traditions, together with an almost unanimous Christian voice, have for millenia
judged homosexual behavior to be contrary to the will of God, and destructive
to human community. At times they did so against pervasive cultural trends in
societies where homosexuality was an accepted practice, at other times they succeeded
in molding public attitudes and social mores and laws. The situation today is
radically different. The Gay/Lesbian campaign for public recognition of homosexuality
as a morally and legally legitimate lifestyle has not only made deep inroads into
the media and into cultural institutions, but it has produced an advocacy in the
Church which calls for a new reformation in which homosexuality is affirmed as
a Christian form of life, demanded by the Gospel and infused with God's spirit.
examples can illustrate the new situation. In a statement of January 22-23, 1993,
the Synod of the Northeast expressed the belief that the Presbyterian Church USA
"should repent its already identified sin of homophobia" implying in
this statement that the church's opposition to homosexuality, which had informed
christian teaching and practice for centuries, was not only wrong, but sinful.
At the same period, in one of our student publications at Princeton Theological
Seminary, issue after issue contained letters by students who said they were coming
out of the closet, that they had found homosexuality to be a gift of God which
they were celebrating with thanksgiving, and that they were charging anybody who
would question their sexual orientation with hypocrisy and with disobedience to
the spirit of the Gospel, which offers God's all-inclusive grace to everyone without
distinction. The debate has reached the point at which the defense of the traditional
stance of the church regarding homosexuality is declared morally reprehensible.
A group organized in January 1995 which calls itself "Semper Reformanda"
identifies advocacy for the Gay/Lesbian movement with the pursuit of justice which
is mandated by the Gospel. The group's founder stated in a telephone interview
their concern for justice and peace: "whether it be justice on behalf of
women or other marginalized people - gay and lesbian people. It's part of our
obedience to Jesus Christ to bring justice in the life of the world, and that
that's an essential part of the mission of the church" (The Presbyterian
Outlook, July 10, 1995, p. 3). With all due respect to fellow Christians who
hold different opinions, it has become impossible to avoid the problem whether
a self-assertive and open homosexual lifestyle is a form of confessing and living
the Gospel, whether it is a denial of the Gospel, or whether it is a neutral question
which has nothing to do with the Gospel one way or another.
Unambiguous Biblical Condemnations of Homosexuality
is virtual agreement among all who participate today in the homosexuality debate
that Old and New Testament contain some unequivocal condemnations of homosexual
practice. These sentences are:
shall not lie with a male as with a woman: it is an abomination" (Lev 18:22).
a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination:
they shall be put to death: their blood is upon them" (Lev 20:13).
gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse
for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse
with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless
acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error"
"Do you not know
that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators,
idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards,
revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor
The condemnation of the law
applies for those "who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators,
sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers" ( 1 Tim 1:9-10).
is debated which precise social behavior is meant by "male-prostitutes"
and "sodomites" in the last two quotes but it is not controversial that
they include homogenital activity.
passages in Old and New Testament are often understood to incriminate homosexuality
also: the gang-rapes told in Gen 19:1-11 and Judg 19-21 may not see the homosexuality
involved in the narratives to be the crime deserving punishment, although Jude
7 is evidence that in New Testament times the story of Sodom and Gomorrah was
read as prime illustration of "sexual immorality" and "unnatural
lust". We will omit discussion of any ambiguous passages.
The Ethos of Human Sexuality in the Bible
few unambiguous condemnations of homosexuality in the Bible are surrounded by
a fairly broad stream of texts which speak of a very high evaluation of human
sexuality. There is an ethos of sexual life in Old and New Testament which must
not be left out of consideration when the issue of homosexuality is discussed.
The terribly dark shadow cast over homosexual activity in the Bible can only be
understood as the contrast of the great light which is shed on the creation of
male and female which elicits the judgment "very good" by its Creator
(Gen 1:31). It is my contention that a great many discussions of the issue of
Gay and Lesbian claims in relation to the Biblical message suffer from the virtual
isolation of this problem from the positive sexual ethos in Scripture. We shall,
therefore, first sketch this positive ethos which is the necessary backdrop for
the Biblical judgments of homosexuality.
are four passages in the New Testament which deal with important aspects of the
relation between men and women by appealing to the creation stories in Gen 1 and
2. The four passages are: Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:3-9; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20;
1 Corinthians 11:2-16; Ephesians 5:21-33.
Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:3-9: Pharisees challenge Jesus with the question whether
it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus' answer goes over the head of
Mosaic legislation back to the creation stories. He says, "from the beginning
of creation `God made them male and female' (Gen 1:27). `For this reason a man
shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall
become one flesh'" (Gen 2:24). Jesus' answer recalls an order of sexuality
older and more pristine than later law. "From the beginning" alludes
not only to a distant past but to the bedrock of human sexuality as God's creation.
