The Presbyterian Church USA has made an important decision. With a landslide vote in favor, they have changed the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples.
This decision has created a flurry of extreme responses. Churches have received threatening letters, some have left the denomination, and they have lost hundreds of thousands of members. Some are even asking whether the Presbyterian Church USA is still Christian.
In the midst of this controversy, and with this recent addition to the pro-LGBT Christian movement, it is important to examine the arguments that progressive Christians (like myself) use to defend homosexuality from all of the arguments other Christians use against it:
It Is An Abomination
The first verses that inevitably come to mind when discussing homosexuality are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. They both say roughly the same thing:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” – Lev 18:22
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” – Lev 20:13
I want to kick off our analysis of these verses by taking a look at the Hebrew word translated here as “abomination”.
The general understanding is that this word is condemning these acts as intrinsically, objectively immoral. This understanding is false. The Hebrew word, to’ebah, is most accurately understood to mean “that which goes against the accepted order”. Dr. Friedman offers several examples in his book, The Bible Now:
“…in the Bible the term is in fact relative. For example, in the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that if the Pharaoh asks them what their occupation is, they should say that they are cowherds. They must not say that they are shepherds. Why? Because, Joseph explains, all shepherds are an offensive thing (tō‘ēbāh) to the Egyptians. But shepherds are not an offensive thing to the Israelites or Moabites or many other cultures. In another passage in that story, we read that Egyptians do not eat with Israelites because that would be an offensive thing (tō‘ēbāh) to them. But Arameans and Canaanites eat with Israelites and do not find it offensive. See also the story of the exodus from Egypt, where Moses tells Pharaoh that the things that Israelites sacrifice would be an offensive thing (tō‘ēbāh) to the Egyptians. But these things are certainly not an offensive thing to the Israelites.
A former student of ours pointed out that right here in the list of laws that we are considering in Leviticus 18, naming acts that are tō‘ēbāh, are some that prohibit actions that the great patriarchs of the Bible had done. For example, Abraham marries his half sister Sarah.. (Gen 20:12) But the law in Leviticus explicitly forbids such relations with a half sister… (Lev 18:9) So what is not a tō‘ēbāh in the generation of the patriarchs has changed and become one in the generation of Moses. In a somewhat different way, the land itself can change from not being a tō‘ēbāh and can become a tō‘ēbāh as a result of the behavior of its residents on it. The prophet Jeremiah says: You defiled my land, and made my possession into an offensive thing (tō‘ēbāh). (Jer 2:7) An act or an object that is not a tō‘ēbāh can become one, depending on time and circumstances.”
The Targum Onkelos (2nd century Aramaic translation/commentary on the Torah) also interprets this word as being relative:
“And he washed [JERUSALEM. And he washed] his face from tears, and came forth, and hastened and said, Set bread. And they set for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Mizraee who ate with him by themselves; for it was not proper for the Mizraee [Egyptians] to eat bread with the Yehudaee [Jews], because the animals which the Mizraee worshipped the Yehudaee ate.”
Here the word to’ebah is understood in the ancient Aramaic rendition of the Torah to mean “not proper”. The justification for it being to’ebah is given as being a violation of their subjective religious rituals, rather than objective immorality. Violation of religious sacredness is one of the most common Biblical uses of this word.
Other examples of this word’s use in scripture include tithing the cost of a dog or prostitute (Deut 23:18), violating Old Testament dietary restrictions (Deut 14:3) and preaching other religions in a city given by God to specific tribes (so in the Old Testament it is to’ebah to preach another religion in Hebron but not in Jerusalem).
The use of this word to refer to homosexual sex stands out starkly in contrast to how other forbidden sexual encounters are described. Almost universally they are described with objectively condemning language, and the subjective term to’ebah is not used in the Torah at all to specifically refer to any of them.
