A Christian Critique of Homosexuality

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I have reproduced the text that was originally found here because it is a very thorough consideration of the topic and the original site keeps going down. While you may not agree with the author’s conclusion, his attack of the subject provides many insights.


This posting summarizes several issues involving homosexuality and Christians. This is a frequently asked question, so I do not post the question each time it occurs. Rather this is an attempt to summarize the postings we get when we have a discussion. It summarizes arguments for allowing Christian homosexuality, since most people asking the question already know the arguments against it. The most common — but not the only — question dealt with herein is “how can a Christian justify being a homosexual, given what the Bible says about it?”

First, on the definition of ‘homosexual’. Many groups believe that there is a homosexual “orientation”, i.e. a sexual attraction to members of the same sex. This is distinguished from actual homosexual sexual activity. Homosexuals who abstain from sex are considered by most groups to be acceptable. However in a lot of discussion, the term ‘homosexual’ means someone actually engaging in homosexual sex. This is generally not accepted outside the most ‘liberal’ groups. In this paper I’m going to use ‘homosexual’ as meaning a person engaging in sexual acts with another of the same sex. I haven’t heard of any Biblical argument against a person with homosexual orientation who remains celebate.

I think most people now admit that there is a predisposition to be homosexual. This is often called a ‘homosexual orientation’. It is not known whether it is genetic or environmental. There is evidence suggesting each. The best evidence I’ve seen is that homosexuality is not a single phenomenon, but has a number of different causes. One of them is probably genetic. There are several groups that try to help people move from being homosexual to heterosexual. The best-known is Exodus International”. The reports I’ve seen (and I haven’t read the detailed literature, just the summary in the minority opinion to the Presbyterian Church’s infamous report on human sexuality) suggest that these programs have very low success rates, and that there are questions about how real even the successes are. But there certainly are people who say they have converted. However this issue is not as important as it sounds. Those who believe homosexuality is wrong believe it is intrinsically wrong, defined as such by God. The fact that it’s hard to get out of being a homosexual is no more relevant than the fact that it’s hard to escape from being a drug addict. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. It may affect how we deal with people though. If it’s very difficult to change, this may tend to make us more willing to forgive it.

One more general background issue: It’s common to quote a figure that 10% of the population is homosexual. My inclination at the moment would probably be to say that the number is somewhere between 4 and 10%. The 10% number is from Kinsey:

AUTHOR: Kinsey, Alfred Charles, 1894-1956.
TITLE: Sexual behavior in the human male [by] Alfred C. Kinsey. Wardell B. Pomeroy [and] Clyde E. Martin.

The original study has been criticized for using prisoners. However Paul Gebhard (I’ve seen an excerpt from Indiana Alumni, Sept/Oct 1993, though they actually published a book) indicated that a restudy in 1979 came up with similar numbers, though their definition involved significant homosexual experience but not necessarily that someone is predominantly homosexual. Some more recent surveys have gotten much smaller numbers. There have been problems with those getting very small numbers. E.g. a Batelle study that gave 1% was conducted by female interviewers, after obtaining the interviewee’s SSN and employer’s name! There are internal indications that people were underreporting homosexual experiences. A more recent study is being presented at a conference in 1994, by researchers from Harvard University and the Center for Health Policy Studies in Washington. It gives a range of numbers from 6.2% men/3.6% women to 21% men/18% women, depending upon definiton. The lower numbers are those who have had sexual contact with someone of the same sex in the last 5 years. The higher number is for those who either had been attracted to or had had sex with members of their same sex since age 15. There are other reports from Janus and the University of Chicago giving 3.7-4% for males who are exclusively homosexual. This would probably be consistent with 6% having some homosexual experience during the last 5 years.

Most Christians believe homosexuality (at least genital sex) is wrong. Not all, however. A few denominations accept it. The Metropolitan Community Churches is the best-known — it was formed specifically to accept homosexuals. However the United Church of Christ also allows it, and I think a couple of other groups may as well. The Episcopal Church seems to accept it some areas but not others. In churches that have congregational government, you’ll find a few congregations that accept it (even among Southern Baptists, though the number is probably only one or two congregations). But these are unusual — few churches permit homosexual church leaders. How carefully they enforce this is another issue. I don’t have any doubt that there are homosexual pastors of just about every denomination, some more open than others.

Note that the arguments currently occuring within churches are primarily about leaders. While most churches do not knowingly ordain homosexual leaders, many of them will accept homosexuals as members.

