Scripture on Homosexuality
ROBERT A.J. GAGNON
What does the Bible say about homosexuality, and why?
For an in-depth answer, ZENIT turned to Robert A.J. Gagnon of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a graduate institution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Gagnon is the author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics(Abingdon, 2001)
ZENIT: Could you outline the principal passages in the Bible that you believe are the basis for prohibiting homosexuality?
Gagnon: There are two particularly important sets of explicit texts. First are the prohibitions in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which declare that for a man to "lie with a male as though lying with a woman" is "an abomination" or "detestable act" — in Hebrew, "toevah" — something utterly repugnant to God.
The second set is the Apostle Paul's mention of same-sex intercourse in Romans 1:24-27, which he treats as "exhibit B" — with idolatry as "exhibit A" — proving gross and deliberate human sin on the part of Gentiles against the truth about God accessible in creation or nature.
There are also a reasonably large number of other texts that explicitly or implicitly indicate opposition to same-sex intercourse, leaving little doubt that such opposition was the consensus position of both Testaments, as well as the historical communities out of which these texts arose.
Q: Sometimes modern-day skeptics reject Leviticus ...
Gagnon: The texts in Leviticus are often dismissed on one or more grounds. For example, it is claimed that these prohibitions have no more significance for the church today than other defunct purity laws; or that they have in view only same-sex intercourse conducted in the context of idolatrous cults, prostitution or adult-adolescent unions. Yet such arguments overlook a number of points.
Q: Such as ... ?
Gagnon: First, the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse occur in the context of other types of sexual activity that the church today still largely regards as illegitimate: incest, adultery and bestiality.
The strong prohibitions against these forms of sexual activity represent the closest analogues to the prohibition of same-sex intercourse. This is particularly the case with the prohibition of incest which, as with the prohibition of same-sex intercourse, rejects intercourse between two beings that are too much alike. Leviticus refers pejoratively to sex with a family member as sex with "one's own flesh."
Second, the attachment of purity language in ancient Israelite culture to such acts as incest, adultery, male-male intercourse, idolatry, economic exploitation, and the like — far from suggesting an amoral or non-moral basis for the rejection of such acts — actually buttresses the moral focus on the inherently degrading character of the acts themselves. It underscores that any talk about the positive moral intent of the participants is irrelevant.
For the same reason, the Apostle Paul many centuries later connected the language of impurity with acts — usually sexual acts — that are rejected on moral grounds: not only same-sex intercourse but also adultery, incest, sex with prostitutes, and promiscuous sexual activity. [Gagnon later cites some texts: Romans 1:24 and 6:19; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; 1 Thessalonians 2:3 and 4:7; see Ephesians 4:19; 5:3,5; and Colossians 3:5.]
Third, unlike a number of the now-defunct elements of the Holiness Code to which reference is often made, the indictment of same-sex intercourse is particularly severe, as suggested by the specific attachment of the label "toevah" and by making it a capital offense.
Same-sex intercourse was regarded by ancient
Fourth, the prohibitions of same-sex intercourse are not limited to particularly exploitative forms but are rather unqualified and absolute.
The general term "male" is used, not "cult prostitute," "boy, youth," or even "neighbor." The prohibition applies not only to the Israelite but also to the non-Israelite who lives among them — see Leviticus 18:26. The fact that both parties to the act are penalized in Leviticus 20:13 indicates that consensual acts are being addressed.
Idolatry is hardly the main concern since the prohibition in 20:13 is set in between prohibitions of adultery, incest and bestiality; it does not follow immediately upon the prohibition of child sacrifice as in 18:22. Moreover, male cult prostitution was not the only context in which homosexual intercourse manifested itself in the ancient Near East generally. It was merely the most acceptable context for homosexual intercourse to be practiced in
Fifth, the reason for the prohibition is evident from the phrase "lying with a male as though lying with a woman." What is wrong with same-sex intercourse is that it puts another male, at least insofar as the act of sexual intercourse is concerned, in the category of female rather than male.
It was regarded as incompatible with the creation of males and females as distinct and complementary sexual beings, that is, as a violation of God's design for the created order. Here it is clear that the creation stories in Genesis 1-2, or something like them, are in the background, which in turn indicates that something broader than two isolated prohibitions is at stake: nothing less than the divinely mandated norm for sexual pairing given in creation.
