Homosexuality and the Bible
A Case Study in the Use of the Bible for Ethics
Loren L. Johns

Introduction

      Homosexuality has proved to be one of the more intractable issues the Mennonite Church has faced. Official church documents clearly call for celibacy on the part of gays and lesbians while also calling the church to repent of its judgmental attitudes and to remain in loving dialogue as we continue to study the Bible on this issue. These calls are in some tension with each other. Meanwhile, loving dialogue on this issue is rare in the Mennonite Church even though the Purdue and Saskatoon statements call for it. May God have mercy on us! I believe that individual church members must recognize and honor the authority of church discernment (Matthew 18:15-20) even as the church humbly admits its limited capacity to understand God’s will on this side of heaven.

      Article 19 in the Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective says:

We believe that God intends marriage to be a covenant between one man and one woman for life. Christian marriage is a mutual relationship in Christ, a covenant made in the context of the church. According to Scripture, right sexual union takes place only within the marriage relationship. Marriage is meant for sexual intimacy, companionship, and the birth and nurture of children.

      I take seriously and support the Purdue and Saskatoon statements, including their call for careful Bible study and loving dialogue. In recent years, “loving dialogue” has sometimes been used as a smokescreen or an excuse for ignoring the call to celibacy. I do not use it in that way. I think we should pay careful enough attention to the homosexuality issue to keep reading the Bible together and that genuine caring for the gays and lesbians among us means that we must not avoid the issue. I am an advocate for gays and lesbians in that sense. Despite the difficulty of real loving dialogue in the church, I want to stand with the church in its ethical discernment, rather than over against it in its ethical discernment.

      The church has benefited little from the efforts of both extremist conservatives and of extremist liberals in this area in recent years. Some conservatives have wrongly (in my opinion) blacklisted certain individuals and congregations for contributing to the dialogue on this issue, and some liberals have wrongly (in my opinion) taken too lightly the discernment of the church in calling for celibacy on the part of gays and lesbians. Furthermore, many have confused the ethical agenda (the task of making moral judgments) with the pastoral agenda (responding redemptively to gays and lesbians, based on such moral judgments).

      I continue to hope in the Lord that God will yet bring healing to the church on this issue. God cannot have been glorified by the blood-letting we have seen. I am unwilling to allow reactionaries -- whether conservative or liberal -- to set the tone or the rules by which the matter is discussed. The church cannot afford either withdrawal or fear-mongering. I trust the grace of God and of the church to protect those who truly wish to know the mind of Christ on this matter from the attacks of others. There is admittedly little room for naďveté on this matter. But the church cannot allow the discussion on this matter be hijacked by individuals who are driven by fear, insecurity, or a will to power.

      I offer this page as a resource intended to build up the church and assist it in the ongoing loving dialogue to which we committed ourselves in 1986 and 1987.

      Despite many unanswered questions about homosexuality, several points do seem reasonably clear. It seems to me that the official documents of the General Conference Mennonite Church (Saskatoon 1986) and of the Mennonite Church (Purdue 1987) agree explicitly or implicitly about the following points:

1.    There is a difference between homosexuality as an orientation and homosexuality as a lifestyle. Homosexuality as an orientation is not and cannot be wrong -- it just is; at issue is whether gays and lesbians should be celibate or may express their sexuality within a loving, committed relationship. The existence, integrity, or usefulness of this theoretical distinction has been increasingly challenged in the last decade. In my opinion, if this distinction should ultimately prove to be without merit, then the only options of integrity the church has are (1) to deny the existence of same-gender attraction or (2) to bless it.

2.    Gays and lesbians deserve the same love and respect as heterosexuals do, and that means listening and loving before passing judgment; gay-bashing in word or deed is clearly wrong for anyone who wishes to identify with Jesus;

3.    Although related, ethical discernment and pastoral care are separate issues: Christians need to consider the ethical propriety of homosexual marriages so that they can know how to be redemptive. While it may be true that one should hate the sin and love the sinner, such a statement does not contribute much to ethical discernment in the church. Neither does the recognition that we are all sinners. Neither of these “answers” recognizes the need for careful ethical discernment on the issue -- for listening to the mind of Christ or helping each other grow in Christ.

