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One Flesh (Part III) . . . The Same Sex Challenge

Written by: Belleville, Linda    Posted on: 01/30/2006

Category: Misc.


    In light of the December 1996 Circuit Court ruling in Hawaii to void a state marriage license prohibition for same-sex couples, there can be no doubt that the homosexuality[1] issue will continue to be one of the biggest challenges that our society faces in the coming decades.

The United States Congress, shortly before this ruling, passed the "Defense of Marriage Act" (which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman). Many states are now scrambling to put legislation in place that would refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. All are grappling with the legal and moral implications of the Hawaii case. In the opinion of many the stakes are high. "On it [the legalization of same-sex marriages]," says one attorney, "rests the future of the family as we know it in America."[2]

The flurry of interest surrounding the issue of homosexual activity is relatively new. Until recently the Western world uniformly considered sexual intimacy with someone of the same gender a criminal offense and the Church down through the centuries regarded such intimacy as a sin. As early as Roman imperial times sexual activity between persons of the same sex was a capital crime and the church fathers without exception considered it a violation of God's law.[3] A shift in perception first occurred in the 1950s when the social sciences began attributing same-sex activity to environmental conditioning (for example, one parent being close-binding and overprotective, while the other was hostile and distant). Such findings led the British parliament in 1967 to decriminalize same-sex relations between consenting adults over the age of twenty-one (Sexual Offenses Act). In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the category of psychiatric illness. Nowadays it is not uncommon to have it presented as a normal alternative akin to left-handedness. [4]

The impact on American society is plain. In 1960 all fifty states had laws banning same-sex relations. Today these laws have been dropped in twenty-seven states. Officials in several states have promised to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Civil ceremonies with marriage-like vows between same-sex couples who register with the city as domestic partners are becoming a more frequent occurrence (for example, in San Francisco, Chicago, New York; see "Homosexuality," Encyclopedia Britannica). The impact on the church is also evident. Most mainline denominations have had to deal almost annually with overtures regarding the ordination of homosexuals and the acceptance of same-sex unions. Majority and minority reports abound.

The evangelical community has also been affected. In 1986 the Evangelical Women's Caucus International voted eighty to sixteen (with twenty-five abstentions) to support civil rights protection for homosexual persons in recognition, in part, of the lesbian minority in the EWCI.[5] Nationwide homosexual associations like Evangelicals Concerned (Ralph Blair), Strangers at the Gate (Mel White), and Other Sheep (St. Louis) are becoming a familiar part of the evangelical landscape. A pamphlet published in 1993 by the group Other Sheep identifies as the "fifth" spiritual law: "your sexual orientation is a gift of God." The predominantly homosexual Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, founded in 1969, claims a membership of upwards of 250,000.

The key question is what the Bible has to say about same-sex relationships. Is there room for something other than a heterosexual lifestyle? Is homosexuality a gift from God to be embraced, celebrated, and lived with integrity as some today would claim? Where Scripture addresses the issue of homosexual activity directly, the answer is a consistent "no" (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26<->27; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10). This is not an easy statement to make because those who do so are typically labeled as homophobic or, worse, homo haters. Nevertheless it is a truthful statement from the biblical standpoint. And it is very important for Christians to be truthful about this and other moral issues. Wrong choices can have devastating consequences (see, for example, David's family life in 2 Sam. 11<-> 21). If there is a moral order in the universe--as the creation accounts affirm--then to disregard that moral order is, in effect, to affirm the very moral disorder that led to Christ's death on the cross. And to affirm disorder is to deny the transforming power of God unleashed by Christ's death and resurrection. "If anyone is in Christ," Paul states, "there is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17+niv inclusive+).

