Same-sex practice and the Scriptures: 21 short points

[This is a partial summary of the longer series of essays, Homosexual practice and the Scriptures]

1. I want to say first off that the most important issue connected with same-sex practice is a pastoral one: the church must learn to welcome and care for those who have same-sex desires whether they act on these desires or not. The problem is that the church can’t get to this issue of welcoming without first asking, ‘Can same-sex practice be blessed by God?’ Because what it means to welcome and care for the practicing Gay or Lesbian person is framed by this question.

Now, I realize that for some even raising this question is offensive, but as Christians we have to raise it given the nature of the Scriptures that we are rooted in as a Christian community. So we have to ask, ‘Where can we accept a person as is, and where should we call for transformation?’ This is a question we have to ask, not just in this case, but with all who come to the church, ‘What are the demands of discipleship?’  

Much more could be said about:

  • practical aspects of welcoming and caring for those with same-sex desires, looking to the example of Jesus
  • opposing wrong attitudes and actions in the church toward those with same-sex desires, including repentance for a history of failure
  • or the demands of discipleship on heterosexuals in the area of sexual practice

But in this presentation the focus is on what Scripture teaches regarding the acceptability of same-sex practice, and specifically (except for the next point) I am looking at the New Testament.

The following is what I confess, this is my best understanding. As you will see, I hold that Scripture forbids all same-sex activity. But I am certainly open to discussion and challenge, as I am on any topic.

2. Leviticus 18:22 forbids (male) same-sex activity.This text says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” There have been several attempts to limit the meaning of this prohibition. Here are two examples (for more see the longer essay).

  • It is not forbidding same-sex practice because it is a “waste of procreative seed.” If this were the chief concern one would expect strong prohibitions of sex during pregnancy, heterosexual anal sex, and male masturbation, since under this logic these too would be strongly forbidden.
  • It is not only forbidding idolatrous forms of same-sex practice. Although it follows the prohibition of giving seed to Molech in verse 21, which is connected to idolatry, same-sex practice is mentioned again in Leviticus 20:13, where there is no Molech-idolatry context, but rather an incest context. So there is no necessary connection between the prohibition of same-sex practice and an idolatry context. Also, even if the focus of this prohibition was idolatrous male cult prostitution, it would still forbid all same-sex practice, because in the Ancient Near East male cult prostitution was the most acceptable form of same-sex practice.

Despite these and other objections, in its historical and Scriptural context this prohibition stands without conditions.

3. Paul forbids male and female same-sex activity in Romans 1. Romans 1:26-27 – “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”

Again, I see no reason to limit this to a specific context or kind of same-sex practice.

  • It is not pederasty (an older man and a pre-adolescent boy) since that word is not used and lesbianism has nothing to do with pederasty.
  • It is not more generally exploitative same-sex activity, since lesbianism was most often a mutual consenting relationship. Also the text uses consensual language, “consumed with passion for one another.”
  • It is not because there was no such thing at this time as caring and committed same-sex relationships. They existed and were commonly known and written about in the ancient world. There is no reason to think that Paul would not have known of this.

Romans 1 presents just what it seems to present, an unqualified rejection of same-sex practice.  

4. Same-sex practice is forbidden in I Timothy 1:10 & I Corinthians 6:9. Both of these passages list out a number of sins. According to 1 Corinthians 6:9 those who practice any of these are “unrighteous” and “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  According to 1 Timothy 1 they are “lawless and disobedient,” “ungodly and sinners,” “unholy and profane,” and live “contrary to sound doctrine.”

Two words are used in these lists to speak of same-sex practice:

  • The first word “Arsenokoitas, is used in both texts. It is coined out of the phrase in Leviticus 18:22 (LXX) that forbids male same-sex practice: arsenos (male) + koiten (bed or lying). The latest edition of the standard reference – A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (BDAG 3rd) defines it as “a male who engages in sexual activity with a person of his own sex.” It refers to the “one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity opposite malakos.” Not only does the word come from Leviticus, in 1 Timothy 1 it is connected to the Mosaic law and thus to its broad condemnation of any kind of (male) same-sex activity.
  • The word “Malakos” is used in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Although it can mean more broadly “effeminate,” in this passage it comes right after “adulterers” and is followed by “Arsenokoitas” – a context of immoral sexual intercourse. The same Lexicon defines it as “the passive partner in a same-sex relationship.” Also, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Paul, uses this word and  doesn’t restrict it simply to male prostitution or pederasty.

These two words, paired together as they are in I Corinthians 6:9 mean respectively the passive and active partner in male same-sex activity.

5. The word Porneia, usually translated “sexual immorality” (or “fornication”) is a word that refers to any kind of forbidden sexual activity.The meaning of Porneia in Greek dictionaries is straight forward, “any kind of unlawful or forbidden sexual activity.” Especially in a Jewish context this included same-sex practice because of the teaching of the Law. In terms of historical context, both before and after the writing of the New Testament the word Porneia is connected to same-sex activity in Jewish writings. And this is also the case for the use of the word in the New Testament. [See the longer series of essays for more.]