4.    Christian ethics is for Christians: ethical discernment and discipling (based on biblical principles) are appropriate primarily among people who claim to follow Jesus. It doesn’t make much sense to ask, “What is God’s will for people who have chosen not to submit to God’s will?”

5.    Such ethical discernment properly belongs with the Christian community as a whole, not the Christian individual by himself or herself. Twenty-first-century North America is a difficult place to temper individualism with healthy com­mun­ity perspectives.

6.    Straight Christians should welcome the help of both (a) gays and lesbians; and (b) social scientists in addressing this issue, even though Christians cannot give to others their responsibility for discerning God’s will in light of Scripture, tradition, and science.

 

Although the Bible has little to say about homosexuality, the following passages may pertain.

     

Passage

Considerations suggesting that God does not bless homosexual unions

Considerations suggesting that God does bless homosexual unions

Genesis 19

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.” 3But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. 4But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; 5and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” 6Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, 7and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. 8Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” 9But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down. 10But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. 11And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

In later biblical tradition, Sodom and Gomorra were widely recognized symbols of immorality and of the judgment of God that falls on such immorality. Sodom and Gomorra are symbols of God’s terrifying judgment in Deut. 29:23; Isa. 1:9-10; 13:19; Jer. 49:18; 50:40; Ezek. 16:53-58; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9; Matt. 10:15; Luke 17:29; Rom. 9:29; 2 Pet. 2:6; Jude 7 ... symbols of shameless immorality or unbridled sin in general in Isa. 3:9; Lam. 4:6; Ezek; 16:48; Jude 7 ... and symbols of foolish impotent rebellion (or unresponsiveness) against God, see Deut. 32:32; Jer. 23:14; Matt. 11:23-24; Luke 10:12; Rev. 11:8. The word sodomite has become, in the English language, a synonym for one who engages in certain kinds of (male) homosexual acts. For instance, the New American Standard Bible uses sodomites in 1 Kings 22:46 to refer to male cult prostitutes. This passage does not speak to “loving” same-sex relations because it does not conceive of same-sex relations as potentially loving. Instead, it associates same-sex relations with evil desire deserving of God’s most severe judgment.
 Although nonsexual interpretations of this passage appear in Jer. 23;14, Ezek. 16:49-50, Wisdom of Solomon 10:8; Sirach 16:82; Jubilees 13:17 and the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 109a; Ket. 103a; BB 12b; Ab 5.10, and Erub. 49c), sexual interpretations of Genesis 19 appear to predominate in 2 Peter 2:6-10; Jude 7; Jubilees (7:20-21); 16:5-6; 20:5-6; 1 Enoch 10:4; 34:1-2; and in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Naph. 3:4-5; 4:1; Asher 7:1; Benjamin 9:1; Levi 14:6); 3 Macc. 2:3; Philo’s De Abr. 26:134-136; Josephus’s Ant. 1.200 (cf. Contra Apionem 2.199); and Gen. Rabbah 50:7.

The inhabitants of Sodom displayed a despicable form of sexual immorality. Nevertheless, this passage cannot be construed as condemning loving, committed, monogamous homosexual relationships. The sin displayed in this story is the sin of homosexual (gang) rape, possessive lust, and sexual abuse. Homosexuality itself is not the focus of these cities’ later notoriety within the biblical tradition -- at least not in all cases (see the passages listed in the middle column). This is aptly demonstrated in Ezekiel 16:49: “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.” And in v. 51, Ezekiel says that in comparison with sinful Judah, Sodom and Gomorra were righteous. Some Jewish writings indicate that the sinful desire behind the Sodomites’ lust for Lot’s guests was because they were angels, not because they were men (see Testament of Naphtali 3:4-5). This story reflects the sacred value placed in Middle Eastern culture on hospitality. It is a responsibility so sacred that Lot would rather offer his virgin daughters to his ravenous neighbors than the strangers he feels obligated to protect. That sodomite has become synonymous with certain homosexual acts does not pertain to the ethical issue of the propriety of loving, committed homosexual relationships. “Sodomites” are condemned in several Old Testament texts not because the male prostitutes were having sex with other males, but because they were serving alien gods as part of the Canaanite fertility cult.

