Why I Believe God Blesses Same-Sex Relationships: Part 1
I’ve been meaning to write this series for a long time, and I am now very excited to finally write down all the thoughts that I have read about and mulled over for more than a year now.
This blog post is going to be written in a considerably more formal and long-winded tone than most of what I write here. The reason for this is that once I get into “English major” mode and set about exploring a thesis I’ve established, the formal writing style tends to flourish. That being said, I will be breaking up this topic into two separate blog posts. This post addresses the so-called “clobber passages”, the six passages in the Bible that Christians typically use to condemn homosexuality. In my next blog post, I will address the scriptural foundation for why I find it plausible to affirm gay relationships.
Before I officially begin my exploration of the “clobber” passages, however, I must offer the disclaimer that most of what I discuss below is a summarization of others’ research, all of which is cited at the end of this essay. I am not a Bible scholar, and indeed I have not even taken formal courses on biblical studies. But that does not mean I don’t have a brain and can’t uncover and examine biblical interpretations and assess their validity for myself. So my words below reflect the soundest, most persuasive arguments I have found which have informed my current understanding of scripture and homosexuality.
And so, without further ado, please enjoy part one of this series…
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I believe the Bible is the holy, inspired Word of God. I also believe that covenant gay relationships are equal in all respect to straight ones. I know that most modern evangelicals would find those two statements to be entirely incompatible, but the research I have done over the last few years has led me to believe that this is not the case.
In this half of my discussion of homosexuality and the Bible, I will be discussing five of the six passages that Christians typically turn to in order to condemn gay relationships as sinful. Let me say before I begin, however, that I recognize that it is not enough to refute traditionalist arguments concerning the so-called “clobber passages”; I must also be able to provide a biblically cohesive reason for why I believe scripture supports gay relationships. This is what I will be addressing in the second half of my series.
The first reference to homosexual sex in the Bible is in Genesis 19. This passage narrates the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God’s decision to destroy the cities because of its inhabitants’ many sins. Due to its irrelevance, I will not be incorporating this passage into my discussion of the traditionalist biblical proof texts on homosexuality. I believe that the context of this passage as well as cross-references in Jude and Ezekiel are clear enough that we can safely surmise that the homosexual acts described in it are domineering and lust-driven acts of rape that have no place in this discussion. I will leave it at that.
In Leviticus 18 and 20, we find two matching series of commandments regulating sexual practices among the early Israelites. Embedded in this list, we find a commandment forbidding same-sex erotic behavior (v. 18:23) and a subsequent decree of capital punishment for such behavior (v. 20:13.) There are several ways of understanding these verses. Some identify them as sexual purity codes established to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding cultures of the time. They refer to the beginning verses of Leviticus 18 to support this claim.
While I believe this is a sound observation, I also think that there is more to these verses than that. Furthermore, to group Leviticus 18 and 20 under the category of moral law does not acknowledge the bizarre and erratic nature of the laws—for example, why do these verses forbid intercourse during a woman’s period (v. 19) and having sex with a woman and her daughter (v. 17), yet remain silent on more general sexual sins such as premarital sex and adultery? These laws are oddly specific.
Therefore the most sensible analysis that I have found for the purpose of these laws had nothing whatsoever to do with morality and everything to do with protecting the social hierarchy of ancient Israelite culture. These laws also served the purpose of protecting women and children, who were considered socially inferior in a patriarchal society. Preserving the patriarchal order of male headship was necessary for their safety and the general preservation of societal structure. Therefore, men having sex with men would have disrupted that order. These laws were not established for moral reasons but for social ones.
There are no further verses in the Old Testament that refer in any way to homosexuality, so we will now turn our attention to the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11, Paul lists off a number of sins, traditionally called the vice lists. Homosexuality is included in both lists, and when most Christians read these verses it can seem plain as day that Paul is condemning same-sex behavior as universally and inherently sinful. However, a deeper look at the original wording of these verses suggests a great deal of ambiguity.
In the Greek, the word translated as “homosexuality” in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy is the word “arsenakoitai”, which is a compound word that combines the Greek words for “man” and “bed.” So it is very clear that “arsenakoitai” refers to some form of same-sex erotic behavior. However, it is difficult to get more specific than this, because “arsenakoitai” was used so rarely in writings contemporary with Paul’s letters. In fact it is so rare that some scholars even suggest that Paul created the word himself.
The 1 Timothy passage sheds some light on how we may be able to interpret “arsenakoitai” properly. The verses in the NKJV read:
“But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.”
