PM3112: The Bible and Homosexuality

I’ve read the passages in the Bible which are said to be about homosexuality. I don’t find the anti-homosexual interpretations of them to be very convincing. I plan to give my thoughts on some of the main passages which are mentioned.

Some preliminaries:

  • I’m only going to address arguments based on the Christian Bible. I don’t plan to address arguments based on any other Christian source (such as Christian tradition, the teachings of Church Fathers, Ecumenical Councils, Popes, or so on and so forth.)
  • I’m not going to address arguments which are based on secular principles, or from religious principles that are not specifically Christian.
  • I’m not trying to discuss every argument that has been made (or could be made) on this topic. I have tried to focus on what I personally think to be the better arguments: there are arguments which others have made to similar ends, which I will not mention, not because I am convinced that they are wrong, but simply because I do not think they are as convincing as the ones I do make
  • You may not agree with my interpretations: but are they unreasonable? Even if you still think that the Bible condemns homosexuality, if I can convince you that the opposite viewpoint can be reasonably held, I’ll count that as a partial success.

Lev 18:22 and 20:13: Firstly I must point out that this passage contains no condemnation of female homosexuality; it only speaks of behavior by men. Some argue that if something is prohibited for one gender, then by implication it must be prohibited for the other – while that might be true in some cases, it seems wrong to make it into a general rule. Is it inconceivable that the Bible might have rules specific to one gender only? In actual fact, at a number of points it promulgates regulations which only apply to one gender, and which are clearly not intended to apply to the other — for example, Paul’s instruction that women are to cover their hair in church, but that men are not (1 Cor 11:4-5); special rules for female slaves that do not apply to male slaves (Exodus 21:7-11). That does not mean that a passage which explicitly mentions one gender can never be implicitly applied to the other gender — I’m sure that in some cases doing so will be completely appropriate — but we need to justify individually each case in which we propose to engage in such an expansion of application.

Historically, a number of societies have had laws which prohibited male homosexuality without prohibiting female homosexuality — for example, English law criminalized male homosexual intercourse up until 1967, but female homosexual acts were never criminalized — given that, is it inconceivable that the same might have been true for ancient Israelite society, and that therefore the Bible ought to be interpreted accordingly? I don’t think we can actually know exactly how the ancient Israelite’s interpreted Leviticus; but there is no strong argument against the proposition that these two passages only ever applied to male homosexuality, and therefore constitute no argument for the immorality of female homosexuality. (There is the argument that the weight of other passages justifies the interpretation which applies the prohibition to both genders – but we cannot deal with that argument until we reach those other passages.)

Let me introduce a principle which I believe can be justified both by common sense and our conscience and innate sense of justice – capital statutes ought to be construed narrowly. If a rule imposes the ultimate penalty, it ought to be interpreted in a narrow rather than a broad way – given the choice between two competing interpretations, one narrower and the other broader, then all else being equal, we ought to adopt the narrower interpretation. It is a generally accepted principle of criminal law that all penal statutes ought to be construed narrowly, so this principle can be justified as simply a weaker and more restricted form of that stronger and more general principle. Applying this principle to Lev 20:13, since it is a capital statute, then all else being equal we ought to prefer the narrower interpretation; therefore, all else being equal, we ought to prefer the interpretation which applies it only to male homosexuality over the interpretation which applies it to both female and male homosexuality. As to Lev 18:22, since it is a nearby part of the same text as Lev 20:13, and is so similar in wording, arguably whatever we conclude with respect to Lev 20:13 ought to be applied to Lev 18:22 as well – therefore this principle should influence our interpretation of Lev 18:22 even though Lev 18:22 is not itself a capital statute (not containing any specific penalty for its violation).

As well as questioning whether this passage applies to female homosexuality, one also must question whether it applies to all sexual acts between men, or only to certain particular sexual acts between men, other possible sexual acts between men being excluded from its condemnation. The NIV translates Lev 18:22 as “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman” – one must ask, why does the text include the clause “as one does with a woman”, when the mere “Do not have sexual relations with a man” would be sufficient? (Of course, even without that additional clause, the statement would be obviously applicable to men only – a prohibition of male homosexuality, not a prohibition of female heterosexuality.) One position would be that the “as one does with a woman” is pleonastic, and adds nothing to the meaning of the verse. However, the alternate position is that “as one does with a woman” is a restrictive clause, that the verse therefore does not prohibit all sexual relations between men, but only certain kinds, those which are “as one does with a woman”.

