Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues in American culture.
Should same-sex marriages be legalized?
Should practicing homosexuals be ordained into Christian ministry?
What does the Bible say on this controversial and emotional issue?
On such a controversial and emotional issue, we need to know whose word we are going to trust. We can find scholars who support any of the variety of positions that are advocated on the subject.
It is not my intention to treat fully the multitude of interpretive comments that deal with the biblical texts on the subject. My goal is simply to review what the Bible says about homosexuality, as clearly, succinctly, and practically as possible.
Seek the intended meaning of the Bible
And so I must begin with an interpretive word.
When I taught principles of biblical interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I often told my students, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” We must seek the intended meaning of the text as understood in its original context.
I also said often, “The only word God is obligated to bless is his word.” What matters to us today is not my opinions or yours, but God’s.
Such a position is not held universally on this subject.
For instance, Dr. Walter Wink states in his thoughtful booklet, Homosexuality and the Bible, “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct” (p. 12).
Dr. Wink then compares homosexuality to the issue of slavery: he argues that the Bible condones slavery, states that the Bible was wrong on that subject, and concludes that it is equally wrong on the issue before us (pp. 12-13).
I greatly respect Dr. Wink’s enormous contributions to New Testament studies, especially on the subjects of spiritual warfare and nonviolence. But I could not disagree more strongly with his assertion, “The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”
Without digressing into an extended defense of biblical authority, I wish to state clearly that I believe every word of the Bible to be the Word of God. I believe the Scriptures to possess the same authority for our lives today as they possessed for their first hearers and readers.
For my purposes, the only question we’ll seek to answer is: What does the Bible intend to teach on this subject?
Does “the sin of Sodom” condemn homosexuality?
The Supreme Court made history on June 27, 2003, when it struck down the “sodomy laws” of the state of Texas. In a 6-3 decision, the justices reversed course from a ruling seventeen years ago that states could punish homosexuals for private consensual sex. Such activity is typically called “sodomy” because of the text we’ll study today.
In a survey of passages typically cited on the divisive issue of homosexuality, Genesis 19 and the sin of Sodom is usually listed first. Lot entertained two angels who came to the city to investigate its sins. These angels appeared as men. Before they went to bed, “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them’” (vv. 4-5 NIV). For such sin, “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah” (v. 24), destroying them.
Is this text a condemnation of homosexuality?
Dr. Walter Wink believes not: “That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them ‘like women,’ thus demasculinizing them” (p. 1). However, Dr. Wink offers no textual evidence that the men were “ostensibly heterosexual.” His view is only conjectural and stands against the vast majority of interpretation across the centuries.
Dr. Peter Gomes, the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard College, offers a different approach. He has written an extremely erudite introduction to the Bible and its message, The Good Book. Dr. Gomes, himself a homosexual (p. 164), treats this passage as an attempted homosexual rape and argues that it does not condemn homosexuality per se (pp. 150-52).
A third approach is suggested by D. Sherwin Bailey in his influential book, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Dr. Bailey argues that the Hebrew word for “know,” translated “have sex” by the New International Version, relates not to sexual activity but to hospitality. The word appears more than 943 times in the Old Testament and only twelve times in the context of sexual activity.
However, ten of these twelve times are in the book of Genesis, the context for our text. Lot’s response to the crowd, offering his daughters so they can “do what you like with them,” makes clear that he interpreted their desires as sexual (v. 8). Everett Fox’s excellent translation of Genesis includes the note, “the meaning is unmistakably sexual” (p. 80). And Jude 7 settles the question as to whether sexual activity is meant by our text: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.”
It is also the case that Jewish and later Christian interpretation of the passage has historically and commonly seen the sin in Sodom as homosexuality itself, not just attempted rape. While this fact does not settle the interpretative question, it is worth noting as we proceed.
What about Leviticus 18:22?
The next text typically cited on our subject is Leviticus 18:22, and it is far less ambiguous: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” The Hebrew is as clear as the English translation.
The obvious sense of the command seems to be: homosexual sexual relations are forbidden by Scripture. This is the way the text has typically been understood by Jewish and Christian interpreters across the centuries. It is the way most read the text still today.
But those who advocate homosexuality as an acceptable biblical lifestyle have found ways to dissent. Dr. Walter Wink admits that this text “unequivocally condemn[s] same-sex sexual behavior.” But he theorizes that the ancient Hebrews saw any sexual activity which could not lead to the creation of life as a form of abortion or murder. He adds that the Jews would have seen homosexuality as “alien behavior, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life.”
He then cites the penalty for homosexual behavior: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Leviticus 20:13). In his reasoning, if we see this punishment for homosexuality as obsolete today, we should see its prohibition of this behavior as equally outdated. He concludes his argument against making Leviticus 18:22 normative for sexual ethics today by citing a list of other biblical ethics he considers to be obsolete or in need of reinterpretation, e.g., intercourse during menstruation, polygamy, concubinage, and slavery among them.
