It is significant that the word "homosexuality" did not enter the English vocabulary until the early twentieth century. The word, and with it the concept of lifelong primary sexual orientation toward members of one's own gender, was unacknowledged and probably unknown in the biblical world. Some today will therefore argue that what the Bible appears to condemn can be distinguished from homosexuality. They maintain that the homosexual orientation, to the extent that it develops in early childhood or even before birth, is not consciously chosen and is therefore not sinful. As long as this form of sexuality is expressed monogamously, it is argued, homosexual relations merely constitute an expansion of the biblical view of marriage. In order to assess the legitimacy of this approach, it is important to begin with an understanding of the view of same-gender sex in the ancient world.
The Ancient World. Because there is so little evidence of same-gender sex before the New Testament period, our view of "the ancient world" must focus more narrowly on the Greco-Roman period. Writings during this period demonstrate familiarity with sexual Acts between members of the same gender, but these were not understood to result from an "orientation." Sexuality was important in the ancient world only in terms of male progeniture. It appears that the rape of other males and the use of boys for sexual pleasure (pederasty) were performed as Acts of dominance, violence, or experimentation by otherwise heterosexual men. As a phase or as an occasional act, sex between males did not detract from male progeniture. In some circles, most notably those of the intellectual elite philosophers and poets, relationships between men and boys were lauded as the highest expression of romantic love. These relationships were not reciprocal, however. Males who were (willing or not) the receiving partners in these Acts, especially on a repeated basis, were socially outcast. Boys were bought as slaves and discarded when they reached puberty. Lesbians, who were by definition reducing the possibility of male progeniture, were scarcely mentioned but consistently condemned. Thus the modern supposition of a tolerant pagan society subsequently oppressed by Judeo-Christian taboos is a complete myth. It was, rather, a culture almost empty of regard for the sexual rights or desires of anyone but the small ruling class of men, who commonly exercised their almost limitless privilege at the expense of those young women and men in their power.
The Old Testament. Into this world of ruthless sexuality came the biblical message of restraint, justice, and sexual complementarity, which was revolutionary in its implications. From the beginning it is acknowledged that humankind is created in two genders that together bear God's image ( Gen 1:27 ) and together constitute a unity of flesh ( Gen 2:24 ). The reaffirmation of these two notions in key New Testament passages on sexuality ( Matt 19:1-12 ; 1 Cor 7:12-20 ) demonstrates the continuity and importance of sexual differentiation in the construction of a normative biblical sexuality. More simply put, humankind is created to find human completion only in the (marital) union of two sexes. While there may be legitimate conditions under which this union will not occur (e.g., celibacy), there are no conceivable conditions in which the union can occur fully without sexual differentiation. More specifically in terms of homosexuality, then, same-gender partners can at best pretend to effect a differentiation that is physiologically (and perhaps psychologically) impossible.
Some theologians have suggested that to be created in the image of God according to Genesis means to be in social fellowship with other persons. Others deduce that homosexual relations are merely an expansion of the category of marriage under this rubric of fellowship; that is, intimacy and not biology is the appropriate measure of conformity to the Genesis marriage model. But apart from the debatability of this notion of the image of God in Genesis (dominion is the probable focus of the term), the definition of marriage cannot be limited to the meaning of the image of God. However important the social and spiritual aspects of marriage may be, the physical aspect is no less fundamental to its definition. Sexual differentiation ( 1:27 ) intends physical union, the becoming of one flesh ( 2:24 ). Because a homosexual relationship cannot produce a unity of sexually differentiated beings, there cannot be a marriage.
Condemnations of sexual sin in the Old Testament focus on heterosexual Acts, but it is important to note that all sexual sin, including homosexuality, is prohibited in relation to the positive model of marriage presented in Genesis. Thus, while the Old Testament describes homosexual activity as intrinsically unjust or impure, these condemnations do not differ qualitatively from condemnations of heterosexual deviations from the marriage model.
The first and most familiar Old Testament passage is the account of intended male rape at Sodom ( Gen 19 ). References to the city later become common extrabiblical Jewish euphemisms for sexual perversion in general and homosexual practices in particular (in the New Testament, see 2 Peter 2:6-7 ; and Jude 7 ). Some modern revisionists point to the subsequent Jewish tradition condemning Sodom for inhospitality and argue that the passage does not have homosexual rape in view. In this view, when the Sodomites demand to "know" Lot's visitors, they want to interrogate them, and Lot considers this breach of hospitality as so objectionable that he offers to distract the men with sex, offering his own daughters. The major obstacle to this interpretation is the Hebrew verb "to know" (yada [[;d"y]), which, while not often used in a sexual sense, is used in just that sense in verse 8 only two verses after its occurrence expressing the desire of the men of Sodom. Clearly the Sodomites desired sexual relations with Lot's guests. The later references to inhospitality in relation to Sodom are not due to a misunderstanding of the sin of Sodom on the part of the Jews, but to their habit of speaking indirectly of sexual matters out of modesty.
