The Quest for “a Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality
I thought to write one more post in the series I’m calling “The Quest for ‘A Foundation-laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality,’” looking this time directly at the seven texts that are said to address homosexuality in the Bible. The occasion for these posts is the publication of a long (175 pages long) report of a study committee appointed by the 2016 synod (the general assembly) of the Christian Reformed Church, my denomination. The report was scheduled to be debated at the 2021 synod, but with that synod canceled because of the COVID pandemic, it’s now on the agenda for the 2022 synod. In the previous posts in the series, I have avoided directly discussing the recommendations of the committee, not because they are not important, but in order to focus on the method and assumptions that the synod and the study committee brought to the task. I’ve done so because I believe that the project of searching the Bible for “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality” is flawed from the outset. For that argument see the earlier posts. I’ve added this post because otherwise it may seem that I am avoiding the obvious—the seven biblical texts that appear to condemn homosexuality. Or do they? In this post I will argue that in fact there is less here than meets the eye. If you actually look at these texts straightforwardly, they have little to say about the sort of questions the synod and the study committee were hoping to answer.
What does the Bible have to say about homosexuality? In answer to that question seven texts are usually cited, four from the Old Testament and three from the New. A recent report of a study committee appointed by the synod of the Christian Reformed Church to “articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality” (https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/human_sexuality_report_2021.pdf) follows this practice with a lengthy section of the report dedicated the seven texts (pp. 96-113).
So, we begin with seven texts: Genesis 19:1-29, Judges 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10, and Romans 1:26-27. But a quick look at the seven reveals that two of them, Genesis 19:1-29 and Judges 19, have little or nothing to do with homosexuality. They are in Phyllis Trible’s memorable phrase “texts of terror,” rape stories. Nevertheless, it’s instructive to look at them.
The two accounts in Genesis 19 and Judges 19 appear to be two versions of the same story, literarily interdependent. The plots are much the same. Some of the phraseology overlaps. For my money, I would take the Judges account to be the earlier of the two, with the Genesis account dependent on the Judges account, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes.
The stories illustrate the breakdown of society. They begin the same. Strangers come to town (Sodom in Genesis and Gibeah in Judges) and finding no place to stay, the strangers make as if to sleep in the city square. They are rescued from this bad idea by someone on the margins of society, Abraham’s nephew Lot in Genesis and an otherwise unknown old man in Judges. Invited in and the door to the house locked, the danger becomes apparent: men of the city surround the house and demand that the strangers be brought outside so they may “know them”—rape them, in other words.
In both cases, the owner of the house offers women instead: Lot, his own daughters, and the old man of Gibeah, his daughter and the concubine of the man who is staying with him. In Genesis, this horrible transaction is interrupted by the “men” who are staying with him, having been previously identified as “messengers of Yahweh.” In the second story, the concubine but not the daughter is callously put outside the house for the men of the city, who abuse her all night until at dawn she dies on the doorstep of the house.
These are complicated stories, full of powerful turns of plot and phrase, especially the longer of the two, Judges 19. For example, note how Judges 19 draws attention to the hands of the murdered concubine as she grasps the threshold of the house in her last effort to reach safety. The language evokes the Passover lamb in Exodus 12:22 whose blood is splashed on the doorposts of the houses of the people of Israel, protecting them from the avenging angel who kills the firstborn of Egypt. But in this case, there is no protection.
And what happens next, a war between Benjamin and the other tribes of Israel, only demonstrates how broken society was. The story ends with another act of violence against women with the men of Benjamin abducting and forcing young women of Shiloh to become their wives. It would be daring indeed to try to use these texts with their perverse code of honor (better my daughter be raped than a male stranger who happens to have wandered into the city) and their terrible violence to make a case against modern same-sex marriage, but the study committee half-heartedly does just that (p. 98). In the opinion of most commentators, whether conservative or progressive (see the study report itself, which admits as much), these texts are not about homosexuality or, for that matter, about heterosexuality. They are about predation. They have little or no relevance for finding a biblical position on consensual homosexuality, especially same-sex marriage.
We began with seven texts, but the first two turn out not to have much to do with homosexuality (the would-be rapists are not identified as homosexual in orientation and should not be understood as such). Will the next two, from a section of Leviticus known as the “Holiness Code” Leviticus 17-26) fare better? Well, no.