This is not to say that transformation is instantaneous. On the contrary, it is a lifelong process. This is clear from what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:12: "Life is at work in you" and 4:16: "while the outward person wastes away, renewal of the inward person increases day by day." The Spirit, who sets in motion in the believer a regenerative overhaul that culminates in complete transformation at Christ's return, accomplishes this "work" (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). Nor is the Spirit's work in us automatic or even easy. It is not without good cause that Paul calls the Philippian believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). While God is at work in us (v. 13), we also must be at work, willing ourselves to say "no" to sin. The "no" language of the New Testament is without compromise: "Put off," "put to death," "flee." Discipline and self-control are givens in the process of transformation. Without these there can be no transformation (see, for example, 1 Cor. 9:24<->27, 1 Tim. 6:12, and 2 Tim. 4:7<->8).

It is sometimes noted that the biblical passages that explicitly prohibit same-sex relations are a mere handful. This is true. What is also true, however, is that they are unequivocal in their rejection of same-sex activity--and this despite the changing times and cultures. Nor are they a lone voice. In the centuries around the time of Christ, Judaism ranked homosexual activity as one of the most abhorrent vices of the Gentiles. This is consistently reflected in extra-biblical materials of the period. The Sibylline Oracles, for example, enjoined, "Do not practice homosexuality" (me arsenokoitein; 2.73; compare 3.185; 3.764; 5.166<->67). Pseudo-Phocylides commanded his readers to "not commit adultery nor rouse homosexual passion" (arsena kyprin orinein, 3<->5). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus stated, "our laws own no other mixture of the sexes but that which nature has appointed (kata physin) of a man with his wife . . . and it abhors the mixture of a male with a male (ten de pros arrenas arrenon hestygeken; Against Apion 2.199). And the first-century Jewish theologian Philo identified the sin of Sodom as "men discarding the laws of nature (ton tes physeos nomon) . . . those who were men lusted after one another" (andres ontes arresin epibainontes ten koinen pros tous paschontas; On Abraham 135<->136).

Jewish opinion on this subject is hardly surprising given the unequivocal statements in Genesis 1<->2 about the created order of humankind as "male and female," the exclusive position of woman as "bone of bones" and "flesh of flesh" of the male, the divine intent of male plus female to become "one flesh," and the marital vows of "forsaking" and "cleaving." In short, there is a moral order implicit in the Genesis accounts precisely with reference to male and female--a moral order affirmed without exception by God's people throughout biblical times and beyond.

The Old Testament Passages

The "do nots" of Leviticus 18: 6<->24 and 20:10<->21 set forth the sexual boundaries of this moral order. Among these "do nots" is the prohibition of same-sex relations:

    Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (Lev. 18:22 +niv+).

    If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads (Lev. 20:13 +niv+).

Several things are to be noted here. The use of "male" (zakar, +niv+ "man") rather than "youth" (na'ar) shows that pederasty (a sexual relationship between an adult male and a prepubescent youth) is not in view. The equal punishment of the parties involved suggests that both are consenting adults. "Their blood will be on their own heads" (20:13) shows that both are also aware of what they are doing and of the consequences. The seriousness of the offense is indicated by the penalty (namely, death) and by the term "detestable" (to'eba; compare LXX bdelygma)--a term used of offenses deemed particularly heinous in God's sight.

It is sometimes said that the word "detestable" (+niv+; compare +nrsv+ "abomination") shows that these two texts deal with cultic prostitution rather than with homosexual activity per se. But this is difficult to maintain because adultery, bestiality, and incest receive like condemnation and yet are not connected with cultic activity (e.g., Lev. 18:26, 29; compare 20:10, 11<->12, 13, 15<->16). Moreover, non-cultic wrongs such as haughty eyes, a lying tongue, violence, a false witness, and divisiveness are elsewhere named "detestable" in God's sight (Prov. 3:32; 6:16). Instead, what is targeted in Leviticus 18 and 20 are practices of non-Jewish indigenous peoples that are outside the sexual boundaries for God's people ("for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you," Lev. 18:27).[6]