As to the arguments over the Biblical and other issues, here’s an attempt to summarize the issues:

First, let me attempt to list all the references to homosexuality:

  • Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18 ff)
  • prohibitions in Leviticus (Lev 18:22, 20:13)
  • Rom 1:26 ff
  • I Cor 6:9 and I Tim 1:10

All of these (except Lev) are discussed below. In addition, many prohomosexual writers believe that the story of David and Jonathan implies a homosexual relationship (particularly see 2 Sam 1:26), and I’ve even seen it implied for Naomi and Ruth (though with no evidence that I can see). Some writers have speculated that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7) was homosexuality, though few people seem to take that seriously. I’m not going to deal with these things, since I regard them as speculative. (David and Jonathan is probably the most probable of these.)

While it is not specifically about homosexuality, Gen 2:24 is relevant as well. Many Christian writers (including Paul) consider it to be the normative statement of the purpose of marriage and sexuality. In this analysis, sexuality is permitted only within marriage, and marriage is only available to heterosexual couples. While the NT does not explicitly make this argument (primarily because it does not appear that any Christians were trying to defend homosexuality as acceptable for Christians), it is an obvious corrollary of the way Paul and others deal with sexual issues.

The most commonly cited reference by those favoring acceptance of homosexuality in previous discussions has been John Boswell: “Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality”, U Chicago Press, 1980. Boswell also has a recent (as of 1994) book presenting evidence for homosexual marriage in the Christian tradition. I haven’t read this book, but I’ve seen extensive excerpts. He has located a number of liturgies, primary from the Eastern church, for formalizing same-sex friendships. The liturgies are not unambiguously marriages. Most scholars believe that they were simply formalizing friendship, and were not intended to have sexual implications. It’s probably too early for a judgement to have formed on this.

The argument against is pretty clear. There are several explicit laws in the OT, e.g. Leviticus 20:13, and in Rom 1 Paul seems pretty negative on homosexuality. Beyond these references, there are some debates. Some passages often cited on the subject probably are not relevant. E.g. the sin which the inhabitants of Sodom proposed to carry out was homosexual *rape*, not homosexual activity between consenting adults. (There’s even some question whether it was homosexual, since the entities involved were angels.) It was particularly horrifying because it involved guests, and the responsibility towards guests in that culture was very strong. (This is probably the reason Lot offered his daughter — it was better to give up his daughter than to allow his guests to be attacked.) If you look through a concordance for references to Sodom elsewhere in the Bible, you’ll see that few seem to imply that homosexuality was their sin. There’s a Jewish interpretive tradition that the major sin was abuse of guests. At any rate, there’s no debate that homosexual *rape* is wrong.

I do not discuss Leviticus because the law there is part of a set of laws that most Christians do not consider binding. So unless NT justification can be found, Lev. alone would not settle the issue.

The NT references are all in Paul’s letters. A number of the references from Paul are lists of sins in which the words are fairly vague. Boswell argues that the words occuring in these lists do not mean homosexual. Here’s what he says: The two Greek words that appear in the lists (i.e. I Cor 6:9 and I Tim 1:10) are /malakos/ and /arsenokoitai/. Unfortunately it is not entirely clear what the words actually mean. /malakos/, with a basic meaning of soft, has a variety of metaphorical meanings in ethical writing. Boswell suggests “wanton” as a likely equivalent. He also reports that the unanimous interpretation of the Church, including Greek-speaking Christians, was that in this passage it referred to masturbation, a meaning that has vanished only in the 20th Cent., as that practice has come to be less frowned-upon. (He cites references as late as the 1967 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia that identify it as masturbation.) He translates /arsenokotai/ as male prostitute, giving evidence that none of the church fathers understood the term as referring to homosexuality in general. A more technical meaning, suggested by the early Latin translations, would be “active mode homosexual male prostitute”, but in his view Paul did not intend it so technically.

For a more conservative view, I consulted Gordon Fee’s commentary on I Cor. He cites evidence that /malakos/ often meant effeminate. However Boswell warns us that in Greek culture effeminate is not necessarily synonymous with homosexual, though it may be associated with some kinds of homosexual behavior. Given what Boswell and Fee say taken together, I thing there’s a good chance that it does mean effeminate, but that this is not precisely the same thing as homosexual. While Fee argues against Boswell with /arsenokotai/ as well, he ends up suggesting a translation that seems essentially the same. The big problem with it is that the word is almost never used. Paul’s writing is the first occurence. The fact that the word is clearly composed of “male” and “f**k” unfortunately doesn’t quite tell us the meaning, since it doesn’t tell us whether the male is the subject or object of the action. Examples of compound words formed either way can be given. In theory it could refer to rapists, etc. It’s dangerous to base meaning purely on etymology, or you’ll conclude that “goodbye” is a religious expression because it’s based on “God by with ye”. However since Boswell, Fee, and NIV seem to agree on “homosexual male prostitute”, that seems as good a guess as any. Note that this translation misses the strong vulgarity of the term however (something which Fee and Boswell agree on, but do not attempt to reproduce in their translation).