The Holiness Code is thought by scholars to have been an independent compilation of laws and regulations incorporated into Leviticus probably sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps in the period of the Persian empire. The problem with the Holiness Code in general for modern Christian readers is that it is too much, much too much in at least two ways. First, not only does it outlaw what we also would like to see outlawed like, say, incest; it outlaws what we see no reason to outlaw, like sex during a woman’s menstrual period (20:18). Or, to take another example, not only does it outlaw breeding two kinds of animals with each other (sorry, mules), it outlaws mixing two kinds of cloth in the same garment and mixing two kinds of seed in the same field. As I write this, I’m wearing clothes that are woven from more than one kind of cloth and therefore in violation of the code. I do not feel guilty. Nor do you when you put on that cotton t-shirt with a little spandex woven in so it flexes with you. No one, except perhaps for a few theonomists, regards the Holiness Code as binding in all its parts.
Second, even when we agree with the code about prohibiting something, the penalties seem much too severe. We would agree that cursing one’s mother or father is wrong, but does it deserve the death penalty? (20:9). And even if we were for some strange reason to think that having sex during a woman’s period should be outlawed, does it deserve banishment from the people of God? The authors of the Holiness Code probably did not think so either. If scholars are right, these laws were more conceptual than actual. It’s not clear the Holiness Code was ever the law in Israel at any time or anywhere.
That said, sometimes the Holiness Code is also too little, much too little, as when it rules on a man who sleeps with a slave—she having no choice in the matter—and requires of him as a penalty only the sacrifice of a ram. A sheep for a rape. What do we do with that?
For these reasons and others, the Holiness Code is one of those places in the scriptures that benefits from the conversational approach to scripture I outlined in a previous post (see “What Kind of Book Is the Bible?”). To engage with the Holiness Code as scripture, we must come to terms with what holiness meant at the time and what it means for Christian life today. Is there something we can learn about holiness from reading the Holiness Code in the light of its own time?
We might, for example, if we were to spend some time with the Holiness Code, engage in a conversation about the role of disgust in moral life. Is disgust a valid criterion for ruling something as morally wrong? The “ick” factor often mentioned by people who are wired up as heterosexuals when talking about homosexuality, to take one example? In Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, holiness and disgust form a pair among the six moral foundations that characterize human moral codes. Is there a place for this pair in our own moral life?
We might be enriched by engaging the Holiness Code in a such a conversation. But it is not this conversational approach that is taken by the human sexuality study committee. What they do is pick and choose among the provisions of the Holiness Code, ignoring the provision against having sex during a woman’s period, but claiming continuing validity for the provisions against homosexuality. This is a dubious procedure.
With those issues about the Holiness Code in general, turn with me to what the two texts, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, actually say. Both rule on a single form of homosexuality, male-on-male sex. They define the offense in question as “sleeping with a man as if he were a woman” and call it “disgusting.” The second of the two texts, Leviticus 20:13, adds a penalty: death for both men involved in the act.
A couple of quick observations: First, it appears that Hebrew at this juncture—at least the Hebrew of the Holiness Code—lacked a proper noun for male-on-male sex. The way the texts describe the act is clumsy, much clumsier in Hebrew than would be apparent from the English translations. It’s literally “sleeping with a male [as on] the bed(s) of a woman.” Paul, later, on the basis of the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses this language to coin his own term, “’arsenokoitēs, which would be literally “male bed,” but means “male-on-male sex.”
Lacking a proper term for the act of gay sex, it follows that those who formulated the Holiness Code also lacked the concept of homosexuality itself, if, that is, homosexuality is defined as a sexual orientation leading to a preference for sex with men as opposed to women. The act described in the crude Hebrew is not homosexuality. Gay men do not “lay with another man as if with a woman.”
The point is that we see and understand homosexuality in a way different from the writers of the Holiness Code. They saw the act; we also see the orientation leading to the act. The Holiness Code does not have the benefit of the cultural and scientific discussion that has occurred in our time about the nature of sexual attraction. Does it make sense in the light of this to read Leviticus 18 and 20 as a straightforward ruling on any kind of homosexual relationship at any time in history, whether consensual or not? Whether married or not? Or should we treat these rules about male-on-male sex like we do other provisions of the Holiness Code, as an artifact of an age gone by? This does not mean it is not still scripture but only that if we are to hear God’s word in it, we must approach in a way that takes account of time and history.
