By L. Alfred James
In the book of Leviticus there are two verses that clearly condemn homosexual behavior:
“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” (Leviticus 18:22)
“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable.” (Leviticus 20:13)
It is hard to imagine Moses being any clearer on the subject. Nonetheless, there are some valid objections to simply taking these verses at face value.
Isn’t This Just An Old Testament Thing?
I know what some of you might be thinking: “In the New Testament those rules about homosexuality were abolished, like ritual washings, or the dietary laws against eating pork and shellfish, right?”
Actually, no. The New Testament is just as clear as the Old Testament in condemning homosexual behavior. For instance, the Apostle Paul wrote:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
Paul states that the sexually immoral, thieves, the covetous, drunkards, revilers, swindlers, and homosexual offenders will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” And in the very next verse he adds, “Such were some of you.” The Corinthians had experienced a change of their identity.
Although homosexuality is a distortion of God’s original design, it isn’t singled out in Paul’s list. Paul includes heterosexual sin (fornication, adultery), sins related to possessions (thieving, coveting, swindling), and— here’s a broad one that hits close to home— idolatry. Why is it, one wonders, that Christians loudly championing “biblical morality” on sexual matters are often strangely silent on the New Testament’s teachings about money and possessions? Believe it or not, God actually puts greed in the same category as theft, drunkenness, idolatry, and sexual immorality.
But let’s focus on the issue of homosexuality. The Greek word that Paul uses here is arsenokoitai. It means “people who are practicing homosexual behavior.” This is a very important point. What is condemned is the behavior, not the orientation. It is not having same-sex attractions that God condemns. It is the act of yielding to those attractions that he condemns.
Let me be very clear about what this means. The Bible does not say that homosexuals go to hell. It doesn’t say that anywhere. It does not condemn a person who finds themselves feeling same-sex attractions. But it does condemn the indulgence of those desires. It condemns yielding to those desires by engaging in homosexual behavior. One sees this again in Paul’s first letter to Timothy:
We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers-and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1:9)
Don’t miss the precision of Paul’s language. He does not condemn same-sex orientation or having occasional homosexual desires. He condemns acting out those desires. To be specific, he condemns those practicing homosexuality. This is the same Greek word that was used in 1 Corinthians 6:9. It condemns yielding to same-sex desires, particularly if one has chosen to embrace homosexual behavior as a lifestyle. On this passage, the New Testament scholar David Prior observes, “Paul is not talking about isolated acts of unrighteousness, but about a whole way of life pursued persistently by those who thus indicate that they would be aliens in the kingdom of truth and light.”1
This means, before God, there is little difference between a homosexual and an unmarried person. In both cases they have sexual desires that they have to restrain. We could also include married people as well, since most married people that I know will admit that they occasionally find members of the opposite sex to be very attractive. But they have to exercise restraint. They know that they cannot be sexually involved with anyone besides their spouse.
One finds the same emphasis on homosexual behavior in Romans 1:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. 28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. (Romans 1:24)
Paul does not condemn anyone for merely having same-sex attractions. It is the behavior that he condemns. (By the way, Paul is referring here to entire cultures that have abandoned God. When this happens, homosexual behavior starts to become more common. This passage is not focusing on individual people but cultures. So, if you struggle with same-sex desires don’t read this passage and think, “God has given me over to these desires?” No. He is pointing out that when a culture abandons God homosexual behavior becomes more common.)
Maybe the Bible Only Condemns Certain Kinds of Homosexual Behavior
In response, some people suggest that all of these New Testament passages do not refer to all homosexual sex. Instead, these passages might merely be referring to one of the following:
- homosexual conduct between men and underage boys
- homosexual prostitution (where money is exchanged)
- unfaithful homosexual relationships
- “unnatural” homosexual conduct by people who do not naturally have homosexual desires
However, none of these biblical passages make any such distinction. None of them give the slightest indication that they are only talking about certain types of homosexual conduct. And when no such distinction is made in the Bible anywhere, it is not a correct method of interpretation simply to claim that these passages have a limited scope and application. That is to twist scripture to make it mean what you want it to mean. The Bible’s treatment of homosexual sex is not like, for instance, its treatment of worship. One can engage in worship that is honoring to God (Exodus 23:25), or one can engage in empty worship that is merely a ritual (Isaiah 1:11-15), or one can engage in the worship of idols (2 Kings 17:12). In fact, one can see this in the Ten Commandments. God prohibits the making of idols, and then says, “You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:5).2
The Bible makes a distinction between different kinds of worship. Some worship is good, and some is bad.
However, there are not distinct kinds of homosexual behavior in the Bible. Nowhere does it recognize any kind of homosexual conduct as being acceptable. It condemns all of it. In scripture, the words themselves—as they are written—apply to all kinds of homosexual conduct. There is absolutely no justification for saying that they do not. Besides that, several ancient writers before or near the time of the New Testament viewed all homosexual conduct as wrong and used language very similar to Paul’s language in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg summarizes this nicely: “It is …linguistically invalid to limit the type of homosexual behavior Paul describes either to pederasty (adult men with underage boys) or to homosexual prostitution (casual sex for profit between individuals not committed to a lasting relationship with each other).”
To be sure, based on philosophical or scientific reasoning you might come to a different conclusion. You might decide that homosexual behavior is acceptable. Thus, you might conclude that we should not restrict ourselves to what the Bible says here. If that is what you choose to think, that is your prerogative. However, you should not be intellectually dishonest. The Bible, from beginning to end, clearly condemns all homosexual conduct. There is no way around it.
1. David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 89.
2. Craig L. Blomberg. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).