The Bible and Homosexuality
How, as a gay man, am I to conform to the image of Christ?
This article is written primarily for those who experience a same-sex sexual and emotional attraction. It is hoped that it will help people to find a way off the battlefield that is, the current theological debate raging over the issue of homosexuality and the consequences of accepting gay people in the Church. This debate has been likened to a football match between liberals and conservatives, with those of us to whom the arguments pertain forced to stand on the sidelines and passively await the conclusion of the match. I, for one, want to cry, ‘Enough already! It is my life that you’re kicking the crap out of and I’m a person, not an issue for theological debate!’
The following discussion is based on the assumption that humanity is called to conform to the image of God. Human beings are created with the potential (and given the choice), as to whether we will conform to the image of our creator or seek to revert to the image of the created. We are called to conform to the image of a relational being who above all else is love. Or, as has been suggested, if you were to subtract love from God, there would be nothing left.
To be Christian is to cooperate with God’s Holy Spirit in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ, who is part of what we know as God for to know Jesus is to know God. Fundamental to this process is that I experience relationships of such intimacy that I am motivated to let go of my own preoccupation with myself and seek to prefer others.
It is natural for humanity to be self-centred; it is God’s call that we become like them (the Trinity) i.e. other-centred. As a gay man, whose primary orientation is towards Christ, how am I to be conformed to the image of Christ? That is the question this article will seek to address.
Those of us who have been around the church for some time are usually well aware of the relevant biblical passages that deal with same-sex sexual relationships. I exclude from this list Genesis 19, the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, because even the most right-wing of interpreters (who think this story is about homosexuality) can only suggest that the crime which provoked God’s judgement was that of gang rape. I have no desire to defend rape of any kind, but to suggest that all expressions of erotic intimacy between same-sex couples are tantamount to rape would be an equally grievous assault on the truth. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel explains the reason for God’s wrath against Sodom and Gomorrah:
‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’
Ezekiel 16:49,50 (NIV)
The more relevant biblical passages that I shall be referring to are to be found in the book of Leviticus, (18:22 and 20:13), which state: ‘you shall not lie with a male, as with a woman; it is an abomination.’ These verses seem to form the basis of Paul’s ethical teaching on the subject in Romans 1:26,27; 1 Corinthians 6:911 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
Before discussing these texts, it would be helpful to look at some of the broader issues raised when seeking to apply ethical material from the Bible.
Differences in cultural perspectives
The first and most obvious point to raise is that the Book of Leviticus depicts a nomadic/pastoral society that existed approximately four thousand years ago; the New Testament, a settled agricultural society of approximately two thousand years ago. What is practically impossible to do is to shed our late twentieth century post-modern post-industrial worldview and inhabit the worldview of these previous societies.
For example, we all know the commandment ‘thou shall not commit adultery’. We interpret this, according to our worldview, as a prohibition of sex outside the monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. In the nomadic society for which it was written, a man could have many wives and even concubines1 were permitted. What was illegitimate was to use another man’s wife. For our forebears, the implications of the commandment were radically different than for us, with our late twentieth-century interpretation of the same commandment. Though the commandment against committing adultery granted protection for the wife and family, in reality, in a patriarchal society, it became a means of ensuring that women remained the property of men and their subservience ensured. The fact that in our modern times women are no longer seen as the property of men is a recent phenomenon, but one that I would argue is far more in keeping with the heart of God. Of course this in no way negates the command that forbids adultery, but one should realise that the way in which the command is implemented varies according to changes in social circumstances. The command is good but one should consider the scriptures as a whole, when seeking its application to specific situations.
We read the commandment ‘thou shall not steal’ and apply it indiscriminately, failing to notice the social provision inherent within the law that made it practically impossible to have a member of society so impoverished as to face the dilemma that they steal or starve. The fact that the Bible also reveals that society could never live up to the ideals of the law (pointing us to Christ as the remedy for our sinfulness) merely confirms the relevance of scripture in depicting the relationship between reality and the ideal. We should, however, notice that when a society has reputedly based itself on a foundation of biblical principles, the exponents of these principles have often tended to be selective with the laws they seek to apply to their society!
In the Church today, even the most conservative among evangelicals generally choose to ignore Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:3537, Deuteronomy 23:1920 and Ezekiel 18:8, 13 and 17, where the Bible clearly and unequivocally prohibits the lending of money at interest! Of course our capitalist economies could not exist if this prohibition was enforced. This prohibition is clearly evident in the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament and was upheld for some considerable time in the early church. In Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, the money-lender Shylock is a Jew supposed to emphasise how odious the profession was still considered in Elizabethan times.
