1. Would Jesus have blessed homosexual practice?
2. How to be inclusive like Jesus was inclusive
3. The voice of the Spirit and the Jerusalem Council on homosexual practice
4. The meaning of Porneia
5. The seriousness of Porneia/same-sex practice
6. Two key texts: Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:18-32
7. Questions about same-sex practice and the Scriptures
8. What’s wrong with homosexual practice?
Please note: These essays are an inter-Christian discussion governed by the question of whether Scripture approves same-sex activity. I come to the conclusion that the Scriptures forbid and warn against homosexual practice. However, this teaching should never be used as a pretext to hate or degrade practicing homosexuals or those who advocate for them. Also, other than expressing my Christian faith, there is no agenda here to force these beliefs on others, and certainly not in a political context.
William S. Higgins
June 2005/March 2006/July 2013
This material may be shared with others. It may be emailed or printed in its entirety or in part, but may not be altered in any way.
For a shorter presentation of this material see – Same-sex practices and the Scriptures: 21 short points
1. Would Jesus have blessed homosexual practice?
There are seven reasons why the answer to this question must be no.
1. Jesus’ “silence” supports his agreement with the Law. Some say that since Jesus doesn’t mention the word “homosexuality” we can’t be sure what he thought about the topic. It is always risky to make a case from silence, however. For instance, Jesus also didn’t explicitly forbid many things we consider sin today, including incest. Would we want to accept this as well (perhaps an adult consensual form of incest) based on an argument from silence?
Also, Jesus simply disagreed with the oral law (the traditions of the elders) on Sabbath keeping and there is a great deal of record of this conflict in the tradition about him. If Jesus had even implied that the Mosaic Law’s teaching on homosexuality was no longer relevant, there would certainly be some trace of this in the Jesus tradition – either among his own disciples or his opponents, who would have used this against him.
No, Jesus was a practicing Jew. And the Law of Moses unconditionally condemns homosexual practice, for instance Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (For more see Essay #6). Acceptance of same-sex acts was not even an issue in his day among any known Jewish group. It was universally and unanimously condemned in all of its forms. (Hence Jesus had no need to comment on it.) And since, as we know, Jesus never explicitly condoned homosexuality, his attitude must have been the same. If we can’t interpret Jesus in his historical and religious context on this issue, then how can we on any issue? Or, how can we challenge others who distort Jesus’ identity in various ways through this same procedure? We must resist the temptation to take Jesus out of his context and make him into a modern, Western, enlightened, progressive thinker. Jesus was a first century Jewish prophet. He was more than this, but he was certainly this.
2. Jesus was not silent: He upheld the Law in his teaching and example: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” – Matthew 5:17-18. He taught his disciples to uphold the Law. Not one small part of it will pass away. This would include the Law’s prohibition of homosexual practice. (For how this works out for Gentile followers of Jesus see Essay #3.)
3. Jesus was not silent: He taught that marriage was exclusively for one man and one woman: Jesus said, “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”- Mark 10:6-8. This not only forbids adultery, the context of his discussion with the Pharisees, it also by the same logic forbids polygamy (one man and one woman), incest (leave your family), and all forms of homosexual unions (a man and a woman). Jesus presents this Genesis material as prescriptive, that is, this is not just a narrative story, it presents God’s will to us on these issues. Read in this way Genesis forbids homosexual practice and so does Jesus.
4. Jesus was not silent: He forbade “Porneia” (sexual immorality) a word that covers any form of unlawful sexuality, including homosexual practice. (See Essay #4). Jesus said, “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil thoughts, Porneia (sexual immorality), theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” – Mark 7:21-23.
Jesus classifies Porneia (which includes homosexual practice) as evil and teaches that it defiles us before God. [Note also that the apostle Paul connects his teaching on Porneia in I Thessalonians 4 to the traditions of the teaching of Jesus – “For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from Porneia” – I Thessalonians 4:2-3.]
5. Jesus considers Porneia, and thus homosexual practice, as a breaking of the seventh commandment. The ten commandments, especially #6-#9, were often used by various Jewish writers as topical headings to classify kinds of sin. When this is done the seventh commandment against adultery includes under it all Porneia offenses. This kind of categorizing and connecting of offenses shows up in the New Testament, for instance in I Timothy 1: 9-10. The Law is “for those [sixth commandment] who strike (kill) their fathers and mothers, for murderers, [seventh commandment] the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, [eighth commandment] enslavers, [ninth commandment] liars, perjurers . . ..” Here Porneia stands in for adultery and includes homosexual practice.
Jesus uses this technique in Matthew 15:19, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, [sixth commandment] murder, [seventh commandment] adultery, Porneia, [eighth commandment] theft, [ninth commandment] false witness, slander.” Thus, Jesus categorizes Porneia as a breaking of the seventh commandment.
6. When Jesus does deal with Porneia, we do not find him diminishing the teaching of the Law, we find him expanding the scope of Porneia. It now covers the lustful look, and remarrying a wrongfully divorced wife – Matthew 5. His “perfecting” of the Law does not lead him to do away with any Porneia restrictions. He increases them. The trajectory of Scripture is to increase and intensify the Porneia restrictions.
7. While offering mercy, Jesus still required repentance from those involved in Porneia offenses. Even as Jesus increases the Porneia restrictions, he also simultaneously increases the offer of God’s mercy to those who practice Porneia. He reaches out to them. He associates with them. He offers them God’s mercy. But salvation requires repentance, or turning away from Porneia. For instance, the sexually immoral woman in Luke 7 has her sins forgiven. Jesus gives her mercy. But her actions still require forgiveness. They are sin. The story of the adulterous woman in John 8 is instructive. Instead of promoting her death for this offense, Jesus spoke up for her and everyone left her alone. Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). She receives mercy, but also the call to repentance.