Some might argue that the clause “as one does with a woman” is to make clear that the word “lie” here (Hebrew shakab) is being used with a sexual meaning, as opposed to mere lying down next to each other, or sleeping together (in the literal sense of the term). But in other verses, the Bible uses the same Hebrew word to mean sexual intercourse without any such qualification (see e.g. Gen 19:32-35, Gen 26:10, Gen 30:16, etc).

What in particular might “as one does with a woman” be referring to? While there are several sexual acts in which opposite-sex couples can engage, there is one which is considered the definitive male-female sexual act, which is penile-vaginal intercourse. Hence, the “as one does with a woman” may be referring to penile-vaginal intercourse, in other words, “Men should not have sex with men in a way similar to penile-vaginal intercourse”. Of course, penile-vaginal intercourse is impossible between men; but, of all the possible sexual acts between men, which is most similar to penile-vaginal intercourse, which might be most said to emulate it or approximate it? Arguably, penile-anal intercourse is the most similar. So “as one does with a woman” may be referring to penile-anal intercourse. Hence, these two verses may not be absolute prohibitions on sexual activity between men, but only prohibitions of penile-anal intercourse, leaving other forms of sexual activity between men outside their scope.

I’ve already argued for the principle that capital statutes ought to be construed narrowly. Applying that principle to the present issue, we ought to prefer the narrower possible interpretation of Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13 (that they only condemn penile-anal intercourse between men), rather than the broader interpretation (that they condemn all sexual activity between men).

Some might ask, is there any practical difference between a prohibition of all male-male sexual relations and a prohibition of penile-anal intercourse between men only. In some people’s minds, the two are inseparable. In reality, while no doubt very many sexually active gay men (probably even the majority) practice it, there are a substantial number of gay men who are not interested in (or even repulsed by) this particular sexual activity and therefore refrain from it.

And if these two verses only prohibit penile-anal intercourse, that adds even more to the case that they do not apply at all to female homosexuality, since penile-anal intercourse between women is impossible.

Alternatively, if we ought to read these verses as being applicable to both genders, there is another way of extending them to the other gender, other than the extension from male homosexuality to female homosexuality: if the prohibition is of male-male penile-anal intercourse only, then a logical extension to women is not female homosexuality, but male-female penile-anal intercourse. So the logical extension to women might then be, not from male homosexuality to female homosexuality, but rather from (a particular act within the context of) male homosexuality to (a particular act within the context of) female heterosexuality.

Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-19:29): The men of Sodom wanted to rape Lot’s guests (who happened to be angels, although the men of Sodom it appears did not realize that). It is quite a stretch to turn condemnation of attempted rape into a condemnation of consensual same-sex relations between adults.

Also, this passage is purely about male-male relations (the angels the crowd wishes to rape appear as men, and the crowd appears to be all-male), and so even if it is a condemnation of male homosexuality, it does not in any way condemn female homosexuality – see the same arguments I made on this topic with respect to Lev 18:22/20:13.

Ezekiel 16:50 mentions that the people of Sodom “did detestable things before me” (NIV), or “committed abomination before me” (KJV). The word here “abomination” (Hebrew toebah), it is argued, refers to homosexuality in Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13, therefore Sodom was condemned (in part) for homosexuality. But the Hebrew word toebah is used to refer to many different things in the Bible, including idol worship. Even though Ezekiel 16:50 refers to toebah, we cannot assume that any particular form of toebah is meant; Ezekiel may well have been referring to non-sexual toebah instead. And even if Ezekiel is referring to sexual toebah (whether exclusively, or in conjunction with non-sexual toebah), we cannot assume that he is referring to the toebah of Lev 18:22/20:13 specifically, he could be referring to other forms of sexual toebah instead. In particular, even if we cannot point to a particular provision it violates, surely attempted gang rape (whether homosexual or heterosexual) is a form of sexual toebah, and therefore Sodom was guilty of that sexual toebah – but as I have already argued, being condemned for attempted rape tells us nothing useful about the morality of consensual same-sex relations. And even if Ezekiel means the toebah of Lev 18:22/20:13, if that only refers to a particular sexual act between men, then Ezekiel 16:50 is not referring to either female homosexuality, nor to instances of male homosexuality which don’t involve that sexual act. In conclusion, Ezekiel 16:50 provides no additional argument that the punishment of Sodom constitutes a general condemnation of homosexuality.

