leviticus. Leviticus 20:13 says this, “If a man lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”
That also is an explicit prohibition of homosexual behavior. It’s punishable by death, indicating it was considered a very serious matter.
The passages we have looked at so far are the references to homosexuality in the Old Testament that are sometimes used in the homosexual debate. We saw that several of them are not really references to homosexuality at all, or at least consensual homosexual behavior. But two are. There are at least two explicit prohibitions of homosexual behavior in the Old Testament.
Homosexuality in the New Testament
Now let’s move to the New Testament. There are at least three passages in the New Testament that concern homosexuality.
The first is Romans 1: 26-27, “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections…for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature, and the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned with lust one toward another, men with men working that which is unseemly.”
Is this against homosexuality? Well, let’s look at its context. The background of this passage is that the Apostle Paul is talking about people who have completely turned their backs on God. Homosexual behavior is seen as one of the results that came out of them turning their backs on God. This is a reference to homosexual behavior, and it is characterized as against nature and unseemly.
The next passage to consider is from First Timothy 1: 8-10, “The law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of mothers and murderers of fathers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine.”
We need to look at that list a little closer. It’s a list of things that are condemned. It lists “manslayers.” In the Greek, that literally means murderers. The word “whoremongers” is a word about which there is disagreement. Some say it refers to male prostitutes. Others say it refers to any kind of sexual immorality in general. To find the meaning, we need to go outside of Christianity, because since this is such a hot topic in Christianity, you’ll never get an objective opinion within Christianity; all you’ll get is someone promoting their agenda. So, when we do go outside of Christianity and to general usage in ancient Greek, we find that it most likely refers to some kind of prostitution, but it’s not clear exactly what kind of prostitution. We’ll just have to leave that one by saying we can’t determine exactly what it means, but we at least know it doesn’t refer specifically to an adult, consensual, homosexual relationship.
Let’s go on to the next term in that list. In the version I used, it’s translated as “them that defile themselves with mankind.” Some Bibles translate it as “sodomites.” What does it mean? Again, we need to go outside Christianity and look at secular Greek sources, and when we do that, we find that it does indeed refer to homosexual behavior. So here in First Timothy, homosexual behavior is condemned, and it is placed in the same category as murder, kidnapping, lying, and perjury.
There is one other passage to look at, First Corinthians 6: 9-10, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Again, we find a list of behaviors that are condemned. This translation uses the word “sodomites” in the list. It’s the same word we saw in the passage from First Timothy, and it does refer to homosexual behavior.
Interestingly, this passage contains something else in the list, the word translated as “effeminate.” That word literally means “soft ones.” As you might guess, there is disagreement within Christianity over what it means. Within Christianity, everyone says it means what it has to mean in order to promote their agenda. And so again, we have to go outside of Christianity to secular usage. In classical Greek usage, it refers to the passive person in a male homosexual act, a person who allows himself to be the passive person in a male homosexual act. So it does refer to homosexual behavior.
These are the references to homosexual behavior in the New Testament. In each case where it is mentioned, it is condemned.
So let’s sum up what we’ve seen so far. From the Bible as a whole, we found five passages that specifically refer to homosexual behavior, and in every case, it is condemned. That means that everywhere in the Bible where homosexual behavior is specifically referred to, it is condemned. It is never presented positively in the Bible.
And so, from what we’ve seen, there’s no question that the Bible does indeed condemn homosexual behavior.
But what do we do with that?
Some Christians say it’s an open and shut case. It’s obvious that homosexual behavior is contrary to the way God wants people to live.
Homosexuality Accepted in Society
But that’s hard for a lot of Christians to accept today. Why? Well, first of all, it’s contrary to what is becoming more and more accepted in society, and as we’ve seen in other episodes, Christians always tend to adjust their beliefs and interpretation of the Bible to keep Christian beliefs in line with the beliefs of society. Christians have always done that, and not just with things like homosexuality. Christians on both ends of the spectrum do it on a variety of issues.
And there’s something related to that. One of the results of society becoming more and more accepting of homosexuality is that more people have “come out” as homosexuals. While homosexuality used to be something many people tried to hide, now that it’s more accepted in society, people no longer feel as much need to hide it. The result is that we have more and more open homosexuals in society. People have sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, even mothers and fathers, who are open homosexuals. They look at those loved ones who are open homosexuals, and they see they’re not bad people, they’re good people. And so it’s hard to condemn it.
