Before we begin: The word “homosexual” is of recent origin. The first documented use of the word is in a private letter in German from Karl-Maria Kertbeny to Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in 1868. It first appeared in English in 1895 in the translation of a German publication. Some people used it to mean “of the same sex,” such as in describing an all-girls school. It went on to become a medical term, but it turned out not to be a medical disorder. so it became a psychological term, but then psychiatrists and psychologists discovered through research that homosexuality does not meet the criteria for being a disorder at all.
Paul’s Letter to Rome
Paul wanted to go to Rome, not just to visit the church there, but also because he wanted to convert the emperor. Phoebe, an unmarried Christian businesswoman, was traveling to Rome on business and offered to take a letter with her. (Lydia in Acts 16 was also an unmarried Christian businesswoman.) Paul jumped at the chance. His letter served as a letter of introduction for Phoebe, a means of keeping in touch with his good friend Priscilla and her husband Aquila, and as an advertisement for his preaching services. Constantly throughout the letter he tells the Romans how he would preach. The congregation in Rome was mixed Jewish and gentile.
So we see that Romans is the exposition of Paul’s gospel. He demonstrates the need for salvation, he demonstrates that the means of salvation can only be by faith, and he demonstrates that Jesus is the answer. Mindful of his audience, and wishing to show his broad appeal, he does this in both Jewish and gentile terms. He goes on to show the consequences of his gospel in everyday moral living. He answers objections and refutes rumors. He concludes with blessing and greetings.
In the very beginning, Paul demonstrates the need for salvation; first in gentile terms and then in Jewish terms. To the gentiles he shows that religiosity produces the opposite of the goal. To the Jews he shows that following a moral code produces little but frustration and fatigue. No one can reach God on his own efforts; we are inadequate to the task. This preliminary argumentation sets the stage for his real message: First he demonstrates the need for his product and then he presents the product itself: salvation through faith in Jesus.
Zooming in closer on our objective, let’s examine what he says about the futility of the gentile’s religious approach to God:
- God must be transcendent and powerful, invisible and omnipresent.
Any adult of reasonable intelligence knows that anything without those characteristics isn’t a god. Just common sense tells you what to look for when shopping for a god. (Romans 1:18-21)
- People worship idols anyway!
Not the Sunday pulpit idols of power, lust and greed; no: idols made out of wood or stone, fashioned in the shapes of animals and men. They know it’s dumb, but they do it anyway. (Romans 1:22-23)
- We live in a permissive universe.
God will allow us to do what we will—and suffer the consequences—because that is the only way to develop virtue or reveal evil. If you drive your car off a cliff, God will give you over to your misjudgment to the destruction of your body. Likewise the false worshipers. If that’s what they want then by all means God will let them have it.
- They ignored common sense and chose an idol.
God allowed their willful decline into all sorts of immorality (Romans 1:24-25). They even went so far as to engage in strange sexual practices. Men and women even abandoned their heterosexual practices and took up homosexuality for the sake of their religion! (Romans 1:26-27) Please note that this passage makes absolutely no sense at all unless we affirm that Paul is speaking about people who begin doing this when they are mature adults.
- If that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get.
God isn’t manufacturing any robots here, and will humor them until their time is up. (Romans 1:28)
- They fall even further into all sorts of vices.
Presumably worse vices than changing their sexual practices, since Paul places that in the middle of their fall! They get involved in intrigue and deceit and murder and all sorts of filth. You can see this in the sort of dealings, petty fights and squabbles any religious cult exhibits. (Romans 1:28-32)
Now that Paul has demonstrated the futility—and irrationality—of pagan fertility cults, he turns to the now smug Jewish members of the congregation and shows them that obedience to the Torah cannot bring eternal salvation because the Torah does not promise it in the first place. But that lies outside the scope of this essay.
It should be apparent at this point that the mature adults Paul is talking about were heterosexuals who committed homosexual acts as a part of their religion.
