Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Homosexuality

Previously, I mentioned that I had a rant reserved for people who think that the Bible expresses any views about homosexuality, or homosexuals, or "being" homosexual, but that I would skip over that part. Recently, somebody asked if I would elaborate.

I wish that this wasn't a sensitive topic, but I've found that people have an unfortunate inability to discuss theology academically. So if this is a sensitive topic for you, I suggest you just stop reading now. Alternatively, if academic discussions of theology are boring or offensive to you, I likewise suggest that you just stop reading now.

The commenter I refer to asked a couple of questions, which I would group as follows:

1. What is my aforementioned rant?
2. What combination of genetic and environmental factors do I think shapes sexual orientation?
3. Do I agree with research showing that orientation can be changed?
4. Do I think the above has any bearing on a theological understanding of homosexuality?

Most of these questions I am not going to address here in any detail. To briefly dispose of those:

2. I am not a biologist, let alone a biologist with a specialization that bears on the development of sexual orientation. I do know that Robert Sapolsky, who meets at least some of those requirements, took only one class to convince me that "genetic vs. environmental" is not a useful opposition. I consider it common sense that sexual orientation is shaped by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and I consider myself spectacularly unqualified to hold an opinion beyond that.

3. I don't agree with that research for the two simple reasons that a) I have not seen any, and b) I do not have the intellectual equipment to evaluate it critically even if somebody did show it to me. To give an example I'm somewhat more qualified to discuss, if I showed somebody the work of William Tarn on Alexander the Great, and told them (truthfully) that Tarn was one of the great classicists of the 20th century, they might come to the conclusion that Alexander the Great was one of humanity's great heroes. They would probably have little to no knowledge of subsequent work on Alexander that has severely criticized Tarn's vision as idealistic and even naive. In a similar way, showing me research concluding that orientation can be changed, even if done in a reputable way by a reputable research team, would be insufficient. I do not begin to have either the breadth or depth of education to critically evaluate conversion therapy research, and therefore I decline to have an opinion about it.

4. I think that knowledge about the world "bears on" the theological understanding of anything, so yes. But I don't really think there is much of a theological understanding of homosexuality, specifically.

Which brings me to 1: what is my rant?

EDIT: Thayet points out that I never actually summarize my conclusions, which makes this post a pain to read. So here's the summary:

I don't think the Bible says anything about homosexuality or homosexual orientation. This is no surprise; the concept of homosexuality as a fact of a person's identity was simply not an ancient concept, so we should not expect to find anything about it in ancient works. About half of the texts historically used to support a supposed Biblical ban on homosexuality do not even apply to Christian morality. The most I think you can get from the passages that do apply to Christian morality is a disapproval of homosexual sex. This is how I read those passages, but I recognize that that isn't the only plausible way to read them.

So, there's the summary. Here's what underlies it:

Any time a person says that "the Bible says" something, it's important to look at the actual text. In the case of the Bible's statements on homosexuality, we might identify the following passages:

Genesis 19
Leviticus 18:22
Leviticus 20:13
Judges 19

Romans 1:26-27
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
1 Timothy 1:8-11

I'm not going to bother quoting the passages; you can look them up yourself easily enough, and if for some reason you don't have a Bible handy you can still look them up. But I do encourage you to keep the text on hand in the discussion that follows. I hope it goes without saying, but although I am sometimes citing particular verses, I intend them to be read in their larger context.

The first and most obvious thing to notice about the list above is that the first three references are found in the Torah. This should immediately (but alas, seldom does) raise a red flag in the mind of anybody reading those passages for their application to Christian morality (which is roughly what "the Bible says" really means). Anything found in the Law should immediately bring to mind passages such as:

Acts 13:38-39
Acts 15 (particularly vv. 23-29)
Romans 2-8:11 (particularly 6:14)
Galatians 2:15-16
Ephesians 2:14-16

Those passages, and others like them, are the textual foundation for the well-settled but often-ignored Christian principle that Christians, qua Christians, are not subject to the Mosaic Law. Ordinarily this would be a commonsense principle - nobody expects Hindus to imagine themselves bound by the teachings of Islam, for instance - but because of Christianity's peculiar relationship with Judaism people sometimes forget that Christians do not imagine themselves bound by the strictures of Judaism (this misunderstanding lies at the root of the lamentably common "shellfish argument," I shouldn't wonder).