More recently I’ve seen an interesting conjecture that /arsenokoitai/ is a reference to Lev 18:22. Unfortunately I didn’t keep the original posting. But as I recall, it claimed that the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the OT, which was commonly used in Paul’s time) for Lev 18:22 justaposes words using the same roots as /arsenokoitai/. If Paul really invented the word, he would presumably have intended his readers to understand it. An allusion to the LXX is something that he might reasonably have expected people to catch. However it’s also possible that it was current slang, and that none of our writings from the period preserve it because we have mostly literary works.

In my opinion, the strongest NT reference to homosexuality is Romans 1. Boswell points out that Rom 1 speaks of homosexuality as something that happened to people who were naturally heterosexual, as a result of their corruption due to worshipping false gods. One could argue that this is simply an example: that if a homosexual worshipped false gods, he would also fall into degradation and perhaps become heterosexual. However I find this argument somewhat forced, and in fact our homosexual readers have not seriously proposed that this is what Paul meant.

However I am not convinced that Rom 1 is sufficient to create a law against homosexuality for Christians. What Paul is describing in Rom 1 is not homosexuality among Christians — it’s homosexuality that appeared among idolaters as one part of a whole package of wickedness. Despite the impression left by his impassioned rhetoric, I’m sure Paul does not believe that pagans completely abandoned heterosexual sex. Given his description of their situation, I rather assume that their heterosexual sex would also be debased and shameless. So yes, I do believe that this passage indicates a negative view of homosexuality. But in all fairness, the “shameless” nature of their acts is a reflection of the general spiritual state of the people, and not a specific feature of homosexuality.

My overall view of the situation is the following: I think we have enough evidence to be confident that Paul disapproved of homosexuality. Rom 1 seems clear. While I Cor 6:9 and I Tim 1:10 are not unambiguous and general condemnations of homosexuality, they do not seem like wording that would come from someone who approved of homosexuality or even considered it acceptable in some cases. On the other hand, none of these passages contains explicit teachings on the subject. Rom 1 is really about idolatry. It refers to homosexuality in passing.

The result of this situation is that people interpret these passages in light of their general approach to Scripture. For those who look to Scripture for God’s Law about issues such as this, it not surprising that they would consider these passages to be NT endorsement of the OT prohibition. For those whose approach to the Bible is more liberal, it is not surprising that they regard Paul’s negative view of homosexuality as something that he took from his Jewish upbringing without any serious reexamination in the light of the Gospel. As readers of this group know by now, the assumptions behind these approaches are so radically different that people tend to foam at the mouth when they see the opposing view described. There’s not a lot I can do as moderator about such a situation.

A number of discussions in the past centered around the sort of detailed exegesis of texts that is described above. However in fact I’m not convinced that defenders of homosexuality actually base their own beliefs on such analyses. The real issue seems to rest on the question of whether Paul’s judgement should apply to modern homosexuality.

One commonly made claim is that Paul had simply never faced the kinds of questions we are trying to deal with. He encountered homosexuality only in contexts where most people would probably agree that it was wrong. He had never faced the experience of Christians who try to act “straight” and fail, and he had never faced Christians who are trying to define a Christian homosexuality, which fits with general Christian ideals of fidelity and of seeing sexuality as a mirror of the relationship between God and man. It is unfair to take Paul’s judgement on homosexuality among idolaters and use it to make judgements on these questions.

Another is the following: In Paul’s time homosexuality was associated with a number of things that Christians would not find acceptable. It was part of temple prostitution. Among private citizens, it often occured between adults and children or free people and slaves. I’m not in a position to say that it always did, but there are some reasons to think so. The ancients distinguished between the active and passive partner. It was considered disgraceful for a free adult to act as the passive partner. (This is the reason that an active mode homosexual prostitute would be considered disgraceful. His customers would all be people who enjoyed the passive role.) This supports the idea that it would tend not to be engaged in between two free adult males, at least not without some degree of scandal. Clearly Christian homosexuals would not condone sex with children, slaves, or others who are not in a position to be fully responsible partners. However Fee’s commentary on I Cor cites some examples from ancient literature of homosexual relationships that do seem to involve free adults in a reasonably symmetrical way. Thus the considerations in this paragraph shouldn’t be pushed too far. Homosexuality may have been discredited for Jews by some of these associations, but there surely must be been cases that were not prostitutes and did not involve slaves or children.