In the gospels (Matthew 19:9) we have Jesus giving strong teaching against remarriage for those who have been divorced. Yet most churches welcome, on pastoral grounds, remarried divorcees into their congregations and no longer see this as an impediment to their full involvement and utilisation of their gifts and talents.
The majority of modern Protestant Churches have accepted women into Church leadership, despite Paul’s apparently strong objections to the idea. People are now prepared to recognise that Paul wrote to specific situations and these writings do not have to be literally applied as universal absolutes.
The Command to Love: The Universal Absolute
This always raises the question as to whether the Bible contains universal absolutes? To which the answer is: ‘Of course the Bible contains a universal absolute!’ Uniquely it was Jesus who, while clearly human to those he lived with, through his death and resurrection proved he was more than that; his followers came to realise that he was also divine. It was Jesus who gave us our universal absolute, found most succinctly in John 13:3435,
‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’
In 13:23 John refers to himself as the disciple whom Jesus loved; when he heard the words of this command, he was lying with his head on Jesus’ chest. John knew what it was to be loved by Jesus and that those who choose to follow Jesus should, above all, love each other. This theme runs through his gospel and his epistles.
Both Matthew 22:3640 and Mark 12:2834 record Jesus being asked which is the greatest commandment? Jesus answered that the whole Law can be summarised by just two commandments Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. The Love command was not new; Jesus only brought it into focus as the true absolute requirement for life within the people of the covenant. It had already been spelled out: Leviticus 19:18 says, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord’, and verse 33 commands its readers to love the alien as yourself, because those to whom it was written knew what it was to be an alien when they were slaves in Egypt. Most of the judgement that fell on both Judea and Israel came, not so much because of their rebellion against God’s commands which forbade involvement in performing cultic rituals, but principally because they failed to operate with mercy and justice on those less fortunate in society (see Ezekiel 16:49,50 quoted above, and also 34:211).
Living by Grace
Throughout the Bible we see a conflict depicted a conflict that still rages within the heart of most of the believing community. To accept God’s grace and learn to love as he first loved us will inevitably make us totally dependent on him. But we find this scary, because it means we must surrender control. So we seek an easier option that of conforming to a set of rules by which we can justify ourselves.
Jesus taught that the inevitable consequence of this strategy is to marginalise those who cannot keep the rules. It was among those who had been rejected and marginalised because of their failure to keep the law that Jesus spent a great deal of his time. Paul, whilst reflecting on his own past and the attitude of his people, the Jews, acknowledged where he saw God working and was prompted to write:
‘Gentiles who did not strive for righteousness have attained it, that is a righteousness through faith; but Israel, who did strive for the righteousness that is based on the law did not succeed in fulfilling the law. Why not? Because they did not strive for it on a basis of faith, but as if it were based on works ... For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes’.
It is clear that Paul was not against the law, for he had already written in Roman 7:12 ‘the law is holy and the commandments are holy and just and good’. For Paul and his contemporaries, the law functioned to define sin. Paul writes in Romans 14:23 that ‘whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’. If I am not in relationship with God, I am a sinner; if I am a sinner then everything I do will be sin. If I try to live with part of my life yielded to God and part not, whatever is produced by that part of my life not yielded, however good it may appear, is sin. But God has given us an antidote to sin, through the death and resurrection of Christ. If however, through our attempts at self-justification, we marginalise people (including ourselves) and prohibit their access to God’s salvation, we must surely be grieving His heart.
The majority of Paul’s epistles were written as a pastoral solution to specific problems. Paul did not have what we call the New Testament, he only had the Old as a resource. We see in Romans and Galatians (the letters in which he most clearly deals with the law) that the law was given as a means of regulating relationships within the community of faith, not as a means of entry into that community. However, when the Israelites failed to keep the law, they were expelled by God from the land (the land being their blessing under the old covenant). God did this as a sign of their failure to keep the covenant.
Although when Jesus came to them they were back in the Promised Land, the old covenant remained broken, as signified by the continued occupation of the Land by foreign powers. They were still a nation under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:1013). But Jesus inaugurated a New Covenant and a New Kingdom, and as he proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:1821) he offered the people of Israel the way out from under the curse of the old covenant into the blessing of the new. Now, entry was no longer by birth or adoption into the Jewish community, but through faith in Jesus (being ‘born again’); it was Jesus who fulfilled all the requirements of the old covenant through his life, death and resurrection. Through the opening chapters of Acts we see that entry into the new covenant was not to be kept exclusively to the Jews but was to be made open to all. This is a quick résumé of my understanding of some of the highlights of Paul’s theology.
