After the shootings in the gay nightclub in Orlando, all of us in Sacramento were appalled and embarrassed for our city when the national news began reporting on the hate-filled sermon by the self-styled “pastor” of Verity Baptist Church. This “church,” which is not affiliated with any other church or larger denomination, is in the north part of our own city, and dragged the name of Sacramento with it across the headlines in both traditional and social media. Hundreds of people showed up for a peaceful protest the following week, while we at All Saints were in church.
The Episcopal Church Whas affirmed the equality of LGBTQ people, their right to marry the person of their choice, and has taken stands to ensure that LGBTQ rights are protected by law. Still, it can be hard to know what to say when faced with someone who says “but I thought you believed in the Bible? Doesn’t it say in the Bible that homosexuality is a sin?”
Many people assume that the Bible does condemn homosexuality clearly and explicitly. And yet that is not true. When you really look at what the Bible says, and understand it in its own context and time in history, it becomes clear that the verses believed to condemn homosexuality are not talking about LGBTQ people as we understand them today. Because of this, and in response both to the attacks in Orlando and the hatred from Verity Baptist Church, I offered a Rector’s Forum on June 19th with the topic: “What the Bible really says about LGBTQ people.” What follows is the text of the handout that I gave to the people that attended. If you have further questions about this specifically or about Biblical interpretation in general, your clergy would love to talk with you!
Bible passages commonly used to condemn homosexuality
Genesis 19:1-26 (the destruction of Sodom)
Explanation: This story is the basis for the word “sodomite,” with the idea that the men of the city of Sodom wanted to have sex with the visiting angels (who were disguised, and no one knew that they were angels). This depends on an interpretation of “know,” as the men demand that Lot bring the visitors out so that they may “know” them. Some suggest that the men of the city simply wanted to make the acquaintance of the visiting strangers, but it is clear from Lot’s response (offering his two virgin daughters to the men of the city) that Lot understood that the men used “know” in the sexual sense. It is also clear in the story that this was not to be a gentle, loving sexual encounter but rather a gang rape of the two strangers who had come into the city and were being sheltered by Lot, who was also not a native of Sodom. The men of the city were likely seeking to assert their dominance over both the newly-arrived Lot and the visitors he sheltered. This proposed act of violence was an extreme violation of the duty of hospitality that anyone in that culture shared: to welcome strangers and keep them safe was of paramount importance.
Leviticus 18:22: King James Version “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” New Revised Standard Version “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Explanation: This verse comes in a long list of verses describing various sexual liaisons that are forbidden, most of which we would agree are wrong (various forms of incest, sex with animals) and some that we would not believe are wrong (sex with a menstruating woman). The question to be resolved is the meaning of “abomination,” which in Hebrew is to’ebah. This word is best understood in this context as referring to ritual defilement. The laws in this list are all about the Jewish people maintaining the ritual purity necessary to separate them from the other cultures around them so that they can maintain their identity as a people. This is made very clear in verses 24 and following.
Leviticus 20:13: KJV “If man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” NRSV “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Explanation: This verse is directly related to Lev. 18:22 and refers to punishment for those who have ritually defiled themselves and are therefore threatening the identity of the people of Israel. Again, it is made very clear later in the same chapter (verses 22 and following) where the dietary laws are also referenced.
Romans 1:26-27: KJV “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: 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 recompense of their error which was meet.” New International Version “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” NRSV “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Explanation: Two things are important to note here. The first is the context: Paul is talking about what happened to people who did not honor God but instead worshiped idol statues. They knew better, but chose to be foolish, and so, according to Paul, God gave them up to “degrading passions” that violated the Jewish purity laws, which Paul knew were important to some of his readers in Rome. Paul’s intent is to condemn idolatry by pointing out the result of it. The second important thing to note is the word “natural.” It is easy for us in a heteronormative society to assume that in this context “natural” means “heterosexual.” This is a poor assumption. “Natural” here may mean “customary,” so as to refer to heterosexually oriented people engaging in same-sex sexual activity. Elsewhere, Paul uses this same word (“unnatural”) to refer to circumcision, men with long hair, and even an action that God takes. Since even God can be unnatural, clearly it is not morally wrong.