Some people have argued that AIDS is a judgement against homosexuality. I’d like to point out that AIDS is transmitted by promiscuous sex, both homosexual and heterosexual. Someone who has a homosexual relationship that meets Christian criteria for marriage is not at risk for AIDS.

Note that there is good reason from Paul’s general approach to doubt that he would concede homosexuality as a fully equal alternative, apart from any specific statements on homosexuality. I believe his use of the Genesis story would lead him to regard heterosexual marriage as what God ordained.

However the way Paul deals with pastoral questions provides a warning against being too quick to deal with this issue legally.

I claim that the question of how to counsel homosexual Christians is not entirely a theological issue, but also a pastoral one. Paul’s tendency, as we can see in issues such as eating meat and celebrating holidays, is to be uncompromising on principle but in pastoral issues to look very carefully at the good of the people involved, and to avoid insisting on perfection when it would be personally damaging. For example, while Paul clearly believed that it was acceptable to eat meat, he wanted us to avoid pushing people into doing an action about which they had personal qualms. For another example, Paul obviously would have preferred to see people (at least in some circumstances) remain unmarried. Yet if they were unable to do so, he certainly would rather see them married than in a state where they might be tempted to fornication.

I believe one could take a view like this even while accepting the views Paul expressed in Rom 1. One may believe that homosexuality is not what God intended, that it occured as a result of sin, but still conclude that at times we have to live with it. The question is whether you believe that homosexuality is in itself sinful or whether you believe that it’s a misfortune (or even a disorder) that is in a broad sense due to human sinfulness. If you’re willing to consider the latter approach, then it becomes a pastoral judgement whether there is more damage caused by finding a way to live with it or trying to cure it. The dangers of trying to cure it are that the attempt most often fails, and when it does, you end up with damage ranging from psychological damage to suicide, as well as broken marriages when attempts at living as a heterosexual fail. (I have a cousin who was involved in such a marriage. While we didn’t find it out until later, her husband had had problems with sexual identity, and was encouraged by fundamentalist parents to marry. The results were not good.)

This is going to depend upon one’s assessment of the inherent nature of homosexuality. If you believe it is a very serious wrong, then you may be willing to run high risks of serious damage to get rid of it. Clearly we do not generally suggest that people live with a tendency to steal or with drug addiction, even though attempts to cure these conditions are also very difficult. However these conditions are intrinsically damaging in a way that is not so obvious for homosexuality. (Many problems associated with homosexuality are actually problems of promiscuity, not homosexuality. This includes AIDS. I take for granted that the only sort of homosexual relationships a Christian would consider allowing would be equivalent to Christian heterosexual relationships.)

In the course of discussing this over the last decade or so, we’ve heard a lot of personal testimony from fellow Christians who are in this situation. I’ve also seen summaries of various research and the results of various efforts for “conversion”. (Aside from the Presbyterian report mentioned above, there’s an FAQ that summarizes our readers’ reports on this question.) The evidence is that long-term success in changing orientation is rare enough to be on a par with healing miracles. The danger in advising Christians to depend upon such a change is clear: When “conversion” doesn’t happen, which is almost always, the people are often left in despair, feeling excluded from a Church that has nothing more to say but a requirement of life-long celibacy. Paul recognized (though in a different context) that such a demand is not practical for most people, and I think the history of clerical celibacy has strongly reinforced that judgement. The practical result is that homosexuals end up in the gay sex clubs and the rest of the sordid side of homosexuality. Maybe homosexuality isn’t God’s original ideal, but I can well imagine Paul preferring to see people in long-term, committed Christian relationships than promiscuity. I think such relationships can still be a vehicle for people sharing God’s love with each other.

However let me say that I can only feel admiration for people with homosexual tendencies who feel called to live a celibate life.

There’s an issue of Biblical interpretation underlying this discussion. The issue is that of “cultural relativism”. That is, when Paul says that something is wrong, should this be taken as an eternal statement, or are things wrong because of specific situations in the culture of the time? Conservative Christians generally insist on taking prohibitions as absolute, since otherwise the Bible becomes subjective — what is to stop us from considering everything in it as relative?

