WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT HOMOSEXUALITY?
By Caleb Kaltenbach
The book, Messy Grace, frequently emphasizes the importance for Christians to extend grace to people in the LGBT community. That’s the whole point of Messy Grace. Yes we have to be willing to get messy. Yes, we need to pursue others in love, not hate. And yes, we are to demonstrate the compassion and love of Christ. But we must complete the context of Messy Grace by looking at the other side. The truth side.
We should speak with confidence and forthrightness whenever we are faced with an opportunity to talk about what the Bible says on the topic of homosexuality. Sharing the truth in love is important but we should never change it to make it more fascinating for the current culture. We don’t have to water it down, modify or apologize for it. It’s our responsibility to understand and share the truth with graciousness and a refusal to compromise.
When we wrestle with the tension of grace and truth, we typically either go all the way to the grace side, where everything is deemed acceptable, or we go all the way to the truth side, where we speak truth and have no love. The challenge for us is living in the tension that exists in the middle of both grace and truth. Yet that is exactly where we are called to live if we are going to speak truth to our loved ones.
THE MALE-FEMALE RELATIONSHIP
At the beginning of the Bible, we read that God created Adam first and then Eve. Then we see how God orchestrated the first marriage between these two:
For Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2: 20– 24)
This sets the precedent for what God has established as an acceptable sexual relationship. Now, there are those who see this story as theological fiction, not real history, and so they may resist drawing too strong a conclusion from it. Yet, isn’t it interesting that Jesus himself quoted this passage and seemed to take it seriously as history (see Matthew 19: 4– 5; Mark 10: 6– 8)? The apostle Paul seemed to take this as a real event as well, referring to Adam as a historical person (see Romans 5: 12– 21).
Even if the Adam and Eve story wasn’t historical fact and we were justified in dismissing it, we would have to realize that a precedent was set through this “metaphorical story”: biblical sexuality is expressed between male and female. The same normative pattern of intimacy between a man and a woman is taught elsewhere in the Scriptures. For example, Paul said in Ephesians 5: 22– 33:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery— but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
Do you see how Paul assumed that an intimate relationship is between a man and a woman? Furthermore, Paul clearly communicated a doctrine that intimacy between men and women is a picture of the intimacy Jesus has with his church.
Paul did something similar in 1 Corinthians 7: 1– 5:
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Here, Paul described the male-female relationship and gave advice in marriage. He briefly discussed the role that spirituality plays in the marriage relationship and how God designed the husband and wife to be in an intimate relationship together.
When we study the Bible in depth on this matter, we see that it is unified in its teaching that appropriate intimacy is between men and women.
HOMOSEXUALITY AND SIN
If intimacy is supposed to be between men and women, then what does the Bible say about homosexuality? Several stories and teaching passages in the Scriptures categorically identify sexual relations between persons of the same gender as sin (which means “missing the mark”).
First, let’s deal with the ancient story that gives us our word ‘sodomy’.
We need to be careful with this one. Many Christians have misinterpreted Genesis 19 to mean that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of the sin of homosexuality. Actually, however, God destroyed these cities for a range of sins, as he explained through the prophet Ezekiel: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (16: 49– 50). Homosexuality isn’t specifically mentioned here.
Nevertheless, the account of this event back in Genesis does say that the men of Sodom were aggressively seeking to have sex with Lot’s visitors (angels who had taken the appearance of human males). Lot called the men’s request a “wicked thing” (19:7), another way of saying it was sinful. (Unfortunately, Lot offered an equally wicked thing by suggesting that the men of Sodom take his two virgin daughters. Let that be a lesson to those of us who think culture can’t negatively influence the thinking of those trying to live for God.)
Later on in the Old Testament, God says specifically that homosexuality is forbidden. In the context of a whole range of sexual sins, sexual relations between men (and by implication, between women too) is prohibited:
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. (Leviticus 18: 22)
If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. (20: 13)
Other verses in the Old Testament criticize cross-dressing (see Deuteronomy 22: 5) and the homosexual prostitution that was sometimes a part of pagan religion (see 1 Kings 15: 12; 22: 46; 2 Kings 23: 7).
