2013-12-02

Two Christian Views on Same-Sex Relationships

It's a "Modern Family", but is it a "Biblical" family? Depends on how you read the Bible! 

I wrote both of the following mini-essays at various times in my journey with Jesus. They reflect two different viewpoints on the same issue held by one person over time. There are thoughtful, Christ-centered, Biblical Christians on both sides of this issue. Those who support gays and lesbians may find the first essay offensive, while those who challenge them may feel the same about the second essay. I will begin with a brief look at the only Scripture passages which deal with the issue of same-sex intercourse.

After that, I will move on to present two different Christian interpretations, derived from Scripture and attempting to be faithful to Scripture. The first challenges gays and lesbians on the issue of sexuality and sin, while welcoming them in faith to support them in their struggle. The second welcomes our gay brothers and lesbian sisters in the faith, and sees their sexuality as a gift from God that is as different from heterosexuality as celibacy is. This second essay is a concise summary of research I explored more deeply in another essay on Homosexuality and the Christian Faith.


1. Scriptures which deal with same-sex intercourse:

To begin the discussion about various Christian viewpoints on same-sex relationships, it is helpful to start at the source: The Scriptures in the Bible which deal with same-sex sexual activity. While the Bible has dozens or hundreds of passages that deal with a number of topics (such as the nature of God, moral integrity, how you spend money, prayer, etc.), it only has 5-10 passages that touch on the issue of same-sex relations. In looking at these passages, the key question we must ask is: How are the cultural issues being addressed in these passages similar to, or different from, 21st century gay and lesbian persons who are seeking the legal protections of marriage so that they may have families, just like heterosexual couples? With this question in mind, let's look at the Biblical data:

Leviticus 18:22-23   [22] You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination*.  [23] You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.

Leviticus 20:13  If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination*; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

*Note that the word "abomination" (the Hebrew word toh-ey-vah) is a word reserved specifically for ritual sexual acts done in the worship of a foreign god or goddess. The whole context of Leviticus is for the Levites, which is the group of priests and servants who led God's people in worship. Specifically, this section of Leviticus deals with maintaining purity for worship, and avoiding ritual prostitution in the service of the true God. Many of the pagan nations used temple prostitutes (both male and female) in the worship of their gods and goddesses, and incorporated sex acts that included male-female, male-male, and human-animal varieties, all of which were outlawed for Levites. More on this below.

Genesis 19 [Abraham and angelic visitors go to rescue Lot from Sodom. A mob of men from the town demands:] "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them [sexually]*." (verse 5)

Judges 19:16-24 [While a prophet is on a visit to the Israelite town of Gibeah] "the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said… Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him*." (verse 22)

*Note that both of these passages deal with the act of rape: Using sex as a way of asserting dominance and ownership over another person. It was common in ancient warfare for the winning side to gang rape the loosing side, especially their commanders, to show dominance over them. These passages are not depicting gays (or lesbians) who wish to form life-long partnerships, but rather sociopathic rapists seeking to control and dominate others through sexual violence.

1Kings 14:24, 15:12, and 2Kings 23:7 refer to "male temple prostitutes" as one of the problems in Israel. In other Scriptures there are dozens more references to female temple prostitutes. In ancient polytheistic societies of southern Europe and the near East, it was not uncommon that some (not all) of the gods and goddesses could be worshipped and petitioned by having sex with priests or priestesses who represented the deity. This is because in ancient society, the priest/ess was considered a living embodiment of the divine being, and having physical union with the priest/ess brought one into union with the divine. Indeed, for male worshippers, leaving a deposit of seed in the body of the priest/ess literally united their essence with the god/dess, and could bring about favor, good luck, and blessing. This type of predatory sexuality, whereby the worshipper uses another human in an effort to secure the favor of the god/dess, was strictly forbidden by the God of the Bible on the basis of avoiding idolatry (worship of false gods), and on the basis of establishing justice (not using or abusing humans made in God's image). Thus, in the Hebrew Bible all forms of cultic prostitution are outlawed: Male-Female, Male-Male, and Human-Animal.

The Gospels: Silence. Nothing is said by Jesus about this issue.

