Thursday, July 13, 2006

Homosexuality: Questions & Answers

Over the years I have come across various questions and objections to the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. Here are some of the more common questions, together with my answers.

Question 1: Does the Bible teach that homosexuality is a sin?

Answer: It certainly does. Consider the following verses:

Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.”

Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death.”

Deuteronomy 23:17, ““There shall be no harlot amongst Israel’s women, nor shall there be a homosexual among the sons of Israel.” (Hebrew Interlinear)

Romans 1:26-27, “…women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”

1 Corinthians 6:9, “Know you not that unrighteous men will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Be not led astray; no fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous persons, drunkards, revilers or extortionists, will inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Greek Interlinear)

1 Timothy 1:9-10, “The law is not made for the righteous man but for those who are lawless, unruly, impious, sinful, unholy and profane. (It is for) parricides, matricides, murderers, fornicators, homosexuals, kidnappers (or slave-dealers), liars, perjurers, and anything else that opposes healthy teaching.”

Question 2: If homosexuality was a very bad sin, why did Jesus never mention it?

Answer: Tom Wright answers that question HERE by pointing out that “Jesus didn’t need to speak explicitly against homosexuality for the same reason that he didn’t speak against heroin addiction. It was not a problem in the world of his day…. It would be a very trivialized read of Jesus if we imagined that Jesus simply came to give us a set of teachings on every possible subject that we might ever want to know anything about.”

Question 3: A minute ago you quoted a number of verses against homosexuality, many of which came from the Old Testament. But no Christian tries to keep all the Old Testament laws, so isn’t it arbitrary to appeal to some of them and not others. For example, the Old Testament condemns homosexuality just as strongly as it condemns eating oysters, yet you don’t find Christians preaching against that.

Answer: The entire evangelical community is agreed that there are parts of the Old Testament that are still relevant and there are parts that have been fulfilled. Although it is not a straightforward matter to know what fits into what category, all evangelical scholars agree that the prohibitions against homosexuality are still relevant. I’d like to explain how we can know this.

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells Timothy that “All Scripture is…profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Paul was not referring to the New Testament when he said that, since the New Testament hadn’t been completed and canonised. He was referring to the Old Testament. Now if the moral laws of the Old Testament had been done away with, how could one use the O.T. for reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness?

When Paul was writing to the Ephesians on the subject of parental authority, he rooted his teaching in the moral authority of Old Testament law. "Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honour your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with promise: 'that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.'” (Ephesians 6:1-3)

The reason Paul could quote the Sinai law when addressing Gentile children is because, through faith, Gentile believers have now been grafted in to God’s covenant family (Rom. 11:17). The result of Gentiles coming into the covenant is that they are heirs of covenantal laws and promises of the Old covenant. Therefore, “Rather than neglect Mosaic law,” writes Jason Fletcher HERE, "Christians have a theological responsibility to seek in the law given to shape the nation of Israel insight into God’s will for nations generally. This is because Mosaic law was never intended exclusively for Israel; its ethical principles originate in the character of God and are foundational to the creation order. Moreover, Jesus does not abolish Mosaic law but authoritatively reveals its underlying ethical intent, and Paul, although critical of the misuse and powerlessness of the law, also affirms its abiding ethical authority."

The obvious question is, if the Old Testament is still relevant, why do Christian not seek to follow all the 613 articles of legislation? To find the answer to that question, we need to look at what happened in the early church.

In Acts 10, Peter had a strange vision where the Lord lowered down a net filled with unclean animals and told Peter to eat. As the context makes clear, the point of this vision is that the covenant is now open to Gentiles. It is significant that the Lord used unclean animals in this vision to represent unclean people, since the reason God gave for the clean/unclean distinction in the first place was in order that His people might be separate from the rest of the nations (Lev. 20:22-26). As James Dunn says HERE,

"It had been clear for centuries really that Gentiles were some kind of threat to Israel’s holiness. To be holy, to be set apart to God, meant being set apart from other nations. Leviticus 20 spells that out quite explicitly: why do you observe the distinction between clean and unclean foods? Because it marks off your separation from the people of the land who may defile you and prevent your total commitment to Yahweh - that is why you observe the distinction between clean and unclean foods. So clean and unclean foods wasn’t simply about unclean foods, but about unclean people – people who are not acceptable as table companions."

