As I’ve been writing about my expanding understanding of, and relationship with, the LGBT community, many have wanted to know how I reconcile Bible passages that seem to be very clear on the matter.
I reviewed a book by Michael Camp, who has a similar evangelical background to me, and in one chapter he addresses the passages that are attributed to the theology around homosexuality. I appreciated his work and it resonated with other writings I had seen and work that I had done. So when asked to provide some Bible study on the matter instead of trying to regurgitate it all myself I turned to Michael (who has become a friend) and asked him permission to print this section of his book. Not only did he agree to share his work but he also said he would enter into discussion and help answer questions that people have.
I encourage you to read the following treatise with unbiased eyes. Good inductive Bible study requires laying aside preconceived ideas and allowing the text to speak as it did to the original readers, and as meant by the original authors. If you don’t understand the origin, you’ll never know how to apply it to today – or even know if it is meant for today.
“The Bible says it and that settles it,” isn’t really an honest approach to scripture, and it certainly isn’t one that Christians are consistent about. We are required to ask the hard questions of the text, and this usually means that there won’t be quite as many black and white answers. For me this particular study brings up some pretty significant questions. So when we get to point of application, if it ends up we’ve condemned those that God loves and has no condemnation for, well then we’ve got some explaining to do.
The following text is part of Michael Camp’s book, Confessions of a Bible Thumper, Chapter 10, Gay Rights, Not Wrongs. It is used by permission from the author. All rights belonging to the author remain.
In the evangelical world, most things are already settled. There aren’t many gray areas. The Bible is the Word of God, you must be born again to go to heaven, and Jesus is definitely coming again. And of course, homosexuality isn’t just sinful, it’s an “abomination.” My indoctrination into evangelical theology taught me that well.
As a heterosexual man who couldn’t comprehend how two men could be sexually attracted to each other, it wasn’t hard for me to accept this teaching. I had a little harder time accepting the condemnation of female homosexuality. Okay, a lot harder time. Admittedly, the thought of two lesbians getting it on is an enticing turn on, at least for most heterosexual guys I know. Yet nature does appear to favor heterosexual couples; they are the only ones who can reproduce through the sexual act. Until my encounter with Mel White and the testimonials I found on the Internet, I had no reason to doubt the standard evangelical fare about homosexuality. I really hadn’t thought it through.
So I delved into another Bible study project. My first lesson was a reminder. Sound exegetical studies insist that the Bible can’t mean today what it never meant to its original audience. The key to interpreting the Bible for modern readers is putting it in its proper context—both cultural and literary. “The Biblical text does not come to us in the form of timeless axioms.” The texts were created in a particular time-space environment. To understand the Bible, the reader must put himself or herself in the original situation in which it was written as much as possible. I especially understood this in recent years after studying the phenomenon of Bible abuse.
Starting to study homosexuality, I immediately noticed the bias of evangelical authors. Most of them made blanket statements against all homosexual acts. But the truth, I discovered, was not so cut and dried when taken in the context of when and why passages on homosexuality were written. Liberal authors helped me see this.
As we have learned in an earlier chapter, biblical authors related their ethics concerning sex to property rights. Certain sexual liaisons were wrong because they violated another’s right to their property, e.g., a family, father, or husband had a right to demand sexual exclusiveness for women who “belonged” to him to ensure a family’s lineage wasn’t mixed with an outsider’s blood. If one’s culture is not concerned with pure family lineage, then sexual exclusiveness for women is not important.
Regarding sexual ethics, another phenomenon I had not considered was Israel’s purity code, which defines animals, people, and actions, as either clean or unclean. Although every culture has a purity code (to Americans, e.g., eating insects is unclean, whereas for Africans, it’s not), Israel’s was particularly important. It was one of the principal forces that kept Israel separate from the pagan nations surrounding them. Purity means avoiding dirt. The Holiness Code of Israel specified the dove as clean and the pig as unclean (dirty); a woman with no discharges as clean and one who is menstruating or recently given birth as unclean; a man with no discharges as clean and one with a recent semen discharge as unclean; a healthy man with rights of descent to the priesthood as clean, but one with an injured body part as unclean; the act of sewing one fiber into cloth as clean, but combining two varieties as unclean; planting one type of seed into a field as clean, mixing varieties of seeds as unclean; meat drained of blood as clean, meat that wasn’t as unclean.