We need to take a digression at this point to discuss why, if the principle that Christians are not under the Law is so well-settled, Christians are so curiously concerned with the Old Testament in general, and the Torah in particular. A simple answer would be to refer to 1 Corinthians 10:11, but let me try to elaborate on one particular aspect. We care, I venture to say, because plainly enough God cared too, at one time, for one people - and we are interested in what God cares about. This is often phrased in Christianese as looking for the "spiritual principle" behind the text. This is commonsensical enough when applied to books like Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, which are in the form of history - even so-called "liberal" scholars of the Bible would agree that the authors of those books wrote them down to illustrate particular principles they considered important. When one conceives of God as having person-like qualities, though ("personal" in Christianese), it makes sense to apply the same type of analysis to other types of books as well. If you want to know what sort of man was Robert E. Lee, reading everything he wrote is a good place to start, even if the letters and orders weren't addressed to you. If you want to know what sort of god is ours, we argue, reading everything he wrote is likewise a good place to start, even if the Law you're reading doesn't apply to you.

But it is of course only a good place to start, and introduces a dangerous amount of reader judgment into the picture. What do you conclude from Lee's writings? Reasonable people could conclude different things. What spiritual principle is behind the Levitical Code? Reasonable people could conclude different things. The text still matters, of course - reasonable people cannot, for instance, conclude from Lee's writings that he considered loyalty to one's home state of no account. But the result is still highly sensitive to the individual reader's personal proclivities and outside influences.

That isn't to say that this sort of analysis should never be engaged in, but it is to say that it calls for a great deal of humility. This is particularly true when discussing the conclusions from such analysis with other people.

With these thoughts in mind, let us return to the text.

Each of the Old Testament passages in question relates to homosexual activity. The reference is always to action, and particularly to sexual intercourse. For instance, Leviticus 18:22 by its terms relates to sex "with a male as with a woman." The most obvious literal meaning of "as with a woman," vaginal intercourse, is impossible, but it seems to me that the text is pretty clearly talking about sex of some sort - perhaps as specific as anal intercourse, perhaps as broad as any sort of ejaculatory activity. The reference is specifically to sex, though. Our definition of "lie with" would need to be very broad indeed to bring, say, homosexual kissing within the purview of this passage (and any sort of ban on males kissing males seems unlikely given the cultural context of Leviticus, in any case).

I want to emphasize, for this is a theme to which I shall return, that the Old Testament passages refer to homosexual activity, rather than to homosexual states of being. Leviticus does not say, "Thou shalt not be gay." It seems to say something along the lines of "Don't insert your penis into the bodily cavities of a man." (EDIT: Alanna tells me that there isn't even a word for "homosexual" in ancient Hebrew, and points me to this helpful discussion of what precisely Leviticus might be saying and why.) In two cases - the rapes recounted in Genesis 19 and Judges 19 - the homosexual acts were demanded by mobs that were apparently just as happy to rape women as men, which certainly casts doubt on any attempt to label the activity in those stories as homosexual. Indeed, the emphasis in the rape stories seems to me to be on the perfectly obvious horror of rowdy mobs demanding rape victims, rather than on the gender of the victims or the sexual orientation of their attackers. There's also probably an emphasis in the author's mind on the horror of attacking strangers who are under the hospitality of a local - but I don't think there's anything here talking about homosexual sex, let alone homosexuality.

Setting these observations aside for a moment, let us turn to the New Testament passages.

The New Testament passages are of a different character than the Old Testament ones. They aren't stories, as in Genesis and Judges; neither are they in the form of statutes, as in Leviticus. Instead they are almost asides. Romans 1:26-27 uses homosexual activity as an example of a society gone wrong; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 assumes that the reader knows or ought to know that those who engage in homosexual activity are unrighteous persons who will not inherit the kingdom of God, and 1 Timothy 1:8-11 likewise lists those who engage in homosexual activity are not righteous persons.

Let me stop here and acknowledge that these are troubling passages. My commitment to them as the Word of God doesn't make me blind to that fact. I decline to say "troubling passages to modern eyes" because I don't think they are any more troubling to modern eyes than they would have been to ancient ones. Again, if this is upsetting to you, I suggest you either stop reading entirely or at least take a break and come back to this post another time.

The Old Testament passages are, in my opinion, fairly easily dismissed. Two of them have only the most tenuous connection to homosexual sex, and the other two are part of a body of law the New Testament specifically states Christians are not bound by. These dodges are not available for the New Testament passages, though. So what do these passages actually say?