6. Jesus explicitly forbids Porneia, thus also forbidding same-sex practice. Jesus was not silent on this issue. He says, “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality (or Porneia), theft, murder, adultery . . .. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” – Mark 7:21-23. Jesus calls Porneia, among other things, evil and defiling. This would also apply to same-sex practice.

7. The strong warnings against Porneia, also refer to same-sex practice:

  • 1 Corinthians 6:18-20 – “Flee from sexual immorality. . .. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:13 – “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
  • Colossians 3:5 – “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
  • I Thessalonians 4:3 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . ..”
  • Ephesians 5:3 – “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”

There are other similar texts that could be cited.

8. The apostolic decree of Acts 15 forbids same sex practice when it forbids Porneia.Acts 15:28-29 – “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

This decree looks back to Leviticus 17-18. Leviticus 17-18 refers to 1) eating food sacrificed to idols, 2) ingesting blood and 3) Porneia or sexual immorality. The apostolic decree refers to these same three issues in the same order, and through its use of the word “Porneia” refers to all the Porneia restrictions found in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition of same-sex acts.

So according to the decree the Jewish Christians would continue to observe the Mosaic Law’s prohibition of same-sex activity, as they always had, and the Gentile Christians would also make sure to do the same.

9. This prohibition of same-sex activity was the work of a genuinely ecumenical apostolic council and represents the voice of the Spirit on this issue. The apostolic decree says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28). So, the Spirit has spoken on this issue and has forbidden all forms of Porneia. Also, if there ever was an ecumenical council that has authority it is this one. Its ruling on Porneia still stands.

Now to a little different track.

10. We should not be reductive in the scope of our ethics. Righteousness is not just about loving our neighbor. We also have the greatest commandment. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” – Matthew 22:37-38. And there are some issues of discipleship that only relate to the first commandment: no idolatry, no idols, honor God’s name and so forth. So an action is not automatically right if it simply doesn’t hurt others – the second commandment. It is not enough to ask about our sexual expression, ‘Is it adult and consensual?’ or ‘Does it hurt others?’ We also have to see if it goes against the first commandment.

11. Sexual ethics are invariably rooted in the first commandment. They are rooted in boundaries that God draws. For instance, if we only judge by the second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” what then is wrong with:

  • responsible premarital sex? (mutual, caring experimentation that might lead to a more stable covenanted relationship later)
  • adult consensual incest?
  • humane bestiality? (sexual gratification with an animal that does not harm the animal in any way)

The arguments for acceptance of same-sex practice can, by and large, be applied to each of these instances as well, because they don’t factor in the first commandment, thus giving too low a threshold for our sexual ethics.

12. If we ask, “Why is same-sex practice wrong?” the answer is that it is a breaking of a fundamental boundary of creation.God sovereignly chose certain sexual boundaries for the greater good of humanity. Genesis one and two lays out some of the basic ground rules:

  • Species boundaries – Among the animals there was “not found a helper fit for him for the man” – 2:20. Bestiality crosses this boundary.
  • Family boundaries – Adam is to “leave his father and mother” – 2:24.  Incest crosses this boundary.
  • Gender boundaries – They were created male and female – 1:27; the woman is created as a fit partner – 2:18, 23; the man is to “hold fast to his wife” – 2:24. Homosexual practice crosses this boundary.

13. Jesus agrees with these creation boundaries for sexual practice, which exclude same-sex practice.Jesus says in Mark 10:6-8, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Jesus presents this material from Genesis as prescriptive, that is, he takes it as defining right sexual practice. Thus it is clear he agrees with these creation boundaries.

14. Taking all this into account my conclusion is that Scripture forbids all kinds of same-sex practice. This scriptural testimony is to me, clear, consistent, strong, and serious in terms of the intensity of the disapproval. It is much stronger than for most biblical points that we hold to as Mennonites and confess with vigor: our rejection of infant baptism or our commitment to enemy love. So for me, to welcome and care for the one who engages in homosexual practice has as a part of it also a call to transformation.

But now let’s turn to some other considerations – other Scriptures, or ideas that are often raised that might seem to negate this Scriptural teaching.

15. Don’t Jesus’ actions toward outcasts set a precedent for receiving those who engage in same-sex practice?The most famous example, is, of course, Jesus’ relationship with tax collectors. Jesus shared fellowship, but he also called to repentance. And as a part of this call he taught a higher standard than Moses against economic exploitation of the poor – which was their chief sin.

Jesus also shared fellowship with those involved in Porneia. But he also saw it as sin that needed forgiveness (Luke 7 and John 8). And he also taught a higher standard on this topic than Moses. So yes, there is an initial welcome that breaks rules, but Jesus never sets aside the Porneia restrictions of Moses, indeed he increases them in his teaching on the lustful look and on divorce and remarriage.