Paul was quite free with his handling of the Old Testament because he saw it no longer as binding but as the means of regulating relationships within the covenant community. Life within the new covenant was to be regulated by what Paul refers to as ‘the law of Christ’ (Galatians 6:2) which is to bear one another’s burdens as an act of other-centred love. This is not so much a law, in the Levitical sense, something that needed to be regulated, but a distillation of the wisdom of God. Its outworking was not to be through Law books and courts but through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In the new covenant, as predicted in Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, 9:2526, 31:3134 and Ezekiel 36:2627, the law would not be taught, but God would write it on the hearts of his people. We see that this was Paul’s understanding in Romans 2:2829 and 2 Corinthians 3:36, or as Paul writes in Romans 8:4, the objective of God’s saving action in Christ was to make possible the keeping of the law through the power of the spirit, ‘so that the just requirements of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ The guiding principles in Paul’s ethic are that actions should by guided by love. Where it is not obvious as to which path is the way of love, we have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We also have the covering of the grace of God if we inadvertently make a wrong choice.
The Old Testament Texts:
We learn from Leviticus 18:22 that, according to the law, it is an abomination for a man to lie with a man as with a woman. The very next verse prohibits sexual relationships with animals. The Hebrew Bible is wonderful in its earthiness and is seldom coy in expressing itself. As stated earlier, one cannot enter into the mind of an author who lived approximately four thousand years ago and deduce the exact nuances of what he was trying to convey. But I believe he was implying something more or at least different than merely prohibiting sexual relationships between men.
If we study the law codes and their punitive measures it becomes apparent that a presupposition behind the law is never to diminish the dignity of a man. A person was often put out of the community, usually by capital punishment (death being preferable to exile), but neither imprisonment nor mutilating of bodies, as in most contemporary law codes, were ever sanctioned2. If he was forced into slavery to make restitution, that sentence of slavery could never last more than seven years. For those who made restitution, and gave the sacrifices of atonement, forgiveness was available. We must recognise that the context in which this law was given is that in a patriarchal society it would be seen as degrading in the extreme for a man to be treated as a woman because women always lived in subjugation to a man, be it her father or her husband. Moreover, it was believed in those days that women added nothing to the man’s seed which he planted within her. She was merely a fertile (or a barren) environment in which that seed could be nurtured. For it was the semen that contained life (as they understood it) and so its inappropriate use (or waste) was an affront to God as the giver of all life, in the same way as the dietary prohibition of eating of blood.
The sanctity of life is a major theme of biblical ethics. Certainly within the Hebrew scripture, life was associated with body fluids, i.e. blood and semen. That is why an emission of either fluid made the person ceremonially unclean for the remainder of the day (the Hebrew day started and finished at sundown). This clarification helps in understanding the biblical response to the sin of Onan (Genesis 38:49), without detracting from his duplicity and his failure to uphold the Levitical custom that ensured the continuance of a close family member’s heritage.
Our understanding has been transformed, from believing that life is the semen, to recognising that in fact life is created when the male sperm fertilise the female ovum. That our understanding has moved on since the time of the writing of scripture need not in any way affect the underlying and fundamental principle that all life is sacred. But our advancement in knowledge and understanding has important ramifications for the outworking of that principle.
It is perhaps obvious, but still worth stating, that the Levitical prohibition is about external actions and does not address a person’s internal orientation. Today, it is widely accepted that sexual orientation is not a lifestyle choice but a growing realisation about who you are attracted to. As with all people, how one acts out their sexual orientation is a matter of choice and for those choices one is obliged to take responsibility. For the sake of clarity, let me repeat that the gender of those who form the primary object of sexual desire is not usually a matter of choice.
New Testament Texts:
So what does Paul have to say on the subject? The bulk of what Paul has to say can be found in Romans Chapter one. It is important to see verse 27 in context. If we read from verse 18 we see that it is because of humanity’s rejection of God in favour of the worship of created things that God gave them over to degrading passions. I believe Paul is graphically depicting here God’s warning to the Israelites in the Ten Commandments of the logical conclusion of creating idols and the worshipping of created beings as opposed to the creator.
