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What does the Bible really say about homosexuality?

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Published: 7 May 2015 (GMT+10)
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Some professing Christians direct hateful statements toward the homosexual community, while others minimize or even reject the Bible’s teachings on this issue. Homosexual activists point to the former group as proof that Christianity is often inherently ‘homophobic’, and point to the latter to demonstrate that Christians can reinterpret the Bible’s foundational teachings on the topic.

Because this is such a politically and emotionally-charged topic, it is essential that we approach this issue by first understanding what Scripture has to say about it, regardless of whether Scripture’s stance is considered politically correct or not. However, this does not mean we have to be gratuitously offensive to those who have unbiblical views and lifestyles (if they must be offended, let it be by the truth, not due to a fundamentally unloving heart!).

Some activists have attempted very creative means to reinterpret the Bible’s passages about homosexuality, arguing that the Bible does not condemn homosexual behavior per se. However, Christians today must continue to affirm the Bible’s teaching, not only regarding homosexual practice, but the ‘big picture’ teaching about marriage and sexuality presented from Genesis to Revelation, without which the criticism of homosexuality cannot be fully understood.

Male-female complementarity—God’s design

Genesis portrays the Creation of humanity as male and female in God’s image, and the creation of Eve as Adam’s suitable helper. Together, these passages teach us that 1) men and women equally share the image of God, and 2) they were created with distinct roles, and this is particularly evident in the context of marriage. And at the culmination of Genesis 2, we are given the Bible’s first teaching about marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is a ringing endorsement of monogamous, lifelong marriage, and an implicit criticism of any alternative arrangements. Some have gone so far as to argue that Eve was a "suitable" partner for heterosexual Adam, so a person of the same sex would be likewise "suitable" for a homosexual, yet this idea is clearly not supported in any of the other passages dealing with marriage.

Sin corrupts marriage

Unfortunately, Adam and Eve’s perfect marriage in a perfect paradise didn’t remain perfect for long. When Eve was deceived by the serpent and Adam willingly rebelled by eating the forbidden fruit, sin entered the world, corrupting everything including human relationships. From then on, God told them, they would face the constant temptation to dominate each other, rather than having the harmonious relationship they were meant to have.

As human history progressed, human relationships only became more distorted. Cain’s descendant Lamech was the first recorded polygamist, and an unrighteous man who boasted that he either had killed, or was willing to kill, to avenge himself. He said that while God had promised to avenge Cain sevenfold (perfect retribution), he would be avenged seventy-seven fold!

Fundamentally, all corruption in human relationships, including sexual relationships, is caused by sin. We all have a sin problem. For some, this manifests itself in disordered desire for unsuitable sexual partners (whether people of the same sex, children, or even animals). But there are plenty of sins linked with heterosexuality, whether lust, adultery, rape, or fornication. And because Jesus made it clear that sins committed in the mind are just as bad as those we act upon, no one can claim to be free of sexual sin. We all have a sin problem. And in a sense, homosexual people are correct to claim that they are “born that way”—we all are born sinful, and we all need the same solution.

The sin of Sodom

The first mention, and the first overt condemnation, of homosexuality takes place in the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. When the angels come to investigate the sinfulness of the people there, it is evident that Lot knows the angels are in danger because of the urgency with which he pleads that they spend the night in his house, and not in the open square. He may have wanted to get them inside before anyone noticed the newcomers, but word had spread to the whole town, and they gathered outside his house that night.

The universality of the description is impossible to miss—all of the men, rich and poor, young and old, gathered outside the house and demanded that Lot give up his guests. They bluntly demanded that Lot bring out his guests so that they could rape them. In that culture, hospitality was a sacred duty, and Lot was obliged to defend his guests, even if it cost his own life. So he goes out and pleads with them, even offering his own daughters instead of his guests. It’s possible he was making a bad choice endangering his daughters, or it’s possible he knew the crowd had no interest in women and he was simply trying to buy time. Either way, the crowd responded by trying to break in, but the angels protected Lot and struck the whole crowd blind.

Most people, if they were suddenly blinded in the commission of a heinous sin, as well as all their accomplices, would at least pause to consider the extraordinary coincidence. But this did not deter them—in fact, the text says that they went on trying to find the door for so long that they wore themselves out! The picture is certainly one of immorality run amok.

