About a year ago, I found myself in a horribly frustrating debate with an evangelical Christian about equal marriage. Realising that he was never going to be convinced by the liberal view unless I could debate with him on the terms of his choice, I found myself frustrated by my hazy grasp of the scriptures that he held so dear. I was convinced that he could be challenged based upon the Bible, but I was not confident enough in my knowledge and understanding of it to do so. I vowed to remedy the situation, and to arm myself for the future.
Why bother? Well, I care more about supporting the human rights of LGBT people than I do about convincing others of my own emphatically non-religious worldview. The chances of me persuading an evangelical Christian to ‘dump’ God and move on are pretty slim – indeed, I do not consider it my place to attempt a one-to-one de-conversion; but I do consider it my place, my duty even, to defend the human rights of others. My acquaintance was an intelligent and sensitive man, with huge doses of what I would call humanity (but what he would call the love of God), and I have hope that he might have listened to an alternative reading of the scriptures.
People can’t choose the community that they’re born into, and too many LGBT people have been rejected by their own; too many have suffered appalling internal conflict, revolting prejudice and unacceptable treatment.[i] Too many members of these communities have endured or been forced to endure ‘conversion therapy’, including an extraordinary number of the pastors who peddle this kind of hatred. It’s an appalling approach that is campaigning hard to win the argument in some parts of America. It has to stop, and we have to engage.
In this article I examine the key passages from the Bible cited by conservative Christians as the standard ‘killer blows’ for liberals when it comes to equality. Rather appropriately for a collection of Bible passages, there are seven of them. Unless otherwise stated, translations are from the New English Bible, as it’s the one I grew up with and the one on my shelf. This, however, brings me to the most crucial thing to bear in mind when squaring up to a conservative Bible-believer – few of them give any thought to the fact that they are quoting from a translation. This renders their interpretations easily dismissible from the outset, for as we shall see, the translation (and biased mistranslation) of some words in the Bible is absolutely crucial to this discussion.[ii]
Adam and Steve
As gay Christian Matthew Vines points in his emotionally-charged lecture on this topic, God says in Genesis 2.18, ‘it is not good for the man to be alone; I will provide a partner for him.’ But in Genesis 1-2, God creates Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, as conservative evangelicals seem to find it so pleasing to point out. If your potential adversary is a Bible literalist, then he or she will believe that Adam and Eve actually existed and were created by God in exactly the manner that the Bible describes. However, he or she will still have to accept that this twosome cannot constitute an exemplary paradigm for how modern couples should live – and I’m not just talking about naturism. For example, the only way that Adam and Eve could populate the world is by producing children who would procreate with each other (and/or with them), a necessary side effect of their unique situation. This is just one example of how Bible literalists have no choice but to admit that the prototype couple of Adam and Eve must be taken as symbolic, at least on some levels, and not applied wholesale to modern adult relationships. As soon as they are forced to admit this, almost everything is open to question.
Most Christians see Adam and Eve as a part of a creation myth; they accept that their existence was metaphorical and that they represent the origins of mankind as a species. Prior to the halcyon days of modern science, it is indeed a fact that the world would not have been peopled without the predominance of heterosexual relations. In communities fighting for survival, ‘wasted seed’ no doubt becomes an issue, hence perhaps God’s punishment of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10. Well, really. So what? With the population of the earth now at an estimated 7 billion and predicted to rise to around 11 billion by the end of the century, nobody can possibly argue that peopling the planet is a pressing concern for us now.
The Sin of Sodom
In Genesis 19 we find the widely misunderstood story of Sodom. Two of God’s angels visit the town of Sodom in disguise and are welcomed warmly by an allegedly righteous man named Lot (although I shall say more about his purported moral fibre later on). That night, all the other men from the town surround the house and demand that the visitors be brought out ‘so that we can have intercourse with them.’ When Lot tries to bargain with them, the crowd becomes violent and starts beating the door down. Whoa … hang on. Alarming, isn’t it? The fact that God later punishes Sodom and nearby Gomorrah with fire and brimstone is cited by conservative Christians as concrete evidence that Jehovah disapproves of homosexuality… so let’s explore this bizarre story in more detail.
