This post is written mainly for the benefit of atheists who think that the "God Hates Shrimp" retort does anything to undermine or expose the belief, held by evangelical Christians, that the Bible teaches that homosexual practice is a sin.
In the previous sentence, I used the word 'benefit' deliberately. Not only does an atheist holding a "God Hates Shrimp" board completely fail to trouble any evangelical Christian with half a clue, it actually portrays the atheist in a very bad light. Such a person is demonstrating that, on the one hand, they haven't bothered to find out the first thing about why Christians believe that homosexual practice is a sin, and yet on the other, they think that they have a three-word killer argument that will bring 2000 years of Christian teaching to its knees in embarrassed confusion. In short, any evangelical Christian with half a clue will read those words as if they said "My ignorance is surpassed only by my arrogance".
Since I'm pretty sure you're not intending to give off that message, and since I don't think it helps either side when your behaviour (or ours) just confirms our nasty suspicions about each other, in this post I offer atheists a chance to understand what you are really up against if you want to fight Christians on their own ground (i.e. what the Bible has to say about homosexuality).
Before I continue, I should point out that in this post I am not:
defending my belief in the whole Bible as the inspired word of God, or attempting to persuade anyone of it. That is my starting point.
defending the behaviour of those who incite hatred towards homosexuals. That is obviously indefensible.
defending the behaviour of the hypocrites who condemn homosexuality while carrying on practising it. That is obviously indefensible.
talking about orientation. As far as I am aware, the Bible has almost nothing to say about this, apart from calling homosexual desire unnatural. I am talking about practice.
pretending that anyone who cites the Bible as the source of their belief that homosexual practice is a sin is being honest — it is entirely possible that an unkind, hateful attitude actually drives them, and what the Bible says is simply a cover.
I am concerned in this post only with giving the reasons why Christians think that the Bible condemns homosexual behaviour. If you want to argue with me about anything else, I will be ruthless in deleting comments, because I don't have time to deal with flame wars. I will also not tolerate comments from people who have obviously not bothered to read the whole post, to keep the noise level down. Genuine questions or requests for clarification will be gratefully received.
Since Leviticus 18:22 and 11:12 have been brought up, let's start there. In these verses, at least in some English translations, we find homosexual practice and certain foods both described as an 'abomination'.
Before we go any further, we need a brief word about the words used. There are a few different relevant Hebrew words, which are translated in various ways (depending on the form of Hebrew word and whether it is a noun, verb etc). I will use the following families of words to translate the different Hebrew terms, following the ESV (which I will also use in most of my quotations):
sha-qatz - detest/detestable
to'ebah - abominate/abomination
ta-me - unclean
There is certainly overlap between these words (compare Deuteronomy 14:3-20 with Leviticus 11, for example), and I will largely ignore the differences between them from here on in, and sometimes use just one as representative of all of them.
Now, the argument appears to be that Christians are picking and choosing by applying one of these verses and not the other, and their condemnation of homosexual practice is therefore the result of their own prejudice and not a concern for what the Bible actually says (I have to say that video linked is very funny and has some very valid criticisms of so-called Christianity. Its ignorance on this issue, however, was so extreme, not to mention the demonisation of the 'Christians', that I wasn't sure if it was actually self-parody). Anyway, there is a lot to say in response to that if you want a thorough response. Here goes:
The Old Testament
First, let's notice that these laws in Leviticus form part of the laws given to the people of Israel. If you examine these laws and the way in which they were given, you will find that while some are moral laws, some are meant to distinguish the Israelites from the other nations. The Bible itself makes it plain which are which — as I will show.
Of course, disobedience to any command from God is 'sin', whether the command is temporary or permanent, moral or ceremonial. And a flagrant, deliberate transgression of a ceremonial law can be far worse than an accidental transgression of a moral law, since it is an expression of blatant disregard for God. Nevertheless, the Bible makes a clear distinction between different types of commands, even to the people to whom both types were very binding and serious.