Some who want to soften the condemnation of homosexuality say that it was the intended rape, not the homosexuality, that was the sin, and point to Ezekiel 16 for a definition of the ‘actual’ sin of the Sodomites. However, we should not interpret Scripture in such a way to make it contradict itself. Ezekiel gives a fuller picture of the sin of Sodom, without contradicting the story of the city’s destruction:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it (Ezekiel 16:49–50).

The homosexual sin of Sodom is presented as a culmination of the growing sinful decadence of the city. Lesser sins preceded it, such as refusing to aid the needy when they themselves had more than enough. But the word “abomination” clearly refers to the homosexual sin which resulted in its destruction.

The New Testament also discusses Sodom in a few places:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority (2 Peter 2:4–10).

Peter was writing to encourage Christians who were experiencing persecution because of their faith. His argument proceeds:

  1. God punished the angels who sinned, and destroyed the world with a global Flood, but preserved Noah and his family.
  2. God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but preserved righteous Lot; therefore
  3. God can keep the unrighteous under judgment and rescue the godly from trials.

Jude says:

Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe. 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.

Jude was warning his congregation against false teachers, so he gave examples of other people who were judged for unbelief and immorality.

Peter and Jude don’t argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked; they assume it based on everything the Old Testament says about them. So the entire testimony of Scripture is that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked cities, and that homosexuality was the sin they were destroyed for.

The sexual ethic of the Mosaic Law

When God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, He gave them a Law that served two purposes 1) it revealed important things about God’s character and 2) the laws would forbid them from acting like the surrounding nations and differentiate them as God’s people, a holy nation. And this law included a definite sexual ethic. Adultery was a capital offense. The sorts of sexual cultic acts that would have taken place in the Canaanite religions were absolutely prohibited.

It is in this context of a nation set apart by God that we have to understand the serious nature of God’s law, including the prohibition of, and death penalty for, homosexual activity. Leviticus 18 can be outlined as follows:

Declaration of Yahweh’s authority, command to refrain from the practices of Canaan (1–5).
Prohibiting marriage of close relatives (6–18).
Prohibition of other polluting practices (19–23).
General prohibition, threat of expulsion from land (24–30). 

The prohibition of homosexual activity is in verse 22, listed between child-sacrifice to Molech and bestiality. It simply says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”. The word for “abomination” is the Hebrew tô‘ēbāh, and it is the same word that Ezekiel uses to describe the homosexual activity in Sodom. Leviticus 20:13 prescribes the death penalty for this abomination.

Note, this is not an unloving, homophobic law (in fact, it would be extremely anachronistic to apply an idea like ‘homophobia’ to a text written long before there was anything close to today’s concept of ‘sexual orientation’). The whole assumption is that God as both Creator and Israel’s Lord has the right to give the laws for Israel, and that because He is a good Creator and Lord, those laws will be to Israel’s benefit. So God doesn’t prohibit incest and homosexuality because He is a bigot against those who love their relatives and people of the same sex; he prohibits those acts because they lead to self-destruction, both physically and spiritually.

Were David and Jonathan a homosexual couple?

Homosexual interpreters often point to David and Jonathan’s close friendship as a positive biblical portrayal of a gay relationship. First, David and Jonathan were demonstrably not homosexual—both had multiple children, and David had multiple wives. Furthermore, homosexuality can only be read into their relationship by grossly distorting the relevant texts. 1 Samuel 18:1–4 reads:

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

First, we have to realize that Scripture, being inspired by God, will not contradict itself by describing positively something that is elsewhere called an “abomination”. So the praiseworthy love that Jonathan showed for David did not have a sexual component. Rather, their friendship was very close and loving in a platonic sense. Jonathan is portrayed as stripping his royal garments, armor, and weapons and giving them to David—this is a recognition of God’s blessing on David and his right to rule.

1 Samuel 20:41 says:

And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most.

In a Middle Eastern context, kissing on the cheek is an appropriate way to show platonic love. This is not a romantic gesture, but a deeply emotional parting of close friends.

In 2 Samuel 1:25b–26, when David learns of the deaths of Saul and his sons, he laments:

Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.

This is not speaking of a homosexual relationship; rather, he is saying that Jonathan was his closest friend and confidant, in a way none of his wives were. To read David and Jonathan’s relationship is in fact a sort of homosexual imperialism, an insistence that we view the ancient world through a thoroughly modern context, ignoring the sorts of affection and language that would be accepted and common in a nonsexual friendship.