First and foremost, the term ‘Sodomite’ simply means ‘inhabitant of Sodom,’ though it is the modern, homophobic use of this word that dominates people’s thinking today; any Bible translation (or excitable preacher) using the word ‘Sodomite’ to mean anything other than ‘inhabitant of Sodom’ is biased and frankly ignorant. Many reputable scholars (both Christian and non-Christian) argue that the story of Sodom was actually a traditional lesson in the importance of welcoming strangers,[iii] a motif that can be found throughout the ancient world. The ancient concept of what the Greeks called xenia, the friendship extended between host and guest, was sacred and central to ancient morality, and numerous stories that reflect its importance can be found in Classical mythology.[iv] In the Hebrew tradition, the harsh nomadic existence of the early Jewish people meant that the custom of welcoming travel-weary strangers was essential to their survival, and Genesis 19 is just one of numerous Biblical references to its import.[v]
The fact that the townsmen of Sodom threaten to gang-rape their male visitors is interpreted by conservative Christians as an example of unbridled homosexual lust; but the threat of violent rape is not about sex and it’s certainly not about sexuality. Indeed, to suggest as much is both offensive and ill-informed. Sexual violence is a weapon of power and control, and male rape is sometimes used in violent homophobic attacks. Research indicates that male rape has actually been used more frequently in some conflicts than the rape of women; it is used to humiliate and degrade the enemy. The violent threat to Lot’s guests in the story represents a declaration of hostility towards strangers – an interpretation supported by the fact that as the crowd’s threats become more aggressive they turn upon Lot himself, saying ‘this man has come and settled here as an alien, and does he now take it upon himself to judge us?’ The Hebrew here can also be rendered as ‘foreigner’, ‘stranger’ or ‘immigrant,’ and the behaviour of the crowd demonstrates a negative hostility to outsiders. So, exactly as the scholars argue, the primary ‘sin of Sodom’ should be understood to mean threatening and rejecting a visitor as your enemy, rather than welcoming him as your guest.[vi]
Finally, a word about Lot’s behaviour in this undeniably horrid little story. Despite the endless debates between conservative and liberal Christians over this section of the Bible, few of them seem particularly interested in talking about the mention of Lot’s daughters. So let’s complete the delightful tale: while the townsmen were surrounding Lot’s house and threatening his guests with rape, ‘Lot went out … and said, ‘Look: I have two daughters, both virgins; let me bring them out to you and you can do what you like with them; but do not touch these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof’’. (Genesis 19.6-8). So the ‘righteous’ Lot offers up his daughters to be gang-raped in place of his two guests, and yet conservative Christians cite this passage as a lesson in sexual morality for the modern world.
Next we come to Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the two passages perhaps most often quoted on this topic. Leviticus 18.22 states that ‘you shall not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination.’ In Leviticus 20.13 it also says, ‘if a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood shall be on their own heads.’
At first glance, this might seem unequivocal. However, the book of Leviticus is a list of traditional, ritual mores for the time, and the overwhelming majority of its instructions and exhortations are comfortably ignored by modern Christians. While it is true that Leviticus proscribes sex between men, it also forbids the eating of rabbit (11.6), pork (11.7) and shellfish (11.9-12), the wearing of mixed fibres (19.19) and cutting the sides of your hair (19.27). Got a tattoo? Then you’re in big trouble according to Leviticus 19.28, which is bad news for all those hick town dudes who’ve had Leviticus 18.22 tattooed on their butts.