OLD TESTAMENT VS. NEW TESTAMENT
Now, some people will say the Old Testament prohibition against sex with someone of the same gender is not valid today because we are no longer under the Law. They sometimes use arguments like “So it’s okay for you to eat shellfish, but we can’t define our sexuality however we want? How can you pick and choose what to obey and what not to obey?”
My answer is, it’s not the same thing. When you look in the New Testament, you find that Jesus declared that all foods are clean (see Mark 7:19). Nowhere in the New Testament, however, does God define acceptable sexuality as being other than between one man and one woman. In fact, the New Testament specifically reaffirms the Old Testament’s position that same-gender sexual activity is not acceptable.
The most prominent example is in Romans 1:26– 27. These verses come in a context where the apostle Paul was giving a historical and theological explanation for human sin and separation from God. Having sex with someone of the same gender is far from being the only sin he cited as an example, but it’s a prominent one:
God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Some people in recent years have tried to make the argument that traditional interpreters of this passage have misunderstood the word “natural” here. They say that whatever intimate relationship you have is natural as long as it is natural to you. So, in this line of thinking, if a same-sex relationship seems natural to you, then what Paul said in Romans 1: 26– 27 cannot be applied to your life. It applies only if you are in a relationship that seems unnatural to you.
This view, however, doesn’t hold up. The scholar John Stott explained the Romans 1 passage and said the word “physis” (‘natural’) means “God’s created order”. To act ‘against nature’ means to violate the order which God has established, whereas to act ‘according to nature’ means to behave ‘in accordance with the intention of the Creator.’ Moreover, the intention of the Creator means His original intention.” In other words, Paul was saying that God is the only one who gets to define what is natural and what isn’t. One can clearly see the natural order in Genesis 2: 24, where marriage is identified as being between a man and a woman.
Alternatively, some try to reframe Paul’s words here by appealing to the historical context in which Paul was writing. They say that he was referring to homosexual temple prostitution or that he was speaking of abusive relationships rather than monogamous same-sex relationships. Yet Paul never specifically limited his focus. Rather, he seemed to be speaking about same-sex relationships as a whole. If Paul were talking only about a specific type of homosexual relationships, why did he paint a broad sweep of sin in Romans 1:28– 32?
Just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Those who interpret Romans 1:21– 27 as referring only to temple prostitution or something of that nature (and say that it has nothing to do with monogamous LGBT relationships) have to do fancy footwork with the historical context. And if an argument rests mostly on historical context, with little literary context to back it up, we need to be careful about trusting that kind of evidence.
Confirming Paul’s view on homosexuality, two other passages in his writings situate sexually active gay men and lesbians within lists of other types of sinners.
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6: 9– 11)
We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers— and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me. (1 Timothy 1: 8– 11)
The conclusion from all this seems obvious to me. The apostle Paul consistently condemned having sex with someone of the same gender, reinforcing what the Hebrew Scriptures already said.
A UNIVERSAL TRUTH
Some people dismiss everything the Bible says about homosexuality, writing it all off as cultural interpretation that doesn’t apply today. But it’s far safer to let Scripture itself give us clues as to when some practice or prohibition was culturally limited. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul instructed women to keep their heads covered when practicing their faith around others, especially men. The words are clear enough on their face, yet Paul didn’t repeat that instruction anywhere else in his writings. Peter, James, and John didn’t deal with it either. This suggests to us that what Paul said about coverings was cultural and limited to a particular time and place. On the other hand, Paul and other writers of the Bible on a number of occasions spoke of how sexual intimacy is between a man and a woman.
The fact that all the Bible writers are in agreement on this issue doesn’t make it cultural. Rather, it makes it universal. Another topic associated with sexuality that is talked about in the Bible is gender identity.
God defines sexual intimacy between one man and one woman.
Now, I know that you may totally disagree with my conclusion on this matter. You may feel in your heart that if somebody wants to actively identify as LGBT, then what business is it of ours? I get it. I was once there myself. And I would be the first to say that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Also, a person’s personal and sexual life is (to some degree) between that person and God.