Q: How are these prohibitions reflected in the New Testament?
Gagnon: The prohibition of same-sex intercourse is clearly picked up in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, who emphasized that the Mosaic law had been abrogated, nevertheless saw significant continuity with the moral code of the Spirit.
The basic categories of sexual immorality — such as same-sex intercourse, incest, solicitation of prostitutes, adultery, etc. — remained in place for believers in Christ. Indeed, Paul formulated his reference to "men who lie with males" — "arsenokoitai" — one of the groups of people whom he insists will not inherit the kingdom of God in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, directly from the Levitical proscriptions of male-male intercourse. Clearly, then, Paul himself did not believe that the abrogation of the Mosaic law rendered obsolete the rejection of all same-sex intercourse for believers.
Q: What does Romans 1:24-27 say?
Gagnon: The text in Romans 1:24-27 is worth quoting at length: "because of the desires of their hearts God gave them over" — that is, those who chose not to worship God as God — "to an uncleanness" — that is, filthy conduct — "consisting of their bodies being dishonored among themselves. ... God gave them over to dishonorable passions, for even their females exchanged the natural use" — that is, of the male as regards sexual intercourse — "for that which is contrary to nature" — that is, sexual intercourse with other females — "and likewise also the males, having left behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed with their yearning for one another, males with males committing indecency and in return receiving in themselves the payback which was necessitated by their straying" — that is, from the truth about God evident in nature.
Here the intertextual echoes to Genesis 1-2 are even more pronounced than in the Levitical proscriptions.
Q: You have examples of this, of course ...
Gagnon: In the context of Romans 1:18-32 there are obvious allusions to Genesis 1 in the words "ever since the creation of the world" [1:20] and "the Creator" [1:25].
Also unmistakable is the link between Romans 1:23 — referring to idols "in the likeness of the image of a mortal human and of birds and of four-footed animals and of reptiles" — and Genesis 1:26 — "Let us make a human according to our image and ... likeness; and let them rule over the ... birds ... and the cattle ... and the reptiles."
Paul's denotation of the sexes in Romans 1:26-27 as "females" and "males" rather than "women" and "men" follows the style of Genesis 1:27: "male and female he made them."
Q: What are the implications of such an echo to Genesis 1:26-27?
Gagnon: For Paul, both idolatry and same-sex intercourse reject God's verdict that what was made and arranged was "very good," as Genesis 1:31 says. Instead of recognizing their indebtedness to one God in whose likeness they were made and exercising dominion over the animal kingdom, humans worshipped statues made in their own likeness and even in the likeness of animals.
Similarly, instead of acknowledging that God had made them "male and female" and had confined legitimate sexual intercourse to opposite-sex pairing, humans denied the transparent complementarity of their sexuality by engaging in sex with the same sex, females with females, and males with males.
Q: Would this harkening back to Genesis be natural for Paul?
Gagnon: That Paul should have the creation stories in the background of his critique of same-sex intercourse is hardly surprising.
In an earlier letter to Corinth, when Paul discussed the case of incest, he drew on a hypothetical analogy of sexual immorality — solicitation of prostitutes — and in the process appealed to the creation texts: "a man ... shall be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh." See Genesis 2:24, cited in 1 Corinthians 6:16. It was in this context that Paul listed serial, unrepentant same-sex intercourse as one of the behaviors that could lead to exclusion from God's kingdom — see, 1 Corinthians 6:9. So, clearly, just as Paul had Genesis 1:27 in the background when critiquing same-sex intercourse in Romans 1:24-27, so too he had Genesis 2:24 in the background when critiquing same-sex intercourse in 1 Corinthians 6:9.
Like any other Jew in his day, it was hardly possible for him to think about sexual immorality apart from such an appeal. In the same way, when Jesus criticized divorce and remarriage he too cited from Genesis 1:27 — "God made them male and female" — and Genesis 2:24 — "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh."
Any assessment of sexual immorality by Jews and Christians of the first century ultimately had in view the creation stories.
It is for this reason that attempts to limit Paul's — or any other early Jewish or Christian — critique of same-sex intercourse to particularly exploitative forms is doomed to failure. For all the occasional critique of homosexual behavior that could be found among some Greco-Roman moralists, it did not approach the degree of revulsion experienced by Israel and the church. Jews and Christians stood apart from all other cultures of their time in their absolute opposition to all forms of homosexual practice.
