Friday, April 20, 2012

The Bible and Homosexuality

Last week I posted two videos in which Ben Witherington spoke about women in ministry. This week Ben has posted a seven minute video on the topic of sexuality and the Bible. Here is the clip.

I would like to engage my readers in a conversation here about what Witherington has to say in this video. But I also want us to keep this conversation civil and focused on the topic. I know that I have a variety of readers that frequent this blog, including gay Christians, and I would like to hear from them as well as those who are not gay. If I find a comment to be less than charitable I will delete it.

For my own part, I agree with much of Witherington's analysis of the Bible. I don't find the Bible endorsing homosexual acts, I find just the opposite. But my questions are focused more on hermenutics. For instance, I also don't' see the Bible endorsing the abolition of slavery. Again, I see just the opposite. Yet, we have decided that slavery is not a good thing and we try to eradicate it where ever we find it it in spite of the many biblical injunctions that support it. Another example is the topic of women in ministry. The New Testament has several passages that, in my opinion, restrict women from ministering and other activities. Yet many, including myself, now believe that women can and should be ministers.

When looking at the topic of sexuality some interpreters will point to the creation story for support. They argue that heterosexuality is the norm created by God. But I then point out that the command for women to wear a head covering  (1 Cor 11) and not teach or have authority over a man (1 Tim 2) also both appeal to the creation story. Yet, we have concluded that in these cases the created order no longer has jurisdiction. If this is the case what is stopping us from concluding that what the Bible has to say about  homosexuality no longer applies in our modern setting?

There is far more that could be said on this topic and I don't want my readers to think that I am just throwing out a few simplistic arguments. I have read and thought a lot about this issue and realize that there is much more that could be said. But I would like to hear from my readers. Where do you stand on this issue, but more importantly, how did you arrive at your conclusions?


  1. I agree with what Ben Witherington and Dr. Byron as to say on the subject. However, I would like to share a link to a short video that might help to offer some insight as to where homosexuals are coming from. I watched the first video and I believe there are 4 parts to it. One of the main things I would really be interested in is hearing a response to this particular individual's use and "explanation" of scripture to justify homosexuality.

  2. John, What do you think of Richard Hay's argument that we see trajectories out of certain practices in the Bible, particularly the NT, such as women in ministry and slavery? In other words, while there are no specific commandments that say, "Thou shalt not own slaves," there is a struggling going on as to how to ameliorate the practice while not directly opposing it. The same seems to be the case with women. There are women who seem to have a place in ministry in the church while attempting to work in the context of a clearly patriarchal situation. But, as Hays argues further, we see no such trajectory in reference to homosexual practice. Just curious as to your thoughts on this.

    I do not know if Witherington refers to this in the video or not. For some reason, I cannot view it. (It's an issue with my computer, I am sure.) So if he has addressed it, I apologize for the repetition.

    1. Allan,

      No, Ben doesn't refer to this. Yes, I have read Hays and I do like a lot of what he has to say. His chapter on homosexuality is what got me thinking in new directions. (Did you know his book was the focus of our NT seminar at Durham?).

      I am not sure that I would agree with Hays about the trajectory in slavery. I certainly see it with women, but not with slaves. Those who have studied slavery in depth find little that would support the Bible undermining it. In Gal 3:28, for instance, although Paul claims there is no longer slave nor free, those who are slaves are still slaves. In 1 Cor 7:21 Paul doesn't really undermine it there either since his approach is more Stoic by the way he moves to metaphor. Besides, that is one of the most ambiguous verses in the Bible. And then there is Philemon . . . I think John Barclay got it right. Slavery was so ingrained in the first century that Paul didn't know how to advise Philemon and I doubt that abolition was even a possibility.

      To combine this with the topic at hand, sexuality, I find it interesting that if a man sleeps with another man's wife the punishment is death. But if he sleeps with another man's slave the punishment is a fine and/or sacrifice (Lev 19:20). In this case the life of the slave is not worth as much as the free person and they can be used sexually.

      I can certainly see how one can argue for the improving situation of women in the NT, but I am not sure that it can be extended to the situation with slaves.

