Born Gay, Follow the Ray; Born Straight, Refuse to HateEven if Christian ethics wasn’t based upon toleration, non-violent resistance, and love of one’s enemies, the argument for the view that scripture teaches that homosexuals should be condemned and ostracised is extraordinarily poor. My purpose here is to show that even if (unlike myself) you believe that the whole New Testament was directly revealed in vocal form by God, you needn’t believe that homosexuality is a sin.

Here I am going by what biblical scholars I’ve read have said, though this is not an academic piece so I haven’t used references. The presentation of the argument (and point four itself) is my own. Please don’t quote the particular translation you favour at me saying ‘but this is what it says!’ – no, that is only what your translation says.

To begin with, when modern bible translations refer to homosexuality this only explicitly pertains to relations between men, not between women.

Second, no one knows what the term translated as ‘homosexuality’ in some contemporary bibles meant at the time of Paul. The most popular hypothesis among contemporary biblical scholars seems to be that it refers instead to male prostitution, or to the use of male prostitutes.  The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2003) says “the sexual penetration of male prostitutes or slaves by conventionally masculine elite men, who might purchase slaves expressly for that purpose”.

If we apply this to the first of the two (yes only two!) places in the New Testament where homosexuality is purportedly mentioned (Rom 1:27), quite a plausible interpretation is that Paul meant ‘husbands should not cheat on their wives with male prostitutes’- something that was rampant in the Roman Empire.

Thirdly, if for some reason you don’t agree with this, consider than the only other place where it mentions this (1 Cor 1:9) it says that there will be no ‘homosexuals’ in heaven. But this hardly says that homosexuality is evil, because the same passage says that there will be no thieves in heaven, and Jesus famously says to the repentant thief being crucified next to him that ‘he will be with him in heaven’. Not only did Christ also forgive prostitutes, but he said: “I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you.” (Matt 21:31) So we can conclude from this alone that it is un-Christian to condemn or ostracise homosexual people from our communities.

Yet are homosexual acts sins as are theft and prostitution in that they need to be repented? Even if, again, you believe that the New Testament does refer to homosexuality rather than male prostitution, this will not follow because Paul also says that there will be no men or women in heaven (Gal 3:28), and being male or female isn’t something that has to be repented- indeed, it is not conforming to gender stereotypes that Christians have tended to be critical of.

Fourth, even if this is wrong and St. Paul was condemning homosexual behaviour in general rather than male prostitution in particular he clearly could not have discussed such behaviour in a way that corresponds with what we understand by ‘homosexual’ in today’s scientifically-informed view. While ancient cultures were obviously very familiar with homosexual acts they simply did not have the evidenced-based concept of homosexual identity, that is, the concept of intrinsically homosexual people that we have today. So Paul thought that men were leaving their wives and families to go off with other men out of sheer choice. That’s a kind of behaviour I can understand him condemning. I find completely plausible the idea that if he had known that there were intrinsically homosexual people he would have condemned men who left their male partners to run off with women.

Finally, even if somehow St. Paul had access to behavioural studies and neuroscientific data and had concluded that there were intrinsically homosexual people, and was condemning them for being who they are, why should Christians agree with something that is so obviously incorrect? It’s not like the historical Jesus agreed with it, or even that he gave any authority to what Paul happened to write in his letters to churches. Christians tend to reject many lines of argument that are in the bible, and to their credit it’s often because they contradict each other, so what is so special about these tiny irrelevant bits that makes people attach so much importance to them? I think these points show that Christians who attack homosexuals (be it physically or simply intellectually) are cowardly using their religion as an excuse for their bigotry, or at least that the teachers who tell them that the bible condemns homosexuality are.

When I say bigotry, I am talking about Christians who take the bible to authoritatively teach that homosexuality is wrong. Most of the catholics (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican etc.) who object to homosexuality don’t do so because of the bible but because of the philosophical tradition of the church. The ethical view of the Holy See, for instance, is that intercourse between two people of the same sex in a long-term committed and loving relationship is wrong for precisely the same reason that it holds that intercourse between a man and a woman in a long-term committed and loving relationship is wrong if they use contraception- that it is not ‘open to the transmission of life’. So whatever you think of that rationale, it is very un-bigoted, i.e. the same rule is applied to all regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

P.S. Please don’t reply to me that the scientific consensus that homosexuality is not a choice must be wrong because St. Paul was infallible, since if you can’t even trust the authority of something as straightforward and reliable as science how can you trust the much more distant and untestable claims in the letters of a 2,000 year old preacher? To be clear, there is nothing wrong prima facie with trusting what Paul says, but science is incredibly more trustworthy (note also that it is rare for science and religion to truly conflict).

P.P.S. Here is a similar piece about the bible’s stance on Women:

[Updated 14th August 2012]

Against Evangelicalism: Homosexuality


14 responses »

  1. This was one of the most concise and well-stated arguments for the denouncing of religious gay-bashing i have ever heard!

    For years, i have struggled with making people (mom included) understand how i could *possibly* be a Christian while still having so many gay friends. i hope you don’t mind if, in the future, i will simply direct them to this post.