An example: An older couple I knew, they’re both dead now, were very conservative Christians and dead-set against homosexuality, absolutely opposed to it, convinced it was a horrible sin. Then, they got a call from their middle-aged son, who lived in another state. Homosexual marriage had just been legalized by the Supreme Court, and their son called to tell them that not only was he homosexual, but he and his partner were getting married.
This absolutely knocked them off their feet. They had no idea their son was homosexual, and now he calls them and tells them he is not only homosexual, but that he is going to marry a man. They absolutely panicked.
But you know what happened? Within a couple of months, they completely reversed their position on homosexuality and began thinking it was perfectly OK. They completely accepted their son’s homosexuality and his new “husband.” Why did they do that? Well, condemning homosexuality was one thing when it was an abstract, when it was something other people did, but when it was their own son, it looked completely different. That same thing has happened in families all across the United States. When it’s your child, or your brother or sister, or your favorite aunt or uncle, it looks completely different.
But still, you’re faced with the fact that the Bible condemns it. So how have Christians dealt with that?
The Bible Doesn’t Mean What It Says
Some Christians don’t accept that the Bible condemns it. They say that the words we saw that refer to homosexual behavior really don’t refer to homosexual behavior as we think of it. They say these words do not refer to consensual, loving, adult homosexual relationships; they refer to homosexual relationships characterized by domination and violence. The words used in the Bible might, on the face of it, seem to refer to homosexuality in general, but they do not. They don’t refer to homosexual behavior as it is practiced today and as we think of it, in loving, consensual, adult homosexual relationships. They refer to homosexual relationships characterized by domination and violence. So, according to this idea, what the Bible condemns with those words is any kind of sexual relationship, homosexual or heterosexual, that is characterized by domination and violence. These passages do not condemn consensual, loving, adult homosexual relationships. In other words, the words we see in the Bible that refer to homosexuality don’t really refer to homosexuality the way we think of it today. When the biblical writers used those words, they had something else in mind.
We Can Ignore What the Bible Says about Homosexuality
Other Christians put forward a different argument. They remind us that the things in the Old Testament that condemn homosexuality all come from the book of Leviticus. Then they point out that there are many laws in Leviticus that Christians do not follow. They say it’s not right to go to the book of Leviticus and pick and choose what you want to follow.
Then, as far as the New Testament is concerned, they point out that all the passages against homosexuality in the New Testament are from the writings of Paul, and Paul wrote against other things that we don’t follow today. Chief among those is slavery. Paul told slaves to be subject to their masters. An entire book of the New Testament, the book of Philemon, was written by Paul to a slave owner. The slave had escaped, and Paul was sending him back to his owner. Paul accepted slavery, and frankly, even Jesus accepted slavery.
Another example is Paul’s view of women. Paul’s writings give women a decidedly inferior status to men, and Christians today don’t follow that. If we don’t accept Paul’s views about slavery and about the position of women, why do we accept his views about homosexuality?
Now of course, some Christians have tried to rationalize this picking and choosing from Leviticus and Paul. They’ve come up with all kinds of tortured arguments trying to say it’s not picking and choosing. The fact is though, however you try to rationalize it, it is picking and choosing.
Slavery in the Bible
But let’s think more about the slavery issue. Paul, and even Jesus, accepted slavery. Paul tells slaves to be subject to their masters even if they are mistreated. There’s no doubt that the Bible does indeed accept slavery. But yet Christians today don’t follow that. Christians today believe slavery is immoral. How can they believe slavery is immoral when the Bible accepts it?
Well, it is generally accepted in Christianity today that when we see the word “slave” in the Bible, it doesn’t mean slave as we think of slave, and when the Bible talks about slavery, it doesn’t mean slavery as we think of it. According to this idea, the word slave in the Bible really means more like an employee, and when the Bible talks about slavery, it’s really talking about an employer/employee relationship. That is generally accepted today across virtually the entire Christian spectrum in the United States, that the word slave in the Bible doesn’t really mean slave as we think of it.