Paul's own wording in Romans 1:24-27 makes clear that the contrast in his mind is not between exploitative and non-exploitative forms of homosexual behavior but between same-sex intercourse per se and opposite-sex intercourse. In Paul's view — and indeed in the view of every Jew or Christian from whom we have firsthand written records within a millennium or more of Paul's day — what was wrong, first and foremost, with two females or two males having sex is the same-sexness of the erotic act, an act that was intended by God to be a reunion of complementary sexual others according to Genesis 1-2.
ZENIT: You have argued that Paul had the creation stories in Genesis 1-2 in view when he rejected all homosexual practice. How does his argument that homosexual practice is "against nature" fit into this?
Gagnon: Jews and Christians recognized that the scriptural understanding of human sexuality was not accessible only to those who had exposure to the Scriptures of the Jews.
Since the Creator had designed human sexual pairing for complementary "sexual others," it is not surprising that such a design was imbedded in compatible opposite-sex differences and still observable in the natural world set in motion by the Creator's decree.
Hence, Paul could argue in Romans 1:24-27 that even Gentiles without access to Scripture had enough knowledge in creation/nature to know that same-sex unions represented a non-complementary sexual pairing, an "unnatural" union, a violation of Creator's will for creation.
The naturalness of opposite-sex unions is readily visible in the areas of anatomy, physiology — that is, the procreative capacity — and in a host of interpersonal aspects that contribute in our own day to the popular slogan, "men are from Mars and women are from Venus." To tamper with that naturalness and to act as if male-female sexual differences are not vital components of sexual pairings is, in short, to reap the whirlwind. There is no disharmony between Scripture and nature on this score.
Q: What about those who argue that "we now know" today that people are born with homoerotic attraction and thus it is a "natural" phenomenon?
Gagnon: Four points can be made here.
First, Paul was not saying that every human impulse is "natural" and therefore God-approved. He went on to list in Romans 1:29-31 a series of impulses and behaviors that have some innate proclivity — including covetousness and envy — but which were not, for that reason, "natural" or morally acceptable. Paul distinguished between innate passions perverted by the fall of Adam and exacerbated by idol worship on the one hand, and material creation that was left relatively intact despite human sin on the other hand.
Second, some current theories of homosexual development are essentially compatible with Paul's own view of sin. In Romans 5 and 7 Paul speaks of sin as an innate impulse operating in the human body, transmitted by an ancestor human, and never entirely within the control of human will. This is precisely how most homosexual-affirming advocates describe homosexual orientation today.
Third, theories about a congenital basis for homoerotic attraction were widespread in Paul's day, as was the existence of men whose sexual desire was oriented exclusively toward other males. We may have refined the view of exclusive innate attraction to members of the same sex, but the basic elements of this theory were already in place in antiquity and still made little difference to critical assessments of homosexual behavior.
Why? Because it is obvious — especially in a worldview that incorporates the notion of a human fall from an original sinless state — that innate impulses are not necessarily moral simply because they are innate.
Fourth and finally, it is not quite true that science has now discovered that homosexual impulses are given at birth, whether through genes or hormones or special homosexual brains. In fact, studies to date — including the most important identical twin study ever done, one that factored out sample bias — indicate that homoerotic impulses are not congenital. Rather, whatever contribution is made through genes, hormones or brain-wiring is largely indirect and subordinate to macro- and micro-cultural factors.
For example, cross-cultural studies have been done showing a wide variance in the incidence of homosexual behavior and homosexual self-identification in different population groups, ancient and modern. And the most important identical twin study to date, recently conducted by J. Michael Bailey, "did not provide statistically significant support for the importance of genetic factors" in the development of homosexuality.
Q: Many people are willing to concede your point that both Paul and the authors of the Levitical prohibitions were unequivocally against all homosexual practice. But they would counter-argue that same-sex intercourse is not much of a concern to Scripture because it receives so little attention. What is your response?
Gagnon: There are two problems with this claim. The first is that there are a fair amount of texts that speak strongly against same-sex intercourse.
Despite allegations by some scholars that the stories of Sodom — see Genesis 19:4-11 — and of the Levite at Gibeah — see Judges 19:22-25 — only express opposition to homosexual intercourse in the context of rape, these stories do include male-male intercourse per se as an important factor in the evil behavior of the inhabitants. To them can be added the story of Ham's sexual act on his father Noah — see Genesis 9:20-27.