The thing is, ultimately it doesn’t matter what you and I think. It matters what God thinks.
It’s tremendously hard for me to write that people I love have been living in a way that is wrong. After growing up in the LGBT community, believing there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, and dearly loving people who are still in the gay community, I tremble as I write these words. First, because I don’t want to turn them off. Second, because I fear there are many who know what the Bible says and just don’t care. But I have committed myself to God through Christ, and I have to affirm what GOD affirms.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you and think. It matters what God thinks.
When people study the Bible, they often bring their own presuppositions and biases with them and they see all verses through a certain lens. There are a lot of emotions, history, pain, and more that come attached with the discussion of homosexuality. What I want to ask you to do is to put aside your biases and feelings and just study what the Bible says in its literary and historical contexts. That, I believe, is the way to approach the issue.
If you’re sharp enough, you can interpret the Bible to allow most anything you want. That’s what I’m NOT trying to do. I’m not going off of my own personal opinion. If there was anyone who wanted the Bible to agree with my parents’ view of sexuality, it was me! If there was anyone who wanted to massage Greek words, manipulate exegesis, or read into historical context to force the Bible to say what I wanted it to, it was most definitely me!
With this issue, I’m trying my best to stand on the authority of God’s Word. If you don’t agree with what I’m saying, that’s fine, but use the Bible and tell me where I am wrong. Study passages and come up with a firm decision. Look at what the Bible has to say systematically about this issue. I appreciate that people have their opinions, but for those of us who live as disciples of Jesus, feelings alone don’t get you very far. We need to base our opinions on Scripture.
WHEN BELIEFS CHANGE
Many of us believe in Jesus and in the reliability of the Bible. We were taught from a young age what the Bible says about how to live our lives. We know what’s right and wrong. We know what God values. But when it comes to upholding those values, we falter.
It’s not hard to hold to biblical beliefs when we are in the comfort of Sunday school rooms with flannel graphs. But then we get into the world and things are different. We go to schools and jobs and we’re confronted with people who have differing world views on many issues.
It’s so easy to lie about our beliefs, not be truthful, or maybe even change our beliefs. It’s incredibly easy to change when it seems the entire world is saying that homosexuality is good, natural, loving, and okay. It’s easy to go with the changing tide, and it’s difficult to go against popular belief and be labeled as hateful or bigoted.
A lot of people I know have had friends and family members who have come out to them, and they don’t know what to do. They know what the Bible has to say about actively being in a same-sex relationship, but they don’t know how to reconcile that with their friendships. As a matter of fact, I can bet that most Christians I know who have changed their view on this tender issue have done so because someone they love came out to them.
When people we love come to us and tell us about a part of their life that is out of line with Scripture, we have some choices: We can kick them out of our life. We can ignore it. We can change our beliefs so there’s no tension between us. Or we can keep loving them and hold our beliefs firm. The Bible teaches us how to give grace to others in times of misalignment with Scripture.
For me, the last option has always worked the best.
We live in a time when we will be called bigots and narrow-minded for holding on to what we believe the Bible says. I say, “So be it.” Remember that when we live in the tension of grace and truth, there will be times when we side with grace and seem overly gracious. Then when we side with the truth of an issue, those same people who thought we were too gracious may now think we’re too strict. If that seems confusing and maybe even a bit uncomfortable, that means you’re starting to understand how the tension is necessary to walk in and harder than simply always siding with grace or truth.
I believe the tension proves that you can’t have real grace without truth, and you can’t have real truth without grace. In this instance, we’re leaning heavily on the truth side.
We can and must hold true to what we believe God’s Word says on any issue, including this one. It is possible to love others and not agree with areas in which they live their life. It is possible to be like Jesus, stay committed to God’s way, and still be a light in their life. There’s no reason believers should change orthodox beliefs on what Scripture says in order to keep a relationship with another person.
Watch true testimonies from people who have personally experienced Messy Grace in their own lives.
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