A few weeks ago, an older acquaintance shared a post on Facebook that read, “God is not going to rewrite the Bible for your generation. His Word remains the same forever and always!”
I understand the sentiment. I was raised in a “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” culture of evangelical Christianity.
And, truth be told, if you go digging through the Bible, you won’t find a single verse that affirms homosexuality or same-sex marriage. And of all the couples mentioned in the Bible, none of them appear to be a same-sex relationship.
Any traditional sermon on homosexuality (or Google search result for “homosexuality and the Bible”) will undoubtedly bring up a combination of the same six Bible passages:
Commonly referred to as the “Clobber Passages,” these six Biblical excerpts appear to be at odds with Christian advocating for marriage equality who also claim to hold a high view of the Bible. They’re also pretty intense.
In the book of Genesis, God apparently destroyed two cities for accepting homosexuality. In Leviticus 20:13, the punishment for a man lying with a man “as with a woman” is death. In 1 Timothy 1:10, the apostle Paul equates “men who practice homosexuality” with murderers and slave traders. And in 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul writes that “men who practice homosexuality” will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
To put it simply, the Bible is clearly at odds with gay marriage and any attempts to reconcile the two are going to require invalidating or ignoring the Word of God.
Wrestling With the Old Testament
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis is so infamous, it’s where we get our word “sodomy” – a common euphemism for anal sex.
According to this ancient story, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were so wicked, the Lord wiped them off the face of the Earth in a storm of hellfire. However, God decided to spare Lot and his family from the destruction and sent a couple of angels to escort them to safety.
Prior to the cities’ annihilation, a violent mob surrounded Lot’s house in Sodom preventing their escape. They demanded to be let in so they could “have sex” with Lot’s male guests (who are actually the angels in disguise).
And Lot – the good guy – attempts to mitigate the situation by offering his virgin daughters to the lustful mob. (In a similar story in the book of Judges, a man does the same thing, and a woman is literally raped to death on his doorstep).
Lot’s family eventually escaped, the city was destroyed, and people have used this story for centuries as an example of God’s disdain for same-sex relationships. But that’s not what’s being communicated here.
In the book of Ezekiel, God actually says why He destroyed Sodom: “Now, this was the sin of your sister Sodom – She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”
This is not a story about homosexuality as we understand it today. This is a story about gang rape, sexual violence, and cultural hospitality. (And, perhaps unintentionally, it’s also a story about how ancient cultures viewed women as expendable and inferior to men).
The Hebrew moral codes about homosexuality come from two verses in Leviticus, one of the most difficult books in the Old Testament. Leviticus is a collection of moral, civil, and ceremonial laws that often feel completely alien to our understanding of the world (like, for example, women having to make a “sin offering” every time they have a period).
For the record, the Old Testament doesn’t make a distinction between moral codes and ceremonial laws like we do today – to the Hebrew people, they were one and the same.
The laws in Leviticus were designed to “set apart” the Hebrew people from the surrounding cultures. And Leviticus 18-20 – the section where both prohibitions against homosexuality are found – is generally understood to be a list of statutes aimed at the Canaanite culture, the sworn enemies of the Hebrew people at that time.
The list includes prohibitions against bestiality, incest, child sacrifice, stealing, lying, and making idols (so far, so good), but the exact same chapters also ban shaving, tattoos, eating undercooked meat, having sex during a woman’s period, planting more than one crop in a field, and wearing clothes woven from two different materials.
According to the First-Century Study Bible, same-sex behavior was commonly associated with “Canaanite depravity and cultic pagan worship” and “ritual prostitution” in service to Ashera, a Semitic fertility goddess, or Molek, a bloodthirsty Canaanite deity.
And while Levitical law forbids same-sex relations between men, a complementary prohibition for women isn’t made explicit in the text. Instead, in its place is a prohibition against women having sex with animals. In the Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, the Biblical scholar Craig Keener notes “both homosexuality and bestiality were practiced in the context of ritual or magic in the ancient Near East;” not surprising, considering animal/human hybrids were common fixtures in contemporary religious mythologies.
