Even 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: http://readingchaplaincy.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/pauls-dodgey-bits/
[Updated 14th August 2012]