Taking the Bible seriously

Editor’s note: This post was written by one of our pastors, Rev. Phil Snider, as a quick resource in response to comments on our Facebook page condemning LGBTQIA+ persons. He tried to publish it as a comment but it was too long, so he’s using our church blog to link it.

I wish it was all as simple as you describe. But part of taking the Bible seriously means studying it from an in-depth perspective. That’s why I recommended those books and articles.

It’s not as straightforward as you imply. For example, the Bible frequently condones slavery. St. Paul writes that “slaves should obey their masters.” Was Harriet Tubman wrong for emancipating those enslaved through the Underground Railroad? I doubt you would think it was sinful to free those enslaved, even if that meant going against St. Paul’s teachings. The Bible also refers to women as the property of men. Weddings were arranged property exchanges. Do you also wish to affirm that women are the property of men? I don’t say this to be harsh, but to make the point that the Bible isn’t always straightforward on these matters. And when a person uses the Bible to throw LGBTQIA+ persons under the bus, such a dangerous and violent interpretation of scripture deserves scrutiny.

Here’s the tl;dr version of what you’ll find in the books I initially recommended. I share it here so (1) you’ll know we take the Bible very seriously and (2) for others passing by to have this context in case it’s helpful.

CW: Violence, abuse and assault

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In the Bible, there are five or six verses that talk about what you here refer to as “homosexuality.” There are two verses from Leviticus, one from 1 Corinthians, one from 1 Timothy, and one from Romans. A lot of times people throw Genesis 19 into the mix (the story of Sodom and Gomorrah), but for reasons I’ll mention shortly most scholars don’t.

Leviticus 18:22 says that “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman” and Leviticus 20:13 says “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, they’ve committed an abomination.” So the easy thing is to say that this settles the matter. Yet many of the people who say this settles the matter have no problem with other Levitical taboos. Such as eating barbecued pork. Or shellfish. Or wearing clothes made from two different types of materials. Or lending money with interest. All without batting an eye. So why do we hold up some verses as authoritative but completely disregard others? Such a lack of consistency makes it difficult to justify our reasons for condemning one thing as taboo while ignoring other taboos that lie side by side in the text. Do you think men who lie with other men should receive the death penalty? It’s very troubling if your answer to this question is yes. Yet that’s precisely what the second half of Lev. 20:13 says.

I once saw a picture on Facebook of a tattoo that said “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” with the biblical reference Lev. 18:22. Yet if you go on to read Leviticus 19, you’ll see that Leviticus forbids tattoos, lol. If you wish to follow every ethical injunction in the Bible, then kids who curse their parents have to be executed, as well as brides who aren’t virgins, as well as a bunch of other things we would never do. This is why the corny bumper sticker that reads “The Bible says it – I believe it – That settles it” is so non-sensical and unhelpful. This is no simple matter. [And if you say, “these are Old Testament commands that no longer matter,” then (1) remember my previous comment on this thread from St. Paul in the New Testament, who wrote, “slaves obey your masters,” (2) Jesus says nothing about what you are here describing as homosexuality, and (3) this means that you are no longer allowed to invoke the Old Testament to support your views on sexuality, based on the rules you’ve set forth.]

To be sure, as so many modern Jewish rabbis and scholars point out, the Old Testament does not teach us to condemn LGBTQIA+ persons. When the Bible refers to a person having sex with a person of the same gender (which the Bible only refers to a few times), it is not within the context of relationships shared by mutually consenting adults, as we understand to be the case today among, for instance, same-sex couples seeking the right to legally marry.

This requires understanding more — not less — of the Old Testament’s context. Ancient Israel was a small, fragile nation, and it needed as strong of a defense as possible. In order to survive it believed in procreating as much as possible in order to increase the number of soldiers in the army. So men were not to “waste” their seed whatsoever, whether with other men or by themselves (cf. the “sin of Onnan,” Genesis 38), because the purpose of sexuality from this vantage point was procreation. This is also much of the reason why brothers of those who died without children were supposed to have relations with their late brother’s widow, in order to bear children, which is yet another biblical practice that none of us heed today. We must also keep in mind that there were cultic worship practices among devotees to other gods that involved temple prostitution between males, and Israel was not to order their worship practices the same way, but to be set apart. Part of this is also connected to ritual purity codes, and in the same way men were not to have relations with one another, neither were men supposed to have relations with women during a certain time of the month (related to menstrual cycles). So there are a variety of contextual considerations that come into play, and we have to ask ourselves if the same principles that applied then still apply today. There’s no clear cut answer. All of us won’t come to the same conclusions, but we have the responsibility to ask the same questions, and to respond with integrity.

