Revisionist scholars have published several recent books that argue the Bible does not condemn same-sex behavior. These include recent academic treatments like James Brownson’s The Bible, Gender and Sexuality (2013) and Matthew Vines’s popular book God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (2014).
A magazine article doesn’t allow sufficient space to address every revisionist argument, nor can I demonstrate the Bible’s overwhelming positive evidence for sex being the unique “one-flesh” bond that exists only between men and women (e.g. Gen. 2 and Matt. 19). Instead, I’ll focus on the attempts to reinterpret the passages in Scripture that condemn same-sex intercourse.
The abomination in Leviticus
Let’s start with Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which say, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” and “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.”
One way to argue against these passages is to make what I call the “shellfish objection.” Keith Sharpe puts it this way: “Until Christian fundamentalists boycott shellfish restaurants, stop wearing poly-cotton T-shirts, and stone to death their wayward offspring, there is no obligation to listen to their diatribes about homosexuality being a sin” (The Gay Gospels, 21).
In other words, if we can disregard rules like the ban on eating shellfish in Leviticus 11:12, then we should be allowed to disobey other prohibitions from the Old Testament. But this argument confuses the Old Testament’s temporary ceremonial laws with its permanent moral laws.
Here’s an analogy to help understand this distinction.
I remember two rules my mom gave me when I was young: hold her hand when I cross the street and don’t drink what’s under the sink. Today, I have to follow only the latter rule, since the former is no longer needed to protect me. In fact, it would now do me more harm than good.
Old Testament ritual/ceremonial laws were like mom’s handholding rule. The reason they forbade the Israelites from using certain fabrics or foods, or interacting with bodily fluids, was to keep them ritually distinct from their pagan neighbors. Rites involving external purity and cleanliness helped the Israelites better understand the internal purity God’s law requires. But by the time of the New Covenant, the ceremonial laws were no longer needed to accomplish this goal and so they were repealed (Mark 7:19).
While the Old Testament’s ceremonial laws could be repealed, its moral laws that forbade intrinsic evils like murder or adultery are forever binding. They are more like my mother’s ban on Drano martinis than her handholding rule, because those acts can harm people, regardless of cultural circumstance. That we don’t enforce the penalty associated with these laws (such as death for adultery) doesn’t mean these acts are not grave violations of the moral law.
So, are Leviticus’s prohibitions on same-sex intercourse part of the Old Testament’s temporary ceremonial law or its permanent moral law?
First, notice that Leviticus 18:22 is sandwiched between moral laws and not ceremonial ones. Verse 20 condemns adultery, verse 21 condemns child sacrifice, and verse 23 condemns bestiality. It’s true that verse 19 refers to a ceremonial law related to menstruation, but this prohibition merely forbids sex during menstruation. The other verses in this section describe moral evils that are “defilements,” “profane,” “perverted,” and—in the case of same-sex behavior—“abominations.” Illicit sex with a menstruating woman is never called an “abomination” or a “perversion” like the other moral crimes listed alongside it.
Second, unlike idolatry, murder, adultery, or breaking the Sabbath, the Bible never prescribes the death penalty for violating the ceremonial laws. For example, Leviticus 20:18 prescribes exile for someone who becomes unclean by having sex with a menstruating woman; but it prescribes the death penalty for adultery, bestiality, incest, and same-sex behavior, all of which fall under the unchanging moral law. Leviticus 18:24-25 makes it clear that actions like adultery, bestiality, and same-sex relations were part of the moral law that applied to non-Jews as well, because God had previously judged other pagan nations for engaging in these “defilements.”
Finally, the claim that because the Bible condemns same-sex intercourse only a few times means it’s not “that bad” is faulty. Bestiality and sex with one’s parents are also condemned only a few times, but who would say this means that these behaviors aren’t “that bad”?
Idolatry, patriarchy, or immorality?
Some revisionists say the moral prohibition against same-sex intercourse applied only in contexts related to ancient Judaism and doesn’t apply today. Boswell claims that the passages in Leviticus refer to sex only in the context of prostitution or pagan temple sacrifices, not consensual and loving same-sex relationships, which he claims were unheard of at the time (Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 100).
But ancient Mesopotamian texts like the Almanac of Incantations do attest to consensual, same-sex relationships, and Leviticus 18 doesn’t use the Hebrew term for “temple prostitutes” (qadesh), so Boswell is setting up a straw man. Also, do we really think that other violations of the law like bestiality or adultery would become acceptable as long as they were done in a non-idolatrous way? If not, then why think same-sex behavior would be treated any differently?
