This is part of a series of posts on Christianity and how it relates to homosexuality. You can read the first part of this series here.
When I started this series of posts, I expected it to be steeped in controversy. After all, this is one of the most hotly debated topics in today’s culture, and it’s very difficult to have an honest and open discussion about it without one of the two sides reverting to ad hominem attacks and fear tactics. But I want to stay away from that. I want to do the best I can to approach the subject honestly and sincerely, as well as reaching out to those that have same-sex attractions in a spirit of love. But as Rick Warren has pointed out, loving someone doesn’t mean condoning everything that they do. And so I must come to this topic again to respond to what I believe is a misguided response to what the Bible appears to teach about homosexuality.
The objection that has most recently dominated the discussion between conservative Christians and those who believe God has not condemned homosexuality has to do with the original language. The original Hebrew and Greek words, the latter group says, are not indicators that all homosexual relations are wrong, but refer (typically) to male prostitution, especially connected with idol worship.
Let’s take a look at that.
There are three passages that these discussions typically revolve around: the Old Testament condemnation in Leviticus 18:22, Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18-27, and the mention in a list of sins in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. We’ll look at each of those three passages in turn. I’m not going to address common arguments made about Sodom and Gomorrah because, quite frankly, homosexual rape would be sinful regardless of whether committed homosexual relations are sinful or not, and for that reason, I think it’s more helpful to focus on these other passages, which are presumed to cover all facets of the activity.
The passage in Leviticus says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female. It is an abomination” (18:22). The whole chapter of Leviticus 18 is devoted to specific kinds of sexual sin. It deals with everything from fornication to bestiality, and about everything in between. The word translated male (zakhar) can be translated male or mankind, either one, and it is translated as either depending on which translation you’re reading from. The controversy stems from the end of the sentence, “It is an abomination.” The word abomination, as some point out, most often refers to idolatry.
Well, idolatry is certainly an abomination to God. No argument there. But that is a descriptor of the act that has already been described. Did God say “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female when it’s part of idol worship”? No. The terms used for lie (shakab) and male (zakhar) are common and easily defined terms. The description of the act itself is not disputed, and by making this argument, you’re saying that only idol worship can be identified as an abomination to God. This word for abomination, by the way, is the same word that’s used in Proverbs 6 to list seven things that God hates, among which are a haughty look, one who spreads discord among brethren, and one who sheds innocent blood. So was God talking about idolatry there, too? Of course not. The word is not necessarily indicative of idolatry, but is a general abomination that also refers to moral offense.
The Romans passage, admittedly, is a bit harder to dismiss. Unlike the Leviticus passage, idolatry is specifically mentioned (“changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.”). However, it still can’t be shoved aside as referring only to temple prostitution. To understand why, two things must be taken into consideration. The first is the audience that’s being referenced, and the second is understanding the structure of Paul’s argument. The audience that’s being referred to is Gentiles generally, although he’s zeroing in on those who have dishonored God. So in otherwords, we’re not just talking about those who are temple priests or prostitutes, but Gentiles generally.
The structure of Paul’s argument, however, is much more crucial to understanding this passage. He’s giving an account of things in a manner that is slightly chronological, and largely causal. In that manner, the passage goes like this:
1) God’s attributes are clearly seen, so Gentiles are without excuse. 2) They dishonored God. 3) God gave them over to debased passions.
Notice that the primary sin is not idolatry itself, but that they dishonored God and did not give thanks to Him. Idolatry just happened to be one of the conduits through which they did that. The conduit that they chose does not change the fact that exchanging the natural function for that which is unnatural, men with men committing acts of abomination (which, as demonstrated earlier, refers to moral abomination), is identified clearly as a “debased passion.” Idolatry is not the point. Dishonoring God is the point.
To move to 1 Corinthians 6, we must take on discussion about the original language again. The word that some translations such as the ESV translate “men who practice homosexuality” was not always translated that way. In the King James Version, it’s translated “effeminate,” although the same meaning was probably behind it. The Greek word is malakos, which according to Strong’s can refer to a catamite (the passive partner in homosexual relations), a boy kept for sexual relations with a man, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, and a temple prostitute. So the word can refer to a temple prostitute specifically, or it can refer to a lewd male generally. The word itself does not dictate just one of those uses, so we look to context to narrow the possible definitions for us.
The context of the passage is quite simply that Paul is listing actions and lifestyles that disqualify someone from inheriting the kingdom of God. In this list he mentions fornicators (pornos, a male prostitute; not necessarily a temple prostitute, also someone who indulges in unlawful sexual relations generally), idolaters (eidōlolatrēs, worshipper of false gods), and adulterers (moichos, either an adulterer or symbolically one who is unfaithful to God). Nothing about that context necessitates an idolatrous context. Do we assume that adultery is only within an idolatrous context? Do we assume God only condemns fornication if it is in idol worship? What about the activities in verse 10? Is thievery only condemned in idolatry? Is coveting only wrong when you’re in an idol’s temple?
But what comes immediately after malakos really puts this argument to rest. After malakos (effeminate, or the passive partner in homosexual relations) comes arsenokoitēs, which Strong’s gives only one definition for: one who lies with a male as with a female. In fact, even modern scholars such as De Young in 2000 and Gagnon in 2001 identify these two words as the passive and active roles in homosexual relations. The fact that the latter has no typical use in connection with temple worship is important. Some have tried to say that it should be defined as connected with temple worship, but it doesn’t appear a single time in the New Testament in that context.
While some modern scholars have gone to a great deal of trouble to explain away these passages, even labeling them “clobber passages,” the original language, and the context surrounding it, does not support their claims. In fact, the context and original language send a very different message: no matter what role you play in them, homosexual relations are wrong. It’s also noteworthy to point out that these passages do not condemn preexisting same-sex attractions. The one who is experiencing same-sex attractions is experiencing a temptation, but the Bible is certainly clear on one fact: the actions are sinful.