2. How to be inclusive like Jesus was inclusive
Jesus the Troublemaker
Everyone agrees that Jesus stirred up controversy through his actions, especially his welcome of outcasts. He shook things up by upsetting the status quo. Those already judged and neatly dismissed as condemned were no longer dismissed, but were the special focus of his attention and who he kept company with. Let’s look at Jesus’ acceptance of outcasts and learn from him how to be inclusive. What are we called to do?
Context: The Kingdom of God
The context of Jesus’ actions is the announcement of the presence of the kingdom of God. A part of this is a special call to those who are downtrodden and outcasts. In other words, God is acting with great mercy now that his kingdom is coming. Everyone gets another chance to be a part of God’s people.
The Pattern of Jesus’ Mercy
Jesus embodied this kingdom mercy in his encounters with outcasts. And there is a pattern that shows up. We will look at three examples: eating with tax collectors and sinners – Matthew 9:12-13; Luke 19:1-10; healing a leper – Matthew 8:1-4; and forgiving a sinful woman – Luke 7:36-50. It will be helpful for you to read these texts before proceeding.
1. There is an initial welcome that can involve scandalous behavior: This comes from Jesus’ understanding that God is seeking the lost and is acting in mercy toward them. Jesus said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” – Luke 19:10. So Jesus is open and welcoming to all outcasts. He does not condemn them or dismiss them as judged and set aside. The situation is not hopeless.
An aspect of this initial welcome is that it involves some kind of breaking or bending of rules, whether of social etiquette, human traditions, or sometimes lesser parts of the Law of Moses. This was all done because Jesus prioritized mercy over other actions, even over lesser Mosaic commands. Jesus said in Matthew 9:13, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” God commands both sacrifice and mercy, but mercy is more important than sacrifice.
So if mercy – reaching out to outcasts – conflicts with social etiquette or human traditions they are set aside or broken, and even lesser Mosaic commands are suspended for a time, in order to allow for outreach.
Examples: 1) Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners which exposed him to impurity and in general didn’t look good. 2) Jesus touched the leper. He did not keep separation, which is the point of Numbers 5:1-4. 3) Jesus allowed the sinful woman to kiss his feet while he was dining at a Pharisee’s house, even though she had the reputation of being a prostitute.
2. There is an invitation to repentance and wholeness: Jesus shares the good news of the kingdom of God. Jesus invites the outcasts to experience this through healing, exorcism, and/or the call to repentance and forgiveness, depending on the situation. This is an invitation to be reintegrated into the people of God and to receive the blessings of God. Examples: 1) The tax collectors and sinners are seen as “sick” and Jesus is the doctor, come to make them well. Jesus came “to call sinners” to repentance and his table fellowship was a means to this end. 2) The leper sought Jesus out because of his reputation of making people whole. 3) The woman seems to have had some previous contact with Jesus, which she is responding to in our story.
3. There is a display of faith/repentance: The person will display an acceptance of this invitation by showing faith in Jesus or by evidencing in some way repentance of sins. Examples: 1) This shows up in Matthew’s life and also in Zacchaeus’ story. Zacchaeus said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 2) The leper had great faith. He said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” – Matthew 8:2. 3) The sinful woman displayed repentance in her crying, and her love for Jesus in washing his feet.
4. There is a transformation experience: Jesus imparts to them God’s power and grace. The people are made whole/forgiven. Examples: 1) Zacchaeus displayed the transformation of his heart in his bold statement of repentance. Jesus responded, “Today salvation has come to this house” – Luke 19:9. 2) The leper was made whole. 3) The woman’s sins, which were “many,” are forgiven. Jesus said to her, “your faith has saved you” – Luke 7:50.
5. There is a full welcome/celebration: The outcasts are acknowledged as a part of God’s people. They are brought back into the fold of the people of God to receive God’s blessings. Examples: 1) Jesus said this about Zacchaeus, “he also is a son of Abraham” – Luke 19:9. He is now an inheritor of the blessings, a part of the people of God. In general, Jesus’ meals with sinners became celebrations of the return of outcasts, just as in the parable of the prodigal son. The father said, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found.” So it is time to kill the fatted calf and celebrate! They are celebrations of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. 2) The leper was told to follow the Mosaic procedures for being reintegrated into the community of Israel, the people of God. 3) The sinful woman was told, “go in peace” – Luke 7:50, an expression of acceptance and blessing.
Kingdom Mercy is Transformative Mercy
The pattern of Jesus’ mercy holds together two realities: 1) Mercy that risks breaking or bending rules in order to invite and welcome outcasts into the Kingdom and 2) Transformation – the call to repentance and wholeness, and the necessary response to this and the experience of the work of God within. So there has to be mercy, but also transformation of the person toward a new life of righteousness.
There is a tension between these that must be held together. For if we lose the tension we get a warped view of Jesus’ ministry. Some Christians set aside Jesus’ merciful actions. They judge outcasts as beyond God’s efforts. There is no initiation of contact and willingness to risk to welcome them. There is only a desire to keep to the rules. “If outcasts want to be a part, let them clean up their act first,” they say. If anything is clear it is that we must have the same kind of radical mercy that Jesus had. And the church has a lot to learn here, because more often than not we are the Pharisees in these stories, who want to keep separation from outcasts. This is especially true in relation to practicing homosexuals. This is a widespread and serious deviation from the way of Jesus.
Other Christians set aside Jesus’ call to transformation and repentance. They think that we are to welcome outcasts simply as they are. The initial welcome is confused with the full welcome and so steps #2-#4 are left out.
But Jesus’ mercy always has with it the call to repentance and wholeness; there is transformation, and then full welcome. We need to understand that Jesus’ mercy may break or bend some rules, even a lesser rule from God, out of mercy, for the sake of outreach, but the goal is to have the person come fully under God’s rule and do his will. Jesus never unequivocally sets aside God’s Law. For instance, Jesus did not say that the leper was not actually unclean. He upheld the law even as he went beyond it, to make the leper clean. He temporarily suspended it, for the greater law of mercy. But he did not do away with clean and unclean for his Jewish disciples.