A parallel account of sexual violence occurs in Judges 19-20, where the men of Gibeah rape a man's concubine to the point of death in substitution for the man himself. There can be no doubt that this is fundamentally an act of violence, but the initial desire for the man coupled with the sacrifice of the concubine to avoid "such a disgraceful thing" ( 19:24 ) suggests that same-gender sex, and not only inhospitality, is seen in a very negative light.
More obscure reference to same-gender sex may be found in Genesis 9:20-27, where the statement that Ham "saw his father's nakedness" may be a euphemism for rape. There may be a connection here to two additional references to sexual sins involving one's father ( Lev 18:7 ; Deut 23:1 ), since Ham is the father of Canaan, the nation traditionally associated with same-gender sex and whose impure practices are condemned in detail in the context of these references.
Explicit condemnation of same-gender sexual relations occurs in two Old Testament passages. Leviticus 18:22 reads, "Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable." Leviticus 20:13 reads, "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." The wording here is ambiguous with regard to rape or manipulation versus mutual consent; instead, the focus is on the act itself as a mutual defilement. Modern revisionists often dismiss these strong passages on the grounds that they are part of the Old Testament purity code and therefore irrelevant to a gospel that frees believers from the constraints of Jewish cultural taboos. But the surrounding verses, which involve such concerns as care for the poor and respect of property show that it is impossible to make a simplistic distinction between purity laws and permanent moral principles. The reaffirmation of sexually differentiated marriage in the New Testament, as noted above, suggests that this levitical condemnation of the violation of differentiation retains its force throughout the entire biblical period.
The New Testament Message of Liberation. Some revisionists maintain that the message of Jesus is fundamentally a message concerning the liberation of captives ( Luke 4:18-19 ). These captives, it is argued, are to be understood not in individual terms as sinners, but in corporate terms as those who are forgotten or oppressed by the proud and powerful. In this view, the place to begin a truly Christian consideration of sexual ethics is not with Genesis and the legal code but with Exodus and freedom from law proclaimed by Jesus. The homosexual community, with its long history of persecution, naturally sees itself described in the Beatitudes and other offers of hope to the downtrodden. It sees analogies to modern "heterosexism" in the historic subjugation of women and of blacks. There are, however, many problems with an approach that so simply makes biblical material a vehicle for experience. One objection is that the choice of one kind of sexual proclivity as "oppressed" is arbitrary: there is no definitive reason to exclude pederasty or sadomasochism or adultery. Furthermore, the analogies to other modern liberation movements are dubious. In the case of slavery, for example, the biblical message is ambiguous; in the case of homosexual Acts, on the other hand, what little material we have is all decidedly negative. Finally, it is impossible to evaluate a behavior by means of its perception, as if disapproval by the majority automatically constitutes legitimacy on the part of a persecuted minority. At some point the behavior itself must be held up to a light other than the fire of its own passion. The light of revelation in the New Testament message offers liberation, but explicit in this offer is the provision of power to conform individuals to full humanity as God created it. In order to exercise responsibility in relation to such an offer it is essential for believers to take seriously both the construction of full humanity as the Scriptures describe it, and deviations from that full humanity as the Scriptures warn against them.
The Gospels. There is no explicit reference to same-gender sex in the Gospels, but there may be an echo of a reference in Mark 9:42-10:12 (cf. Matt 5:27-32 ). A passage in the Talmud (b. Niddah 13b) links masturbation and pederasty together as violations of marriage, and in so doing makes reference to harming children, offending with the hand or the foot, and cutting off offending limbs rather than going down to the pit of destruction. These similarities of wording to the Gospel passages may suggest a common understanding in the first century that "putting a stumbling block before one of these little ones" involved sexual sin against them.
Paul's Epistles. Two brief references in Paul's letters, where same-gender sex is mentioned in lists of prohibited activities, are important especially for their link to the Old Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 arsenokoitai [ajrsenokoivth"] are condemned. The word, a compound of "male" and "coitus" or "intercourse, " does not occur prior to the New Testament. Some modern writers have attempted to narrow its meaning from homosexual Acts in general to male prostitution, solicitation of male prostitutes, or (coupled in 1 Cor 6:9 ; with malakoi, another obscure word possibly meaning "the effeminate" ) the active partners in homosexual relationships. These suggestions, however, ignore the Greek Old Testament (LXX) versions of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which use both arsenos [a [rjrJhn] and koiten [koivth], the latter passage placing them side-by-side; literally, "whoever lies with a male, having intercourse (as with) a female." This is the obvious source of the compound word. Perhaps Paul himself, who knew and used the Septuagint extensively, or some other Hellenistic Jew not long before Paul's time, derived from the passages in Leviticus a compound word that described homosexual Acts in general. This drawing in of Leviticus to Paul's letters is also significant in that it provides further demonstration that he perceived a moral and not merely purity-based prohibition of homosexual Acts in the Old Testament.
Romans 1:26-27. The remaining passage appears to be an unequivocal condemnation of homosexuality. While many modern revisionists simply disagree with Paul or discount his proscription as applying only to prostitution or pederasty, some have attempted to reinterpret the passage as tacit approval of homosexuality. The argument is that Paul portrays homosexual Acts as impure but carefully avoids the language of sin; he intends merely to distinguish a Gentile practice considered by Jews to be "unclean" in order to draw Jews (or "weaker brethren") into his subsequent explanation of the gospel. Careful investigation of the passage, however, shows this explanation to be untenable.
