There are two radically different ways of reading the Bible; we can approach it under the Law or under Grace. Most of our difficulties in discussing religious issues arise from being unclear as to which method we are using. How we approach the Bible will affect how we understand its stance on homosexuality.
I believe that both Jesus’ and Paul’s method of religious interpretation was to read the Jewish texts under Grace. The Evangelium (Good News) of the Bible is that the Law has been fulfilled. We are freed from the Law and are now living under God’s grace. If we read through the approach of Grace, it means that to spread this message, we all need to become evangelicals, those who spread the Good News.
This is not generally how those who oppose expressions of same-sex love interpret the text. Opponents argue that homosexual sex and love are explicitly condemned by the Law of the Bible. In order to support this concept, six passages are usually cited: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 22:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10.
In order for these passages to be used to condemn homosexual sex or love, they must be taken out of context and read as “stand-alone texts” (this is termed eisogesis, or “cherry-picking”). Yet we will find that even under the Law of the Bible, these texts do not condemn this sex or love love if we place the texts into their biblical context. Instead, they have much to say about Love and the priority of Love in our lives and interactions with others.
The most commonly used text is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. As told in the Book of Genesis, the men of the town come to Lot’s house and demand the strangers who are visiting him. The strangers are two angels in the form of men, and the men of the town want to rape them. Lot refuses and offers his daughters instead (in a parallel story in Judges 19:22ff, a concubine is thrown to the men, who rape and torture her all night). For centuries this text was interpreted under the Law as condemning the lack of Love the town showed to the stranger in their midst (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:23, Ezekiel 16:48-49, Matthew 10:14-15, Luke 10:10-12). The Bible itself offers the clearest and most consistent interpretation of this text: not as a commentary on homosexual sex, but rather as a condemnation of hate and violence to the stranger who has come among us.
The next texts are from Leviticus (Lev 18:22, 22;13). Here again, if the passages are taken out of their biblical context, they appear to condemn homosexual sex (without mentioning love). They become less clear when we place them back into their biblical context, however. Here they are part of a much longer series of laws against ritual behavior that worships gods other than the Jewish God, Yahweh. In the context of Leviticus, the Hebrew word that has been translated as “abomination” has the very specific meaning of “ritually unclean.” Leviticus 18 and 20 are almost identical and are very specific in stating that the laws that follow are to distinguish the Israelites’ ritual behavior from that of their neighbors.
At the time that the laws of Leviticus were written, many of Israel’s neighbors practiced sacred sex. There were men and women whose ritual role was to have sex with worshippers as a way of increasing the fertility of the land and the family. Leviticus’s warning to “not participate in the practices of other religions” applies to both pouring out a libation of grain to an idol and having sex with a priest to guarantee a good harvest. The text says nothing about what two men or two women who love each other should do outside of worship.
The final verses commonly used to condemn homosexualtiy are 1 Corithians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. They are purity codes, though “vice codes” might be a more appropriate term, and list groups of people who will not get into Heaven. Both use one English word (“homosexuals” in the Revised Standard Version) to translate two words in the original lists. The original words are malakos and arsenokoitai. The first term is a common Greek word meaning “soft.” It is used elsewhere in the Bible with a connotation of “sick,” and in other writings of the period to mean “delicate,” “gentle,” or “wanting in self-control.” Nowhere is malakos assumed to mean a homosexual person or someone who engages in gay sex.
The second term, arsenokoitai, is more difficult to translate because Paul’s is the earliest use we have (some scholars think Paul himself might have coined it). In Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Yale University professor John Boswell argued that the term combined arsenoi (“men”) and koitai (a crude term for “coitus”) and was understood to mean “male prostitute” well into the fourth century. In Timothy, the morality code is followed by a discussion of the sin of going to prostitutes, which would tend to support the idea that the term relates to prostitutes only. Thus when we read the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy texts in context and with correct translations, we can see that they don’t condemn homosexual sex and love under the Law. And yet, we may not be meant to read the Bible under the Law at all.
What do I mean by living our lives under Grace? We are all familiar with the idea that we are justified by grace. Justification, for Paul, was a well-known legal term meaning that the defendant has been declared innocent by the judge. Paul understands that this justification by God has occurred in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1, 9) and that it is for all people (Rom. 5:18). Moreover, justification occurs not because we have done anything to win acquittal, but because we are acquitted while we sin (Rom. 4:5). Any attempt to win our justification (or God’s pleasure) is the sign that we do not have faith in what God has done for us. As Robin Scroggs puts it in his excellent book Paul for a New Day, “justification is an act of sheer grace, of gift.”
So what does this mean about how to interpret the Bible in a state of Grace? Should we now throw it out since we are free of the law? Hardly, but we must stop treating it like an idol to be worshipped in its own right. Jesus felt the freedom to live as God led him (e.g. “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” Mark 2:27). He interpreted the law not as a prison that must be endured, but as a guideline to help with difficult choices. Friends and Christians who argue that homosexuality is a sin because the Bible says it is are treating the Bible as a deity and are living under the Law they find there. They have not found a living God but are trapped in the prison of paper and ink.
In the case of homosexual love, one can easily argue that any specific anti-gay biblical texts have nothing to do with our current reality, but this rarely reaches the hearts of those who disagree. We need to work to bring people out of their reliance on a deadening text and into the greater reality shown by Jesus, of freedom to live the lives God intends for us. Until we all live in the Spirit that infuses life in the Bible, our interpretations will not make sense to each other. And once we all live in that Spirit, we will know that God has already called us to live outside of the prison of the law and in the freedom of Grace that God has shown us.