This vision was God’s way of telling Peter that things had now changed: Gentiles believers are now welcome into the covenant community as Gentiles (always before they had been welcome provided they converted to Judaism and become ritually clean according to Mosaic law). Always before it had been unlawful for a Jew to keep company, much less eat, with a Gentile. As Peter said to Cornelius, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts. 10:28) The consequence of this is that Peter begins eating with Gentiles, to the great astonishment of the Jews (“’You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!’” Acts 11:3). But not only does Peter stop observing the clean/unclean distinctions, being, like Paul, “convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14:14), but Peter also insisted that Gentile converts not be made to submit to the ceremonial laws of Moses. As Peter had said in response to the Judaizers, “why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts. 15:10) Peter was not referring to the yoke of God’s moral law, as if an age of antinomianism was now being ushered in. Neither was Peter referring merely to circumcision, since circumcision by itself was not a yoke that was difficult to bear. Rather, the context makes clear that Peter was referring to the network of ceremonial customs for which circumcision was the primary emblem – the elaborate instructions for cleanliness that divided the world into two groups. Peter clinches his argument by appealing to the fact that the Holy Spirit came upon Gentiles living as Gentiles and not as Jews, as the final proof of this new work (Acts 15:8-9).

God’s New Covenant work is not about getting rid of the Old Covenant, but about fulfilling everything it pointed towards. This is a point Paul developed in Romans and Galatians. In Galatians 3:11-25, Paul says that the law (torah) reigned until faith was revealed. Is Paul referring to the moral law, as revealed in, but not limited to, the ten commandments? We don’t think so since the entire passage of Gal. 3:11-25, and the analogies Paul uses (i.e., 24-25), all point towards the temporary function of the law in God’s purposes (to paraphrase verse 23: we were under the law but now we are under faith). But the Mosaic moral law, as revealed in but not limited to, the ten commandments, is something that we are still under, as we have already shown from Eph. 6:1-3. Though the entire moral code of the Old Testament is still binding, the part of the Torah that has expired is the ceremonial laws that were fulfilled in Christ. As we saw, these laws functioned as boundary markers between Jews and Gentiles, separating the world into two groups of people: those who were ‘clean’ and those who were ‘unclean.’ Paul’s contention is that since salvation has now come to all who put faith in the Messiah, the markers which have served as the boundaries between Jew and Gentile – i.e., circumcision, food laws, the whole ceremonial code that divided people into clean and unclean - can no longer function as the markers of the covenant community. The function of these laws regarding spiritual cleanliness has been fulfilled in Christ. There is nothing we can do to make us ‘clean’ - it is now only through Christ, while Jews who continue to practice ritual cleanliness yet reject the Messiah, are unclean.

Therefore, Paul could say that in Christ “there is nothing unclean of itself” (Rom. 14:14), referring not to moral uncleanness, such as violating one’s conscience (“to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean”, ibid), but to everything that would have been unclean under the Mosaic ceremonial code (see also Hebrews 9:8-10 and Mark 7:18-19). This is why the whole comparison between homosexuality and eating oysters is scripturally unsound.
There remains a problem. It could look as if Paul is advocating discontinuity in God’s purposes. It could look as if the new covenant was at odds with the old covenant. Paul was certainly no dispensationalist, and he is at pains to show in Galatians 3 that the new covenant had not just come along to wipe the ceremonial laws of cleanliness into irrelevance, but to gloriously fulfil them in Christ.