  3. As a Gay Christian, I find the whole - "pick and choose" the Bible passages that you want - disgusting. For years the Bible was used to justify slavery, prevent interracial marriage, prevent women from voting, etc etc.. Thankfully, we have "wised up" since those days. I still hear "some" religious leaders & other "christians" quoting verses from Leviticus to fuel their anti-gay tirade. But you never hear them speak about their disobedient children, or the fact that they wear a poly/cotton blend shirt. Even if we forgo the Old Testament and go only w/ the New T, as Dr Byron has pointed out, we allow women to speak in church, not wear head coverings, etc... But god forbid you be gay, we just can't have that. (and when you point out the hypocrisy of all that to some who condemn gays, they just write it off as if there is no prob living by some verses and not others).. I will continue to live w/ what Jesus said about homosexuality... which is,

  4. Anonymous,
    The "pick and choose" issue you refer to is called reading the Bible. Which Mr. Witherington and and Byron have both done extensively and earned Phd's in the field of study. Witherington used those specific passages because they talk about the issue. You would do the same thing if you were talking about any other issue. If you want to discuss finances, you reference verses and passages that talk about finances. It is a simple process.

    Jesus said on the issue of Marriage "“But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. 7“FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, 8AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh."

    In addition, just because Jesus happened to be slightly silent on a particular issue, does not mean the we should ignore Paul's CLEAR rebuke of it's practice in Romans 1:26 and other less direct passages.

    Jesus never spoke out against should we willingly become prostitutes thinking that is it not a sin? The silence (or perceived silence) on an issue does not mean that we can just put an OKAY stamp on in and say that it is not a sin.

    1. I will start w/ this:

      Wanna quote Paul, let's quote him:
      Paul is CLEAR when he says it is better to stay unmarried as I do. But if you can't control yourself, then you should marry... I cor 7:8
      so, what does that say about those who are married? Hmmph, I wonder.

    2. It is easy for us to condemn that which we do not understand. Take left-handed people for that matter... For how many years were they ostracized from society?

    3. Anonymous,
      That link you posted added nothing to the conversation. They did not address the passage at all. I am willing to read what Wood actually said about it if you know where that is published, but as of now I am not convinced that the author or that article has ever even read Romans 1.

      Now about 1 Cor 7:8. This is like comparing apples to oranges. Paul never talks about marriage/single life as either on being sinful. he just states the one is more preferred over the other. If that were the case in Romans, it would be a different story. But Paul clearly states that by trading natural(functional) behavior with the opposite sex, men and women are rejecting the creator and worshiping creation, and ultimately being given over to depraved minds. He calls these things "shameless acts in 1:27.

      The Greek text says in 1:26 that the women exchanged their natural sexual functions with men and men did the same, and burned in passion for other men. I do not see what is unclear about this at all. From 1:18-32 Paul describes a people that rejected God and his reasoning why he says that.

      If you want to address the passage I welcome you to. If you think you can find a link to someone else that you want to do it for you then go ahead and post it.

  5. Witherington has a very inconsistent hermeneutic. When addressing the issue of women he gets around Paul's injunctions against women teaching claiming they are "corrections of a specific problem." We can add that in formulating his "corrections," Paul draws on his own theological training in the Law.
    Witherington does not extend the same cultural analysis--an attempt to understand what specific problems Paul is correcting--to the question of homosexuality in the 1C. Greco-Roman world/church. Instead he just talks about "what the Bible says." To do so is to ignore the cultural connection for Paul between homosexuality and idolatry.

    1. Peter,
      I think that we can find a cultural connection between ANY sexual "sin" and idolatry. The story of Israel is filled with that connection.
      The question is what does the church do with LGBT folks?

  6. I would first like to respond to Witherington’s video. Generally speaking, his position is one of grace, but yet I think he is dogmatic on certain points that led him to a particular “assumed” interpretation. First, his use of the Christian adage, “Love the sinner and hate the sin” is a gross oversimplification of a complex issue. This is especially disheartening when we take into account the joining together of sexual identity and sexual orientation in our culture. While I affirm that there is a problem with identifying ourselves in terms of our sexuality, we will never be able to have a productive conversation when we fire off cliché remarks such as “Love the sinner and hate the sin.”
    Second, Witherington’s distinction between orientation and behavior is a helpful one, since we often anachronistically apply our modern conceptions to this vey complex issue. But with that said, his emphasis on behavior does not necessarily mean that we need to assume that we must accept the condemnation of that behavior, today. We must not forget that the Bible’s apparent condemnation of homosexual behavior was done so because it was often intimately connected to the unjust practices of idolatry and other pagan cultic practices. Much appeal to the Levitical codes to side-step this issue, but it is hard to determine if these Levitical passages are condemning homosexuality because of its threat to patriarchal society or whether is truly a deviant behavior. So it would seem that a wholesale condemnation of homosexual behavior is not as easy as it would seem.
    Furthermore, we cannot simply ignore the way in which Paul would have understood homosexuality as he observed it in ancient Greco-Roman culture. Scroggs has gone to great length to show the extent to which pederasty, in these contexts, was considered common practice. Furthermore, Scroggs argues that since this was a well know practice in antiquity it is impossible to say that Paul was unaware of these activities. It would seem that Paul’s knowledge of ancient pederastic practices must have had some sort of bearing on his understanding of same-sex intercourse.
    While pederasty was a significant phenomenon in antiquity, these were not the only perversions that Paul would have known about. Petersen argues that in antiquity male sexuality was understood as being myriad. He claims that a man, involved in same-sex intercourse, could have been “a husband, a frequenter of prostitutes, a lover of another man or young, a lover of youths, and/or an adulterer ” (Can AΡΣΕΝΟΚΟΙΤΑΙ Be Translated By ‘Homosexuals’?,). In any case, these activates seem different from non-exploitative case that people are advocating for today.
    This leads me to my final point. While I have yet to take a position on the issue of homosexuality, I don’t agree that the issue of homosexuality is completely a hermeneutical one… yet. I think that there are still many exegetical possibilities to be explored. When we overlook that Paul’s understanding of same-sex activity, as being colored by the exploitative practices of Greco-Roman culture, makes it impossible to say that exegesis is done and now all that is left is hermeneutics.