I mentioned earlier that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, from Genesis 19, is sometimes cited as a text prohibiting homosexuality. In the story, the men of Sodom come to assault Lot’s visitors, who they do not recognize as being two angels, and Lot offers to hand over his daughters instead. However, offering daughters instead of the visitors makes no sense if we think of the men of Sodom as “homosexuals.” “These Sodomites are violent bullies,” one scholar writes, “who carry their excesses to the point of attempted rape. Such behavior still occurs in the aftermath of battle, in prisons, or among violent gangs. Those who perform such forced rapes consistently insist that they are straight, and their actions seem indeed to be intended to assert power rather than to express sexual attraction.” (See William Placher, Jesus the Savior, 98). Here, according to these socially and hierarchically constructed gender roles, men in the role of aggressor place conquered or victimized men in the role of the woman, all in order to assert dominance, power, and authority over them, which is a practice that continues today in prisons and in the aftermath of battle, among “straight” men asserting their dominance over others. A problematic practice indeed, one to be unequivocally condemned, but not one that has anything to do whatsoever with two men who share a loving, mutual relationship. Quite the opposite. Hence the reason most biblical scholars don’t view the sin of Sodom as that of homosexuality (indeed, according to the book of Ezekiel, the sin of Sodom is that they “did not aid the poor and needy” cf. Ez. 16:49).

Things get even murkier when we turn our attention to the New Testament. Here we encounter three texts that condemn same gender relations. The passages from 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are virtually identical. The other one is from Romans 1.

In Greco-Roman culture, the context in which St. Paul (the author of these letters) was situated—same-sex activity was quite common. Often, as a rite of passage, adolescent boys were subjected as passive partners to older men of power and prestige. The older men would display their power by relegating these adolescent boys to the passive role of women—further establishing the patriarchal social constructions of Greco-Roman culture. When the boy became an adult, he would switch roles, and then he would marry a woman and have children. This practice was so common that the Greek philosopher Plato took all of this for granted and praised the virtues of courage and honor that resulted from such relationships. Obviously this is problematic and should be condemned. Just as obviously, this has nothing to do with two people (regardless of gender or gender identity) who share a loving, mutual relationship.

I can’t say this emphatically enough: None of these passages contain a Greek word that refers to what twentieth-century English translations of the Bible call homosexuality. To say the Bible condemns homosexuality is to make a modern argument, not an ancient one. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the word homosexuality even appeared in English translations of the Bible.

In fact, there is no such word in ancient Greek. In 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1, two Greek words appear: malakoi and arsenokoitai, which are combined in the New International Version of the Bible as “men who have sex with men,” but their exact meaning is dependent upon understanding the Greco-Roman context I described above. The Greek word “malokoi” is slang for boys who played the passive role in sexual intercourse, hence the reason it is associated with this practice. The meaning of “arsenokoitai” is more difficult to isolate, for Paul’s writings represent the first time the word appears in all of Greek literature, so interpreters are left with their best guess, with most assuming that Paul shared the standard cultural views in first century rabbinic thought.

Romans 1 says that women lying with one another and men being consumed with passion is unnatural — that it goes against the created order — and this is one of the arguments still made today. But appealing to natural law (the created order) is a dangerous path to tread. After all, as mentioned above, Paul’s writings have also been used to justify slavery and patriarchy. As the theologian John Caputo comments, “Natural law theory is notorious for serving the interests of the natural law theorists, for starting with a conclusion and then working back to the idea of ‘nature’ that provides them with a suitable cover.” In the cases of slavery and patriarchy, it’s convenient for men who already have the power to define what nature means. And when it comes to such situations today, don’t we gladly admit that Paul reflected an ancient bias that no longer holds? All of which raises the unavoidable question: If Paul got the “natural law” wrong when it came to slavery and patriarchy, who’s to say he got it right when it comes to homosexuality? Critics often object at this point and say that the only way to populate the species is intercourse between a man and a woman, so the natural law is clear. But if the only purpose for sexual activity is the procreation of the human race, should we then condemn sexual activity between married senior citizens or younger couples who are infertile? Again, we are left with questions that Paul never considered.

This is not “manipulating” the Bible to suit an agenda. It is studying the Bible. We invite others to do the same.

There is much more that could be written on all of this, which is why I recommended those books and articles. One can only write so much in a Facebook post.