With the much-publicized cases of two Episcopal appointments last year, the problem of gay Christians rumbles on. An enormous volume of literature has been published, particularly in America. While some admit that the Bible has no room for homosexual practices, others move heaven and earth to show that scriptural teaching can be accommodated to permit loving gay relationships between consenting adults.
The issue is bedevilled by refusal on the part of the gay lobby to make any distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual practices. Some no doubt may adopt the view that the former is susceptible to a Christian 'cure'. Arguably there is evidence that this has been the experience of some. But not only is there nothing in the Bible to justify insistence on this possibility, but a major tragedy in the present situation is that suspicion now tends to fall on same-sex companions who choose, say, to share a house, as if this is already a fall from grace.
By contrast the relevant biblical passages all deal with overt sexual expression. They fall into three categories: (a) Old Testament (Genesis 9:22; 19:8; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13); (b) Jesus' teaching; and (c) other New Testament evidence (Romans 1:18ff; I Cor 6: 9; I Tim 1:10).
Old Testament passages
As far as Ham’s misdemeanour and the men of Sodom are concerned, attempts have been made to gainsay their relevance. With Ham disrespect for his father is a factor and much has been made of the claim that the Sodomites were not so much homosexual as inhospitable! In both cases, however, it is likely that in origin, the homosexual issue was present, and (an important factor) it certainly became the dominant issue as the latter passage took its place in the developing canon of Scripture. However, it may be admitted that in both of these cases other considerations apply which make them dubious starting points for countering the plea that they are irrelevant for the kind of relationships which the gay lobby is intent on defending.
This is not the case with the legislation in Leviticus. It is clear both from the Hebrew of Levit 18:22 itself and from its context in a list where other sexual aberrations are mentioned before and after, that it is the principle of same-sex intercourse which is at stake here. Unlike other behaviour mentioned, it is singled out to be called an abomination, though a similarly strong word, which probably means a violation of nature, is used immediately of bestiality (v 23). This teaching is often dismissed as relating to a very ancient period of Israel’s history. But apart from the possibility that Leviticus was formed as a charter for returning exiles in the late sixth century BC, such an objection counts without the way in which the Old Testament was being constantly updated. The Greek translation c.250 BC effectively endorsed the authority of the Hebrew, and this translation became the early Christians’ Bible.
Much is made of the fact that the subject of homosexuality was never mentioned by Jesus. However, one may legitimately claim that the portmanteau word used in the plural for 'acts of sexual immorality' at Mark 7:21 is likely to be a reference to the Leviticus passage and therefore to have included homosexual practices. Would anybody argue for the acceptability of incest or bestiality simply because they were not explicitly mentioned in the Gospels? In any case, when there are a large number of references to homosexual practices in Jewish literature of the time, making it clear that there was a great gulf fixed between Jews and Gentiles on this issue, it is quite implausible that Jesus should have been permissive in this respect, especially since on the question of adultery and divorce (Matthew 5:27-32) he was stricter than his contemporaries. Jesus, like Paul, as we shall see, appealed to the creation narrative to settle a sexual issue. Is it likely, as we come to the very explicit teaching of the Apostle, that, with such intimate contact with Jesus’ closest friends, he could have expressed so forthrightly a view completely out of keeping with what he would have believed with good reason to be the mind of Christ?
The reason for objecting to homosexual practices in the mind of Jewish writers who mention them is that in the case of males, the masculinity of one of the partners is threatened, since he is obliged to play the role of a woman. Such an objection is based on the notion of male superiority, as also in Assyrian legal texts of the late second millennium BC and somewhat later Babylonian omen texts. It reflects the poor image that women had throughout the ancient world. Interestingly Paul’s reasons for objecting give no hint of this, no doubt as a result of the re-evaluation of women for which Paul himself was in no small measure responsible. For him, two factors are crucial.
First, he sees proclivity to homosexual practices as a fittingly severe punishment for something more fundamental. To worship an idol rather than the God who has clearly revealed himself is a gross inversion of the true order of things. This, Paul says, results in an inability to avoid a similarly gross distortion in the realm of human relationships. Thus, especially with the rather odd use of 'females' and 'males' (Romans 1:27) where one would have expected the ordinary words for women and men, he appeals to the account of the creation of 'male and female' in Genesis 1:27, where the same words occur in the Greek version. He equates this with an appeal to nature (note the threefold use of this idea in the same verse), by which he certainly means the sexual complementarity and procreative potentiality of man and woman, possibly also the analogy of the whole heterosexual animal world. It is this emphasis on nature and creative purpose which makes any objection that the teaching of the Bible is culturally worlds apart from today difficult to sustain.
The question why lesbian activity is put first (Romans 1:27) has been much discussed. The best reason is that whereas certain types of male same-sex activity were acceptable in the Gentile world, lesbianism was universally deplored. By expressing himself as he does Paul makes the point that it is the principle in both cases which is the same: as much as to say, 'You can see that lesbianism is unnatural: you need to see that the same is true of same-sex intimacy between males'.
Secondly, in I Corinthians 6:11, Paul mentions the 'passive' and 'active' partners in a same-sex act. In the case of the latter, he uses a rare word, perhaps even one that he coined himself (lit. 'male-bedder) but likely in any case to be modelled on Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. This is particularly so as Jewish rabbinical literature (incidentally in cases not confined to where one partner was a minor) refers to Levitical teaching on such behaviour with an expression exactly matching in Hebrew the formation of the Greek word in I Corinthians 6:11 (cf. I Timothy 1:10). The choice of this word again argues convincingly for the objective of expressing the fundamental principle infringed in same-sex intimacy. Hence probably the word for the passive partner is misleadingly restricted by the NIV’s translation, 'male prostitute'. In any case, the dependence on the teaching of Leviticus probably seen in Romans 1 as well as here in I Corinthians 6:11 makes any disparagement of the Mosaic law as antiquated beside the point: it is explicitly endorsed here by New Testament teaching.
Of course, even in Christian circles some do not think that what emerges from scripture on this subject should necessarily have the last word. Those who do think this need to know that many sophisticated, and in some cases bizarre, attempts have been made to circumvent its plain meaning in order to allow for certain types of same-sex intimacy: the Bible, it is said, is directing its strictures, say, to male prostitution or child abuse. The claim of this article is that no such arguments have succeeded in shaking a straightforward interpretation of the passages discussed above as prohibiting all same-sex intercourse.
The Rev John Job is a supernumary minister in Chesterfield and the former Old Testament toutor at Cliff College.
Headline Spring 2004 pp 7-8.