To give one example of God very definitely prioritising his own commands, I present Hosea 6:6:
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
So, if it comes down to choosing between showing love to someone (e.g. by feeding a starving family with your lamb) and sacrifice (taking the same lamb to be a burnt offering at the temple), it is a no-brainer: God does not care one iota for sacrifices, relatively speaking (even though he himself commanded them). And this example illustrates that failure to understand the varying priorities God puts on his own law could have horrific consequences — you might leave a family to starve in order to perform a ritual that achieves nothing in itself. Jesus himself quotes this verse from Hosea to rebuke the Pharisees of his own time and their use of the Old Testament law (Matthew 12:1-8).
Second, let's notice that the same word being used does not mean that same level of disapproval is being expressed. I might say "slugs are disgusting" and "a grown man fancying a 5 year old girl is disgusting", but it doesn't mean I have the same level or even same kind of disapproval towards those things, even though "disgusting" is an appropriate word for both, in different ways. The Hebrew words have similar semantic range (including physical and moral disgust), so the argument is going to be a lot more subtle than "the same word is used" (although, in fact, it isn't the same Hebrew word in the two verses in question).
The actual phrases used
Next, let's look at the actual phrasing of these laws, and the way in which things are called 'abomination/detestable/unclean'. We find 4 basic usages:
Something is called 'an abomination before the LORD'
Something is called, or commanded to be, 'an abomination to you'.
Some action is called simply 'an abomination'
Some object is called simply 'an abomination'
Under 2), the 'you' is the people of Israel. I am also including under that heading the usage 'you shall abominate/you shall detest'.
There is an important distinction between 3) and 4), and especially so in the Hebrew mind, when you consider that all objects are considered as having been made by God himself, and are (at least originally) 'very good' (Genesis 1:31), which makes it curious that any object in creation should be called 'an abomination'.
The items in usage 4, described simply as 'abominations', include things both from usage 1) and 2). That is, both things which are detestable to the LORD and those which are detestable for the Israelites end up being described as simply 'detestable', or 'a detestable thing'. For the former, we have idols described as 'abomination', since idol worship is an abomination to the LORD (Deuteronomy 7:25-26). In fact, in many cases 'abomination' is almost synonymous with 'idol'. For the latter, we have Deuteronomy 14:3, which refers to forbidden foods as 'abomination'. (I think this is the only example).
Although usages in categories 3) and 4) by themselves can be ambiguous, the distinction between 1) and 2) is nonetheless quite real. It expresses the difference between something that is, in itself, offensive to God, and something that the Israelites must regard as detestable. (Why are the Israelites to abominate something which is fine in itself? In part, to distinguish them from the other nations. They were to be a 'holy' nation, and the food laws and other laws about cleanliness enforced a separation in lifestyle that was meant to constantly reinforce that distinction. Their holiness and separation was meant to reflect the holiness of God - Leviticus 11:45-47.)
Now, the next important observation is this:
Setting aside instances of 3) and 4) where they are ambiguous, we find a consistent pattern. The animals forbidden in the food laws are repeatedly described as 'detestable to you' (Leviticus 11), 'unclean to you' (Deuteronomy 14:3-20). However, we never find the forbidden foods described as 'detestable to the LORD' or similar.
On the other hand, there are various things which are described as 'an abomination to the LORD', and these are never described in terms of 'this shall be an abomination to you'.
(For completeness, I will note that there is a third category - other laws about cleanliness, including a person/object showing symptoms associated with infectious diseases and things to do with bodily functions and dead bodies. These are described as simply 'unclean', and never 'unclean to you', nor 'unclean to the LORD'. Note that sometimes the language indicates that 'clean' or 'unclean' is a status not a state, and note also that the stronger abomination/detestable language is not used for these things).
