Homosexuality: a Biblical perspective

Contemporary culture is forcing Christians to reconsider their historic theological understandings of homosexuality. At the editors' request, the author examines whether Scripture or human experience shall have the normative role.

Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor of historical theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and a contributing editor of MINISTRY.

The gay crisis has come to church. Some homosexuals are coming to church not only for forgiveness and mercy but to say to the church, as they have to the world, "Homosexuality is not sinful; it is natural to me. God made me this way. He accepts me and my homosexuality as good. Therefore the time has come for the church to accept me as I am and join me in saying that gayness is good."

The crisis is no longer "out there"; it is at the doorstep of most Christian churches, challenging the traditional Judeo-Christian stand on this issue and pressing for a radical shift from rejection of homosexuality to affirmation of it as a part of the Creation that God deems good.

Until recently the church solidly regarded active homosexuality as sin and a contagious illness, although repentant, sexually inactive homosexuals were welcome in the church—at least theoretically. In recent years, however, various studies and individuals have raised questions about the church's traditional approach to the problem.

Since the publication in 1955 of Derrick Sherwin Bailey's Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1 books on homosexuality and the church have been rolling off both secular and church presses in increasing numbers. 2 Much of this material is favorable to an active "Christian" homosexual life style. At the same time, denominational-wide task forces and study commissions have responded by drafting study documents on homosexuality for the United Church of Christ, the United Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., the Episcopal Church, and the American Lutheran Church, among others.

Contemporary culture, too, is exerting pressure on the church's traditional, historic theology of homosexuality by means of new data provided by the social sciences. Though the lack of scientific agreement is often frustrating, Christians are discovering that a greater variety exists among homosexuals than was generally believed. Not all male homosexuals are effeminate in manners, speech, and gait; nor are all female homosexuals mannish in appearance, athletically inclined, or prone to wear men's attire. Some homosexuals (like heterosexuals) are promiscuous and sex-obsessed, while others lead quiet lives.

The very nature and cause of homosexuality remains probably the most frustrating issue. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from its lists of illnesses, but there is no agreement in the secular sciences concerning its nature and origin. The central unresolved question is whether homosexuality is to be considered normal or abnormal. The implications of one's answer are enormous, if homosexuality is a normal variation of human sexuality, the issue of cure becomes superfluous. If it is a sickness or abnormality, its cause and treatment become essential. Here again, the scientific data remains conflicting and incomplete.

Some clinicians and therapists claim that certain homosexual persons may be "constitutional," i.e., born to be so, and that homosexuality apparently originates at preconscious levels of personality formation, so early in life as to be immovably fixed as a part of one's being. Others con tend that homosexuality is not a preordained condition, but rather seems to arise out of a complex set of conditions, including both personal and psychological damage caused by one's environment.

What is clear, however, is that homo sexuality involves both one's "orientation" and one's expression of it. Gay advocates insist that homosexuality is first a "condition," or an "orientation," and only secondarily the thoughts and actions arising from that condition. This distinction, they hold, has been recognized only lately by Christians. Such an orientation is understood to mean that a person is attracted toward his or her own gender, and such an attraction is regarded as much a natural part of that person as is attraction to the opposite sex to a heterosexual person. In their book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View (1978) coauthors Letha Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott contend that for those who have exclusively homosexual drives and cannot change, the most Christian solution is often a committed, responsible, and permanent homosexual relationship. Such an individual, in their view, is no more sick or immoral than someone who is left-handed.3

Such a conclusion, of course, goes against all traditional interpretation of the Scriptures on this issue. Scanzoni and Mollenkott (and others) are willing to take such a position because in their eyes what the Bible condemns is certain kinds of homosexual practices—notably gang rape, idolatry, and lustful promiscuity—not the idea of "a permanent, committed relation ship of love between homosexuals analogous to heterosexual marriage." 4 The Bible, they contend, is silent on the homosexual condition as such, and there fore its views on homosexuality fail to apply to many homosexual persons today.