It is true that the Torah prescribes the death penalty for homosexual sex. This is a problem insofar as the use of the death penalty in the Torah overall is a problem, and it deserves to be addressed more broadly in a post dedicated solely to that topic. The one point to focus on is that prescribing the death penalty in the Torah was not necessarily indicative of objective moral wrongdoing — on the contrary, it is more often used for ritual transgressions (like touching the Ark of the Covenant inappropriately).
What about lesbian sex?
Another point of interest in these verses is the fact that they explicitly condemn male homosexuality but say nothing about female homosexuality.
Many assume that the condemnation of male homosexuality in this verse applies to both men and women with the justification that, in some other places, masculine wording is used to address both genders. However, there is no reason to believe that is happening here. On the contrary, the word used for “mankind,” zakar, applies exclusively to males throughout scripture. It never means and never can mean women, unlike more general male-gendered terms for groups of humans or members of our species. In Leviticus 18:23, the verse immediately after one of the aformentioned homosexuality verses, bestiality is explicitly condemned for both men and women. If the author had felt that a blanket bans only required mentioning one half of the human race, then why did they change their mind one sentence later?
Why would the author feel it was necessary to condemn homosexuality between men but not between women? One possible answer is polygamy. In the ancient world it was not terribly uncommon for a man to have more than one wife, so it was entirely possible for two women to be within the same marriage. On the other hand, history tells us that during this era pederasty was also common, and there are several ancient generals who were known for sodomizing the enemies they conquered. Another consideration is that the Hebrews lived in a brutal world in which the bearing of many children was directly related to the ability of that society to survive, as children to grow into soldiers and farmers. These reasons could be part of why the Hebrews considered male homosexuality to be improper for their society.
The discussion of whether these justifications could possibly be sufficient to excuse the above verses is an article unto itself. But the important point is that the most plausible interpretation of these verses is that they are condemning them as subjective social or ritual wrongs, and not as objective moral wrongs.
Polygamy? But God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve and Rachel and Lucy
Let’s make one thing very, very clear: The statement that the Bible defines marriage solely as one man and one woman is objectively false.
There are many prominent examples of polygamy in the Bible, including Moses, Jacob and David. 2 Samuel 12 even refers to David’s polygamous marriage as a gift from God, and says that God would have given him even more wives had he wanted them.
God did create Adam and Eve, man and woman, and it is common for man and woman to be used in discussions of marriage as the standard archetype, but nowhere in the Bible is it endorsed as the only form of marriage.
Sodom and Gomorrah
This story is so often colloquially understood to be about homosexuality that it is the origin of the word “sodomy.” However, a reexamination of the story shows that this colloquial understanding is far from accurate:
In the story, God has decided that the time has come to do something about Sodom and Gomorrah, two Cain-raisingly sinful towns. He tells Abraham of his plan and Abraham, whose brother, Lot, lives in Sodom, pleads with God for mercy. God walks away after committing that if there are even ten righteous people in the city then God would not destroy it, and the following chapter begins with two angels showing up to investigate.
What happens next is often misunderstood. Unlike the Leviticus verses, the word used for “men” here is a word which often refers to people in general. Like with other languages, Hebrew uses the masculine gender for words which refer to people in groups. In Genesis 17:23, for example, it says that Abraham took “every male from among his men,” a sentence that only makes sense because the group identifier that translates to “men” also includes females.
With that in mind, two angel “people” show up and all of the people of the city come out and try to rape the angels.
It is not certain that the angels were both men, and it is very unlikely that the townspeople were all men. Had ten of the people of the city abstained, God presumably would have spared the city, as he promised Abraham. But there were not ten righteous people, and all of the people of the city — young and old, male and female — were punished for this act.
Now, when I hear a story about rapists who may or may not have been homosexual getting punished I generally assume the punishment is connected to them being rapists, not to them maybe being homosexuals.
To be fair, Lot did offer his two virgin daughters for the town to take instead of the angels, but they turned him down. Lot’s offer brings to mind a parallel story in Judges 19. In the story, a Levite takes in a guest, another Israelite. The people of the city come around and make a similar demand and a similar offer is made — the head of the house offers his daughter and the visitor offers his concubine. The female concubine is accepted and raped to death, but the daughter is not touched.