       To use Genesis 19 as a means to condemn homosexuality makes as little sense as using 2 Sam. 13 as a means to condemn heterosexuality.

Leviticus 18

19You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. 20You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. 21You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. 22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.

This passage says that homosexual intercourse is an abomination and a perversion -- a perversion as bad as bestiality, or having sex with a woman while she’s having her period, or child sacrifice, or adultery. There is no passage in the Bible that is clearer than, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is a direct commandment prohibiting homosexual unions. This passage clearly associates homosexuality with perversion, including committed, loving same-sex relationships. Any “face-value” reading of the Bible must admit that Leviticus 18:22 prohibits sexual intercourse between men.

Loving, committed relationships are not in view here. The author is addressing the sin of having sex for its own sake (i.e., using another person, or animal, to meet one’s own selfish sexual needs). The context also makes clear that these are purity regulations designed to keep holy Israel separate from unholy Canaan. In light of Jesus’ rejection of purity codes and their effect of separating people groups, the Christian church no longer takes purity codes literally. Anyone who would claim that Leviticus 18:22 is clear and should regulate Christian ethical practice today needs to explain how or on what basis other regulations in the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26) should not regulate Christian ethical practice today (cf. Lev. 20:9-16, 27; 24:16). It is not legitimate to willy-nilly pick and choose which verses one wants to take seriously and which one does not.

Leviticus 20

10If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. 11The man who lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 12If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall be put to death; they have committed perversion, their blood is upon them. 13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. 14If a man takes a wife and her mother also, it is depravity; they shall be burned to death, both he and they, that there may be no depravity among you. 15If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the animal. 16If a woman approaches any animal and has sexual relations with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.

Lev. 20:13 says that homosexual intercourse is an abomination worthy of the death penalty for both partners. Such a thing is as bad as adultery, or having sex with one’s stepmother, or having sex with one’s daughter-in-law, or being married to a woman and that woman’s mother at the same time, or having sex with an animal. Even though the passage suggests that homosexuals should be killed -- something the church today should not do -- the passage clearly calls homosexual intercourse an abomination and that persons who engage in such acts must be held accountable for his actions.

The same considerations apply here as those above. A literal interpretation of this passage would require the death penalty for homosexual intercourse! Does the church wish seriously to propose this? On what basis do we answer this? According to the interpretation to the left, this passage could be taken to imply that other, more “natural” forms of bigamy or polygamy are okay. Within the Hebrew Bible itself we see a debate about purity issues in sexual or biological terms. Deut. 23:1-3 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted.... Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted.... No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted.... Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” However, see also Ruth 4:17 and Isa. 56:4-5 for differing perspectives. The point is that the Levitical prohibitions against homosexual intercourse fit squarely in the same Old Testament purity concern that Deut. 23:1-8 does and that Jesus condemns in the New Testament.

Judges 19

16Then at evening there was an old man coming from his work in the field. The man was from the hill country of Ephraim, and he was residing in Gibeah. (The people of the place were Benjaminites.) 17When the old man looked up and saw the wayfarer in the open square of the city, he said, “Where are you going and where do you come from?” 18He answered him, “We are passing from Bethlehem in Judah to the remote parts of the hill country of Ephraim, from which I come. I went to Bethlehem in Judah; and I am going to my home. Nobody has offered to take me in. 19We your servants have straw and fodder for our donkeys, with bread and wine for me and the woman and the young man along with us. We need nothing more.” 20The old man said, “Peace be to you. I will care for all your wants; only do not spend the night in the square.” 21So he brought him into his house, and fed the donkeys; they washed their feet, and ate and drank.

       22While they were enjoying themselves, the men of the city, a perverse lot, surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” 23And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. 24Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them; but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” 25But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine, and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. 26As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.

       27In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. 28”Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey; and the man set out for his home. 29When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. 30Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites, ‘Has such a thing ever happened since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.’”