The drive which causes a man to leave behind his old family unit to form with
his wife a new union of life (Gen 2:24) is grounded in an antecedent act of divine
creation, the calling into being of a single human being in the two different
forms of male and female (Gen 1:27). As God's creation there is only one human
being who exists in two separate, distinct, and different forms of male and female;
and vice versa, they are in their separateness, distinction, and difference one
single human being. In this simultaneous oneness and duality, male and female
together are the image of God, receive the blessing of God and the unrestricted
approval of their Creator to be "very good" (Gen 1:28, 31).
In 1 Cor 6:12-20 Paul has to contend with a group in the Christian community that
considers it perfectly legitimate for a man to hire the services of a prostitute.
Paul's uncompromising "no" to prostitution is, again, grounded in an
appeal to the creation of Adam and Eve: "Do you not know that whoever is
united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, `The two shall
be one flesh' (Gen 2:24). But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with
him" (v. 16). In contrast to the Corinthian party which considers genital
activity to be a purely biological function, comparable to the digestive process
(v. 13), Paul argues with the creation narrative that the physical union of a
man and a woman establishes a bond in which their very selves, their personhood
are involved, analogous to the bond between a member of Christ and the Lord himself.
c) 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. This section deals
with a question of hair-style and head-dress during communal worship. The circumstances
addressed in this passage are obscure and all reconstructions are hypothetical.
I follow one such hypothesis which sees the issue in an attempt of some Corinthian
women to pray and prophecy in public worship (v. 4) in a manner demonstrating
that the difference between male and female is done away with if one lives in
the Spirit of God. Therefore, they cut their hair in a fashion usual for men and
they discard a head-dress identifying them as women. Paul argues for a retention
of the custom, not in order to endorse a hair-style and a dress-fashion, but to
counter the claim that the difference between male and female is no longer valid
in the new creation. To that end he appeals extensively to the creation story:
Man brings glory to God, as the female brings glory to the male (v. 7 alluding
to Gen 1:27); woman was made from man and in order to complement man who, without
woman, would be utterly alone and helpless (vs. 7-8, referring to Gen 2:18-24),
but man and woman are co-dependent on each other, woman coming out of man but
man also coming out of woman (vs. 11-12). The point of the argument is the insistence
that faith in Christ, the new being in God's spirit, does not eliminate God's
good creation of human life in the essential difference of male and female.
Ephesians 5:21-33 goes as far as to say that the love and care which husbands
and wives exercise for each other are a mystery which embodies in the form of
actual, mundane history the transcendent love and care which unite Christ and
his Church. And again this is said to give final validity to God's creation of
male and female as partners because "for this reason a man shall leave his
father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one."
(Eph 5:31 citing Gen 2:24).
of seeing in the union of an earthly marriage, understood as the unity of two
who are essentially different, an image of the union of Christ and the Church,
picks up on the frequent use of marriage metaphors for the relation which unites
God and God's people both in Old and New Testament. For the prophet Hosea, the
infidelity of Israel toward her god is expressed in the image of a divorce: God
as husband is divorced from Israel as wife (Hosea 1-3). The very marriage of the
prophet is to be an enactment of the loathsome union between a faithful husband
and a faithless wife as the palpable earthly reflection of the history through
which God suffers with his people, and the restoration of God's covenant with
Israel is presented as a new betrothal (Hosea 2:16-20). Jeremiah compares the
positive relation of Yahweh and Israel's youth in the wilderness to the devotion
and love of a bride to her bridegroom (Jer 2:2) and Ezekiel likens God's totally
unmerited mercy toward Israel to the rescue of an abandoned baby girl by a man,
and their subsequent marriage (Ezek 16 and in different form and expanded to two
women in Ezek 23). The New Testament has inherited, expanded, and enriched this
imagery. Paul can say that he has betrothed the Corinthian Christian community
to Christ as a chaste virgin to her one husband (2 Cor 11:2). The new heaven and
the new earth in Rev 21 are cast into the picture of the coming down from heaven
of a new Jerusalem as the bride of Christ. In Jesus' parables and sayings, the
image of the wedding feast is used to describe the arrival of the kingdom of God
in the world. Jesus's coming is the entry of the bridegroom at the wedding feast
(Mark 2:19). People invited to enter into the kingdom of God are presented as
guests invited to the nuptials of the King's son (Matt 22:1-10), and the story
of the virgins, (Matt 25:1-13) uses the same imagery.