A truly horrific story, but here, while the virgin daughter of the head of the household was turned down, the female concubine was not. No male servants were requested in her place. This seems to imply that their motivation centered around something other than the victim’s sex. Perhaps they wanted to have sex with something foreign, or perhaps the story’s sparing of the virgin is an allegory for the virtue of chastity, but either way there isn’t much justification left for the claim that these stories center around homosexuality. Both stories highlight the depravity of the people, and in both cases the rapists end up dying. In Sodom by the wrath of God, and in Judges 20 when the Israelites as a whole gather to decimate the people who raped the concubine.
Finally, the Bible actually describes the reason Sodom was judged, and it is not homosexuals who should be concerned but the modern Republican party.
“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.” — Ezekiel 16:49
So as far as the wrath of God is concerned, it’s Paul Ryan who needs to repent and reform, not Dan Savage.
Jude also touches on the topic, albeit tangentially. Jude talks about them pursuing unnatural desire and “strange flesh,” but he isn’t referring to homosexuality. Jude quotes and appears to give credence to the Book of Enoch, a text in which humans have sex with angels and it causes all kinds of problems. It is likely that this, rather than homosexuality, is what Jude was so fearful of happening in Sodom.
Be Fruitful And Multiply
This statement, found in Genesis 1:28, has traditionally been interpreted as a command because of the imperative language. But this verse is not a command; it is a blessing. God gives a similar blessing to animals earlier in the chapter.
In Genesis 35, Jacob is given almost the same blessing with almost the same wording. But in Genesis 47, after God has given him many children through what appears to have been a game of “musical wombs” between his wives and their handmaidens, he tells his child that this was something God caused to happen, as a blessing. Deuteronomy 1:10 makes a similar statement affirming the role of this statement as a blessing, not a command.
The important thing to take away from the story of Adam and Eve is not this blessing but the reason God created Eve in the first place — it is not good for man to be alone. God allowed man to search the entirety of Creation for a suitable partner to ease his loneliness, and created Eve as someone who was suitable for Adam. Demanding that homosexuals be alone instead of with suitable, loving partners stands in sharp contrast with the spirit of the passage used to justify such a demand.
The Role Of Old Testament Law
Even if my arguments prior to now weren’t sufficient, the fact that it is Old Testament Law means we can mostly throw it out by default. In Christianity, the Old Testament Law is understood to apply solely to pre-crucifixion Jews. The entire book of Galatians is about this topic, as is Acts 15. There is some debate to be had here, but it is generally understood in Christianity that we are not bound by Old Testament Law. That is why we have a green light to eat pork and shellfish, among other things.
Perhaps more importantly (in terms of understanding the Old Testament Law and whether homosexuality was intended to be written as an objective evil) the Jews themselves do not consider their Law to bind all humans. Instead, they believe gentiles are bound only by the Noahide Law. A full description can be found in Sanhedrin 56, part of the Talmud. The list is:
“Our Rabbis taught: seven precepts were the sons of Noah commanded: social laws; to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry; adultery; bloodshed; robbery; and eating flesh cut from a living animal”
Homosexuality is not explicitly listed. “Adultery” has often been interpreted to mean sexual immorality in general, or any kind of violation of a marital contract. But, unlike incest, bestiality, adultery and just about everything else you could name, homosexuality is not called sexual immorality in the Bible in Hebrew. It is called something which offends the accepted social order. Forcing it into that category requires one to bring something into Old Testament Law which is not already there. You do not have to do this for any other form of sexual immorality.
There is no reason to believe that Old Testament condemnations of homosexuality apply in the New Testament era. But the battle is not over — there are still some verses in the New Testament that deserve our attention.
