There are a number of passages in scripture which appear to address the matter of sexual relationships between people of the same gender. They have often been (mis)used to “clobber” LGBTIQA+ people by Christians.
This small handful of scripture passages have exercised an inordinately huge influence on the church—and, indeed, on society as a whole—in relation to various matters associated with same-gender relationships and the range of gender identities which exist amongst humanity.
Over the past 25 years, Elizabeth and I have regularly taught about these passages, providing a constructive way of understanding each of them. In keeping with the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia, the way we approach these biblical texts is to draw on the insights of critical scholarship in order to develop a clear understanding of what is, and what is not, referred to in these passages.
This is consistent with the commitment of the church to “sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought”, through drawing on “the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries”, which leads to the articulation of “an informed faith” (para 15). There are many insights about gender identity and sexual relationships that have been gained over the past decades, from work undertaken in medical, psychological, sociological, and biological arenas.
In surveying these passages, it is to be noted that none of them must, by necessity, be seen as weapons to be used to “clobber” LGBTIQ people. Each passage needs to be understood within its context. Careful scholarly work has been undertaken to indicate just how this interpretative process illuminates these texts, and does not provide any warrant for their earlier negative, hurtful, and harmful use, by the church, against LGBIQ people.
Language. The first thing to note is that the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek languages, so there are questions about how particular words should be translated, whether there are exact equivalences in English, and so on. A key observation is that many translations use the word “homosexual” where the original language actually requires more nuance in translation.
Culture. A second factor is that we need to reflect on the cultural customs of the societies within which the Bible came to be written. It is important to consider how these cultural customs have shaped the way in which the words were written. “Homosexuality” is a modern concept, which was not known to the writers of the biblical texts in the way that we understand it. Scripture does not show awareness of the loving, committed, lifelong relationship of two people of the same gender. There is a clear cultural difference between the world of the texts of scripture, and the 21st century world.
Leviticus 18 and 20: Neither the oft-quoted verse about same-gender sex (Leviticus 18:22), nor a similar statement two chapters later (Leviticus 20:13), are dealing primarily with same gender relationships, but about cultural shaming practices, using power to create inequality in relationship. This text occurs in a section of Leviticus called “The Holiness Code” which has as its main purpose to set out laws to keep Israel different from the surrounding cultures.
The rules in this section of Leviticus were meant to set the Israelites apart from the Canaanites and Egyptians, who at that time participated in fertility rites in their temples that involved different forms of sex, including homosexual sex. Male-to-male sex was seen to mix the roles of man and woman and such “mixing of kinds” during ancient times was defined as an “abomination,” in the same way that mixing different kinds of seeds in a field was an abomination.
These verses critique the practice in which a stronger male seeks to subordinate and demean a weaker male, through sexual activity. This is what is declared to be an “abomination”. This abusive and shaming action is not what we are talking about when we refer to same gender relationships today: committed, loving, long-term relationships between two equal people.
Genesis 19:1–29: The same applies to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (told in Genesis 19). This story is an example of what happens when God’s people do not live up to God’s expectations. It provides a lesson about the importance of hospitality to the stranger—a key value in ancient Israelite society. The cruel men of the town were planning to rape the visitors and were definitely not homosexuals. The prophet Ezekiel, inspired by the spirit (Ezekiel 16:49-50), declares that this is not about sexual sin, but about the sin of not providing hospitality.
Judges 19:1–30: The terrible story of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) also deals with hospitality. It is clear that hostile men used a breach of hospitality protocols as a weapon against other men, seeking to shame the strangers in this way. Like the story of Sodom (Gen 19), this account shows the extremely inhospitable behaviour of the town. Some mistakenly interpret the townsmen’s behaviour to be somehow related to homosexuality, but this was an example of the brutality of one group of men toward a group of visitors. This, again, is not about a same-gender relationship where equality and mutuality are paramount. It is about violating a cultural norm in an abusive and violent manner.
Genesis 1:1–2:4a: This passage is not part of the “clobber passages”, but is included because it provides a clear affirmation that God made a good creation, and encouraged human beings to enter into positive relationships with each other within that good creation (Genesis 1–2). Our human expression of sexuality is one way of expressing the goodness of that creation. We ought not to exclude people who are attracted to people of the same gender from this understanding.
Romans 1:18–27: The behaviour which Paul was addressing here is explicitly associated with idol worship (probably temple prostitution). It is directed towards heterosexual people who searched for pleasure and broke away from their natural sexual orientation or their natural ways of having sex (both male and female) and participated in promiscuous sex with anyone available or used methods not culturally accepted.
In the surrounding culture, it was common for men of a higher status to take sexual advantage of male slaves or male prostitutes. Here Paul is instructing his readers to keep pure and honour God. Paul is talking about the use and misuse of power and authority and how that impacts one’s relationship with God. Paul didn’t have in mind specifically prohibiting consensual same-sex relationships, because they were never considered in his cultural context.
1 Corinthians 6:9–10: In Paul’s vice-list he identifies a list of sinners whom he declares will not be granted entry into the kingdom of God. Amongst the thieves and robbers, drunkards and “revilers” we find a number of sexual transgressions mentioned. This includes two critical words: malakoi and arsenokoites.