However, same-sex relationships would’ve almost certainly been forbidden among the Hebrew people in the Late Bronze Age, given the cultural emphasis on progeny, fertility, childbearing, and offspring. The ancient Jewish people had a very limited expectation of an afterlife, and the role of one’s lineage was infused with significant weight and purpose (this why infertility was considered a divine curse and most of God’s promises at the time focused on a person’s descendants rather than heavenly bliss).
Interlude I: Marshal
Marshal grew up an only child in a loving and supportive home. While his mother was incredibly devout, religious devotion wasn’t as high as a priority for his father. They attended church intermittently, but it wasn’t until middle school that Marshal began spending more time at a local Baptist church.
“At that point, church was just something to do,” Marshal said. “It was pretty much the only place where you could hang out with friends.”
When Marshal was in eighth grade, he accepted Jesus Christ into his life at a Christian summer camp. There was only one problem.
“By the time I twelve years old, I knew I was gay,” Marshal said. “And for the next decade, my nonstop waking nightmare was asking God to take it away from me.”
Growing up in East Texas, Marshal knew he should keep his sexuality a secret. However, as a Christian, he knew he’d be expected to pursue a celibate lifestyle. At the time, Marshal figured celibacy would be a small price to pay.
“I genuinely wanted to please the Lord,” Marshal said. “I loved my church, and I thought if people found out I struggled with homosexuality, I’d lose all of it.”
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
The writer of more than a quarter of the New Testament, the apostle Paul helped shape the direction of Christianity as it spread across the Mediterranean in the First Century. And he remains one of the most polarizing and influential figures in Western Civilization.
The writings of Paul have been used to justify slavery and the oppression of women for centuries. They’ve also been used to spearhead abolitionist movements and fight for racial and gender equality.
And, it’s from Paul that we get all of our direct references to homosexuality in the New Testament. Therefore, it’s vital we grapple with what homosexuality looked liked two thousand years ago.
In Paul’s immediate context, one of the most common forms of homosexuality was pedastry, a socially accepted sexual relationship between an adult male and a younger, lower-class male.
The younger male would take on the role of a deliciae, or “pet” (from which we get our word delicious), and would exist to gratify the sexual whims of his male master.
In the 2nd-Century poem “The Boy Muse,” the author graphically describes his sexual desire for prepubescent boys:
“I enjoy twelve-year-olds at the height of their beauty. But a thirteen-year-old is even more desirable. And the one passing through his fourteenth year is a sweeter blossom of the love deities. More enjoyable is the one who’s barely fifteen. Sixteen is the gods’ year.”
While shocking to modern sensibilities, pedophilia wasn’t a punishable offense in the Roman world, and it wasn’t unheard of for young boys to be kidnapped and sold as sex slaves for higher-class Roman citizens.
In Paul Among the People, Biblical translator Sarah Ruden writes,
“It was, for example, normal for a [Roman] family of any standing to dedicate one slave to a son’s protection, especially on the otherwise unsupervised walk to and from school.”
Poor and lower-class families would even be petitioned (and paid) to let their son become a deliciae in hopes that he would have a better life among the high-class citizenry. To put it lightly, this was rarely the outcome.
Once the boy began showing signs of puberty, he would often be discarded and forced to work in a brothel, carrying with him the residual shame associated with passive homosexuality for the rest of his life. In some cases, a deliciae would be castrated prior to the onset of puberty in an effort to preserve his prepubescent features.
Another form of socially acceptable homosexuality included a male master sleeping with a male slave. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote that a slave “must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master’s drunkenness and his lust.”
High-ranking soldiers would bring young boys (squires) on lengthy military campaigns to help alleviate their sexual urges while away from home. And the raping of one’s enemy after defeating them in battle was considered the ultimate act of dominance (and still is in many parts of the world today).
Some Greek and Romans even believed homosexual rape to be a divinely sanctioned act. Priapus was a god of sexual aggression and was portrayed in idol form as a scarecrow with an oversized penis. Priapus, it was said, would rape intruders and enemy combatants.
