The Bible and Same-sex Relationships

Given the assurance with which many Christians state that the Bible condemns homosexuality, there are surprisingly few passages in the Bible that refer unambiguously to homosexuality. The passages usually discussed and cited fall into three groups:

  • those most scholars agree appear to forbid some forms of same-sex activity (Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13, Romans 1.25--6; the so-called 'clobber texts');

  • those about which scholars strongly disagree, because of differing opinions about the actual meaning of certain words, with the result that some think they refer to same-sex activity, and others think they don't (1 Corinthians 6.9 and 1 Timothy 1.10); and

  • those most scholars agree are actually about something else and are red herrings for a discussion of homosexuality (Genesis 19 and Judges 19).

There are no passages in the Bible which appear to deal with long-term, consensual same-sex relationships or unions between adults, as opposed to individual sexual acts. In fact historians and other scholars disagree strongly about whether people in the ancient world recognised the existence of such relationships, or even of homosexuality as we understand it today.

How then can we find a biblically-based answer to a question with which the Bible does not deal? Conservative Christians believe that it is possible to generalise from the passages in Leviticus and Romans (especially Romans) to a general prohibition of all same-sex activity and therefore necessarily to a ban on same-sex unions. Other Christians have two main problems with this. First there is a pastoral one: like the blanket prohibition of divorce (for which there is actually better biblical warrant), it would put a terrible burden on clergy and people alike. Second and more seriously they find that a careful reading of the three passages leads to interpretations that will not support a general prohibition.

Let's look at the Leviticus passages first. They are Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 (you can see these verses in context at and, respectively), part of the so-called Holiness Code, a large part of the book of Leviticus and one intended to keep the Israelites settled in the Promised Land from a variety of practices that might compromise their ritual purity in the worship of Yahweh. Over and over again in this section, practices ranging from mixing threads of different origins in making fabric to eating certain types of food to engaging in certain sexual practices are condemned as abominations (the Hebrew word is to‘ebah). No modern commentators take the whole of the Holiness Code literally as a guide for living in the modern world. Many scholars and preachers emphasise some sections and ignore others. Jacob Milgrom, the best known modern scholar of Leviticus, has concluded that the Holiness Code, including these ordinances against same-sex practices, applies to Israelites living in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants and only to them.

It's clear that many of these 'abominations' are so-called because they would involve the people in the religious practices of the Canaanites already living in the land -- hence forbidding them to eat certain animals that were connected with Canaanite deities, for instance. In addition, the wording of Lev 18.22 although a bit circuitous (there's legitimate room for discussion on the exact meaning of lying 'with a male as with a woman') certainly suggests men substituting other men for women in sexual practices. Furthermore, the next section of chapter 18 makes a clear link between the condemned sexual practices and past behaviours by the Canaanites so offensive to Yahweh that it led to their expulsion from the land. Putting these two things together leads many to the conclusion that what is being condemned in Lev 18.22 is sexual behaviour by heterosexual men related to Canaanite fertility cults and temple prostitution. It is difficult to find an analogy in modern times for this behaviour and hence basing generalisations about modern homosexuality on Leviticus 18 and 20 is difficult and perhaps suspect.

What about Romans 1.26--7 (see for the passage quoted in context)? It seems very straightforward and able to bear the weight of the generalisations that rest upon it until it is viewed in the context of Paul's argument. The purpose of the first section of Paul's letter to the church in Rome is to place both former Jews and former pagans on a level in the new church community: despite the Law in the former case and pagan philosophy and cult in the latter, both stand in equal need of salvation in Christ. Neither group had anything before that would enable them to have a right relationship with God. In developing this argument, Paul offered a critique of the failure of pagan philosophy and religion in Rom 1.18--32.

Despite having a knowledge of God derived from their knowledge of the created world, Paul argued, pagans nevertheless practiced a false religion by worshipping idols. This in turn leads to degrading passions and the degrading passions lead to debased minds and hearts and the practices of a number of vices: "They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (Rom 1.29-31)." The issue that touches on the question of same-sex unions is how to interpret the degrading passions described in verses 26-7: "Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error."