Another example is Jesus’ outreach to the tax collectors. Even though many of these were involved in massive economic exploitation of the poor, contrary to Mosaic Law, he reached out to them. Yet all the while he preached against exploitation and even raised the standard of Moses with regard to sharing wealth.
Regarding same-sex practice, as with the case of the sinful woman, he does not tell her that her sexual immorality is now alright. Her sins were “many” and needed to be forgiven. She repented of her immorality. Sexual immorality is not a lesser law of God that can be suspended, even for a time. The rule he broke here was that of staying away from an immoral person. Rather than suspending or lessening God’s commands on sexual immorality, Jesus himself intensifies these and makes these stricter than the law of Moses (Matthew 5:27-28; 31-32).
How to be inclusive like Jesus was inclusive
If we want to practice the kind of inclusiveness that Jesus practiced with those who engage in same-sex activities, we need to hold together the tension that Jesus held together between mercy and transformation: We must practice a kind of mercy that initiates relationships, even if it gets us into trouble by breaking some rules. But we must also boldly call all to experience God’s transformation that brings repentance, forgiveness and wholeness. The initial welcome may be scandalous, but the full welcome embraces a person who is being transformed and is committed to God’s righteousness.
3. The voice of the Spirit & the Jerusalem Council on homosexual practice
There has always been confusion about the role of the Law of Moses in the life of a Christian. Didn’t Jesus change things? Didn’t Paul do away with it? The following will look at the solution that the Jerusalem Council came to on this point. We specifically look at its relevance for the issue of homosexual practice. Is the prohibition of homosexual practice in Leviticus 18:22 still binding today? (This is an adaptation of the essay: Should Christians Keep the Law of Moses?)
Jewish Christians continue to submit to the Law
Jesus himself was Law observant and he taught his Jewish disciples to continue to submit to the teaching of Moses (Matthew 5:17-19; 23:2-3; 23:23). Jesus rejected the human traditions which the Pharisees used as their guide for keeping the Law (Matthew 15:1-9). He rather showed how to keep the Law in accordance with the righteousness of the Kingdom of God, which goes even beyond Moses. So Jesus taught his Jewish followers to keep the Law, but to do so according to his teaching and example. For instance, his Jewish disciples should keep the Sabbath, but recognize that mercy has priority (Matthew 12:9-14).
It is clear that the apostles and the other Jewish Christians did keep the Law, including Paul. James, the brother of Jesus, was famous for his strict observance of the Law. And he bears testimony that Paul also kept the Law in Acts 21:20-24. These Jewish believers did not keep the Law in order to be saved by it. They did so because Moses was the authority that God had placed over them, and so they continued to submit to him, knowing that the Law will not pass away until the Kingdom is fully established on earth (Matthew 5:18).
Gentiles do not submit to the Law
But what about Gentile believers? There was a debate about this because Jesus did not leave any instructions on this point. Jesus’ mission was to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6; 15:24). This is one of those places that Jesus must have had in mind when he said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). And, in fact, it is the testimony of the apostles in Acts 15:28 that the Spirit guided them in their decision on this matter.
The book of Acts tells us that some taught that Gentiles must be circumcised and become fully Law observant Jews before they could be accepted before God (15:1; 5). The apostles gathered together, with the elders of the church of Jerusalem to discuss this issue, and decided that the Gentiles were already participating in the Kingdom of God, for they were righteous Gentiles, following Jesus and they had received the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:8). Therefore they should not be forced to be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses (Acts 15:13-19). Gentiles are acceptable to God on the basis of the salvation that Jesus brings.
However, it was also decided that there was one portion of the Law that they should observe. We see this in what is called the apostolic decree: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well” (Acts 15:28-29).
This letter lays out three essentials: 1) do not eat idol food, 2) do not eat blood, 3) do not practice Porneia (sexual immorality). These essentials refer back to Leviticus 17-18, which talks about these issues in the same order that we find in the apostolic letter: 1) Leviticus 17:1-9 – idol food, 2) Leviticus 17:10-16 – eating blood, 3) Leviticus 18 – Porneia. So the decision of the Jerusalem council is that Gentiles do not need to submit to the Law of Moses, except for a particular part of it – Leviticus 17-18.
The Porneia Restriction and Leviticus 18:22
The word Porneia, or “sexual immorality,” refers to any kind of forbidden sexual activity. In a Jewish context it means forbidden according to the Law of Moses (See Essay #4). In the case of the apostolic decree Porneia is used to refer to the offenses found in Leviticus 18:
- Marrying close relatives (incest) [v. 6-18]
- Sexual relations during menstruation [v. 19]
- Adultery [v. 20]
- Offering seed to Molech [v. 21] Using sexual expression with the intention of giving the seed/child over to an idolatrous ceremony.
- Homosexual practice – Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
- Bestiality [v. 23]
So the result of the apostolic decree is that homosexual practice is forbidden to all Christians. The Jewish Christians would already have held to this, and here we see that the Gentile Christians also were instructed, at the Spirit’s urging, to keep this standard, along with the others. Leviticus 18:22, along with the rest of it, is binding on Christians.
The binding nature of the apostolic decree
That the decree is meant to be binding on all (Gentile) Christians can be seen from the following: 1. These three essentials were chosen because they teach a ‘creation righteousness’ that is incumbent even upon the Gentiles. That is, these commands are not Jewish specific, but apply to all people, everywhere.
- We are not to eat food sacrificed to idols because God is our creator and our only Lord (Genesis 1:27). Therefore we are to have no participation with idolatry, including idol food (I Corinthians 10:14-22; Revelation 2:20).