Jude 7: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion” (NIV), “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh” (KJV): The term translated as “sexual immorality” or “fornication” is ekporneusasai. This Greek word is a general term which refers to sexual immorality, it does not refer to a particular type of sexual immorality specifically. There is no specific reference to homosexuality being immoral here; people who see one are reading something into the text which isn’t there. And there are many forms of sexual immorality which the Sodomites could have engaged in other than consensual adult homosexuality: the text in Genesis has them attempting rape; the word ekporneusasai derives from porné, meaning prostitute. As to “going after strange flesh” (which as the more literal translation, I think is preferable to NIV’s perversion), it is not clear how this refers to homosexuality in particular; it may well be that the strange flesh is that of the angels, in which what is being condemned is not homosexuality, but rather attempted angel-rape. In any case, even if we adopt the NIV’s reading, once again we have here a term which refers to sexual immorality in general rather than a specific form of sexual immorality, such that one cannot derive a condemnation of homosexuality in particular from it.

Romans 1:24,26-27 (KJV) [24] Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: [26] For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: [27] And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

Does this passage refer to homosexuality? Verse 27 clearly refers to male homosexuality, although we must ask whether it refers to male homosexuality in general, or only particular forms of it. Verse 26 is claimed to be a condemnation of female homosexuality — indeed, it is the only Bible passage to expressly condemn female homosexuality (or so it is claimed) — although, while the verse clearly suggests female involvement in sexual immorality, it says nothing about with whom they are participating in this immorality – whether it be with other women (as some assume) or with men. Some argue that since v. 27 is speaking of male homosexuality, the female sexual immorality in v. 26 must logically be female homosexuality. However, there are other options.

Referring to the previous suggestion that Lev 18:22/20:13, rather than being a prohibition of homosexuality in general, is actually a prohibition of anal sex (between men, and possibly also heterosexually), is it possible that verse 26 is referring to female heterosexual penile-anal sex? If penile-vaginal sex is the “natural use” of the woman, could not female heterosexual penile-anal sex equally be “that which is against nature”? If this is true, then verse 27 quite possibly refers to male-male couples engaging in the same behavior, but not necessarily any other male-male couplings.

I think we should also focus on the phrase “leaving the natural use of the woman” — in a way, this is an odd phrase to use with respect to male homosexuals, many of whom may have never had any involvement in or commitment to “the natural use of the woman”. But what if it refers to men who begin with a heterosexual identity and behavior, but then turn to homosexual behavior instead? If v. 26 is condemning heterosexual women who turn from penile-vaginal sex (“the natural use”) to penile-anal sex (“that which is against nature”), then v. 27 may be condemning their male partners who, having turned to penile-anal sex with women (“leaving the natural use of the woman”), and who have then gone beyond it to penile-anal sex with other men (“burn[ing] in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly”). In a sense, Paul may be condemning heterosexual anal sex as a “gateway drug” to male homosexual anal sex.

To the experience of many in today’s society, that may seem to be a strange claim. There are a great many heterosexual men who have an interest in anal sex with women, but who are unlikely to ever segue that interest into anal sex with men. However, verses 23 and 25 clearly associate this behavior with aberrant theological views: is it inconceivable, that there may have been in Rome in Paul’s day, a proto-Gnostic sect or pagan mystery cult who encouraged anal sex as a religious rite, and for whom heterosexual anal sex was seen as a prelude to male homosexual anal sex? The existence of such a group would appear to be a natural explanation for this passage. We cannot point to any specific evidence for the existence of such a group, but it is not implausible — we know that Rome in those days was a great ferment of cults and sects, and while details of many of them have come down to us, there were doubtless many more whose names are forgotten to history; it has been alleged by ancient Christian writers that some Gnostic groups in later centuries practiced unusual sexual rites — while it is possible that these allegations are simply slander from a competing religious group, it is also plausible that they are true, in which case it is also plausible that groups with similar practices may have existed.

