“How Is Homosexuality Understood in Scripture, Tradition, and in Contemporary Theology?”

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home > papers >      [Here is the most complete discussion of Church and Homosexual behavior which I have found. It covers the various offered reasoning and theologies which abound, and are variously put forth as conclusive. I highly recommend you read it all.                       Fr. Orthohippo]

“How Is Homosexuality Understood in Scripture, Tradition, and in Contemporary Theology?”

Discussion Paper #3: Dialogue on Same-Sex Unions: Anglican Diocese of New Westminster (Canada)

Prepared by the Commission on Faith and Doctrine (Anglican Church of Canada)

Dr. Edith M. Humphrey (a member of the Primate’s Theological Commission)


Homosexuality in Scripture:

The story of Sodom, the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus, the lists of dark behaviours in the epistles, and the more extensive illustration of Romans 1 all register disapproval. The biblical teaching is not unconsciously coloured by cultural norms; rather, it adopts a decisive counter-cultural stand for its time.

In the Old Testament, the Holiness Code in Leviticus must be read carefully. Many of the prescriptions of prohibitions have to do with cultic practices of ancient Israel no longer binding on Christians. But that is no grounds to dismiss all its instruction. Do we place homoerotic behaviour in the same category as the prohibition of non-kosher foods, or do we hear it, like the prohibition of incest, addressing our behaviour today?

In the New Testament, Paul presents homoerotic activity (including lesbianism) as symptomatic of the primal rebellion against God, alongside other symptoms such as covetous, murder, strife, gossip, deceit, disloyalty and pride. As an act, homosexual relations dramatize the rejection of God’s purposes, which affects all of us.

Biblical texts need to be read in terms of their genre and the overall story of the Scriptures. Early Christian communities retained Old Testament views regarding sexual immorality. They understood sexual immorality as a sign of the disruption of the good created order. Paul not only uses homoerotic behaviour as a telling symptom of our basic human shortcomings an need, but he shows us how we should understand this issue in terms of our creation and redemption by God.

Homosexuality in Tradition and Practice

The moral teaching tradition of the Church from the earliest period, through the Great Schism of East and West, into the Reformation, and beyond, has been emphatic: homoerotic behaviour is contrary to God’s will. Virtually throughout the centuries this practice has been forbidden, and often (though not always) as a very grave sin. It is unfortunate that pastoral concern for those involved has not always witnessed to God’s love.

Homosexuality in Scholarship and Experience

Scholarship does not support those who contend Paul in Romans 1 was talking about prostitution or pederasty. Paul is speaking about humanity in general, not individuals. To introduce two categories, one who acts homosexually according to nature, and one who does so against nature, is to introduce a distinction alien to Paul’s point.

Theologian Eugene Rogers’ argument that God’s grace is wider than even Paul suspected argues that God can act “against nature.” This reads against the sense of Paul’s writing. To Paul, the extent of grace is vast, but to be touched by God’s grace means to have ungodliness banished, to move away from disobedience, to be enlightened by the Spirit, and present the body as a living sacrifice.

Claims that Scripture has nothing whatsoever to say about homosexuality as we understand it today assume there is a scientific consensus about same-sex preference and behaviour, which is not the case. The so-called common wisdom that homosexuality is innate, unchangeable and not unhealthy is not shared by all specialists.

While homosexuals are definitely to be included in the community of faith, anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, discipline, and learning – not a place to be comforted or indulged.

The last paper closed with a challenge, derived from the Bible and the living tradition of the Church. Faced with divergent attitudes and practices concerning sexuality, Christians are to be faithful, loving and humble in the world and with others in the body of Christ. We do this is because we are actors in the drama that the Scriptures present. This grand story tells us that God created a good world, that the fall brought the tragic complication of sin and death, that God called Israel to be a light to the world. The great climax is the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – the one who is at once second Adam, true Israel and God-with-us. Told who we are by this entire story, we find ourselves in the final act, in which God is renewing humanity and creation through the Holy Spirit.

