Sexual issues are tearing our churches
apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture
whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago.
We naturally turn to the Bible for guidance, and find ourselves mired in interpretative
quicksand. Is the Bible able to speak to our confusion on this issue?
passages that have been advanced as pertinent to the issue of homosexuality are,
in fact, irrelevant. One is the attempted gang rape in Sodom (Gen. 19:1-29), since
that was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers
by treating them "like women," thus demasculinizing them. (This is also
the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing
to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults
of the same sex is legitimate or not. Likewise Deut. 23:17-18 must be pruned from
the list, since it most likely refers to a heterosexual prostitute involved in
Canaanite fertility rites that have infiltrated Jewish worship; the King James
Version inaccurately labeled him a "sodomite."
other texts are ambiguous. It is not clear whether 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10
refer to the "passive" and "active" partners in homosexual
relationships, or to homosexual and heterosexual male prostitutes. In short, it
is unclear whether the issue is homosexuality alone, or promiscuity and "sex-for-hire."
With these texts eliminated,
we are left with three references, all of which unequivocally condemn homosexual
behavior. Lev. 18:22 states the principle: "You [masculine] shall not lie
with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (NRSV). The second (Lev.
20:13) adds the penalty: "If 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."
Such an act was regarded
as an "abomination" for several reasons. The Hebrew prescientific understanding
was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of
eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating
space. Hence the spilling of semen for any non-procreative purpose--in
coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation--was
considered tantamount to abortion or murder. (Female homosexual acts were consequently
not so seriously regarded, and are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament (but
see Rom. 1:26). One can appreciate how a tribe struggling to populate a country
in which its people were outnumbered would value procreation highly, but such
values are rendered questionable in a world facing uncontrolled overpopulation.
addition, when a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was compromised.
It was a degradation, not only in regard to himself, but for every other
male. The patriarchalism of Hebrew culture shows its hand in the very formulation
of the commandment, since no similar stricture was formulated to forbid homosexual
acts between females. And the repugnance felt toward homosexuality was not just
that it was deemed unnatural but also that it was considered unJewish, representing
yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life. On top of that
is the more universal repugnance heterosexuals tend to feel for acts and orientations
foreign to them. (Left-handedness has evoked something of the same response in
Whatever the rationale
for their formulation, however, the texts leave no room for maneuvering. Persons
committing homosexual acts are to be executed. This is the clear command of Scripture.
The meaning is clear: anyone who wishes to base his or her beliefs on the witness
of the Old Testament must be completely consistent and demand the death penalty
for everyone who performs homosexual acts. (That may seem extreme, but there actually
are some Christians today urging this very thing.) Even though no tribunal is
likely to execute homosexuals ever again, a shocking number of gays are murdered
by "straights" every year in this country.
Testament texts have to be weighed against the New. Consequently, Paul's unambiguous
condemnation of homosexual behavior in Rom. 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of
For this reason God 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.
doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which
one has apparently very little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does.
He seems to assume that those whom he condemns are heterosexual, and are acting
contrary to nature, "leaving," "giving up," or "exchanging"
their regular sexual orientation for that which is foreign to them. Paul knew
nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose
orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically in some cases.
For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary
to nature, "leaving," "giving up" or "exchanging"
their natural sexual orientation.
the relationships Paul describes are heavy with lust; they are not relationships
of genuine same-sex love. They are not relationships between consenting adults
who are committed to each other as faithfully and with as much integrity as any
heterosexual couple. Again, some people assume that venereal disease and AIDS
are divine punishment for homosexual behavior; we know it as a risk involved in
promiscuity of every stripe, homosexual and heterosexual. In fact, the vast majority
of people with AIDS the world around are heterosexuals. We can scarcely label
AIDS a divine punishment, since non-promiscuous lesbians are at almost no risk.
Paul believes that homosexuality is contrary to nature, whereas we have learned
that it is manifested by a wide variety of species, especially (but not solely)
under the pressure of overpopulation. It would appear then to be a quite natural
mechanism for preserving species. We cannot, of course, decide human ethical conduct
solely on the basis of animal behavior or the human sciences, but Paul here is
arguing from nature, as he himself says, and new knowledge of what is "natural"
is therefore relevant to the case.
Nevertheless, the Bible
quite clearly takes a negative view of homosexual activity, in those few instances
where it is mentioned at all. But this conclusion does not solve the problem of
how we are to interpret Scripture today. For there are other sexual attitudes,
practices and restrictions which are normative in Scripture but which we no longer
accept as normative:
1. Old Testament
law strictly forbids sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual
period (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24), and anyone in violation was to be "extirpated"
or "cut off from their people" (kareth, Lev. 18:29, a term referring
to execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or to flogging or expulsion; Lev.