The Song of Songs: a celebration of marital love

The Song of Songs is one of the strongest statements about the sort of sexual relationship God approves of. The positive portrayal of the relationship of man and wife, veiled with metaphor and figurative language, but sufficiently explicit to portray both the emotional and physical aspects of the relationship, is implicitly a condemnation of every other sort of relationship. One cannot imagine the Bible including a positive depiction of homosexual men reveling in their relationship.

Did Jesus say anything about homosexuality?

One of the most common arguments against the biblical sexual ethic is that Jesus did not say anything against homosexuality. But that ignores the fact that Jesus is a Jew, living in a society that is steeped by the Old Testament, including the passages discussed above. Likewise, Jesus did not mention anything about bestiality, yet no one has argued that He would condone such action. If Jesus had wanted to clarify or to refute a false interpretation of these passages, He had ample opportunity to do so.

But in fact, Jesus’ statements about marriage necessarily exclude same-sex marriage or any sort of homosexual relationship. Matthew 19 and Mark 10 record the same episode. In Jesus’ day, there were two schools rabbinic thought regarding divorce. One thought that a husband could divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons (much like in the Western world today), and the other thought that he could only divorce her because of serious sins like adultery or other sexual immorality. When they asked Jesus which side He came down on, He challenged the very foundation for their debate. They were reading Moses’ laws regarding divorce as if it was God’s first word on the matter, but Jesus said that “from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6–9).

Jesus’ teaching about marriage is steeped in the Old Testament teachings, and the same Old Testament condemns homosexuality. He did not hesitate to correct the Jews’ misreading of Moses when it came to divorce, but He did not even hint about such a misunderstanding about the prohibition of homosexuality.

Romans: Homosexuality as God’s judgment

In Romans, Paul portrays a downward spiral of sin. He argues that nature gives a clear indication of God’s existence and His power, but that people “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Rather than worshipping God, they worship idols (v. 23). One of the ways God judges this sin is to give them up to lust (v. 24), including both male and female homosexuality (v. 26–27). This judgment culminates in all sorts of sin, all rooted in their fundamental rejection of God (v. 28). Some activists have argued that the only form of homosexuality that the Bible condemns are abusive forms, such as pederasty (men having sexual relationships with boys) or homosexual acts forced on an unwilling party. Yet clearly they are missing that these passages are referring to people that are “… consumed with passion for one another …” (v. 27).

Vice lists: Homosexuals will be condemned, but there is forgiveness in Christ

There are two vice lists in Paul’s letters, and both are relevant to the discussion of homosexuality.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10).

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 5:3–6).

These lists definitely name homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality (like all sins) are things which exclude a person from the Kingdom of God. But this is not the whole message of either passage. They go on to state:

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 (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord (Ephesians 5:7–8a).

In other words, Paul is writing to Christians, some of whom used to be slanderers, some of whom were idolators, some of whom were homosexuals and thieves and drunkards. But he doesn’t see any Christian as continuing to engage in that lifestyle because of the transformative power of salvation in Christ.

Marriage: a picture of Christ’s relationship to the Church

One reason it is particularly important to understand God’s will for marriage and sexual relationships is that it is used as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship to the Church. Paul tells the Corinthian church, “…I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (11:2), and Revelation 19 describes the marriage of the Lamb to his bride, the Church, dressed in fine white linen.

The metaphor would be ruined if Christ could have taken a bride or a bridegroom, if it didn’t matter whether He had one church or many, or if He might divorce her at some later time. So the most important reason to hold a biblical view of marriage is Christological: to understand Christ’s relationship to His church, we have to have a proper view of the institution that is consistently used as the metaphor to describe it.

So how should a Christian respond?

The issue of homosexuality in today’s culture is not just an intellectual discussion of views, but when we have family or friends that have ‘come out of the closet’, it becomes quite personal. As believers, however, we have to let the Bible determine our response. Rather than anger or reinterpreting the Bible, we should share the good news of the redemption that is only available through Jesus Christ.

As a first step to addressing this issue, we strongly recommend you read our booklet, Gay Marriage: right or wrong? And who decides? (also available in e-book format). This will help give you a biblical, truthful and gentle approach to use with someone you know who might be struggling with same-sex attraction, including Christian families whose children have been affected by cultural views on this subject. Be prayerful and compassionate, remembering that Jesus himself, “while we were yet sinners”, dealt directly with our sin through the power of the cross.

Helpful Resources

Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Gary Bates, Lita Cosner
US $3.50
Soft Cover
Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $2.00
Kindle (.mobi)
Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $2.00
eReader (.epub)