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How do Christians proclaim the love of God in Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit today? As in every generation, that broad question needs to be contextualized and addressed in relation to key cultural, political, and economic issues. For more than fifty years, Christian communities have struggled in various ways with their proclamation of the gospel in relation to “homosexuality,” or the lives of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).
That struggle has divided many Christian communities, ostracized countless individuals, and weakened Christian witness to the gospel. The Bible has been and continues to be the most frequently cited reason why people either condemn or refuse to accept gay and lesbian people, and more recently also bisexual and transgender people.
Biblical scholarship on these questions over the last fifty years has helped many Christian communities to welcome LGBT people and many LGBT people have likewise found new ways to integrate their sexuality and gender expression with their Christian faith. The following is a review of just some of that biblical scholarship and the role it can play in Christian theological reflection, especially for the sake of bearing witness to the good news of Christian faith today.
It is important to realize, first of all, that biblical writers devoted very little energy and attention to same-sex desire or relationships. There are only five passages in the Bible that are most often quoted and which appear to have any direct relation to this topic:
- Genesis 19:1-13
- Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
- Romans 1:26-27
- 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
- 1 Timothy 1:8-11
Two other passages are sometimes mentioned as well:
- Genesis 1 and 2
- Jude 6-7
Like every other biblical passage, each of those seven texts deserves careful attention by keeping in mind these three elements of responsible and faithful reading:
Biblical texts never speak for themselves; they always need interpretation. Indeed, texts don’t speak at all. But people do speak, and people of faith often speak with biblical texts. How people speak with biblical texts is informed to a large degree by their cultural contexts and social histories. Translating ancient languages into contemporary languages always involves interpretation; many words and concepts in both ancient Hebrew and Greek have no direct equivalents in modern languages and translators often disagree about how to translate difficult words and phrases. Excerpting small sections or even single verses from larger narratives and arguments will always distort the biblical writer’s message. Everyone does this from time to time, and it is not necessarily “bad” or “wrong” to do so. But this also means that everyone needs to take responsibility for how and why a given passage is quoted and for what purpose.
In addition to those guidelines for reading biblical texts responsibly, passages that deal with human sexuality and gender deserve additional notes of caution:
- The word “homosexual” was invented in the nineteenth century and appears nowhere in the original Hebrew or Greek versions of the Bible. German sexologists invented the term “homosexuality” to describe their view of a particular “sexual orientation” or identity that they believed was evident among some human beings. This concept would have been completely foreign to biblical writers.
- In the ancient cultural contexts of the biblical writers, appropriate sexual relations had very little to do with gender and much more to do with the social status and power of one’s sexual partner. Socially acceptable sexual relations were always understood as involving a socially dominant partner with a socially submissive partner. Men were by definition socially dominant. Many others were considered socially submissive: women, slaves (of either gender), lower economic classes (of either gender), and youth (of either gender). The modern notion of “peer marriage” or a union of “equals” would have been entirely unknown in ancient Mediterranean cultures.
- Contemporary scientific and biological understandings of sexuality, procreation, and gender were completely unknown in the ancient world. Those who today identify as “bisexual” or “transgender” present additional insights into these questions, which need further attention in both scholarly and church settings
Keeping all those guidelines and notes of caution in view, the following is just one way to read a few of the more difficult biblical passages regarding sexuality (the texts themselves are provided in the first appendix), and especially through the broader lens of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Rather than merely “refuting” problematic biblical texts, Christian faith communities today, as in every generation, rightly seek insights from the Bible for their gospel mission in the world. Discerning carefully how to read the Bible regarding sexuality and gender thus remains critically important for every Christian congregation. (The second appendix provides a short list of references for further reading and study.)