Discussion Four: How Affirming Christians Interpret The Bible Differently
(This is the forth in a series of eight readings and discussion questions, that make up “Leading Your Church to be as Gay-Friendly as the Bible Teaches.”)
by Dr. Preston Sprinkle
If we were having this discussion 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, it would have sounded odd that affirming Christians are making biblical arguments for their view. Back then, there were are two general positions: One that used the Bible and another that didn’t. Most Christians thought that if you simply read the Bible, you’d clearly see that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior. End of story. No debate.
Regardless of whether you think the Bible is clear on this issue (I actually think it is), there are a growing number of Bible-believing, even conservative, Christians who now hold to an affirming view of homosexuality. The debate is no longer about what the Bible says; it’s about what the Bible means.
Now here’s the thing. Even if you are 100% convinced that the Bible condemns homosexual behavior, it’s still very important for you to know, wrestle with, and even consider the affirming arguments. After all, disagreement isn’t the same as refutation. And you can’t refute an argument you don’t understand.
There’s a second important reason to have at least a basic understanding of these arguments. Affirming Christians often say that non-affirming Christians are close-minded to new ideas and new evidence. (A charge, by the way, that your teenage children or grandchildren are inclined to believe as well.) And, unfortunately, there’s some truth to this. We Christians haven’t always done the best job at genuinely listening to and understanding other views. But we need to. We need to show that we don’t just hold to a view because it’s all we’ve ever known. We hold to it because we’ve considered other views and found the view we hold to be the biblical
In this discussion, we’ll seek to understand some of the main biblical reasons why some Christians affirm the sanctity of consensual, monogamous, same-sex relations. In Discussion Five, we’ll consider some other popular arguments for this position. Most of the biblical arguments have to do with the biblical prohibitions against homosexual behavior found in Leviticus 18:2 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10. ( We will call them The Big Five.) We’ll start with the Old Testament then move on to the New Testament.
Old Testament Prohibitions The Old Testament doesn’t say a whole lot about same-sex behavior. But there are two laws in Leviticus that clearly condemn it: Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13:
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” —Lev 18:22
“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” —Lev 20:13
Both verses condemn male same-sex sexual behavior. So how do affirming Christians get around these two prohibitions of homosexual sex?
Reason 1: Old Testament Laws Are No Longer Binding on Christians Some affirming Christians point out that these commands are in Leviticus—the Old Testament law—and that Christians are no longer under the Old Testament law. Sure, it was wrong for Israel to engage in same-sex behavior. But it was also wrong for Israel to eat pork, trim their beards, and gather sticks on Saturday. Christians, however, don’t need to abide by these laws. They were for Israel. And they’ve been fulfilled and done away with in Christ.
While this affirming argument can still be found on Google, most thoughtful affirming Christians don’t use it any more. It’s not a very good argument, and here’s why: Think about it. Just because some laws in the Old Testament are no longer binding on Christians doesn’t mean that no laws are. There are many Old Testament laws that are still binding on Christians, including several laws right here in Leviticus: Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18; 20:11-14, 17, 19-21), adultery (Leviticus 18:20; 20:10), child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1-5), bestiality (Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16), theft (19:11), lying (19:11), taking the Lord’s name in vain (19:20), oppressing your neighbor (19:13), and many others—all right here in the same context as the same-sex laws.
Just because some laws aren’t binding on Christians doesn’t mean no laws are.
In fact, if you read Leviticus 18 you’ll see that this chapter deals almost exclusively with sexual immorality and 90% of those laws are prohibitions against sinful sexual acts committed by heterosexual people. And all the laws about sexual immorality are carried over into the New Testament—including the prohibitions about same-sex sexual behavior. If Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are no longer applicable for Christians, you’d need to argue that adultery, incest, and bestiality are also no longer binding on Christians. Plus, if you look at what the New Testament says about homosexual behavior, you’ll see that its writers thought that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 still held authority over Christians.
Reason 2: The Old Testament Was Patriarchal Another way in which affirming Christians deal with the prohibitions in Leviticus is to point out that sexuality at that time was profoundly patriarchal. To say that sexuality was patriarchal means that men were more valued than women, and women were seen as little more than sexual receivers and baby makers.
But what does all this have to do with the same-sex prohibitions in Leviticus? Well, some affirming Christians argue that the reason why men were forbidden from having sex with other men is because such an act would treat another man as a mere woman. In male same-sex intercourse, one man must act “like a woman” in the sexual act—receiving rather than giving. In a patriarchal culture, where women were viewed as property and much less valuable than men, such an act would be disgraceful.
