My stepdaughter is gay. My best friend is Jewish and gay. So it is fair to say that I have flesh in the game of challenging the biblical teachings often used against the LGBTQIA+ community.
Jewish folk say the Hebrew laws are the Word of God, and I don’t have a problem with that. The Hebrew Testament laws make a lot of sense for a desert people without hot running water, antibiotics, paramedics, or condoms, and who could starve to death if their crops failed. They could also be wiped out by eating contaminated meat, or they could destroy the fragile fabric of their tribe with behaviors that were not respectful. So this was a God with some sense.
In the New Testament, Jesus encapsulates all his teachings with “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy strength and all thy might and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39 ESV). Trouble is, much of the time, we don’t love ourselves and we project our self-hatred onto our neighbor.
Christianity doesn’t follow 95 percent of the 613 laws in the Hebrew Testament—and even the most fundamentalist of Christians violates several of those pretty much every day—but Leviticus 18:22 is still quoted against homosexuality. The injunction against man lying with man “as with a woman” is always taken as being against all forms of male gay sex. But in biblical times, young boys were frequently used as temple prostitutes; the Temple of Baal was one that carried out this practice. It is entirely likely (though impossible to prove) that this was the reason for the law. Such practices carried with them the very real possibility of painful and potentially life-threatening injury.
People in biblical times were married within six months of puberty, so they didn’t have much time to work out if they were gay, let alone have the mindset, as we do, to examine how they felt about their sexuality. Of course there would have been men or women who felt drawn to their own sex, but they’d still have been married to a member of the opposite sex and probably would have had children of their own. Yes, they may have had adulterous affairs—but adultery with anyone was deemed an abomination.
While those who do not approve of homosexuality certainly have the right to their own opinions, what is certainly not acceptable is to take that one Hebrew Testament law out of context. If you preach that homosexuality is an abomination, you must also preach against all 114 “sins” the Bible deems abominations, one of which has been broken by every single Christian who’s ever taken communion, “all those who drink alcohol in holy places” (Leviticus 10:9 ESV). (See box for more “abominations.”)
Twisting Paul’s Words
Step up St. Paul and his words, so often used (also out of context) by Christians. It’s commonly believed ancient Rome was rife with homosexuality, but bisexuality was far more the norm. Aristocratic Roman men had the right to have sex with their male slaves—the penetrative act being acceptable while being penetrated was seen as being effeminate—and male rape was used as a form of punishment. But openly loving homosexual relationships between men were rare as all men were expected to marry and have children. So the horrific accounts of priests and young boys that are reported in the press nowadays are hardly different from the activities of powerful men in ancient Rome (which doesn’t mean they should be condoned). Openly homosexual relationships in the priesthood are a much more modern phenomenon—and the word homosexual did not even exist until 1868.
Jesus did not say anything about same-sex matters, although he did say that marriage was not for everyone. His famous speech about eunuchs has been used to justify many forms of celibacy. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (Matthew 19:12 KJV). The word eunuch has several meanings: the guard of a woman’s bedchamber, a man who cannot have children for natural reasons or who has been castrated, or a man who abstains from marriage for any reason whatsoever.
But back to Paul, who is often quoted condemning not only same-sex sexual relationships between men but also those between women. First, remember that Paul condoned slavery (Ephesians 6:5); he also said that all people from Crete are liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons (Titus 1:12). Most sane 21st-century Christians would disagree with both concepts and refrain from preaching them, so why does sex have to be such a big deal? Because it’s sex! And it’s a conveniently lazy brick to throw: It’s so easy to point out the speck in the other’s eye for something we ourselves don’t do—or want to do—rather than looking at the plank in our own.
Here are the two verses in question:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, 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 their own persons the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:26-27 ESV).
They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Romans 1:29-31 ESV).
This first chapter of Romans is not meant to be read in isolation, or Paul’s intended point would be lost. You have to read on to the second chapter, or it’s all too easy to excuse ourselves from the sins we all commit—including gossip, disobedience, foolishness, and heartlessness for a start. Also, Paul and his contemporaries saw same-sex relations as an expression of out-of-control lust or a power game, not as a sexual orientation.
Paul’s choice of words also adds insight: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts” (Romans 1:26 NIV). The Greek word atimias means “dishonor, disgrace, shame, or common,” and it refers to something socially unacceptable rather than actually sinful.
A different Greek word with a similar meaning is used in Romans 1:27: Men committed “shameless acts [aschemosyne] with men ... ” Paul uses this word contextually: aschemosyne is used in the same way as atimia to describe violations of social convention, whether or not such an action is sinful.
The whole, only, and complete point of Christianity is to be and to express love. That’s it. That’s the whole deal. “Love one another ... as I have loved you” (John 13:34 ESV).
Calling on Cultural Context
The words physikos and physis, both translated as unnatural or instinctive, present a challenge. These words would have had different meanings in New Testament times from what we term natural today. We invest these words with a deeper philosophical and wider sexual meaning than Paul did, so automatically assuming that something para physin (against nature) is sinful, and thus universally forbidden, is simply inaccurate.
Even if Paul intended it to mean natural as in how we are born, we now know that gay people are attracted to same-sex individuals “by nature,” that is, they are born that way. So from a biological perspective, it is natural for a gay person to be attracted to someone of their own sex. Suggesting that a gay person remain celibate or ignore their natural sexual orientation would be asking them to do what is unnatural for them.
We cannot be sure what Paul means by “unnatural sexual relations,” and we need to be wary of simply accepting the bulk of interpreters after the first few centuries A.D. who assumed he means same-sex relations. Not only are female same-sex relations never discussed anywhere else in the Bible, but they are also rarely discussed in contemporary sources.
A more likely interpretation is that Paul’s description refers to general sexual misconduct involving women outside the marriage bed. For example, as Roman historian Suetonius recounts, emperor Gaius Caligula “lived in habitual incest with all his sisters.”
Another interpretation from the patriarchal culture of the time meant women were the passive partner in “normal” sexual relations between a man and woman, and any departure from that was considered “contrary.” All the early commentators such as Clement of Alexandria and Augustine see this verse as a reference to anal or oral sex between a man and woman.
The whole, only, and complete point of Christianity is to be and to express love. That’s it. That’s the whole deal. “Love one another ... as I have loved you” (John 13:34 ESV). And you can, validly and wisely, follow that up with “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7 ESV).
The Abominable Box!
In total, the Bible deems 114 “sins” as abominations. Here is a small selection:
- All those who have mixed seeds in a patch of
ground—that would include pretty much any garden (Leviticus 19:19)
- All those with tattoos (Leviticus 19:28)
- All those wearing mixed fibers (Leviticus 19:19)
- All those who have trimmed their beard (Leviticus 19:27)
- All those who’ve cursed their mother or father (Leviticus 20:9)
- All those who work on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3)
- All those who’ve worn clothes belonging to the other gender—that would include women wearing pants (Deuteronomy 22:5)
- All those who don’t stand in the presence of the elderly (Leviticus 19:32)
- All those who eat fat (Leviticus 3:17)
- All those who have touched the skin of an unclean animal—that would include a football, a dog, or a cat (Leviticus 5:2)
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.