That sounds simple enough for Christians today to accept, but for the Jews of the first century, this was a minefield of potential theological problems. On the surface, God’s decision that the covenant was no longer restricted to physical descendents of Abraham, identified by the sign of circumcision and the other aspects of the ceremonial code of cleanliness, could seem like an abandonment of the terms of the covenant. When Paul wrote to the Jewish Christians in Galatia, as when he wrote to the Christians in Rome, he had to show how this new work fitted into – and indeed, fulfilled - everything that went before. Since the Jewish believers had a background of being steeped in the Old Testament covenants, they needed to be carefully shown that there is continuity, not discontinuity, between the new work of Christ and the older Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. That is why the figure of Abraham is so central to this passage. Paul dwells on Abraham to show that the new covenant expands and fulfils, rather than abrogates, the promises given to Abraham and the law given to Moses. Paul shows that as God’s mercy is opened up to the Gentiles, God is able to fulfil, through Christ, everything the election of Abraham and the law of Moses had foreshadowed.

In dividing the world into clean and unclean people and things, the ceremonial laws foreshadowed the new covenant where cleanness is restructured around the spiritually clean heart (Jer. 31:31-33; Ezek. 36:16-38), just as circumcision foreshadowed the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29). The clean/circumcised heart is made possible through the work of the Holy spirit. The spirit renews us as we are made into the image of Christ. (Col. 1:15 & 3:10; Eph. 4:24) The corollary of this is that we are enabled to do good works, to practice the fruit of the spirit and to reject the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26 & 6:8-9). The moral laws of the O.T. are relevant to all these New Covenant goals. In fact, Paul’s moral teaching assumes the abiding ethical relevance of the Old Testament, as I have already shown.

For this reason, when Paul says not to be immoral, as he does in many places, he never defined exactly what he means by ‘immoral.’ He does not have to spell out the entire profile of acts that are covered by the word ‘immoral’ because there was a background network of morality already in place, as a result of the Old Testament moral laws. The New Testament does not have ever to say that bestiality, incest and homosexuality are wrong for us to know they are wrong. The New Testament says not to be immoral but it never itemizes exactly what that means. For example, it never tells us that having sexual relationships with your grandmother is included in this category. The New Testament says not to commit adultery but it never tells us whether it is immoral to sleep with someone else’s wife even if you don’t actually commit adultery. To read the New Testament like a legal document that has to explicitly delineate all the particulars in every general category, is to trivialize it.

This explains why the New Testament writers, although spending enormous energy going over the relationship between the new covenant and the Old Testament ceremonial laws, especially circumcision, spent no effort spelling out the relationship between the Old Testament moral laws and new covenant living. That is because they didn’t need to – it was never in doubt.

Question 4: When Paul condemns homosexuality in Romans 1 and his other letters, isn’t it true that he was not addressing long-term stable homosexual partnerships? Wouldn’t he have just had in mind things like older men exploiting younger men, sexual pluralism and homosexuality as practiced in cult prostitution.

Answer: So called ‘stable homosexual partnerships’ did exist in Paul’s culture, as Plato’s Symposium and accounts of the Roman empire show, and Paul condemns all kinds of homosexual behaviour, not just a subclass of it. The fact that Paul condemns homosexuality on the grounds that it is contrary to nature shows that something more fundamental is at stake than merely the wrong use of homosexuality. The larger context of Roman’s 1 is that when a society rejects the knowledge of God, the people in that society are given over to a debased mind. An obvious sign of this is the break-up of the natural male/female model that goes back to Genesis 1 and the adopting, instead, of practices which, according to Paul, are ‘against nature.’

Question 5: Isn’t Romans 1 just referring to heterosexuals who had abandoned their natural inclinations in order to seek homosexual gratification?

Answer: To answer that question we need to ask ourselves what the apostle means when he refers to certain actions as ‘unnatural.’ In our language we have many different uses for the word natural. Sometimes, to say something is natural means that it is common or usual while other times it means that which comes easily for a person. I think the context of Romans 1 makes it clear that when the apostle appeals to nature he is not appealing to what is common (as if morality can be reduced to statistical observation – a very anti-Pauline idea). Nor do I think he can mean that which comes easily for a person, since he shows elsewhere that we are to struggle against the inclinations of our flesh (Rom. 7:19-25).