One more comment on the Leviticus texts: even if one thinks that these Holiness Code provisions are still applicable for Christians living in the 21st century, as the study committee apparently does, the application of Leviticus 20:13 to modern life is fraught with peril. Two problems come immediately to mind. First, why choose this commandment and ignore others in the immediate context? On what basis does one choose? The writers of the study committee say that the reason the provision against gay sex remains valid is because it violates the creation order. They quote Robert Gagnon: “Thus there are good grounds for asserting that the primary problem with male male intercourse is the more general concern that it “mixes” two things that were never intended to be mixed. . .. The refrain in 18:22 and 20:13, “as though lying with a woman,” is the best indication we have of what the primary concern was; namely, behaving toward another man as if he were a woman by making him the object of male sexual desires. That is an “abomination,” an abhorrent violation of divine sanctioned boundaries—in this case, gender boundaries established at creation. . .. All the laws in Lev. 18:6-23; 20:2-21 legislate against forms of sexual behavior that disrupt the created order set into motion by the God of Israel.“
This seems to go far beyond the text of Leviticus. Does Gagnon’s argument mean that mixing two kinds of cloth or two kinds of seed is also a violation of the creation order? And how does one get that out of the text? Or out of common sense? Are all those modern fabrics against nature in some fundamental way?
But that’s not the worst of it. Suppose for the moment that one can make a case for holding the commandments about male-on-male sex as still valid, what about the penalty for the crime? Leviticus 20:13 says that both offenders shall die. It adds, “Their blood is on them.” The problem is that this is not merely a historical reference. In several countries in the world, the death penalty still exists for men who have sex with other men. And even in places where gay sex is legal, as in our own country, gay men have been put to death for the mere fact that they are gay. No one, let alone an official study committee, should suggest that these two texts from the Holiness Code should still guide our behavior. Doing so gives tacit support to those who would follow not only the provisions of the law in the Holiness Code but the penalty for violating it.
So much for the Old Testament texts against homosexuality: four texts, two rape narratives and two provisions from the Holiness Code. Not much there, I think, that addresses homosexuality as understood in our day. What about the New Testament? The New Testament presents us with three texts, all from the Paul tradition: Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10.
1 Corinthians 6 is part of an extended discourse on the nature of Christian community. The Corinthians seem to have reached the conclusion that, having been granted the grace of God, they were now beyond judgment. Paul sets up his argument at the end of chapter 2, where he speaks of judgment in a statement that seems initially strange in the context: “The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)
This statement has sometimes been interpreted to mean that a Spirit-filled person is not subject to anyone else’s judgment. It’s been used to that effect by leaders who reject the judgments of others, often with disastrous results. In the mind of these leaders, they have the Spirit; no one can tell them what to do. But what Paul is setting up here is precisely the opposite. His concern—revealed in chapter 5 and the beginning of 6—is that the Corinthians have refused to exercise discipline within their own community. They have tolerated a man who is sleeping with his father’s wife (5). When they have disputes among themselves, they turn people outside of the church to litigate them (6:1-7). Instead of relying on the Spirit–the Spirit in the community.—Thus, while “the person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things,” they have been reliant on “merely human judgments.” What’s required to make proper judgments is the acquisition of “the mind of Christ.”
Paul adds in this regard in 6:12-20 that the community is the body of Christ, a thought he will develop more extensively later in the letter (12). Spirituality must always be embodied, not just individually but as a church. The Corinthians have adopted a disembodied spirituality in which what they do with their bodies doesn’t really matter. One can detect some of the seeds of the later Gnosticism in which salvation is escape from bodily existence. But Paul is having none of this. For him, spiritual life is fully embodied in the Christian community—the body of Christ. The power of grace transforms not only our spirits but our body life. It makes a difference in how we live. The church is an alternative community.
It’s this last point that leads the apostle into two mentions of male-on-male sex in a list of common vices that the members of the church should avoid: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Make no mistake, neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexual prostitutes, nor those who have sex with men, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunks, nor the verbally abusive, nor the rapacious—none will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were made holy, you were made righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
With this list, Paul is making two points simultaneously. It’s important to grasp both of them. First, he is noting that it is precisely from these sorts of things that they, the members of the church of Corinth, were rescued. They have been, in the words of the apostle, “washed,” “made holy,” and “made righteous.” They are now heirs of the kingdom of God with Christ. The second point is that they should live what they are, live like they belong to the kingdom of God.
We who are Christians understand this. The old ways of living do not automatically fall away when we become Christians. But we are called to live the new identity—heirs of the kingdom—that has given to us. We are to behave as if we were to the manor born. So, what are these Corinthian Christians being asked to walk away from? Greed, idolatry (in the literal sense), sleeping around, drinking to excess, these and more. None of these are foreign to us. What may somewhat foreign to us in the list are two words for homosexuality which seem to represent particular forms of homosexuality found in Greek society.