The chief observation I would make about them is that they are, again, about homosexual activity. I have heard it argued that the phrase "burned in their lust for one another" in Romans 1:27 suggests that homosexual desire is also seen as sinful by God. I disagree. That argument seems to me to conflate desire with lust. It is neither surprising not controversial to find Scripture stating that God finds lust to be sinful. The word usually translated "lust" here is orexis, which does simply mean "yearning" rather than "lust" specifically (in fact I don't know of any really good Greek equivalent to the English "lust" in its modern vernacular sense; that meaning usually has to be selected by context). But other words in the passage, particularly "burned," make me fairly certain that Paul meant orexis in the sense of "lust" rather than in its tamer sense of "strongly desired." So the Romans passage appears to use women having sex with women, men having sex with men, and both lusting after the aforesaid, as evidence of a degenerate society.

The 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy passages use a curious word, arsenokoitês, and much ink has been spilled about its meaning. Arsenokoitês is a noun, and it is usually translated something like "sodomites" or "homosexual offenders" in English. Translating it is somewhat difficult because it is not a common word, and ancient Greek is a dead language. The two halves of the word mean "male" and "sleeps with," and it bears a striking structural similarity to mêtêrkoitês, "mother-fucker" (with roughly equivalent profane connotations in both Greek and English). A literal translation of arsenokoitês would therefore be something along the lines of "men who sleep with men." I don't think there's enough context to say for sure whether Paul meant the term as a profanity (something like "men-fuckers") or not.

Religioustolerance.org has a more or less useful discourse on possible meanings of arsenokoitês which probably deserves to be mentioned here, since it's the first hit on a Google search for "Bible homosexuality." I disagree with that article in places - chiefly, I think that arsenokoitês may well have been used in place of a paederasty-related word precisely because the author wanted to get at the homosexual sex act itself, rather than limiting his scope to paederasty or expanding it to include the relational aspects of paederasty, and I don't know how you get "masturbators" out of arsenokoitês - but if you're curious, you can take a look.

It is precisely because arsenokoitês is a difficult word to translate that I prefer to default to the literal definition of men who sleep with men, and indeed that is the definition settled upon by the leading academic Greek lexicon. Religioustolerance.org and I agree on at least one point, though, which is that the word's emphasis is on the sex act.

Which brings us to my main point.

Modern discourse about homosexuality assumes that homosexuality is a status. A person's sexual orientation is a part of their identity. A person "is" homosexual or heterosexual. As near as I have been able to determine, the very concept of homosexuality, or homosexuals, is essentially a 19th-century concept. I am quite certain, from my classics education, that the ancients did not think of things in that way. I have no doubt they would recognize that certain people had sex with men more than with women, or vice versa, but that's just it - the focus would have been on the sex act itself and the gender of the sex actees, not on the sex actor. As my professors at Stanford pointed out, gender itself in the ancient Greek conception wasn't really a binary (or even trinary) concept. It was a continuum. We can see this reflected in ancient Greek sexual practice, where it would not be at all uncommon for individuals we would think of as "heterosexual" having "homosexual" sex, and vice versa. You could phrase it as everybody in ancient Greece being bisexual, but even that is missing the point. There simply was no ancient concept equivalent to the modern one of sexual orientation.

When we keep this in mind, it's no surprise to find our New Testament passages talking about specific types of sex acts rather than about sexual orientation. How is Paul supposed to write about something for which he has no concept, let alone a word? Even if he could, why would he, if his readers had no concept of sexual orientation either? For this reason, I think it's very dangerous to assume that when Paul writes about homosexual activity, he is also by implication writing about sexual orientation.

My personal conviction is that everybody who looks for what "the Bible says" about homosexuality using the modern status-based conception is on a fool's errand, for two reasons. The first is that the status-based conception is simply not an ancient one, which I think is seen plainly enough by the fact that Scripture consistently appears to be discussing sex acts rather than types of people. The orientation discussion simply isn't there. The second is that I'm not at all sure that the status-based conception of sexual orientation is even a good way to think about these issues. Personally I am inclined to take a page from the ancients and think of sexual orientation as a continuum, and I'm also strongly tempted to take another page from them and not think that sexual orientation is one of a person's defining characteristics, period.

If I've convinced you thus far, we've arrived at a point where we see no Scriptural passages discussing homosexuality - in short, we've concluded that "the Bible says" nothing on the subject of sexual orientation one way or another. But what about homosexual sex?