It’s also vital that we take into account the political climate and decadent behavior of Rome’s leaders. During the time Paul was penning his letters, Nero was the Emperor of Rome, who was both detested and revered for his shameless lack of self-control and sexual overindulgences.
In one shocking act of public spectacle, Nero “married” a man and let himself be sexually penetrated by his groom in front of his party guests. In the words of Tacitus, a Roman historian who witnessed the event, “everything was public which even in natural union was veiled by night.”
Additionally, after beating one of his wives to death, Nero castrated and married a young boy named Sporus, who was said to have resembled the murdered wife.
In 64 AD, Nero blamed the Great Fire of Rome on the burgeoning Christian community in the city. Nero’s accusation instigated the first wave of Christian persecution in recorded history. According to Tacitus, Christians were arrested and brutally executed by “being thrown to the beasts, crucified, and burned alive.”
Taking all this into account, Paul’s grouping of “men who sleep with men” with slave traders and murders in his letter to Timothy snaps into sharper focus, and the opening of his letter to the Christians in Rome carries a visceral historical weight.
According to Roman law Lex Scantini, men of wealth and status could enjoy sex with other men without compromising their masculinity or honor as long as they took the dominant or penetrative role. As a result, same-sex behavior rarely occurred between partners of equal status – it almost always involved a higher-class male subjugating a lower-class male.
In regards to Paul’s mention of “women exchanging natural relations for those contrary to nature” in the first chapter of Romans – the only mention of same-sex sexual activity between women alluded to in the Bible – the verse should be read in light of the verses that preceded it, which appear to frame the behavior within the context of idolatrous worship.
The Roman and Greek temples of Artemis, Aphrodite, Demeter, and Astarte (among other pagan “sex cults”) were common fixtures in the metropolitan port cities that Paul visited during his missionary travels. Some of these temples featured ritualistic sex practices in which women priestess would engage in anal or oral sex with male parishioners and castrated priests or penetrative sex with other women – sexual behavior that would’ve been deemed “unnatural” because it didn’t lend itself toward procreation and put women in a position of sexual dominance over men.
In short, Paul was condemning a culture of flagrant dehumanization, sexual overindulgence, pagan worship, and brutal exploitation – who also happened to be the same people violently persecuting the early Church (and who would eventually execute Paul).
As Christianity spread through the Greek and Roman Empire, 2nd-Century historian Celsus described it as a “pathetic religion of slaves, women, and children.”
While Paul is frequently portrayed as a bigot by his modern critics, it’s possible Paul’s teachings on sexual ethics were readily embraced by the early Church because they offered dignity and protection to the most vulnerable in Greco-Roman society.
Interlude II (Continued): Marshal
After high school, Marshal left behind the pine curtains of East Texas and headed south to Texas A&M University. While in College Station, he plugged into a large Baptist church.
During the summer breaks, Marshal served as a counselor at Pine Cove, a Christian camp staffed mostly by college students. Marshal’s desire to serve at Pine Cove was influenced by his past camp experience in middle school and the impact out had on his faith.
As he grew more confident in his Christian community, Marshal began to confide with his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ about his struggles with same-sex attraction.
“The friend group I’d assembled in college was incredibly supportive,” Marshal said. “By then, I knew I wouldn’t be able to ‘change,’ so celibacy was my only viable option.”
Marshal lived an incredibly vibrant social life in college. The abundance of Christian community made his struggles with same-sex attraction fade into the background. For a little while, at least.
“To be honest, it wasn’t until my friends paired off and started serious romantic relationships that I felt like an outsider again,” Marshal said. “As our college years came to a close, dating and the possibility of marriage seemed to dominate every social interaction and conversation.”
As he grappled with the evolution of his social sphere, Marshal increasingly began to feel that the suppression of his sexuality was rooted in a performance designed to appease his community.
“People would say that they’d ‘love me no matter what,’ but it was hard to shake the feeling that I’d been reduced to the token non-affirming gay best friend,” Marshal said. “I began to feel the pressure that their acceptance of me only extended as far as I didn’t give into my struggle. There was this unspoken agreement that I couldn’t be ‘too gay.'”
