The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships

We Quakers have been wrestling with the issue of same-sex relationships for some time, at least since Alastair Heron and others put together Towards a Quaker View of Sex in the early 1960s. While some of us find affirmation of such relationships relatively straightforward, some of us believe such relationships go against the teachings of Scripture and cannot find clearness to affirm them. The biblical teachings at issue are a half-dozen passages: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, 1 Corinthians 6, Romans 1, and 1 Timothy 1. I will look at each one in some detail.

Genesis 19

The 19th chapter of Genesis occurs in the context of the story of Abraham and Sarah. According to Gen. 12-18, the family, including Abraham’s nephew Lot, had left its homeland of Ur to go to Canaan. Eventually Lot and Abraham separated, with Lot choosing the well-watered plain that included the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, towns with a reputation for sinfulness.

Chapter 19 tells a strange story. Angels visited Sodom and planned to spend the night in the town square, but Lot insisted that they stay with him. Before the household retired for the night, men of the town surrounded the house and demanded the visitors for sex. In an effort to protect the visitors and calm the townsmen, Lot went outside and offered his two virgin daughters. The men were furious and were about to assault Lot when the angels snatched him back into the house and blinded the townsmen. The angels told Lot that God was going to destroy Sodom and urged him to gather his family and escape. His daughters’ fiancĂ©s refused to leave, so in the morning, the angels led Lot and his wife and daughters out of town and told them to run for the mountains and not look back. Burning sulfur rained onto Sodom and Gomorrah, destroying the entire area. Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters ended up living in a cave in the mountains, and the daughters, seeing how isolated they were, got their father drunk and had sex with him to preserve the family line and so established two nations.

Those who claim this passage makes a clear moral judgment against same-sex relationships say that the men of the town were homosexuals and that God destroyed the cities because of their behavior, but many find this claim less than convincing. For one thing, given the father’s treatment of his daughters and their incest with him, this chapter is an odd choice on which to build a sexual ethic. To use Genesis 19 as the basis for condemning homosexual behavior would seem also to accept the values represented by Lot’s offer of his daughters for rape and the daughters’ decision to get their father drunk and have sex with him in order to secure their future. We might want to think twice before accepting such a course.

For another thing, Luke 10:10-13 indicates that Jesus said the moral judgment in Genesis 19 is against the sin of inhospitality, and Ezekiel 16:49-50 maintains that God destroyed the cities for arrogance, decadence, and complacency. So, evidence from elsewhere in the Bible suggests that the moral of the story has nothing to do with homosexuality.

Some see a sexual theme in the story but argue that it condemns gang rape rather than marriage-like same-sex relationships. Evidence for this view is found in a parallel story in Judges 19, in which an Israelite priest traveling with his concubine has difficulty finding hospitality in an area inhabited by Israelites, but a foreigner offers him a place to stay. As in Genesis 19, men of the town demand the visitor (the priest) for sex, and the
host offers his daughter instead; but here the priest gives the men his concubine, whom the men rape throughout the night and leave on the doorstep. In the morning, the priest finds his dead concubine, takes her body home in disgust, dismembers it and sends a piece to each of the 12 tribes of Israel. They send troops to exact retribution, and the people and towns of the area are destroyed. Again, this would be a strange story on which to build a sexual ethic, and no one interprets this story as teaching against heterosexual relationships.

To insist that Genesis 19 reflects divine judgment about same-sex relationships is to ignore evidence that the story teaches important lessons about showing hospitality to strangers, treating vulnerable members of society with justice, and renouncing forced sex. It would also ignore the relevance of the parallel text: if Genesis 19 condemned homosexual relationships, Judges 19 would condemn heterosexual relationships.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Lev. 18:22 reads, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Lev. 20:13 says, “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.” The context here is the Holiness Code, ancient texts that explain how the people of Israel are to be holy, set apart both for God and from other nations. Among other concerns, it tells the people how to deal with polluting emissions of semen and menstrual blood and also urges the Israelites to avoid the practices of neighboring nations, including worship of foreign gods.

The two verses we’re looking at seem to condemn homosexual behavior clearly and harshly. They would add strong support for the case against the moral validity of same-sex relationships except for a number of factors. They say nothing about same-sex acts between women, and most Christians do not follow Leviticus’s other rules such as those that prohibit mixing fibers in clothing. Further, to put the recommended penalty in perspective, Lev. 20:9 advocates the execution of children who curse their parents.

Also, the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “abomination,” though not clear, is often associated with idolatry or that which is foreign. The use of “abomination” combined with the context indicates that the verses condemn male same-sex acts because of concerns about religious purity: such acts involve a bodily emission, are attributed to people of other nations, and are associated with worship of other gods.

In addition, some have argued that the authors of Leviticus believed that male same-sex relations disturb the hierarchy of the created order because in them a man treats another man like a woman by being “active” and making the other “passive,” by penetrating one who is meant to be a penetrator. According to this interpretation of these passages, sexual relations between men reduce some males to the role of females, and holiness meant keeping the hierarchy intact by treating men as men and women as women.

For us to accept Leviticus as morally binding against sexual relationships between men would require us to provide a supportable account of why we should follow this but not other of Leviticus’s rules, especially since we share neither its concern about this kind of religious purity nor its view of sex as requiring a hierarchical relationship.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11

The verses cited in opposition to same-sex relationships from 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy have much in common. Both are found in Pauline letters, and both include similar lists of undesirable behaviors. In the NRSV, 1 Cor. 6:9-10 reads, “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.” Here the message is that persons in the congregation at Corinth used to do these kinds of things, but, as followers of Jesus, do so no longer. 1 Tim. 1:9-11 says, “the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel….” The emphasis here is that Christians may use Jewish law when it coincides with the gospel.