Such homosexual advocates understand the sins of Sodom (Genesis 19) and Gibeah (Judges 19) as violent gang raping and inhospitality, probably not even committed by people with homosexual orientation. They generally agree that the Levitical regulations (Lev. 18:22; 20:13) against male homosexual acts refer to homosexual activity, but they regard them as relative warnings not against homosexuality per se, but against having relations with male-cult prostitutes employed for pagan religious rituals.

Likewise, in the view of such individuals, Romans 1:26, 27 describes homosexual acts in the context of lust and idolatry and thus does not fit the case of a sincere homosexual Christian who loves Christ and wants to acknowledge God but who feels drawn to someone of the same sex for the sake of love rather than lust. The same argument is usually extended to 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10 and 1 Timothy 1:10, 11, which are judged irrelevant to the Christian homosexual since, in this view, the passages are describing the same-sex abuses rather than a lifelong homosexual condition or orientation.

To no one's surprise, Scanzoni and Mollenkott conclude their study of the scriptural references to homosexuality as follows: "Since the Bible is silent about the homosexual condition, those who want to understand it must rely on the findings of modern behavioral science research and on the testimony of those who are them selves homosexual." 5

While this reappraisal of the Biblical judgments on homosexuality can be made to appear plausible, the Biblical context hardly favors it. It may very well be true that Genesis 19 is concerned not with homosexuality in general, but with violent homosexual rape. However, the view that inhospitality, not homosexuality, is the sin here condemned seems hardly likely. Why would Lot offer his daughters to people who came only with a demand to check on two foreigners? The context seems clear that the men of Sodom wanted to abuse Lot's visitors sexually. The same is true of the similar account of Judges 19.

Nor does there seem to be any conclusive reason to depart from the usual interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Admittedly, most Christians ignore the prohibition against intercourse with a woman during her menstrual period, referred to in the same Levitical code (chap. 20:18), or the instruction not to wear garments with two kinds of yarn (chap. 19:19). Yet to argue that the historical context of the prohibition against homosexual intercourse is the need for ceremonial cleanness or the desire to separate oneself from the fertility cults of Israel's neighbors and their male prostitutes is extremely unconvincing. There simply is no positive evidence for cultic homosexuality in Canaanite religions. In the absence of such contextual evidence, it seems sound scholarship to assert that these Levitical texts consider homosexuality per se as sinful, because it perverts the intended sexual and familial relationship for humankind.

Regarding the New Testament's testimony, gay advocates quite correctly underline that in 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10 the nature of the homosexual sin condemned depends on two Greek words combined and rendered as "sexual perverts" in the Revised Standard Version. Malakoi and arsenokoitai are probably more obscure in their meaning than generally thought. Still, they seem to refer to the passive (malakos) and the active (arsenokoites) partners in a particular kind of homosexual activity, possibly male prostitution or perversion of young boys.

First Timothy 1:10 is somewhat similar to the statement in 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, since the term arsenokoitai (translated "sodomites") is once again used. Does it refer only to homosexuals who act abusively and perversely, or does it mean all those who are engaged in homosexual activities? The second meaning seems more likely, but there remains room for reasonable doubt.

Finally, there is Paul's statement in Romans 1:26, 27: "God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men" (R.S.V.). On its face, the text denounces as sinful both male and female homosexual acts. Gay advocates argue, however, that Paul was not censuring "healthy," "natural" homosexuality at all, but degenerate, thrill-seeking homosexual experimentation among heterosexuals for whom such relationships would be "unnatural" and thus condemned by the apostle. Homosexual practices, set in the motivating context of love for God and one another, are no longer regarded as "unnatural" for sincere Christians and therefore escape altogether the condemnation intended by this pas sage, says the Christian homosexual. Besides, if homosexual behavior really is what Paul had in mind, it is only idolatrous homosexuality that the apostle is denouncing here, he adds.

