What Does the Bible Say About Homosexuality? by George D. McClain from Social Questions Bulletin 83:2-3 The Bible figures prominently in discussions about the place of lesbians and gay men in the life of the church. Most commonly, it is assumed that “biblical morality” or “a biblical standard” automatically supports the conclusion, as currently stated in the United Methodist Social Principles, that “the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching.” The Methodist Federation for Social Action rejects that position and urges the elimination of this condemnatory clause. As part of this critical ongoing debate in the church, I offer the following observations on the issue of homosexuality and the Bible. – George D. McClain Not a Major Biblical Issue Commentators of various persuasions tend to agree that homosexuality is not a matter of grave concern to the biblical writers. The number of references to homosexual acts is exceedingly small. Furthermore, there are no passages which address homosexuality as we know and understand it today – as a sexual identity based upon a life-long attraction toward people of the same sex, fixed early in life (Hilton, 64.) The concept of homosexuality was first given its name by the Hungarian K.M. Benkert in 1869, writing in the German language. The references in Scripture are to homosexual acts, performed by persons who are presumed unquestionably to be heterosexual in orientation and are therefore considered to be acting in ways contrary to their “nature.” The Holiness Code: Lev. 18:22, 20:13 These references to same-sex acts are part of the priestly “Holiness Code” which was promulgated to ensure clear and unequivocal separation between Hebrews and Babylonians at a time when the independent survival of the Hebrew people was threatened. Many barriers were erected, as against eating meat and milk together, sowing two different crops together, or the roles of men and women. Men must act like men in their sexual relations, not like women – that is, passively in the sexual encounter. To do so would be to confuse the roles of men and women, and thus homosexual acts were condemned. What the Bible offers us today is broad ethical themes (“love your neighbor as yourself”), not specific ethical rules. If our approach to Scripture were to try to follow all its behavioral rules, the Holiness Code would present enormous problems. Would anyone agree to the Levites’ prescribed punishment of stoning for adultery or for cursing one’s parents? The Holiness Code 1)is not about homosexuality but about maintaining purity, 2)is uninformed about homosexuality as an identity formed early in life, and 3)is superseded in Christianity by a larger understanding of love and grace: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). Romans 1:18-32 In this often-quoted passage, Paul’s subject is human rebellion against God. He borrows from prevailing Hellenistic morality a list of human failings to describe what he believes to be the behavioral consequences of human rebellion and sin. His reference to “unnatural intercourse” may underscore the cultural assumption of that day that all people are heterosexual, for whom same-sex relations would be “unnatural” or that only certain positions in intercourse are “natural” (Scroggs, 114). It was only considered “natural” for men to take an active, dominant position in sexual relations, and a woman a submissive role; anything else was held to be “unnatural.” This passage is not a thoughtful theological discourse on sexuality, but a list, borrowed from Hellenistic culture, of signs of human sin. It has no rule-book authority for today. Bruce Hilton points out (p. 73) how the conclusion of this passage is the exhortation, “therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same thing” (Romans 2:1). How ironic that the foregoing passage is used precisely in order to heap condemnation upon an especially vulnerable portion of the church and society. I Corinthians 6:9-10 & I Timothy 1:9-10 According to Robin Scroggs, the references in these passages are extremely ambiguous. He suggests that the items in Paul’s list in I Corinthians 6:9-10 “might well be partially, at least, memorized from a traditional stock of evils” (p. 102). He concludes that arsenokoites (NRSV: “sodomites”) refers to the active partner in pederasty and that the malakos (NRSV: “male prostitutes”) refers to an effeminate call-boy used in this practice. Scroggs argues persuasively that the only form of homosexuality that New Testament writers had in mind was Greco-Roman pederasty, with the sexual use of a young boy by an older male. This practice, espoused by Plato and widespread in Greco- Roman culture, was much in dispute among Greco-Roman moralists because it involved human denigration, misogyny, and crass exploitation (p. 84). In Scroggs’ discussion of I Timothy 1:9-10 pornos (NRSV: “fornicators”) means a male prostitute, used by arsenokoites, and kidnapped or/and managed by the andropodites, literally a “kidnapper” or, as in the NRSV, “slave traders” (p. 120). Passages Mistakenly Applied to Homosexual Relationships Genesis 1:26-28 is a culturally-bound account, explaining the origin of strong attraction of the sexes for each other and placing it within God’s good creation. It is not intended to prescribe particular relationships and should not be used to argue for an exclusive hetero-sexuality for all humankind or to oppose a homo-sexuality which could not even be conceived of at that time. Nor should the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:1-29 be used to condemn homosexuality, but rather to condemn rape and inhospitality, as made explicit in Ezekiel 16:49 (denial of aid to “the poor and needy”) and by Jesus’ words in Luke 10:10-12 (See Scroggs, pp. 73-74). Some Conclusions Karl Barth cautioned that “The Bible cannot be read unbiblically.” To reject loving same-sex relationships on the basis of a supposed “literal sense” of Scripture flies in the face of the enormous medical and historical gap between then and now. These considerations are decisive for me: 1) In the New Testament context the known form of homosexual activity was pederasty, an inherently exploitative, temporary relationship between an active older man and a passive youth. 2) Ancient sexology, based on fear of wasting male semen, goes far toward accounting for biblical prejudice against any male homosexual acts. 3) The Bible is essentially disinterested in the matter of same-sex relations. References are strikingly few and remarkably ambiguous (Scroggs, 101). 4) The Bible should not be read as morally opposing something which could not then even be conceived of, namely loving, egalitarian, same-sex relationships. 5) However, the Bible does address sexual relationships in important ways. I can only affirm the conclusion of Bruce Hilton in Can Homophobia Be Cured?: God’s love and grace, reflected in the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and spelled out as major themes of the Bible, tell us what we need to know about loving relationships. There is a growing belief in the church that the test of such a relationship is not the gender of the partners, but its nature. If it exploits, abuses, imprisons, it is wrong, whether in involves a long-time monogamous marriage or not. If it is truly loving, affirming, supportive – reflecting the grace of God – it can be a holy union, whether the church and society see fit to recognize it or not (p. 76). References Bruce Hilton, Can Homophobia Be Cured?, Abingdon, 1992. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, Fortress, 1983.