Is the Bible’s Teaching about Homosexuality Offensive?
Male and Female, God Created Them
The Bible is unequivocal on the question of homosexual sex. First, men sleeping with men is prohibited in the Jewish law (e.g., Lev. 18:22; 20:13). This does not prove the case for Christians. Many Old Testament laws are specifically declared not binding in the New Testament (for example, food restrictions). But the logic of opposite sex marriage and the prohibition on homosexual sex are reaffirmed multiple times.1
Let’s start with Jesus’s framework. Jesus is sometimes caricatured as a prophet of free love, unconcerned about sexual ethics. But his teaching on sexual morality was consistently stricter than the Old Testament law.2 For instance, when the Pharisees asked Jesus whether a man may divorce his wife “for any cause,” he replied:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matt. 19:4–6)
Jesus reaffirms God’s creation of humans male and female, his one-flesh design for marriage, and its high demands: a man may not divorce his wife except for unfaithfulness (Matt. 19:9). Jesus’s hearers are shocked by the strictness of this teaching (Matt. 19:10). To be sure, Jesus routinely scandalized those around him by associating with those known for their sexual immorality. But far from expanding the options on sexual relationships, Jesus tightened the Old Testament law.
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Nothing New under the Sun
We are tempted to think that today’s sexual possibilities did not exist in the first century. But the repeated references to all sorts of sexual immorality in the New Testament remind us that the Judeo-Christian restrictions on sex were always countercultural. Ancient Greek culture allowed sex between males—typically between grown men and teenage boys—and celebrated homoerotic desire.
There was typically an asymmetry to homosexuality in the ancient world. But this was also true of heterosexual marriage, which often paired a man in his thirties with a woman in her early teens. And while many of these relationships were exploitative and promiscuous, there were cultural models for committed homosexual relationships. In the fourth century BC, a Greek army known as the Sacred Band of Thebes was formed, consisting of 150 pairs of male lovers. The theory was that the added sexual bond would motivate soldiers to fight for each other.6
Roman culture was more restrictive, in that sex between male citizens was frowned upon. But men were free to sleep with male slaves and prostitutes. However, as Louis Crompton (himself a gay man and pioneer of queer studies) argued in Homosexuality and Civilization, the exploitative nature of much gay sex in the ancient world does not open the door to reinterpreting the New Testament: “Nowhere does Paul, or any other Jewish writer of this period, imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstances. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew or early Christian.”7
When we examine the New Testament, we find explicit prohibitions of homosexual sex. But we also find a surprising weakness in the claim that Paul, who wrote most of the relevant texts, was a judgmental homophobe. In a letter to his mentee Timothy, Paul reaffirms the scriptural prohibitions on sexual sin—heterosexual and homosexual. But he refuses to stand on any moral high ground. Reflecting on how false teachers were twisting the law, Paul writes:
The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. (1 Tim. 1:9–10)
Sexual immorality, including homosexual immorality, is listed here between the sins of murder and slave catching. The phrase “men who practice homosexuality” also appears in 1 Corinthians 6:9, where it translates two Greek words that seem to specify the active and passive partners.8 Paul repeatedly declares that no one is holy according to the law. A few verses later in 1 Timothy he writes, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). Far from thinking he is better than those whose sin he lists, Paul presents himself as worse: “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” of Jesus (1 Tim. 1:12), saved only to prove that the least deserving person can be redeemed. Indeed, in this chapter, Paul refers to himself as the “foremost” of sinners twice (1 Tim. 1:15, 16)!
We cannot read the Bible and not be offended—condemned even—unless we come as broken sinners.
When Paul references homosexual sex in his letter to the church at Rome, it flows out of a description of idolatry. This makes sense in the broader biblical logic of marriage as a picture of God’s relationship with his people, and in the broader cultural context of the role of sex in some pagan worship rituals. Paul describes people abandoning worship of God and throwing themselves into sexual relationships:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 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. (Rom. 1:26–27)
The Whole Bible Is Offensive
These verses condemn homosexual sex for women and for men. They are unquestionably offensive. But the reality is that the Bible is offensive from beginning to end.
When Rice University Professor Jim Tour was a student, a Christian friend started telling him about Jesus. Jim wasn’t convinced. He thought he was a pretty good guy, so all the talk of sin cutting him off from God confused him. But then his friend pointed him to Matthew 5:27–28, where Jesus asserts that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart. Jim realized that his pornography addiction placed him squarely in that category, and he ultimately came to recognize Jesus as the Messiah that his Jewish upbringing had taught him to await. With or without pornography, if you are a straight man, it’s unlikely that you can plead “not guilty” to Jesus’s charge. Worse still, Jesus says that if your right eye causes you to lust, you are better to gouge it out and enter the kingdom of God than to stay in your sin (Matt. 5:29). No one can listen to Jesus and not be shocked, offended, and broken by his stance on sexual sin. But Jesus’s most offensive words strike at the most scrupulously chaste people of his day.
In a massive tirade against the hyper-religious Pharisees, Jesus calls them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, sons of murderers, and serpents: “You brood of vipers,” he yells, “how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). We cannot read the Bible and not be offended—condemned even—unless we come as broken sinners. If we come like that, we are tenderly embraced.
- See Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001) for a detailed treatment of the prohibitions on homosexual sex in the Hebrew Scriptures and how they relate to New Testament texts
- For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27–28).
- Quoted in Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 55.
- Quoted in Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 56.
- See Plato’s Symposium, 189c–93e.
- For more details on the Sacred Band of Thebes, see Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 69–73.
- Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization, 114.
- Malakoi (effeminate) and arsenokoitai (men bedders).
This article is adapted from Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.
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