Let us now examine the word ‘abomination’, which conservatives quote with such horrifying relish and which causes such understandable upset.[vii] ‘Abomination’ is a commonly used but rather loaded and potentially misleading translation of the Hebrew word tow’ebah, which had a culturally-specific meaning. It was used of anything that went against the long list of ritually acceptable practices and behaviours described, and was applied to many of the prohibitions mentioned above. According to Leviticus, it is just as much of an ‘abomination’ to eat a bacon sandwich or a shrimp salad as it is to ‘lie with a man as with a woman’, so unless conservative Christians want to start eating kosher, they’d better re-think their stance on this one. This inconvenient fact is ignored by right-wing preachers, who cite this passage over and over, emphasising the English word ‘abomination’. The reality is that the same Hebrew word is used throughout the Old Testament to condemn numerous practices that the majority of Christians, including their preachers, will carry out on a regular basis.
Some conservative readers of the Bible, such as Robert A. Gagnon, acknowledge the wider list of prohibitions but they maintain that sex between men is still presented as a worse kind of ‘abomination’ than some of the others listed above. They use two key arguments for this. Firstly, they point out that sex between men is listed alongside other sex acts that are plainly immoral, such as incest and bestiality. Secondly, they point out that Leviticus 20.13 threatens death as the appropriate punishment for sex between men – presumably suggesting that God felt pretty strongly about it. Well, most of us would probably agree that incest and bestiality are morally wrong. This is a conclusion that one can draw not from reading it in the Bible, but through sound, enlightened, and informed reasoning. For sexual intercourse to be morally acceptable it should be consensual (which bestiality cannot be) and it should not cause harm (which bestiality might and incest does, both in terms of its psychological impact and its potential biological consequences). On the other hand, having sex with your wife at certain times of the month, also prohibited in this section of Leviticus, is not considered to be immoral by most modern Christians; so why therefore should consensual sex between adult partners of the same gender be? Finally, the fact that death is listed as the punishment for intercourse between two men can be easily dismissed; the same punishment is threatened for blaspheming (Leviticus 24.16) and for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31.14), so by my reckoning most of us are in serious trouble, including most Christians.
The New Testament: it’s all Greek to them
As liberal Christians often point out, you will not find any direct prohibitions against homosexuality in the Gospels, so conservative Christians rely on the Letters of Paul for their New Testament ammunition.
In 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10, Paul gives an inventory of ‘unrighteous’ people, who will not ‘inherit the kingdom of God.’ A colourful collection of wrongdoings are catalogued as possible barriers to the promised land, and the New Testament translation here excels itself by listing one of the sins as ‘homosexual perversion.’ Wow! To someone who reads the translation in ignorance of the original text, this kind of language is pretty unambiguous. They might, however, be surprised were they to look at the King James version, an English translation produced some 400 years earlier, which mentions the ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind.’ On the other hand, the New International Version of the Bible, commonly used in America, says ‘men who have sex with men.’ So what on earth is going on? Let’s see.[viii]
The Greek word that the King James version translates as ‘effeminate’ at 1 Corinthians 6.9 is malakos, a term that is used in a wide range of surviving Greek texts. Its original sense was ‘soft’ or ‘pliable’ but when applied to people it was often used to mean something like ‘weak-willed’ or ‘lazy’, not schooled in the ways of righteous or philosophical thinking.[ix] The word was also used in a derogatory fashion to describe men who had been too much exposed to the finer, more decadent things in life, and in this sense it could imply a man who behaved in a less than ‘manly’ fashion according to the ancient ideal. Finally, it was also applied to younger males who cultivated feminine wiles and/or who allowed themselves to be penetrated during sexual activity. This accusation could be applied in a heterosexual as well as in a homosexual context, and had far more do with the ancient suspicion of all things female than it did with a negative view of attraction between men.[x]
The next word that we need to tackle is the Greek word arsenokoites. Paul uses this word in both passages, and these are its only two appearances in the Bible; unfortunately they are also the first appearances of this word that we have preserved Greek literature, which means that its meaning is somewhat obscure to us. The very fact that Paul uses an unusual and possibly new term here is potentially interesting, as there were numerous Greek words that he could have used to refer to homosexual activity, had he so chosen. However, this may not be significant at all; the problem with ancient texts is that the meaning of any particular word may well have been clear to the author and to his immediate audience, and only seems obscure to us due to our lack of sources. The best thing that we can do therefore is to look more closely at the text itself.[xi]
