November 30, 2006

Christianity and Homosexuality

In the very first Carnival of Citizens, there is a post at HeartFulls (a blog with which I was not previously familiar) in which the author wants to know how Christians deal with homosexuality. She seems to be particularly concerned with the question of gay marriage (which is presumably why this post was included in the Carnival of Citizens). She cites a few Scripture passages that are commonly used in arguments, but doesn't present a clear picture of how and why these arguments cause Christians to hold the positions they do (presumably, she doesn't know quite how these passages are interpreted, which is why this is part of her "I want to know" series). In this post, I will try to explain how these verses are interpreted, and how they should influence Christians' actions, especially in the political realm.

First, a word on where I'm coming from. My approach to Scripture is, in theory, held in common with virtually all those who call themselves Evangelicals. That is, I hold that the correct interpretation of the passage is the interpretation which, in the context, would have been the most obvious one to the originally intended audience at the original time of writing. I further believe that the correct interpretation of a passage of Scripture, in its complete content, always yields truth. (That is, I believe in Biblical inerrancy. On the problem of uncertainty about what the Bible actually teaches and what that means for inerrancy, see my post on the inerrancy of the autographs.) However, there are certainly plenty of cases where I think that the mainstream of Evangelicalism applies these principles incorrectly, and this especially happens in the case of Evangelicals who are heavily politically involved. My approach to politics is that of right-libertarian political philosophy; that is, I believe that there is a fundamental right of private property which is not created by the government or society, that the first thing an individual has ownership over is himself, that all other rights derive from these principles, and that the violation of such rights is never morally justifiable. As such, I believe (based on Scripture) that homosexual behavior is morally wrong as a matter of private or individual morality but that people nevertheless have a right to behave in this way without interference from their fellow human beings as a matter of public or political morality (on how I deal with matters of individual vs. political morality, see my post applying this distinction to the abortion debate). In other words, I think that the Church should continue to teach that homosexual behavior is wrong and should never perform or recognize homosexual marriages or civil unions, but that the government should mind its own business and not define marriage at all, one way or another. As a result of this, it can be seen that I really can't answer all of the question posed at HeartFulls, since I don't think gay marriage should be illegal, but I can provide a partial answer, by at least explaining why Christians (at least among those who believe in Biblical inerrancy) don't support it.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's address the verses cited at HeartFulls. They are Leviticus 18:22, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and Romans 1:27. I think these verses, although not the only ones referring to homosexuality in the Bible, are sufficient to present the correct picture, if interpreted correctly. All quotes are from the Holmann Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

You are not to sleep with a man as with a woman; it is detestable. - Leviticus 18:22
The first thing to note about this verse, is that it is part of the legal code of the Torah. This means that Christians in general do not (or at least should not) make direct application of it. This is not because we deny that the Torah is true or inspired or any such thing. Rather, we believe that the Torah is not addressed to us. What this means is that laws like this one, from a Christian perspective, simply record as a matter of historical fact that once upon a time (about 3500 years ago), God commanded the Israelites not to engage in homosexual sex. This doesn't tell us anything applicable to the present day unless we can understand why and under what circumstances he did this. Now, the phrase "it is detestable" might be thought to answer the question of why God did this. The Hebrew word, tow'ebah, does, indeed, seem to be applied only to sexual sin throughout the Leviticus. However, in Deuteronomy 14:3 the ritually unclean animals (e.g. pigs) are called "detestable" using the same word, and in 17:1 sacrificing an animal with a blemish is called "detestable to the Lord." So it doesn't appear that based only on the Torah text we can conclude that the prohibition is presently applicable. It is in a passage that seems at first glance to convey all or mostly universally applicable prohibitions (e.g. on incest and adultery), but the section does also, as was pointed out at HeartFulls, contain the prohibition on a man having sex with his wife when she is menstruating (v. 19) (by the way, it was asked whether this was still observed - certainly by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, beyond that I expect it is probably not seen as a moral obligation). In short, it would require quite a bit of research to determine whether this particular passage, taken without the aid of New Testament parallels, was presently applicable, and there would be a lot of uncertainty in the conclusion. Fortunately, we have NT parallels, so we don't have to do that.