16.  Doesn’t the fact that there are Gay and Lesbian Christians in the church show that same-sex practice can’t be wrong? It is true that there are a number of fine and otherwise outstanding Christians who are also practicing homosexuals. But we all also personally know of otherwise outstanding Christians who practice things they shouldn’t – drunkenness, militarism, nationalist idolatry, wealth idolatry, hatred of enemies, and other forbidden things. That a Christian practices something doesn’t make it right. And just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean you are a faithful Christian. The Scriptures, which teach us God’s will, are our standard, not the experience of this or that Christian.

17. Doesn’t Acts 15 set a precedent for receiving those who have an experience of the Spirit, so that if any who practice same-sex activity have the Spirit, they should be accepted?

Jesus teaches that one’s fruits or deeds are the true test of acceptance before God, both now and on the final day. The presence of the Spirit is not a true test – Matthew 7:15-23. These deeds refer specifically to the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount – Matthew 5-7, which includes teaching on, among other things, sexual immorality.

Acts 15 is quite specific in its precedent. It shows that a Gentile who is a follower of Jesus, does not have to become a Jew (taking on the extra commands given to Israel) to be accepted into the promised kingdom that Jesus has brought. It does not teach that the presence of the Spirit blesses or legitimizes all the behaviors in the one who has or claims to have a Spirit experience.

18. Based on the model of Acts 15, shouldn’t we be open to receiving a new, clarifying word to accept practicing homosexuals?This particular text teaches that same-sex activity is wrong, under the direction of the Spirit. But even if we set this aside for discussion’s sake, we are to test the spirits by the standard of what is taught by Jesus and the apostles. As John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” – 1 John 4:1. If we accept a revelation that nullifies what Jesus and the apostles teach then we are no longer followers of Jesus, but of some other spirit.  

19. If you are born with same-sex desire, how can it be wrong? Doesn’t this mean it must be God’s will for you? Our natural birth is not the same as the original creation:

  • According to our natural birth we are all born into all kinds of brokenness which does not reflect God’s perfect will for us. We have physical and emotional disabilities, mental illnesses and so forth. And more generally we all have a disposition to sin.
  • The creation, however, does reflect the original pattern that God intended for humanity; God’s will, which is why Jesus appeals to this.

So for those born with homosexual desires (or with desires for bestiality or adultery or a propensity to alcoholism or a lack of revulsion for incest) this is not a cue to embrace, cultivate and bless these desires as God-given. This is an evidence of the brokenness of the creation which God seeks to heal in the new creation. [Notice I am not saying same-sex desires are a form of mental illness or that they are otherwise like addiction, only that to be born with a condition, any of these, does not make it God’s will.]

20. How can it be fair to ask someone with same-sex desires to remain celibate, if God does not give them heterosexual desires? Clearly this is a more difficult call than most have to deal with. But we have to recognize that we all come from different places to follow Jesus. We all have different weaknesses and issues we have to deal with to be a follower of Jesus. Some have to deal with more, some less.

For instance, the person who is wealthy will have a more difficult time. As Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” – Matthew 19:23-24. In other words, it is next to impossible to enter the kingdom, because to give up so much wealth is very hard to do. Also, the call of Jesus to the person who has a career in the military will be harder. This person may well have to give up much more than most of us in obedience to the teaching on loving enemies.

So the demands of discipleship don’t hit us all with equal force – the wealthy, the military person, the one with same-sex desires. For some of us we have a harder road of discipleship. The question is not whether it is fair, but whether this is what God calls for.

21. Is it right to require celibacy in this case, when we don’t require this of anyone else? Here is a person with ingrained, inborn desires, but is given no righteous way for these to find expression.

But the church does require just this kind of celibacy in several other cases:

  • The person who cannot find a spouse due to a lack of available partners. For some this will be a life-long situation.
  • The person who cannot find a spouse due to life-long severe physical or mental disability.
  • The one who struggles with desires for incest, or bestiality.
  • The one who is in a sexless marriage due to the physical or emotional disability of their partner.

In each of these cases, there is inborn desire and no foreseeable change in the situation, so that there is no righteous way for these desires to find expression.

Regarding the difficulty of the call to celibacy in all of these situations, perhaps the word of Jesus about the difficulty of the wealthy being able to enter the kingdom applies. The disciples ask, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Jesus responds, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” – Matthew 19:26 (NRSV). God makes it possible for us to be righteousness, even when it seems impossible by the human standards of our culture; even when it seems impossible in these difficult situations of sexual desire (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 with emphasis on v. 11). And, of course, this is what makes any of us able to follow Jesus, wherever we are coming from. This is what makes it possible for any of us to deny ourselves and take up our cross, losing our lives in this world to gain them in the kingdom.

William S. Higgins

April 2006/July 2013

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