15:24 omits this penalty). Today many people on occasion have intercourse during
menstruation and think nothing of it. Should they be "extirpated"? The
Bible says they should.
2. The punishment
for adultery was death by stoning for both the man and the woman (Deut. 22:22),
but here adultery is defined by the marital status of the woman. A married
man in the Old Testament who has intercourse with an unmarried woman is not an
adulterer--a clear case of the double standard. A man could not commit adultery
against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually
using the other's wife. And a bride who is found not to be a virgin is to be stoned
to death (Deut. 22:13-21), but male virginity at marriage is never even mentioned.
It is one of the curiosities of the current debate on sexuality that adultery,
which creates far more social havoc, is considered less "sinful" than
homosexual activity. Perhaps this is because there are far more adulterers in
our churches. Yet no one, to my knowledge, is calling for their stoning, despite
the clear command of Scripture. And we ordain adulterers.
Nudity, the characteristic of paradise, was regarded in Judaism as reprehensible
(2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa. 20:2-4; 47:3). When one of Noah's sons beheld his father
naked, he was cursed (Gen. 9:20-27). To a great extent this nudity taboo probably
even inhibited the sexual intimacy of husbands and wives (this is still true of
a surprising number of people reared in the Judeo-Christian tradition). We may
not be prepared for nude beaches, but are we prepared to regard nudity in the
locker room or at the old swimming hole or in the privacy of one's home as an
accursed sin? The Bible does.
Polygamy and concubinage were regularly practiced in the Old Testament. Neither
is ever condemned by the New Testament (with the questionable exceptions of 1
Tim. 3:2, 12 and Titus 1:6). Jesus' teaching about marital union in Mark 10:6-8
is no exception, since he quotes Gen. 2:24 as his authority, and this text was
never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. A man could become "one
flesh" with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse. We
know from Jewish sources that polygamy continued to be practiced within Judaism
for centuries following the New Testament period. So if the Bible allows polygamy
and concubinage, why don't we?
5. A form
of polygamy was the levirate marriage. When a married man in Israel died childless,
his widow was to have intercourse with each of his brothers in turn until she
bore him a male heir. Jesus mentions this custom without criticism (Mark 12:18-27
par.). I am not aware of any Christians who still obey this unambiguous commandment
of Scripture. Why is this law ignored, and the one against homosexuality preserved?
The Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried
consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman's economic value (bride price)
is not compromised, that is to say, as long as she is not a virgin. There are
poems in the Song of Songs that eulogize a love affair between two unmarried persons,
though commentators have often conspired to cover up the fact with heavy layers
of allegorical interpretation. In various parts of the Christian world, quite
different attitudes have prevailed about sexual intercourse before marriage. In
some Christian communities, proof of fertility (that is, pregnancy) was requisite
for marriage. This was especially the case in farming areas where the inability
to produce children-workers could mean economic hardship. Today, many single adults,
the widowed, and the divorced are reverting to "biblical" practice,
while others believe that sexual intercourse belongs only within marriage. Both
views are Scriptural. Which is right?
The Bible virtually lacks terms for the sexual organs, being content with such
euphemisms as "foot" or "thigh" for the genitals, and using
other euphemisms to describe coitus, such as "he knew her." Today most
of us regard such language as "puritanical" and contrary to a proper
regard for the goodness of creation. In short, we do not follow Biblical practice.
Semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them unclean (Lev. 15:16-24).
Intercourse rendered one unclean until sundown; menstruation rendered the woman
unclean for seven days. Today most people would regard semen and menstrual fluid
as completely natural and only at times "messy," not "unclean."
Social regulations regarding adultery, incest, rape and prostitution are, in the
Old Testament, determined largely by considerations of the males' property rights
over women. Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard
of the virginity of the unmarried and the property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19;
Josh. 2:1-7). A man was not guilty of sin for visiting a prostitute, though the
prostitute herself was regarded as a sinner. Paul must appeal to reason in attacking
prostitution (1 Cor. 6:12-20); he cannot lump it in the category of adultery (vs.
9). Today we are moving, with great social turbulence and at a high but necessary
cost, toward a more equitable, non-patriarchal set of social arrangements in which
women are no longer regarded as the chattel of men. We are also trying to move
beyond the double standard. Love, fidelity and mutual respect replace property
rights. We have, as yet, made very little progress in changing the double standard
in regard to prostitution. As we leave behind patriarchal gender relations, what
will we do with the patriarchalism in the Bible?
Jews were supposed to practice endogamy--that is, marriage within the twelve tribes
of Israel. Until recently a similar rule prevailed in the American South, in laws
against interracial marriage (miscegenation). We have witnessed, within the lifetime
of many of us, the nonviolent struggle to nullify state laws against intermarriage
and the gradual change in social attitudes toward interracial relationships. Sexual
mores can alter quite radically even in a single lifetime.