I think you'll agree with me by now that there is some room for doubt when it comes to what I think of as the three main Biblical passages on this issue - the Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy passages we've been discussing. Personally, I think the best reading of those passages is to conclude that God doesn't like homosexual sex. There are all sorts of issues one can raise about that reading (e.g., are we to believe that God is okay with people wanting to have sex but not okay with them having it?), but on the whole I think it's more true to the text than any other. I can certainly see how other people can (and have) reached different conclusions, and to the extent that those different conclusions are the honest results of a good faith effort to read the text for what it actually says, I have no problem with them. As for different conclusions that are otherwise held, well, I have a problem with all opinions held as a result of intellectual dishonesty, and I think most people are with me on that one.

It's worth pointing out at the end of this post that the most overwhelming response I have when I search Scripture on this topic is a powerful, humbling response of I don't know. I think we are called to interpret Scripture as best we can, and my best efforts lead me to the conclusion that God has some sort of problem with homosexual sex. Thankfully, not many people crave my approval of their homosexual sex acts (and why should they?), so the issue doesn't come up very often. To the extent that it does, my best answer is this: get to know Jesus, read the Bible, and tell me what you think.

As for the other issues that are current today - such as whether or not it's okay to "be" homosexual, or whether homosexuals can marry - I don't think the Bible says anything specific at all. I can only conclude that either I'm being exceptionally dense in my reading of Scripture, or else God didn't consider those issues noteworthy enough to address in Scripture. I suspect it's the latter, which means I think it would be dangerous for me to make them too big a deal. That leaves me to remember humbly that a) God knows more than I do, and b) God loves "homosexuals" as much as he loves me, and I know from experience that he loves me a great deal indeed. That is enough for me.


Theo said...

So, of course, I'm responding to this post because of non-academic interest, but I hope that my questions are intellectual and academic, and I certainly will not "take personally" any particular response.

I should couch everything I say with the admission that I have not studied (or even read much of any translation of) the Bible, so I'm not particularly trying to make any argument of my own; I really am curious about some of the finer points of what you said.

(1) Perhaps you haven't studied Jewish (etc.) law enough to comment, but if you have, I have an exercise in relative thinking: it seems that Christians are not bound by the Torah passages, but should our Jewish friends assume that their God frowns more strongly on homosexual sex than the Christian God?

(2) Maybe this is another relativist question?: Many Christians take a lot of religious guidance from the instructions handed down by the Church, and many Christian churches, having studied the Bible carefully, conclude that God does frown on homosexuality. Is there a place in your Biblical methodology for your instruction from (human) higher authorities? For example, perhaps someone (perhaps a religious leader) has talked to God a lot, and He told that person that homosexuality is bad. Granted, He didn't tell them through the Bible, but doesn't that count too?

(3) I'm not particularly swayed by your acts-vs-ism distinction. Certainly, the Bible makes it clear that God loves everyone, and so probably doesn't hate homosexuals. But the fact that Paul didn't have the language to talk about homosexuality, it seems to me, makes it more likely that God meant to condemn it. I mean, if Paul did have a notion of ``sexual orientation'', and yet still only talked about the sex acts, that would be very good evidence that God really wanted to distinguish only certain activity as bad, and not a certain status. But if He had wanted to say that it was bad to be a homosexual, and say it at the time and place of the Bible, then it seems that He would have done it the way we currently have the book. And if God did believe that homosexuality, in the modern conception, was not problematic, then He certainly would not have condemned homosexual sex acts, since such activity is part of how homosexuals define ourselves.

(4) To what extent do Christians have a responsibility to discourage others from engaging in acts upon which God frowns?

Natalie said...

I'll do the best I can, my friend ...

1) Modern Judaism seems, to my outsider's eyes, so far removed from the text of the Tanakh that I feel completely unqualified to discuss how a modern Jew of any stripe would feel about your question. I don't even really know enough about the major schools of Jewish hermeneutics to speculate. Restricting myself to what I know about the Judaism of antiquity, though, and to the texts I've cited, it seems to me that the Jewish God and Christian God feel pretty equally about homosexual sex. Again, though, I have absolutely zero idea how that translates into modern Jewish thought.