Romans 1:24-27   [Paul follows the pattern of teaching in Leviticus chs. 17-20, which deals with idolatry, then predatory sexuality, then social disorder. Following his section on idolatry, he says:] [24] Therefore God gave humans up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves,  [25] because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.  [26] For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural,  [27] and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

*Note that in Romans, Paul is clearly following the order laid out in Leviticus and is summarizing their meaning for a group of largely Gentile readers. As such, he ties same-sex intercourse with cultic prostitution, just as Leviticus does. Also, the phrase "women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural" does not refer to female-female sex acts. The Bible says nothing at all about Lesbian relations. Rather, this is a comment on Leviticus 18 and 20 which outlaws female-animal sex acts.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11  [9] Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes*, sodomites*,  [10] thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.  [11] And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Timothy 1:9-11 [9] ...The Law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, [10] fornicators, sodomites*, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching [11] that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God...

*While these passages may also be dealing with ritual prostitution, the Greek words for "sodomite" and "male prostitutes" also take on a specific meaning in regards to the Greco-Roman practice of older males having sex with pubescent boys. "Male prostitute" literally translates as "soft, luxurious, or effeminate". This often referred to the younger, softer, passive partner in such a relationship. Many times older male prostitutes would shave their bodies and make themselves appear more effeminate to emulate younger boys. The word "sodomite" refers to the older adult male who would use such boys and boy-like prostitutes. So these passages have in mind predatory sexual practices such as cultic prostitution and "pederasty" (the use of a younger male by an older man).

Now, like any other topic of Biblical research, you will find scholars who support, and scholars who deny, the basic outline above. Some will insist that even though these passages do not exactly deal with the issues surrounding same-sex "marriage" in our culture, the sheer fact that they condemn same-sex acts, leads us to condemn such acts today. They will further point out that nowhere in the Bible does it affirm same-sex relationships. Others will say that the issues presented in the Bible are so vastly different from our current cultural situation that we simply cannot compare. The Scriptures are silent on the issue, so we must find another basis to think about these issues. Still others will say that the Bible is for any type of relationship that can create Christ-like Love and healthy, nurturing family systems. And thus, on this basis, loving, monogamous, consensual gay and lesbian unions are not only permissible, but encouraged by Scripture. The two essays below will bring out the main points arguing "against" and "for" Christian acceptance of gays and lesbians.

2. A Conservative, Challenging Christian Response to Gays and Lesbians [Based on material composed 2001-2003]:

To get perspective on the issue of the Christian response to homosexuality, we must begin with what the Bible emphasizes and de-emphasizes. The Bible spends thousands of verses exhorting people to turn to Christ, to Love God and our neighbors, and to help the needy, the poor and the destitute.  The Bible spends thousands of words preaching against the greedy, the selfish, the godless, and the cruel.  In contrast, the Bible only talks about homosexual behavior in a handful of places (see above).

Out of these verses, homosexual acts in general are clearly condemned in only three places (Lev 18:22, 20:13; Rom 1:21-27), while those who practice homosexual sex with male prostitutes or younger boys are condemned twice (1Co. 6:9; 1Tim. 1:10).  In the other verses, homosexual activity is described, but what is condemned is the idolatry, selfishness, abuse, and adultery that surrounds the homosexual acts. In short, the clear teaching of Scripture and Church Tradition is the following:

1. The norm for human sexuality is one man and one woman in living in a lifetime commitment sexually and emotionally (Gen 1:27-28, 2:18-25; Mat 19:4-6).  Everything outside of this norm, including homosexuality, is adultery and sexual sin (Deu 5:18; Lev 18 & 20; Mat 5:27-28; Eph 5:3).

2. Homosexual acts are clearly deviations from God's perfect will for humanity and are thus sinful. This is not only because of the prohibition of homosexual activity and the Biblical norm of heterosexual marriage (listed above). It is also because of natural law. Naturally, homosexual acts cannot create new life and give birth to children, which is one of the fundamental purposes of human sexuality (see Genesis 1-2).

3. Homosexual acts, while sinful, do not rank as God's top concerns, nor do they make it on God's "big two" or "top ten" list (see Mat 22:37-40; Deu 5:6-21).  If one takes the Bible as an indicator about how God feels about things, then you would have to conclude that God cares a lot more about how we spend our money, and whether we help the needy, than about whether someone is gay.

4. Homosexuals, like any other sinners (and we all sinners), are beloved by Christ and can be saved by grace through faith (see Eph 2:8-10). Paul, speaking to a group of Corinthians who had once been involved in various sins, including homosexual acts, said "that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1Co 6:11).