course, in all these texts, in Old and New Testament alike, the figures of bride
and bridegroom, husband and wife, of wedding feast and wedding guests, together
with their negatives faithlessness, divorce, and harlotry are images. We are dealing
with metaphors, similes, parables which are not directly identified with the reality
to which they refer. But this cautionary sentence must, at the same time, be put
positively. The sexual images, metaphors, similes, and parables in Old and New
Testaments have the power to express in words a truth which without these words
would forever remain mute and unknown. The language of God and God's people as
bridegroom and bride, as husband and wife, is creative in the extreme. It calls
into being a vista in which the existence of a marriage, and in it the confirmation
of the prior dignity of human life in the polarity of male and female, is elevated
to become a reflection of the wonders of God's relationship with us, of God's
fidelity to us, of God's destiny for us. This produces an ethic in which human
sexuality is enabled to be an imprint of God's covenant with his people. But this
ethic is predicated on the unalterable polarity of male and female. In the covenant
God remains forever clearly and unalterably distinct from us as our creator, as
our Lord, and as our redeemer. The union between God and humans in the covenant
is a bond between two clearly and eternally distinct partners. Exactly for this
reason can God's covenant with the world be mirrored and expressed only through
a human bond in which the unity of the partners preserves and honors the essential
polarity between them.
in Rom 1:26-27
Homosexuality is not
much of a problem in Old and New Testament. The positive ethos of the divine creation
of the human as male and female is so strong that only a few and isolated judgments
of homosexual practices are needed. Only at one point has the issue been drawn
into a theological argumentation, but at that point homogenital practice becomes
no less than the showcase for the ills of a world which has rejected the knowledge
and praise of God the Creator. The passage is Rom 1:26-27 and, here again, the
appeal to the creation story in Gen 1 and 2 is crucial.
1:18-3:20 offers a long indictment of human failing which leads to the conclusion
that, in the light of the revelation of God's power of salvation in the Gospel
(1:16-17), no human being is justified by their own accomplishments in God's sight
(3:20). The opening section, 1:18-32, deals with Gentile religion and morality.
Gentile religion is foolishness (1:22) because it imagines God in the likeness
of created beings (1:23). The first lie of idolatry is immediately followed by
moral degradation. "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts
to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves" (1:24). Religion
and ethics belong together, but for Paul they are yoked in a way that ethics is
outcome and consequence of religion. In the case of Gentile religion the primal
error of substituting the honor of the immortal and invisible God with images
of creation is followed by its necessary consequence in the degradation of morality.
The very showpiece of this moral degradation is homosexual activity (1:26-27).
indictment of homosexuality in Rom 1:26-27 is linked to the preceding argument
against idolatry through the repetition of the word "exchange" which
is used three times. Paul states, first of all, as a general principle the Jewish
conviction that Gentile religion is corrupt because it substitutes ("exchanges")
the glory of God for the veneration of images of mortal beings. Gentile religion
"exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human
being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (1:23). The sequence "human
being, birds, four-footed animals and reptiles" echoes Gen 1:26 which says
that the human being will have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds
of the air, over the cattle, and over the reptiles. The appeal to Gen 1:26 serves
Paul to emphasize that in the fatal substitute of the true God for images, the
human being idolizes the very animals which in the story of creation were to be
subject to human dominion.