Today, we think of nature as an ideal; something good and pure. But to Paul, nature is simply the raw material that the Spirit of God transforms. To put a permanent end to any debate over the meaning of “nature” and “natural” in Paul’s letters, consult the following passages in his epistles:
- Romans 2:14
1 Corinthians 2:14
1 Corinthians 11:14
1 Corinthians 15:44
1 Corinthians 15:46
Galatians 2:15, 4:8
2 Timothy 3:3.
In every case, nature is base, sinful and bestial. When Paul argues from nature or talks of people being devoid of natural affection the context shows that he is emphasizing that they do not even meet the very lowest of possible moral standards. It would be very un-Jewish and very anachronistic for Paul to exalt unregenerate, unspiritual nature as we do. All through his epistles we read about how the natural is lower than the spiritual. When Paul says that the sexual relations were natural or against nature he could not possibly have had the twenty-first-century meaning in mind! He simply meant to state that these people, in pursuit of idols, went so far as to abandon their natural sexual practices for practices which were basically against their nature.
Similar things happen today: in the last century, some Mormons abandoned monogamy in order to embrace polygamy for the sake of their religion—a practice they had abhorred only months before and denounce today. The Shakers abandoned sex altogether, working out their passions in rigorous dancing. The Moonies married total strangers in mass weddings as a part of their religion. Practitioners of Witchcraft engage in group nudity and perform sex acts as a part of their rituals. The People’s Temple of Jonestown fame swapped children between families to integrate the races, and members of both sexes had sex with Rev. Jones—these things went against their natural practices as well. Does it not seem that, more often than not, cultism and bizarre sex practices go hand in hand?
Paul is expounding on the need for salvation, not upon the evils of sexual sin. For Paul’s present purpose, sexual sin is just one of intermediate stages one passes through in the course of practicing false religion. (Notice again that the sexual sin is in the middle of the decline and is not the culmination of it!) Paul speaks of heterosexual adults who knew better but worshiped idols anyway, got involved in homosexual practices contrary to their inner nature and descended further into all sorts of personality disorders. If he were talking about homosexuality, he was wrong. Homosexuality begins long before adulthood, has nothing to do with idol worship, and does not involve any other character disorder. If Paul was wrong, then this passage is not inspired. If this passage is suspect, we can never be sure of the Bible. But if Paul was describing the futility of pagan fertility cults, then we know he was right. The picture he paints fits what we know about religious movements of his day like a tailored glove. The history of Mormons, Moonies, Shakers, the People’s Temple, and many others corroborates it.
Suppose I wrote a letter advocating prison reform. I could say that some things about society are just obvious: that laws are necessary for the common good. But some men abandon that knowledge, and God gives them over to the consequences of their acts. They commit crimes and end up in jail. There, deprived of their natural sexual outlets, these men turn on each other, performing unnatural sex acts and bearing in their personalities the consequences of their sins. They become hardened criminals, dirty dealers, swindlers, without compassion or sympathy for their victims.
Don’t you agree with that statement? Doesn’t it sound like Paul? If my paragraph above became part of Holy Writ, wouldn’t some nitwit quote it to prove that homosexuality is evil and unnatural? Would I be advocating that position? Is Paul?
Paul’s Letters to Corinth and to Timothy
1 Corinthians 6:9 and I Timothy 1:10 contain the Greek gutter word arsenokoites, which is a compound word composed of arsen meaning man in the sense of male adult, and koites meaning bed. The word koites comes to us through Latin in the form of coitus, which immediately conveys the proper flavor of the Greek word. Thus the literal meaning of arsenokoites is “manbedder,” and it implies exactly what you’re thinking but we can’t print for reasons of propriety.
It certainly bears noting at this point that the New Testament was written in a rugged, blue-collar, call-a-spade-a-spade Greek. It has smelly armpits and a dirty face from honest labor. Most translations tend to obscure that, especially those that are beautiful and comforting because their language has become antiquated, such as the King James Version. This is a real problem for translators, one which is generally not known. The Old Testament has graphic references to bathroom functions and sex acts which must be cleaned up for modern sensitivities. In the Greek text of Acts 8:20, the apostle Peter tells Simon the Magician to go to hell. If you think the Bible is for sissies, think again.