Neither the Church nor the Bible has any clear or definitive stance on what causes homosexuality, other than living in a sinful world (see Rom 1).  Homosexuality's causes may be biological, social, or spiritual, depending on the person.  In the long run, the cause of homosexuality has little to say about its rightness or wrongness.

Take me, for instance. Due to biological, social, and/or spiritual causes, I am predisposed to get obese.  This does not give me the right to engage in gluttony and eat all I want. Due to biological, social, and/or spiritual causes, I am predisposed to fits of rage and anger.  This does not make it right for me to beat up someone who offends me.  Due to biological, social, and/or spiritual causes, I am predisposed to be sexually attracted to many women.  This is not an excuse to commit adultery.  The cause of an act does not determine its rightness or wrongness, God does.  Through Christ we are given the ability to deal with any sinful tendencies we have, no matter what they may be (see Gal 5:16-23; Phi 4:13-19).

We do know that homosexual orientation, like heterosexual orientation, is usually very deeply embedded in a person's psyche and often beyond a conscious choice to change.  We also know that gays and lesbians tend to suffer from more depression and anxiety than the "straight" population, and that gay men have a greater risk for sexually transmitted infections and sexual "injuries".  None of this, however, matters in Christ.  No one is an accident or beyond redemption.  Through Christ and the power of His Spirit we believe that anyone, straight or gay, can be redeemed and used for God's glory.  Sometimes this includes a miraculous "conversion" to heterosexuality, as many "ex-gay" organizations claim.  But, usually this includes a life of struggle in which Christ's power helps us through our weaknesses and sexual temptations (1Co 10:13, 12:7-10; Mat 10:37-39).

For this reason, the Church should not ordain people who are having problems with open, unrepentant sin.  We should not ordain those with mental illness, drug addiction, problems with honesty and integrity, and those in open sexual sin.  This includes not ordaining practicing homosexuals.  We can ordain non-practicing homosexuals.  We can also welcome those struggling with homosexuality into the family of God and around the table of the Lord's Supper.  We love and cherish our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ, but we can only ordain those who have a track record of faithfully practicing a Biblical lifestyle.

3. A Progressive, Supportive Christian Response to Gays and Lesbians [Composed 2009-2011]:

Our sexuality is a gift from God which reflects God's image in us. From the beginning, Scripture shows that sex between a faithfully married man and woman is the normative standard for human sexuality (cf. Gen 1, 2; Mat 19; Eph 5). In "traditional marriage", we have a living analogy to the Holy Trinity, in which the joyous union of persons in covenantal commitment gives birth to new life (just as the shared Love of the Trinity overflows into the creation and redemption of the universe).

Yet, this does not mean that other forms of monogamous, lifetime relationships are therefore wrong. For instance, the Son of God himself, and the Apostle Paul, were both celibate, non-married Jewish men, at a time when all Jewish men were culturally expected to marry and have children. So clearly, there are other forms of sexual life beyond "traditional marriage" that are pleasing to God.

In the ancient world, the figure of the Eunuch represented the "sexually other" who did not fit into the norm of "traditional marriage". Eunuchs, being castrated and socially excluded from "normal" heterosexual life, often either lived lives of celibacy, or entered into long term relationships with other Eunuchs whom they had social access to. Yet, even "sexually other" eunuchs are explicitly given full inclusion in God's people on the basis of faith, baptism, and obedience (cf. Isa 56; Mat 19; Acts 8).

In fact, our current understanding of same-sex attraction and orientation, and the desire of same-sex couples to live together in a covenantal relationship, is simply unknown in the Bible. The texts which describe same-sex intercourse between males (cf. Lev 18, 20; Rom 1; 1Co 6) explicitly link various forms of ritual prostitution to the worship of idols, including male-female, human-animal, and male-male sex acts. In addition, the practice of Greek man-boy prostitution was probably being critiqued in the New Testament. In all cases, what is being critiqued is idol worship and prostitution, both of which are mockeries of God's faithful covenant Love.

Thus these texts have as little to say against "gay unions" as texts outlawing heterosexual prostitution have to say against "traditional marriage". That is to say: The Bible outlaws heterosexual prostitution as a demeaning and unjust form or predatory sexuality. But does outlawing heterosexual prostitution thereby outlaw heterosexual marriage? By no means! On the contrary, outlawing prostitution is part of affirming the sacredness of marriage, and the necessity of faithfulness to one's spouse. In the same way, the Scriptures that outlaw same-sex cultic prostitution do not outlaw same-sex unions. Rather, they implicitly encourage a faithful, lifetime commitment for those who are gay or lesbian, rather than engaging in predatory sexual practices.