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God's kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God's kingdom. - 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of the words here translated "male prostitutes" and "homosexuals." The New King James Version has "homosexuals" and "sodomites," respectively, and a confusing footnote stating the "homosexuals" actually means "catamites" (what on earth is a catamite? The Heartfulls post includes the Webster's definition). Neither of these is very helpful. The original Greek words are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. Malakos (the singular form of malakoi) literally means "soft." When applied to a man (as it is here - the grammatical form is masculine) it means "effeminate," which is indeed how the original KJV translated it here. (Interestingly, in modern Greek, malaka is a mild curse used as an interjection, roughly equivalent to the English "damn".) I will discuss in a moment how exactly that applies here, and why the translations say what they do. Arsenokoites (singular of arsenokoitai) is from the words arsen, meaning "male" and koite, which literally means "bed," but is a euphemism for sex. The grammatical form is masculine, so this word literally means "men who go to bed with men." Now, why are both words used here, what is the difference between them, and why do the translations say what they do?

Warning: the below section discusses some Greco-Roman sexual practices, and is slightly more explicit than anything I would normally post on this blog. I've tried to keep it as inoffensive as possible, but some readers may prefer to skip it.

I think it is clear that here malakos refers to the "passive" partner and arsenokoites to the "active" partner in anal intercourse between males. Why should Paul mention the two separately, and why should the NKJV tell us the first means "catamites" (by which they apparently mean willing victims of pedarests?) and the second "sodomites"? Why does the HCSB think the first means "male prostitute"? I think this links back to the Greco-Roman attitude and practice toward male homosexuality and is important in the cultural context in its differences from that practice.

It is abundantly clear from the literary record that pedaresty was a near universal practice among (especially upper-class) Greeks of the classical period (roughly 400 years before the NT - it is less clear what was going on in NT times in Corinth, but it is unlikely, I think, that the practice had completely disappeared). The older man was considered a sort of mentor to the younger boy, and the boy and his family were generally without objection to the practice. It was considered to be a normal part of the boy's growth and education. (See the speech of Alcibiades in Plato's Symposium, where in a role-reversal the Greeks must have thought humorous, a young Alcibiades attempts to seduce the older man, Socrates, and also Plato's Phaedrus where a speech attributed to Lysias attempts to convince a young man that it is better to have sex with an older man who is not in love with him than one who is, since love is a type of madness. Not all of the references to the practice are in Plato, it's just that I know Plato better than I know other writers.) Stories about "thigh rubbing" in connection with ancient Greek pedaresty can be disregarded (and are now disregarded by most scholars, I believe) as a prude fabrication of the Victorian era.

The practice was deemed no longer acceptable when a boy's beard began to come in. At this point, the boy became a man, and it was considered shameful for a man to be sexually passive. (In modern Greek the word pathetikos, which literally means "passive," has taken on sexual connotations and is considered highly obscene - I once heard a story of an argument in Greek between a native English-speaker and a native Greek-speaker which nearly came to blows when the English-speaker said this word thinking it had the same meaning as the English word "pathetic.") The ancient Greeks saw the sexual love between a man and a boy as of a higher order than that between a man and a woman (see the speech of Aristophanes in the Symposium). Note, however, that there was little or no stigma against homosexuality as such, but only against sexual passivity on the part of adult males.

While the Romans didn't engage in the pedaresty of the Greeks, they, similarly, had the attitude that it was not homosexuality as such, but sexual passivity that was shameful for men. So, in the Greco-Roman world, homosexual intercourse seems often to have been in some sense a form of dominance between males, as is seen in certain animals (e.g. dogs). It was also common in the tradition of Roman invective (for instance, in political mudslinging in the days of the republic) to label someone a passive homosexual. This is not to say that it was never consensual. I find it highly implausible to suppose that Paul means to say that men (or young boys) who were raped were somehow to blame for what happened to them, especially in light of the Torah law specifically stating that a woman who is raped is not to be held responsible for the loss of her virginity. (Specifically, a woman who did cry or may have cried for help cannot be punished for adultery or fornication - Deuteronomy 22:23-27.) This is probably the reason that the HCSB has translated the word as "male prostitutes." There were, indeed, homosexual male prostitutes, and consensual homosexual practice (and also heterosexual adultery) were quite common among Roman aristocrats (though, if I recall correctly, there is evidence that these things were frowned upon by the lower classes).

Based on these observations about the surrounding culture, it is my conclusion that Paul includes both terms in his list to make it clear that Christianity finds all homosexual practice equally unacceptable, rather than seeing the active partner as dominating the passive in a way that shows his strength or some such.