It was complicated but had a particular rationale. People who are partially leprous (actually not just with leprosy but a variety of skin diseases) are unclean, but one who is totally leprous is clean! It is the attention to wholeness that counts. A person should be of a single kind and hue, not have blotches or blemishes mixed with healthy parts. Or have discharges mixed with none. Or be dedicated to both the true God and idols. Or intermarry with non-Israelites. There should be no mixing of kinds. “This is the reason for the condemnation of homosexual acts [by men], as the phrasing of the rules makes clear; the offense is described, literally, as a man lying with a male ‘the lyings of a woman’ (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). The male who fulfills the ‘female’ role is a combination of kinds and therefore unclean, like a cloth composed of both linen and wool…” The man in the “male” role is participating in this unclean act.
Understanding the purity code of Israel puts a new light on the issue. If one’s culture or convictions are not concerned with purity the way Israel defined it, then the admonitions associated with that code are not morally binding. For instance for Israel, not only was male homosexuality an “abomination” (toevah in Hebrew) but so was having intercourse with a woman while she is menstruating (the penalty for such an act is for the couple to be cut off from their people). For that matter, so was eating pork and a host of other unclean foods! Why are we evangelicals so concerned with homosexuality and couldn’t care less about these other “detestable” things? I pondered. And why do we ignore other purity rules? Because we view purity differently, I realized. Evangelicals have no purity concern with female discharges and thus no problem overlooking the command and penalty about having sex during menstruation. Nor with the penalty for eating certain foods. To be consistent, shouldn’t we lighten up regarding the command about male homosexuality? I also wondered why is only male homosexuality addressed in the purity code? Lesbianism is not addressed in the entire Old Testament!
In the context of purity, toevah (translated abomination or detestable) refers to something that makes one ritually unclean. For the Hebrews, these were any defiling behaviors that the surrounding pagan nations practiced. Israel was commanded to set themselves apart from these nations by following a specific code. I knew from my own study of the New Testament that Israel’s code of conduct was not relevant to Gentile believers or Jews under the new covenant. For instance, Jesus had declared all foods clean, and as we learned earlier, Paul had vehemently argued that believers in Jesus were “no longer under the supervision of the law,” had been “released from the law [the written code],” and in fact, Jesus “was the end of the law.”
Jesus taught purity of the heart, not physical purity. The new way of being right before God was by following Christ’s one law of love, denying one’s selfish nature, and being led by the spirit, not obeying a set of laws and stipulations. Was it possible to fulfill Christ’s law of love as a practicing homosexual? Certainly one could do so and ignore other purity laws. Why not stipulations against homosexual behavior originally directed toward ancient Israel?
Finally, there was the question of what types of homosexuality were common in the culture in which the Holiness Code and purity rules were written. My study led me to determine there were only two types: homosexual rape, often inflicted by soldiers to humiliate prisoners of war, and shrine prostitution, referred to many times in the Old Testament. This type of prostitution entailed male or female prostitutes servicing worshipers of foreign gods, particularly the god of Baal. These were the kinds of behaviors the pagan nations surrounding Israel practiced. If the original authors and audience of the Holiness Code had only these types of behaviors (exploitive and idolatrous homosexuality) in mind when homosexuality was mentioned, then modern readers misinterpret Old Testament admonitions against homosexuality. This was a revelation for me.
I then turned my attention toward the New Testament passages that supposedly referred to homosexuality. The first one is in the book of Romans, where Paul speaks in the context of idolatry. Here are the verses immediately before the controversial passage:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1: 21-23).