The Greek word translated “male prostitutes” in 1 Corinthians literally means “soft.” Biblical scholars say that the word in ancient texts referred to luxurious clothing, rich and delicate food, a gentle breeze or, when used to condemn immorality, to faults associated with effeminacy such as being weak, lazy, lustful, decadent, or cowardly. It had no relation to the sex of a man’s preferred sexual partner, and using this reasoning to condemn same-sex relationships would mean accepting the negative view of women that the ancient term implies.

The Greek word translated “sodomites” in both of these passages is a relatively rare term whose meaning is unclear; it might have referred to a man who uses male prostitutes or a man who has sex with boys. It probably didn’t mean two adult men in a committed relationship and so has little if any relevance to today’s issue.

Romans 1

The first chapter of Romans talks about what happens when people reject what they know about the Creator to follow the path of idolatry. In this context, it calls lust and sexual acts between two women and two men “unnatural.” Some maintain that if such acts are unnatural, they must be seriously wrong.

Many counterarguments focus on what unnatural means. Some say that homosexual acts are unnatural for heterosexual but not for homosexual people. Others note that the Greek phrase usually translated as “unnatural” more accurately means “beyond nature,” indicating that the problem the passage identifies has to do with people whose sexual appetites were insatiable and so sought out new and different sexual experiences—that the issue is excessive lust rather than choice of partner. Still others point out that Rom. 11:24 says God acted unnaturally when grafting Gentiles onto the Jewish olive tree; unnatural, then, does not mean morally wrong. Also, 1 Cor. 11:2-16 says that long hair for women and short hair for men are natural, so that the concept of naturalness reflects cultural expectations, including patriarchal notions of relations between the sexes. Bernadette Brooten, in Love Between Women, argued that “unnatural” in the era of early Christianity reflected a concept of sexual acts as necessarily involving one active and one passive person based on social standing, with adult men the active sexual partners and boys, male slaves, and females of any age (whether slave or free) the passive sexual partner; thus, unnatural sexual acts disrupt the social order. None of these concepts of naturalness requires us to condemn same-sex relationships.

In addition, following right on the heels of the passage about how wicked people have become, Rom. 2:1-4 asserts that those who pass judgment on others are showing contempt for God’s kindness toward them, since they have also been wicked. This counsel might give one pause before using Romans 1 to justify condemnation of same-sex behavior.

Where does that leave us? Many who consider the Bible authoritative find what is put forth as the biblical case against homosexuality less than convincing. Even some who argue against the moral validity of same-sex relationships concede that the Bible does not deal with the issues central to the contemporary debate: the concept of sexual orientation and the possibility of marriage-like relationships between two people of the same sex.

As a result, some have proposed more constructive approaches to the debate on biblical grounds. For example, Luke Johnson, Jeffrey Siker, and Stephen Fowl have suggested that Acts 10-15, which tells how Gentiles came to be included in the (Jewish) Christian community, might offer precedents and guidance for including homosexual persons in Christian fellowship. In this passage, the apostle Peter’s witness to God’s blessing on Cornelius (a Roman army officer), coupled with the experiences of Paul and Barnabas among Greek people who decided to follow Jesus, resulted in finding clearness to include non-Jewish people into the Christian community without requiring them to become Jewish. (See Luke Johnson, Scripture and Discernment; Jeffrey Siker, “Homosexuals, the Bible and Gentile Inclusion,” Theology Today, July 1994; Stephen Fowl, Engaging the Scripture.) In many ways, such an approach parallels the case made by the Quaker Robert Barclay in his Apology for including women in ministry: he saw evidence of God in them.

Others have suggested that any Christian interpretation of the Bible must support the primary principles of love for God and neighbor, a rule of interpretation that has a strong foundation within Christianity. From this perspective, we can accept no interpretation of biblical passages that involves injustice or causes harm to persons, and many would say that condemning homosexual persons does promote injustice and cause harm.

My own work has centered on the Christian theology of marriage. Augustine, whose 5th-century writings form the basis of that theology, taught that marriage is good because it provides for the having and raising of children, supports the virtue of fidelity, helps people deal with strong sexual desire, and involves loving companionship and a spiritual bond between two people. He also found childless marriages to be valid because of the other reasons marriage is good. I have argued that same-sex couples are as able as heterosexual couples to have and raise children (or not), make and keep promises to be faithful, experience a loving relationship and a bond in which two lives become one, and benefit from such a context in which to express sexuality.

In summary, the passages usually cited as standing against homosexuality do not make a strong case against marriage-like same-sex relationships. Alternative approaches indicate that the Bible does offer precedents for including as full members in the Christian community peoples previously deemed unacceptable, that the principle of love must stand against injustice, and that the Christian theology of marriage based in the teachings of Augustine could extend to include same-sex relationships. Since the Bible does not straightforwardly condemn same-sex relationships and does suggest ways for thinking about inclusion, perhaps more of our meetings can find a way forward on this important matter.

Catherine Griffith

Catherine Griffith, an Oregon native, grew up among Evangelical Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting. She is a member of Valley Mills (Ind.) Meeting and was a pastor there for 12 years. Currently she attends Charlottesville (Va.) Meeting. She recently received a PhD degree in Religious Ethics from University of Virginia.