So we celebrate God’s good creation and saving work in the world, while fully admitting the sin and disorder within us and the world at large. We distinguish between the light and the dark, looking to God who has acted in history to forgive us and give us life. When our own sin is before our face we are compelled to repent; when confronted with that of others, we ask for grace to respond with compassion and truth. In this we join God in the healing and re-making of the world, as we are drawn more and more into internal harmony and intimacy with God and others, through the Holy Spirit.

We must understand any problem that we as the Church face in light of this entire story: God is utterly truthful with us and tender-hearted towards us. Regarding homosexuality, we have both the pattern of God’s story and several specific biblical texts to show us how we are to be faithful to our calling. None of the scriptural texts tackle the issue as a topic in itself. Yet the pertinent passages are found in different genre and are spread throughout both testaments: one Old Testament narrative (probably) refers to homoerotic activity; short legal texts condemn it; two pastoral texts list it among other vices; and one longer New Testament passage treats it within a larger theological discussion. We need to situate all of these texts within the overall story of God’s creating and recreating work among us.

We begin by noting a definite pattern in the biblical texts which treat homoerotic activity. Unlike the matters of female ministry and slavery, which are handled differently from text to text, there is no internal tension among the passages that speak of homoerotic behaviour. The story of Sodom, the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus, the lists of dark behaviours in the epistles, and the more extensive illustration of Romans 1 all register disapproval. Moreover, the New Testament material cannot be dismissed by an appeal to cultural conditioning, as in the question of head-covering for women in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The biblical teaching regarding homoerotic behaviour is not unconsciously coloured by cultural norms; rather, it adopts a decisive counter-cultural stand against behaviour frequently condoned and sometimes idealised in the surrounding cultures.

We will consider the texts in some detail as we seek to understand them within the Scriptural framework. Throughout, and also in conclusion, we will hear traditional and contemporary theological discussions of these passages and of the issue in general.

What Does the Old Testament Say?

We begin with the narrative of Genesis 18:16-19:29 (and a similar story in Judges 19). Some, following Sherwin Bailey (Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955) have argued that the sin of Sodom was not a sexual one, but a breach of hospitality. Bailey argues that the Hebrew verb yada (to know) does not always carry sexual connotations. While this is true, it is besides the point in a passage which clearly has to do with sexual intercourse (Lot’s daughters are offered as a substitute). It is true, , however, that gang rape is the intended sin in this story; and not homoerotic behaviour per se, although the story of Sodom has frequently been used to condemn the latter. Where the biblical tradition mentions Sodom (Isaiah 1:10 ff., Jeremiah 23:14, Ezekiel 16:49ff.), it speaks more about hypocrisy, falsehood, arrogance and the like, than it does about sexual sin. As Judaism and Christianity encountered later Hellenistic acceptance of homoeroticism, however, this latent element in the Genesis story was highlighted: Jubilees 16:5-6, the 12 Patriarchs (“Testament of Naphtali” 3:3-4), both written in the second century before Christ, cite Sodom as an example of sexual perversion, and are probably echoed by Jude 7. (Note, incidentally, that the Testament of Naphtali links idolatry, homoeroticism and the question of what is “according to nature” in a manner similar to Paul’s treatment in Romans 1.) At any rate, it is from these texts and the continuing tradition that we derive the term “sodomy.” Speaking more generally about Judaism and Christianity at the turn of the centuries, we should note that the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo, along with their contemporary Paul, consider homoerotic behaviour as a pagan and ungodly practice.

The story of Sodom, then, became a colourful illustration of sexual sin among both Jewish and Christian communities, although this is not its main ethical point. To derive ethics from narrative, moreover, is a delicate business. Though prescriptive, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 must be read carefully, for they form part of the Holiness Code, many of whose prescriptions or prohibitions have to do with cultic practices of ancient Israel no longer binding on Christians. That many of the Levitical laws are no longer binding on the church, however, is no grounds to dismiss all its instruction.

