Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Challenges in Studying Homosexuality in the Bible

It's not like studying the bible is a clear-cut process without pitfalls, but there are certain topics within scripture that are much more difficult. Homosexuality is definitely one of them.

Read the last post here.


Perhaps the most challenging aspect of studying the bible on the topic of homosexuality is that there is so little content within scripture addressing the topic. For overt statements there are six-ish passages that deal with homosexual relations. 

Genesis 19

This passage is, explicitly, about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Though it has been long used to vilify male homosexuality, the destruction of the cities is the most important part of the story. I consider this to be a kind-of passage due, in large part, to the way it has been used rather than the actual content. 


There are two separate places in Leviticus where homosexual acts (specifically male homosexual acts) are condemned (18:22, 29; and 20:13*). Without getting into the nuts and bolts of interpreting these passage, I'll simply say that they are the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual behavior in the bible. 


In the first chapter of Romans, Paul mentions both male and female homosexual acts (the only place in the bible where female homosexual acts are mentioned). 

1 Corinthians & 1 Timothy

I combined these two mentions because that's all they are, just a word or two in a list. There's no big explanation in either 1 Corinthians 6:9 or 1 Timothy 1:10


While the lack of overall content in the bible makes studying homosexuality difficult, what hampers things far more are the cultural mores surrounding sex and homosexuality that permeate both the modern and ancient cultures. 


When looking at the ancient world there was a whole lot of sex going on and there were a lot of rules governing that sex, but often we don't know what those rules were or what types of sex were going on due to the historians who provide the information. Both ancient and modern historians are subject to their own biases, which means that sexual acts that they find to be distasteful are either vilified or ignored. 

Additionally, the ancient world was not a homogeneous mass of similar beliefs, but an ongoing conflict of ideas. Quite often the morals were enforced through threats of violence, so the early Christians were compelled to worship Caesar as a god or be punished. Thus dissenting ideas and disparate viewpoints are hard to come by in the historical record. 

Finally, the cultic sexual practices are not well differentiated from non-religious sex in the extant documents. When Paul condemns sex with prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:16) we don't know if it is a condemnation of temple prostitution, general prostitution, or even if it matters. In contrast, the lineage of Jesus has Tamar posing as a prostitute to sleep with her father-in-law Judah (Gen. 38) and in the end it is Judah who declares Tamar to be righteous. 


Not that there's not more to say about the views of sex in the ancient world, but that suffices to point out the difficulty in finding some sort of meaning out of the historical documents. But the modern side of culture is no better. The historians, linguists, and theologians all bring their own presuppositions to the table, making it extremely difficult to find the kernel of truth beneath all of that. 

The study of history as more of a science didn't arise until the Enlightenment. Before that time historians like Josephus and Herodotus recorded what they wanted without any citation of sources or corroboration. Modern history is much, much better at uncovering the facts of the past, but it also arose during the same time as Puritanical and Victorian morals were in vogue in Europe. So when the historical conversation moved toward topics deemed unworthy for scholars, they were simply dropped, or at best given a cursory examination. 

Linguistically there are similar issues. The first translations of the bible into the common tongue (instead of Greek, Hebrew, or Latin) occurred in a culture that was almost totally controlled by the Catholic Church and its interpretations of scripture. So even today while there are volumes written on the possible definitions of words like "love" and "peace" the words that are translated as "fornication" "sexual immorality" and "homosexuality" have little, if any, scholarship surrounding their definitions. 

Theologians are, in many ways, in even a worse position than historians and linguists. They must either advocate for a position or against it. Much of the early theological work on homosexuality in the bible is simple condemnation without any discussion. More recently there have been strong defenses of homosexuality from theological circles, but those defenses, more often than not, come from people already predisposed toward their position. Put simply, those who think homosexuality is not a sin interpret the bible that way; those who think that it is a sin interpret the bible to agree with them. 


Just because something is difficult, does not mean that it shouldn't be attempted. I wrote all of this, not to dissuade us from a conversation, but to set the proper tone and expectations. What I really want to happen is for us to set aside our biases (as best we can) and to recognize the ones we can't set aside. And then to step into a reading of scripture with fresh eyes.

It's probably important for you to know that I'm a straight Christian. I'm not trying to prove one side or another here, though. What I want is to understand the bible that I follow, not based on simplistic platitudes offered to me, but on my own study. I came at this process almost 15 years ago with the book Women in the Church and I found that the views that had been given to me weren't the ones I settled on after a closer reading of the bible.

I can't help but wonder what will happen in this reading.

What challenges have you had in reading or understanding the bible?

What has helped you to arrive at the beliefs you have now?

What has made it more difficult for you to understand your beliefs or the bible?

Read the next post here.

* Note: I'm linking to the whole chapter for each passage to give the overall context. I'm also using the New English Translation as it tends to offer a reasonable, scholarly translation (though it's not without issues which we'll discuss later). 


  1. Thank you once again for placing your clearly thought out process on the table.

    What has made it difficult for me is the lack of explanation. Taking the time to explain why something is harmful and the pitfalls that surround any given choice is essential to people in a civilized society. More often than not, our laws in our society are set in place for very specific purposes. The reasons, for and against, are evaluated and can be found with a little research for the select few who care enough to look them up. We may not agree with their conclusions based on our specific situation, but we can still find an understanding in how they came to that conclusion.

    In this case, I imagine the cultural/historical climate when the words were written provide the best context we can glean. I'm not geared towards finding these answers for myself and am looking forward to what answers I can extract from your following posts.

  2. What other passages do people out there believe to be pertinent?

    1. I have heard some speculation on the relationship between Jonathan and David that might require some further study.

      The discussion of marriage and celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 certainly applies to some aspects of the discussion.

      But the biggest passage that's not in the "big six" is Genesis 1-3. Opponents of same-sex relationships point to Jesus' understanding of marriage being dependent on his understanding of creation. So we need to tackle -- and wrestle with -- the idea that God created humanity in his image: male and female. Was that a prescriptive move on God's part? Was it a prohibitive move? Is there any way we can know?