- We are not to eat blood or strangled meat from which the blood has not been drained. In the creation account God allowed only vegetation to eat. God gave permission to Noah to eat meat, but only without the blood (Genesis 9:4). Thus this command applies to all the children of Noah; all people. This prohibition is connected to the teaching that the life is contained in the blood (Leviticus 17:11). The blood therefore is God’s since he is the creator of all life.
- We are not to participate in Porneia, for God, as our creator, has sovereignly established the boundaries between what is right and wrong sexual behavior. The boundaries are set within the relationship of a husband and wife (Genesis 2:24). Leviticus 18 gives further stipulations. As Leviticus 18:24-30 makes clear, the Gentiles in the Land of Canaan were held to this standard.
2. The decree represents the voice of the Holy Spirit on this issue – Acts 15:28.
3. The decree represents the conclusion of a truly ecumenical and apostolic council. This was a highly unusual and unique event that cannot be replicated. If any council’s decision is binding it is this one.
4. The decree was sent to the churches. It was not just a local decision. Paul delivered this to his congregations – Acts 16:4.
5. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, also taught this to his congregations in his teaching on idol food and Porneia (for instance – I Corinthians 10:14-22 and I Corinthians 6:9-11). (There is no recorded discussion of eating blood in Paul’s letters).
6. The teaching of the decree was followed in Gentile churches for centuries as is evidenced in various church manuals and other writings:
- No idol food: Didache 6:3; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:21.
- No eating blood: Irenaeus Fragments xiii; Tertullian Apology 9; Apostolic Constitutions 7:2:20.
- No Porneia: The Apostolic Tradition 16:20; Apostolic Constitutions 6:5:28 forbids homosexual practice, bestiality, intercourse during menstruation, etc. and appeals to Leviticus 18.
7. The decree is apostolic teaching, found in the canonical Scriptures, to which we bind ourselves as Christians. It is authoritative.
4. The Meaning of Porneia
This essay looks at the meaning of Porneia. It is an overview of the various kinds of Porneia, but makes the connection between Porneia and same-sex practice.
The meaning of Porneia in Greek dictionaries is straight forward – “any kind of unlawful or forbidden sexual activity.” It is usually translated as “fornication” or simply “sexual immorality.” I use the transliteration “Porneia” because sometimes the translations unduly limit the meaning of the word in our minds. For instance, sometimes we think that fornication (Porneia) refers to premarital sex and adultery refers to extra-spousal sex after marriage. But this is incorrect. Porneia is a word that covers every form of sexual immorality, including adultery, as we will see.
The word Porneia in historical context
The word is rare in classical Greek. It means “fornication or licentiousness” or more broadly “extra marital intercourse.” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel, volume VI). There is at least one instance where it is connected to same-sex practice (Demosthenes – Oration 19, 200).
The Greek Old Testament (LXX) uses Porneia mostly with reference to prostitution (the root idea of the word group Porn-). Some of this prostitution is cultic and so it is connected to idolatry. Porneia is also used for adultery. It also takes on a metaphorical use in reference to the unfaithfulness of Israel’s idolatrous practices in relation to her commitment to Yahweh.
In the context of the various kinds of Judaisms that existed in the late SecondTemple period the word becomes more explicitly connected to specific examples of unlawful sexuality, including incest and homosexual practice (e.g. Jubilees 16:5; 20:5; Testament of Benjamin 9:1). The word Porneia comes to embrace all the forbidden sexual practices of the Law of Moses.
The Rabbinic material (most of which would be after the period of the New Testament) uses Porneia to refer to prostitution, any kind of extra marital intercourse, incest, bestiality, homosexual practice, pederasty, as well as other prohibited forms of sexual expression as determined by the Rabbis.
So by definition, in its historical (especially Jewish) context, Porneia refers to a class of sexual sins including adultery, incest, and prostitution. Specifically, Porneia included in its meaning homosexual activity. Porneia can be used generically to refer to all of these sexual sins and more – all together, or it can be used to speak of a specific one, when the context makes this clear. This is the context in which the New Testament was written and the background to its use of the word Porneia.
The word Porneia in the New Testament
Paul speaks of Porneia as a class of sins in I Corinthians 5:1 – “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality (Porneia) among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans.” So there are different kinds of Porneia, and this one is a particularly outrageous one, according to Paul.
But what constitutes Porneia according to the New Testament itself? We will look at this from three angles: 1) By definition – is it a forbidden sexual activity in the New Testament? 2) Is the sexual activity connected to the word Porneia in a New Testament context? 3) Is it included in the Apostolic decree’s use of the word Porneia to cover the contents of Leviticus 18? (See Essay #3). Any one of these criteria is enough to classify an activity as Porneia. We will look at same-sex practice last.
1. Incest. This refers to sexual relations with close relatives. Since this is not often taught on I will give the definitions of incest as laid out in the Law of Moses. Is incest Porneia according to the New Testament? 1) It is a forbidden form of sexual expression. John the Baptist condemns Herod for having his brother’s wife – Mark 6:18. In I Corinthians 5:1-3 Paul condemns it in the strongest possible way. 2) In this last reference Paul also clearly labels incest a Porneia offense by using the word to refer to it. 3) Incest is included in Leviticus 18, which the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 calls Porneia and forbids to all Christians.
2. Prostitution. 1) This is forbidden in I Corinthians 6:15, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” 2) Paul calls this Porneia in I Corinthians 6:18.
3. Pre-marital sex. 1) This is forbidden in I Corinthians 7:2, 9. Sexual activity is only allowed in a marriage context. 2) It is connected to the word Porneia in two contexts. First, Paul excludes pre-marital sex as Porneia – I Corinthians 7:2, 9. (See also I Thessalonians 4:3-8). Second, when the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being born of Porneia, they are alleging that Mary, Jesus’ mother was sexually active before her marriage was consummated with Joseph – John 8:41.