  7. I think hermentic method is a distraction. People on both sides of a debate will use the same hermeneutic method.

    Processing emotion and value through rational method (in this case hermeneutics) doesn't work. We need other ways of meeting.

  8. Interesting stuff. Thanks for posting it and encouraging the conversation. It is one that certainly needs to happen. My comments (for now) will have to be brief, many because this morning I've been postponing work that really needs to be done.

    The trouble for me relates to how the other texts often used in this discussion. True, the Bible was used to endorse slavery, keep women out of ministry, support racism, etc. And it is certainly true that further, honest study of the texts has shown these previous views to be either misguided or flat-out wrong. Thus it would seem reasonable to say: if we were wrong about those texts, are we potentially wrong about the homosexual stuff?

    Personally, if we're going to say homosexual behaviour is permitted/allowable then we are going to need other texts to support that conclusion. I say that because, in terms of comparison, the usual texts brought into the discussion are ultimately not related to this particular issue. In other words, being a slave, having slaves, being a woman, being of a different race, etc--none of those are considered sinful; homosexual behaviour is.

    (NB: I just took the extra moment to read through the previous comments, and I now realise the overlap between the Hays stuff and my input. Sorry about that).

  9. John,

    Then is there a hermeneutic that supports any kind of sexual morality? To be honest, I've not read any thing in great detail about this subject, but I wonder, based on your comments. . . Are there (consenting) sexual acts that are displeasing to God? Promiscuity? Sex outside of marriage? Group sex? This is an honest question. I'm not just trying to be argumentative. I didn't grow up in the church or with a belief that homosexual acts were wrong. There's nothing I'd want more for it to be true that God is not offended. But, the little I have read, I just couldn't see the attitudes in the bible against homosexuality as merely ANE cultural predjudices.

  10. It’s important to remember that “homosexuality,” as a sexual orientation, is a relatively new term. Its earliest use can be traced to psychiatrist and sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s book Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, seen as a great advancement in psychology. It was first translated into English by C. G. Chaddock in 1892 and consequently had a dramatic effect on how sexuality was understood in the West. As vocabulary around sexual orientation has expanded, so has awareness of its existence. The idea of “heterosexual” as the norm and all other sexual orientations being a minority, inferior and less significant is still a majority viewpoint. In the last forty years, movements around the world have fought for the rights for sexual autonomy, an ongoing battle. The question that you raise here and I find important to Christians is about hermeneutics: Should biblical scholarship in the academic sphere fighting for a new hermeneutic, a new light to re-interpret our past assumptions?

  11. It seems to me that if one accepts the plain text meaning of Bible verses in their cultural and historical contexts, one must conclude that the Bible condemns penetrative intercourse between males, just as it accepts slavery (see for example Leviticus 25:44-46).

    While the Bible condemns homosexual acts (sex between men), the condemnation does not apply today. This is because it is mainly based on the ancient cultural idea that it was shameful for a man to be entered like a woman during sex. Other cultural reasons for the condemnation were its association with soldiers humiliating weaker men by raping them, and body fluids being wasted instead of being used to create babies. As we no longer accept these cultural reasons, the condemnation does not apply today.

    This conclusion is reinforced by the no-harm argument. The biblical condemnation of sex between men does not apply to men today when no harm is caused to the participants or others. See Romans 13:9-10 for why this is so. The verses are summarized as “If you love (act for the welfare of) your neighbor, including not harming your neighbor, you then fulfill (meet all the requirements of) the Old Testament commandments.”

    My full views on this topic can be seen on the Gay and Christian website at