There are 5 references relevant to this discussion: Lev. 18:22; 20:13; 1 Tim. 1:10; 1 Cor. 6:9; and Rom. 1:26–27. I will briefly go over each of these and then try to establish a conclusion.
Lev. 18:22: You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.For Jacob Milgrom, it is quite clear what these verses are saying: "the Bible allows for no exceptions; all acts of sodomy are prohibited."(1) Victor Paul Furnish, on the other hand, raises some questions:
20:13: If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.
No consideration is given to what the circumstances or character of a male same-sex relationship might be. Is it consensual? Has one party, perhaps an adult male, forced himself on the other, perhaps a boy? Has one party purchased the sexual favors of the other? Nor is consideration given to whether the relationship is good or just or loving.(2)Terence Fretheim observes that people in that time had
developed a habit of sexually abusing strangers who came into town to demonstrate who was in charge. If such violence against strangers is the concern that led to the laws in Leviticus, this would help explain why the punishment--death--for such behavior (Leviticus 20: 13) was so severe. It may also help explain why only male-male behaviors are forbidden.(3)Furnish, however, suggests that the phrasing of the verses implies that "male same-sex intercourse violates the honor of both partners; the penetrated male dishonors himself by submitting as only a female should submit, and the penetrating male dishonors himself by dominating another male."(4)
I think Fretheim's view is valid, but as we can see it is complicated by the specific wording of the verses. However, cultural context is key to understanding these verses. If the only form of homosexuality known to the ancient Hebrews was of an oppressive kind, would the wording be different? To me, there is no clear choice between Fretheim's view and that of Furnish.
One's conclusion here is also complicated by the New Testament's transformation of a lot of Hebrew Bible laws. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is an example of a teaching that was nullified by the truth of Christ. It should also be considered that Gentiles were among those deemed unclean in the ancient Hebrew ideology as well. In Acts, the Christian community has to learn that those who were once thought to be unclean are no longer to be regarded as such. Could homosexuality be a similar case? For a clearer understanding, we must look elsewhere.
1 Tim. 1:9-10: the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient . . . the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality . . .I am discussing these verses together because they use the same Greek word: arsenokoitai. Gordon Fee provides that this word is "a compound of ‘male’ and . . . [a] vulgar slang for ‘intercourse’" and is rarely used in the literature of the time.(5) "What is not certain," he says, "is whether ‘male’ is subject (= ‘males who have intercourse’; for male prostitutes of all kinds) or object (= ‘intercourse with males’; therefore male homosexual)."(6) Rubin Scroggs and John Boswell believe the former to be the more probable.(7) Thus, they conclude that this word does not refer to homosexual behavior, but male prostitution, specifically (at least for Scroggs) the prostitution of young boys.(8)
1 Cor. 6:9: the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God . . . neither the sexually immoral . . . nor male prostitutes, nor men who practice homosexuality.
1 Cor. 6:9 uses another word, however, that is relevant here: malakoi. Fee states that this word most likely refers to "the younger, ‘passive’ partner in a pederastic relationship—the most common form of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world."(9) He states further that it is difficult to put a finger on what exactly the word is supposed to mean in this context, but he believes 'male prostitute' is the best guess.(10) Furnish recognizes this as a possibility, stating that we could "take malakoi as a reference to ‘male prostitutes’ (e.g., NRSV) and arsenokoitai as a reference to males who pay to have sex with them. But it is equally possible, and probably better, to take the words as referring, respectively, to the ‘receptive’ and ‘aggressive’ males in any homoerotic encounter."(11)
As far as these verses are concerned, it is not clear whether homosexuality is forbidden or if they are referring to male prostitution. Therefore, our conclusion cannot be made here and we must now venture to the most significant reference to homosexuality in Scripture.