Marshal secretly downloaded a couple of gay dating apps and went on a few dates, but he was paranoid about getting caught. The apps would be deleted, and the cycle would begin again.
“There was this church side of my identity that was happy, cheerful, and content with all the Lord had done for me,” Marshal said. “But then there was this gay side of me that was depressed, lonely, and gross. It didn’t take much to realize it wasn’t a sustainable reality.”
The World of Paul
Reading the Bible without understanding its cultural context is like reading the lyrics to a song without listening to the music – and there’s a lot of music to unpack when it comes to ancient perspectives on sexuality and gender roles.
In the Greco-Roman world, Latin had no equivalent for homosexuality or heterosexuality. The concept of a fixed sexual orientation would’ve been completely foreign to the ancient world.
Instead, sexuality was thought of in terms of behaviors related to the culture’s patriarchal gender roles, which formed the basis for Rome’s entire societal structure.
The Greek and Roman views on gender were informed by pseudoscientific differences observed between the sexes – which were, to the say the least, less than ideal. For example, Aristotle, the revered Ancient Greek philosopher, believed women were “incomplete (or “mutilated”) men” and a result of an error in the womb.
In the textbook The New Testament (4th Edition), Biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman writes,
“Most people in the Roman world appear to have thought that women were to be sexually dominated by men. Being sexually penetrated was a sign of weakness and submission. This is why same-sex relations between adult males was so frowned upon – to be dominated was to lose one’s claim to power and therefore one’s honor, the principal male virtue.”
One of the worst things a man of Ancient Rome could be accused of was being “like a woman.” Our word “virtue” is actually derived from the Latin word virtus, a synonym for “manliness.”
The perceived superiority of men and the inferiority of women influenced cultural gender constructs. Men assumed dominant or “active” roles while women were expected to take on submissive or “passive” roles. And these expectations applied to sex, as well.
In Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, historian Tom Holland writes,
“Sex was nothing if not an exercise in power. As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually were to the Roman man. To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile.”
To violate these norms – even in heterosexual relationships – was considered unnatural and dishonorable. It would’ve been shameful for a man to take a submissive role during sex or a woman to take a dominant role.
If this feels like a bit of stretch, consider the fact that Paul uses the exact same natural-unnatural language as he does in Romans 1 to also explain why women should wear head coverings in church and men shouldn’t have long hair – of which Paul says, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”
And while we think of sexuality in somewhat-fixed orientations, the Romans believed same-sex behavior occurred in excess of normal heterosexual desires. And this tracks with Paul’s condemnation of men “who burn with lust for one another.”
Dio Chrysostom, a Greek historian who lived in the First Century, wrote,
“The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things [sex with women]…will turn his assault against male quarters, eager to befoul the youth…believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure.”
In other words, to engage in same-sex behavior wouldn’t have made someone “gay” in our understanding of the word. According to this cultural understanding of sexuality, sexual relations between same-gendered partners were motivated by an insatiable desire for novelty fueled by out-of-control lust.
Even Stephen Holmes, a non-affirming Biblical scholar, admits:
“Lifelong, exclusive, equal same-sex partnerships are virtually unknown to human history and anthropology outside of the contemporary West. Same-sex sexual activity is common, but it almost never takes this cultural form.”
This doesn’t mean gay people didn’t exist in the First Century; it’s that the concept of homosexuality as an orientation didn’t exist. And marriage – the union between a dominant male and inferior female for the expressed purpose of producing children – formed and reflected the economic, social, and cultural bedrock of Greco-Roman civilization.
Interlude II (Concluded): Marshal
After graduating from Texas A&M, Marshal made his way to Houston to continue his education in the medical field. He moved into a single-bedroom apartment and found himself in the midst of a new community of classmates and co-workers, most of whom weren’t Christians.
“It was a revelation,” Marshal said. “For the first time in my life, I was accepted as a Christian and a gay person. I felt welcomed for who I was, not for what someone else wanted me to be comfortable. I could finally breathe.”