The question to ask is, How does the general pattern of the Scriptures direct us to understand the Levitical prohibition? Do we place homoerotic behaviour in the same category as the prohibition of non-kosher foods and the twining together of two types of thread; or, do we hear it, like the prohibition of incest (18:6-18), addressing our behaviour today? The distinctions of “cultic” and “moral,” “culturally-specific” and “general” are helpful here.

What About the New Testament?

Despite its understanding of a new covenant, the early church continued to follow the lead of the Hebrew Bible with regard to sexual ethics, as the New Testament epistles show. Some of the Corinthians seem to have driven a wedge between the spirit and the body. They appear to have assumed that their status in Christ, their spiritual maturity, gave them license to misbehave. Paul challenges them (1 Corinthians 6): “Do you not know that evildoers will not inherit God’s kingdom?” and then illustrates by reference to those who steal, get intoxicated, scorn what is holy, pursue general sexual immorality, and practice two types of homoerotic behaviour. These, he comments, were the practices of some Corinthians, but they have been changed by God.

It is the two words for same-sex behaviour, malakoi and arsenokoitai, that should give us pause. Some (e.g., L. W. Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex, 1988) have argued that the meaning of these words is uncertain. In fact, the latter term arsenokoitai is clearly a compound word derived from our Levitical texts, meaning “those who lie with a male,” as we see when we turn to the Old Greek translation of Lev. 20:13 which speaks of meta arsenos koiten gynaikos (literally: “with a man lying as with a woman”). (For this see, among others, Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 1983, and Richard Hays, “Relations Natural and Unnatural: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1,” Journal of Religious Ethics 14, pp. 184-215).

Paul continues, then, firmly in the Levitical tradition here, as he does when he proscribes other types of sexual immorality. The term malakoi is less technical, and means literally “soft ones”; it is found in other Greek documents, usually with a slur intended, to refer to those exhibiting various types of sexual indulgence, but often refers explicitly to the passive partner in a homoerotic relationship. To say that that the meaning of this term is limited to “masturbation” in the fashion of John Boswell (Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 1980), or to suggest that Paul had in mind male prostitution alone (as implied by the NRSV translation of this passage) is simply special pleading.

Those in doubt should research for themselves the more general cultural use of this term, as documented in, for example, the dictionaries of Liddell-Scott, or Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker. 1 Timothy 1:10 does not pair the two terms, but simply lists arsenokoitai along with other vices that are “contrary to sound teaching.” The omission of malakoi in this text does not raise any question about the meaning of the terms (as Countryman argues); the author of 1 Timothy simply made a shorter selection of items for other purposes.

Romans 1:18-32 provides the longest and most significant treatment of our subject, since Paul pursues in this text a serious theological argument. His canvas is very large (as it is throughout Romans), for he depicts the human situation, and later speaks about the problem of Israel, alongside God’s dealing with all of humanity. His chief aim in Chapter 1 is not to teach ethics, but to describe the human condition of sin, idolatry and rebellion. He begins with our God who creates. A wonder of the created order is that by its nature it provides a window through which God’s glory can be seen (verse 20). This open window, however, has been rejected by humanity. Thus in verse 21, Paul depicts the foundation of human sinfulness as wilfulness which gives neither honour nor thanks to the creating God. (Here we have the primal sin, according to Alexander Schmemann; see For the Life of the World; Sacraments and Orthodoxy, St Vladmir’s Press, 1973, reprinted 1995, pp. 15-18).