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, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” NIV “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” NRSV “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Explanation: The words translated “effeminate,” “male prostitutes,” and “abusers of themselves with mankind,” “homosexual offenders,” “sodomites,” are malakos and arsenokoites respectively. Malakos is best translated as “soft,” or “effeminate” particularly with reference to a boy kept as sexual partner to a man. “Male prostitute” is another appropriate translation. Arsenokoites is little attested and difficult to translate. The best translation is “male prostitutes,” according to L. William Countryman, Professor of New Testament Emeritus at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Other scholars disagree on the translation, but it is clear that with so much disagreement, it is impossible to state with certainty what is meant.
1 Timothy 1:10: KJV “For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;” NIV “for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” NRSV “fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching”
Explanation: The word translated “them that defile themselves with mankind,” “perverts,” and “sodomites” is arsenokoites, explained above.
“Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”: This argument hinges on the two creation narratives in Genesis 1-2, in which the first two human beings are a man and a woman. They have children, and this is seen as the archetype that should govern intimate relationships. This can be refuted in two points:
Absence does not imply condemnation: Just because the Bible does not clearly present readers with a same-sex couple does not imply that the Bible is opposed to them. The Bible mentions dogs frequently, but not cats. Should we therefore conclude that the Bible condemns cats?
Procreation is not the only legitimate purpose for marriage: Even in the Bible, where procreation was important for survival in a way that it is not now, there are records of couples who do not have children. Certainly today both religious organizations and civil law recognize marriage whether or not the couple plans to have children or is even capable of having them.
How do we look at the Bible?
historical/critical: seeking to understand what Biblical writings would have meant to those in the time and place in which they were codified
literal: seeking to read the words and apply them directly to our circumstances and society today without reference to the original historical context
Translation issues: translators, like everyone else, are limited to working within the materials available to them (original manuscripts and ancient language scholarship) and the cultural context in which they live. In addition, some translators approach ancient texts with explicit agendas and beliefs.
What do we mean when we say “homosexuality”? In 2016, we talk about sexual orientation, with the clearly emerging understanding that gender identity and sexual orientation exist on a continuum that is far more fluid than was understood or acknowledged in previous generations. While we assume that LGBTQ people existed in Biblical times, the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity did not exist as such. Marriage was focused on property, power, and procreation, not on the fulfillment of romantic love. The concept of homosexuality as we understand it today simply did not exist during Biblical times.
What is the overarching message of the Bible? The Bible contains stories, lists, genealogies, songs, and letters written and codified over many centuries. It provides a record of the people of Israel’s understanding of the way that God has acted in history, and of God’s faithfulness in upholding the covenant that God made with them. The Bible also provides a record of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and of the growth in belief of those who knew him and those who learned about him after his death, resurrection, and ascension that he was the son of God, the second person of the Trinity.
What was the heart of Jesus’ message? Jesus’ summary of the Law (the Torah) was that we should love God and love our neighbor. Jesus commanded his followers to love one another as he loved them. The first letter of John summarizes: God is love. (1 John 4:8b).
Positive examples of same-sex relationships in the Bible
David and Jonathan (1 Samuel), Ruth and Naomi (Ruth)
Explanation: These two pairs provide touching examples of emotionally intimate same-sex relationships. While there is no Biblical evidence that either pair had a sexual relationship, and in each pair at least one was married to at least one person of the opposite sex, both pairs declared love for one another and worked to ensure the welfare of each other.
For further reading:
Dirt, Greed, & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their Implications for Today by L. William Countryman, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1988
Clobbering “Biblical” Gay Bashing by Mark Sandlin, published on October 11, 2011, on the web at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thegodarticle/2011/10/clobbering-biblical-gay-bashing/
1 of 4