Imagine an alternate world in which sex between males and females is morally condemned. Instead of using the messy, bodily process for procreation, society has shifted in favor of artificial insemination, or some other science fictiony alternative.
What would motivate such a strange development? Well, it turns out that the culture is deeply influenced by Christian scripture. However, they have a somewhat truncated scripture compared to Christians in our world, one that only mentions sex in five locations. Those who defend the anti-sex tradition of the society point out that none of the instances have anything positive to say about sex. Take for instance:
“If a man has sexual intercourse with her during her period, he is contaminated by her impurity and remains unclean for seven days.” Leviticus 15:24
“But if the man meets the engaged woman in the open country, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then the man who lay with her shall die.” Deuteronomy 22:25
Indeed, male/female sex acts appear to be so repugnant that they became a symbol for impure relations between nations:
“You played the sexually active female with the Egyptians, your lustful neighbors, multiplying your sexual activity, to provoke me to anger.” Ezekiel 16:26.
Nor are such negative references to male/female sexual acts limited to the Old Testament.
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sex, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery … and things like these.” Galatians 5:19-20.
Certainly Jesus had no time for such activities. He condemns anyone who even looks at a member of the opposite sex in a way that draws one toward male/female sex.
“I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28
No doubt there would be some in this society that would suggest that the text is being incorrectly read. These verses, they would say, are not about heterosexual sex in general, but about particular problematic instances of male/female sexual acts. They would suggest that we need to read these passages more carefully in historical and cultural context. Going point by point, they would argue something like the following:
Leviticus 15:24 is really not about the morality of male/female sex, but about cultic purity. Thus the interest in menstruation. We no longer view menstruation in this way. Some even hold that purity laws have been superseded for Christians by the activity of Christ. Thus, the passage is really obsolete.
The above reading of Deuteronomy 22:25 puts the emphasis on the wrong aspect of the act. The problem is not with the male/female sexual act, but only with forcing the sexual act. It is a mistake to think that male/female sex is wrong just because rape is wrong.
The passage from Ezekiel does not really speak of a “sexually active female,” rather the Hebrew word זָנָה needs to be read in cultural context. The word was used when referring to temple prostitutes devoted to non-Israelite Gods. As such the term connotes prostitution, promiscuity, and idolatry. Thus, what is at stake in using the word is not the male/female sexual act generally, but rather the male/female sexual act in a specific relational context; e.g. where the male pays for sex. Similarly, the suggested translation of Galatians is problematic. The Greek term πορνεία, translated above as “sex,” again goes beyond male/female sex per se to connote prostitution or some other immoral quality to the relations involved.
Finally, though one must admit that Jesus did state that “everyone who even looks at a woman with lust” is guilty, we must be careful not to read the claim woodenly. Jesus was expanding the traditional condemnation of adultery to include new cases, but surely not far enough to actually include all male/female sexual relations.
In short, these pro-sex advocates would contend, while the Bible condemns several different kinds of male/female sexual acts (rape, prostitution, adultery, etc.), none of these passages say anything about heterosexuality, or heterosexual sex in general. At best, the anti-sex party has an argument from silence, but silence does not equal condemnation.
At this point, the dominant anti-sex advocates would likely dismiss such alternative readings. The focus on “cultural context” they would suggest, is just an excuse to avoid the eternally fixed nature of the Word of God and give into carnal lust for the opposite sex. The interpretations offered by their opponents, they would suggest, really read the approval of male/female sex back into the Bible rather than reading the plain meaning of the text itself out of Holy Scripture. Just look, they would say, at the clear case of the words of Jesus, which the pro-sexers can only set aside by waving their hands and saying “but surely Jesus didn’t really mean that.” Any who disagrees with their anti-sex position is really just rejecting the clear word of the Bible. The problem, it would seem to them, is not that there is a disagreement about the text at all. The problem is only whether you are faithful to the text or not.
And, so the “argument” would continue, with less and less progress being made … except maybe that the next generation seemed (despite the grumblings of their parent’s generation) more inclined toward accepting sex. So, who do you think had the better of the argument?
So, welcome to the contemporary state of popular arguments about “homosexuality” and the Bible. Homosexuality is a relatively recent concept, denoting a stable, natural, sexual desire for people of the same sex. Homosexual sex acts are same-sex sex acts between homosexual persons. These would include sex acts between two homosexual persons in a committed, loving relationship.
The strongest arguments for a Biblical condemnation of “homosexuality” or participation in homosexual sex acts are arguments that line up condemnations of particular “same-sex sexual acts” in the Bible. Many who favor these arguments are fond of pointing out that none of the same-sex sex acts mentioned in the Bible is treated in a positive light. From this, these interpreters draw the conclusion that the Bible condemns all same-sex sex acts, including all homosexual sex acts.
Those who argue that there is no Biblical condemnation of homosexuality, however have much more to say. If it turns out that the same-sex sex acts mentioned in the Bible are not homosexual sex acts, the argument above is, at best, an argument from silence; no better off than the argument against heterosexual sex offered in the scenario above. At this point it is worth taking apparently condemnatory passages in turn to suggest why it is not really speaking about what we would recognize as “homosexual sex” at all.