But true atheism is not possible for a creature made to worship: loyalties are simply exchanged by the suppression of truth, so that “creatures” rather than God are worshiped (verse 23). God’s response to this senseless idolatry is to “let go” (“therefore,” verses 24, 26) and permit the natural consequences. Paul gives a first, vivid example of this fall-out: human passions are disturbed and the primary created relationship (male and female) is distorted. This distortion is played out in homoerotic behaviour, by both male and the female (verses 24, 26-27). Though the major emphasis is on bodily disruption, the sequelae are far-reaching (“they received in themselves the ‘anti-reward’ . . .” verse 27). Paul thus uses homoerotic behaviour as an example of what has happened to humanity in terms of the body and the passions. He then goes on in to consider the disordered mind, and the sins that spring from that locale (verses 28-31).

Thus Paul presents homoerotic activity (including lesbianism) as symptomatic of the primal rebellion against God, alongside other symptoms such as covetousness, murder, strife, gossip, deceit, disloyalty and pride. No doubt he places it first because this condition affects the relationship of the sexes, and shows brokeness in God’s creative order going back to the original act of dividing (day from night, light from light, land from sea, female from male) and to the ordained union of male and female (Genesis 1:24-5). Hence, Paul speaks in Romans 1:26 about those who exchange what is “natural” (physike) for what is “against nature” (para physin). This is not to assume that Paul is here using ‘natural’ as a synonym for ‘what has been created’ (in the way that we sometimes speak of Nature when we mean the creation.) Paul may have the whole of the created order in view, but this is not the only way to understand the phrase. It is clear that here, as elsewhere in Romans (11:24) Paul speaks about the inner ‘nature’ of those things that God has created — in this case, humanity. The implied foundation is the Genesis narrative, quoted in the gospels during Jesus’ discussion of divorce: “But at the beginning, God made them male and female . . .” (cf. Mark 10:6). As throughout Romans, Paul is not speaking of individuals, but of humanity in general, and of one of the signs that our originally whole condition has been broken. This is signaled especially by Paul’s choice of word when he refers, in the style of Genesis, to “males” and “females” (arsenes and theleiai, cf. the terms used in the singular, Genesis 1:27, Septuagint version) rather than to “men and women.” Homoerotic behaviour thus indicates a primary breach between the two partners designed for each other. As an act, homosexual relations dramatise the rejection of God’s purposes which affects all of us in various ways. It is a pointer, or diagnostic tool, of the human condition.

The primal sin, then, is the refusal to thank God and worship: homoerotic behaviour is one of the consequences, pointing back to that first mis-step. Some have laboured this point (that Paul uses homoeroticism as an illustration here) to argue that it is therefore inappropriate to derive ethics from his argument. This can hardly be so. Would anyone apply the same logic to the other signs of depravity (evil, murder, and so forth.) cited here? Paul assumes agreement that homoerotic activity is not right because of the way that God has created humanity – what he has to say about a fallen and judged world cannot be followed if the reader does not agree with him here. In fact, Paul treats homoerotic activity in terms of the overall story of God’s dealings with humanity – which is the method that we have enjoined for the Christian community when tackling specific issues.

Paul’s story is told with passion and with pathos. It would be a mistake, of course, to derive from Paul’s colourful rhetoric a judgement that same-sex eroticism is the one of the ‘worst’ sins, as some have done –even the golden-mouthed theologian, Chrysostom (Commentary on Romans) seems to follow this line, although he elsewhere insists that there is no degree in sin (Commentary on Corinthians). Paul’s aim is rather to point to the profundity of depravity, shared by all humanity, Jew and Gentile, so that he can go on to establish the utter justice and mercy of God, who has triumphed over sin and death in Jesus. The passage is theological, pointing to God, and not primarily ethical. Yet it has strong words to say about the condition of human beings, in need both of forgiveness and of healing. The fundamental human illness is expressed both in disorder and in sinful acts. Those who have a sober view of their situation, as exemplified in all these signs, are those who can also receive God’s medicine.