When we examine things which are "an abomination to the LORD", what do we find? We find many things (especially in Proverbs), which can be fairly well summarised under these headings:
Idols and idol worship (Deuteronomy 7:25; 12:31; 27:15)
Insulting and false worship (Deuteronomy 17:1, Isaiah 1:13, Proverbs 15:8, Deuteronomy 23:18)
General 'external' ethics - dishonesty and injustice (Deuteronomy 25:16, Proverbs 11:1; 12:22; 17:15; 20:10; 20:23), murder, violence (Proverbs 6:17), child sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:12)
General 'internal' ethics - pride (Proverbs 6:17; 16:5), making evil plans (Proverbs 6:17), general badness (Proverbs 3:23; 11:20; 15:9; 15:26)
Occult practices (Deuteronomy 18:12)
Matters of sexual ethics: re-marriage laws (Deuteronomy 24:4) and transvestite behaviour (Deuteronomy 22:5)
With regards to Leviticus 18:22, a distinction based solely "to the LORD" or "to you" is not enough to tell us which category homosexual practice falls into, since it is described simply as "an abomination" in that passage. But even without going any further, we can make a decision, since it belongs with sexual ethics, and clearly does not belong to the one category which has been carefully labelled as "abominations to you" (eating certain animals). So we would be right, on this basis, to conclude that the force of "abomination" there is "abomination to the LORD". If you don't accept that, you must at least conclude that this warrants further investigation, and you cannot simply say "well God hates shrimps too". In fact, "God hates shrimps" is now exposed to be a particularly bad paraphrase in light of a careful reading of the words used. It should actually read: "God commanded the Israelites to hate shrimps".
However, there is much stronger evidence about what category homosexual practice belongs to, even in the Old Testament.
Sins of the nations
The Old Testament repeats again and again the following idea: God destroyed and displaced the peoples living in Canaan and gave their land to the Israelites, not because the Israelites were better, but because of the wickedness of the peoples living in the land (and also because of his love for the Israelites).
There are many instances of God working in this way in general, but with regards to the people of Canaan this thread goes back to Genesis 15:16, where Abraham is told that his descendants will spend time in Egypt before coming back to the land of Canaan (the land promised to Abraham), because "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete" (they haven't become wicked enough to deserve being violently kicked out).
When the time comes for the people of Israel to go and take this land by force, God makes clear to them certain things — that He is giving them the power to drive out the peoples, and that if they copy the practices of the wicked people who he is driving out, they will be driven out too.
One passage where God says this is Deuteronomy 18:9-12. And another is Leviticus 18, where the commandment regarding homosexual practice is found. I will quote the beginning of the section, and the few verses around this commandment which close the section:
18:1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. 3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. 4 You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. ...
21 You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. 23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.
24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practised before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.”
So, 'lying with a male as with a woman' is one of the 'abominations' for which God drove out the nations of Canaan by the hand of the Israelites. These are nations to whom God had not sent any special laws, yet he expected certain standards of behaviour even from them. Nowhere are we told that God drove the people out for failure to comply with the food laws given to the Israelites, nor to many other ceremonial laws they were given.
In fact, the Hebrew scriptures are clear that regarding food, God gave different commandments to those outside the people of Israel. To Adam , before the fall, God gave all green plants as food (Genesis 1:29-30). To Noah, after the fall, as the ancestor of all living humans, this was massively broadened, when God says:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (Genesis 9:3)
The food laws given to the Israelites are therefore distinctively Jewish laws, and much narrower than what he allowed for mankind in general. Yet with regards to sexual conduct, as well as other moral things such as child sacrifice, and 'religious' things like occult practices, God's attitude is very different — God severely judges nations for their failures in these areas, and that includes homosexual practice.
Sodom and Gomorrah
One of the most famous examples of God judging people for wickedness is, of course, Sodom and Gomorrah. These were cities that existed long before the people of Israel and the Levitical laws — they were contemporary with Abraham, but did not outlive him, due to God raining down fire and brimstone and destroying them.
'Sodom' is of course where we get the word 'sodomy' from, and in the story of their destruction, the most prominent feature of their wickedness is their sexual depravity. They want to have sex with the angels who come to Lot's house, and even after they are struck blind they continue to grope towards Lot's door in their lust. (Note that in the Bible, angels who come to earth always appear as men).
