Thursday, May 17, 2012

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Nothing. That is, the short answer to my titular question is: the Bible says nothing about homosexuality. This is because 'homosexuality' as a concept was developed in the nineteenth century, and the word 'homosexual' does not occur in the Bible, and Jesus never discusses this issue. What the Bible does discuss, in a small number of texts, are the ethics (or holiness) of particular actions. What I want to do in this article is go through three of the main relevant texts in turn but I will return to this first point at the end – the Bible doesn't say anything about homosexuality – because it is actually fundamental to the conversation which our church and society is having at the moment.

The first text to consider is Genesis 19, the sin of Sodom leading to their destruction in fire and brimstone. This is the story from which the word 'sodomy' derives, and it is a deeply unpleasant tale – and yet, it is also a tale that can be read in various different ways. In brief, two men – who are actually angels – come to stay with Lot. At night, the men of the 'city' (probably a village smaller than Mersea) surround Lot's house and tell him to cast out the angels so that the resident men can have sex with them. Lot refuses, the angels blind the men, and in the morning Lot escapes and the Lord destroys the city. Now, in our sex-obsessed culture, we tend to emphasise the sexual elements of this story and say 'this is all about how God hates homosexuals'. This is not the emphasis of the story itself. After all, if the emphasis was on bad sexual behaviour then Lot – who is the righteous man in the story – would not say to the men outside his house “Don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.” (Compare and contrast this story – where the daughters actually get away – with the similar story in Judges 19.22-29 which doesn't have such a 'happy' ending.)

So if the sin of Sodom is not principally about sexuality, what is it about? In a word, hospitality. What Lot says immediately after the offer of his daughters is “Don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Ancient near-Eastern culture was not obsessed with sex, as we are, but they were obsessed with the importance of hospitality, and the rights and obligations associated with it. It is this social regulation that the Sodomites were transgressing, and it was for their overthrowing of the norms of hospitality that God destroyed them. How can I be so certain that this is the right interpretation of the story? Simply because it is how Jesus himself understood it – see Matthew 10.14-15, when Jesus invokes Sodom in the context of talking about hospitality.

The next significant texts to ponder are from the book of Leviticus, which are very similar so I'll treat them together. Leviticus 18.22 says “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable ('abomination')”; Leviticus 20.13 says “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable ('have committed abomination'). They must be put to death.” The book of Leviticus is essentially a book describing how the Levites – that is, the priests – are to carry out the worship of God in the Temple, and how the Jews more generally are to achieve holiness. In other words, Leviticus cannot be understood separately from the context of ritual worship. For Christians, all of the theology in this text is subsumed into the 'New Temple' worship of Holy Communion, and so the specific legalities associated with the ritual worship in the Temple have been superseded by what Jesus developed. This is why Christians have no problem with carrying out many things also considered abominations by the book of Leviticus, such as eating oysters, or cutting men's hair. That is not to say that the book of Leviticus has no use for Christians today – on the contrary, I believe that a proper understanding of Leviticus would be the best safeguard for keeping contemporary Christian worship meaningful – but it is to say that these specific commands have no particular weight. A homosexual act is as intrinsically 'wrong' as eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of different fibres (like a polycotton shirt), no more, no less.

So what of the New Testament? It's fairly straightforward for a Christian to argue that we don't have to submit to Old Testament laws because we follow a God of grace and freedom, but what of particular relevant passages in the New Testament? The key passage to ponder is this one, from Paul's letter to the Romans. To put the passage in context, Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience in Rome, and he is listing all the ways in which the surrounding culture is decadent – in order to then make the point that his listeners don't have a leg to stand on, for whilst his audience has avoided some obvious and external immoralities, their hearts are full of judgement and condemnation of others, and that “There is no-one righteous, no not one” - which is why we have to rely upon a God of mercy and grace, and not on our own merits or achievements in avoiding obvious sins. However, that does not mean that what Paul describes as sinful aren't actually sinful! Having talked about the origin of bad behaviour in bad worship (ie idolatry – bad worship leading to bad behaviour is an axiomatic truth in the Bible) this is what he says: “... God gave them over to sinful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

So what is it that Paul is denouncing? Remember the context – Rome, the centre of Empire – where there was a highly developed culture of temple prostitution. It is this bad worship which is Paul's target. For example, in Cybele's Temple there were male transvestite priests who had cut off their own genitals and offered themselves to men as part of the temple rituals. These rituals were essentially about fertility – using expressions of human fertility (ie what we might think of as 'exuberant' sexuality, orgies) to honour the gods of fertility in order to ensure a good crop and stave off hunger. The bad worship leading to bad behaviour – it is the entire package that Paul is objecting to. The question is: what does this have to do with homosexuality today? The short answer is – not a lot. I don't know many gay men who want to chop off bits of themselves in order to generate a more bountiful crop of wheat.