As Marshal embraced his sexuality, he decided he didn’t want to make it a big deal or blast his social media channels with a “Coming Out” post. Instead, he’d naturally weave it into conversations with friends and family members.
“Honestly, I had a pretty good Coming Out experience,” Marshal said. “I feel blessed because I know a lot of people don’t have that. Though I think it’s telling that no one from my college church or the camp I worked at reached out to me after I’d made it obvious that I was gay.”
In spite of feeling somewhat betrayed by his Christian community, Marshal still considers himself a follower of Jesus. but he admits it’s a difficult line to toe in his new environment.
“A lot of people in the gay community have been really hurt by the Church or Christian friends and family,” Marshal said. “For a lot of them, labeling yourself a ‘Gay Christian’ is just as an oxymoron as it is in the Church.”
Attempting to put words to the tension that envelopes his day-to-day life, Marshal described himself as “spiritually homeless.”
“I feel caught between two worlds,” Marshal said. “The gay scene in Houston is pretty rowdy and promiscuous, and I don’t really want any part of that. On the other hand, it’s hard to find a faith community that doesn’t immediately view me as a conversion project or problem to be solved.”
Marshal attended a few affirming churches in Houston, but he found their theology and liturgy too ethereal and far out. However, he still feels too much like a pariah to fully commit to a non-affirming congregation.
“I know a lot of non-affirming Christian mean well,” Marshal said. “But it sometimes feels as if they want me to believe my relationship with Jesus is somehow less valid because of my sexuality. My faith has sustained me during some of the most difficult and loneliest seasons of my life, and it’s almost as if those Christians believe those experiences only belong to straight people or gay people trying to be straight. And that’s simply not true.”
And while he remains encouraged and challenged by the Word of God, Marshal admits that his relationship with the Bible has changed over the past couple of years.
“When a gay person reads the Bible, they see all the things straight people ignore for the sake of their happiness,” Marshal said. “Trust me, I’m very aware of what the Bible says about gay people, but it’s hard for me to see my experiences in those passages. I could be wrong, but I have to hope that there’s grace enough for that.”
Exitlude II: Stained Glass Masquerade
I believe the so-called “Clobber Passages” most likely refer to pagan, predatory, abusive, and/or excessive acts of sexual behavior that would be justly condemned by modern society.
However, astute readers and armchair theologians will notice arguing that the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior aren’t equitable to our modern understanding of homosexuality is not the same as arguing the Bible affirms same-sex relationships.
The primary issue for most non-affirming Christians extends beyond the “Clobber Passages” — it’s that same-sex unions appear to run counter to God’s intended design for marriage established in the opening chapters of the Bible.
And this represents a significant theological hurdle for affirming Christians (and one that deserves its own article – or doctoral dissertation).
Call it “Biblical Confirmation Bias,” but cultural context is undoubtedly a double-edged sword. It’s remarkably easy to pick and choose between literal and contextualized interpretations of Scripture if we think the conclusion will support our pre-existing or desired worldview.
To non-affirming Christians, affirming Christians appear to sacrifice their theological credibility and ability to articulate a Biblical worldview if they can circumvent any Biblical teaching using “cultural recontextualization.”
And to affirming Christians, non-affirming Christians appear to stand in the way of the God-driven cultural progression of human rights and believe they’ll one day be seen in the same light as the Christians who Biblically justified the slaughter of indigenous people groups, the burning of women at the stake, the ownership of slaves, and countless armed conflicts and massacres throughout history.
Is reconciliation possible between these two groups? And how far is the Body of Christ — with its conservative and progressive arms — prepared to go to become a refuge for those — like Marshal — who feel unwelcome, unwanted, and caught between two worlds?
In the next episode of Life In Technicolor, we’ll hear from a non-affirming gay Christian and explore the most compelling Christian argument for affirming same-sex relationships.
Life In Technicolor is a three-part series exploring the relationship between the gay community and the Evangelical Church. Each “episode” features a testimony from a gay Christian interviewed specifically for this project. You can read Episode One (“Gay Christians and the Church”) here.