Exodus 20:5b says ‘For I your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.’ (NRSV) The word translated iniquity is the Hebrew word avon which is translated by Strong as perversity or depravity, and comes from the Hebrew root avah which means to bend, twist or distort. A suggested interpretation of Exodus 20:5b is that God was not promising to inflict calamity on the subsequent generations of idolaters, rather that when a society rejects the Creator to worship the created, then life begins to unravel and behaviours deviate from how they were created to be; unchecked, that deviation accentuates and increases its momentum in subsequent generations. The children are its victims, but as with all victims, the strategies they may utilise to compensate for their wounded-ness can all too easily make them agents of abuse to others, and they are responsible for their actions. It is this moral collapse that I suggest Paul is referring to in Romans One.
This spiral is evident in our society today. However, if you pause to reflect, it has been there in all previous societies as well! It is just that some have been better than others at concealment. So one can never read Romans One with any degree of self satisfaction without first recognising the truth of Romans 2:1 ‘Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you the judges are doing the very same things,’ We can all be tempted to seek comfort in created things instead of turning to the creator as our ultimate source of comfort.
Why does Paul highlight acts of same-sex sexual activity for his illustration? I believe Paul was not referring to loving stable same-sex relationships at all. Rather, as we can see from his reference to ‘men being inflamed with lust for one another’ (vs 27), this was one of the characteristics of contemporary cultic worship where, under the pretext of religious fervour, men engaged in orgies using temple prostitutes, indulging in sexual activity that was not true to their nature.
Suppressing the Truth ...
Much of the debate over the Romans passage has revolved around Paul’s use of the phrase ‘giving up natural intercourse’. Conservatives theologians have argued that homosexuality is against nature and is therefore an affront to God. The more ‘liberal’ theologians claim that, for someone whose primary sexual and emotional orientation is to members of their own sex, their love is wholly appropriate to their nature. The conservatives need to remember that Thomas Aquinas summed up the thinking of his day when he stated that homosexuality, masturbation and any non-procreative sex (so birth control would fall into this category even for heterosexual Christians within marriage) was a gross sin against nature and therefore against God and of a more serious nature than rape! Today, the modern church (excluding some strict Catholics) has justified the practice of contraception, thereby severing the link between coitus and procreation (uniformly failing to recognise the ensuing ethical corollaries) by taking the view that birth control is not a sin against nature. Following on from this, the Church has pragmatically acknowledged that masturbation is endemic, and having no logical rationale for its prohibition, has turned a blind eye to the issue. In spite of this, there are many folk who still want to maintain that homosexual sex is a sin against nature; one cannot help feeling that their insistence is merely that it is a sin against their nature3.
The origins of same sex sexual and emotional attraction are complex: they may possibly have some genetic predisposing elements while the ‘nurture’ theories, popularised twenty or more years ago, have largely lost their credibility now. In fact, it seems that most modern scholars have abandoned the nature vs nurture dichotomy to accept that the influences of the two are inseparable4. One thing that seems clear is that with sexual attraction the dye is set (so to speak) very early in childhood, most think before the end of the 5th year, long before a person’s awareness of their sexual identity emerges: hence this cannot simply be a lifestyle choice, it is an intrinsic part of one’s identity.
I believe, therefore, that my sexuality is not something I do, but something I am and it permeates every aspect of who I am. I do not know if my sexuality is part of creation or a result of the fall. But if God loves me, a belief that comes from the very core of my being, then God loves me as a gay man, because to extract my sexuality or change my sexual orientation would be to change me far beyond the point where I could recognise myself in fact I would cease to be me.
1 Corinthians 6:911 presents a list of lifestyle choices depicting what some of the Corinthian believers used to be. The important thing to recognise here is that the common factor between all the sins listed is that they describe actions motivated by selfish self-interest at the expense of others. Whether it be adultery, theft, slander, drunkenness and whatever the Greek terms arsenokoitai and malakoi mean5, I believe he was not referring to stable committed same sex relationships. Some have argued that he means male prostitute and the keeping of adolescent boys by older men for sexual purposes. Clearly Paul believes that the lives of true believers are no longer characterised by these acts of self-interest. Rather, true believers will experience a fundamental challenge to their values in life as they seek to follow Christ. And consequently their behaviour towards others will be motivated by love, not the hedonistic pursuit of self-satisfaction.
Christians accept that there are godly ways for heterosexuals to conduct sexual relationships (sanctified by mutual love and commitment in marriage) as opposed to ungodly ways that the bible calls adultery or fornication. But where gay people are concerned, whether we are talking about mutual love and life-long commitment, or the transitory degradation of an S andM club, the distinction is seldom recognised for no other reason than the fact that these acts are between people of the same gender.
