(Yet another) look at those ‘anti-gay’ passages in the New Testament

When it comes to traditional Christians and the members of the LGBTQ community who self-identify as Christian, the former is usually divided into three camps. First, are those folks who’ve fully accepted the LGBTQ community as part of the people of God. No ifs’ no buts’ no coconuts and yes even the Bible is fine with it (no matter what’s written inside). Second, are the opposite folks who believe that any kind of sexual orientation other than heterosexuality is a grave sin, virtually an ‘unforgivable’ one and that people who practice their non-heterosexuality are not genuine Christians at all no matter what they profess.

Then there’s the third camp who are sympathetic to the marginalisation of the LGBTQ community and believe that the Church is doing nobody any favours by treating LGBTQ Christians like pagans. This camp has generally accepted all LGBQT persons as fellow brothers and sisters in the faith whilst, however, refusing to discard the few Bible passages which (seemingly) condemn homosexuality.

This piece is especially for this third group of folks. I’m reading the book photographed above, in which four scholars go back and forth about ‘what the Bible says’ about homosexuality, pastoral concerns, and so on.

I wish to highlight a few key points from the chapter by Megan DeFranza whom I think raises some issues which all traditional Christians should at least consider.

Here we go:

One of the first points DeFranza raises is the prevalence of intersex persons i.e. individuals with bodies which include both male and female features. DeFranza cites Susannah Cornwall on the statistic that one out of every 2,500 births is intersex (p.70). Jesus also declared that, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, etc.” (Matthew 19:12). Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with those who were marginally sexed. The male-female binary, whilst no doubt a primary model for humankind, needn’t be an exclusive model such that people (or practices) following ‘outside’ of the model are considered perversions.

To make this clearer, DeFranza notes how amphibians are not mentioned in Genesis 1 but nobody argues that frogs are a perversion of nature (p.70). So if we can accept frogs as natural and just as much a part of a good creation, why can’t we accept people with an ambiguous sex and, by extension, a non-heterosexual orientation?

She then proceeds to provide some exegetical context for the key ‘anti-homosexuality’ verses in the New Testament are 1 Corinthians 6:9–11

“Or 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 1 Timothy 1:9–10

“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”

DeFranza argues that the targets of the letters are not individuals committed to one another within a monogamous same-sex relationship; the passage was targeting sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and prostitution. In the patriarchal situation of the first century, many men from wealthy and powerful families made frequent sexual use of enslaved persons, concubines and prostitutes, especially prior to age thirty which was the recommended / ideal age for men to marry (see the citations on p. 79). Furthermore,

“Even when married, husbands were encouraged to have sex with their wives solely for the purpose of procreation and to find other outlets for their erotic passions; sex with slaves and prostitutes was considered a ‘moral’ alternative” (p. 79, bolded emphasis mine)

It is mainly this culture of sexual slavery (involving especially male prostitutes which usually consisted of young boys who were captured and mutilated of their genitals, thereby guaranteeing a higher price) which these two passages are attacking.

(I may not have read the book carefully, but I couldn’t find any of the other writers criticising this contextual point. Most conservative theologies, in fact, conclude that 1 Cor 6 and 1 Timothy 1 are blanket, ‘context-less’ condemnations of homosexuality. Period.)

Similar issues apply to another verse supposedly condemning same-sex relations, Romans 1:26–27,

“Because of this, 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.”

DeFranza that the passage’s key idea is the link between rejection of God and out-of-control passions. She quotes Neil Elliot’s suggestion that Paul may have been alluding to the sins of the Roman aristocracy who (again) kept eunuchs, men and women as sexual slaves or to leaders like Caligula who’s sexual exploits eventually got him murdered by a military officer whom he sexually humiliated (thus ‘receiving the due penalty’ in Romans 1:27).

She concludes that, as a whole, “The passage is meant to describe the depravity of those who have rejected God, not faithful gay, lesbian and bisexual Christians seeking to solemnize their relationships with the vows of Christian marriage.” (p. 86). It is not same-sex relations which Paul was condemning, but same-sex excess resulting from the rejection of the true God. In other words, the subjects of Paul’s rebuke have already explicitly rejected God.

Most traditional Christians, on the other hand, employ the opposite move of concluding that same-sex relationships are themselves ‘proof’ of unrepentance. And no matter how much a gay man says he loves Jesus and serves his community and the church, there is every chance he will be labelled an ‘obviously unrepentant’ sinner. If DeFranza is right, then such an approach goes counter to the spirit of Romans 1.

Whilst I hesitate to draw a conclusion here, I resonate with DeFranza’s method of digging as deep as possible into the historical context of these passages which, unfortunately, have been the cause of so much pain for the LGBTQ community. Even if we take William Loader’s view that the apostle Paul was 100% against same-sex relations (p.34–42), I remain adamant that God’s love and inclusion will surprise us still (Matthew 8:11).