"exchange" of legitimate for illegitimate worship is followed by a second
in which the moral implications are also introduced. Gentiles "exchanged
the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than
the Creator" (1:25) which is the reason that God gives them up to their own
desire leading to the degrading of their bodies (1:24). The phrase "degrading
of their bodies" in the second mention of the "exchange" is not
specific. In the third step involving the "exchange", however, the specificity
is palpable: "Women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the
same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed
with passion for one another" (1:26-27). Paul uses words for "men"
(arsenes) and "women" (thleiai) in these verses which
are otherwise not used in his letters (except in Gal 3:28). The words derive from
the vocabulary of the creation story in Gen 1:27 where the one human being (anthropos)
is said to exist in the form of the union of two, male and female (arsen kai
thly). The three uses of the phrase "exchange" coordinate idolatrous
religion and homosexual activity. Idolatrous religion substitutes the worship
of the only true God for objects unworthy of veneration, and homosexuality substitutes
the relationship established by the Creator with a relationship that has no foundation
in God's creation. There is a precise analogy between the exchange of the Creator
for creatures, and the exchange of the Creator's act in ordaining the union of
male and female for the union of members of the same sex.
The Modern Debate about Bible and Homosexuality
unambiguous condemnation of homosexual practice in some Biblical passages is not
disputed today. But its implications for modern Christian ethics, and for the
practice of pastoral care and the ordinances of the churches, is sharply controversial.
I conclude by offering some theses about Biblical teaching on homosexuality in
the modern context.
and the Sexual Ethos of the Bible
is a fundamental mistake, in my view, to discuss Biblical statements on homosexuality
in isolation from the positive ethos of human sexuality in Scripture. As bits
and pieces of Old Testament legislation, and of Jewish heritage in the New Testament,
the sparse references to homosexuality could well be attributed to the social
conditions of a distant past. But seen against the foil of the extremely high
valuation given to the counterpoint of maleness and femaleness in God's creation
in the Bible, the sole attribution to time-bound modes of social norms cannot
be maintained. On the background of the positive ethos of human sexuality in Old
and New Testament, homosexuality becomes inescapably a denial of the goodness
of God's creation.
b) Love-Ethic and
It is said in the debate
today that the New Testament insists on an ethic of love to which everything else
is subordinate. Love embodying the Gospel, it is argued, breaks down legalistic
barriers and reaches out particularly to the disadvantaged and the oppressed.
The validity of this insistence must be recognized without reservation. But it
does not at all follow from it that Christian ethical thought, and ethical practice,
must be restricted to the bare injunction to love without consideration of the
concrete forms of exercising love which correspond to the Gospel. Love is
the fulfillment of the law, but this love is not without its embodiment in actual
concrete areas of human life. "Love is the fulfilling of the law" ...
but this love fans out into the concrete forms of commandments "you shall
not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; your shall not
covet" (Rom 13:9-10). Neither Old nor New Testament assume that human common
sense, or a natural goodness of moral sensibilities, lead everybody to a universal
understanding of what it means to love. Rather, love must be thought through and
practiced in accordance with the act and word of God in which love receives its
distinctive form. And in this context - it must be stated with unambiguous harshness
- sexual relations between male and female are not comparable in kind or in value
to relations between same-sex partners. Heterosexual unions are an emanation of
God's creation: homosexual unions practice the denial of it.
Call for a New Reformation
modern dispute about homosexuality in the Church has produced the argument that
we must be open to changes. The history of the Church demonstrates that it is
necessary, from time to time, to re-evaluate time-honored traditions and to alter
accustomed positions. It is often said that the abolition of slavery and the recognition
of women as fully equal partners with men are issues in which Bible-supported
positions had to be given up. Against this claim it must be kept in mind that,
first, nowhere in Old or New Testament is it indicated that being a member of
a given race, or being a woman, is in conflict with being a part of God's good
creation, but homosexuality is said to be in that conflict. And, second, while
both slavery and a patriarchal society are presuppositions in much Biblical literature,
they are counterbalanced by other aspects of Biblical teaching which have been
used successfully by advocates of the abolition of slavery and of women's rights;
but no such counterbalance exists in the Bible concerning homosexuality. In regard
to homosexual activity there is no Biblical evidence which might soften the unambiguous
stand adopted in the Bible.
the heterosexual norm today find themselves accused with regularity of homophobia,
an attitude that has lately been elevated to the rank of a deadly sin. But the
overused word "homophobia" has caused a blindness to a whole set of
other factors in our society which could well be characterized as heterophobia.