It is very interesting to note that this vice list is broken down into closely connected pairings: “the lawless and insubordinate”, “the unholy and profane,” etc. In the grouping which includes homosexuality (here translated as sodomites, betraying again the ambiguity of the Greek word), we find that it is grouped with fornicators and kidnappers. Why would this word be grouped with seemingly unrelated sins, except because they are in some way connected?
I would offer the suggestion that “arsenakoitai” refers to Romans who indulged in pederasty. This would explain the word grouping. It is very likely that the Greek words for “fornicators” and “kidnappers” refer to male prostitutes and the slave traders responsible for selling them to the “arsenakoitai.” Therefore what Paul is condemning is not homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather exploitive sexual practices among first century Romans.
Again, though, the interpretation of the word is not conclusive. The view offered above, however, is the one that I have found to be most faithful to the context of scripture and the meaning of the original Greek words. Therefore to translate this word generically as “homosexuality” is an unfortunate travesty.
Because the same exact compound word appears in the 1 Corinthians passage, I will not address it further here but rather let this interpretation of 1 Timothy stand, since this passage offers a little more context than 1 Corinthians. It should be noted, however, that the vice lists in the two passages as well as the manner in which Paul expounds on these lists is remarkably similar. Suffice it to say, based on the wide variety of ways the original Greek is interpreted and translated, I believe it is completely implausible to rely exclusively on these two verses as a reliable way of deciding the sinfulness of homosexuality.
This leaves one last passage in the Bible which addresses homosexual sex: Romans 1:18-32. I believe this is the most compelling of all the “clobber” passages, and so I will be spending more time addressing it than I have the other verses.
In most of my studies, I have found that those who affirm gay relationships appeal to verses 22 and 23 to suggest that Paul is talking about Roman pagans who worshiped idols (specifically, the Roman goddess of fertility, Aphrodite) and engaged in unnatural sexual rites (both heterosexual and homosexual in nature) as part of their temple worship.
While I believe this interpretation has some degree of merit, I also do not believe it describes the entirety of what is going on in Romans 1. The inclusive language in verses 18-21 suggest that Paul is talking about a much larger group of people than just a few Roman pagans. Likewise, the extremely long list of sins in verses 28-32 seems to include the sorts of sins that all of humanity is guilty of, and not just a selective, small group known for its temple sexual practices.
In his review of Eugene Rogers’ book Sexuality and the Christian Body, Richard Beck suggests that the key to understanding Romans 1 lies in the general human understanding of race and gender. Throughout history, the “standard view” holds that women are morally inferior to men, and thus more prone to sexual deviance and promiscuity. Likewise, minority races have been considered the same way (e.g., in antebellum America, black men had a scandalous reputation for having an unnatural sexual appetite for white women). As Beck writes:
“In both cases we see how immorality generally, and sexual licentiousness in particular, get attributed to natural kinds (e.g., race, gender). In the Old and New Testaments this same reasoning was applied to the Gentiles. As a natural kind the Gentiles were considered to be naturally prone to immorality and sexual deviance. Paul gives us the standard Jewish view of the morality of Gentiles in Romans 1.”
So we see that this passage is about much more than Roman pagans or even modern-day gays and lesbians. Paul is describing Jewish sensibilities toward Gentiles, only to refute them two chapters later. In Romans 3:9 Paul essentially levels the playing field and reminds the Jews that there is no morally superior race, but all come to God equally, as sinners in need of redemption. The point, then, of Romans 1 was not to condemn homosexuality as we understand it today, but rather to outline Jewish understandings of moral inferiority—including sexual deviance—then turn the principle on its head.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that these arguments in and of themselves do not suggest support for the morality of gay relationships. Rather the purpose of writing this is understand how and why these passages describe specific homosexual acts as inherently immoral (as in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), culturally binding purity laws regarding gay sex (Leviticus 18 and 20), and general statements about the sexual perversion of a class of people considered to be morally inferior (Romans 1).
While I believe the interpretation I have offered of passages is valid, I also recognize that it is not enough to refute the conservative approach to these verses; I must also be able to present why I believe scripture affirms and supports gay relationships. If scripture is to be our guide for morality and living a Christ-centered life, we must be able to draw from its pages a cohesive understanding of what it means to live such a life, in our romantic relationships as well as in every other part of our lives.
Part two of this series, which I am very excited to write, will address this. After all, writing about the “good news” is so much more of a blessing than exploring the problems with the “bad news.” I hope you enjoyed this, and look out for part two to be published within the next few days.
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