And that’s not all. Other critics see the Levitical laws as expressive of worship codes, not universal moral standards. And they argue that all such laws were intended only for their day and time, such as kosher dietary laws and harvest regulations.
Is there an objective way to respond to these assertions?
First, let’s consider the claim that this Old Testament law has no relevance for New Testament believers but should be classified with kosher laws and such.
A basic rule of biblical interpretation is that any Old Testament teaching repeated in the New Testament carries the weight of command to the Christian church and faith. And the prohibition against homosexual activity is most certainly present there (see Romans 1:26-27, a passage we will consider in due time).
Even those Old Testament statements that are not repeated in the New Testament carry the force of principle. For instance, kosher laws tell us, at the least, that God cares about our bodies and health.
Second, it is claimed that the Leviticus passage expresses a worship code, not a moral standard.
The logic is that Leviticus is written with regard to the Levitical priests and their duties of worship preparation and leadership and does not apply as such to the larger family of faith. However, the chapter in question begins, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them . . . .’” (18:1).
Nothing in the chapter limits its application or significance to the Levites. Rather, the chapter exhorts all Israel to “keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (v. 4). It proceeds to forbid incestuous relationships, child sacrifice, and bestiality—standards I presume critics of Leviticus 18:22 would consider universal.
Third, it has been argued that the Leviticus prohibition of homosexuality is to be classed with other biblical statements that can be considered obsolete, such as the apparent biblical endorsement of slavery. This claim is cited frequently, so much so that we need to consider it next.
Slavery and the Scriptures
My move to Atlanta in 1994 gave me my first exposure to the remarkable colonial history of the East Coast. (Now that I live in Texas, I’ve learned that Texans think something is historical if it happened while Tom Landry was the coach of the Cowboys.) When people living in South Carolina speak of “the War,” they could mean the Civil War (though they’ll say “there was nothing civil about it”) or the Revolutionary War.
It is a fascinating region.
With one exception.
While traveling in Charleston one day, my wife, Janet, and I came upon the “slave trading warehouse,” the place where slaves were brought to America on ships and sold at market. I can still remember the building and my revulsion upon seeing it.
I believe that racism is the greatest sin in America, the failure that keeps us from addressing our other failures. Racism makes crime in south Dallas a “black” problem and drug abuse in north Dallas a “white” problem — when they’re all our problems.
Given our tragic history with racism, treating the subject of slavery in the Bible is a bit repugnant for us. However, a very common assertion regarding the topic of homosexuality and the word of God is that the biblical injunctions against this lifestyle are outdated, as is its acceptance of slavery. If we can prove that the Bible was wrong on the latter, we can believe that it is wrong on the former.
The issue of slavery in the Bible is a large and comprehensive subject, far more wide-ranging than we will consider in this article. I’ll try to limit our study to the barest of essentials so we can relate it to the larger question that brings it to our attention.
Slavery was an accepted part of life in Old Testament times. We know of no culture or ancient literature that questioned its existence or necessity. Persons became slaves in a variety of ways:
- They were born to enslaved parents (Genesis 17:23).
- They were purchased (Genesis 37:28).
- They sold themselves to pay a debt (Leviticus 25:39-55).
- Breaking into a home was punished by enslavement (Exodus 22:3).
- Prisoners of war were commonly enslaved (Joel 3:6).
- And the children of Israel enslaved the Canaanites they had conquered in the Promised Land (Judges 1:28).
Slaves in Israel were considered to be property and could be bought and sold (Exodus 21:32). They were granted protection against murder, permanent injury, or undue physical labor (cf. Exodus 21:20, 26; 23:12). Hebrew household slaves were circumcised (Genesis 17:12) and included at religious meals (Exodus 12:44).
Why did the Old Testament not decry slavery in general and move to free all those enslaved?
In many ways, it did.
There were several ways a Hebrew slave could be freed (a process called “manumission”):
- An individual could be purchased and set free (Exodus 21:8).
- A slave permanently injured by his master was to be set free (Exodus 21:26).
- Hebrews were to be held as slaves for no longer than six years (Deuteronomy 15:12).
- And the Jubilee Year, which occurred every forty-nine years, was to free all Israelite slaves (Leviticus 25:50).
But still we ask: Why did the Old Testament sanction this practice at all?
In fact, it simply recognized a fact of all ancient civilization. And its rules minimized this evil, protected its victims more fully than did any other society, and provided means for their eventual freedom. But the New Testament would bring God’s word on the subject to much fuller expression.
In the Old Testament era, the primary way persons were enslaved was through capture in war. But in the first century AD, the breeding of slaves swelled their numbers enormously. And large numbers of people sold themselves into slavery as a means of improving their quality of life. Owning and using people as slaves was so commonplace in the Roman Empire that not a single ancient writer is known to have condemned the practice. But all that would begin to change with the advent of the Christian movement.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Jim Denison