This guest post was written by Katie van Santen
One of two statements is often heard in regards to an individual’s position on same-sex attraction, which can be paraphrased as:
“I take the ‘traditional’ view because I believe what’s in the Bible”
“I take the ‘reformed’ view because of a family member or friend”.
However, both views have the support of biblical interpretation. Those taking the ‘reformed’ view do not reject biblical authority, but have a different interpretation of the texts to those who take the ‘traditional’ view.
Sometimes the context of a passage means the ‘surface’ or literal reading is the least important in terms of truth about God and our relationship with Him. Scripture is authoritative because it is the Word of God, and we must seek what God says through the Bible, rather than what the Bible says: ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Views on marriage have changed dramatically over time, and our perception of ‘biblical’ marriage is very different to that of the Israelites or first-century Jews. Only relatively recently have we begun to understand the biology, psychology and sociology that underpins the human condition. The definition of ‘traditional, biblical’ marriage as ‘a covenant between one man and one woman for life’ also raises questions regarding the changing attitudes to divorce and remarriage, which won’t be covered further here.
For most of history women were property (Exodus 20:17). The purpose of marriage was to produce legitimate heirs to inherit without dispute. In Hebrew culture, marriages were arranged by the fathers and were purely civil, with no religious ceremony. Often while still children, a bride-price was agreed, a contract was signed, and the couple were betrothed. The bride remained in her father’s house. Once the couple were both old enough, and the money had been saved, a date for the wedding was set. The groom and companions came to the bride’s home, paid the bride-price, and the marriage was consummated. Thus, Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Ephesians 5:31: ‘a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’. The whole wedding party then processed to the groom’s house for the wedding feast, where the bride remained in her husband’s house. The Bible is unclear as to what defines marriage: in the Old Testament wives and concubines held different status, yet Jesus says that once two become ‘one flesh’ God has joined them together (Matthew 19:5-6), and Paul (1 Corinthians 6:15-16) uses the same ‘one flesh’ language for sex with a prostitute as for marriage.
Priests only became involved in Christian marriages the 12th Century and it became a sacrament of the church in the 16th Century. The Reformers declared that marriage was purely secular. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) lists the purpose of marriage as “the procreation of children; a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; and the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other” without reference to love. The idea of romantic attraction and personal choice of partner were raised in the Enlightenment and popularised only by the Victorians. The Old Testament permitted polygamy (Deuteronomy 21:16-17), handmaids (Genesis 16:1-4) and concubines (Genesis 22:24), along with slavery; women had to marry their rapist (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). There are still Christians who believe that 1 Corinthians 7:4 and Ephesians 5:23 permits marital rape as an outworking of the husband’s authority.
Sexuality is a term created by psychologists in the late 19th century. Prior to that there was no concept of sexual orientation, only heterosexual and homosexual practices. From the 14th Century, a ‘sodomite’ was one who performed the act of ‘sodomy’ (anal sex with the same or opposite sex). Therefore there is no concept of our modern understanding of homosexuality in the Bible, nor of monogamous homosexual relationships; the term “homosexuality” was first used in a biblical translation in 1946. As marriage was for procreation and property, there could be no concept of same-sexual marriage until the recent changes in attitudes towards love, women and legitimacy. That there are no examples in the Bible doesn’t stop us driving cars, using plastic, and eating chocolate.
Therefore our ‘traditional’ and ‘biblical’ understanding of marriage, and our ‘traditional’ position on monogamous same-sex relationships has very little historical basis.
There are few mentions of homosexual activity in the bible. Those that are presented as condemning homosexuality are discussed here with contextual and cultural background that point to a different interpretation.
Gang rape has nothing to do with homosexuality. It is an act of power and violence. In the similar story of Judges 19:22-26, the men were satisfied to rape a woman instead of the man they asked for. In addition to inhospitality, Ezekiel 16:49 says that the sin of Sodom was arrogance, greed, neglect of the poor and needy, and pride.
Some Levitical laws make sense to us today, clearly intending to keep the population healthy and free from disease (i.e. blood, mildew, pork). Other laws were for ritual purity, setting Israel apart from the surrounding nations (Leviticus 18:1-5, 20:23-24). Some we accept as still being ‘applicable’ (murder, theft, incest) while others we have allowed to be ‘of their time’ (cloth made of two fibres, shellfish, sideburns). Some authors put these verses into a temple-prostitution context: the Hebrew tow’ebah elsewhere means ritual impurity and idolatry. Adrian Thatcher (2011) suggests that, in the context of the patriarchal society, it is the phrase ‘as a woman’ that is most informative: treating a man as a woman, therefore degrading his status to that of property, is the catastrophic transgression.