The case for saying that God judged their homosexual practice is not as straightforward as it seems, especially if you limit yourself to the Old Testament (and ignore Jude 1:7). First, it could be argued that it was more their rapacious conduct, rather than specifically homosexual conduct, or their gross trespass of hospitality laws. Second, you might quote Ezekiel 16:49, in which God compares the people of Israel to Sodom:
Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
There would certainly be some truth in these observations — God did not destroy the Sodomites solely for their sexual practices. Nevertheless, the most prominent and important feature in the story of their destruction is their sexual behaviour. In Genesis 18:20-21, God is pictured deliberating with himself about Sodom and Gomorrah, and he is going to go and find out if they are really as bad as they are supposed to be. Two angels are sent for this purpose, and, as the story goes, it is solely on the basis of their sexual conduct that they conclude that the city is indeed worthy of complete destruction. The 'abomination' that is referred to in the very next verse in Ezekiel certainly includes their sexual behaviour:
They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.
This still doesn't prove that it was homosexuality per se, rather than rape, that was the abomination. However, if we add in (1) the fact that the word for abomination here is the same as that used in Leviticus 18:22, while rape is not described by this word in the OT, (2) the most likely interpretation of Jude 1:7 (namely that the Sodomites were pursuing 'unnatural desire' by their homosexual practice), and (3) the fact that the city became synonymous with the practice, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that homosexual practice is being condemned in the judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah.
Notice also that this is the only passage in the Old Testament where groups of practising homosexuals are described. If the Old Testament is intending to indicate that, outside of the special laws given to the people of Israel, there is such a thing as a healthy, beautiful, legitimate homosexual relationship, it does an extremely bad job! Remember that the Bible does indeed celebrate heterosexual relationships - from Genesis 2:21-25 onwards. In fact, in the Song of Solomon the Bible celebrates heterosexual relations so enthusiastically that it has caused many a blush to Jews and Christians ever since, with the book even being made out-of-bounds for Jewish men under 30 (so they say — I haven't actually checked that one out).
Of course, it does not follow that the Bible is saying that all homosexuals behave as badly as those in Sodom. They are an extreme case, so extreme that God judged severely. The point I am making is that there are no positive role models for homosexual relationships in the Bible.
We are forced to conclude that while the Old Testament is extremely positive about sex within marriage, it never extends this to homosexual conduct, which is instead classified as a very serious sin, along with many other sexual sins, including adultery, prostitution (1 Kings 14:24), incest and bestiality. These are sins not only for the Israelites, but for all nations, who were expected to keep themselves from them, and judged severely for failure to do so, even though they had been given no laws from God about them.
Next, in investigating the difference that the Old Testament makes between different types of sins, we come to the prophets who reminded the people of God's laws. Since the people of Israel were in general a pretty wicked bunch — a reflection of mankind in general — the prophets mainly preach God's judgement. They tell the people that, for their disobedience, God will certainly bring the judgements he promised (in places like Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 28:15-68), and they will be 'vomited' out of the land.
If the distinction I have made between different types of commandments is valid, we would expect the prophets to concentrate on the more 'major' sins — things that are an abomination before the LORD, and not just the ritual cleanliness laws. And this is exactly what we do find. The prophets spent their time on the different things that are "abominations to the LORD", as listed above. They spoke out vehemently against idol worship, against social injustice (Amos especially), insulting and false worship (Isaiah, Malachi), violence (all of the prophets, e.g. Ezekiel 8:17, Isaiah 5:7), child sacrifice (Ezekiel 16:20-21), marital unfaithfulness (Malachi 2:14) and many other specific things.
Mention of food laws is extremely rare, even to these Israelites on whom those laws were binding. Eating of pig's flesh is mentioned in Isaiah 65:4 as an instance of how the people 'provoke' God — as if they had gone down a list of forbidden things and done them all just to spite God. I'm struggling to find other examples. So, again, we are forced to recognise that the food laws really belong to a different category to other moral laws.