As with the story of Sodom and Gomorra above, the “perverse” men of Gibeah are portrayed as desiring homosexual intercourse. Here again, homosexuality is equated with perverseness. Even though this may not be a tale about homosexuality as such, the connection between perverse lust and homosexuality is not incidental.

As with the story of Sodom and Gomorra above, this story has nothing to do with whether loving, committed monogamous homosexual or lesbian relationships are blessed by God, but rather with the perversity of gang rape, wanton lust, and (even worse, in that society), the sin of inhospitality. As in the story of Sodom and Gomorra, the old man’s willingness to offer to his neighbors his own virgin daughter as well as his guest’s concubine (sex slave) is portrayed as a noble thing to do -- a self-sacrificial recognition of the sacredness of hospitality to the stranger. In other words, the story underlines the heroic maintenance of the cultural tradition of hospitality as a sacred trust. This is a horrible and terrifying story -- horrible for its cavalier acceptance of the violence toward women that such a patriarchal society could produce. Biblical interpreters today have an obligation to stress that the moral lesson intended by this passage is not that patriarchal violence is legitimate, but that hospitality toward the stranger is a sacred trust. But even with such an interpretation, modern readers of the text cannot merely excuse the text’s apparent disregard for women or its implicit but terrifying acceptance of the “use” of women for sexual purposes. Thus, a proper appropriation of this terrifying and terrible story may be that believers in Yahweh have an obligation to take in and protect dishonored strangers. In our society, that would include any oppressed majority, such as women, or any persecuted minority, whether blacks or Asians or Hispanics or gays and lesbians themselves or persons with AIDS.

1 Samuel 18

1When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.2Saul took him [David] that day and would not let him return to his father’s house.3Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. 4Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

1 Samuel 20

17Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD seek out the enemies of David.” 18 Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life. ... 41As soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.

2 Samuel 1

25How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

David’s relationship with Jonathan was clearly a very special and close relationship. Although 2 Samuel 1:26 compares the love David had for Jonathan with the love between a man and a woman, nothing is said explicitly about whether this love was sexual or whether they expressed their love in sexually explicit ways. It may be that we see evidence here of a different social ordering of relationships in Hebrew society than we we know today. How many straight men today would be willing to use this sort of “love-explicit” language toward one another? There is no evidence that David and Jonathan’s relationship should be or can be “sexualized.” Their love for each other was deep -- but innocent.

       It is common in North America to sexualize relationships. In other cultures men may occasionally walk about holding hands as an indication of their affection and trust in each other without any implication of sexual or romantic love. If North Americans see a romantic or sexual relationship in the relationship between David and Jonathan, it is due more to society’s influence than to the actual relationship between David and Jonathan. If modern readers see “sexual relationship” in this story, it is because they have sexual things on their mind.

David’s relationship with Jonathan was clearly a very special and close relationship. In fact, this is one of the greatest love stories in the Bible. 2 Samuel 1:26 explicitly compares the love David had for Jonathan with the love between a man and a woman. Although nothing is said about whether this love was expressed in sexually explicit ways, it is clear that there was an intimacy and an emotional investment between the two that went beyond typical friendship. They loved each other so much that they made a “covenant” with each other (1Sam. 18:3). Jonathan even did what was common to most eastern Mediterranean love affairs: he gave David gifts (1 Sam. 18:4). As The Message puts it, “Jonathan, out of his deep love for David, made a covenant with him. He formalized it with solemn gifts: his own royal robe and weapons: armor, sword, bow, and belt.” When Jonathan died, David not only called Jonathan’s love more wonderful than the love of women, he also called Jonathan “beloved” (twice) and “lovely” (2 Sam. 1:23, 26). If modern readers do not see “sexual relationship” in this story, it is because they cannot accept the plain implications of the story itself.

       If David and Jonathan’s relationship was sexual, that may explain Saul’s words when he reacted in outrage, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?” (1 Sam. 20:30). Nowhere in the Bible do we find such strong language celebrating the love between persons of the same gender.