That these stories are relevant to an indictment of same-sex intercourse generally is apparent from: (a) the wider narratives of both the Yahwist and the Deuteronomistic historian which elsewhere indicate a restriction of appropriate sexual activity to heterosexual relations; (b) ancient Near Eastern texts that censure male-male intercourse for reasons other than coercion; (c) the assessment of Sodom's sin by a number of later texts, including Ezekiel 16:50, Jude 7, and 2 Peter 2:7; and (d) the motifs common to the Ham and Sodom stories on the one hand and the denunciation of Canaanite sexual sins in Leviticus 18 and 20, including Canaanite participation in non-coercive male-male intercourse as a basis for expulsion from the land.
Also to be included among anti-homosex texts are a series of texts in the Deuteronomistic history — Joshua through 2 Kings — that speak disparagingly of cultic participants in homosexual activity — see 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7 — grounded in the law of Deuteronomy — see 23:17-18 — and continued in the Book of Revelation — see 21:8; 22:15. These texts show a special revulsion for males functioning as receptive partners in intercourse with other males, referring to them as "dogs." Parallel Mesopotamian texts indicate that the main issue is not cult association or fees but rather behaving sexually as though female rather than male.
Q: And what is the second problem with claiming that Scripture shows little concern for homosexual practice?
Gagnon: Texts that implicitly reject homosexual unions run the gamut of the entire Bible, including not only the creation stories in Genesis 1-3 and the apostolic decree in Acts 15:20, 29, and 21:25, along with other occurrences of the word "porneia" — that is, sexual immorality — in the New Testament, but also the whole range of narratives, laws, proverbs, exhortations, metaphors and poetry that in addressing sexual relationships presume the sole legitimacy of heterosexual unions.
Nowhere is there the slightest indication of openness anywhere in the Bible to homoerotic attachments, including the narrative about David and Jonathan.
The reason why not every author of Scripture explicitly comments on same-sex intercourse is that some views are treated as so obvious that very little needs to be said. The only form of consensual sexual behavior that was regarded by ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity as more egregious than same-sex intercourse was bestiality. It is no accident that bestiality receives even less attention in the Bible than same-sex intercourse — it's mentioned only in Leviticus 18:23 and 20:15-16. Incest receives only comparable attention. Yet unequivocal opposition to bestiality and incest by every biblical author and by Jesus can hardly be doubted.
The "big picture" of the Bible on the issue of homosexual practice is not some vague concept of love and tolerance of every form of consensual sex but rather the complementarity of male-female sexual bonds and the universal restriction of acceptable sexual activity to heterosexual marriage.
Q: Speaking of Jesus, some argue that because Jesus said nothing about the matter that it was not an important issue for him. What do you think?
Gagnon: There is no historical basis for arguing that Jesus might have been neutral or even favorable toward same-sex intercourse.
All the evidence we have points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that Jesus would have strongly opposed same-sex intercourse had such behavior been a serious problem among first-century Jews. It simply was not a problem in Israel.
First, Jesus' "silence" has to be set against the backdrop of unequivocal and strong opposition to same-sex intercourse in the Hebrew Bible and throughout early Judaism. It is not historically likely that Jesus overturned any prohibition of the Mosaic law, let alone on a strongly held moral matter such as this. And Jesus was not shy about disagreeing with prevailing viewpoints. Had he wanted his disciples to take a different viewpoint he would have had to say so.
Second, the notion of Jesus' "silence" has to be qualified. According to Mark, Jesus spoke out against porneia, "sexual immorality" — see Mark 7:21-23 — and accepted the Decalogue commandment against adultery — see Mark 10:19. In Jesus' day, and for many centuries thereafter, porneia was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse. Moreover, the Decalogue commandment against adultery was treated as a broad rubric prohibiting all forms of sexual practice that deviated from the creation model in Genesis 1-2, including homoerotic intercourse.
Third, that Jesus lifted up the male-female model for sexual relationships in Genesis 1-2 as the basis for defining God's will for sexuality is apparent from his back-to-back citation in Mark 10:6-7 of Genesis 1:27 — "God made them male and female" — and Genesis 2:24 — "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."