Because of this, I disagree that Romans 1 refers to “heterosexuals who had abandoned their natural inclinations in order to seek homosexual gratification.” That is just totally irresponsible and careless exegesis. If Romans 1 is really an argument for following one’s ‘natural inclinations’, it is the first and last time in all of the Pauline corpus.

When Paul condemns homosexual relationships as ‘against nature’ in verse 26, his meaning is clear by attending to the context. In the previous verse he talked about people exchanging the truth of God for the lie. The truth of God is clearly the normative standards that God has written into the created order (revealed in Genesis 1 & 2 – the implicit sub-narrative behind all of Romans 1), while the lie is the alternative way of doing things, one which involves turning aside from the “knowledge of God” to do “those things which are not fitting,” (1:28) ‘dishonourable’ (24) in opposition to “the truth of God” (25), and so on. So when Paul appeals to nature, he is appealing to the standard of how God created things to work, how things are supposed to be. It has nothing to do with failing to follow your own inclinations or doing something that doesn’t come naturally to you.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that questioners suggestion is correct, that the apostle is referring to heterosexuals who had abandoned their natural inclinations in order to seek homosexual gratification. In that case, we would have to say that Paul’s words are equally applicable to those of a homosexual orientation who abandon homosexual relationships for heterosexuals. But all of this only works if you think of someone’s sexuality as being fixed, like the colour of one’s eyes – an idea that was not around during the time of Paul and is still far from established in science. If Paul did mean that, certainly none of his Jewish readers in Rome would have realized that’s what he meant, so he communicated his point very poorly. He may not have been a very clear writer at times, but he was not as dense as that.

Question 6: Might Paul have simply been condemning shameful and lustful same-sex relationships, but not all homosexual activity? To assume that the Romans 1 passage is dealing with all homosexual activity would be like reading Colossians 3:5-6 and assuming that the prohibition on passion included passion in marriage.

Answer: Paul shows that what is wrong with homosexual relationships is that they are homosexual relationships: “even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature…also the men leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another.” The above suggestion implies that homosexual men and women are only exchanging the natural use for what is against nature if they do it with lust and shameful promiscuity. But that is beyond the bounds of serious exegesis.

It has been suggested that reading the Romans passage and assuming it is addressing all homosexual activity is like reading Colossians 3:5-6 and assuming that the prohibition on passion includes passion within marriage. But it’s not like that at all. The Bible makes clear in other places that passion in marriage is good, so we interpret Colossians in light of that. But the Bible never makes clear that some forms of homosexuality are legitimate.

Question 7: Can you make further comment on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11?

Answer: Rather than commenting on these verses myself, I’d like to share something that another Christian has written about these passages. The young man is Ron Belgau, a Christian of homosexual orientation who believes he is called to lifelong celibacy.

I Corinthians 6:9-11

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor active homosexuals [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

The key debate over this passage concerns the meaning of the term arsenokoitai. There is a lot of debate over this word, but having studied Greek, it seems to me fairly self-evident that arsenokoitai is a compound word referring to those offenders condemned in Leviticus 18:22. In the Septuagint, we find “You shall not lie [koiten] with a male [arsenos] as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).

The linguistic problem seems to me to be exactly analogous to this: suppose I have an Old Testament text which says, “it is unlawful to lay bricks,” and I have a New Testament text that says “bricklayers are lawbreakers.” It would seem inconceivable to me to say that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what bricklayer means.” Yet Mel White claims (with an apparently straight face) that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what arsenokoitai means.” While I can appreciate Mel’s desire that this should be true (since I shared that desire for years), it simply is not true. My New Testament Greek Lexicon (put together by Greek scholars!) defines arsenokoites (the singular of arsenokoitai) as “one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual.” It is true enough that there are some Greek scholars who reject this interpretation, just as there are some Biblical Scholars who argue that God is not the Creator, or that Christ was not born of a virgin, or that He wasn’t the Son of God, or that He did not rise from the dead. But if Christians had to give up their beliefs every time a scholar professed disbelief, Christianity would not have survived a week.