       As the Human Sexuality in the Christian Life study guide makes clear, we are sexual beings. Thus, this relationship had sexual overtones even if David and Jonathan did not engage in certain kinds of sexual activity with each other. Nevertheless, “sexual activity” is not important here; what is important is that David and Jonathan had a deeply satisfying and intimate love for each other that is explicitly compared to the love experienced between a man and a woman. At no point does the text imply that this love was improper or that God disapproved of it.

[Jesus said nothing about gays, lesbians, or homosexuality as such.]

The most natural interpretation of Jesus’ silence on the matter is that Jesus simply accepted the prevailing Jewish convictions of his day and disapproved of homosexual relationships. In Jewish tradition, homosexuality was not tolerated.

Either Jesus implicitly approved of homosexual relationships, but later church tradition did not know this or suppressed that memory, or he did not consider the issue as important as some other issues, such as the role of money in people’s lives. In any case, one cannot “argue from silence” to suggest that Jesus condemned homosexuality.

Matthew 18

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Although this text does not deal with human sexuality, it does deal with the matter of how the church should deal with loosing and binding -- the process of discipling brothers and sisters in the church, which inevitably entails some discernment about right and wrong within the church. While it places congregational discernment squarely in the context of discipleship, thus suggesting that the church’s authority is limited in both time and space, it does imply that God honors and blesses the discernment process in a radical way. Thus, the church’s responsibility to hear the voice of the Spirit in the process of ethical discernment is on the highest order. Even more radically, the text suggests that God will honor the discernment process of the church even if it should make a decision that in another time or place will be deemed to have been the “wrong” decision.

       In the face of a liberal and relativistic society that accepts no absolutes, this passage makes it clear that it is the responsibility of the church to engage in church discipline -- not for the sake of the purity of the church, but for the sake of the calling of the church.

This text clearly reflects a high view of the church. Even if it does suggest that God might somehow honor a “wrong” or flawed discernment process, the church must not yield to the temptation to speak too quickly or easily for God. It is precisely because God honors the discernment process of the church that the church must be very slow and cautious to make pronouncements about God’s will about controversial issues. Furthermore, some room must be made for the courageous individual who is willing to take a stand against a corrupt church -- whether that be a more conservative individual willing to take a stand against a more liberal church, or a more liberal individual willing to take a stand against a more conservative church. In other words, Matthew 18:15-20 simply does not help with or skirt the responsibility to take a long and careful approach to ethical discernment in the church. On the contrary, it requires it.

Matthew 19

3Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” 4He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning `made them male and female,’ 5and said, `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”

       10His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. 12For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”

In Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce, he consistently emphasizes the permanence of the marriage covenant. His disciples’ reaction show that Jesus’ approach requires the kind of commitment that empowered women in that society to such an extent that men may have second thoughts about getting married at all. Thus, Jesus is saying that our sexual identity is never fully determinative of “who we are.” Whether we are straight or gay, we can be quite healthy spiritually and emotionally without sexual self-expression of the genital variety. Jesus is therefore calling for celibacy as an honorable (perhaps the honorable?) option for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. In any case, this passage seems to condemn contemporary society’s fixation with sexuality or the suggestion that one cannot be fulfilled or happy unless one is expressing oneself in a sexual relationship. The traditional Catholic condemnation of birth control fits well with the argument that since gays and lesbians cannot procreate naturally, God must not accept such relationships as legitimate.

       A possible paraphrase of v. 12: “Some people have no choice about expressing their sexuality genitally; for some that choice has been taken away by other people; and still others have chosen to refrain from such ‘fulfillment’ for the sake of God’s reign.”

Jesus’ quotation of the “one flesh” statement from Genesis shows that the significance of marriage in God’s plan has more to do with love and the lasting nature of the marriage covenant itself than it does with sexual fulfillment or the “natural” biological “fit” of heterosexual intercourse.
       Jesus emphasizes that “not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given” by stating it twice, in vv. 11 and v. 12d. Why this emphasis? What is the significance of this repetition? Is Jesus saying that sexual self-expression is a deeply personal and spiritual issue and that although God’s will may be that gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals ideally remain celibate, the church should freely accept those who cannot themselves accept that sort of “imposed” celibacy?