 The statement “receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet” is also worthy of our attention. It could well refer to venereal diseases spread by their promiscuous sexual practices. The question is, does it refer only to the men, or to the women too? While it immediately follows the mention of the men, there is no obvious reason why it could not equally apply to the women. And yet, if it does apply to the women, that supports the position that v. 26 refers to female heterosexuality not female homosexuality. While venereal disease transmission between women is possible, it is generally substantially less likely than male-female or male-male sexual transmission. So if the women are suffering from venereal diseases, they are more likely to heterosexual. Indeed, from the viewpoint of spreading venereal disease, penile-anal sex is one of the more risky sexual activities (especially when practiced promiscuously), yet the risk is essentially no different between the male-female and male-male cases. This supports the argument, that the common element uniting v. 26 and v. 27, is not homosexuality, but rather penile-anal sex, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The “likewise” is identifying a common element, but maybe that common element is not homosexuality but rather penile-anal intercourse, which is an act in which female homosexuals have no interest.

So in summary, I would suggest that first of all that Romans 1:26-27 is not primarily about homosexuality, but rather about anal sex, both between women and men, and also between men and men; that it is not primarily about male homosexuals, but rather heterosexuals who are turning to homosexual behavior for cultic reasons; and that in any event, it makes no reference to female homosexuality whatsoever.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 [KJV] Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, [10] … shall inherit the kingdom of God

It is commonly asserted that the word the KJV here renders “effeminate”, Greek malakoi, literally meaning “soft”, is a reference to male homosexuality. The word rendered as “abusers of themselves with mankind” is a very rare Greek word arsenokoitai, which is a compound literally interpreted as “man-bedder”; it is also suggested this refers to male homosexuality.

The first thing we must be clear, is that there is no reference to female homosexuality at all in this passage, as is the norm for the Bible, which never clearly mentions that topic. If malakoi has any sort of gender-based meaning, it surely must apply to men only — to condemn women for being effeminate is rather peculiar; it would even be peculiar to condemn female homosexuals for it. It has been suggested that malakoi may refer to moral cowardice, in which case it could refer to both genders equally (but at the same time, would have nothing obviously to do with homosexuality); it has also been suggested that it may refer to masturbation, in which case once more, both genders might be guilty of it (but again, it would have no clear connection with homosexuality.) The reality is, we have no clear idea what malakoi actually means.

Likewise arsenokoitai clearly refers to some form of sex with men, and as such must exclude female homosexuals, who have no interest in such activities – the reference must be to sex between men and men, or sex between women and men. However, it is not clear that arsenokoitai is reference to male homosexuality only, and does not also include some heterosexual activities, such as heterosexual anal sex. It is suggested that the coinage of arsenokoitai is based on Lev 18:22/20:13; in which case, if those verses refer to anal sex, including even heterosexual anal sex, then this term should also. There is historical evidence of the term arsenokoitai being used to refer to heterosexual anal sex: it was so used by Patriarch John IV of Constantinople (died 595; also known as John Nesteutes or John the Faster), who wrote “In fact, many men even commit the sin of arsenokoitia with their wives.” This suggests arsenokoitia in fact means penile-anal sex, and thus excludes female homosexuals, and male homosexuals who chose to refrain from that particular form of male-male sexual activity, but which includes heterosexuals who choose to so indulge.

1 Timothy 1:10: This also condemns arsenokoitais (the difference in spelling is due to the rules of Greek grammar), so the same comments as made for 1 Corinthians 6:9 apply here.

1 Corinthians 7:2 [KJV] “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.” The word the KJV translates as fornication here is porneias, which means sexual immorality in general, but more specifically refers to prostitution. Indeed, to translate it as “To avoid prostitution, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband”, would not be an entirely unreasonable translation. But if we understand the verse in that context, the point is that to avoid promiscuity, prostitution, and so forth, it is important to put human sexual relationships on a stable footing such as through marriage. Now, he makes this point in an exclusively heterosexual way; the question is, does so doing imply that homosexuality or same-sex marriage is unacceptable (even porneia), or is he simply adjusting his message to his audience, and not distracting them with issues which are not germane to his point? The particular audience he had in mind when writing that verse may well have been predominantly or exclusively heterosexual (at least to his knowledge); so I do not think we can infer from his exclusion of homosexuals at this point any condemnation of homosexuality. Indeed, verse 1 begins with "Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me", which makes clear that this verse is written in the context of an ongoing discourse between the Corinthians and Paul; if the questions he was asked had a heterosexual focus, shall we fault him for giving an answer which had the same focus? But can we infer any specific condemnation of homosexuality from that?