What are these forms of homosexuality? The exact intent of the first of the pair of words, malakoi, translated here (by me) as “homosexual prostitutes,” is very hard to figure out as a quick check of the standard Greek lexicons will show. The word literally means “soft.” Applied to people, it can mean “tender,” “faint-hearted,” “effeminate,” “youthful-looking.” Here, it probably refers to boys who in Greek society were taken as sexual partners by adult men. They were not necessarily prostitutes in the literal sense, thus my hesitancy about calling them “male prostitutes,” but even if they are not “boys of the night,” they were impressed into this service by rich and powerful men, which comes to something like the same thing. Or worse.
The second word, as I already noted, was apparently coined by Paul on the basis of the Greek translation of Leviticus passages I reviewed earlier. It’s arsenokoitoi, “men who sex with men.” It is hard to escape the conclusion—drawn by many commentators—that this word and the one before it, malakoi, are purposely paired, and that what Paul has in mind with arsenokoitoi are adult men who prey on boys. By pairing the two, Paul condemns the whole practice, as would we. This is not consensual sex between same sex attracted men. The arsenokoitoi were not necessarily, perhaps not usually, same-sex attracted men. The practice Paul appears to highlight was a form of pedophilia permitted, even encouraged, in upper-class Greek society. In this passage, Paul is saying that if you were once part of this practice, be part of it no longer. No argument here from anyone, I think.
1 Timothy 1:8-11 is similar. 1 Timothy has about it, generally speaking, an air of lateness. The concerns of the book seem to be of the sort that arose later in the history of the early church—later than the letters of Paul. For that reason and others, many scholars have thought that 1 Timothy was written in the name of Paul, not actually by Paul. In ancient times, writing in the name of someone else was a way of honoring them, not stealing their identity. Thus, we have as ancient authors not only Dionysius, mentioned in Acts 17:34 as a convert of Paul, but a mystical writer from centuries later who wrote in the name of Dionysius. I mention this lateness for 1 Timothy because the list of vices mentioned 1 Timothy 1:8-11 is quite different from the list of vices listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. The writer mentions the “lawless and rebellious,” “irreligious and sinners,” “unholy and profane,” “father-killers and mother-killers,” “murderers,” “sexually immoral,” “men who have sex with men,” human traffickers,” “liars,” “perjurers,” and anyone else who “opposes sound teaching.” It seems, well, abstract.
In this list, the word I’ve translated “men who have sex with men,” arsenokoitoi, appears to have been borrowed from Paul and 1 Corinthians, but without historical context, so the corresponding term, malakoi, can be dropped by the writer. As I said, this is in general quite an odd list. “Father-killers and mother-killers?” “Human traffickers” and “perjurers” set alongside “those who oppose sound teaching?” It appears, reading the list in the original Greek, that the writer was following more the sounds of the words rather than some other kind of order. While Paul’s list of vices in 1 Corinthians 6 is tailored to the culture of Corinth, this list appears to range far and wide over sins large and small. Its purpose is not to identify particular sins but to hold up the value of the traditional Jewish law against the “myths and endless genealogies” spun out by a newer kind of Christianity.
In this context, it’s hard to know what the writer had in mind by including the arsenokoitoi among the sinners of the list. Does the writer still have in mind what Paul seems to have had in mind—the adult men who exploited boys for their sexual pleasure—or something more generic. In any case, to use this text to critique same-sex marriage seems ill-advised exegetically. The text is just not that clear.
Having started with seven texts, we are down to one, Romans 1:26-27. Of the six texts we have looked thus far, four from the Old Testament and two from the New, none seems clearly applicable to the question of how Christians should regard same-sex marriage or to much of anything else about homosexuality in our time—homosexuality, that is, as a loving relationship between same-sex oriented adults. What about this last text? For the writers of the report on human sexuality I have been looking at, this one is key, the last stop against any rethinking of the church’s position on homosexuality. Let’s look at the text.
We should broaden the context a bit. Romans 1:18-32 is part of an extended argument that concludes at the end of chapter 3. What begins in 1:18 with Paul’s sudden, attention-getting statement that “the wrath of God has been revealed . . . against all the impiety and unrighteousness of the human race,” begins to draw to a conclusion in 3:21 with the equally stunning statement, “but now the righteousness of God has been manifested . . . through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. . ..”