So we come to the New Testament teaching. Given the Old Testament background, if you want to argue that homosexual practice is now permitted, the NT is either going to have to throw out the OT completely as a guide to what God is like and what he commands, or it is going to have to agree with what it says about homosexuality. If God changes his mind about homosexuality, after having destroyed nations partly because of that sin — nations to whom he had not given any laws telling them not to do it — then we have a bit of a problem about the character of God.
So, we will look at what different people in the NT said about homosexuality, and what they said about the OT in general. Please note that evangelicals consider all the authors of the NT to be inspired, and cannot accept an interpretation that drives a wedge between any of them.
Much is made of the fact that Jesus did not specifically mention homosexuality once. However, the people who want to use this as an endorsement of homosexual behaviour fail to realise that his silence means exactly the opposite.
Notice first of all that Jesus very clearly believed in the authority of the Old Testament, and derived his teaching from it. For example, when questioned on the subject of divorce, he responded with quotation from the Old Testament (Matthew 19:3-6), or, on another occasion he responds with "What did Moses tell you?" (Mark 10:3). He believed the Old Testament to be infallible (John 10:35), produced by the power of God through human agents, so that it can be described both as the word of the human author and the word of God (e.g. Matthew 22:31-32; 24:15). In Matthew 23:2-3, despite all the negative things he says about the Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples to listen to what they had to say because they sat in Moses seat, teaching God's law. He rebuked people for their ignorance of the Old Testament, making it clear that a failure to understand and believe the law will lead to many mistakes and heresies (e.g. Mark 12:24).
Jesus categorically denied that he had come to abolish "the law" (meaning Moses' laws and the OT in general). Instead, he claimed that he had come to "fulfil" the law (Matthew 5:17-18). In the sermon that follows, Jesus used the formula "you have heard it said ... but I say to you ..." several times. A naïve understanding of these words suggests that he was overruling the Old Testament scriptures he quotes, but in each case he was actually overruling a false interpretation (which sometimes included a false quotation) of those verses, restoring the correct interpretation, and usually bringing out a stricter, more demanding aspect of the basic law that was given by Moses. For example:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ [quotation from Exodus 20] But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ ["love your neighbour" is a quotation from the Old Testament, "hate your enemy" is not]. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... (Matthew 5:43-44)
Many other texts can be added to show the extremely high opinion Jesus had of the Jewish scriptures. In that context, we expect that if Jesus wanted to overrule anything in the Old Testament, he would have made it explicit.
Do we find that Jesus said anything to overrule the Israelite food laws? Yes, we do:
And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:18-19)
Since these rules were only ever specific to the Jews, and God never expected other nations to obey them, nor judged them for failure to comply with them, and since Jesus understood himself as the Messiah who would be the light for all nations, not just the Jews (Isaiah 49:6), it is neither surprising nor scandalous for Jesus or his followers to teach that obedience to distinctively Jewish laws is no longer required, and that we essentially are to revert to the commands given to Noah, and other commands that are clearly moral and not ceremonial. Paul gave further explanation of this change in his letter to the Galatians (e.g. see Galatians 3:24).
Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews addresses the OT Jewish sacrificial system on the basis that Jesus 'fulfilled' these things by being the person to whom they all pointed (see John 2:19-21, John 1:26).
On the other hand, Jesus never revoked the Old Testament attitude towards homosexuality.
But even if you ignore this huge amount of evidence and start with the assumption that Jesus didn't believe the OT to be in any way God's word, and you're a 'New Testament only' kind of person, you've still got huge problems trying to interpret his silence on homosexuality as approval:
The people around Jesus uniformly believed that homosexual conduct was a sin. Jesus did address sexual ethics — in Matthew 15:19 he condemned 'sexual immorality' (which, in the ears of everyone around him, included homosexual practice). His teaching on sexual ethics (especially divorce) only ever tightened existing understanding, and he appeared to be working in exactly the same framework as everyone else — namely, that marriage is the only permissible context for sexual relations. In Matthew 19:4-6 he made Genesis 2 the basis of his teaching on divorce, which describes only heterosexual monogamy. If Jesus actually wanted us to believe that homosexual practice was now OK after all, or that homosexual marriage is now a possibility, he did an extraordinarily bad job of communicating it! The argument from Jesus' silence on this matter works entirely in favour of the position that homosexual practice remains a sin.