This is the end of the potentially offensive part.

So this verse does indeed object to (at least male) homosexuality, even if it is between consenting adults.

There is one more thing I want to observe before moving on, and that is verse 11: "Some of you [i.e. the Christians at Corinth] were like this, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God." Thus we can see that the individuals in the list are not irrevocably condemned by the text. Rather, Paul is saying that individuals whose identities are defined by these kinds of behaviors are still in need of salvation. They cannot inherit the Kingdom of God as long as they see what God regards as sin as being part of their identity. They must be willing to give it up to God. (Compare Romans 7:17 and surrounding verses.) Note also that we are talking about behaviors here. Certainly we must also cease to identify with the inclination, but we are not held morally responsible for our natural inclinations, only for what we do with them. A person is not guilty of being a kleptomaniac, he is guilty of being a thief. There is a big problem in a lot of debate about homosexuality that some people use the word to mean the actions, and others to mean the inclinations. Here we are talking about actions, and the Bible condemns those actions.

This is why God delivered them over to degrading passions. For even their females exchanged natural sexual intercourse for waht is unnatural. The males in the same way also left natural sexual intercourse with females and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty for their perversion. - Romans 1:26-27
The HeartFull post only quoted verse 27, but I think verse 26 is important because it is the only place I am aware of where the Bible talks about female homosexuality. I think this verse is quite clear. It consideres homosexual "passions" to be "degrading" and condemns the actions, whether male or female. It seems, in context, that these "passions" are punishment for the sin in verse 25: "they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served something created instead of the Creator."

There are two things which I think need clarification about this whole punishment for sin thing: the first is that the text does not necessarily teach that every person who has homosexual desires has them for the reasons in this verse. There may also be other reasons which apply in some cases. Secondly, the Bible teaches that human beings are inherently communal beings, and, because we live in community, one person's sin (or righteousness!) affects other persons around him (see, e.g., Exodus 20:5-6). Thus, for instance, we can say that AIDS is a punishment for sin in the sense that if nobody ever sinned nobody would have AIDS. This does not - I repeat not - imply that people who have AIDS have AIDS because they are worse sinners than other people. One individual person getting AIDS may have nothing to do with any sin of his own - he might get it from a bad blood transfusion, or a spouse who cheated on him, or any number of other things like this; in other words, he might get it as a result of someone else's sin. It should be noted that, according to the Bible everything that is wrong with the world, including every disease, is ultimately a result of sin (i.e. of The Fall - Genesis 3); I have only chosen the example of AIDS because it is easy to see where sin enters the equation (although, I should mention that not everything that appears to be wrong with the world to us is necessarily actually wrong). I hope the use of AIDS as an example is not unnecessarily offensive and I hope I have made it clear that I don't mean to add to the already quite significant suffering of those affected by AIDS.

At any rate, there is no reason to think that similar reasoning does not apply to the claim in Romans that homosexual desires are some kind of punishment for sin. For instance, I have been told (I don't study psychology, so I don't really know if this is true, but it seems plausible) that women who are raped are more likely to become lesbians because some of them develop a general fear of men. These people have been deeply hurt by the sin of others.

So, this passage teaches three things: (1) having homosexual attractions is undesirable, (2) homosexual acts are sinful, and (3) at least some people at least some times have homosexual attractions as a result of sin (their own or that of others).

Beyond the passages mentioned, there is also the Biblical definition of marriage, which is always unequivocally heterosexual. (See Genesis 2:24, which is quoted repeatedly by the NT.)

This, I think, is enough to say that people who view the Bible as authoritative on ethical matters must believe that homosexual behavior is immoral, as a matter, at least, of individual morality. What does all of this mean to politics? I've said already that I don't think it justifies the illegalization of gay marriage. However, one thing that should be pointed out is that Christianity has a definition of marriage by which marriage is between a man and a woman and is the only appropriate context for any sexual activity. If the government passes a law that defines marriage in any other way, the government is passing a law that says Christianity is wrong (about this issue). This may be one reason that Christians generally fight to have this definition of marriage included in the law.