There’s some truth to this argument and it should be mulled over and considered. It’s also growing in popularity, which means that your 16-year-old son might be more familiar with it than you are.
So was a low view of woman driving the same-sex prohibition? And if so, should we follow this command that’s inherently demeaning toward women?
There are two things to consider. First, while the Old Testament world was deeply misogynistic (i.e. it devalued women), the Old Testament itself is not. Now, to be honest, there are many laws and statements that seem to uphold men as more valuable as women, but when considered against the backdrop of the rest of the ancient world, the Old Testament is quite liberating toward women. Several women are held up as heroes of the faith and more courageous than men (Rahab, Ruth, Deborah, Abigail, etc.). Plus, the creation account of Genesis 1-2 makes the claim—and it was radical for that time—that women equally possess the image of God (Genesis 1), a status that most people believed was reserved only for kings. So, while the ancient world was misogynistic, it doesn’t seem that the Old Testament itself reflects the same degree of patriarchy.
Second, and most importantly, there’s nothing in the actual text of Scripture (in Leviticus or elsewhere) which shows that the reason why men wouldn’t have sex with each other is because they shouldn’t act like “mere” women. Go read through Leviticus 18 and 20 for yourself. Or read through the entire book of Leviticus. There’s nothing in the actual text of Scripture which says that men shouldn’t have sex with other men because this would treat another man as a lowly, baby-making, kitchen-bound woman. The commands in Leviticus simply state in absolute and unqualified terms: Men shouldn’t have sex with other men. Affirming Christians who pump these commands full of patriarchal assumptions assume things about the text that’s not clearly there.
Reason 3: Same-Sex Prohibitions Were Really about Domination and Exploitation Another point sometimes raised by affirming Christians is that consensual, monogamous, same-sex relations didn’t exist in the ancient world. Sure, it was common for masters to have sex with their male slaves, older men to have sex with younger teenage boys, or victims of war to be raped by their male conquerors. But these are acts of sexual exploitation, not consensual love.
So are the prohibitions in Leviticus only talking about exploitative same-sex acts (e.g. a master raping his male slave)? Or do they ban consensual same-sex acts as well?
The answer is both. Of course exploitative acts are forbidden. The Bible would never sanction a master raping his slave, or any other act of sexual violence. But there’s nothing in the biblical text that limits the prohibition to such acts of sexual exploitation. Again, don’t just believe me. Go back and carefully read the prohibitions. Do they mention masters or slaves or prostitutes or rape or older men having sex with teenage boys? The language of Leviticus simply says that men (not just masters, or older men, or victors of war) shouldn’t lie sexually with another male (not just slaves, or younger boys, or war victims). There’s nothing in the text or around the text that limits the prohibition to acts of exploitation.
Some affirming Christians say that the biblical text doesn’t need to specifically mention exploitation since every same sex relationship in the ancient world was exploitative. But this simply isn’t true either. For what it’s worth, we know very little about the sexual practices of same-sex relations in the ancient world. But the evidence we do have is somewhat diverse. Sure, we have evidence of exploitative same-sex relations, but we also have evidence of consensual relations as well. So we can’t just assume that all relationships back then were abusive. Some were, but some weren’t. And Leviticus doesn’t limit its same-sex prohibitions to abusive acts. All types of male same-sex behavior are condemned.
In short, if you look at the text and study its historical context, there’s no evidence that Leviticus was only prohibiting certain types of same-sex behavior.
Reason 4: The Sin of Sodom Was Not Really Homosexuality at All Before we leave the Old Testament, we need to mention the story of Sodom (Genesis 19). As you may recall, a couple of angels show up to Lot’s house in the city of Sodom and the men of the city mistake the angels for men. After trying to have sex with the two angels, the men of the city are struck with blindness as divine punishment for their evil attempt.
Some Christians point to this passage as clear evidence that God condemns homosexual behavior. However, it’s important to notice that what’s happening in Genesis 19 is not consensual same-sex love; it’s attempted sexual violence—like an ancient version of modern-day prison rape. If a man in prison rapes another man, it’s usually not because the perpetrator was gay. It’s an act of domination and power. Likewise, the men of Sodom were trying to gang-rape Lot’s guests. If we’re going to examine the text fairly, in this case, exploitation is the issue. The men of Sodom were not courting Lot’s guests, bringing them flowers and asking them out for a romantic stroll under the moonlight. Consensual same-sex love is not the focus; sexual violence is.