Another common contention is that because the surrounding chapters deal largely with ceremonial distinctions between what is clean and unclean, the commands pertaining to homosexual activity no longer apply.[7] This, however, overlooks the fact that most of the sexual practices mentioned in chapters 18 and 20 are also condemned by the New Testament writers and in language that quite obviously recalls these levitical texts. This is particularly true of those sexual acts that are capital offenses. Sexual intimacy with a family member is condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:1<->10: "It is actually reported that . . . a man has his father's wife . . ." (gynaika tina tou patros echein; compare Lev. 18:8 aschemosynen gynaikos patros sou ouk apokalypseis). The author to the Hebrews commands his readers to "keep the marriage bed undefiled (he koite amiantos, Heb. 13:4; compare Lev. 18:20 ou doseis koiten . . . ekmianthenai). In 1 Tim. 1:8<->11 "men who sleep with other men" is an action contrary to the Law and gospel alike (arsenokoitais; see also 1 Cor. 6:9; compare Lev. 18:22 meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten . . .). [8]

This indicates that in the eyes of the early church these particular levitical laws articulated normative moral boundaries and not transitory ritual taboos. It also shows that the New Testament writers did not always draw a hard-and-fast distinction between ritual and moral forms of purity. The use of ritual purity language is especially to be noted in Hebrew 13:4 and in Paul's statement that the Corinthian believers had been "washed" and "made holy" (1 Cor. 6:11). [9]

That God's people had to be concerned about indigenous sexual practices is borne out in Genesis 19 (Sodom) and Judges 19 (Gibeah).

    The men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old . . . surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them" (Gen. 19:4<->5 +nrsv+).

    The men of the city . . . surrounded the house, and started pounding on the door. They said to the old man, the master of the house, "Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse [+niv+ sex] with him" (Judg. 19:22 +nrsv+).

Scholars are right to point out that these texts technically have to do with gang rape. It is also important to observe that Jesus states it will be less tolerable for the town that rejects the gospel message than for the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15; 11:23<->24).

What is sometimes missed, though, is the fact that God's condemnation in Genesis 19 is directed at a perverted lifestyle that includes more than homosexual activity (Ezek. 16:49 "lived in pleasure and luxurious ease;" "neglected the poor and needy;" 16:50 "did detestable things") but certainly does not exclude it (Gen. 18:20<->21). This, in any event, is how the New Testament writers interpret the passage. Jude 7 says that the Sodomites "gave themselves up utterly to sexual immorality and indulgence in unnatural vice" (literally: "going after strange flesh"). And 2 Peter 2:7<->10 refers to "the filthy lives of lawless people" and "the corrupt desire of the flesh." [10]

Some have maintained that the sin of Sodom was a serious breach of the rules of oriental hospitality. The men of Sodom were merely anxious to interrogate Lot's visitors to see if their intentions were hostile (to "know" their credentials). Yet, in so doing, they flouted the cultural obligation of show hospitality toward the sojourner. [11] The context, however, makes it clear that their demands were sexual in nature. Why else would Lot offer his own virgin daughters as a substitute (Gen. 19:8) and the Levite, his concubine, whom the men of Gibeah "knew and abused all night long" (Judg. 19:25). This is how Jewish and patristic sources, without exception, interpreted these texts (see, for example, Philo On Abraham 133<->136; Josephus Antiquities 1.200<->201; Methodius Symposium 5.5; Augustine On Marriage and Concupiscence 2.19; John Chrysostom Homilies on Genesis 43.17).

But is homosexual activity even an issue here? Is the real concern not sexual abuse? Here Lot's and the Levite's offers of a heterosexual substitution are key. They indicate that while rape was considered a grievous offense, homosexual rape was doubly so--so much so, that the offer of one's own daughters (in Lot's case) was thought to be the lesser of two evils. The implicit condemnation of homosexual activity is inescapable.[12]

Dr. Belleville is the associate professor of New Testament at Chicago's North Park Theological Seminary and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church. This article, originally published in the Covenant Quarterly, is used by permission of the Evangelical Covenant Church. The two previous parts of this series were published in issues 114 and 115. This series will be continued next issue.