2) This is one of those areas where Christian practice is often different from Christian theory. For the sake of simplicity Christian attitudes towards the authority of religious instruction can be broken down into three positions. The first is the Catholic position, where certain types of instruction from higher authorities are considered authoritative in the same way that Scripture is, for essentially the reasons you articulate. The second is the Protestant reaction to that doctrine, which states that there is nothing as authoritative as the text of Scripture, and enshrines the right of all individual believers to interpret that text according to their conscience and best intellectual ability. Nominally, that is the position that all Protestant denominations take. In practice, there is often a third, middle position, where individual Christians will give greater weight to the opinions of some people than others when interpreting the Bible. This middle position obviously has a lot of room for variation, from giving weight to those more learned than oneself because of their greater knowledge or expertise (which certainly seems appropriate to me) to unthinking substitution of the opinions of others for doing one's own legwork (which seems to me like its worst, least legitimate form). Personally I fall into the third group myself. I certainly value the wisdom of those I consider spiritually mature, and I value the knowledge of those I consider learned, but I try very hard to maintain my intellectual independence.

3) To me the text as it stands fits both possibilities equally. I see your point, but it also seems to me that if God had a problem with homosexual sex only, presumably he would not have bothered to discuss anything else with a people who had no real concept of sexual orientation. Neither seems, to me, more likely than the other on the basis of the text itself.

This isn't to say that the acts-vs-ism distinction is one I find particularly persuasive as a logical matter. If I were constructing a religious position on this myself I would certainly do my damndest to avoid the very problem that you point out. But doing that would make me not a Christian but someone who merely thinks Christianity contains a lot of good ideas. As I consider that option off the table, I am stuck with the position the text leaves me in, however uncomfortable it may be.

On a second look, though, while it may seem problematic, it doesn't seem at all absurd or contradictory to have God say, "I love you as you are, but I do not want you to do all you find natural or all that seems good in your own eyes." That is the sort of thing that the Christian God says all the time, so saying it about homosexual sex acts certainly seems within the realm of possibility. That doesn't make it any less uncomfortable or problematic, but it does make it seem like not a contradiction or obviously contrary to the nature of God, to me. Which leaves me with the reading of the text that I have, which I try to grapple with as best I can. Nothing says wrestling with Scripture is inconsistent with accepting its authority. Indeed there are several celebrated passages which suggest the exact opposite (e.g., Genesis 32; Acts 17, especially v. 11)

4) I assume you mean, "to what extent do Christians have a responsibility to discourage others from engaging in acts upon which God frowns, solely because God frowns upon them", as opposed to any other (e.g., civic) responsibility to discourage others from engaging in acts upon which God happens to frown (e.g., you might say we have a civic responsibility to discourage people from committing murder).

This is a question that I think the American church has not sufficiently addressed. The answer of the European church, by and large, is "None whatever; live and let live, and keep all religious discourse out of the public sphere." I don't think that can be quite the right answer, as I don't see how it squares with passages in the Bible that clearly call for spreading the Word (e.g., Matthew 28:16-20).

On the other hand, spreading the Word is not the same thing as spreading Christian morality. They're really two very different things, and I think a large (and lamentably politically active) portion of the American church has forgotten that. In my opinion, getting those two things confused will end up putting the cart before the horse. It is one thing to discourage a fellow Christian from engaging in acts upon which God frowns. That is the sort of thing one is supposed to do; it's part of being co-religionists, of being members of the same Church ("Church" the theological concept, not necessarily the legal entity or social organization). One is supposed to do it lovingly, of course, but it's clearly the sort of thing that is contemplated.

Discouraging people who aren't Christians from engaging in acts upon which God frowns is, in my opinion, not something Christians have any responsibility to do whatsoever. In my second Proposition 8 post I discussed briefly one of the passages that I think sometimes gets misinterpreted to lead to a contrary conclusion, and you can read about that if you just do a word search for "Chronicles" on this page. My view of a Christian's responsibility to discourage non-Christians from engaging in acts upon which God frowns is that they have a responsibility to do all they can to make people fall in love with Jesus (and see also my Proposition 8 posts for some thoughts on how they should - and shouldn't - go about doing that). But a person's relationship with Jesus is not at all the same as whether a person engages in acts upon which God frowns. The latter is merely morality; the former is a different sort of thing altogether.

Thayet said...

I hate to do this right before Christmas when everyone is supposed to be happy with each other, but since this has come up now, I'm gonna' comment freely. (I suspect I'm going to make myself fairly unpopular with some of the readers of this blog...)

For me there is one major element that determines whether any sexual act, homosexual or heterosexual is "moral" or acceptable (or whatever you want to call it)in terms of God: basically, are you engaging in said sexual act out of love for each other. Even premarital sex falls into this category for me.

God chose to make (and remake, a couple of times) humans in a certain image, with a specific set of emotional needs and traits. You can argue that the concept of lust is contrary to God's ways -- and I would agree with you, mostly -- but certainly the idea of "strong desire" is a natural trait as instilled in us by God. To that end, you can't convince me that it's "wrong" regardless of the gender you're "strongly desiring."