4. Adultery. This refers to breaking your marriage commitment by having sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. 1) This is forbidden in numerous places, for instance, Matthew 15:19. 2) I Corinthians 7:2, 9 also excludes adultery as Porneia. (See also I Thessalonians 4:3-8). 3) Adultery is included in Leviticus 18:20 which the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 calls Porneia and forbids to all Christians.
5. Adulterous remarriage after a wrongful divorce. Jesus classifies this as adultery. If your first marriage is not already broken by Porneia, and you consummate another marriage, this is considered an act of adultery. Jesus said in Matthew 19:8-9 – “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Thus this is Porneia just as regular adultery is Porneia. (Things are a bit different if your spouse was an unbeliever and left or divorced you. In this case you are free of the marriage, even if the marriage is not broken by adultery – I Corinthians 7:12-16.)
6. Sex during menstruation. This is not directly mentioned in the New Testament. It is forbidden in Leviticus 18:19 and also Ezekiel 18:5-9 (“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right— if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife orapproach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.”) This does qualify as Porneia for Christians according to the third criterion, since the Apostolic decree of Acts 15:28-29 calls Porneia all that is in Leviticus 18, which includes this.
7. Bestiality. This refers to sexual contact with an animal. This is also not mentioned in the New Testament. Leviticus 18:23 says, “And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.” This also qualifies as Porneia for Christians according to the third criterion.
8. Other: If we look at the positive standard of sexual expression, one man and one woman in a committed life-long relationship (Matthew 19:4-5) then by implication anything outside of this would be considered Porneia, including polygamy and pedophilia.
Is same-sex practice Porneia?
We know that same-sex practice is seen as Porneia especially in Jewish sources at the time of the New Testament. But what about in the New Testament itself? 1) Clearly same-sex activity is forbidden in the New Testament: Romans 1:26-28; I Timothy 1:10; I Corinthians 6:9-10. (See Essay #6, Essay #7, question #6)
2) The connection of the word Porneia with homosexuality is made in two ways in the New Testament: First, in I Timothy 1:9-10 a literary device is used to connect Porneia and homosexual practice. As I said in Essay #1: “The ten commandments, especially #6-#9, were often used by various Jewish writers as topical headings to classify kinds of sin. When this is done the seventh commandment against adultery includes under it all Porneia offenses. This kind of categorizing and connecting of offenses shows up in the New Testament, for instance in I Timothy 1: 9-10. The Law is ‘for those [sixth commandment] who strike (kill) their fathers and mothers, for murderers, [seventh commandment] the sexually immoral (Porneia), men who practice homosexuality, [eighth commandment] enslavers, [ninth commandment] liars, perjurers . . ..’ Here Porneia stands in for adultery and includes homosexual practice.” Just as murderers and those who strike their fathers and mothers are connected together under the sixth commandment, so Porneia and same-sex practice are connected together under the seventh commandment. Just as killing parents is a specific kind of murder, so same-sex practice is a particular kind of Porneia.
Second, Jude 7 connects the homosexual behavior of the residents of Sodom with the Porneia word group – ekporneo, a verb which means to engage in Porneia.
3) Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Acts 15:28-29, alluding to Leviticus 18, calls this Porneia and forbids it to all Christians.
So, yes, same-sex practice is Porneia, not only according to the meaning of the word in the first century, but also according to the New Testament.
5. The seriousness of Porneia/same-sex practice
The following includes New Testament texts that directly reference homosexual practice, that allude to it, or that deal with “Porneia” the word for sexual immorality that includes in its meaning, among other things, homosexual practice. They all focus on how serious this issue is and the dangers involved in practicing any kind of Porneia. (Porneia is translated as sexual immorality below)
Porneia/homosexual practice is a sin:
Mark 7:21-23 – “For from within, out of the human heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Galatians 5:19-21 – “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
1 Timothy 1:8-11 – “Now we know that the law is good, if 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 those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, 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.
2 Corinthians 12:21 – “I fear that when I come again my God may humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and sensuality that they have practiced.”
1 Corinthians 5:11 – “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”
Revelation 22:14-15 – “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
Commands to refrain from Porneia/homosexual practice:
Acts 15:28-29 – “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (the Apostles and Elders) 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.”
Romans 13:13 – “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”
1 Corinthians 6:13 – “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
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.”
Colossians 3:5 – “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Ephesians 5:3 – “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.”
I Thessalonians 4:3 – “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality . . ..”
Homosexual practice is an evidence of God’s judgment on a society:
Romans 1:24-28 – “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 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. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
Porneia/homosexual practice brings God’s judgment:
Jude 1:6-7 – “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.”
1 Corinthians 10:8 – “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers 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 by the Spirit of our God.”
6. Two key texts: Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:18-32
I. Leviticus 18:22
This verse says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” But is this a qualified prohibition? Is there some context that limits the application of this commandment? 1. Can this refer to Pederasty? The general term “male” is used, not boy.
2. Does this only restrict anal penetration, not other forms of same-sex expression like fondling etc.? One can only make this case if the same is said about incest or bestiality.
3. Is this meant to forbid contact of semen and excrement? There is no mention of excrement (compare the case of sex with a menstruating woman – 18:19). If this were the concern, why is there no prohibition of heterosexual anal sex, since under this logic this too would be an abomination worthy of death (Leviticus 20:13)?
4. Is it forbidden because it was a procreative dead-end; a waste of 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 abominations worthy of death (Leviticus 20:13).
5. Is this forbidden because of its connection to idolatry? 1) The word for male cult prostitutes – “qedesim” (consecrated ones) is not used here. 2) 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. It is preceded and followed by prohibitions of incest. So there is no necessary connection between the prohibition of same-sex practice and the Molech-idolatry context. 3) If the Molech context is applied to same-sex practice, so that only idolatrous same-sex practice is forbidden, does this mean that only idolatrous child sacrifice is forbidden, thus allowing for other forms of child-sacrifice? 4) Even if the focus of this prohibition was 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.
Leviticus 18:22 stands without qualification in the text. It is what it seems to be, a straightforward and clear prohibition of male same-sex intercourse.