Between these two statements about wrath and righteousness, Paul’s argument is that one cannot escape the coming wrath by observing Torah. The problem with the human race is larger than that. It can’t be fixed by religion, however good that religion is. It’s a problem that envelopes not just Israel but the whole human race. We are in it together. This last is a point often missed in reading this section of Romans. Summing up his argument about evil, after quoting text after text about the pervasiveness of evil, Paul says in 3:19, “We know that what the Torah says [about the pervasiveness of evil] it says to those who are under the Torah, so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world [cosmos] be held as answerable to God.” Individual piety will not suffice, nor will the piety of a single group of people; the answer to evil must be larger than this.
In coming to this conclusion, Paul’s rhetorical strategy is to enlist first the sympathies of his audience by condemning those whom they dearly want to see condemned, their, in their opinion utterly contemptible, neighbors. Speaking as a long-time preacher, this is always an effective strategy in sermons: first attack those outside the church. Condemn secular society. But then, once Paul has them with him, he turns abruptly to his readers and says, “You like that? “Well, you are no better” (Romans 2:1). If you are a preacher, you are familiar with this move.
Paul does this well. To illustrate the moral fecklessness of Roman society, he focuses, as preachers often do, on sex. Saying that God “has given them over to dishonorable passions” (1:24), he, with a flourish, turns to “their women” who “exchange natural sex for sex that is not natural.” He does not actually say what kind of sex this is. Is it, as the writers of the report on human sexuality assume, sex between women? Or is it, say, fellatio? The assumption that Paul has lesbianism in mind is just that, an assumption on the part of the report writers. All Paul says is that they engage in unnatural sex. What he has in mind, he does not make clear. The next verse on men is clearer. Pagan men, Paul says, “abandon natural sex with women, burn with lust for each other, and, man with man, do what is shameless” (1:27). Here he does have in mind homosexual relations.
What do we make of this? We might, reading the passage in its rhetorical context, think of this passage as an example of the apostle speaking out of the context of his own culture—a culture that found the casual attitudes of other societies of the time about homosexuality to be abhorrent. Paul is riling up his audience (these letters were read out loud). He is invoking the “ick” factor. He wants their amens to his rhetoric so that when he turns to them and says that they are equally guilty he will have their full attention. The point is not homosexuality. The point is that the whole human race has gone off the rails.
As I said, we might take that sort of gracious interpretation of this passage, realizing that Paul was in no position to understand what we now understand about sexual orientation. But that is not at all the interpretation that the writers of the report on human sexuality take. For them, this text cements their argument that homosexual relations are inherently, deeply sinful, always, from the beginning of time. The key is found in the words for “nature” (physis) and “natural” (physikos) that appear a total of three times in the text. The writers of the report draw their conclusion this way: “Paul’s argument, therefore, is clear: sexual acts between a female and another female or between a male and another male are “unnatural” and wrong, because such conduct goes against one’s created nature.”
I have already evaluated this creation-ethic argument in a previous post. Here perhaps it is enough to list another place where Paul uses physis to show how forced the argument is. The passage I have in mind is 1 Corinthians 11:14. Paul is talking about hair, long and short. He asks, “Does not nature [physis] itself teach us that if a man has long hair, it dishonors him?” We would say in answer to Paul’s rhetorical question: no, it doesn’t. Why? Because the relationship between hair length and gender is cultural. In one culture, men wear their hair short and women wear theirs long; in another men express their virility by letting their hair grow (note Samson in this regard). Whether length of men’s hair expresses some principle based in creation itself was something we argued about in conservative churches back in the 1970s. It all looks a little silly in retrospect. But now to use the same word, physis, in the case of Paul’s rhetorical slam on Roman society to mean “creation-based, for all time” seems like a willful misreading of the text. When Paul says that what pagan women and men do is para physis, “not natural,” what he means is that we all (he and his original readers) agree on this this. But we no longer do all agree. If Paul were to write Romans today, he might adopt a different rhetorical device, but he would make the same point, which is not about sex but about the fact that in this sorry and broken world we are all in it together.
We started with seven texts. In the end, none of them does what the committee on human sexuality wants them to do: condemns consensual sex between married partners. So how does the church decide? That is a much longer discussion, and this one has already gotten far too long, but I can predict confidently that the church will not decide these issues by taking a handful of texts and declaring, “That’s that. Discussion’s over.” The church–I mean the whole church, not a single denomination–will decide by long, probably contentious, conversation in the context of the whole Bible. In that discussion, the seven texts will have a role to play, but they will not be determinative. What will be determinative is what Paul says in another place, that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
This is my last post in this series. I plan to begin a related series about the second creation story, Genesis 2-3. I’m calling it, “What’s Really Going in Eden.” I hope you will look in on it.