Paul's general purpose in the context ( Rom 1:18-32 ) is to show the need for the gospel in the Gentile world. As a result of idolatry, God "gave them over" to all kinds of sinful behavior. The trifold structure of the passage is a rhetorical device to drive home the point: a general complaint (vv. 24-25), consideration of a specific vice (vv. 26-27), and a culminating list of various vices (vv. 28-32). The distinction between the second and third sections may follow another Greek-styled distinction of sins of passion and sins of the unfit mind.
Paul is accused of everything from extreme prejudice to repressed homosexual urges for choosing same-gender sex as his focus in verses 26-27. But the scarcity of other references and the use of impersonal, rhetorical language here suggests, on the contrary, considerable detachment. The choice of homosexuality in particular is due to Paul's need to find a visible sign of humankind's fundamental rejection of God's creation at the very core of personhood. The numerous allusions to the creation account in the passage suggest that creation theology was foremost in Paul's mind in forming the passage.
Paul's terminology in the passage clearly denotes sin and not mere ritual impurity. The context is introduced by the threat of wrath against "godlessness and wickedness" (v. 18). Those in view in verses 26-27 have been given over to "passions, " a word group that elsewhere in Romans and consistently in Paul's writings connotes sin. Words like "impurity" (v. 24) and "indecent" (v. 27; cf. "degrading, " v. 24) had in Paul's time extended their meaning beyond ritual purity to moral and especially sexual wrongdoing. To do that which is "unnatural" (vv. 26-27) or "contrary to nature" was common parlance in contemporary literature for sexual perversion and especially homosexual Acts. Paul uses several expressions here that are more typical of Gentile moral writers not because he is attempting to soften his condemnation but because he wishes to find words peculiarly suited to expose the sinfulness of the Gentile world in its own terms.
The substance of Paul's proscription of homosexuality is significant in several respects. First, he mentions lesbian relations first and links lesbianism to male homosexuality. This is unusual if not unique in the ancient world, and it demonstrates that Paul's concern is less with progeniture than with rebellion against sexual differentiation or full created personhood. Second, Paul speaks in terms of mutual consent (e.g., "inflamed with lust for one another, " v. 27), effectively including Acts other than rape and pederasty in the prohibition. Third, the passage describes corporate as well as individual rebellion, a fact that may have implications for modern discussions of "orientation." In other words, although Paul does not address the question here directly, it is reasonable to suppose that he would consign the orientation toward homosexual Acts to the same category as heterosexual orientation toward adultery or fornication. The "natural" or "fleshly" proclivity is a specific byproduct of the corporate human rebellion and in no way justifies itself or the activity following from that proclivity. On the basis of any of these three implications, it is legitimate to use the word "homosexuality" as it is conceived in the modern world when speaking of Romans 1 and, by cautious extension, when speaking of the related biblical passages.
Responses to Paul's Proscription. The discussion does not end with the conclusion that Paul condemns homosexuality. Some argue that a modern understanding of "natural" differs from Paul's and requires that we absolve those who discover rather than choose a homosexual orientation. These, it is argued, should be seen as victims, or simply different, and our definition of allowable sexual activity expanded accordingly. The major problem with this response is that it shifts the meaning of "natural" from Paul's notion of "that which is in accord with creation" to the popular notion of "that which one has a desire to do." But deeply ingrained anger does not justify murder, nor does deeply ingrained greed justify theft or materialism, nor does the deeply ingrained desire of many heterosexuals for multiple partners justify promiscuity. Desire in all of these areas, chosen or not, must come under the reign of Christ. The action in question must be considered not in terms of its source in the person but in light of the relevant biblical principles. These principles often involve denial of deeply ingrained desires, for the heterosexual who desires multiple partners no less than for the homosexual who laments the option of celibacy.
There is considerable evidence that a homosexual orientation, and certainly the occasional homosexual experience, does not indicate a permanent state but an immature stage of sexuality that may be "fixed" at some point by physiological, psychological, or social factors, and by the individual will, all acting in combination. This has theological significance because it implies that movement toward completion or maturity will involve movement toward obedience to the biblical model. One need not conclude, then, that the homosexual orientation is an indication either of God's approval of the orientation or that the orientation is God's "curse" of the individual. It is, rather, a challenge to growth in discipleship, more or less difficult depending on individual circumstances, but accompanied by the promise of grace equal to those circumstances ( Rom 5:19-21 ; 1 Cor 10:13 ; 2 Col 12:9 ).
Thomas E. Schmidt
Bibliography. J. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality; L. W. Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex; J. B. De Young, JETS 31 (1988): 429-47; idem, BSac 147 (1990): 437-54; G. W. Edward, Gay/Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perspective; S. Grenz, Sexual Ethics: A Biblical Perspective; R. B. Hays, Sojourners (July 1991): 17-21; idem, JRE 14 (1986): 184-215; R. Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality; D. F. Wright, EvQ 61 (1989): 291-300; J. I. Yamamoto, The Crisis of Homosexuality.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Homosexuality'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".