Does this Levitical legislation have any relevance for Christians? 1) Paul uses words from Leviticus 18 (LXX) in his discussion in Romans 1: “indecency” (Romans 1:27) is used 24 times in Leviticus 18; “uncleanness” (Romans 1:24) is used in Leviticus 18:19. 2) The phrase Paul uses in I Corinthians 5:1 – a man has his “father’s wife” (referring to incest) echoes the language of Leviticus 18:7-8. 3) The term that Paul uses (coins?) for the active partner in a same-sex relationship comes from the phrase for same-sex activity in Leviticus 18:22 (I Corinthians 6:9; I Timothy 1:10). 4) The apostolic decree of Acts 15 refers back to the sexual practices of Leviticus 18 and forbids them to all Christians. Leviticus 18, and specifically verse 22, was seen as relevant and binding in the New Testament.
II. Romans 1:18-32
First a brief exposition of this text and then a look at several possible qualifiers to Paul’s statements on same-sex practice.
The Human Exchange: The Dishonoring Of God – vs. 18-23
“18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” The primary focus here is idolatry. The “unrighteousness” of the last phrase is a reference to idolatry. But idolatry is the root of all other sins. So by suppressing the truth of the one true creator God, humanity is free to pursue all manner of other sins – “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.”
“19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The knowledge of God as the creator is obvious. God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in the creation. No human-made idol could accomplish such a feat. Only one who is greater than what is seen/what is created could do this. So they are without excuse for their idolatry.
“21For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Here is the great exchange. Although the nations knew God, they chose to give their honor and thanks to idols resembling humans, birds, animals and reptiles. This was futile thinking, the product of darkened hearts. They saw the choice as a product of their wisdom, but they showed themselves to be fools. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for dead idols. Verse 25 refers to this exchange as well, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” This is also referenced in verse 28, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God”
The Divine Giving Up: The Dishonoring Of Humanity – vs. 24-32
God’s basic response to the human exchange is to allow humanity to have its own way. This is the punishment for now. (The eschatological judgment awaits later.) The phrase, “God gave them up” is repeated three times (v. 24, v. 26, v. 28) and thus forms three subsections of this passage. Each of these phrases is explicitly connected to the human exchange of God for idols (verse 24 “therefore” in reference to verses 18-23; verse 26 in reference to verse 25; verse 28 to the first part of verse 28). So each of these three subsections explicates how God responds to the human choice of idolatry.
The emphasis in each of these is on the dishonoring of humanity. This is the punishment (the wrath of God – v. 18) for the human dishonoring of God through idolatry.
“24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.” This is a general statement about sexual expression. The phrases , “the lusts of their hearts to impurity,” “the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves” point to general practices of sexual immorality. The connection between idolatry and sexual immorality in Jewish thinking was clear and persistent. God gives them up to this to dishonor themselves through their sexual practices, just as they have dishonored God.
“26For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27and 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.” This is a more specific statement about same-sex practice, which Paul calls “dishonorable passions.” Paul references both lesbianism and male same-sex practice. In the first instance Paul contrasts “natural relations” (male-female) with “those that are contrary to nature” (female-female). This was a common Jewish technique for contrasting heterosexual and same-sex practice respectively. In the second instance, Paul speaks of men giving up “natural relations” and engaging in same-sex practice. It is unnatural in that it is not in accord with the creation in which males and females were made for each other.
There is a strong emphasis on dishonor is these verses – “dishonorable passions,” “shameless acts.” When humans dishonor God by exchanging the true God for an idol, God responds by giving them over to be dishonored – here, again in terms of their sexual practices.
“28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” In this third sub-section the net is cast much wider than specifically sexual practices. This pick us from verse 18, “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” As he says in verse 29, “They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness . . ..”Again, dishonor is a focus. They are given up “to a debased mind to do what ought not be done” v. 28.
Are there qualifications on verses 26-27? 1. Some say Paul was only referring to pederasty. This was an abusive form of homosexual activity. It was the practice of some wealthy men, who would become a sponsor to a younger boy in exchange for sexual favors. This was the most common form of same-sex practice in ancient Rome. There are two obvious problems with this explanation, however. Paul never uses the fairly common Greek word for pederasty when he speaks of homosexual practice. And he refers to female same-sex activity, which doesn’t fit the pattern of pederasty. In fact, the prevalent expression of lesbianism was non-abusive, between two consenting adults. Yet Paul condemns it.
2. Was Paul only concerned about exploitative same-sex activity? There is no mention of a context of exploitation. What is mentioned is that it is “contrary to nature,” a straightforward rejection of all same-sex practice. Again, the lesbian example doesn’t fit the exploitation explanation. They tended to be consensual. Also, the relationships sound consensual. Paul says they “were consumed with passion for one another” – v. 27.
3. Some say Paul would not have known of same-sex activity in a committed and caring relationship . Yet there were many different forms of male same-sex expression in Paul’s day, including committed caring relationships. These were commonly known and written about in the ancient world. Certainly Paul would have known about these – and yet he condemned homosexual practice in the most general terms possible in this and other texts.
4. Some say Paul wasn’t aware that some people might have an orientation toward same-sex desires. Whether or not there was a concept of orientation in Paul’s day is debatable. But this misses the point. When Romans 1 and other texts forbid same-sex practice, they forbid the actual activity of same-sex intercourse. It does so because it is seen as intrinsically wrong. So whether there is an orientation or not would make no difference. Ultimately the source of the desire, as well as the motivation or the circumstances of the act (whether loving and committed or exploitative) doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t ultimately matter why someone engages in incest or adultery. The acts themselves are regarded as inherently wrong.
5. Is Paul’s attitude toward same-sex practice based on the idea that all sex should be procreative? Many Jewish writers take this position (e.g. Philo), but Paul doesn’t restrict sexual activity to a procreative purpose – I Corinthians 7:2-5.
