What the Bible Says, or Doesn’t Say, About Homosexuality

Within Christian circles, the debate about homosexuality has been at the forefront over the past few decades. It is not that this issue was unheard of until recently, but that it was not the focus of so much attention. Much like the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, there was no problem as long as those in the GLBT community kept their place within a heterosexist religious system. Only when GLBT persons began to ask for equal rights did the church make it such a hot topic.

The fodder for many of the arguments against homosexuality has been a handful of biblical texts, which have been interpreted historically by modern scholars as condemning of intimate relationships between two persons of the same sex. In fact, some of the more modern translations of the bible contributed to the church’s anti-gay teachings (e.g., the New Revised Standard Version translation of 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 used the word, “sodomites,” to translate a Greek word that had no etymological connection to the town and/or people of Sodom). Most people caught up in the turmoil over the issue have been laity who relied upon their pastors/priests to instruct them on the biblical stance toward homosexuality. Many church leaders have presented their biases without allowing their congregants to study what the bible actually says, or doesn’t say about this topic . For example, many persons in the church are still unaware that there is no word for “homosexuality” in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, the three original languages of the bible. In fact, the word did not appear in the English language until the late 19th century. Neither the ancient Israelites nor their later descendants within 1st century Judaism and the early church had any concept of sexual orientation, which is a relatively new concept for us today.

Understanding the historical, sociological, and ideological background of biblical texts is essential in determining both an original meaning as well as a meaning for the modern faith community. Particularly within the community that wrote and passed down the texts of the 1st Testament, the primary concern for Ancient Israel was for survival. The dangers of life in those times meant that their people were constantly on the verge of extinction. Many children did not survive past the age of 2 or 3, and life expectancy was very short, especially for women, who often died in childbirth. Procreation was of the utmost importance. Anything that endangered the possibility for children (e.g., masturbation, non-intercourse sexual activities, etc.) was a threat to the whole community.

During the writing of the New Testament, the early church was also a minority group, but its greatest threat came from the Greek culture, especially their religions, and the threat of assimilation. In trying to prove their legitimacy and carve out their identity, early church leaders, such as Paul, tried to emphasize the sins of Greek religion, especially their incorporation of sexual behavior within their rituals. Anything even closely resembling their behavior (e.g., temple prostitutes, fertility rituals, etc.) was strictly prohibited for the new Christian community.

Given this backdrop for the reading and interpretation of the biblical materials, stories and 2 passages once thought to condemn many things, homosexuality being one, are seen in a much different light. The threats that existed for Ancient Israel and the early church are not what threaten today’s world and church. We face possible extinction not due to lack of procreation but because of over population. The Christian faith is no longer a minority voice, especially in the United States. Just as the biblical texts were written in certain historical contexts, so must we interpret them today, within our own contemporary world.