Rom. 1:26–27: women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.Douglas Moo provides that, "Paul generally uses the word ‘nature’ to describe the way things are by reason of their intrinsic state or birth, and in these cases there is no clear reference to divine intention."(12) However, he adds that,
In keeping with the biblical and Jewish worldview, the heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God’s creative intent. Sexual sins that are ‘against nature’ are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to ‘nature’ in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order. Confirmation can be found in the context.Thus, when Paul says that same-sex relations are contrary to nature, he is saying that they are contrary to the way God intended things to be. James D. G. Dunn echoes this understanding, stating that Paul’s use of nature meant, "to live in harmony with the natural order and its divine rationality."(13) Joseph Fitmzyer agrees, saying that Paul’s understanding of homosexuality is that it "is a way in which human beings refuse to acknowledge the manifestation of God’s activity in creation," because ‘nature’ refers to "the order that is manifest in God’s creation or . . . the order seen in the function of sexual organs themselves, which were ordained for an expression of love between man and woman and for the procreation of children."(14)
Furnish thinks this reading is the most accurate considering the context. He states that Paul "apparently found same-sex intercourse to be an especially apt illustration of the moral confusion to which idolatry leads: when the creature has been exchanged for the Creator (v. 23) and the truth about God has been exchanged for a lie (v. 25), who can be surprised that ‘natural intercourse’ will be exchanged for ‘unnatural’ (vv. 26-27)?"(15)
On the other end, Scroggs believes that Paul here is referring to pederasty and that the example of homosexuality in Paul’s day bears no resemblance to "the model aspired to by the gay community today."(16) He suggests that the word ‘unnatural’ could have been chosen because of the apparent injustice in pederasty: "Perhaps he was impressed by the lack of mutuality, the physical and emotional humiliation suffered by youths who were forced into slavery or who accepted the degradation of the prostitute."(17)
However, Scroggs’ reading is not likely. Dunn states that, "Paul’s indictment seems to include all kinds of homosexual practice."(18) Fitzmyer agrees, stating that, "Paul is clearly referring here to the conduct of active male homosexual persons and is merely echoing the OT abomination of such homosexual activity."(19)
After thoroughly reviewing these passages, I must conclude that the teaching of Scripture is that homosexuality is not what God intended for humanity, and so I am compelled to lean towards that understanding. While I resist making an unwavering, concrete stance on this issue, I will continue to [hesitantly] recognize homosexuality as a diversion from God's created order, because that is what Scripture teaches.
In any case, we have seen that these verses are not as clear as they are made out to be, and this issue in Scripture is a very minor one compared to others. At the very least, practicing homosexuality or believing that homosexuality isn't sinful are not damnable. Scripture shows us that God is used to stooping to humanity's level, accommodating for the sake of the relationship. God knows better than anyone what all people go through, and, empathetic towards us, his grace abounds and can and will cover a multitude of sin and deception for all of us. As Richard Hays says,
Can a soldier be a Christian? Probably so, but my understanding of the gospel requires me to urge that person to renounce the way of violence and to follow Jesus in the way of costly refusal of violence as a means to justice. . . . Just as there are serious Christians who in good conscience believe in just war theory, so there are serious Christians who in good conscience believe that same-sex erotic activity is consonant with God's will.(20)Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:25), but that doesn't mean all people who accumulate wealth and indulge in lavish living should be alienated from the Christian community and are banned from the kingdom of heaven. "All things are possible with God," Jesus said (v.27).
That being said, I do think gay Christians need to be open to the possibility that homosexual activity is sinful. As hard as thought would be to come to terms with, at the end of the day Christianity is a commitment to selflessness. God’s nature is revealed in Christ’s kenosis, his self-emptying:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the form of a bond-servant,
being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross!
Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name
This is the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and since Christianity is about engaging their embrace and participating with them, we are called to be of the same nature (v. 5). We must be self-emptying and self-sacrificing. We must demean our own desires. This does not mean that we should never pursue things that we desire, but we should never let our desires lead us, for that is idolatry
It would be sinful for me to pursue another woman after committing myself to my wife, no matter what my desires told me to do. Woody Allen said, "The heart wants what it wants." This is true, but as Christians we are called not to be bound to what our hearts wants, and we all have things in our inherent nature that we must deny for the sake of the kingdom of God.
So how should Christians approach this issue?
First of all, Christians must approach it with empathy. I cannot imagine how hard it would be if someone told me that my attraction to my wife is sinful and I need to either change my sexual orientation or commit to celibacy. We have to recognize that most homosexuals have had an attraction to their own sex for as long as they can remember. We have to imagine being in their position and we have to come to understand how hard it would be for them to embrace self-denial and celibacy.