Vines claims that even if this prohibition included consensual encounters, the rationale behind it was that same-sex intercourse lowered a man’s status to the inferior one held by a woman (87). Since we no longer endorse what Vines calls “patriarchy,” male-male intercourse can be seen as the loving exchange of equals and not as the antiquated degradation of a man to the status of a woman.
But Vines has missed the point of these passages due to a modern sense of political correctness.
For example, saying an adult is being childish does not mean children are bad or subhuman. It just means adults are not children, and so they shouldn’t act like children. Likewise, ancient writers calling men in the passive role of anal intercourse “effeminate” or “man-women” does not mean women are bad and therefore men should not be brought down to their level. It simply means men are not women, and so they should not be treated like women by being sexually penetrated.
Another objection to these passages in Leviticus deals with female-female sex. Former priest Daniel Helminiak maintains these passages can’t be used to condemn same-sex female activity, because there is “no hint of lesbianism” in them (What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, 51). Vines agrees that if Leviticus were about sexual complementarity and not patriarchy, it would have condemned female-female sexual relations as well (90).
But the reason Leviticus does not condemn lesbianism is because the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 were written for a male audience. Leviticus 18 does not prohibit women from engaging in incest, but the fact that men were prohibited from engaging in this behavior meant that the same rules applied to women as well. Therefore, the prohibition against male same-sex relations would also apply to women.
In conclusion, if the author of Leviticus were alive today, he would say that prohibitions on same-sex intercourse apply not just to Jews who were given the Mosaic Law but also to people who can understand the natural law through their moral conscience. This is a theme St. Paul explores in the Bible’s other explicit condemnation of same-sex behavior.
The “unnatural exchange” in Romans
Romans 1:26-27 contains perhaps the most explicit condemnation of same-sex behavior in the Bible. In this passage, Paul speaks of idolaters and how 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.”
There are many revisionist responses to this text.
First, Boswell says: “The persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons” (Boswell, 109). But this doesn’t explain Paul’s condemnation of behavior that is rooted in a person’s inner desires, which corresponds to our views of modern homosexuality. Even Vines recognizes this: “Paul seems to be describing latent desires that were being expressed, not brand-new ones. . . . I don’t think it’s consistent to say that Paul rejected same-sex behavior only when it didn’t come naturally to the people involved” (Vines 103).
Others revisionists say Paul would have believed the ancient notion that everyone could be attracted to the opposite sex, and so same-sex behavior was just a sign of weakness or excess (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd edition, 245). They say that Paul had no experience of people who were attracted only to those of their own sex and could therefore form loving unions only with those people. If Paul had known of modern homosexuality, they say, he would not have condemned it.
But the book of Acts shows that Paul had a deep knowledge of Greco-Roman culture (see Acts 17:28 and 22:22-29). It would be astonishing if Paul had been unaware of the examples, in both popular literature and the bustling cities he visited, of monogamous relationships between people with deep-seated same-sex attraction.
For example, Plato’s Symposium (180-185, B.C. 385) speaks of women who “do not care for men but have female attachments” and of men who exclusively “hang about men and embrace them.” One character named Pausanias admonishes those who indiscriminately have sex with men, boys, and women but praises those who seek after older boys for lifelong, loving commitments. The Roman satirist Juvenal even records his contempt for men who married other men in private wedding ceremonies (Satires, 2.117–148, A.D. 127).
A same-sex couple’s emotional bond did not change Paul’s view of the wrongness of same-sex intercourse any more than the emotional bond between the man and his stepmother in 1 Corinthians 5 changed Paul’s view of the wrongness of incest. To him, both were violations of the moral order.
By “unnatural,” Paul did not mean these relationships contained excess sexual desire or that they were an affront to social mores (such as when he admonished men with long hair in 1 Corinthians 11:14). Paul meant that the general idea of same-sex intercourse violates the image of God made known in human bodies that were created male and female.
In response to this, Vines says that the “unnatural” relations Paul was referring to were the man taking the woman’s passive role in sex and the woman taking the man’s active role. Like the condemnation in Leviticus, Paul’s prohibition had everything to do with patriarchy and nothing to do with the natural purpose of the genitals or the body as a whole (108).
But this misses the point of the “exchange repetition” in Romans 1.