According to Paul the Christian lifestyle is be distinguishable from non-believers by their respect and love for God and for their neighbour this being of paramount importance, in accordance with Jesus’ command. Authentic Christian living can therefore be recognised when believers regard as essential a basic respect for others, mutual love between Christians, and responsibility with commitment in their relationships. Gay Christians must of course accept the same discipline as all other believers.
But as gay Christians can we not expect from our straight brethren the same respect and love even though they might not understand my longing for another man to share my life. Is their incomprehension so different from that of a Baptist for an Anglo-Catholic? If both have maturity, surely they will recognise a fellow believer.
To judge a person’s longing for companionship in a gay relationship as intrinsically deviant and ungodly, purely on the grounds that it may involve erotic expressions of love, means (all too often) forfeiting respect for a man on discovering he is gay, regardless of his own personal journey with God. Such a judgement can also result in the loss of any real sense of love towards him, except perhaps in a very selective way, presumably because ‘straight’ Christians, in their judgement, feel they have nothing in common with their gay brethren! Moreover, the Christian values (so highly prized in marriage) of responsibility with commitment suddenly seem to lose any validity at all where gay relationships are concerned!
It is ironic that in the church today, marriage (Paul’s remedy for fornication, 1 Corinthians 7:19) is welcomed and supported with rejoicing (which is appropriate, of course, for heterosexual Christians). Yet such affirmation is more often than not refused to those who seek to be committed to a same-sex partner in mutual love. My question is, where does the rationale for this kind of thinking come from? Studying Paul’s letter to the Corinthians carefully, I cannot find it. And surely Paul’s pastoral concern expressed in 1 Corinthians 7:9, ‘that it is better to marry than to burn’, has as much relevance for the gay Christian it is just that a same-sex partnership will provide the appropriate context for avoiding sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 7:2).
The theological debates about same-sex relationships will no doubt continue for a long time to come. In the meantime, for those of us who are gay, and committed to upholding same-sex partnerships as the ideal, believing that God is pleased to bless these desires into reality, there remains one important responsibility that we may not overlook. Without allowing our freedom to be stolen from us, it is important (out of love for other believers) to be circumspect with the use and expression of our freedom, so that our lives don’t become a stumbling block.
‘’23Everything is permissible’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’ but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others ... 31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.’
1 Corinthians 10:2333
We have to recognise though, that many gay people coming out today grew up in a hostile environment (homosexual acts were a criminal office until the law changed in 1967). Although living in a tacitly more accepting post-Christian society now, many nevertheless still suffer the crippling aftermath of years of self-hatred, as well as rejection from family, friends and peers and still suffer rejection from churches and societies at large. Recognising that heterosexual people have many forms of support for their struggling relationships, though still they fail, the reality for gay people is that support is rare and detractors are common. This is why we see many gay people fail in their attempt to build relationships well. There is a great need for helpful guidance and good role models. Yet the tragic truth remains that most gay people (especially when making it known in Christian circles that they are seeking a same-sex companion) are greeted with the cold draft of contempt and disapproval.
Many, like me, have grown up batting away every compliment and commendation with the internal response, ‘you would not be saying that if you knew I was gay!’. It has only been through the teaching of people like Brennan Manning, Henri Nouwen, Philip Yancey (to name but a few), who have taught that God knows everything there is to know about me and yet loves me and through his love (mediated through the love of good friend I met at Courage), I have come to the place of self-acceptance. I can now stand up as a gay man and say that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, accepting that being gay is how God would have me be.
As much as we would like it, becoming a Christian does not make our frailties automatically disappear. While not denying that God has the power to heal, our experience is that God does not necessarily intervene and take away that which we feel afflicts us. But through the trials of life, as James tells us (James 1:24), we grow in character, providing opportunities to experience the power of his grace. Through our experience, we may learn to offer that same grace and love to others that we may love as we were first loved (1 John 4:19).
© Andy Mapstone (with Jeremy Marks) 1999, 2003
First published by Courage, October 1999 (Substantially revised, December 2003)
Andy Mapstone met Jeremy while studying on the same counselling course CWR’s Institute of Christian Counselling, 1995/6. He subsequently worked with Courage on a placement during the summer of 1998 while studying theology (a 3-year course at London Bible College). This article was first written as part of the Courage Introductory course that Andy ran for discipleship group members, but has been substantially revised and updated to reflect Courage’s ‘New Approach’ in recent years. Andy graduated from London Bible College with a BA in 1999 and now works with people who are mentally ill in south London. Though married (at the time when he first met Jeremy at CWR), after his wife’s departure, Andy came to realise that he is gay and to accept himself fully as a gay Christian man.