The term malakoi means “soft” and is also interpreted as male prostitutes. The word arsenokoites is difficult to translate, but it probably refers to a male using his superiority to take sexual advantage of another male. Paul is right to condemn these sexual activities, but this has nothing to do with a consensual homosexual relationship.
References to sexual sins in Paul’s letters (in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6) sit alongside a range of other sins, which are equally condemned, and equally challenging to our discipleship. It is quite legitimate to ask, why single one particular sin out?
Paul related all of these sins to idolatry, which, for him, was the fundamental sin. A loving relationship between people of the same gender is not idolatrous, but rather it can strengthen a sense of the value of human life which God desires for us. Paul was writing about the abuse of relationships, which is quite different from the expression of a loving, faithful relationship.
1 Timothy 1:8–11: This passage is similar to 1 Cor 6, above. This time it is a list of sins (as opposed to sinners) and includes the words pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes. Each term needs to be clearly understood. The word pornos most likely refers to a male having sex outside of marriage, presumably with a female (but also, feasibly, with a male); the second term, arsenokoites (found also in 1 Cor 6) can probably be defined as male same-sex relationships that involved some level of exploitation, inequality or abuse. Finally, andrapodistes can be translated as “slave traders.”
Scholars believe that the three terms were used together in that slave dealers (andrapodistes) would be acting as pimps for captured boys (pornos) who would be taken advantage of by powerful men (arsenokoites). These are sins that certainly need to be addressed, but this particular passage does not relate to homosexuals in a committed relationship.
Jesus: In all four Gospels, Jesus rarely discusses sexuality; when he does, there is very little detail. This topic rates as of only tiny significance for him, alongside the greatest focus which Jesus had—on wealth and poverty, and the importance of serving those on the edge, those who are in need. There is no saying or parable of Jesus that directly addresses the situation of LGBTIQ people in particular—apart from the fact that such people are part of the whole of humanity who are addresses in the same way by Jesus in all of his teachings.
From this very brief survey of key passages, we are able to affirm that the most important conclusion to draw from the scholarly explorations of relevant biblical texts, is this: what God wants from human beings, is a commitment to loving, respectful relationships, a commitment to long-term, hopefully lifelong, relationships. In short, the specific genders of people in relationships is less important than the quality of relationship shown between individuals in relationship with each other.
In the Church, we affirm that God is faithful—that those who diligently seek to know the will of God, will be upheld and loved by God. God is not disturbed by differences of opinion; God made a diverse creation, and God honours our search for truth within that creation.
In Jesus, we see the key attributes of God, lived out in a human life. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union declares that “in his life and in his death, he made a response of humility, obedience and trust” (para 3). These are the key qualities of a faithful life. These qualities are the controlling lenses through which we should read the biblical texts, and develop our understanding of sexuality and marriage.
A heterosexual relationship, at its best, will exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first. So too can a same genderrelationship. Medical, psychological, and social explorations show that a relationship between two people of the same gender, can itself exhibit the best of human qualities, and demonstrate the finest moral values in human relationship. It can certainly exhibit mutual respect, deep love, faithful commitment, and personal humility in placing the other as first.
Reinterpretation for the present age. Throughout the New Testament, we can see places where NT writers offer radical reinterpretations of the norms of their cultural and religious practices. The accounts of the ministry of Jesus tell us of Jesus’ affirmation of women, his willingness to break religious law by healing on the Sabbath, and his redefining of aspects of Jewish law in the light of his message of the coming kingdom.
The accounts of the early Church include instances where redefinition and breakthrough took place: most strikingly, in Acts 10, as we have already noted. This chapter tells the story of Peter, who was a faithful adherent to a long-established pattern of eating in the manner that was set forth in the laws of Leviticus. He was told that what he did not eat—because it was “unclean”—he was now free to eat—because God had declared such food “clean”.
This opened the way, in the early church, to a new way of inclusive table fellowship where Jews and Gentiles are welcome to eat and share together. Who is to say that the spirit, which once moved in this way, is now not able to move in a similar way, and to declare what some consider “unclean” to be “clean”—and that we can rejoice in this!
In Ephesians, a standard Hellenistic pattern (a “household table”) is adapted to instruct husbands and wives. Eph 5:21–33, while appearing on the surface to reinforce patriarchal norms of wives submitting to husbands, actually instructs husbands to love their wives with self-sacrificing love (“as Christ gave himself for the Church”) and encompasses all marriage relationships under the heading, “submit yourselves to one another”. This was a radical reinterpretation of the marriage relationship itself, even within the first few decades of the life of the church.
The biblical account shows that the spirit comes to faithful people, offers a vision of a new way, and opens hearts and minds to a greater vision which broadens the impact of the good news and reinvigorates missional activity. In the Uniting Church, we seek to walk in that new way, faithful to the witness of scripture, and open to the guidance of the Spirit, accepting of new insights and welcoming to all.
This post formed the basis for a presentation by Elizabeth and myself at the Rainbow Christian Alliance on 8 August 2021. A follow-up presentation on passages from scripture that support an inclusive and affirming attitude on 14 November 2021; see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/30/affirming-and-inclusive-passages-from-scripture/