Paul was writing to Christians in Rome, a place that worshipped a pantheon of gods, including acts of both male and female temple prostitution to confer favourable fertility. Paul condemns men and women who glorify false gods and give up their ‘natural relations’ for shameful acts ‘inflamed with lust’: idolatry, promiscuity, and temple prostitution for self-seeking ends are Paul’s target. If these men and women gave up their ‘natural’ desires they were not, by our current understanding, homosexual.
The NIVUK (2011) translates 1 Corinthians 6 as “nor men who have sex with men… will inherit the kingdom of God” with a footnote referencing two Greek terms meaning “the passive and active participants in homosexual acts”. The terms are malakos and arsenokoites. The latter of these also appears in 1 Timothy 1.
Malakos appears four times in the New Testament, of which three are translated as ‘soft’ in relation to fine clothing (Matthew 11:8; Like 7:25). In other Greek texts it is used to mean metaphorically ‘soft’, i.e. spineless in the face of injustice, or lacking self-control, rather than effeminate or homosexual.
Arsenokoites appears only in these two passages. In other Greek literature it references exploitation and abuse of the poor. In 1 Timothy 1 it is sandwiched between pornos, a male/boy prostitute, and andrapodistes, a slave dealer. Therefore arsenokoites (literally ‘male-bedder’) appears in the context of abuses of power rather than a loving, monogamous homosexual relationship. Many believe it refers to ‘pederasty’ – the normal Greek and Roman practice of an older man having a sexual relationship with a younger man or boy, slave, or social inferior, in addition to his wife and/or male and female prostitutes.
Without support from these six scriptures, there is nothing biblically that condemns monogamous homosexual relationships. In the context of the Bible as a whole, these passages are better interpreted as speaking against social injustice, exploitation of power, and idolatry for one’s own gain. Scripture also tells us that it is ‘not good for [a hu]man to be alone’ (Genesis 2:18), that not all are called to singleness (1 Corinthians 7:9), and that a tree is recognised by its fruit (Luke 6:43-44).
Humanity, in its collective entirety, was made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27: in the image of God… he created them). God is not gendered or sexual. In the second account of creation (Genesis 2:4ff) God made Adam (2:7), and later Eve (2:21). There is no record of any in-between, yet Jesus mentions eunuchs that were ‘born that way’ (Matthew 19:12). There are individuals who are born with ambiguous anatomy, mono- or poly-sex chromosomes, excess or deficiency in hormone production and/or hormone receptors. Anatomical and hormonal changes can also be acquired. There is a spectrum in sexual desire from asexual to hypersexual, and in sexual attraction from heterosexual through bisexual to homosexual. There is diversity in human biology and sexuality beyond the simple ‘male’ and ‘female’ dichotomy.
Creation is full of glorious diversity and God saw that creation was ‘very good’. Yet we inconsistently label some of this diversity as ‘good’ and some a ‘result of the fall’. This means that questions of affirming LBGTQ+ identity also must extend to other aspects of diversity: how we treat people based on their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, class, age, wealth, size, health, as well as sexuality. The primary ‘label’ of a human is just that: a human, a person, a child of God. All other aspects of their identity are secondary to the core that they are created loved and lovable.
Over history the Church (as a whole) has acted, in its well-intentioned desire to authentically follow Jesus, to make individuals feel that they are unworthy of love because of their identity. The Church took a ‘biblical’ position on slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, and the inferiority of women until reason and experience prevailed. Then a fresh understanding of the context of the supporting texts allowed reinterpretation of the Bible and consequentially a changed belief.
Dr David Gushee reminds us: “We must cling to Jesus’ example and the way he conducted his ministry… If we do we might notice his warnings about religious self-righteousness and contempt for others deemed to be sinners; his embrace of outcasts and marginalized people; his attacks on those religious leader types who block access to God’s grace…; and perhaps above all his death on the cross for the sins of all of us, beginning with each of us as “chief of sinners.” We must focus tightly on Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.
Rev KV Alias on biblical marriage
Rev Lindsay Louise Biddle on homosexuality in the Bible
Rev Justin Canon on homosexuality in the Bible
Rev Justin Gau on Kingdom Values: Mercy
Dr David Gushee on LGBT in church
Justin Lee on homosexuality in the Bible
Adam Philips on homosexuality in the Bible
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Homosexuality
Prof Adrian Thatcher on LGBT inclusion (pdf)
Prof Adrian Thatcher on biblical interpretation (pdf)
Prof Adrian Thatcher (2011) God, Sex and Gender: An Introduction (Wiley Blackwell)
Katie van Santen lives in Plymouth with some lego and quite a few books. She has just completed her Certificate of Higher Education in Theology, Ministry and Mission. Currently she is not a marine biologist or science teacher due to disability, but keeps herself busy as a volunteer aquarium host, visiting preacher, and Fairy Godmother.