A simple reading of the context, how ever, is enough to establish that Paul's concern in Romans 1 was not one of idolatry and homosexual abuse, but rather the fall of humanity and its resultant disorders. Paul's intention is not to single out a group of sinners as more despicable than others, or merely to expose certain sinful practices. The apostle is in fact arguing that "all have sinned" (chap. 3:23), and uses homosexual practices as an illustration of the disorder brought about by sin. 6 The disorders he mentions are not wrong because they issue from idolatry; they are wrong in and of themselves. Indeed, in Romans 1:24-27 all human sexuality, whether heterosexual or homo sexual, is depicted as disordered by man's inherent drive toward self-centeredness, his rebellion against God, and the chaos that the Fall provoked. In light of the present evidence, it seems valid to conclude that Romans 1:26, 27 understands homosexual practice to be sin in and of itself.

One should keep in mind, however, that a discussion of these individual Biblical texts, no matter how soundly interpreted, can still fall short of the truth if it fails to ground the explication of occasional references to homosexuality in the more primary Biblical understanding of human sexuality. An adequate under standing of homosexuality can be gained only within the larger context of an investigation of the Biblical doctrine of human sexuality. And on this point the Scriptures are quite explicit.

The very opening chapters of Genesis make clear that sexuality belongs to Creation itself. The Creation narrative establishes that God did not create man alone. Nor did He create man/man or woman/woman. He created mankind as male and female. God's image in humanity is incomplete without both man and woman. This also means that the aim of Christian sexuality is not personal satisfaction, but interpersonal completeness. "They become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24, R.S.V.; cf. Mark 10:48). We have here not simply a relationship of two persons, but a relationship between male and female. In Sakae Kubo's words: "It is not the relationship as such but the complementary character of the relationship that is significant." 7 Completeness is the union of opposites, the coming together of differences, not simply sexual differences—though these are fundamental to a Biblical understanding of sexuality—but such differences as personality, temperament, social function, and aspiration, all gathered into the physical symbol of gender differentiation. By this standard, homosexual liaisons witness to incompleteness.

Old and New Testament references to marriage and sexuality, the thrust of the Genesis account, the testimony of Jesus and Paul about Creation, marriage, and the Fall, are parts of a whole fabric that unanimously and undeviatingly portrays heterosexual love as God's will, and therefore as good and normative.

It is true that the Scriptures are silent about the homosexual "condition," as distinguished from lustful homosexual practices. This shouldn't surprise us, since the Scriptures usually show little interest in the condition in which we find ourselves when we face temptation. It rather speaks to our response. Thus adulterers are not exonerated because of their sinful condition. They are asked to give up their adultery. No doubt some adulterers sincerely and deeply love each other; but they are not excused on this account. Nor are they offered a compromise, or urged to make their relationship as permanent and loving as possible. Indeed, they are called to abandon it and return to their marriage partners.

This is not to say that people with either adulterous or homosexual desires or temptations are guilty of sin. But they are responsible for how they respond to those drives, as all of us are responsible for how we react to various kinds of temptations. The responsibility for people driven by homosexual urges is far from easy. But is it impossible for homosexuals to be healed and transformed in their sexual orientation?

Some are adamant about the failure of true homosexuals to be able to change their homosexual orientation. "There is not one shred of evidence of a validated conversion to heterosexual orientation through therapy or Christian conversion and prayer," writes Ralph Blair. 8 Others hold that homosexuals can be, and indeed are being, healed and transformed in their sexual orientation, as Paul himself asserts (1 Cor. 6:11), through the full resources of grace available to the Christian.

It is true that until recently, little, if any, scientifically valid evidence existed showing that such a change in sexual orientation could occur within the church or anywhere else. However, in a recent article published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, E. Mansell Pattison, M.D., and Myma Loy Pattison, from the Department of Psychiatry and Health Behavior, Medical College of Georgia, documented eleven cases of men who claim to have changed their sexual orientation from exclusive homosexuality to exclusive heterosexuality through participation in a pentecostal church fellowship. 9 Dr. Patti son's work is not without corroboration, 10 and though some homosexuals in the study were not "cured," one can no longer speak of the impossibility of change in one's sexual orientation, and, for that reason, of the "naturalness" of homosexuality among exclusive homosexuals.