There is among us a spirit, and very much so in the midst of our Christian communities,
which makes men and women distrustful and antagonistic toward each other. Males
advocate "male bonding" as their recipe for salvation and women seek
refuge in the idea of a "women's church" in which a special feminist
theology based on genuinely feminine experiences ought to be established. There
is, in my assessment, a massive outbreak of heterophobia among us today, and the
cry for the recognition of homosexuality in the church is one manifestation of
it. One illustration, a quote from a statement by Kate Millett in 1970: "Women's
liberation and homosexual liberation are both struggling toward a common goal:
a society free from defining and categorizing people by virtue of gender and/or
sexual preference. `Lesbianism' is a label used as a psychic weapon to keep women
locked into their male-defined `feminine role'. The essence of that role is that
a woman is defined in terms of her relationship to men. A woman is called lesbian
when she functions autonomously. Women's autonomy is what women's liberation is
all about." (From Mary A. Kassian, The Feminist Gospel, Wheaton: Crossway
Books, 1992, pp. 84f.)
e) Grace and
It is said very often
today that the exclusion of homosexual practices from permissible forms of sexual
activity in the church amounts to a contradiction of the free and unmerited grace
of God, and constitutes therefore a denial of the all-inclusive claims of the
gospel. But the dynamics of New Testament ethics drive toward the sanctification
of human life, not to the indiscriminate approval of any form of conduct. Why
have all New Testament authors, who are after all the very origin and source for
our knowledge of God's mercy and grace, insisted that there are necessary boundaries
to Christian freedom outside of which freedom turns into enslavement? The Jesus
who turns to sinful people is also the great healer who restores sick life to
health and as the healer he has also instructed his community with a conduct becoming
to discipleship. None of us can claim freedom from sin, and none of us has the
right to hurl condemnations at sinners as though he or she had any ground for
faith but the sheer mercy of God. But the healing community of the great healer
would abandon the mission if it did not diagnose sickness for what it is, and
call for the rejuvenation, indeed the regeneration, of life in the discipline
f) Modern Psychosexual Theory
and the Bible
A point often made
in the modern debate about homosexuality in the Church is the observation that
Old and New Testament had no knowledge of the difference between a homosexual
orientation and homosexual acts engaged in by heterosexually oriented people.
The observation is correct but it misses the point for two reasons. First, Paul
in Rom 1:26-27 does not speak of individual Gentile life- stories but of a dominant
orientation which establishes a characteristic pattern for a whole community.
Comparable would be the dominance of the theory of the superiority of Aryan people
over German history between 1933 and 1945. Without the domination of that racial
theory German history in that period cannot be understood. But that does not mean
that all individual Germans during that period adopted the Aryan theory. Second,
the notion of sexual orientation, or sexual preference, is based on the individualistic
idea that sexuality is determined by personal inclination or choice: what individual
desire dictates is the decisive norm for sexual conduct. Biblical sexual ethos
is irreconcilable with this individualistic approach. The Biblical view of human
sexuality as the union between male and female posits a relationship with all
its consequences as the core of sexual relations. Part of these consequences is
the lifelong acceptance of the gift and the challenge of the other, the procreation
and rearing of children and the care for the family. All of that involves that
human sexuality is, as God's creation of male and female, bound up with community
and, therefore, with unselfish service, with discipline, and with the will to
subordinate individual desires, including sexual urges, to the well-being of others.
Ordination and Civil Rights
ordination of a person to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament is not a civil right.
Therefore, the question of the ordination of self-affirming and practicing homosexual
persons cannot be made a civil rights issue. The Church reserves the right to
establish requirements for ordination which have nothing to do with civil rights.
One such requirement is the achievement of a theological degree as a prerequisite
of ordination. The setting of a boundary which excludes some persons from ordination
is, for that reason, no infringement of a civil right.
The Grace of God and Homosexuality
prohibition of the ordination of self-affirming and practicing homosexual persons
is not tantamount to their exclusion from the Christian community. Christian congregations
are communities in which sinners of all different kinds are invited to receive
forgiveness, healing, and purpose. I have myself knowingly and willingly handed
out the bread and wine of communion to persons whom I knew to be homosexuals.
I have every intention to continue that practice. Ministers of the Church have
no right to restrict the grace of God. But that does not mean that the ministry
of the Church endorses the attempt of the Gay/Lesbian movement to promote homosexual
practices as an alternative life-style. The grace of God is the power which makes
creative choices possible which affirm life as God's creation. Far from eliminating
human responsibility, it is the free grace of God which alone enables heterosexual
and homosexual sinners to make decisions in favor of life. That includes homosexual
persons who, by the grace of God, can find new avenues of personal choices through
which they can enrich the life of the Christian community in ways possible only
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.