The people Paul is talking about were not glorifying God or giving Him thanks. They were worshiping false gods and graven images made to look like humans or animals. Historical studies revealed that this type of idol worship was common throughout Israel’s history and into the first century. Paul continues:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. (Romans 1: 24-27).
Again Paul is referring to people who “worshiped created things rather than the Creator.” These people go beyond worshiping idols to doing something that is sexually impure, that entails women and men exchanging natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. It sounds like the passage is referring to homosexuality. But the critical question is what was Paul thinking about when he wrote this, and what did his audience perceive when they read it? Were they thinking about homosexuality the way we view it or something altogether different?
In the city of Corinth, where it is speculated Paul was when he wrote this letter, there was a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality. One method of worshiping this “idol made to look like a mortal woman” was through fertility rituals, including having sexual intercourse with her priestesses. At one point, this Corinthian temple had 1000 sacred prostitutes living on its grounds. When Paul talks of “women exchanging natural relations for unnatural ones,” I realized it is far more likely he is referring to women who dedicated their life to sacred prostitution, and not to lesbian women in general. The context supports this argument. Lesbian women can still worship God and give thanks to him, whereas Paul was speaking of women who were committing blatant idolatry.
Of the many varieties of idol worship in the Greek and Roman world, Cybelene worship in Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and Rome included castrated male priests who would have sex with other men as an act of dedication to an idol. Again, I realized that this religious context meant the likelihood was high that Paul was thinking of these male priests (and probably others referred to in the Old Testament as male prostitutes and part of the fertility rites of Israel’s pagan neighbors) and not homosexual men in general. The evidence was overwhelming that Paul wasn’t addressing homosexuality across the board but the abandonment of natural sexual activity for unnatural activities that included the recruitment of cultic priest and priestess prostitutes, idol worship, and castration of males. “Paul condemns the ‘unnatural’ act of abandoning true worship of God and using sex in worship of idols, and pursuing such treatment of others as degraded them through exploitation and violence.” This was another world-rocking revelation.
The most shocking discovery for me was when I learned that the word translated “homosexual” in our modern Bibles is incorrect! When it is used in the Old Testament (typically in modern or paraphrased versions), the passages can’t be referring to all homosexuality because, as mentioned, only male homosexuality is addressed as part of a purity rule in the Holiness Code. The fact that female homosexuality is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament is remarkable. If God was so against all forms of homosexuality, why doesn’t the Old Testament condemn lesbianism?
Secondly, the one word in the Greek New Testament commonly translated “homosexual,” is the word, arsenokoitai (I Corinthians 6:9), which is rarely found in ancient literature and whose meaning is uncertain. To translate it “homosexual” without at least including a footnote about its ambiguity is irresponsible. When scholars analyze its use, they conclude it’s unlikely it refers to homosexuality across the board but rather to some type of sexual exploitation that could be homosexual but not necessarily so. It is more likely that arsenokoitai—literally meaning male bed—refers to men who engage in economic exploitation by sexual means, i.e., rape, coerced prostitution, or pimping. The English word homosexual wasn’t even coined until the early 20th century and never appeared in the Bible until a 1946 Revised Standard Version.” Prior to that, arsenokoitai was translated “abusers of themselves and mankind” in the King James Version.
As I studied the cultural setting of the New Testament, I discovered another common form of homosexuality of the day was pederasty—the oppressive male-initiation practice in the Greco-Roman world of men having sex with young teen or pre-pubescent boys. Although I remember a few Bible commentators mentioning shrine prostitution when discussing passages like Romans, Chapter one, I have no recollection of any evangelical pastor or teacher mentioning pederasty in all my years in the church. If pederasty was common in the Greco-Roman world, then certainly New Testament writers like Paul would probably have referred to it.
Pederasty was sometimes consensual and sometimes forced. There were brothel houses filled with young boys, whose existences were devoted to being the passive partners in pederast relationships with a man. Beautiful boy youths were sometimes castrated to prolong their feminine-like features. The most famous example was when the Roman Emperor Nero castrated his slave-boy Sporus, dressed him in women’s clothing, and married him. In the instances when it was forced, it is likely the exploitive man would have been called arsenokoitai.