This is good news for Christians who care about their homosexual brothers and sisters. The church should not feel a responsibility to engage in a search-and-destroy mission against active homosexuals, including those who are already in its midst. It should rather issue a challenge to homosexuals to search their consciences and to repent from sin. The church must, without hesitation, stand behind the teachings of Scripture, but at the same time it needs to show compassion and strive to understand the personal struggles of homosexuals. The most important witness of Scripture regarding homosexuality is not condemnation but the promise of liberation—liberation from an old life in bondage to sin and to a new life of freedom in Jesus Christ! Let us take seriously the promises of the Spirit's work and His power of healing.

At the same time, much of the repentance that needs to be done on this issue needs to be done by straight people, including straight Christians. We are prone to forget that as heterosexual sinners we have no superior vantage point from which to look down on homosexual sinners. Indeed, our sins of neglect, fear, and hatred may more than once have kept the homosexual from finding Christ and liberation. Could it be that our inability to maintain an attitude of compassionate concern for homosexuals while disapproving of an active homosexual life style may actually indicate a serious lack of conviction of sin in our own lives?

At the bottom the issue is not homosexuality. It is morality. The issue before us is not gay rights—the sanction of a life style of avowed and practicing homosexuality—but God's rights, His right to call us to Himself, to repentance, to a life of grateful and joyous compliance with His will.

Contemporary culture is forcing Christians to reconsider their theological under standing of homosexuality. Interestingly, the developing lines of division among us are often merely a reflection of conflicting views concerning the usefulness and rightful place of personal, cultural, and scientific observation in the theological process.

Increasing weight is being given by some to the "facts" proposed by social scientists on the nature of homosexuality. But nature, though created by God, remains marred and distorted by sin. It requires and must be judged according to an authoritative external standard, namely God's word as revealed in the Scriptures. That word should guide us in our observation of the world around us. It should remain one's theological norm. The issue at stake here is whether the Scriptures are to be the ultimate rule of our faith and convictions or whether they are to yield their normative role to human experience, reason, or contemporary scientific hypotheses. Today's suggestion that we move away from the first alternative and adopt the second reveals an absence of theological understanding of the church's prophetic role in calling its members and the world to repentance from individual and social sin.

There is considerable confusion both in society and in the church concerning homosexuality and homosexual practice. People are asking for a clear word, for a Biblical word, a word from God rather than the changing opinions of men. The words that reflect the character of Christ, our Lord, when confronting moral laxity and broken people, are still words that combine compassion with moral firmness.


1 Published in London by Longmans, Green, and Co.

2 Among the more significant studies are Robert Wood, Christ and the Homosexual (New York: Vantage Press, 1960); Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1964); H. Kimball Jones, Toward a Christian Understanding of the Homosexual (New York: Association Press, 1966); W. Norman Pittenger, Time for Consent: A Christian's Approach to Homosexuality (London: SCM Press, 1970); Troy Perry, The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I'm Gay (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing Co., 1972); Barbara Evans, Joy! (Carol Stream, 111.: Creation House, 1973); Clinton Jones, Homosexuality and Counseling (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974); Lewis Smedes, Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976); Letha Scanzoni and Virginia R. Mollenkott, Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? Another Christian View (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Don Williams, The Bond That Breaks: Will Homosexuality Split the Church? (Los Angeles: B.I.M. Publishing Co., 1978); Richard F. Lovelace, Homosexuality and the Church (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1978).

3 Pages 77, 78.

4 Ibid., pp. 71, 72.

5 Ibid., p. 71.

6 Paul's statement that homosexual practices are "against nature" does not mean that they are against the natural orientation of an individual. "Against nature" rather means against God's intention for human sexual behavior, which is plainly visible in nature.

7 Sakae Kubo, Theology and Ethics of Sex (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1980), p. 24.

8 Letter to the editor, Eternity, July, 1977, p. 56.

9 " 'Ex-Gays' Religiously Mediated Change in Homosexuals," American Journal of Psychiatry 137:12 (December, 1980), pp. 1553-1563. The report was first presented at the 132d annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, Chicago, Illinois, May 12-18, 1979.

10 See, for instance, Robert K. Johnston, "Homosexuality: (1) Can It Be 'Cured'?" The Reformed Journal, March, 1981, pp. 11, 12.

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Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor of historical theology, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and a contributing editor of MINISTRY.

September 1981

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