Instead, I'd say that any sexual act -- married, unmarried, same gender, opposite gender -- has the capacity to be ugly, shameful, and sinful if carried out from a place of darkness in the heart and/or spirit. Even the sex of the most vanilla of couples having the most vanilla sex can be pornographic in their hearts. In my opinion, sex, sex games, and other such recreational activities are perfectly fine if you're engaging in them with someone you love and care about, provided that adoration and comfort with the activity is mutual, regardless of gender relative to your own.

On a slightly different but related subject, I have long maintained that God would rather have a loving, supportive, faithful homosexual couple than a broken, abusive heterosexual one. God was not and is not discriminating in who He loves, and I strongly believe that we aren't meant to be discriminating either. End of tangent.

The more I ponder being Christian in light of the "Christian" people around me, the more strongly I believe that God (and what makes Him happy) is incredibly simple: Did you [insert action here] out of love and compassion? Obviously, there are lines here, murder in the heat of passion, as an example. "I loved him/her so much that I had to kill him/her." Adultery is a different but still applicable example. The couple in question might indeed love each other, but their actions are going against a clearly stated principle that exists in Christian tenant -- and their actions are not loving towards the adulterer's spouse. Hypocritical actions such as these that openly violate Christian doctrine are never going to be okay, and there are scores of examples like this. But in the day-to-day things, and I tend to think in most "religious" debates of this or similar nature, the bottom line for God is, as previously stated, not complicated at all. It's humans and our narrow-mindedness that close doors to each other and to God's actual intent towards us and how He intends us to act towards others. Humans project their moral codes on to Scripture and therefore on to God, and forget to respect the Bible -- both poetry and prose -- as a work of creative art. Not everything is meant at face value. Yes, you have to think about the content, mull it over, weigh parts against what else you know of the world, your heart, and your interactions with God.

Before I continue, it makes me happy that Natalie thinks about the text and respect it not only as a religious code, but also as a great writing. While I might not always agree with you, or might not agree with your path if we end up in the same place, I greatly appreciate the efforts you take along the way. It's this that keeps me loving you, no matter, how lame, arrogant, or pigheaded I think something you might say is. For the record, I think you did a pretty good job with this post!

As for the Scripture pointed to,(and for the benefit of those of you are consistently confuzzled because Thayet seems, "so much more earthy" than her husband), I'm going to ignore Natalie's selected passages merely illustrating that the Old Testament isn't entirely of relevance to modern Christianity, and comment on the others.

Genesis 19: I think you're right in that if you are going to use this passage to glean knowledge on how God feels about sexuality, the most you can get is about a specific sexual acts not sexual orientation. However, I don't think that is what this section is really all about. I don't think the proposed action of their choice is so much the center of attention as the fact that they are being malicious. Also, can we remember the fact that Lot was willing to give the mob his daughters instead? How is that okay? Is it okay to rebuke the mob and count this passage as a major factor in talking to God's feelings on homosexuality (or homosexual sex), but not in talking to child abuse, or heterosexual rape, or any other number of things that are surely -- clearly -- immoralities in God's eyes? I think people are missing the boat on this one.

Re: Judges 19: see above.

I don't have a particularly good argument against God's instructions for sexual morality given to Moses in Leviticus, since it's put rather directly. The best I can say is that those were from an older version of the Lord. He, like us and our moral continuum throughout our lives, changed, and changes in the details. Fortunately the essence of God (and what I believe actually matters to Him) stays the same -- are you loving one another as you love Him.

If I haven't gotten myself in trouble with you as a reader yet, you might want to brace yourself:

Paul was a nut.

I take almost everything he says with a grain of salt. And I believe you should, too.

The more I think about his actions, beliefs, and personal code the more I am convinced that he, himself, was a closet homosexual. Why else the ranting about marriage, sex, and homosexuality, to name a few of his favorite topics? It would not surprise me in the least if we could all zip back in time, find Paul's private diary, and learn that he was passionately, romantically in love with Christ.