The Meaning Of Arsenokoitēs
This is perhaps the greatest mystery in this whole discussion. There is a word, Arsenokoites, which appears in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. While it has traditionally been translated a variety of ways, we don’t actually know what it means. Given the etymology, it probably refers to some kind of homosexuality, but it probably does not refer to homosexuality in general. If it did then 1 Corinthians 6:9 would be redundant, because just prior to this word it uses another Greek word which commonly refers to male homosexual prostitutes. Since nothing else in this verse is repeated, and homosexuality in general is not a common topic in the Bible, it seems unlikely that the verse would say “and male gay prostitutes, and homosexuals in general.” It is more likely that it refers to some other particular type of homosexual behavior. Given the era it seems inconceivable that it could be talking about loving homosexual marriages, so these verses can probably be dismissed from discussions pertaining to marriage equality.
But we cannot know for sure, which is why a lot of modern translations use something vague and confusing like “abusers of themselves with mankind.”
Romans 1 — The Last Battle
The final passages used to condemn homosexuality come in Romans 1: 26-27:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The modern mind reads these verses and makes a lot of assumptions. But what does this text actually say?
It says the women exchange natural relations for unnatural ones, then describes men having sex with men. But it doesn’t actually describe the unnatural relations women were having — the common assumption is that it is describing female homosexuality, and if it does it is the only text in the Bible that does so. As it turns out, the Church Fathers tended to interpret this as referring to extramarital affairs. Anastasios and Augustine both explicitly reject that it refers to lesbian sex, and the earliest person on record using this to condemn lesbianism was John Chrysostom in the 5th century AD.
Therefore, there are no clear, explicit references to lesbianism anywhere in the Bible.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that these verses include both male and female homosexuals.
This passage is clearly not about a group of monogamous, married homosexual couples. It is about people who exchanged their marital relationships for homosexual extramarital affairs. Condemnation of people who commit a variety of sins, among them adultery with homosexuals, is not the same as a condemnation of homosexuality itself.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly the passage is itself a setup for Romans 2. The condemnations against “dishonorable passions” are levied for the sake of getting the crowd hearing the letter riled up, while Romans 2 admonishes them for judging their fellow humans.
True vs False Teachings
So the Bible doesn’t really say anything about homosexuality one way or the other. This makes sense, as the concept of sexual orientation did not exist when the Bible was written, which would have made it tough to condemn.
Fortunately, Jesus prepared us for circumstances like this. In Matthew 7 he provided a litmus test to distinguish true teachings from false ones:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Does condemnation of homosexuality breed good fruit or bad fruit? What about support?
Support for our gay brothers and sisters bears good fruit. Humans, rather than walking through life alone and without a suitable partner, are instead able to take pleasure in one of God’s first gifts to mankind, the love of another human being. These couples provide more loving households which can take the many orphans off of society’s hands and provide them with a household every bit as healthy and happy as heterosexuals do, and considerably happier than they would likely be in an orphanage.
What does the condemnation of homosexuality breed?
All kinds of nasty things, including but certainly not limited to:
- Across the globe, Biblically-justified anti-gay legislation can be directly and indirectly traced to the deaths of countless LGBT persons every year.
- 20.8% of American hate crimes reported in 2013 were grounded in sexual orientation.
- The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates that between 30 and 40% of American LGBT youth, depending on age and gender, have attempted suicide, a figure astronomically higher than the national average.
These people, many of whom are children, are suffering and dying because of people trying to force them to be something they aren’t. And in the case of LGBT youth, this burden is often increased with scorn and bigotry and ex-gay “therapy” that is both ineffective and abusive.
There is no scientific evidence that a person can change their sexual orientation, and the American Psychiatric Association warns that such “therapy” is harmful and dangerous. Even leaders of the most prominent ex-gay organizations have come out and apologized, saying that it is wrong, and doesn’t work, before quitting.
What the Church has done to homosexuals is evil. There is no Biblical justification for it, and it does not fit within the Christian moral framework. It is time for us to stop taking such dangerous, demonstrably false positions and accept the Bible for what it is, rather than allowing the previous generations and their misunderstandings to guide our thoughts on the matter.
In doing so, we should all support the Presbyterian Church USA for the step forward they have taken against evil.