Haven’t we seen that argument before? Haven’t we heard “the word in the Bible doesn’t really mean what people think it does” and “what this refers to is not what we think it refers to”? Yes. That’s what some Christians say regarding homosexuality, that the words in the Bible don’t really mean homosexuality as we think of it. So what these Christians have done with homosexuality is exactly the same thing virtually the entire Christian spectrum has done with slavery—the word in the Bible really doesn’t mean what we think it means.
But yet, with both slavery and homosexuality, we can go to secular Greek usage, literature outside the Bible, and see that the word the Bible uses for “slave” actually does mean slave, and we can also see that the words the Bible uses to refer to homosexuality do indeed mean homosexuality. Yet we’re supposed to believe that these Greek words, just when used in the Bible, have completely different meanings. Although the Greek word used in the Bible for slave means slave everywhere else it’s used in ancient Greek, it doesn’t mean slave when used in the Bible. That, illogical as it is, is accepted across virtually the entire Christian spectrum in the United States. Why? Because it has to be that way.
The logic goes like this: Slavery is immoral. If the Bible accepts slavery, then what it calls slavery can’t really be slavery, since slavery is immoral; therefore, the word slave in the Bible can’t really mean slave.
You’re starting with what you believe and then interpreting the Bible to agree with what you believe. This is the way it goes: “A” is bad. The Bible accepts “A.” Therefore, when the Bible talks about “A,” it must really not be talking about “A.”
Interpreting the Bible to Agree With What We Believe
What was the basis for you deciding that when the Bible talks about “A” it’s not really talking about “A”? Only one thing: your belief that “A” is bad. What you already believed dictated how you interpreted the Bible. You interpreted the Bible to make the Bible agree with what you believe.
Christians have done that with slavery. No question about that, and it’s accepted across virtually the entire Christian spectrum. So why not do it with homosexuality? Is it consistent for a Christian to accept doing that with slavery but reject doing it with homosexuality?
What Christians did with slavery and are doing today with homosexuality is what they’ve always done—interpret the Bible to agree with what they believe. Back hundreds of years ago, when slavery was accepted in societies, there was no question but that the Bible accepts slavery. Then, when slavery started to be seen as immoral, the way the Bible was interpreted changed so that the Bible could be seen as condemning slavery. Back 60 or 70 years ago, when homosexuality was not accepted in society, there was no question but that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Then, when homosexuality became accepted in society, the way the Bible was interpreted changed so that the Bible could be seen as accepting homosexuality. That has been done countless times with countless different issues over the course of Christian history. The way the Bible is interpreted has always been adjusted so that the Bible stays in line with what society believes. The Bible has always been made to say what it has to say to keep it in line with the beliefs of society. The entire Christian spectrum has done this. Christians who today oppose homosexuality have done it a million times. So have Christians who today accept homosexuality.
Why Is Homosexuality Condemned in the Bible?
So what do we do with what the Bible says regarding these issues of morality? Well, there are two ways to look at the Bible on issues of morality. You could say that God decides what’s right and what’s wrong and then tells us in the Bible. The Bible, then, is God’s rulebook for us to follow.
Or, you could say that what’s right and wrong is not a decision God makes but is inherent in the way things are. Right and wrong are not decided by God but are just a part of the way things work, the way things inherently are. In this idea, the Bible is not a rulebook God gives us, what we find in the Bible regarding morality is God trying to warn us away from things that will harm us in the long run. God looks out and sees morality, sees right and wrong, sees how the way things work, sees what things will in the long run be harmful and what things in the long run will be beneficial, and He guides us away from things that will be harmful in the long run and toward things that will be beneficial in the long run. There’s a previous podcast entitled “Who Decides Morality” that deals with this issue more completely. I would encourage you to listen to it if you haven’t already.
I don’t think God is The Rulemaker, and I don’t think the Bible is God’s book of rules for us to follow. I think God has vision far beyond ours, and because of that, He is able to see that some things will, in the long run, turn out to be harmful to us. These might be things that on the surface seem to be harmless, or that on the surface might even seem to be good, but they are things that, in the long run, will turn out to be harmful. We can’t see their long-term effects, but God can, and that’s why God warns us away from them. He’s trying to protect us from harm that we can’t see.
So, I think really, the way to look at what the Bible says about homosexuality is not to look at the Bible as either condemning homosexuality or saying it’s OK, but rather to consider that maybe what the Bible says about it is God warning us about long-term consequences, consequences that we can’t see now but that will come far down the road.