The law of Moses allowed for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4); Jesus categorically forbids
it (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:9 softens his severity). Yet many Christians, in clear
violation of a command of Jesus, have been divorced. Why, then, do some of these
very people consider themselves eligible for baptism, church membership, communion,
and ordination, but not homosexuals? What makes the one so much greater a sin
than the other, especially considering the fact that Jesus never even mentioned
homosexuality but explicitly condemned divorce? Yet we ordain divorcees. Why not
12. The Old Testament regarded
celibacy as abnormal, and 1 Tim. 4:1-3 calls compulsory celibacy a heresy. Yet
the Catholic Church has made it mandatory for priests and nuns. Some Christian
ethicists demand celibacy of homosexuals, whether they have a vocation for celibacy
or not. One argument is that since God made men and women for each other in order
to be fruitful and multiply, homosexuals reject God's intent in creation. Those
who argue thus must explain why the apostle Paul never married--or, for that matter,
why Jesus, who incarnated God in his own person, was single. Certainly heterosexual
marriage is normal, else the race would die out. But it is not normative.
Otherwise, childless couples, single persons, and priests and nuns would be in
violation of God's intention in their creation--as would Jesus and Paul! In an
age of overpopulation, perhaps a gay orientation is especially sound ecologically!
In many other ways we have developed different norms from those explicitly laid
down by the Bible: "If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife
of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching
out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity" (Deut.
25:11f.). We, on the contrary, might very well applaud her.
The Old and New Testaments both regarded slavery as normal and nowhere categorically
condemn it. Part of that heritage was the use of female slaves, concubines and
captives as sexual toys or breeding machines by their male owners, which Lev.
19:20f., 2 Sam. 5:13 and Num. 31:18 permitted--and as many American slave owners
did some 130 years ago, citing these and numerous other Scripture passages as
The Problem of
These cases are relevant
to our attitude toward the authority of Scripture. Clearly we regard certain things,
especially in the Old Testament, as no longer binding. Other things we regard
as binding, including legislation in the Old Testament that is not mentioned at
all in the New. What is our principle of selection here?
example, modern readers agree with the Bible in rejecting:
But we disagree
with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned the following
behaviors which we generally allow:
nudity (under certain conditions)
And the Bible
regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which we do not.
the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn:
sex with slaves
of women as property
very early marriage
(for the girl, age 11-13)
And while the
Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it.
then do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone,
when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual
Obviously many of our choices
in these matters are arbitrary. Mormon polygamy was outlawed in this country,
despite the constitutional protection of freedom of religion, because it violated
the sensibilities of the dominant Christian culture. Yet no explicit biblical
prohibition against polygamy exists.
problem of authority is not mitigated by the doctrine that the cultic requirements
of the Old Testament were abrogated by the New, and that only the moral
commandments of the Old Testament remain in force. For most of these sexual mores
fall among the moral commandments. If we insist on placing ourselves under
the old law, then, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment
of the law (Gal. 5:3). But if Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), if we
have been discharged from the law to serve, not under the old written code but
in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6), then all of these biblical sexual mores
come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot then take even what Paul says
as a new Law. Fundamentalists themselves reserve the right to pick and choose
which laws they will keep, though they seldom admit to doing just that.
The crux of the matter,
it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical
sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed
over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs
accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits,
we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love
ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are
dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.
very notion of a "sex ethic" reflects the materialism and splitness
of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality
cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is "ethical"
in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person's life, the patterns
of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we
have are simply sexual mores, which change, sometimes with startling rapidity,
creating bewildering dilemmas. Just within one lifetime we have witnessed the
shift from the ideal of preserving one's virginity until marriage, to couples
living together for several years before getting married. The response of many
Christians is merely to long for the hypocrisies of an earlier era.
moral task, rather, is to apply Jesus' love ethic to whatever sexual mores are
prevalent in a given culture. We might address younger teens, not with laws and
commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of
so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming,
and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer
reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights
to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity,
honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other
and of society as a whole. Christian morality, after all, is not a iron chastity
belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship
with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent
with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, being moral
means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others,
and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus.