       Protestants emphasize that the main purpose of sexual intercourse within marriage is the expression of mutual love, regardless of actual or potential procreation. Consistent with this emphasis is the use of birth control and the approval of homosexual intercourse (within a covenanted relationship) as an expression of love untied to procreation. Thus, the traditional Protestant acceptance of birth control fits with the argument that sexuality is blessed by God totally apart from whether it results in -- or could result in -- offspring.

       A possible paraphrase of v. 12: “Some people have no choice about expressing their sexuality genitally; for some that choice has been taken away by other people; and still others have chosen to refrain from such ‘fulfillment’ for the sake of God’s reign.”

Acts 10

9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 

       17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.”

This passage about the opening of the Gentile mission has nothing to do with purity regarding sexual issues. That is, while it seems designed to pull down certain kinds of barriers between people groups based on purity issues, it does not imply that sexual concerns specifically qualify as a “purity” issue that can now be safely ignored. In fact, there is plenty of evidence from elsewhere in the New Testament that responsible choices are still necessary in the area of our sexuality despite the freedom we have in Christ (cf. Matt. 15:19; Acts 15:20,29; 21:25; 1 Cor. 5; 6:18; 7:2; 10:8; 12:21; Gal. 5:19; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Jude 7).

This passage is about the barriers that divide people based on “purity” issues. Jesus himself was severely condemned by his contemporaries for not abiding by the societal protocols that were based on purity issues (Luke 7:31-50; Mark 7:1-23). Furthermore, Jesus seemed particularly sensitive to the ways in which people concerned about sexual purity sometimes build unjust barriers between people in a subtly idolatrous attempt to justify themselves. Such a temptation to point the finger at the “other” usually does not reflect God’s love (cf. John 7:53-8:11). Jesus is just as concerned about this kind of hard-heartedness as he is about the sexual activity in question.

       In this case, it took an “act of God” to get Peter to reconsider what he always knew to be true. Here God commands Peter to reconsider something that he had believed deeply for all of his life: that purity was central to God’s concern and that for him to be accepted by God, he must avoid contact with Gentiles. This was not an easy lesson for Peter to learn, but God was patient.

       This may not be an easy lesson for today’s church to learn, but perhaps God will be patient with us too.

       This passage is significant because it represents a Spirit-inspired paradigm-changing event that almost single-handedly reinterprets long-held convictions about the will of God clearly expressed in the Bible.

Romans 1

18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

       24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading 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.

       26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

       28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die -- yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

Here Paul seems to equate homosexuality with ungodliness, wickedness, and idolatry. This wickedness expresses itself in a perverse confusion between creation (us) and creator (God). Paul makes no distinction between abusive or hierarchical homosexuality (e.g., pederasty) and so-called “loving” homosexuality. This is because Paul sees homosexuality as inherently exploitative (i.e., it requires an aggressor and a more effeminate partner). Paul says nothing about loving homosexuality because he denies that such a thing exists, not because he is unaware of the possibility. In fact, ancient writings demonstrate that the idea of a homosexual orientation existed in Paul’s time.

       The fact that the term homosexuality as such does not appear in the New Testament says nothing about its ethical propriety. There simply was no term available in Greek that referred to homosexuality specifically as a loving, committed relationship between equals. Because of this, one cannot make much of the absence of such a term. The proper interpretation of Romans 1 is that Paul is using homosexuality as such as an example of the “ungodliness and wickedness” of humanity.