Now it’s true that if the men of Sodom had gone ahead and raped the two men (or angels), they still would have violated Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. But it’s important to stay focused on the main point and the main sin. Consensual same-sex love is nowhere to be found in Genesis 19, and yet consensual same-sex love is the pressing ethical question facing the church. To use the Sodom story as evidence that God prohibits consensual same-sex love is probably not the best use of this text. And, for what it’s worth, whenever the Bible refers back to the sin of Sodom, it never mentions homosexual behavior.
Because many of us grew up believing the sin of Sodom was homosexuality, it would be helpful for you to re-read that story and wrestle with whether it has relevance for modern day consensual same-sex relations. I personally think that affirming Christians have a better handle on the Sodom story than some non-affirming Christians do. Consensual same-sex relations are not in view. The point is, we should be extra cautious in racing to certain passages to find support for our view. We need to step back and think through how we’re interpreting the Bible and how we’re applying it to this discussion.
New Testament Prohibitions Three passages in the New Testament prohibit same-sex behavior. The most important is Romans 1:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. —Romans 1:26-27
The other two times homosexual behavior is mentioned is in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. —1 Corinthians 6:9-10
[U]nderstanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. —1 Timothy 1:9-10
These passages seem rather clear. So how do affirming Christians interpret them? Again, it’s important to make sure we actually listen to and try to understand these arguments. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing. But you can’t disagree until you actually understand what it is you’re disagreeing with.
Reason 5: It’s Exploitation—again! One of the most popular affirming interpretations for these New Testament passages is the same “exploitation argument” we saw in the Old Testament. Again, some say that the only type of same-sex relations that existed in the ancient world—including the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament—was exploitative. Rape, prostitution, and pederasty, which refers to older men having sexual relations with teenage boys.
Our two-fold response to this argument is same one we gave above. In short, look at the text and study its context.
As with the Leviticus passages, there’s nothing in these New Testament passages that mentions masters or slaves or prostitutes or rape or older men having sex with boys. In fact, there are several different Greek words for “pederasty” and none of them are used in these passages. None of them actually occur in the New Testament. Of course, the biblical writers would have condemned pederasty, but they didn’t only condemn pederasty. All types of male-male sexual relations were considered to be outside of God’s will and design.
What’s fascinating is that several affirming scholars actually agree with this point. For instance, the late Louis Crompton, a self-identified gay man, was a brilliant scholar who wrote a 500-page book called Homosexuality and Civilization. In it, he says:
According to [one] interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at “bona fide” homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian.
Bill Loader is the world’s foremost scholar on sexuality in ancient Christianity and Judaism, and he’s an affirming Christian. He’s published thousands of pages in eight books on the topic. Still, he rejects the argument that the only same-sex relationships in the ancient world were exploitative. Loader says that Paul’s words in Romans 1:26-27 “included, but [was] by no means limited to exploitative pederasty,” “sexual abuse of male slaves,” or “same-sex acts … performed within idolatrous ritual contexts.” And again: “It is inconceivable that [Paul] would approve of any same-sex acts if, as we must assume, he affirmed the prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as fellow Jews of his time understood them.”
The idea that New Testament writers were only prohibiting exploitative same-sex relations is neither biblically nor historically accurate.
Reason 6: Paul Condemns Having Sex Against One’s Own Nature This argument is based on Romans 1:26-27, where Paul says, “For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.” Some affirming Christians argue that God is only condemning heterosexuals who have abandoned their natural desire for the opposite gender and pursue sexual relations with the same gender. In other words, the “nature” Paul’s referring to is their natural sexual orientation. Straight people shouldn’t have gay sex.
This interpretation, however, doesn’t follow what Paul is actually saying. He does not say “contrary to their nature,” but “contrary to nature” (the Greek para physin). Paul is not saying some people left behind their innate heterosexual urges to pursue homosexual partners for whom they felt no innate desire. Rather, he’s saying that some people have gone against the Creator’s design (opposite sex relations) to pursue sexual relations with members of their same sex.
In fact, the phrase “contrary to nature” was often used by ancient philosophers and moral teachers who believed that same-sex sexual relations were wrong. And there’s no evidence that they were believed to be wrong simply because such relations went against one’s own personal sexual orientation. Rather, these writers—including Paul—believed they were wrong because same-sex relations goes against the way humans have been created, even if some people want to have sex with someone of the same gender.
In short, Paul’s phrase “contrary to nature” essentially means “contrary to the way God has designed humans.”
Reason 7: The Real Problem was Excessive Lust A similar affirming argument says that the reason why same-sex relations were condemned is because Paul considered them to be the result of excessive lust. That is, straight men got bored with having sex with women, and out of their lust, explored new and kinky territory with other men.