Another term that is often associated with homosexuality in the New Testament is malakos (translated “male prostitutes” in I Corinthian 6:9-10 in the NIV). Scholars are certain this term means something like our term “effeminate.” It is sometimes associated with male homosexuality but not always. Other uses in Greek literature reveal that it primarily means a male who is “soft,” overly feminine, or controlled by women, and could even mean laziness or cowardice. One commentator makes a strong case that the combination of terms, pornoi (from the term we discussed earlier porneia, which one scholar translates harlotry), malakos, arsenokoitai, and another term translated “slave traders” found in lists of behaviors that Paul condemns in I Corinthians and I Timothy refers to the practice of pederasty. The young boys are the male prostitutes (pornoi or malakos), the men who “bed” them are arsenokoitai, and the ones who gain economically are the slave traders. In fact, the New Jerusalem Bible translation supports this view. It translates malakos as “catamites,” a term that refers to the boys kept by a pederast.
The overwhelming conclusion of this study was that the verses normally used by evangelicals to condemn both male and female homosexuality are talking about certain forms of homosexuality common in biblical times into the first century. They are not talking about consensual homosexual relationships not associated with temple prostitution or exploitation. In other words, the Bible doesn’t address the modern concept of gay and lesbian relationships based on one’s sexual orientation. The Holiness Code condemns male homosexuality (not female) on the basis of obsolete purity rules within cultures where soldiers raped men as a way of humiliating their enemy and Baal worshipers dominated males sexually during sacred orgies. The New Testament condemns exploitive sexual relationships and those associated with idolatry. If this is the conclusion of the best biblical scholarship, why are evangelicals still insisting gays and lesbians repent of their sin and transform into practicing heterosexuals or remain celibate? Why do they cast scorn on the LGBT community?
 Philo Thelos, God is Not a Homophobe (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2004), 7.
 I discovered liberal authors weren’t the diabolical demons I had imagined. Many of them both critiqued conservative theology while defending the Bible as relevant. On this and other subjects, four examples are William Countryman, Jack Rogers, Bart Ehrman, and Garry Wills. While Countryman critiques literalist, inerrant views of the Bible, he recognizes powerful lessons in scripture and the general historicity of Jesus and the Gospels. Rogers is actually an evangelical Presbyterian with a high view of scripture who changed his view on homosexuality. Although Ehrman exposes the human elements of composing the Bible, including copyist errors (and ultimately became an agnostic for other reasons), he maintains this helps one make more sense of the Bible. Historian Wills reveals the Bible is not altogether historically accurate but fully believes the reality and power of the life and message of Jesus.
 Found primarily in the book of Leviticus.
 L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 25-26.
 Ibid. (Countryman), 27.
 Leviticus 18: 19, 26, 29
 Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 72.
 Romans 7:6 and Romans 8
 Philo Thelos, God is Not a Homophobe (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2004), 28.
 Particularly in I and II Kings
 Justin R. Cannon, The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality, (Justin R. Cannon, 2009), 12.
 Rodney Stark, Cities of God (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 50.
 Ibid (Rodney Stark), 92.
 Philo Thelos, God is Not a Homophobe (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2004), 58.
 Some conservatives claim the story of Sodom addresses homosexuality, hence the popular notion that the term “sodomy” refers to anal intercourse. See L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex, page 31 to learn why this is not the case.
 Tony Campolo, Speaking My Mind (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2004), 67 and Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 73-74.
 Ibid. (Jack Rogers), 74.
 Justin R. Cannon, The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality, (Justin R. Cannon, 2009)
 Philo Thelos, God is Not a Homophobe (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing, 2004), 62.
 Ibid (Philo Thelos), 85-87.
 Justin R. Cannon, The Bible, Christianity, and Homosexuality, (Justin R. Cannon, 2009). 4-6.