End Notes

1. The term "homosexuality" is a fairly recent one. Webster's defines it as (1) sexual desire toward a member of one's own sex and (2) erotic activity with a member of one's own sex.[return]

2. Steve McFarland, Director of the Christian Legal Society. [return]

3. Sexual offenses under Constantius and Constans (+a.d+. 342) and Theodosius (+a.d+. 390) included sodomy. Finally in Justinian's day, sodomy was made a capital offense under the Lex Julia (+a.d+. 533; The Institutes 4.18.4). The church fathers unanimously condemned homosexual behavior. See, for example, the Didache 2.2; (early 2d century); Polycarp, To the Philippians 5.1; Aristides Apology 9.8<->9 (2d century); Theophilus, To Autolycus 1.2,14 (2d century); Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.2 (3d century); Origen, Against Celsus 7.49 (3d century); Eusebius, Demonstration of the Gospel 4.10.6; Macarius the Great, Homily 4.22 (4th century); Cyril of Alexandra, Various Homilies 14 (5th century); John Chrysostom, Homily on 1 Corinthians 16.8; Homily on Titus 5 (5th century). See, David Wright, "Homosexuality," in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, edited by E. Ferguson, M. P. McHugh, and F. W. Norris (New York: NY: Garland, 1988) 435<->36. [return]

4. It is not the intent of this paper to treat or evaluate possible predisposing factors to sexual orientation--whether genetic, social, or psychological. For one, the scientific community is sharply divided in its own evaluation. And two, predisposition does not equate with moral rightness--or even moral neutrality. For a treatment and evaluation of the issues, see Enos D. Martin (M.D.) and Ruth Keener Martin, "Developmental and Ethical Issues in Homosexuality: Pastoral Implications," Journal of Psychology and Theology 9 (1981) 58<->68 and Jeffrey Satinover (M.D.), Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1996). [return]

5. Update: Newsletter of the Evangelical Women's Caucus, vol. 10, no. 3, Fall 1986, page 6. [return]

6. The rest of the ancient Orient tolerated homosexual acts that were not incestuous or against one's will. See Gordon Wenham, "The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality," Expository Times 102 (1991) 362. [return]

7. Thomas Thurston, for example, maintains that Lev. 18 has to do with ritual cleanliness rather than sexual morality and hence does not apply today ("Leviticus 18:22 and the Prohibition of Homosexual Acts," In Homophobia and the Judaeo-Christian Tradition, edited by M. L. Stemmeler & J. Michael Clark [Dallas, TX: Monument Press, 1990] 7<->23). [return]

8. Bestiality is the only capital offense that is not reiterated in the New Testament (although it is condemned elsewhere in the Pentateuch [Exod. 22:19; Deut. 27:21]). This was undoubtedly because, unlike adultery, incest, and homosexual activity, it was not practiced in the Greco-Roman world. [return]

9. For discussion of Heb. 13:4, see William Lane, Hebrews 9<->13 (Word Biblical Commentary 47b; Waco, TX: Word, 1991) 516<->517. [return]

10. This is also how Philo understood it. In his estimation it was "overmuch prosperity" and the inability "to bear [it] discreetly" that led the Sodomites to "discard the laws of nature" (On Abraham 133<->135). [return]

11. See, for example, D. Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1955) 4<->5.[return]

12. Homosexual activity is not the only sexual practice targeted in the Old Testament. Male and female prostitution are also "detestable" (Deut. 23:17<->18; compare Lev. 19:29; 1 Kings 14:24, 15:12, 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7). Sexual intercourse with a family member (Lev. 18:7<->11, 15; 20:11<->12, 17), a close relative (Lev. 18:6, 12<->14, 16, 20:14, 19<->21), an animal (Lev. 18:23; 20:15<->16), an engaged slave (Lev. 19:20), a virgin (Exod. 22:16), or a married woman (Exod. 20:14, 17: Lev. 18:20) is equally forbidden. Of these, adultery, incest, homosexual activity, and bestiality carry the death penalty (Lev. 20: 10<->16).[return]

First published in Cornerstone (ISSN 0275-2743), Vol. 28, Issue 116 (1999), p. 45, 47-48
© 1999 Cornerstone Communications, Inc.
Electronic version may contain minor changes and corrections from printed version.



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