It's passages like the one selected from Romans that drive me completely insane. "God gave [the immoral people] over to shameful lusts." Okay, God isn't trying to save His people or punish them, or anything. He's merely letting them have their way. This "bad" is on God. I seem to recall that we're supposed to forgive each other and support each other, and not give up on each other, no matter how bad it is. It's good to know that God can get worked up to the point of being disgusted, too -- so much so that He throws His hands up in the air and walks away for a bit. But what is this passage really about? And let us consider the source: a seemingly sexually-phobic Paul ranting that God was distressed because of all the immoralities committed by mankind. But he only really harps on sexuality in particular? Is that God's idea or his own? What are we really to learn about God from this passage except that we are indeed created in His image and being disgusted is a part of that construct?

1 Corinthians 6:9-10: I feel this passage points directly to the belief that God mostly cares about what is in our hearts -- sexual orientation, preference, acts, curiosities, and everything else be damned. The 99% of the list of sexual "villains" are people who are not engaging in sex with a pure heart or with loving intentions for the parties involved. Only the last entry -- "homosexual offenders" -- is ambivalent regarding the state of mind and heart of the party in question. Again, given the source, I would argue that this bit is thrown in on Paul's behalf and not on that of God. This is especially true given the rest of the list of non-sexual offenders that follows.

As an aside -- and I don't think what I'm about to suggest is true, given the author, but just for fun...What if, just what if, by "homosexual offenders" the author was literally referring to people [read as heterosexuals] who offend homosexuals via their ignorance and closed hearts? End of aside. I now return you to your originally intended comment...

The idea of one's intention and heart being at the center of all matters, specifically sexual ones, continues in the same chapter verses 12-18, which is entirely about sexual immorality but never once references homosexuality. Prostitution is the only category of sexual offenders mentioned here, and, I'd argue, is exemplary of exactly what God is trying to say: impure hearts = impure sexual acts, regardless of orientation. There is nothing wrong with sex or "strong desire" and I believe we, as humans, sex and sexuality are God-given gifts, and we are meant to have fun with them and enjoy one another; however, we are also meant to be responsible with them and responsible for each other, and it is the depths of our hearts that matter to God in judging these issues/actions. And if you believe in the power of any of the words in the Bible then I trust you believe that God is in your heart and knows your heart and your intentions, and you will be judged accordingly as He has promised.

Jeremy said...

Wow, just a few simple questions and then about 15 pages of response from three different people! Don't have nearly enough time to actually read it all in depth but I tried to read as fast as I could and a few brief comments might at least keep the conversation interesting...

On the thread of acts-vs-ism, I think I'm on the same page as you and maybe I could contribute a little bit by trolling an old conversation I had on the same topic (interestingly, with a secular Jewish friend):

"starting with the assumption that Jesus was God incarnate i can make a very strong case for the sole rational conclusion that homosexual *behaviour* is no more wrong than any sex outside of a marriage between one man and one woman. so honestly that means that the gay population isn’t any more in the wrong than, well, an awful lot of church people. :) and homosexual orientation isn’t any more wrong then, well, a heterosexual’s orientation to have sex with any hot girl/guy who allows it. (or anyone at all for a single person.) if i’m single for the rest of my life, well that would suck, but it wouldn’t make it right for me to have sex with someone."

Theo's second question is really good and I think it nails a major misconception on the head. In my experience, most major churches and theologians teach something along the lines of what this post explains - that the behavior is sin. As far as "orientation" - different groups just have different understandings of what orientation means and they don't all agree with Kinsey or the APA. And nobody I know of thinks that there's something bad about a predisposition toward behavior that is morally wrong - I mean Christianity 101 says that we all have that.

But this is why I think that the questions about research are important. Even if you eschew opinion about research, you've already made a decision about who you think is reliable and reputable by the definition/nature of sexual orientation and the view of gender that you accept. You mentioned that you hadn't seen any research about the nature of orientation - I think that narth is a good place to start for some alternative viewpoints. (I'm aware that it's a heated and controversial subject. And highly politicized.)

But anyway... great post! Glad to see some good writing about what the bible actually does say. I wish more people would study it themselves. :)

Natalie said...


I'm glad you can appreciate my method even if we don't always have the same conclusions. I think it's method, and not result, that evidences true obedience to Scripture. I love you too.

I agree with you that what God cares about most is the state of our hearts. I think the question is whether homosexuality, or homosexual sex, is in the category of explicitly prohibited things, like adultery is. I think it is clear that homosexuality is not explicitly prohibited, and I don't even think it's implicitly prohibited. Homosexual sex is, I think, an ambiguous case.