Jesus was also silent on the issue of kidnapping, cannibalism and drunkenness. Are we to assume that Jesus wants us to believe that all of these things are now OK? Jesus had no need to condemn any of these things, or homosexual practice, since he was in agreement with everyone around him that these things were wrong.
Unlike Jesus, Paul had a lot to do with people from a Greek culture. In Greek culture, homosexual practice was quite common and often accepted. So it is not surprising to find that Paul actually has something to say on the subject. (Had he said nothing, we would still have been forced to conclude that homosexual practice was a sin, since that is what the Old Testament and Jesus' teaching leaves us with).
(Some may object that Greek culture did not contain 'homosexuality', which they define to be of an entirely different nature to the pederasty common in Greek culture. In response to that, I would say that none of the Biblical commands ever make a distinction between 'monogamous', 'stable' homosexual relationships or any other kind. They are condemned with language which refers simply to the sexual act — more on this below).
The first passage of note is in Romans 1, where Paul is describing how God is rightly angry with mankind for their idolatry and wickedness. I will quote the whole section for completeness and context:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonouring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
I really don't see how Paul could express himself any more clearly, or that any comment is really necessary, but I'll point out a few things anyway:
Homosexual desire and conduct is actually seen as a judgement of God on society (not necessarily on individuals) for wicked behaviour and a refusal to recognise the one true God.
Homosexual desire is described as dishonourable and contrary to nature.
Both male and female homosexuality is included.
There is no hint that it is temple prostitution in view, or child abuse. It doesn't say that paying for sex or non-consensual sex is contrary to nature — the shameful thing is that men are directing their sexual desire towards men instead of women (and the other way around). It appears to be consensual — they are "consumed with passion for one another".
It is not simply strong passions that are being condemned. In the Bible, to be full of sexual passion is normal, and in fact encouraged in the right context (Proverbs 5:18-19, Song of Solomon). Paul and the other apostles, in keeping with the Jews of their day, saw nothing unholy or second class about marriage (see 1 Timothy 4:1-4, also Hebrews 13:4 - the latter probably not written by Paul). Paul makes it quite clear that it is no sin to be moved to marriage by strong sexual desire (1 Corinthians 7:36 — I agree with the ESV's translation of this verse). Rather, Paul here is condemning being taken over by homosexual desire such that it actually results in the shameful act of male-male sex.
1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10
I will quote these in full, with some context.
9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practising homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Some of you once lived this way. 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, NET)
9 realizing that law is not intended for a righteous person, but for lawless and rebellious people, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 sexually immoral people, practicing homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, perjurers - in fact, for any who live contrary to sound teaching. (1 Timothy 1:9-10, NET)
I have used the NET translation for its explicit translation of the two important words, μαλακοι (malakoi) and αρσενοκοιται (arsenokoitai). I will also quote the NET translation notes for these words. μαλακοι:
This term is sometimes rendered "effeminate," although in contemporary English usage such a translation could be taken to refer to demeanor rather than behavior. BDAG 613 s.v. μαλακός 2 has "pert. to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate esp. of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship." L&N 88.281 states, "the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse - 'homosexual.' ...As in Greek, a number of other languages also have entirely distinct terms for the active and passive roles in homosexual intercourse." See also the discussion in G. D. Fee, First Corinthians (NICNT), 243-44. A number of modern translations have adopted the phrase "male prostitutes" for μαλακοί in 1 Cor 6:9 (NIV, NRSV, NLT) but this could be misunderstood by the modern reader to mean "males who sell their services to women," while the term in question appears, at least in context, to relate to homosexual activity between males. Furthermore, it is far from certain that prostitution as commonly understood (the selling of sexual favors) is specified here, as opposed to a consensual relationship. Thus the translation "passive homosexual partners" has been used here.