Take for instance the story of Sodom (Genesis 19:1-25). Why should one think that when God condemns same-sex gang rape that the “same-sex” part of the situation is the one that is problematic? Indeed (and thank God), the Bible itself suggests that the scenario is just as problematic when it is male/female gang rape that is being judged. (Judges 19) Further, the story of Sodom is clear that what is involved here was not even potentially homosexual sex, it was sex where angels (and I don’t even know how to begin to classify angel sexuality) were to be forced to participate in sex by a group of men who (given cultural context) were also not homosexual, but rather were interested in exhibiting their power over these foreign visitors. In other words, the story is utterly not about homosexuality or homosexual sex.
The Levitical condemnation of same-sex sex acts (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) is as much a part of the purity laws of the Old Testament as is the requirement that males avoid touching a menstruating woman. But, more importantly, a literal translation of the passage makes clear that what is at stake is not homosexuality. What is condemned is literally when a male “lies the lyings of a woman.” What is pictured here is a male playing female for an act of sex, a crossing of natural boundaries. That hardly seems to be how homosexual males conceive of their sexual activities. Indeed, what this is condemning is an unnatural gender denying form of sex.
Similarly the creation accounts from Genesis are irrelevant to discussions of homosexuality. Whatever is to be taken from the story of Adam and Eve, it clearly was not that their pairing represented the only acceptable form of sexual relations. There is no condemnation in Genesis of Abraham having sex with his servant in addition to his wife, nor of Jacob sleeping with two servants in addition to his two wives (who were also sisters!). We certainly do condemn such things today, but it is not because the Bible condemned them in the course of its narrative. Nor is there any sense in the Bible that celibacy is wrong. Despite Jesus quoting Genesis 2:24 to say: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” (Matthew19:5) he could not have meant that this is the exclusive model for every human life. He didn’t follow the model himself. In short, the affirmation of relations between Adam and Eve does not equal a condemnation of anything else.
This leaves us with Paul’s comments on same-sex activities. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul includes two categories of people involved in same-sex relations in a list of wrongdoers. Paul condemns the μαλακοὶ (literally “soft ones”). The term itself serves to remind us of the different world of sexual relations that Paul lives in. It probably refers to the pubescent males who would exchange sex for social and economic favors from older male patrons. This was the remnant of the mentor-mentee, male, same-sex sexual relationship that was institutionalized in Greek society and known as pederasty. This, then, is not homosexuality as known in the contemporary world.
The second group in Paul’s list are the ἀρσενοκοῖται (something like “male-bed-layers”). Most likely, Paul is thinking here of the Levitical code mentioned above. Thus, he is thinking of a person with natural desires for the opposite sex participating in same-sex sexual activities. That this is the case is also suggested by his treatment of same-sex sex acts in Romans. There, he assumes the condemnation of same-sex acts where the participants have “exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural.” (Romans 1:26-26) In other words, like Leviticus, he is concerned about situations in which a man (and we can add here, or woman) with natural desires for the opposite sex participates in same-sex sex acts. That the topic at hand is not homosexual sex it is further cemented in Romans by the fact that Paul sees the kind of sexual act he is concerned with as being an outcome of the worship of idols, a practice which is no more associated with the modern conception of homosexual sex than it would be with heterosexual sex.
The upshot is that, while the Bible condemns many same-sex sex acts, none of these passages say anything about homosexuality, or homosexual sex in general.
The point of this little exercise is not actually to resolve the Christian debate about the morality of same-sex relations. Rather, it is to point out something about how people read scripture in the midst of this debate. The two cases argued above are quite similar in form, however, the outcome of the first case probably does not appear controversial to most readers. This is because, if we only had Biblical verses that spoke negatively about male-female sex, we would quickly (and properly) assume that these did not cover all relevant instances of such sex acts. We know that sex can be a part of enduring, loving relationships. We affirm that sexual desires are a natural part of humanity, and that these desires can be expressed responsibly within specific circumstances. We bring this knowledge with us as we approach the text. This is not to say that we are failing to take the text seriously on its own terms, it is to say that we interpret it in the only context that we can, our own.
The reason, then, that the second case is more controversial is not because the form of the Biblical statements are different from the first case, but rather (at least partially) because we differ on whether the instances treated in the Bible cover the whole range of same-sex relationships. Some readers have experienced what they take to be mature, loving relationships between same-sex couples. They believe that they have witnessed homosexual desires that are natural and can be expressed responsibly within specific circumstances. In short, they believe they have experienced that homosexuality as I have defined it is real. Having witnessed this, they are compelled to conclude that the Bible does not address all same-sex relationships. Rather, they must conclude, it condemns only those relationships that are unnatural and irresponsible. Others have not come across homosexual relationships that they experience as mature and loving. They draw upon conceptions of nature that do not allow for the possibility of natural same-sex relations. As such, they doubt or deny that homosexuality really exists as a natural phenomenon. As such, they find that the Bible does cover all cases of same-sex relationship, even though it does not acknowledge the reality of homosexuality. Since homosexuality is not a reality, it need not be acknowledged.
The upshot is that our discussion of the Bible and homosexuality has as much to do with our own experiences and judgments as it does to do with the text of the Bible. This should be no surprise. The Bible does not read itself, and while the Bible does not say anything about homosexuality, we have a great deal to say on the subject. It is inevitable that we will continue to bring this with us as we struggle with the meaning of the Biblical text.
* All Scripture quotes are taken from the NRSV with occasional changes to posit translational problems for the alternate, anti-sex world.