Furthermore, the majority of those who identify themselves as gay or lesbian in our culture cannot and should not be "transformed" into heterosexuals (or made to act as if they are). Their sexual orientation is pre-conscious and pre-pubescent, and comes from the complex web of causal factors in genetics, fetal growth, socialization, and psychological makeup that influences ALL sexual orientation.

Gays and lesbians are made by God through secondary causes to be who they are, just like heterosexuals. To try and change this core element of who they are is to risk damaging the whole person, and denying who God made them to be. Furthermore, the majority of gays and lesbians, like the majority of heterosexuals, are simply not given the "gift" of celibacy (cf. 1Co 7). For most of us, our "gift" is an innate yearning to share our lives and bodies intimately with another person as our lifelong Companion.

In addition, there is abundant evidence of gay and lesbian couples who have remained faithful for decades, adopted, raised families, and endured life's greatest trials together. In many of these relationships, we find that they are more loving, more faithful, more generous, more spiritual, and more reflective of Christ's character than they would be if they had tried to live a celibate life, and not built a family with someone else. So, faithful, loving, lifetime "covenant unions" between gays and lesbians clearly do not threaten "traditional marriage" or society at large. Any way of life that encourages and produces Christlike Love actually strengthens society and every family within it.

While God's "perfect" desire for human sexuality includes the fruitful procreation of children, it is also clear that God's "perfect" desire for all human relationships is the fruitful production of Christlike Love (cf. Gal 5; Mat 7). If a relationship naturally produces faithful, lifelong, Christ-like Love, but it does not naturally produce children, it is still a relationship that honors God. The only type of sexual relationship that dishonors God is one in which people use one another for temporary sexual pleasure, without vowing to share their entire lives with each other until death parts them.

Just as our understanding of slavery and civil rights developed over time by prayerfully meditating on the meaning of Scripture, so also it seems that our understanding of sexuality is developing too. Therefore, since same-sex unions are not dealt with in Scripture, and since Scripture opens the door for the inclusion of the "sexual other" in the case of Eunuchs and even Jesus himself, and since a same-sex union is the closest approximation available to "traditional marriage" for gays and lesbians not gifted with celibacy, it seems that the most Christian sexual ethic possible is the following:

Straights, Gays, and Lesbians should all seek God's will for their sexuality, first considering whether celibacy may be a vocation for them. If they are not gifted with celibacy, they should try to save their sexual expression for the Companion who they will make a covenant with for the rest of their lives. All who faithfully seek to model God's covenant love in their sexuality, whether celibate, married, or in a covenant union, should be upheld by the prayers and support of the Church, and be able to exercise their leadership gifts in the Church and in society.

4. A Short Bibliography:

[I] My long-form essay on Homosexuality and the Christian Faith can be found HERE. A concise, but deeply simplified version can be found in this five minute video by Matthew Vines.

[II] For researching the texts that are frequently used to deal with homosexuality (Leviticus 18.22; 20:13; Genesis 19; Romans 1:24-27; 1Corinthians 6:9; 1Timothy 1:10):
1. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. By Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas.
2. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. By Keener.
3. The Interpretation Biblical Commentary Series by Westminister-John Knox Press. See these volumes: "Leviticus" by Samuel Balentine; "Romans" by Paul Achtemeier; "1 Corinthians" by Richard Hays; "I & II Timothy and Titus" by Thomas Oden

[III] Conservative, "Challenging" sources:
1. New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology. Intervarsity Press. Ed. David J. Atkinson. See articles on homosexuality and sexual morality.
2. Mere Christianity. By CS Lewis. See Book 3, chapters 5-6.
3. Catholic Christianity. By Peter Kreeft. See Part II, chapter 8.
4. Christian Ethics. By Norman Geisler. See chapter 14.
5. Can Homosexuality be Healed? By Francis McNutt.
6. Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church's Moral Debate. By Stanton Jones.

[IV] Progressive, "Supportive" sources:
1. Homosexuality and the Christian Faith: Questions of Conscience for the Churches. Edited by Walter Wink.
2. The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues. By Victor Paul Furnish. See chapter III.
3. The Christian Moral Vision. By Earl Brill. See pp. 91-94.
4. Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. By John Boswell.
5. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. By Peter J. Gomes. See Chapter 8.
6. A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith. By Brian D. Mclaren. See Chapter 17.

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