I think part of the problem is our social construct of a reproductive temporality, in which it is basically assumed that getting married and starting a family is just what one does in life. This mindset is heavily engrained in the modern church, but it is not Scriptural. Many of the Bible's key players, including Paul, didn't get married and have families, and as Hays says, "1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 25-40, commends celibacy as an option for everyone."(21) Henri Nouwen, a devout Christian who struggled with homosexuality all his life, even believed that celibacy is a gift.(22)
Sexuality and reproduction in our culture are raised to a level of importance that is not shared by Scripture. Part of dealing with the church's approach to homosexuality will be shedding our expectations that women will become wives and mothers and men will become husbands and fathers. Due to this, celibacy in our culture is dominantly viewed as strange. Being single when over 30 years old is considered a problem, as "it is not good for man to be alone" (Gen. 2:18). A culture that sees celibacy as strange or against God's will cannot expect gay people to embrace celibacy, for celibacy in our culture is in itself alienating (for example, a single person hanging out with a couple is a "third wheel"). So, we offer two options to homosexuals: be outside the church and be alienated by it as the people of the church condemn you for your sin, or be inside the church and experience alienation because of your celibacy.
We must shed our family/reproductive social construct, with our expectations for people to grow up, get married and have kids. Removing this obstacle will take some of the pressure off of those who are attracted to their own sex (as well as others who cannot or don't want to get married and start a family), as they are essentially trapped in a queer temporality (in which one cannot reproduce). If we are to encourage celibacy for homosexuals, we need to create an environment in which celibacy is not so unusual, and we need to stop discouraging celibacy in general.
Thirdly, we need to stop focusing on standing against homosexuals in the gay marriage debate (I have written on this several times; the collection of my thoughts on the matter can be found here).
Also essential is that if we do regard homosexual activity as sinful, we should not self-righteously condemn it over and above other sins, especially if we aren’t willing to condemn our own sins in the same manner, and also because the Bible condemns many other sins much more than homosexual behavior (selfish accumulation of wealth, for example).
Just read Romans 2:1. Immediately after describing the sinful state of humanity, where the passage about homosexuality resides, Paul says, "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things." It is a horrendous tragedy what many homosexuals have been put through because of certain Christians.
Another vital step is to lovingly embracing homosexuals with open arms. If we say homosexual activity is sinful, we still can't pressure homosexuals to change immediately. We should encourage them to walk with the Lord, and then trust God to help them along the way. The way of Jesus is a mustard seed transformation from the inside out. We shouldn't give homosexuals an ultimatum ("change or leave"), and we shouldn't expect to "love the gay out of them." Most Christian homosexuals will struggle with homosexuality their entire lives.
Hays suggests that it might help if one thought of homosexuality the way one thinks of alcoholism:
a considerable body of evidence suggests that some people are born with a predisposition to alcoholism. Once exposed to alcohol, they experience an attraction so powerful that it can be counteracted only by careful counseling, community support, and total abstinence.(23)But most important is that we should ask Jesus how to approach them. Let Jesus and his example determine the way you embrace homosexuals. If he wants to use you as an instrument in the transformation of a homosexual, then he will make it known to you. Otherwise, as far as Christian homosexuals are concerned, know that we are all in this Christian walk together, and remember your own sins as you walk with them.
UPDATE: I have recently developed further reflections on this issue; please read my new blog "Does Paul's Teaching on Homosexuality Apply Today?" (click here)
For further reading, I highly recommend the follow chapters:
Victor Paul Furnish, “Homosexuality?” in The Moral Teaching of Paul, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 55–93.
Richard B. Hays, "Homosexuality," in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins: New York, 1996), 379-406.
(1) Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22, Vol. 3A of The Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright, and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 1566.
(2) Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 62.
(3) Terence Fretheim, 2001, "The Old Testament and Homosexuality: What is God doing?" The Lutheran, p. 54.
(4) Furnish, 63.
(5) Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1987), 244.
(7) Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 107, and John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 345.
(8) Scroggs, 116.
(9) Fee, 243. Scroggs states, “There was no other form of male homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world which would come to mind”—that is, pederasty. See p. 116. This, however, is not true. As Fee notes, it was simply the most common.
(10) Fee, 244.
(11) Furnish, 80.
(12) Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 115.
(13) James. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Vol. 38A of Word Biblical Commentary, eds. David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1982), 64, emphasis mine.
(14) Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, Vol. 33 of The Anchor Bible, eds. William Foxwell Albright, and David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 276, 286.
(15) Furnish, 87.
(16) Scroggs, 109.
(17) Ibid., 117.
(18) Dunn, 65.
(19) Fitzmyer, 288.
(20) Richard B. Hays, "Homosexuality," in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins: New York, 1996), 401.
(22) See Michael Ford, The Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen (Doubleday: New York, 1999), 141.
(23) Hays, "Homosexuality," 398.