Linguistically, the transformation from “it is unlawful to lay bricks” to “bricklayers are lawbreakers” is identical to the transformation from “you shall not koiten with an arsenos” to “arsenokoitai shall not enter the kingdom of God.” In both cases, the verb has been conjugated to function as a noun, and the object has been joined to the verb to form a new compound word.

Words have to mean something, and the obvious grammatical meaning of arsenokoitai is “men who lie with men,” a reference back to Leviticus 18:22. This does not automatically prove that this is what Paul meant. As some have pointed out, “ladykiller” does not mean either a lady who kills or a person who kills ladies. But most compound words have obvious meanings. A homosexual, for example, is a person sexually attracted to their own sex.

There is a tiny amount of room for scepticism about the meaning of arsenokoitai, but in order to make a compelling case against the obvious meaning, one would need to propose an alternative meaning, find documentation of that alternative meaning, and show that the alternative meaning would make at least as much sense out of Paul’s argument as does the grammatically obvious meaning.

I welcome serious, faithful scholars who challenge and question our beliefs about the Scriptures. Many of the great heroes of the faith have done this, challenging Christians to take more seriously the Word of God. Such men and women have started great reform movements. But after two years of studying Greek in college so that I could understand the translation arguments in the passages treating homosexuality, my reaction was something like, “this is the best challenge we can make on the translation of arsenokoitai?” I, at least, did not find the argument convincing.

And moving beyond the specific question of whether or not arsenokoitai refers to active homosexuals, the statement that fornicators, adulterers, active homosexuals, and other sinners will not enter the kingdom of heaven is logically connected with the statement a few verses later that sexual sin defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s argument in the latter half of I Corinthians 6 is that sexual sin separates us from the spirit (and thus from the kingdom of God). But he also argues that sinners can be washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (See Jesus and Sexual Morality: Life in the Holy Spirit, above).

None of this is to single out homosexual sin for special condemnation; adultery and fornication are just as serious in God’s eyes and much more commonly practiced. But for those of us tempted to homosexual activity, it is important to recognize that the Scriptures say that such activity can cut us off from God by defiling the temple where He dwells through the Holy Spirit within us.

It is also important not to be discouraged. Romans 7 is very clear that the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit is not over in a moment. It is a part of every Christian’s daily walk with Christ. As long as we keep returning to the cross in repentance, we will receive forgiveness and Christ will help strengthen us and progressively free us from sin. That is why Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 6:11 that we can be set free from our sins. The way is not free from struggle, but the battles do lead to victories, and freedom from the power of sin.

I Timothy 1:8-11

Now we know that the law is good, if any one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, active homosexuals [arsenokoitai], kidnapers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted (I Timothy 1:8-11).

Again, I find the argument that arsenokoitai means “men who lie with men” compelling. But this passage is also important for what it says about the law.

Christ said that “all the law and the prophets” was summed up in two commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. The Apostle Paul teaches that those who live by the Spirit are not under the law—as he argues in this passage, “the law is not laid down for the just.” Those who live by the Spirit will show in their lives the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). But, Paul is equally clear that “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The New Testament vice lists remind us of what sin is. If we are using our “freedom” to engage in sin, then we are not free; we have become slaves of sin (cf. John 8:34; Romans 6:16-18). There are numerous New Testament vice lists; I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:10 mention homosexual acts among several other vices which separate us from God.

Again, this is not to single homosexual acts out from all the other acts which bring condemnation. But in these passages, Paul argues that homosexual acts can 1) keep us from the kingdom of Heaven; 2) defile the temple of the Holy Spirit within us; and 3) place us back under the judgment of the law.

Given the stakes involved, it is not a risk I am willing to take. Even more so, I would never risk inflicting consequences that serious on another man whom I loved.

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