6. Some say Paul only saw same-sex practice as “dirty,” a Gentile practice, but it is not sinful. There are several problems with this idea: 1) Paul classifies same-sex practice under the category of “ungodliness” and “unrighteousness” – v. 18. 2) It is connected contextually to verse 28 which speaks of other acts that are sins worthy of death. 3) There is no history of other Jewish writers making this distinction. For them the category of uncleanness in this case was not exclusive of the concept of sinfulness. 4) Paul uses purity language in other places to describe sexual sins – I Thessalonians 4 and I Corinthians 5. 5) This section of Romans is a part of Paul’s larger case that “all are under sin” – 3:9.
7. Does this only condemn same-sex practice that is literally connected to idol worship? The connection between idolatry and same-sex practice is not that if an individual worships an idol they will begin to engage in same-sex practice. It is a broad connection familiar in Jewish thought between idolatry as the source of all other sins, and especially sexual sins. Paul himself in this text is not talking about individuals per se, but broadly about the nations and the development of same-sex practice in this context. When the nations turn to idolatry (whether there are literal idols or not) there is a general giving over to sexual sins including same-sex practice, as well as other sins. Also, just as it would be inappropriate to say that the other sins in verses 29-31, or the sexual sins of verse 24 are only wrong if they are specifically a part of an idolatrous practice, so it would be wrong to say this of same-sex practice – vs. 26-27. Both same-sex practice and these other sins are a part of the giving over due to idolatry, but they do not have to be directly related to idol worship to be wrong.
8. Does this refer to heterosexuals who exchange their natural desires to engage in same-sex practice? For Paul, same-sex practice is wrong because it is “contrary to nature,” not because it is or isn’t coming from inborn desires.
[*Two important sources for these expositions: Robert Gagnon – The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Texts and Hermeneutics – Chapters 1, 4 and 5. Richard Hays – The Moral Vision of The New Testament – Chapter 16. I am also indebted to these and other writers at various points in these essays.]
7. Questions about same-sex practice and the Scriptures
#1. What is the most important issue in this discussion of same-sex practice? 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 and those who act on them. The problem is that the church can’t get to this issue without first talking about whether same-sex practice can be blessed by God or not. This, obviously, determines how one proceeds on the pastoral issue. What it means to welcome and care for the practicing homosexual is framed by this. The answer to this previous question ‘Can God bless homosexual practice?’ provides the answer to the question, ‘Where can we accept the person as is and where should we call for transformation?’
#2. Are there good reasons to bless homosexual practice? On one level there are some really good reasons to bless those who practice same-sex activity. They are part of our families. They are our friends. They are a part of our churches. They are good and decent people. They are not bothering anyone. They are often put down and hated by society. These are good reasons, but none override our obligation to speak out what the Scriptures teach on this. But we do it in a way that doesn’t empower those who want to hate and harm them.
#3. If we take the position that homosexual practice is wrong according to Scripture, doesn’t this mean that we have to take a political position to oppose or outlaw this in our country? The primary concern of the Christian is with the people of God, not this or that country – all of which are passing away. We look to the Scriptures to see what God’s will is for us and then we order our community by this. As Paul says, “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside” – I Corinthians 5:12-13. It is not our job to coerce non-disciples to do righteousness. It is not our job to coerce others to adhere to our standards on sexuality with regard to same-sex practice, any more than we do on divorce or adultery. Yes, we witness to the nations about God’s righteousness regarding same-sex practice and let them choose, but we also witness to God’s mercy and compassion that does not promote hatred or violence.
#4. Isn’t Sodom and Gomorrah really only about issues of hospitality? It is true that this story condemns a lack of hospitality. Ezekiel 16 notes this as does Jesus in Matthew 10:15. The residents of Sodom were wealthy but did not help the weak, in this case the traveler. But a part of this lack of hospitality was that they sought to rape their guests, and to do this in a way that shamed them sexually through same-sex practice. So there are a number of issues going on here.
That a part of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah had to do with Porneia is clear from several Jewish texts as well as Ezekiel 16:50 (“commit an abomination” appears to refer to same-sex practice echoing Leviticus 18:22). Also, Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6-7, 10 connect what happened in Sodom to Porneia.
#5. Isn’t the real issue of sexual practice whether it is consensual-adult, monogamous and covenanted? As we saw in Essay #6, lesbian practice could be all of these things, but Paul condemns it in the most general way possible. But Paul’s answer to this comes out even more clearly in I Corinthians 5:1-13. This involved a case of incest – “a man has his father’s wife.” The man in question has most likely married his step-mother. The word Paul uses “has” refers to marriage in I Corinthians 7:2, 29. In Mark 6:17-18 this word is paralleled with the word “married.” But even if it is an arrangement short of formal marriage, it implies a lasting union of some kind (John 4:18).
So here we have two consenting adults in a monogamous, committed relationship, yet Paul strongly condemns this incestuous sexual expression. For Paul the essential issue is not whether the sexual expression is consensual-adult, monogamous and covenanted, it is whether the sexual expression is forbidden by God as intrinsically wrong; whether it is Porneia or not.
#6. Are the words used in I Corinthians and I Timothy for homosexual practice correctly translated? These texts use two specific words in “sin lists” that have been translated in various ways to refer to same-sex practice. Arsenokoitas is used in I Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10. Malakos is used in I Corinthians 6:9.
“Arsenokoitas,” 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.” That it refers to any kind of male same-sex activity beyond prostitution, exploitation, or pederasty can be seen in this word’s connection to the Mosaic Law and its unconditional prohibition of all same-sex intercourse. The word itself comes from Leviticus 18:22, as we saw, and the context in I Timothy 1 ties it to the Law of Moses, specifically the seventh commandment against Adultery/Porneia. (Rabbinic usage is similar. It uses the Hebrew – Mishkav Zakur – “lying with a male,” from Leviticus 18 to speak of same-sex practice.)