Arsenokoites is a compound word, a combination of a Greek word for ‘man’ or ‘male’ (arsen) and ‘marital bed’ (koite). Just as in English, this word for ‘bed’ could be used euphemistically in Greek to mean ‘have sex with’ – so does it not simply mean ‘men who have sex with men’, exactly as the New International Version of the Bible translates? Well, quite possibly not. Cannon points out that in Paul’s list of sins in 1 Timothy 1.10, arsenokoites appears in between the words pornos and andrapodistes. The word pornos most commonly meant a male who prostitutes his body. Its female equivalent (porne) meant ‘harlot’ or ‘prostitute’ and the equivalent verb ‘to be or to become a prostitute’. Andrapodistes meant ‘slave-dealer’, ‘kidnapper’ or ‘man-stealer’ – it was used of one who kidnaps others and sells them into slavery, or of one who steals another man’s slaves. Cannon explores in detail the fact that Paul lists his ‘sins’ in groups of closely-related meaning, and he draws the conclusion that by ‘pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes’ he meant something like ‘male prostitutes, the males who lie [with them], and the slave dealers [who procure them].’
There are certainly many scholars who argue that Paul’s use of the word arsenokoites refers to people who exploit others in a sexual context.[xii] The exploitative use of younger males (often slaves) for sexual gratification was widespread in the ancient world, and it was quite likely to have been the only kind of sex between males that Paul had even heard of. I would argue that to extrapolate from Paul a prohibition on modern, adult, consensual relationships is to misunderstand the world in which he lived and to misinterpret his experience and probable mindset at the time.
A good old-fashioned orgy
In Romans 1.26-27 Paul discusses the Gentiles’ descent into idolatry and their rejection of God. He says here that, as a result of their behaviour, God abandoned them and let them live without Him. ‘In consequence, I say, God has given them up to shameful passions. Their women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and their men in turn, giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for one another.’
This is perhaps the most problematic passage of them all. It is also the only time that sexual activity between women is mentioned in the Bible, and it doesn’t sound too positive, does it? Some scholars argue that Paul is talking very simply about what he saw as the heterosexual norm versus a clear disapproval of all homosexual relations. Others, including Matthew Vines, cling to the notion that the problem presented here is of heterosexual people performing homosexual acts, therefore somehow rejecting their ‘true’ nature; Paul does indeed use a Greek term which means something like ‘innate’ or ‘inborn’ to refer to their heterosexual leanings, and Vines argues from this that he is talking not about people who are gay but about people who ‘turn against their own nature’. Cannon even goes so far as to point out that according to this understanding (i.e. the belief that Paul is criticising people who turn against their innate sexual orientation), ‘it would be a sin for a homosexual to engage in heterosexual sex.’ But I’m afraid I don’t buy it. This interpretation is asking us to believe that when Paul talked about people turning ‘against nature’[xiii] he meant no malice towards those who experience same-sex attraction from birth. This is pretty tenuous, and I struggle to accept that this would have been his mindset at the time. Another danger with this approach is that we simply exchange one set of prejudices for another – is someone who has felt predominantly drawn to people of the opposite sex for most of their life then prohibited from experiencing and acting upon any form of same-sex attraction in later life? As liberals, this would put us on very dangerous ground.
So how should Christians reconcile what Paul says here with a modern, liberal stance? Well, a more convincing and less problematic argument is that, as so often where sexual morality is discussed in the Bible, Romans 1.26-27 is actually talking about lust or debauchery. The passage is believed by many to be a reference to orgiastic behaviour, and while the pagan practice of ‘sacred sexual orgies’ perhaps didn’t go on quite as much as some of the early Christian writers would have us believe, there is little doubt that this was certainly the view of pagan ritual as seen from the outside. It is therefore entirely plausible that Paul was writing in a disapproving tone about the general practices that he believed took place among ‘idolaters,’ which would include all forms of uninhibited sexual activity outside of a committed (and yes, in his experience, heterosexual) relationship. It is therefore reasonable for liberal Christians to argue that committed homosexual relationships are acceptable, since they do not actually go against the spirit of the prohibitions issued here by Paul.