So, the previous argument focuses on the types of same-sex relations. This argument focuses on the reasons why men were having sex with other males. Both arguments are trying to distinguish between same-sex relations back then and same-sex relations today.
If you look at Romans 1, you could see where they get this. Paul says that men “were consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:27), which sure sounds like lust. But pay close attention to what Paul is writing. Is lust the reason why these relations were wrong?
No, Paul doesn’t say this. If you look at the broader context, Paul’s point is that men departed from their Creator’s design by having sex with other males. Of course there’s passion and desire involved. That kind of goes hand in hand with any sex act—gay or straight! (Could any couple have sex and not be “consumed with passion for one another?”) But the passion or lust is not the reason why Paul says homosexual sex is wrong.
Discussion Questions: Due to the theological nature of Discussions 4 and 5, we would recommend going through the following questions with a pastor or someone trained to talk about the theological nuances of homosexuality.
Which of these biblical arguments surprised you the most and why?
Before reading this discussion, which of these arguments have you heard and did not feel prepared to answer?
Do you think the Sodom story (Gen 19) is relevant for thinking about consensual, same-sex relations? Why, or why not?
What other biblical arguments have you heard that weren’t addressed in this discussion? (Keep in mind that we’ll tackle more general arguments in the next discussion.)
Discuss how you might share your beliefs on what the Bible says regarding homosexuality with someone who is affirming (approving of the identity and practice of homosexuality) using at least one of the arguments listed.
How following Jesus works in real life.
If you found this blog and are not a regular subscriber, you can take care of that right HERE.
. Discussions Four and Five were written by Dr. Preston Sprinkle. Preston has written several books and articles on sexuality and gender, including the recent People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is not just an Issue.
. They are often called The Big Six, because Genesis 19:1-10 is often included. However, as you’ll see below, I don’t think this passage is as relevant as some think.
. Female same-sex relations aren’t mentioned in this text, or anywhere in the Old Testament. The only place they are mentioned is in Rom 1:26. The Old Testament never mentions or prohibits women from having sex with women. In fact, it’s only mentioned once in the entire Bible: Romans 1:26. Female same-sex relations are rarely (perhaps never) mentioned outside the Old Testament during this time either. The first clear reference we have of lesbian relations comes in the writings of the 7th–6th century BC poet Sappho. So the Old Testament is not alone in its silence about female homoeroticism. Perhaps romantic love between women didn’t exist in the Old Testament world, or, more likely, they were kept secret. Either way, it would be unnecessary for Leviticus to prohibit something that wasn’t being practiced or was simply unknown.
. The only possible exception is Leviticus 18:19 which says that a man shouldn’t have sex with his wife while she is menstruating. Some people say that this law is no longer binding, but I’ve never actually seen a good argument that shows why it’s totally okay for a husband to have sex while his wife is menstruating. But there’s nothing in the Bible that tells Christians that after Jesus’ resurrection, they can go ahead and make love to their wives while they’re menstruating.
. In fact, Paul describes and prohibits homosexual behavior by using a Greek word (arsenokoites, in 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:9) that appears to have been created directly from the Greek translation of Lev 20:13. Therefore, we have evidence from the New Testament that the same-sex laws of Leviticus were still binding on Christians.
. See Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011). He does a great job looking at the seemingly harsh treatment of women in the Old Testament against the background of the ancient world.
. See Preston Sprinkle, “Same-Sex Relations,” in Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Postbiblical Antiquity, Vol. IV (ed. Edwin Yamauchi and Marvin Wilson; Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2017).
. See Isa 1:10-17; 3:9; Jer 23:14; Matt 10:5-10. Some think that Jude 7, which mentions the men of Sodom going after “strange flesh” (sarkos heteras), supports the traditional interpretation. But in the context, “strange flesh” refers not to people of the same sex, but to angels—the ones whom the Sodomites were seeking to rape. The phrase “strange flesh” actually means “other flesh” and ironically contains the Greek word heteras from which we get heterosexual. If homosexual relations were what Jude meant, it would have made much more sense for him to say “same flesh” not “other flesh.”
. The Greek word paiderastes was widely used to refer to “the love of boys,” as was paidophthoros (“corruptor of boys”) or paidophtoreo (“seducer of boys”). Another pair of Greek words, erastes and eromenos, were often used to describe the older man (erastes) and his boy-lover (eromenos). Again, none of these words are used when the New Testament prohibits same-sex relations.
. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
. Ibid., p. 114.
. The New Testament on Sexuality (Attitudes Towards Sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman Era; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 325.
. Ibid., p. 322.