  2. I am aware that I have replied to this one before, but let’s give it another go. I always enjoy engaging with your articles Peter!

    First off, I have to deal with this: “the whole New Testament was directly revealed in vocal form by God”. This doesn’t actually reflect evangelical belief, rather, evangelicals believe that the New Testament (like the rest of the bible) was written by humans, using their own unique skills and faculties and yet is, at the same time, infallible. The reason for this is is that, like Jesus, the bible is the word of God. So in the same way that Jesus is one person who is fully human yet also fully God and without sin, the bible is a human text and yet is fully divine and without error (with regard to origin that is, the bible is not part of the Godhead!). It’s a paradox, but one tied to an orthodox Christology.

    Romans 1 says that relations between men and men or women and women are unnatural. When Paul refers to nature he usually has the creation of Adam and Eve in mind, so although temple prrostitution was the original context, I think a broader application to all homosexual relations seems preferable (on the basis of Paul’s reasoning).

    In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul refers to both the passive partner “effeminate” and the active partner “man-lover” alongside one another, making it clear that the whole homosexual act is wrong. When he says that thieves will not enter heaven, he means if they persist in their sin without repenting (Jesus forgives the repentant thief on the cross, rather than the unrepentant pharisees). The reason I say this is because he goes on to point out that the Corinthians have been cleansed of their past (through baptism) in verse 11. Also, it is clear from the previous chapter on excommunication that persistent sin without repentance is in mind.

    To close my take on all of this, I would only say that I agree with the scientific concensus. Homosexuality is ‘natural’ in the same sense as rape is, there are genetic causes for it. That does not make it natural in the Pauline sense of being part of the pre-fall creation.

    Let me know your thoughts.

  3. Hi Chris, thanks for taking the time, for a second time! I was planning to import a summary of the most plausible responses from the Facebook version but like the other sections of whole, I haven’t got around to that.

    I think the first thing that must be said with any such discussion, particularly when we get comparisons to crimes like murder, rape, paedophilia, incest and bestiality coming up is that they are not meant in a derogatory way but to illustrate a point philosophically. That is, to say that homosexuality shares with murder one sense of ‘natural’ or that it shares with incest the property of being non-procreative in no way implies one thinks these acts are equally depraved or indeed that they have anything in commmon apart from those features mentioned.

    Sorry I shall have to leave it there for now since mother is calling.

  4. Basically, I didn’t claim that homosexuality was ‘natural’, but that there are many human beings who have an intrinsically homosexual identity which it is not in their power to change.

    Secondly, I don’t see the relevance of saying that Paul was critical of both giving and receiving (so to speak) if we have no evidence that didn’t apply specifically to prostitution.

  5. I should add that the best (in my opinion) objection this essay received on Facebook was that there plausibly is a biblical theme that we are called to give up our material identities (which normally includes heterosexual identity and would then equally well include homosexual identity) in favour of a Christ-shaped identity.

  6. I agree it appears I have misrepresented mainstream Evangelical thought on revelation (and I was ignorant of this area- some of the writers on Theology Network say they hold such a view), but that is meant to be read as an argument of an ‘even if’ form. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether you hold the lightest or weightiest form of innerancy it still applies.

  7. Peter: I was just clearing up misconceptions about specific revelation. I suspect that most evangelicals would probably hold to a view like the one I have argued for above – namely that (at least most of) the Bible is not dictated directly but inspired nonetheless. I’m not claiming that it affects your case in the slightest!

    I can see some merit in the temple prostitution argument in Romans 1. Adam was, after all, the first priest in the first sanctuary of God (alongside Eve). The references to “nature” might reflect Adam’s priestly role and not homosexuality in general – the references to idolatry as a general context support this as well (vs 22-23). Having said that, it is the bodies (v24) which are “dishonoured” through the acts and not the temple itself.

    1 Corinthians 6 makes the same point and even explicitly states that as a Christian, our “body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”. It is the body of the individual believer (not even the corporate body of the church!) which is defiled by such acts, so where they happen is irrelevant.

    “not in their power to change” – many people suffer from conditions that cannot easily be changed. Medically, homosexuality may not be defined as an illness nowadays, but it has been that way historically. Definitions are arbitrary and move with popular opinion.

    I might also add that a Christ-shaped identity is not an immaterial one – Christ is a human being after all!

  8. As per your own statement Jesus famously says to the repentant thief being crucified next to him that ‘he will be with him in heaven’. When a sinner truly repents, rejects his sinful life and asks for forgiveness for his sins, his sins are forgiven. The Repentant Thief is no longer a Thief in God’s eyes, only a child of God. If a homosexual truly repents for his sins, rejects his sinful life, and asks for forgiveness for his sins, his sins are forgiven.

    • Well I agree, but because I have shown in the rest of the piece that the bible doesn’t teach that homosexuality is a sin, you haven’t given a reason why it needs to be repented. Even so, on this line of thinking God would perfect the person in the afterworld such that they would no longer be homosexual *or* heterosexual.

  9. Pingback: Gay Marriage? « Vibrant Bliss

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