In general, Christians will encounter two types of arguments in favor of homosexuality. The first simply casts the Bible aside as irrelevant, rejecting its authority, but the second kind of argument engages the Christian on scriptural grounds and argues that the Bible is actually not opposed to all same-sex intercourse. I recently came across a good example of this second kind of argument in “The Bible does not condemn ‘homosexuality.’ Seriously, it doesn’t.” Written by Adam Nicholas Phillips, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, it is a pretty characteristic summary of the main arguments that are offered for acceptance of homosexuality by Bible-believing Christians, so I decided to offer a point-by-point response in hopes that it would be helpful to those who have encountered arguments like this.
The word “homosexuality” didn’t even show up in English translations of the Bible until 1946, so why do we say the Bible condemns it?
We might as well start with the misleading subheadline. It is true that the word “homosexuality” did not appear in the Bible until the 1900s, but that is because the word was first used in 1892. In the King James Version, published in 1611, I Corinthians 6:9 refers to “effeminate [and] abusers of themselves with mankind,” rather than “effeminate [and] homosexuals” in the more modern NASB, but the meaning is the same even though the word is different. Other verses, such as those in Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, and Romans 1, actually describe the act itself (e.g. “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination,” in Leviticus 18:22, KJV), so the existence of the word “homosexual” is irrelevant.
Here’s the thing, Franklin [Graham]: you need to read your Bible better. The sooner you do, the more and better work you can do in Africa and elsewhere with Samaritan’s Purse. We need your time focused not only on poverty but in addressing America’s original sin of racism. We need all you got for those fights. It’s time to end the culture wars and fully focus on the war against poverty, racism and injustice in our world.
This is a classic example of the false dilemma fallacy. Suppose that I said to Mr. Phillips, “It’s time to end the war on poverty and fully focus on the war against racism.” Wouldn’t he respond that it is possible to oppose more than one bad thing at once? Of course, if homosexuality is not actually sinful and harmful to human beings then it is a waste of time to focus on it–but that’s the essential question. Is it sinful and harmful? If so, then it is worth resisting, as long as we also devote resources to other Kingdom work as well. And in fact, the canard that the church is pouring resources into moral issues while ignoring human suffering is simply false, as this article from Bloomberg economics writer Megan McArdle details.
[A]ll anyone wants to talk about these days are six Bible verses that “condemn homosexuality.”
I don’t. I really don’t. I would much rather talk about other things rather than devoting so much time to one particular flavor of sin, but when people like Mr. Phillips insist that homosexuality is copacetic while God says it is a deadly sin, it creates a moral burden on the Bible-believing Christian to respond. I imagine that the Surgeon General wishes he could spend less time talking about smoking, but billions of dollars spent annually on cigarette advertising demand otherwise.
There are six Bible verses used to defend a “traditional” view on homosexuality. However well intentioned, these verses are known as the “trouble verses” that condemn same-sex behavior. Some call them clobber verses.
Mr. Phillips, if you ever happen to read this, please believe me when I say that I do not want to “clobber” anyone. I honestly wish that homosexuality was not sinful, just like I wish that cancer was not deadly. But living in a fallen world means that sometimes we deeply desire things which are very bad for us, and part of being “ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20) is speaking his words to the lost.
I would also be curious to know whether you would call Leviticus 18:23 a “clobber verse” against bestiality, or Leviticus 18:21 a “clobber verse” against child sacrifice. If not, what makes those two verses different from the verse between them, which warns against homosexuality?
“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.’”
Mr. Phillips argues that the story of Sodom and its condemnation is not about homosexuality, but about the fact that the Sodomites “were ruthless in their acquisition of wealth, power and territory — and they oppressed the poor and took advantage of the weak and were terrible at hospitality.” Actually, I’m going to take a pass on this one. If this story was the Bible’s only mention of homosexuality, we would not be justified in condemning same-sex intercourse. Though the prominence of homosexuality in a story about a ferociously depraved city might be suggestive, the story never explicitly says God destroyed Sodom for the sin of homosexuality, so I’m not going to say what the Bible does not.
Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
Mr. Phillips offers two counterarguments on this point. First, he approvingly quotes another writer’s assertion that “This is not a verse about homosexual love, or being gay. This command is there with all kinds of connotations of adultery, promiscuity, and idol worship from the surrounding nations.”
It is striking that Mr. Phillips offers no support for this assertion, possibly because it is indefensible. There is literally nothing in the text which suggests any such connotations. Yes, sometimes homosexual sex is adultery, and sometimes it is promiscuous, and sometimes it was associated with idol worship, but the Bible already has lots of warnings against adultery, promiscuity, and idol worship. If the homosexual aspect was entirely incidental, why include it? Twice? Without any sort of qualification to indicate that we are actually talking about adultery or promiscuity or idol worship, as opposed to someone lying with a male as with a woman?
This argument is like saying that “You shall not murder,” actually just means “You shall not steal,” because sometimes people get killed during a robbery. If the Bible says, “You shall not murder,” it is pretty clear that it means “You shall not murder.” Similarly, if the Bible says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” as a stand-alone prohibition in the middle of a list of other sexual sins, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that homosexuality is as much of a sin as the adultery, incest, and bestiality which are condemned in the surrounding verses.
Mr. Phillips’ second argument is, “And if we want to get all Levitical about it, the same laws dictate that shellfish cannot be eaten (there goes Boston clam chowder and Willapa Bay oysters), mixed fabric garments cannot be worn (I guess I need to burn my Portland Timbers jersey), and sex with animals is strictly forbidden (yep, I totally agree).”
This is a common argument which completely misunderstands Old Testament law. I discussed this issue at greater length in The Truth With Love, but the short version is that there were three types of laws in the Old Testament: civil and ceremonial laws which only applied to the people of Israel in Old Testament times, and moral laws (like the Ten Commandments, or the bestiality prohibition which Mr. Phillips jokingly references) which reflected God’s holy character and his design for human flourishing, and therefore apply to all people, everywhere and always.
Commands like the prohibition on shellfish were ceremonial laws, and we can tell they no longer apply because God himself got rid of them in the New Testament era (Acts 10). On the other hand, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).
We can tell that the Old Testament commands about homosexuality still apply to us today because, unlike the ceremonial laws about shellfish and clothing fibers, they reappear in the New Testament. More on that below.
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Steve Chalke makes the argument that “Idolatry, promiscuity and shrine prostitution are what Paul is addressing [here] in Romans 1 — not same-sex relationships between faithful and committed partners.”
Steve is right. This passage is clearly not about same-sex behavior carte blanche. It’s about gross misuse of power, Roman elitist overindulgence, and misguided over-sexualized spirituality.
If you are looking to get really Biblical about this passage and all of these verses, go no further than James Brownson’s tremendous Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.
Jim is a New Testament scholar in Michigan who takes the Bible incredibly seriously. He thinks this passage is about excessive lust: the central problem with lust in Romans 1 is that it is an expression of idolatry in a specific sense: lust involves serving one’s own self-seeking desires rather than worshiping the one true God.
And then Mr. Phillips quotes a passage from Brownson’s book talking about how deeply depraved and perverted the Roman elites were, and that’s it. Literally. It is a total non sequitur. Demonstrating that Roman elites included homosexuality in their list of sexual perversions does not offer the tiniest shred of evidence that Paul’s description of “degrading passions” was only talking about Roman elites. What Paul actually says is that “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.” There is nothing there about some particular category of abusive or exploitive homosexuality which is Paul’s only concern.