On this term BDAG 135 s.v. ἀρσενοκοίτης states, "a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor 6:9...of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. μαλακός...1 Ti 1:10; Pol 5:3. Cp. Ro 1:27." L&N 88.280 states, "a male partner in homosexual intercourse - 'homosexual.'...It is possible that ἀρσενοκοίτης in certain contexts refers to the active male partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with μαλακός, the passive male partner." Since there is a distinction in contemporary usage between sexual orientation and actual behavior, the qualification "practicing" was supplied in the translation, following the emphasis in BDAG.
For comparison, the ESV translates both terms using the phrase "men who practice homosexuality", and the 1984 NIV translates the terms as "male prostitutes" (discussed in the NET translation notes above) and "homosexual offenders" respectively. The 2011 revision of the NIV translates the terms as "men who have sex with men".
So the dictionaries are pretty clear on this point, and the NET, ESV, and NIV translations, which between them collate the understanding of the world's best scholars, are essentially in agreement. Even the disagreement about whether the μαλακοι only refers to prostitutes seems to be resolved.
There are of course, some scholars who disagree, and claim alternative meanings for these two words — meanings that cannot be found in any of the New Testament dictionaries. If we are going to believe them, they're going to need some impressive evidence and arguments.
The first claim is that we don't really know what αρσενοκοιται means, on the grounds that it isn't used in Greek literature before the New Testament. The claim falls apart, as a simple etymological study makes its meaning absolutely unambiguous. The word is a simple compound from ἄρσην (arsen) meaning man/male, and κοίτη (koite) meaning bed (and used in a sexual sense, as in the modern "getting someone into bed"). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX, completed about 100 BC), the two words appear next to each other in Leviticus 20:13, in which the punishment for the sin described in Leviticus 18:22 is given:
και ος αν κοιμηθη μετα αρσενος κοιτην γυναικος βδελυγμα εποιησαν αμφοτεροι θανατουσθωσαν ενοχοι εισιν
And whoever shall lie with a male as with a woman, they have both wrought abomination; let them die the death, they are guilty. (Translation by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton 1851)
(The same words appear in Leviticus 18:22, but not adjacent).
There is an alternative etymological route. Paul could be doing a direct translation of the Jewish term for homosexual, mishkav zakur, which means "lier [with] man", and comes from...wait for it... the original Hebrew of the same verse, Leviticus 20:13, where the words again appear adjacent to each other.
Either route is possible, and in fact quite possibly both routes — with the coining of the Greek word being based on how it was coined in the Hebrew language — and they give us exactly the same meaning and origin: the Levitical prohibition concerning men lying with men as with women.
So, with this word Paul is not using the normal Greek word for homosexual. He is using specifically Jewish and Levitical terminology which refers not to prostitution, pederasty, child abuse or orientation, but to the act of male-male sex.
I can't sum this up much better than Ron Belgau, a gay Christian who believes that Christians of homosexual orientation are called to celibacy:
The linguistic problem seems to me to be exactly analogous to this: suppose I have an Old Testament text which says, “it is unlawful to lay bricks,” and I have a New Testament text that says “bricklayers are lawbreakers.” It would seem inconceivable to me to say that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what bricklayer means.” Yet Mel White claims (with an apparently straight face) that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what arsenokoitai means.” (source)
Second, some try to undermine the translation of ‘μαλακοι’ by noting that literally it means soft, such as Dale B. Martin. Other people have taken this attempt apart, so I won't repeat all of their findings, but will note a few points:
The exegetical fallacy involved is one described by Don Carson in these words:
Unwarranted adoption of an expanded semantic field. The fallacy in this instance lies in the supposition that the meaning of the word in a specific context is much broader than the context itself allows and may bring with it the word’s entire semantic range. (Exegetical fallacies)
The logical problem: if μαλακος means soft or effeminate in this context, then we've got a blanket condemnation of softness. But Paul commends and commands gentleness from both men and women (e.g. Titus 3:1-2).