Now, to broaden out the discussion a little, I think it would be fair to say that the Bible does take sexual misconduct seriously – that is, there is such a thing as sinful sexual behaviour, and indulging in it threatens our relationship with God; the most obvious example is adultery, which it would be fair to say that God absolutely detests. Yet there seems to me to be a logical leap between saying 'certain acts are sinful' to saying, more broadly, 'homosexuality is wrong'. That is, there seems to be a confusion between what it means to do something wrong, and what it means to be someone. Which brings me back to where I began, which is that the Bible says nothing about homosexuality – which, I now confess, is ever so slightly misleading. For there are several instances when it talks about relationships between people of the same sex – not in the context of obsessing about sexual behaviour (remember, that is the hang up of our culture, not the Bible) – but simply in terms of celebrating what it might mean to honour a loving relationship.

The most prominent example of this is that of David and Jonathan. Some texts to ponder: “Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself... and Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself” (1 Samuel 18); “David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, 'Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, "The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever"” (1 Samuel 20); “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1). Clearly with David and Jonathan we have an important relationship between two people of the same sex which was dedicated before God in the form of a covenant. There is no hint of disapproval in this story for the relationship between the two (except from Saul, but he's the 'bad guy').

The response to mentioning David and Jonathan in this context is often 'but their relationship wasn't sexual!' which simply reveals our own obsessions. Clearly it is possible to have a loving and affectionate same-sex relationship that is honoured by God, and that is fully Biblical. Is that compatible with a prohibition on particular sexual acts? Of course. Are those relationships which seek a blessing in church more like Jonathan and David, or more like the cult prostitutes in Rome? Perhaps readers can use their own judgement on that; I trust my own view is clear.

One last point, which is strictly for Christians. To my mind the biggest problem that compromises conversations on the topic is that we don't take baptism seriously. That is, for Christians, baptism is when we are set free from the law of sin and death (things like Leviticus) and enabled to live by grace alone. In other words we become members of a group of people who acknowledge a common lack of righteousness before God, a bunch of people who get things wrong and need forgiveness, mercy and grace from each other in order to progress. If we took our baptism seriously then, firstly, we wouldn't obsess about the sins that our fellow Christians may or may not be carrying out, and, secondly, we might take seriously the intention of those same fellow Christians to live out a life of holiness before God, doing their best to know him and to walk more closely with Jesus day by day. It is because we don't respect our fellow Christians' integrity that the wider culture no longer respects us, and sees us as obsessed with rules about what we can or cannot do with our genitals (or whether you need certain genital equipment to exercise leadership in a church). Obviously we need to obsess about these things because our Lord spent so long teaching about them. Jesus wept - at the graveside of a man he loved.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks, Sam - probably the most cogent and succinct summary of the argument I've read.

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  2. "Rome, the centre of Empire – where there was a highly developed culture of temple prostitution."

    Hmmmm.

    This goes beyond the facts.

    Christian commentators who aren't classicists often say things like this, but actually we don't know a great deal about "temple prostitution" (a very loaded term by the way) at Rome. There was some t.p., and there *may* have been a highly developed culture of t.p. and this *may* be what S. Paul is alluding to in Romans 1.

    But then again it may not be ....

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  3. Amen!!! I totally agree with your argument, but have one question of a technical nature for you.

    Why, if we are to respect each other's baptismal covenant and not be obsessed with what other people are doing, that we are instructed in a very clear and succinct way the method by which we are to bring sinners forward in our church (first two people talk to them, etc.)? I've always hated that passage because I've always felt that people's sins should be between themselves and God, and not for the rest of the community to air out together. In fact, I feel that Jesus himself often instructed us to mind our own business, as it were, in the admonishment about stoning the adulterer and the whole plank in your eye passage. So then please contextualize the passage regarding how we are to bring sinners forward in the community passage. (sorry I have no chapter/verse for you, I'm not at my desk with my materials near me.)

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  4. "the word 'homosexual' does not occur in the Bible"

    That depends on the translation. Of course it doesn't occur in the original languages as it is an English word. But many modern translators have used it, with a word like "offenders", in 1 Corinthians 6:9. I would say that your otherwise very good discussion of this matter is missing something important because there is no discussion of this verse.

    Meanwhile I am writing this from Rome. In this city, or more precisely in the Vatican City (where oddly enough Ascension Day was not being celebrated), there are a lot of ancient statues of men with mutilated genitals. I hope these are not the evidence you appeal to of widespread ancient genital mutilation in this city - because it is clear from a close look that it was only the statues that had been mutilated, and, whether accidentally or deliberately, probably long after they were originally carved.

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  5. Internet Monk is taking up the theme: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/what-does-the-bible-actually-say-about-homosexuality

    JP - thanks. Sir Watkin - fair comment. Baron Opal - I'll shove up a sermon that I've given on that topic. Peter - translation (as you know far better than I!) is not a politically neutral process...

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