“Malakos” literally means “soft ones.” It has a broad range of meaning in Greek literature, something like the word “effeminate.” It can refer to males who have so-called feminine characteristics, as well as to those who dress and groom as women or even castrate themselves to make themselves sexually attractive to men. That it refers to the passive partner in same-sex intercourse in I Corinthians can be seen in how it is used in the context of I Corinthians 6:9-11. It comes in the sin list after adulterers and before Arsenokoitai – 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. Given its use in this sin list, the passive partner here is a consenting partner, rather than someone who is exploited.
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(see also the translation note in both the ESV and the NIV).
#7. 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.
#8. 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 (se Essay #3). 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.
#9. 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.
#10. Doesn’t the precedent of slavery show we can change what the Bible teaches? The Bible allows for slaves, a practice we no longer believe is God’s will. The case of slavery is quite different than the example of homosexual practice. Whatever we may think of slavery today, which mostly comes from a very abusive form of it in America, the Scriptures do not regard slavery as inherently wrong. It does guard against abusive forms of it (and thus condemns the kind that was practiced in America) and the New Testament condemns those who forcibly enslave others (I Timothy 1:10). But it is recognized that in some societies and in some circumstances, slavery was an arrangement that could keep a person from starvation. Thus slavery is never condemned outright. Some forms of it were permitted, but it was regulated. Homosexual practice, however, is unconditionally condemned and warned against. It does not depend on the circumstances or the abusive nature of it. It is intrinsically wrong.
#11. The Bible forbids women to be church leaders, but we have set this aside and allow it now. Why not do this for monogamous same-sex unions? If you really think that the Scriptures teach that women should not be leaders, then you should live by this, not set it aside and then look for other areas to set aside as well. I do not think that this is what the New Testament teaches and so I welcome women elders and leaders. But the point is that we bind ourselves to live by apostolic teaching. We don’t pick and choose what fits our tastes and the views of our day. We find out what the New Testament teaches and then we put this into practice.
#12. How can this be seen as a big issue, only a few texts talk about it? The texts that talk about it are clear and consistent. This was not an issue that needed discussion so that it would show up in many texts. Also, when you include the texts that talk about “Porneia” (sexual immorality), a word that also includes in its meaning homosexual practice, then there are many texts that talk about this.
This is a big issue, because if the Scriptures are right, then those who practice same-sex activity will not enter the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9-10). So to seek to bless their activity is to cause them to stumble, which is disastrous for them and for those who encourage them. (Matthew 18:6).
#13. If you are born with same-sex desire, how can it be wrong? 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 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. The creation, however, does reflect the original pattern that God intended for humanity, which is why Jesus appeals to this.
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.]
#14. 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.
#15. 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 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.
8. What’s wrong with same-sex practice?
Those who argue that homosexual practice should be accepted often point out that in monogamous, responsible and loving relationships, homosexual activity does no one any harm. And if this is true, then what’s the problem? But as Christians we are not bound simply to the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not enough to say that our actions don’t harm others. Even though our culture holds this up as the ultimate ethical norm, it is not adequate for followers of Jesus. We must also submit all of our behavior to the first commandment, “Love God” – 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, loving and consensual?’ or ‘Is it causing harm to others?’ We also have to see if it goes against the first commandment.
And in fact, very few of the restrictions that govern sexual expression have to do with the second commandment. Most are governed by the first commandment. They are based exclusively on submission to God and boundaries that he establishes. For instance, if we only judge by the second commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” what then is wrong with:
- Responsible pre-marital sex? We have birth control now so this is no longer a determining factor. We are certainly made with an inbuilt desire for it. And if it is done responsibly, why not? Perhaps it is a better way to go than just jumping into a lifetime commitment at the start? Done responsibly perhaps it would lead to a better covenanted relationship in the future. This is what our culture argues by and large.
- Multiple covenanted spouses? There is actually biblical precedent for polygamy. But why is the original pattern one man and one woman? And why does Jesus hold this up as the standard? Many men would testify to inborn desires to have more than one sexual partner and I am sure there are also women who would claim this. And there have been and still are cultures in which this is not offensive or (it can be argued) harmful to the participants.
- Consensual adult incest? What is wrong with covenanted consensual adult incest? Is this not an exact parallel to the case for homosexual practice? There are some who have no innate sense that this kind of sexual expression is wrong. So, as long as there is no harm to others (as the logic goes) this should be seen as a legitimate expression and this should be accepted and blessed. There are those who are fighting for the legitimation of this even now.
- Humane bestiality? I do not raise this to offend. This is a real desire for some people and biblically this shows up along with homosexual practice. These people testify to a natural desire for sex with animals. And what harm does it do to the animal if it is done humanely? If we hold the right to kill animals to eat them, why not this?
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.
From a Christian point of view, same-sex practice is wrong because 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 lay out some of the basic ground rules:
- Species boundaries – Among the animals there was “not found a helper fit for him” – 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.
According to Jesus this created order (Mark 10:6-9) or what Paul calls “natural relations” (Romans 1:26-27) show us what Gods’ will is. And we are called to honor and submit to these out of our love for God.
Now, we cannot fully say why God establishes the boundary of no same-sex practice, only that he does. But we also cannot fully say why he set these other sexual boundaries, which we do not question. And we also recognize that there are many areas of the Christian life where God does not fully explain himself to us. We don’t always know why things are as they are. In all of these areas we need to learn to trust God and continue to honor and submit to God’s will for us The unbeliever will dismiss this and often with scorn. But the believer is called to trust.
What we do know is that God loves us deeply, no matter what our struggles are. And this certainly applies to whatever sexual struggles we may have. And we can trust that the God who made us and loves us has our best interests in mind, as well as those of broader society, in the boundaries he establishes. And we know that God will help us as we seek to honor him and follow his way, even if it is extremely difficult for us.