Biblical texts, then, need to be read in terms of their genre, and in terms of the overall story of the Scriptures. The Genesis narrative, because of its nature, and the Levitical passages, because of their possible qualification by the new covenant, must be considered with other passages in order to understand homoerotic activity. The lists in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy indicate that the early Christian communities retained Old Testament views regarding sexuality immorality. This understanding was not simply a knee-jerk reaction, nor adopted by default through a limited knowledge of God’s ways and human nature. Rather, they understood sexual immorality of this kind as a sign of the disruption of the good created order. This order, Paul assumes, includes the divinely established relationship between male and female, and originally entailed an internally ordered person, with passions, body and mind in control, who gave thanks to God and glorified God in his or her body. In Romans, then, Paul not only uses homoerotic behaviour as a telling symptom of our basic human shortcomings and need, but he shows us how we should understand this issue in terms of our creation and redemption by God.

As Larry Hurtado notes, “no one should expect an easy affirmation of same-sex relationships by anyone sensitive to the Christian tradition and biblical witness” (“The Bible and Same-Sex Erotic Relations,” Crux 32 [1996] 19). This is because the Scripture, both in its overall presentation of creation and in its explicit passages, does not approve same-sex erotic behaviour. There is something more to be said, however. In the past, some Christian writers have noted the clear disapproval of homoerotic behaviour, and the fire of Paul’s discussion (as well as the language about “abomination” in Leviticus). They have transferred the fire to the behaviour itself, rather than following Paul’s argument. For Paul goes on in Romans 2 to pull the rug out from under any who would use his list of vices to take pride in their “righteousness” (See Richard B. Hays, “Awaiting the Redemption of Our Bodies,” in ed. J. S. Siker, Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate, 1994, p. 9). If homoerotic behaviour is sinful; so is a self-righteousness judgement of others by those who are not so tempted, yet are prey to other sins. For Paul, both self-righteousness and sexual sin are to be abjured; fidelity requires holding together God’s justice and mercy. All are called to join God’s new community of light: to answer that call means to repent and to accept healing, wherever that is needed.

What about Traditional Views and Practice?

The moral teaching tradition of the Church, from the earliest period (see the Apostolic Constitutions 7:2), through the Great Schism of East and West, into the Reformation, and beyond, has been emphatic: homoerotic behaviour is contrary to God’s will. Virginia Mollenkott (“Overcoming Heterosexism,” in Siker, ed., pp. 145-149) credits Boswell with the discovery an early Greek liturgical document, perhaps from the fourth century or earlier, that he purports is a ceremony for a same-sex union. Her reference to Boswell’s research predated his 1994 publication of Same Sex Unions in PreModern Europe. While the manuscripts reproduced and translated in that volume are interesting, they are mostly later texts (e.g. eleventh and thirteenth century) intended to solemnize the “making of brothers” (literally, adelphopoiesis.) As an example, see the documents numbered three and four on pp. 350-353, translated on pp. 312-315. In his translated title of these documents, Boswell renders the term adelphopoiesis as “same-sex/same gender unions,” which to today’s reader would suggest an erotic dimension. The texts themselves do not refer to physical aspects in the relationship, however. Rather, they speak several times of a spiritual bond, or “linking . . . by (the) holy spirit and in manner of faith.” Moreover, the liturgies contain petitions that the bond between the brothers be based on “unashamed fidelity” and that they not be a cause of scandal (perhaps to those who might misconstrue the relationship?) What we can ascertain from these texts is that persons of the same sex pledged fidelity to each other as specially designated brothers, and that the Church blessed such arrangements.

When we turn to the attitude of the Church towards homoerotic behaviour, the situation changes. Virtually throughout the centuries, this practice has been forbidden, and often (though not always) as a very grave sin, as seen in the relative penances imposed for certain actions (e.g. adultery vs. homoerotic acts). It is unfortunate that throughout history, pastoral concern for those involved has not always witnessed to God’s love, particularly in periods where law and Church order were not distinguished. In the Middle Ages, for example, persecution of active homosexuals paralleled that of heretics and Jews. The spotted record of the Church in this regard is a strong call for God’s people to heed Paul’s condemnation of self-righteousness in Romans 2. The call to holy living for all of God’s people should be coupled with a compassionate provision for support, penitence and healing.