1 Corinthians 6:9–11
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
Mr. Phillips argues that modern Christians misunderstand the meaning of the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai which are translated above as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” Regarding malakoi he writes,
It’s a Greek word that literally means “soft” and is used to describe fine clothing elsewhere in the New Testament. In a moral context, this word is actually more about “lack of self-control, weakness, laziness, or cowardice.” […]
There were sexual connotations for “malakoi” as well, but again, it always points backs to uncontrolled acts of lust or misused sexuality — no matter the gender or act. The word was not understood to reference same-sex behavior in the church until after the 20th century, when Bible translations adopted a new slant.
This is simply not true. Yes malakoi literally meant “soft,” like “gay” means “happy.” However, just as “gay” has taken on different connotations, other classical Greek manuscripts from the New Testament era make it clear that malakoi was understood to mean the passive, effeminate partner in homosexual intercourse.
Arsenkoitai is more bizarre and hard to grasp. Many believe that St. Paul actually invented the word, as it is extremely rare in ancient Greek literature.
The word literally is a combination of two other words in Greek: arsen (male) and koites (bed). So, arsenkoitai could be translated literally as “male-bedders.” And this word was understood by Bible translators before the 20th century to mean male-male sexual intercourse.
But when the word is used elsewhere in ancient Greek literature, it references the abuse of the poor (as in the Sibylline Oracles) or “economic exploitation and power abuses (as in a 2nd century text called the Acts of John).” The Acts of John lists arsenkoitai amongst a list of sins separate from a catalog of other sexual sins. Many believe (as Vines so cogently breaks down) that arsenkoitai is about economic abuses and exploitation.
As Mr. Phillips notes, many actually believe that Paul created this word by combining the Greek words arseno and koitai to create a compound word, like “starfish” or “lamppost” in English. Those two words are the very words which the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament with which Paul and his readers would have been very familiar) used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to speak of men [arseno] who lie with [koitai] other men. It would be hard for Paul to come up with a more precise description of homosexuality or a clearer link back to Old Testament prohibitions. Or are we really to believe that Paul invented a word that literally means “male-bedders” in order to condemn economic exploitation? In a list of sins which does explicitly condemn “the greedy” moments later?
1 Timothy 1:9–10
“This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching…”
Apparently Paul thought that “male-bedders” was such a useful description of those who were economically exploitive that he decided to use it again.
Mr. Phillips points out that the NIV translates arsenokoitai in this verse as “perverts” (rather than “homosexuals”). The more trustworthy NASB and ESV translations both translate the word as “homosexuals,” but debating the merits of English translations is less useful than actually looking at the original language… and in Greek, Paul is warning against “male-bedders,” using the exact words that his readers would recognize from Leviticus.
The testimony of the Bible is clear: Whenever homosexuality is mentioned in either the Old or New Testaments, it is unequivocally condemned as sinful and dangerous. It is true that it does not come up as often as some other sins, but perhaps that is because homosexuality was not a very culturally acceptable sin in Old Testament Israel. (There are only four bestiality “clobber passages,” presumably for the same reason.) What does often come up, in both the Old and the New Testament, is marital imagery. And from Genesis 2, when God decided that Adam did not have a helper suitable to him and therefore made a woman, commenting, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh,” all the way to Revelation, where the church is described as the bride of the Lamb, every single affirming reference to marriage or sexual intimacy describes a man and a woman.
If we truly believe the Bible is the word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, then we would have to conclude that God carelessly left half-a-dozen unambiguous condemnations of homosexuality littering his Scripture while failing to include a single counterbalancing affirmation of homosexual unions. It is not merely unlikely; it is unthinkable.
If we take the Bible seriously–if we take God seriously–our only option is to realize that our loving Father has warned us away from any form of homosexual activity. He tells us that he designed men and women for one another and that his glory and true human flourishing can only come according to that template. And if we are going to trust anyone’s word on what is sin, should we not trust the One who died for yours and mine?
P.S. If you want a more thorough treatment of this subject, including discussion of why a loving God would forbid homosexuality, you may be interested in my book, The Truth With Love: A Christian’s Guide to Talking About Homosexuality and Gay Marriage.