Paul’s main concern here is the proper relationship between Creator and creature. The use and abuse of sexuality is one of the symptoms of such a confusion. Although it may appear to the heterosexual world that homosexual sex is the prime example of depravity, both homosexual and heterosexual sex can reflect such a confusion. What Paul condemns here is “pederasty,” the (homosexual) domination of one person over another -- specifically, that of an older man over a younger boy. This is why Paul associates such ungodliness with insatiable lust and immorality, not because he is making a statement about the abusive or exploitative nature of homosexuality as such. Paul assumes here that homosexual behavior is something freely chosen, a purposeful violation of the created order. It appears, therefore, that he is simply unaware of the distinction between homosexuality as an orientation and as a behavior. In context, Paul is not condemning the Romans for tolerating homosexuals in their midst, but rather is using a typical Jewish stereotype about Gentile sexual promiscuity to make his central point: that all people -- Jew and Gentile alike -- are in desperate need of God. Paul treats homosexual intercourse not as one of the “sins” of the Gentiles, but one of the consequences of their root sin: refusing to let the one true God be their God. Paul apparently knew nothing about the complexity of homosexuality and the multiple causes of it and nowhere does Paul show awareness of a loving mutual homosexual relationship that is not exploitative or abusive. We should refrain from imposing Paul’s statements about homosexuality directly on our situation today without taking this into account. Nevertheless, Paul’s fundamental concerns about homosexuality are as valid today as ever: whenever homo- or hetero- sexuality expresses itself as (a) a surrender to one’s own lusts; (b) an ungrateful misappropriation of God’s creation; or (c) exploitation of another person -- such sexual activity is morally wrong.

1 Corinthians 6

9Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

There is some evidence that some loving homosexual relationships begin with or eventually evolve into one in which one partner is more the aggressor and the other more passive. Thus, Paul’s terms do not necessarily assume an inherently unloving or unequal partnership. “This is what some of you used to be” implies that some of the Corinthians had been, but were no longer, gay or lesbian. This further suggests that homosexual activity belongs to the unredeemed, pre-Christian, life and that it has no part in the life of the born-again Christian. This passage admittedly is not about homosexuality as such, but it is about immorality, of which homosexuality is an example.

The two Greek words translated “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” in v. 9 of the NRSV are malakoi and arsenokoitai. Malakoi means “effeminate,” “weak,” or “soft” and is the word used of “call-boys” whom older men (arsenokoitai) took to bed. (The latter term is also the one used in 1 Tim. 1:10, which appears in another list of vices.) The context here in 1 Cor. is one of heterosexual immorality; homosexuality as such is not the topic at hand. Paul simply mentions the sort of abusive, exploitative homosexuality that goes on between young “call-boys” and their customers as one example of the sort of immorality Christians in Corinth should avoid. “This is what some of you used to be” implies only that some of the Corinthians were guilty of some of the vices Paul mentioned. Not much more can be made of this.

[In summary, the Bible says nothing explicitly positive about homosexuality, and what it does say is almost exclusively negative or critical.]

Since everything the Bible says explicitly about homosexuality is negative, we should “play it safe” and go with what is explicit rather than take the “gray areas” too seriously.

The Bible does not often explicitly address slavery, either, or the propriety of women in leadership. We rightly condemn slavery today because we see that the biblical teachings about justice, love, and human dignity provide a trajectory consistent with the condemnation of slavery. In a similar way, the trajectories of biblical teaching suggest that we should accept gays and lesbians as equal partners in the church. “Playing it safe” is what the conservative slave owners wanted to do … precisely because it supports the status quo.

Page maintained by Loren L. Johns, LJOHNS@AMBS.EDU
Last updated: 31 Aug 2012.

Description: Description: http://ljohns.ambs.edu/safe2.gifCopyright © 1998, 2012 by Dr. Loren L. Johns.
Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this document for noncommercial educational purposes, on the condition that the source is cited and acknowledged.
Loren L. Johns is Professor of New Testament at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

 

Disclaimer: This page reflects the interpretations of Loren L. Johns and does not implicitly or explicitly represent the official position of the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I have prepared this page as a sort of study guide to enable and assist the discernment and dialogue called for in the Mennonite Church documents. As a Christian educator who strongly believes in the importance of dialogue on critical issues -- a dialogue marked by serious consideration of marginalized voices, by prayer, by patience, by listening, by respect -- I offer this page as a resource for study and consideration of these issues. I have tried to represent fairly some of the interpretations of both sides and to be clear where clarity is warranted. I hope you find it helpful. If you have any questions or comments about this page, please address them via email to Loren L. Johns. Thank you.