However, it is not clear whether these arsenokoites are people who bed down a lot of men or a men who like to mess around in the sack a lot; just as we might describe either a woman physician or a gynecologist as a lady doctor to a child. A French teacher could be a teacher from France, or a teacher of French, or of something else that is fun. Arsenokoites means one of two things: either we’re talking about your garden variety homosexual or we’re talking about a man who’s a sex maniac. Either a ‘bedder of men,’ or a man who ‘beds’ a lot.
It is always difficult to determine the meaning of compound words, especially in this case because usage doesn’t give us much of a clue. Arsenokoites appears only three times in only two documents over a period of three centuries! Two of these are in the New Testament and one is in the Sibylline Oracles. In all three cases, the word appears in a list and so the meaning of the word cannot be readily derived from the context. The meaning of the word in a later historical epoch may be misleading: coitus no longer means bed, gay no longer means happy, and lasagna no longer means chamber pot!
However, this does not prevent us from doing some detective work to puzzle out the probable meaning of arsenokoites. The first component (arsen ) has a variant form—arren. A study of ancient Greek reveals that when the man is the recipient of the action, the compound is normally formed with arren, as in the Greek compound word meaning to give birth to a male child, which incidentally does not appear in the New Testament. Compound words formed with arsen indicate that the arsen is doing the action. Therefore we must conclude that heterosexual sex maniacs are meant and not homosexuals. This conclusion fits the context quite well, because all the other sinners in the list are sins of excess and not kind.
It is interesting that the Revised Standard Version had homosexual in 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the 1952 edition but the word was removed in the 1972 edition.
Many people feel that Leviticus 18:22 contains the final answer on this matter, and that it forms the basis for Paul’s alleged unconditional condemnation of homosexuality. But as we shall see, Paul’s own theology does not allow such an easy vindication of present social prejudices.
The answer to Leviticus is in Galatians 3 and all of Hebrews. But some people still have not read all of the New Testament. They feel burdened to obey the Law of Moses, which is traditionally defined as consisting of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Most of these people are very selective: certain laws are very important to them, such as the laws having to do with sex in Leviticus 18, and others they disregard completely, such as the ones about eating pork chops or touching dead bugs in Leviticus 11. However, the Law is not a buffet—either you obey all of it or you are guilty of all of it (Leviticus 26). Come to think of it, that is the very nature of law: whoever heard of a verdict of law-abiding citizen? It’s either guilty or not guilty, and however much you may assiduously obey, it takes only one transgression to cause a judge to pronounce you guilty.
But unenlightened people abound who go about citing Leviticus 18:22 to prove that God hates homosexuals with a vengeance. If this is true, then people who eat pork chops are in real trouble—there is one verse popularly applied to homosexuality, but in total five verses prohibit eating or even just touching pork. Leviticus has more up its sleeve than pork chops, which we will find out if you bear with me.
Let’s examine the eighteenth chapter of Leviticus:
Leviticus 18:1-20 deals with sexual sin. Sexual sin is not called abominable here or anywhere else in the Old Testament. Abomination simply means a ritual offense: goat herders were an abomination to the Egyptians; dead bugs, pork chops and stale sacrificial food were specifically listed as abominations to the Hebrews. Often, an idol is called an abomination. Sexual sin is immoral. Religious irregularities are abominable.
Leviticus 18:21-30 deals with Molech worship, which involved prostitution, bestiality and a form of infant sacrifice: the idol, being hollow, was actually a furnace. The infant was placed in a carrier and drawn through the idol—thus the odd phrase pass through the fire to Molech in some translations. The will of Molech was divined by the condition of the infant afterwards. The Bible, despite its detractors, is even-handed in its treatment of the sexes, and yet female homosexuality is not mentioned here. If this is a sexual sin oddly placed out of context in the middle of a discussion of pagan worship, it is the only time in the entire Bible that a sexual sin is abominable—except for cult prostitution, which was an irregular religious practice. This is why the woman who deceived a patriarch by dressing up and playing the role of a prostitute went unpunished. She was not a cult prostitute. The Old Testament makes a distinction that is lost on us.
The best explanation for those bound by the Jewish Law is that this is male cult prostitution, properly placed in an appropriate setting and rightly called an abomination. We cannot derive from this that homosexuality is banned any more than we can conclude that all heterosexuality is banned because of attacks on other forms of prostitution.