Contemporary Scholarship and Experience

“Gay-positive” writers today who take the Scriptures and tradition of the Church with any seriousness have struggled with the clear pattern which we have discerned in these passages and in their interpretation. They have adopted several methods to try to harmonise the Scriptures with what they consider to be the voices of experience and wisdom. Paul’s discussion, of course, is the main sticking point, since they can declare the Old Testament passages to be relative to their time and place more easily in terms of genre or by appealing to a certain definition of the gospel. Sometimes it is suggested that Paul’s negative depiction of homoeroticism has only to do with certain types of sexuality: so, they say, those who are not truly homosexual, yet who act homoerotically, do so “against [their] nature.” Thus Paul, according to them, would not disapprove the practice by those who are by nature homosexual. Some writers suggest that Paul is speaking about those who sell their bodies for gain (and thus these writers would try to limit the meaning of either malakoi or arsenokoitai to male prostitution); or they say that Paul is referring to those who practice pederasty (and thus they would limit Paul’s disapproval to the ancient Hellenistic practice of erotic behaviour with young males).

The first qualification, that Paul is referring only to certain types of sexuality when he speaks of what is “against nature” in Romans 1, makes the mistake of thinking that Paul has in mind certain individuals or types. But in Romans, Paul’s brush strokes are large, as is his canvas. He is speaking of humanity (Adam) and of Israel and Gentiles in general, not giving an account of the election of individuals, nor of the psychology of the individual “legalistic” Jew, nor a description of individuals who practice homoerotic behaviour. To introduce two categories, one who acts homosexually according to nature, and one who does so against nature, is to introduce a distinction alien to Paul’s point.

On the second suggestion, that malakoi or arsenokoitai referred to prostitution in particular, there is simply no evidence whatsoever for it, notwithstanding the serpentine arguments of Boswell (Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 1981) and L. William Countryman (Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today, 1988.). Paul’s problem with homoerotic behaviour in Romans 1 is its same-sex quality, whether male to male or female to female, not the economics of sexual trade. It is bizarre to think that malakoi and arsenokoitai are thematically linked to a few of the other weaknesses listed either in 1 Corinthians 6 or in 1 Timothy. (Countryman, for example, understands arsenokoitai as “associated” with other vices having to do with misuse of body and property, like those given to “kidnapping” or “harlotry.”) The vices in both lists, however, are conglomerates, introduced to show the reader the varied sins from which the Christian community has been or is being rescued (1 Corinthians) or to speak broadly about what is “contrary to sound teaching” (1 Timothy).

Finally, on the hypothesis that Paul had only pederasty in mind: a historical clarification of Hellenistic “love of boys” needs to be made: the Graeco-Roman “ideal” did not entail erotic love of children, but of young (teenage) males, of the same age that young woman would be given in marriage. Frequently the more mature male was only slightly older than the partner. Had Paul intended to proscribe pederasty by using these terms (such as we understand pederasty today), he had recourse to many other more precise terms. In fact, the discussion in Romans, with its inclusion of female homoerotic behaviour, indicates that exploitation and victimisation were not the issue. (Paul has a lot to say about the abuse of power elsewhere).

