Homosexuality: A biblical overview

Dr. Jim Denison

Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues in American culture. Should same-sex marriages be legalized? Should practicing homosexuals be ordained into Christian ministry? What does the Bible say on this controversial and emotional issue?

On such a controversial and emotional issue, we need to know whose word we are going to trust. We can find scholars who support any of the variety of positions which are advocated on the subject. It is not my intention to treat fully the multitude of interpretive comments which deal with the biblical texts on the subject. My goal is simply to review what the Bible says about homosexuality, as clearly, succinctly, and practically as possible.

Interpreting the Bible

And so I must begin with an interpretive word. When I taught principles of biblical interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I often told my students, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” We must seek the intended meaning of the text as understood in its original context. I also said often, “The only word God is obligated to bless is his word.” What matters to us today is not my opinions or yours, but God’s.

Such a position is not held universally on this subject. For instance, Dr. Walter Wink states in his thoughtful booklet, Homosexuality and the Bible, “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct” (p. 12).

Dr. Wink then compares homosexuality to the issue of slavery: he argues that the Bible condones slavery, states that the Bible was wrong on that subject, and concludes that it is equally wrong on the issue before us (pp. 12-13).

I respect greatly Dr. Wink’s enormous contributions to New Testament studies, especially on the subjects of spiritual warfare and nonviolence. But I could not disagree more strongly with his assertion, “The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”

Without digressing into an extended defense of biblical authority, I wish to state clearly that I believe every word of the Bible to be the word of God. I believe the Scriptures to possess the same authority for our lives today as they possessed for their first hearers and readers. For my purposes, the only question we’ll seek to answer is, What does the Bible intend to teach on this subject?

The sin of Sodom

The Supreme Court made history on June 27, 2003 when it struck down the “sodomy laws” of the state of Texas. In a 6-3 decision, the justices reversed course from a ruling 17 years ago that states could punish homosexuals for private consensual sex. Such activity is typically called “sodomy” because of the text we’ll study today.

In a survey of passages typically cited on the divisive issue of homosexuality, Genesis 19 and the sin of Sodom is usually listed first. Lot entertained two angels who came to the city to investigate its sins. These angels appeared as men; before they went to bed “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them'” (vs. 4-5, NIV). For such sin, “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah” (v. 24), destroying them.

Is this text a condemnation of homosexuality? Dr. Walter Wink believes not: “That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them ‘like women,’ thus demasculinizing them” (p. 1). However, Dr. Wink offers no textual evidence that the men were “ostensibly heterosexual”; his view is only conjectural, and stands against the vast majority of interpretation across the centuries.

Dr. Peter Gomes, the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in Harvard College, offers a different approach. He has written an extremely erudite introduction to the Bible and its message, The Good Book. Dr. Gomes, himself a homosexual (p. 164), treats this passage as an attempted homosexual rape, and argues that it does not condemn homosexuality per se (pp. 150-52).

A third approach is suggested by D. Sherwin Bailey, in his influential Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Dr. Bailey argues that the Hebrew word for “know,” translated “have sex” by the New International Version, relates not to sexual activity but hospitality. The word appears more than 943 times in the Old Testament, only 12 times in the context of sexual activity.

However, 10 of these 12 times are in the book of Genesis, the context for our text. Lot’s response to the crowd, offering his daughters so they can “do what you like with them,” makes clear that he interpreted their desires as sexual (v. 8). Everett Fox’s excellent translation of Genesis includes the note, “the meaning is unmistakably sexual” (p. 80). And Jude 7 settles the question as to whether sexual activity is meant by our text: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.”

It is also the case that Jewish and later Christian interpretation of the passage has historically and commonly seen the sin in Sodom as homosexuality itself, not just attempted rape. While this fact does not settle the interpretative question, it is worth noting as we proceed.

The Leviticus prohibition

The next text typically cited on our subject is Leviticus 18:22, and it is far less ambiguous: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” The Hebrew is as clear as the English translation

The obvious sense of the command seems to be: homosexual sexual relations are forbidden by Scripture. This is the way the text has typically been understood by Jewish and Christian interpreters across the centuries. It is the way most read the text still today.

But those who advocate homosexuality as an acceptable biblical lifestyle have found ways to dissent. Dr. Walter Wink admits that this text “unequivocally condemn[s] same-sex sexual behavior.” But he theorizes that the ancient Hebrews saw any sexual activity which could not lead to the creation of life as a form of abortion or murder. He adds that the Jews would have seen homosexuality as “alien behavior, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life.”