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The Bible, Same-Sex Sexual Activity, and the Parameters for Flourishing (Part 2)

By Chad Thornhill 

Part 1

Much also has been made of the Pauline passages which touch on the subject of same-sex sexual activity (Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9-11; 1 Tim 1:9-10). We should remind ourselves, before attending briefly to these texts, that Paul shared this same first century Jewish context with Jesus. If Paul deviated significantly from the standard, traditional Jewish sexual ethics, we would expect to find a great deal of effort and care exerted in order to accomplish that end. What we find instead are numerous affirmations of that ethic.

“For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error” (Rom 1:26-27, NASB).

Perhaps the most famous Pauline condemnation of same-sex sexual activity comes here in Romans 1. There are, however, a handful of real interpretive issues related to this passage. Some have suggested that 1:18-32 actually sets out the opinion of Paul’s interlocutor, and thus is not even Paul himself speaking.[1] Romans is frequently recognized as a diatribe, where Paul interacts with his interlocutor (whether imagined or real), and so it is possible that he presents his interlocutor’s position here (an ancient rhetorical strategy known as prosopopoeia) at the beginning of the letter and begins his own response in 2:1. We do not have time to chase that rabbit here, but suffice it to say that if that is the case, Romans 1:26-27 loses considerable (i.e., all of its) force as it relates to our question about same-sex sexual activity. Second, there is also the question of what Paul means here by exchanging natural relations with unnatural ones. It has been suggested that Paul has something in mind here other than consensual same-sex sexual activity. If, however, pederasty, oppressive same-sex practices, or cultic sexual practices are in view, Paul has used rather obscure terminology to indicate this when clearer words were available to him. There would be clearer ways to express that idea than the way Paul has done here. That withstanding, legitimate questions persist concerning this particular text and its relation to our topic. In my estimation, other passages in Paul are clearer.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Eph 5:31, NASB).

In terms of a positive example, Paul (who I take to be the voice of Ephesians) uses male-female marriage as a picture of the relationship of Christ and the Church and also affirms here the male-female nature of that union. For Paul, like Jesus, there was no consideration given to recognize same-sex unions or to validate same-sex sexual relations.

“But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim 1:8-10, NASB).

The NASB does not render the key words here as clearly as it could. The terms here are likewise debated. The Greek word for “homosexual” is arsenokoitais. The term here is a compound of two terms found in Leviticus 20:13 and refers to a man who engages in sexual activity with another man. This same term appears also in 1 Corinthians 6, where it is paired with another debated term.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:9-11, NASB)

Here again a certain deficiency plagues the translations chosen by the NASB (I used it here simply because I used it elsewhere). The words for “effeminate” and “homosexuals” are malakoi and arsenokoitai, respectively. The terms in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both have been questioned as to whether they refer to same-sex sexual activity in general, or to the practice of pederasty in the ancient world, where older men would engage in sexual activity with boys.  Both BDAG and Louw-Nida (two standard NT lexicons) suggest the terms refer to the passive (malakoi) and active (arsenokoitai) partners in a male same-sex sexual encounter. The term arsenokoitai was likely coined by Paul on the basis of Leviticus 20:13, which suggests Paul has in mind here the context of the Law of Moses rather than Greco-Roman practices. Nothing in the context indicates Paul has a more specific, restricted application of the term in mind, and his inclusion of sexually immoral persons (pornoi), idolators, and adulterers, strengthens the possibility that Leviticus is informing his thinking all the more. The other major category mentioned in Leviticus is incest, which Paul has addressed quite thoroughly in 1 Corinthians 5. In other words, it seems quite plausible that Paul is bringing Leviticus 18-20 to bear on the Corinthian congregation in order to set out the proper sexual pattern for followers of Jesus. It seems no small coincidence that Paul also lays out two possibilities in the next chapter (1 Cor 7) for his audience. All forms of sexual immorality (porneia) must be avoided, and the two options set forth are male-female marriage among believers and celibacy. Like Jesus, and like the Jewish world around them, Paul imagines no other alternatives for sexual activity.

This all raises a flag for how the debate often goes concerning how we should understand Leviticus’ application for today. Because Christians often view the Law in negative terms (i.e., it represents unattainable moral perfection) or as something which was discarded (though numerous NT texts indicate otherwise), there is a challenge in understanding how Leviticus might be relevant for a Christian’s sexual behavior. The question of the role of the Law is a complex and sticky one, and I cannot do complete justice to it here. The fact of the matter is that Jews continued to keep the Law. The whole point of the Acts 15 council was to consider what expectations Gentile Jesus-followers should keep and which ones they were exempted from following. Their conclusion is that Gentile Jesus-followers were to abstain from idolatry, sexual immorality, and consuming blood or meat from animals which had been strangled. In other words, no keeping the feasts, no circumcision, no following Jewish purity rights, etc. (all of which are issues which Paul addresses in his letters, meaning some Jews apparently did not get the news or ignored it). This does not mean the Law did not apply to them, but rather that the Law was not what centrally defined their identity. Jesus did. Throughout Paul’s letters, we find Paul grounding both his instruction and ethical teachings in the Old Testament in general, and the Law specifically. This issue provides a clear example. Paul expected the ethical guidelines concerning sexual behavior to still be binding on Gentile Christians, which meant incest, adultery, same-sex sexual activity, and other forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions were forbidden. This was true of Jews and was to be true of Gentiles as well. Leviticus 18-20 still applied.

Furthermore, the term porneia, which we have mentioned several times now, was a bit of a “catch all” term for all kinds of inappropriate sexual behavior. It, along with its cognate terms, is used 55 times in the NT. It is used in various places in the NT to refer to adultery, prostitution, and incest, yet is also distinguished at times from those categories, indicating again that it could be a bit of an “umbrella” term for inappropriate sexual activity (i.e., that occurring outside of a male-female marriage union). All this should weigh heavily in favor of the fact that both Paul and Jesus very likely viewed all forms of sexual activity outside of male-female marital unions as sinful and forbidden.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, who supports same-sex unions, notes,

The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says [i.e., the NT authors condemned same-sex sexual activity]. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself.”[2]

Johnson argues from the movement of God in human experiences, using the analogy of the Spirit-led work of the inclusion of the Gentiles to what we see occurring in same-sex relationships today. He does not see a basis in the NT itself for declaring same-sex sexual activity as good. Rather, he suggests the cultural movement afoot today and the stories of LGBT persons show us that the opinions of the NT writers are no longer valid for our understanding of sexual ethics today.


 Notes:

[1] See Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528ff.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” Commonwealth Magazine, June 11, 2007, accessed June 30, 2015, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-1.

 

Image: “Cole Thomas The Garden of Eden 1828” by Thomas Cole – Unknown. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cole_Thomas_The_Garden_of_Eden_1828.jpg#/media/File:Cole_Thomas_The_Garden_of_Eden_1828.jpg

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