Some, then, qualify Paul’s discussion so that it appears “out of sync” with contemporary questions. Others try to render what Paul said irrelevant, through an appeal to his theological or cultural limitations. For example, Eugene Rogers (Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God, 1999) argues that God’s grace is wider even than Paul himself suspected, embracing same-sex couples as well as Jew and Gentile. In mounting this argument, Rogers uses the phrase “against nature” in Romans 11 to neutralise Paul’s disapproval of homoeroticism in Romans 1: God can also act “against nature.” This, however, reads against the sense of both texts. Romans 1 speaks about what is contrary to nature in the context of the created order and its disruption by sin and corruption. Romans 11 offers a figure of speech to help the Roman Gentile Christians appreciate the wonder of God’s inclusion of them, through Christ, in a covenant originally made with Israel. Thus Paul speaks of God “grafting” branches which do not “by nature” belong to the vine: his intent is to move Gentile Christians away from an attitude of superiority, as some had assumed God had no further concern for those who belonged to the Jewish nation. Paul goes on to speak of a wonderfully inclusive household of God, but all of this by way of what Jesus has done to ‘banish ungodliness’ and to ‘take away . . . sins’ (Romans 11:25). Never are the Gentiles included so as to continue in godless behaviour; never is the Jew who turns to Jesus confirmed in thinking that he is redeemed simply on the basis that Israel was given the Law. Rogers picks up on the theme of inclusivity in this passage (and in Gal 3:28) without taking account of God’s plan for those within the new community. Of course the extent of grace is vast. But to be touched by God’s grace means to have ungodliness banished, to move away from ‘disobedience’ (a key word in Romans 11), to be enlightened by the Spirit and to ‘present the body as a living sacrifice’ (Romans 12:1). God’s purpose in including us within the household is to heal, not to tolerate or bless our fallen condition.

Rogers, then, argues the Paul was theologically limited. We know this today, he argues, because same-sex couples find in their union a means of grace. This appeal to experience is made by other apologists for homoerotic unions, who also admit that Paul disapproved of such activity, but think that he was hampered by an unscientific view of sexuality. Then it is claimed that the Scriptures have nothing whatsoever to say about homosexuality as we understand it today. According to this line of argument, the biblical writers unfortunately assumed that homoerotic behaviour is an avoidable choice; but Paul, had he the benefit of our psychological studies, would have written differently on the issue.

Such an argument assumes that there is a scientific consensus about same-sex preference and behaviour, which is not the case. The “common wisdom” about homosexuality is that it is innate, unchangeable and not unhealthy (cf. Chandler Burr, “Homosexuality and Biology,” Atlantic Monthly 271:3 [March 1993], 47-65, 65). These views are not accepted by all specialists. David F. Greenberg, for example, argues on the basis of cross-cultural studies for a social rather than a genetic matrix for homosexuality (The Construction of Homosexuality, 1989). Despite such studies as that done by Bailey and Pillard (“Heritable Factors,” Archives of General Psychiatry 50 [1993], 217-223), the “genetic hypothesis” is still questioned and qualified in professional circles. Moreover, some specialists have had success in the re-orientation of those who are seeking to leave the gay or lesbian lifestyle (cf. Elizabeth Moberley, Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic, 1983; J. Nicolosi, Reparative Therapy of Male Homosexuality, 1991). There is simply no monolithic agreement in this area.

Even if a true consensus were to emerge on these issues of cause and permanence, it would not be true to say that the Scriptures have nothing to say about homosexuality. Richard Hays (“Awaiting the Redemption of our Bodies,” p. 10) points out that when Paul treats homoerotic behaviour within the context of general disordering, he does not presuppose that sin occurs because we are free moral agents. To the contrary, Paul pictures a situation in which humanity is, in some sense, enslaved by sin (Romans 6:17), so that neither the will nor the passions fall into line with reason. We have a predisposition to corruption and sin: this does not render pathology healthy or sin “morally neutral.” Alcoholism is now understood to have a genetic dimension, but this does not mean that drunkenness is morally neutral, nor that society “discriminates against” people who frequently drink too much if it attempts to limit the possible damage through laws about driving, and so forth.