When looking at this issue, it’s worth noting that no one completely rejects the concept of cultural relativism. There are a number of judgements in the New Testament that even conservative Christians consider to be relative. The following judgements are at least as clear in the Bible as anything said on homosexuality:

  • prohibition against charging interest (this occurs 18 times in the OT — it’s not in the NT, but I mention it here because until relatively recently the Church did consider it binding on Christians)
  • prohibition against swearing oaths
  • endorsement of slavery as an institution
  • judgement of tax collectors as sinner

We do not regard these items as binding. In most cases, I believe the argument is essentially one of cultural relativism. Briefly:

  • prohibition of interest is appropriate to a specific agrarian society that the Bible was trying to build, but not to our market economy.
  • few people believe that American judicial oaths have the same characteristics as the kind of oaths Jesus was concerned about
  • most people believe that Paul was simply telling people how to live within slavery, but not endorsing it as an institution
  • for people believe that the IRS is morally equivalent to Roman tax farming

The point I’m trying to make is that before applying Biblical prohibitions to the 20th Cent., we need to look at whether the 20th Cent. actions are the same. When Christian homosexuals say that their relationships are different than the Greek homosexuality that Paul would have been familiar with, this is exactly the same kind of argument that is being made about judicial oaths and tax collectors. Until fairly recently Christians prohibited taking of interest, and many Christians regarded slavery as divinely endorsed. (Indeed, slavery is one of the more common metaphors for the relationship between God and human beings — Christians are often called servants or slaves of God.)

I am not trying to say that everything in the Bible is culturally relative. Rather, I’m trying to say that *some* things are, and therefore it is not enough to say that because something appears in the Bible, that ends the discussion. We need to look at whether the action we’re talking about now has the same moral implications as the one that the Bible was talking about. If Christians conclude that that there are reasons to think that the prohibitions against homosexuality are still binding, I can understand that. My problem is with those who say that the question doesn’t have to be considered. There are a lot of people who simply ignore the rules listed above, and then about homosexuality say “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it”.

One thing that worries me is the great emotions that this issue creates. When you consider the weakness of the Biblical evidence — some laws in Leviticus, a passage in Rom whose subject matter is really idolatry rather than homosexuality, and a couple of lists whose words are ambiguous — the amount of concern this is raising among Christians seems rather out of proportion. This should suggest to people that there are reasons other than simply Biblical involved. This is true on both sides — clearly homosexual Christians are as strongly motivated to find ways of discrediting the Biblical arguments as conservative Christians are to find Biblical arguments. But I can’t help feeling that the Bible is being used by both sides as a way of justifying attitudes which come from other sources. This is a dangerous situation for Christians.

On the other side of the issue, I would like to note some problems I have with the pro-homosexual position as it is commonly presented. One of the most common arguments is that homosexuality is biologically determined. I.e. “God made me homosexual”, and I have no choice. I think “God made me homosexual” is a fine view for people who already believe on other grounds that homosexuality is acceptable. But I don’t see it as an argument for acceptability.

Many people think that alcholism is largely biological, and drug addiction may turn out to be as well. That doesn’t mean it’s OK. Most of us have particular things we tend to do wrong. Some people get angry easily. Others tend to be arrogant. Others tend to be attraced to women who are married to someone else. Homosexuality (if we view it as wrong) wouldn’t be different than any of these other things. If we are going to follow God, we all end up at one time or another having to work to overcome bad habits and particular temptations that cause us problems. None of us can sit back and say that because God made us the way we are we can just relax. As Jesus said, we all have to take up our cross daily. This concept of dying to self (which also appears throughout Paul’s letters) seems to suggest that there are going to be things about ourselves that we we are called on not to accept. Paul’s letters and the experience of Christians throughout history show us that sin is ingrained in us, and the battle against it is lifelong and difficult. The fact that homosexuality is difficult to fight doesn’t necessarily say it’s OK. Maybe this isn’t the place where we have to die to self. But I’d like to make sure that those who think it isn’t are fighting the battle somewhere else, and not rejecting the concept that all Christians have to fight against the deeply engrained habits of sin.

I would also point out that there is a “slippery slope” argument here. Most Christians see homosexuality as simply one part of a general relaxation of all limitations on sexual ethics. The right feeds this by producing propaganda associating homosexuality with child abuse and promiscuity. Christian homosexuals would probably get a somewhat more sympathetic hearing within the churches if they would clearly indicate that they support only homosexual relationships that are the direct equivalent of marriage: permanent, monogamous commitments. In fact many Christian homosexuals live in such relationships. However they have generally not been interested in making much of distinction between their own position and that of homosexuals with a freer sexual approach. Christian homosexuals tend to see any opposition to homosexuality as a threat, and thus want to defend broadly. However the result is that homosexual rights are seen as just one item in a general attack on traditional Christian ethics.