The hermeneutical problem: in Martin's attempt to dream up an alternate meaning for this word in this context, he ends up with a very different approach to ethics than is acceptable to evangelical Christians. He says, for instance, in that article:
The best place to find criteria for talking about ethics and interpretation will be in Christian discourse itself, which includes scripture and tradition but not in a "foundational" sense
Arguments like this are never going to persuade people who are serious about their attempt to take the Bible seriously as the foundation for ethics.
Whenever I have investigated attempts to get around the Biblical teaching on homosexuality, this last feature is always present — a radically different approach to the Bible itself, which, although sometimes disguised in more subtle language than above, always destroys the ability of the Bible to speak authoritatively.
It is claimed by some others that μαλακος is referring to an unwilling child in an abusive pederastic relationship, rather than a consenting partner. This is just as problematic — because then Paul's words would make the abused child just as condemned as the abuser, but Biblical ethics are clear that in cases of rape, the raped person is to be regarded entirely as a victim (e.g. Deuteronomy 22:25-27).
I am well aware that there are lots of people who claim that their interpretation of the Bible and these passages lead them to very different conclusions. I won't attempt to answer everything they say, but will make two main observations about approach:
First, their conclusions always depend on a fundamentally different approach to the Bible. As I mentioned above, they have to amputate the Bible's ability to tell us how we must live in order to sit comfortably with such interpretations.
In most cases, the problem of what the Bible clearly says is handled by defining themselves outside of the jurisdiction of the Bible. So, they will claim that although the Bible condemns homosexual relationships, the only homosexual relationships that existed at the time of the Bible were abusive or uncommitted etc. Since their own homosexual relationships are not like that, they are not affected by the Bible's prohibition.
The first problem is that they do not know that the relationships the Bible had in mind did not include relationships like theirs. The second is that the Bible simply condemns the sexual act, not the context (although the context might also be condemned).
The third problem is that this approach allows you to avoid any command in the Bible. When faced with the command not to steal, I could say "well the only kind of stealing known in that day was wicked stealing with selfish motives. But the stealing that I do is good stealing, with the purest of motives. Therefore the Bible's prohibition does not apply to me."
Or, to push the point, I could say: "well, none of the thieves in the Bible stole while wearing a baseball cap, so they are very different kind of thieves to me, therefore I am free to steal". The major flaw is that I am assuming that a certain aspect of my behaviour alters everything, but the Bible gives me no grounds for thinking that that aspect is relevant.
So, why do Christians feel free to ignore OT commands regarding food laws in Leviticus, but insist that the commands regarding homosexual practice are still binding?
The language and context used for these words makes it clear that food laws were distinctively Jewish laws, while the prohibition on homosexuality is a law binding on all nations, and so serious that their failure to observe it was part of the reason for God bringing severe judgement on them.
The teaching of the New Testament clearly indicates that food laws (as well as some other ceremonial laws) are not binding in the post-Jesus period in which the good news goes to all nations.
The OT framework on sexual ethics (permanent heterosexual marriage only) is reinforced and tightened by Jesus, never revoked, and male-male sex is specifically highlighted by Paul as an example of one of the most serious and flagrant sins, using exactly the terminology of Leviticus.
I am aware that there are probably a lot of other objections about other laws in the Old Testament which Christians also might not appear to take seriously. I cannot cover these in detail. With regards to Old Testament penalties, it should be noted that the Mosaic law was given to the Jews, and was not meant to be a law for all people in all times. I think the coming of Christ and the destruction of the temple, as begun symbolically by God himself in Matthew 27:51, signified the end of a lot of the Mosaic law as a law meant to be put into practice by a nation. The gospel going out to the Gentiles marks the end of Israel as a theocratic nation, which makes various OT laws impossible to practice. We can, of course, still draw many principles from those laws, which is what Christians attempt to do. For the big issue of slavery, which might seem to be a large difficulty, I will direct those who are interested to Glenn Miller's article on slavery in the OT.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I hope that the time spent will make future debate with Christians on this subject a little more educated and respectful.
2013-07-15 - updates regarding the 2011 NIV translation, and other grammar fixes.