Nor, of course, are statistics of frequency an indication of how homoerotic behaviour is to be assessed in ethical terms. The 10 percent figure for homosexuality in America (based dubiously on the Kinsey report) is strongly questioned (e.g., J. A. Reisman et al, Kinsey, Sex and Fraud, 1990), and the actual proportion of male homosexuals is thought to be closer to 2 percent. Even if the higher number were to be verified, or if the population of declared homosexuals were actually to rise to 10 percent or more, this would not settle the question of homosexuality as essential in nature to some persons. To note that homosexuality is a common practice among a given population does not in itself explain anything about how our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits are related. The make-up of a human being remains mysterious, and is as much a matter for theological study as it is the proper subject of psychology and anthropology. No woman today wants to be defined wholly by her sexuality: why would we approach homosexuality as an all-encompassing category? It is dehumanising to sum up any person by reference to sexuality. The hope put forward by both the gospels and the epistles is that God has done, and is continuing to do something about the heart (i.e., the centre) of those who are in Christ, so that they will in the end fully mirror the glory of God, in every aspect of their being.

An eloquent witness to this change from the centre is mediated to us through New Testament scholar Richard Hays, who covenanted with a close friend of his, Gary, to let his experience count for something in the church. Gary died of AIDS before the plan was completed, but Hays relates the compelling story and the hard thinking that both of them did together. His friend Gary had experienced his own homosexuality as a “compulsion and an affliction” for over 20 years, and had searched many current books affirming gay activity in the churches, (by McNeill, Mollenkott, Boswell, etc.); he found in them only “wishful interpretation.” Caught between gay rights activists in the Church, and homophobic reactionaries, Gary turned to his friend and the Scriptures for truth and for comfort, and finally made this discovery: “Are homosexuals to be excluded from the community of faith? Certainly not. But anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged” (“Awaiting the Redemption,” Hays, 14-15).

Surely Gary was searching for a Church that would be faithful enough to be truly inclusive: inclusive enough to call every member of her body to ongoing repentance and fullness of life, while all of us await the full redemption of our bodies. No doubt Gary would have dismissed as condescending those ‘half-way’ strategies that admit homoerotic unions to be less than God’s perfect will, but the best that some can manage, given their present condition. He held out for the hope that there was truly no male or female, no gay or straight in Christ: and this meant being brought into God’s very own life of purity and health. However, life in Christ did not mean for Gary a reorientation towards heterosexual desire. Some Christians today do speak of this kind of healing in their sexuality; this was not Gary’s experience, yet he was content with God’s grace as he committed to abstinence. Professor Hays saw in his friend a powerful symbol of God’s power made perfect in weakness, embodying our present situation ‘in between the times.’ God’s Spirit is at work among us, yet full glory remains a future hope. Gary’s integrity, and the faithfulness of others like him, reverse the symbol of disintegration featured by Paul in Romans 1. They witness redemptively to all of us about Christ’s grace, love and fidelity.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who also learned the depth of God’s grace in a dark time, speaks powerfully to us about ethics, reality and truth: “If one is to say how a thing really is, i.e. if one is to speak truthfully, one’s gaze and one’s thought must be directed towards the way in which the real exists in God and through God and for God” (Ethics, ET 1955, p. 365). Bonhoeffer thus sends us back to Romans 1, that we might see God’s world and the creation as they really are. It is his prayer that God’s people, bestowed with the vision of Christ, will learn to see, to give thanks and to worship God as we see truly and speak truly. May it be so.

For further reading:

Berger, Mario, Setting Love in Order (Baker, 1995)

Hurtado, Larry, “The Bible and Same-Sex Erotic Relations,” Crux 32 (1996) 13-19

Reisman, J. A. et al, Kinsey, Sex and Fraud (Huntingdon House 1990

Satinover, Jeffrey, Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Baker, 1996)

Schmidt, Thomas E., Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (IVP, 1995)

Siker, Jeffrey S. ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate (Westminster John Knox, 1994)

Soards, Marion L. Scripture and Homosexuality; Biblical Authority and the Church Today (Westminster John Knox, 1995).


About Fr. Orthohippo

The blog of a retired Anglican priest (MSJ), his musings, journey, humor, wonderment, and comments on today's scene.
This entry was posted in Anglican, authority, christian education, Christian Ethics, church, history, pastoral, popular culture, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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