Prior to Romans 1:26, Paul says that creation proves there’s one true God and idolaters have no excuse not to worship him (Rom. 1:20). The reason they do not is because the idolater’s minds were darkened and they exchanged the proper end of their worship, or God, for an improper end, or idols (Rom. 1:21-23). Next, their bodies were defiled, and they exchanged the proper object of their belief, or “the truth about God,” for “a lie.” Paul repeats this cycle of destruction and exchange when he says the unbeliever’s passions were degraded and women exchanged the natural object of their sexual desires—men—for women, and men did the same with men.
What all of these exchanges have in common is not a failure to adhere to society’s moral norms but a failure to adhere to the natural order seen in creation itself — whether it’s worship of the creator or sexual relations with the natural partner. Paul even uses the Greek words for “male” and “female” instead of the Greek words for “men” and “women,” no doubt referring to the creation account in Genesis 1 which describes how God made humans “male and female” (Gen. 1:27).
Finally, some revisionists say that God is condemning only idolaters who reject God and engage in same-sex behavior, not monogamous gay Christians who have same-sex relations. But this makes as much sense as saying that the “envy, murder, and deceit” idolaters are given over to in verse 29 would have been okay provided it was done in a non-idolatrous context.
No, Paul is saying that if people engage in something as bad as idolatry, then they will be given over to other bad desires and actions, including same-sex intercourse.
The arsenokoitai and malakoi in 1 Corinthians
The other biblical passages that condemn same-sex intercourse are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and its repetition in 1 Timothy 1:10. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul says: “Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.” The Revised Standard Version Bible notes that Paul is not condemning the possession of same-sex attractions, or homosexuals as persons, but only those who engage in immoral sexual activities.
Revisionists usually argue that the word “homosexuals” is not in this passage but rather two unique Greek words: arsenokoitai and malakoi. They claim that malakoi is ambiguous and could mean simply “weak” or “soft,” while arsenokoitai refers to some kind of sexual exploitation of children or pederasty (Sharpe, The Gay Gospels, 55).
Christian ethicist David Gushee writes in his book Changing Our Mind, “How might the history of Christian treatment of gays and lesbians have been different if arsenokoitai had been translated ‘sex traffickers’ or ‘sexual exploiters’ or ‘rapists’ . . . such translations are plausible, even if not the majority scholarly reconstruction at this time” (79).
But proposals that seek to exclude consensual same-sex relations from the meaning of arsenokoitai and malakoi are not plausible. If Paul was condemning predatory man-boy love, then why didn’t he use the Greek word for pederasty (paiderastes)? Also, if this is what Paul condemned, then why did he single out female same-sex couples in Romans when he was only concerned with predatory man-boy sex and not same-sex relations in general?
Keep in mind that before Paul condemns the malakoi and arsenokoitai for their persistence in sin, he condemns idolaters and adulterers and then condemns thieves and greedy people. Adultery and idolatry are often associated in the Bible and thievery and greed certainly go together. This makes it likely that arsenokoitai goes hand-in-hand with malakoi.
The fact that arsenokoitai matches the Greek words in the Septuagint’s translation of Leviticus 20:13 is unmistakable. The word breaks down to arseno (or “male”) and koite (or “bed”). It literally means “man-bedder.” It makes more sense to say that malakoi referred to the soft or effeminate passive recipient of same-sex behavior, while arsenokoitai referred to the active partner in that kind of intercourse, and not just sexually exploitative relationships.
Hope for all
I want to close with a word for those who experience same-sex attractions. What Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 6 is not that anyone with these attractions is doomed. In fact, he says in verse 11, “this is what some of you used to be [emphasis added]. 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.” As the Catholic apostolate Courage shows, the fact that people once engaged in same-sex relations is no barrier to them being sanctified by the grace of God.
Please note that I am not advocating a naïve, pray-away-the-gay solution. Instead, Courage helps men and women with same-sex attraction lead chaste and fulfilling lives, lives that you can learn more about at couragerc.org. At the Courage website, you can watch a free documentary called Desire of the Everlasting Hills (everlastinghills.org) that shows how two men and one woman with same-sex attractions separately found hope and healing through the sacraments of the Catholic Church.
If you’re skeptical, I encourage you to at least watch the film and listen to these people’s experiences. You’ll see that it is possible to transcend the labels of “gay” or “straight,” and focus instead on our identity as sons and daughters of the Most High who seek him with all our heart, mind, body, and soul.