These are the same two texts that Paul cites or alludes to in his denunciation of same-sex intercourse in Romans 1:24-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9. For Jesus, marriage was ordained by the Creator to be an indissoluble union of a man and woman into one flesh. Authorization of homoerotic unions requires a different creation account.
Fourth, it is time to deconstruct the myth of a sexually tolerant Jesus. Three sets of Jesus sayings make clear that, far from loosening the law's stance on sex, Jesus intensified the ethical demand in this area: (a) Jesus' stance on divorce and remarriage [Gagnon later cites Mark 10:1-12; and Matthew 5:32 and the parallel in Luke 16:18; and Paul's citation of Jesus' position in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11]; (b) Jesus' remark about adultery of the heart — see Matthew 5:27-28; and (c) Jesus' statement about removing body parts as preferable to being thrown into hell — see Matthew 5:29-30 and Mark 9:43-48 — which, based on the context in Matthew as well as rabbinic parallels primarily has to do with sexual immorality.
Simply put, sex mattered to Jesus. Jesus did not broaden the range of acceptable sexual expression; he narrowed it. And he thought that unrepentant, repetitive deviation from this norm could get a person thrown into hell.
Where then do we get the impression that Jesus was soft on sex? People think of his reaction to the woman caught in adultery — see John 7:53-8:11 —the sinful woman in Luke 7:36-50, and the Samaritan woman who had many husbands in John 4.
What the first story suggests is that Jesus did modify the law at one point: Sexual immorality should not incur a death penalty from the state. Why? Not because sex for him didn't matter but rather because stoning was a terminal act that did not give opportunity for repentance and reform. Moreover, all three stories confirm what we know about Jesus elsewhere: that he aggressively sought the lost, ate with them, fraternized with them. But the same Jesus who could protect an adulterous woman from stoning also took a very strong stance on divorce-and-remarriage.
We see a parallel in Jesus' stance toward tax collectors, who had a justly deserved reputation for exploiting their own people for personal gain. We do not conclude from Jesus' well-known outreach to tax collectors that Jesus was soft on economic exploitation. To the contrary: All scholars agree that Jesus intensified God's ethical demand with respect to treatment of the poor and generosity with material possessions. Why then do we conclude from Jesus' outreach to sexual sinners that sexual sin was not so important to Jesus?
Q: Some would still argue that the teaching against homosexuality is related to cultural and social conditioning. Now that society is more accepting of homosexuality, why shouldn't Christianity change its position? In other words, why is this teaching inalterable?
Gagnon: Ancient Israel, early Judaism and early Christianity never adopted the position that they should alter their ethical standards simply because the broader cultural milieu took a more accepting view of some practices.
They all lived in environments where male-male intercourse was as much, and often more, of an accepted practice as it is in our own contemporary culture. Yet, far from capitulating on their position regarding acceptable sexual expression, they maintained clear distinctions between their own practices and the practices of those outside the community of God.
This is what holiness refers to: being set apart for the exclusive use of God rather than conforming to the ways of the world. Jesus himself called on his followers to be "the light of the world" and "a city built on a hill," and not to act "like the Gentiles."
The view of Scripture against same-sex intercourse is pervasive, absolute and strong, and was all those things in relation to the broader cultural contexts from which Scripture emerged. It was then, and remains today, a core countercultural vision for human sexuality.
As studies indicate, cultural affirmation of homosexual practice will lead to higher numbers of self-identifying and practicing homosexuals and bisexuals in the population, which in lead will lead to an increase in the ancillary problems that affect the homosexual and bisexual population at a disproportionately high rate.
This includes health problems such as sexually transmitted diseases, mental illness, substance abuse, and a 10-year or more decrease in life expectancy; problems in relational dynamics, including a high incidence of non-monogamy — especially among male homosexuals — and short-term relationships — especially among lesbians — due to the distinctive natures of males as males and females as females; and higher incidence of adult-adolescent and adult-child sexual activity.
For the macro-culture generally, approval of homosexual behavior will all but annihilate societal gender norms of any sort, promoting the normalization of the most bizarre elements of the homosexual movement — transsexualism, transvestism — thereby increasing gender identity confusion among the young.
God has deemed that sexual intercourse be an experience between complementary sexual "others" that creates a "one-flesh" union, a celebration of sexual diversity and pluralism in the best sense of the terms.
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