Conclusions: love wins?
The passages in the Old Testament are easy to dismiss. The paradigm of Adam and Eve is symbolic, the story of Sodom represents an example of hostility to strangers in the form of threatened sexual assault, and the prohibition in Leviticus is just one of a series of culturally-based proscriptions that modern Christians are happy to ignore. In the New Testament, the only possible mentions of homosexual activity are made in reference to licentious and lustful behaviour and quite possibly to sexual exploitation. They therefore have nothing more to do with homosexual relationships than they do with heterosexual ones.
It is all too easy for those of us who are not emotionally attached to these ancient texts to dismiss them as irrelevant – to us, frankly, they are. But if we are to persuade more Christians to accept and welcome gay members of their community – a situation that is craved and deserved by so many – then we have to engage with the debate on their terms and to support the liberal Christians who are attempting to lead change.
Few Christians will have given this matter anything like as much thought as I have over the last few days of research, and I hope to be able to stand my ground when I next find myself in a corner with someone who uses the Bible to excuse and defend their own prejudices. I hope very much that you will too.
[ii] Here are just some examples of spectacularly ignorant homophobic preaching, based entirely on a so-called ‘analysis’ of the Bible’s words in an English translation: ‘what does the Bible say about homosexuality‘ ‘Homosexuality and the Bible‘ ‘a Christian view of sodomites.’ Please don’t watch them if you think they might upset you – some of the things said are truly horrible.
[iii] For example Peter J. Sorensen, ‘The Lost Commandments: the sacred rites of hospitality.’ This analysis by Suzanne Scholz of how Genesis 19 is dealt with on the internet is a cautionary reminder of just how much nonsense there is on the web. She doesn’t draw any conclusions about the meaning of the passage, simply explores how many conflicting accounts there are about it on the internet from a scholarly perspective.
[v] For example Genesis 18.1-8; Genesis 47.7-12; Leviticus 19.10; Leviticus 19.33-34.
[vi] The very fact that the ‘sins of Sodom’ do not equate to homosexuality but do equate to poor hospitality and lack of charity is confirmed within the Bible itself, both in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 16.49-50) and the New Testament (Luke 10.8-12).
[xi] Here Cannon’s article is hugely helpful because he gives the Greek words in their original form and then explores the various ways in which they have been translated in modern times. Even more detailed and enlightening is the article by Dale B Martin.
[xii] Dale B Martin explores a 2nd century Christian treatise by Theophilus of Antioch which seems to support this reading: here a list of sexual sins is followed by a list of economic misdemeanours (thieves, plunderers, robbers) and it is among the latter that arsenokoites appears, suggesting that by the second century at least the word had a very definite link to monetary exploitation rather than to a specific sex act.
[xiii] We need to be careful about terminology here again. Paul uses the Greek phrase para phusin, and the exact meaning of this phrase in late antiquity was one of the central questions of my spectacularly obscure PhD. One easy way to translate it in the context of what Paul is saying here is indeed ‘unnatural’ or ‘against nature’ but it also meant ‘uncustomary’ – as it no doubt does when he uses it to refer to the notion of men wearing their hair long in 1 Corinthians 11.14 (translated extremely poorly as ‘a disgrace’ in the New English Bible). Matthew Vines therefore argues that para phusin is a culturally specific term that relates to custom, not to innate biology. I’m afraid that I can’t agree with him on that, but he’s right that translating the phrase is not straightforward. It can also mean ‘paranormal’ or ‘supernatural’ and is used in a positive sense to describe how God has enabled Jews and Gentiles to cleave together in Romans 11.24.