Morton Kelsey goes so far as to argue that
homosexual orientation has nothing to do with morality as such, any more than
left-handedness. It is simply the way some people's sexuality is configured. Morality
enters at the point of how that predisposition is enacted. If we saw it as a God-given
gift to those for whom it is normal, we could get beyond the acrimony and brutality
that have so often characterized the unchristian behavior of Christians toward
Approached from the point of view
of love rather than that of law, the issue is at once transformed. Now the question
is not "What is permitted?" but rather "What does it mean to love
my homosexual neighbor?" Approached from the point of view of faith rather
than works, the question ceases to be "What constitutes a breach of divine
law in the sexual realm?" and becomes instead "What constitutes integrity
before the God revealed in the cosmic lover, Jesus Christ?" Approached from
the point of view of the Spirit rather than the letter, the question ceases to
be "What does Scripture command?" and becomes "What is the Word
that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition,
theology, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?"
a little-remembered statement, Jesus said, "Why do you not judge for yourselves
what is right?" (Luke 12:57). Such sovereign freedom strikes terror in the
hearts of many Christians; they would rather be under law and be told what
is right. Yet Paul himself echoes Jesus' sentiment immediately preceding one of
his possible references to homosexuality: "Do you not know that we are to
judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!" (1 Cor. 6:3
RSV). The last thing Paul would want is for people to respond to his ethical advice
as a new law engraved on tablets of stone. He is himself trying to "judge
for himself what is right." If now new evidence is in on the phenomenon of
homosexuality, are we not obligated--no, free--to re- evaluate the whole
issue in the light of all the available data and decide, under God, for ourselves?
Is this not the radical freedom for obedience in which the gospel establishes
It may, of course, be objected that
this analysis has drawn our noses so close to texts that the general tenor of
the whole Bible is lost. The Bible clearly considers homosexual behavior a sin,
and whether it is stated three times or 3,000 is beside the point. Just as some
of us grew up "knowing" that homosexual acts were the unutterable sin,
though no one ever spoke about it, so the whole Bible "knows" it to
I freely grant all that. The
issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct. The Bible sanctioned
slavery as well, and nowhere attacked it as unjust. Are we prepared to argue that
slavery today is biblically justified? One hundred and fifty years ago, when the
debate over slavery was raging, the Bible seemed to be clearly on the slave holders'
side. Abolitionists were hard pressed to justify their opposition to slavery on
biblical grounds. Yet today, if you were to ask Christians in the South whether
the Bible sanctions slavery, virtually everyone would agree that it does not.
How do we account for such a monumental shift?
happened is that the churches were finally driven to penetrate beyond the legal
tenor of Scripture to an even deeper tenor, articulated by Israel out of the experience
of the Exodus and the prophets and brought to sublime embodiment in Jesus' identification
with harlots, tax collectors, the diseased and maimed and outcast and poor. It
is that God sides with the powerless. God liberates the oppressed. God suffers
with the suffering and groans toward the reconciliation of all things. In the
light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospel's
imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably
In the same way, women are pressing
us to acknowledge the sexism and patriarchalism that pervades Scripture and has
alienated so many women from the church. The way out, however, is not to deny
the sexism in Scripture, but to develop an interpretive theory that judges even
Scripture in the light of the revelation in Jesus. What Jesus gives us is a critique
of domination in all its forms, a critique that can be turned on the Bible itself.
The Bible thus contains the principles of its own correction. We are freed from
bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as witness
to the Word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book.
the interpretive grid provided by a critique of domination, we are able to filter
out the sexism, patriarchalism, violence, and homophobia that are very much a
part of the Bible, thus liberating it to reveal to us in fresh ways the inbreaking,
in our time, of God's domination-free order.
Appeal for Tolerance
What most saddens
me in this whole raucous debate in the churches is how sub-Christian most of it
has been. It is characteristic of our time that the issues most difficult to assess,
and which have generated the greatest degree of animosity, are issues on which
the Bible can be interpreted as supporting either side. I am referring to abortion
We need to take a
few steps back and be honest with ourselves. I am deeply convinced of the rightness
of what I have been sharing with you. But I must acknowledge that it is not an
air tight case. You can find weaknesses in it, just as I can in others'. The truth
is, we are not given unequivocal guidance in either area, abortion or homosexuality.
Rather than tearing at each others' throats, therefore, we should humbly admit
our limitations. How do I know I am correctly interpreting God's word for us today?
How do you? Wouldn't it be wiser for Christians to lower the decibels by 95 percent
and quietly present our cases, knowing full well that we might be wrong?
know of a couple, both well known Christian authors in their own right, who have
both spoken out on the issue of homosexuality. She supports gays, passionately;
he opposes their behavior, strenuously. So far as I can tell, this couple still
enjoy each other's company, eat at the same table, and, for all I know, sleep
in the same bed.
We in the church need
to get our priorities straight. We have not reached a consensus about who is right
on the issue of homosexuality. But what is clear, utterly clear, is that we are
commanded to love one another. Love not just our gay sisters and brothers who
are often sitting beside us, unacknowledged, in church, but all of us who are
involved in this debate. We don't have to tear whole denominations to shreds in
order to air our differences on this point. If that couple I mentioned can continue
to embrace across this divide, surely we all can do so.
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.