Genesis chapter 3:14-19 fairly well sums up what most people feel is God’s will for a proper heterosexual relationship, mandatory for all. Yet God said it was a curse!
The rest of us have read Galatians 3 and the Epistle to the Hebrews. We know we already stand condemned by the Law and because we are dead in a legal sense, the Law does not apply to us. Like any other prisoner on death row, no amount of obedience can undo our fate; and no amount of disobedience could possibly make things worse. For the Law provides us no hope, no method of improving our lot, once we sinned our way out of the system. We have been saved from the curse of the Law by our reliance upon Jesus Christ, who raises us to a new spiritual life. We live moral lives, not because we are bound to a mechanical and unfeeling legal code, but because we are grateful to our Savior; we love Him and we wish to please Him.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
—Romans 3:19-24, NIV
Do as I Say, Not as I Do
In my secular job a few years ago, I had a coworker who frequently asked my advice about things, including religious matters. He attended an independent, fundamentalist church. He was divorced and remarried, but he had custody of his children from his first marriage. One day he came into my office and started railing against homosexuals, for no reason I could discern. Perhaps his pastor decided to get everyone riled up the previous Sunday. If so, he certainly succeeded in my coworker’s case. At any rate, my coworker ended his impromptu diatribe by saying, “My church preaches biblical sexual morality.”
I chuckled when he said that. I told him with some amusement that the fact that he is a member in good standing of this church is proof positive that it does not preach “biblical sexual morality.” He looked at me with a hurt expression and asked in a small voice, “Why do you say that?” I reminded him that he had been divorced for reasons other than adultery.
I cited these Bible passages:
It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
—Matthew 5:31-32, NIV
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
—Matthew 19:8-9, NIV
When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
—Mark 10:10-12, NIV
Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
—Luke 16:18, NIV
Apparently the gospel writers were so struck by the importance of this teaching that they recorded it no less than four times!
So not only does his church fail to preach “biblical sexual morality,” they violate it! They go beyond that by avidly supporting people who are living in sin! They are apparently so deep in sin that their consciences are seared—for the very people who say Scripture is so important are ignoring Scripture themselves. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were wrestling with these passages in an earnest attempt to please God within their own social context, but they pretend these verses don’t even exist! So if my coworker wants to quote Paul against gays, then gays can quote Jesus against him.
I am not being melodramatic here, because Jesus was speaking in a context in which the laws of the Old Testament had the force of civil law. According to the Old Testament:
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.
—Leviticus 20:10, NIV
Can you imagine this? The very people who invoke the wrath of God against gays are themselves tainted with a capital sin and are guilty of the worst sort of religious hypocrisy. They have no excuse, because it is a scriptural principle that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander:
…if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?
—Romans 2:18-22a, NIV
Incidentally, this isn’t Jesus talking to Pharisees, this is Paul talking to Christians in the church.
After that, each time my coworker started off on his diatribe, I gently reminded him, “but of course, according to the plain words of Jesus, you are willfully living in a state of perpetual sin.” That brings him back down to earth, and he didn’t bring up the topic much after that. I reminded him that he is no better than other sinners, and that since Jesus is patient with him, he must be patient with others. In the words of our Lord:
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
The servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.”
But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
—Matthew 18:23-35, NIV
So What About Sexual Sin?
Unlike God, we are sexual beings, and so we are titillated, excited, enraged, and inflamed by sexual passions and jealousies. Much of human indignation about sexual sin rises from envy that the culprit is getting away with something that we are not permitted to do. As a result, we tend to read our sexual passions and prejudices into the Bible text in order to endue them with divine backing.
God, on the other hand, has none of those passions. From the standpoint of God, sex is one of the many gifts that we were given that can be abused. Throughout the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament writers, we see that God is primarily concerned when the very strong and overriding passions of sex are directed towards false gods.
Our sexual behavior is important to God, as are all our interactions with each other. However, God’s view of the subject is not as impassioned or outraged as ours is. God is concerned that we relate to one another in love and not in exploitation, in sex as in all other ways.
The best thing to do is to live upright and decent lives, as God gives us grace to do so, and to be more concerned with our own sins than with the sins of others.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
—Matthew 7:2, NIV