This is, however, the wrong approach and a totally wrong way of thinking about the issue. Why? Because America is not (contrary to popular belief) a 'Christian nation.' There are lots of non-Christians here, and we do not have a Christian government. I believe that it is wrong (Biblically) to attempt to impose Christianity on others by force, which is what we do when we try to legislate it. Besides, if we give the government power, they are going to use it wrongly, like they always do. Last but certainly not least, other religions (not to mention atheists) have different definitions of marriage, and we violate their religious freedom if we include our definition in the law. Ultimately, civil marriage is a contract and religious marriage is, well, religious, so if the government has any legal definition of marriage it violates either freedom of contract, freedom of religion, or, more likely, both. It amazes me that so many Evangelicals go around emphasizing the importance of making a "personal decision for Christ," and then support political action to prevent people from making their own decisions freely.

In conclusion, Biblical Christianity teaches that all homosexual activity is morally unacceptable, and this means that people who believe in Biblical Christianity ought not to practice homosexuality or condone gay marriage. However, there is no justification for the application of coercive force in this area. Furthermore, Christianity teaches that everyone stands equally condemned under God's law apart from the sacrifice of Christ (Romans 3:9-10). If someone is practicing homosexuality and doesn't know Jesus, his real problem is that he doesn't know Jesus, not that he's gay. If it wasn't homosexuality, it would be some other sin, and he would be equally condemned. Our call as Christians is to love people and show them the way out of sin and condemnation. Jesus sent us just as the Father sent him (John 20:21). How was Jesus sent? "Not ... that He might condemn that world, but the the world might be saved through Him." (John 3:17)

This, I hope, is a step to answering HeartFull's question, but as to Christians who think homosexual marriage should be illegal, I'll let them speak for themselves, since I am not one of them and don't think their position is justified.

Posted by Kenny at November 30, 2006 4:45 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Plato on Homosexuality
Excerpt: A month or so ago, I published a post which has been rather popular on Christianity and Homosexuality. In it, I discussed Paul's statements on homosexuality in contrast to the "received view" in Greco-Roman "polite society." I referred then to Plato's ...
Tracked: January 1, 2007 8:09 PM


Hi Kenny,

Thanks for the trackback. I read the whole post (wow!) and I'm glad that you answered some of my questions. That helped me to clear up a lot of the foggy concepts that surrounds this issue. I always wondered about translations and what Biblical laws don't necessarily apply to Christians today.

Thanks again,

Posted by: Joy at November 30, 2006 7:57 PM

Good analysis. I would (and do) go beyond the merely literal biblical approach to consider Worldview: Christians should be guided by what the Bible teaches about reality, not merely what the words say. If God created us male and female for the purposes of (a) fun, (b) procreation, and (c) to reveal something about the intimate relationship between Christ and redeemed humanity, then homosexuality is an affront to God's created intent, and therefore wrong in addition to the teachings of Bible passages.

Regarding your non-support of prohibiting homosexual marriage: America may not be a Christian nation (by your terms, no nation ever was or ever will be until Christ returns), but ANY nation that adopts principles out of keeping with reality is in real trouble. Communist nations don't work right, not because of inadequate application of communist theory, but because communism is contrary to reality. Ditto fascist nations. A nation that promotes homosexuality (like certain European nations) is doomed because they have chosen to operate contrary to reality. So just like we prohibit murder and theft, if we are interested in the prosperity of our nation, we ought to want to prohibit (or at least not promote) institutionalized behaviours that are contrary to reality.

Posted by: David Ormand at December 1, 2006 8:39 PM

Well, it certainly would upset me greatly for the government to promote homosexuality in any way, just like it would upset me for the government to promote Islam. That doesn't mean I think the government should oppose or prohibit Islam (in its peaceful forms). My desire not to have the government making decisions like this is one of the chief reasons I don't support the government running schools.

Posted by: Kenny at December 2, 2006 2:12 AM

Thanks for this thoughtful post!

Posted by: Martin LaBar at December 2, 2006 1:23 PM

This is one of the best theological breakdowns of this issue I have ever come across online. I absolute love the points you make here, specifically your analysis of Scripture. My only digression, perhaps due to my literary sentiments, is one of semantic motivation. The word "marriage" itself out to be associated with that specific relationship between man and woman, regardless of how it relates to governmental rights. That is, I think that legalized gay-marriage is inevitable, but I regret the word "marriage" being applied to rights I do not think the government should have the authority to withhold. Very ideological though--- because I agree with your statements about what the role of the government should (or should not) be, as pertains to this issue.

Posted by: K. Green at January 26, 2007 10:39 PM

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