Jeremy raises a good point that, while "homosexual sex" is often treated as a single concept, it really is as varied as any other sex. In modern times we could draw lines based on married vs. unmarried, loving vs. unloving, substitutionary vs. preferred (i.e., having same-gender sex merely because no opposite-gender sex is available - e.g., prisons and military service - vs. having same-gender sex even though opposite-gender sex is available), and probably several others. We should at least add to that the ancient distinction of cultic (i.e., religious) vs. non-cultic homosexual sex.

Each of those could and probably should get its own analysis, with potentially different results. With regard to the Leviticus passages, I find the discussion Alanna linked to, with its various interpretations, relatively persuasive (at least highly plausible). I can also see plenty of varied readings of the New Testament texts. I have an opinion as to which I feel is most plausible, but I don't think it's the only possible correct answer. It's worth emphasizing here that when I say I have "an opinion," I mean I have an opinion as to how I will treat homosexual sex for myself. Homosexual sex is not something that's likely to come up in my life, as a) there are not many men I have ever felt like having homosexual encounters with, b) the vast majority of those men are either taken or jerks, and c) I have no actual desire to have sexual encounters with anybody other than Thayet. As for my opinion of other people having homosexual sex (which is the only opinion most people care about), those fall into two categories: Christians and non-Christians. I don't expect non-Christians to care what the Bible says, so I don't really have anything to say in that case other than my standing opinion that they're really missing out by ignoring the whole Jesus thing. As for Christians having homosexual sex, I do expect them to care what the Bible says, but I consider the text sufficiently ambiguous that if they reach a different conclusion than I do I'm not going to call them wrong. Again, the important point for me is not the result but the method. If somebody honestly reads Scripture, with reasonable exposure to differing viewpoints, and concludes that there is no blanket prohibition against homosexual sex for Christians, then I have no problem with that (my own opinion notwithstanding). I would have a problem if a self-professed Christian came to the exact same conclusion by ignoring the Bible entirely, because that strikes at the core of what it means to be Christian. I would have the exact same problem if somebody concluded that "the Bible says" homosexual sex is prohibited but didn't actually read the Bible to come to that conclusion - that also strikes at the core of what it means to be Christian.

I think you give Paul short shrift, but you know that. I don't actually think marriage, sex, and homosexuality are his favorite topics. What he wrote about them gets quoted a lot, but I think that's more a reflection of modern interests than of Paul's. A reading of his entire extant body of work is that he wasn't deeply concerned with them at all. Paul's major interest and obsession, I think, was the saving grace of God and how that worked. In fact it seems to me that a goodly portion of his writings on the subjects of homosexuality, sex, and marriage was in response to questions other people had asked him.


I don't actually think the research is implicated at all. The definition of sexual orientation I'm inclined toward says nothing about whether sexual orientation is mutable (commonsense answer: of course it is; the question is when, and by what?), whether it's a choice (commonsense question: why are "choice" and "born with" mutually exclusive?), or what is the significance of its physical corollaries. All I've pointed out is that sexual orientation is a cultural construct, which I think is pretty obvious even though it's a cultural construct that has reference to certain physiological facts.

I focus on the culturally constructed nature of sexual orientation because it wasn't a cultural construct in the Biblical milieu. Oh, I'm sure there were people who preferred same-gender sex to opposite-gender sex then as now, but in the ancient world that wasn't a part of their identity. It wasn't an "is" about them. As a result, I don't think the Bible cares whether research shows that "sexual orientation" "is" mutable or immutable, or when it's mutable, or by what. Those are interesting scientific and sociological questions, but they're modern questions, not ancient ones. The moment you ask about sexual orientation at all you're talking about something extra-Biblical, which in my opinion makes sexual orientation research pretty irrelevant from the standpoint of analyzing what the Bible says.

Natalie said...

Addendum to Jeremy:

I say "pretty irrelevant" advisedly, because I do think that general knowledge bears on the Bible generally. For instance, geology is an extra-Biblical concept, yet I do think it bears on some Biblical concepts, such as the creation of the Earth. Geology is "relevant" to the Bible in that sense. However, if we were to ask directly, "What does the Bible say about geology?" we would come up dry, because the Bible simply doesn't say anything about geology. Geology is "irrelevant" to the Bible in that sense.

Similarly, I'm sure we can come up with scenarios where knowing the state of modern research on sexual orientation impacts how we read the Bible (I can't think of any good ones at the moment, but I'm sure it could be done). This is why I don't say such research is "completely irrelevant" to the Bible. But I maintain that if we were to ask, "What does the Bible say about sexual orientation?" we would come up dry, just as if we had asked about geology. In that sense I consider sexual orientation research "pretty irrelevant" to the Bible.