In the context, it is possible that Paul is talking about the orgiastic rituals that we know were part of some pagan cults popular in the Roman Empire and indeed in Rome itself at this time. If so, his argument would be: because they worship false gods, the pagans worship them in falsity, by unnatural acts, and this in turn undermines their whole hearts and minds, making them prey to every kind of moral failing condemned by the Ten Commandments. If that is the case, then we are once again in the situation we were left in by Lev 18.22: if Paul is talking about sexual rites in ancient pagan cults, then there's really no analogy in modern times and we cannot reasonably generalise from this text about modern sexuality.

However it is by no means certain that this is the correct interpretation. Many modern interpreters instead are looking more closely at Paul's use of the expressions 'natural' (phusikos in Greek) and 'unnatural' (Paul actually uses the Greek phrase para phusin 'contrary to nature'). This is indeed the crux of the situation and the point at which conservative and progressive Christian interpreters part company, perhaps irrevocably. In a nutshell, the sides are this. Conservatives argue that same-sex activity is objectively unnatural and therefore according to Paul it is a violation of right relationship with God from which people must be saved as they must be saved from other sinful actions or cured as though from a disease. But because of modern discoveries about the natural world and human psychology, unknown to Paul and his contemporaries, liberal interpreters disagree with the claim that same-sex activity is objectively unnatural. Therefore they take 'nature' and 'natural' in Romans 1.26-7 to refer to the individual natures of the pagan men and women Paul is talking about -- these are people who, wounded on some spiritual level by idolatry and denial of God, are acting against their own natures and taking part in sexual practices that are unnatural to them. As the former bishop of Atlanta, Bennett Sims, has written, "If it be granted that gay and lesbian identity is "natural," then St. Paul can be scrupulously honored wherever homosexuality is seen to be rooted in Paul's own word, phusikos, meaning "agreeable to nature."" (in "How to be True to the Bible and say "Yes" to Same-Sex Unions", online at

We cannot say with absolute certainty that this interpretation or that one is right in this instance. Trying to discern the meaning of a book or section of a book of the Bible in its original context, so that we can understand what it is saying to us in a modern context, is often difficult. Sometimes we lack sufficient knowledge of the language or the historical or social context. In that case we need to proceed on the basis of the best information we do have, the general tenor of biblical teaching, pastoral needs, and the on-going revelation of the Holy Spirit in the Church. This requires discernment, prayer, and above all epistemic humility, or the recognition we might be wrong (see for a discussion of this virtue)!

So since we can't be sure about the interpretation of these verses, at least not sure enough to generalise them into a rule of life for all homosexual Christians, we can try a second and far more promising approach, to generalise from what the Bible says about other human sexual relationships. In the mid-1970's, discussions and consultations were held in Episcopal parishes in the States on a report that was directed toward that end. It concluded that a faithful reading of Paul's writings on Christian marriage and of Jesus' words pointed toward sacrificial love as the hallmark of a faithful, healthy Christian relationship. That is, that partners in a Christian marriage were to model to one another the same quality of love as Christ modelled toward his friends and toward the world in his saving work. The report went on to discuss the extension of that model of sacrificial love to same-sex relationships. I remember that report and some of the discussions of it that I fearfully attended, afraid that I might give away too much of how personally important it was to me to find such a positive model for myself, but I don't now remember what the next stages were. Clearly they have been a long time in coming to fruition! However it still seems to me that it is necessary pastorally and appropriate scripturally for the church to find a way to recognise and celebrate faithful, healthy same-sex relationships between Christians.


The Disputed Passages

1 Corinthians 6.9-10

6.9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites (arsenokoitai), 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers--none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Timothy 1.10

1.8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. 9 This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, 10 fornicators, sodomites (arsenokoitai), slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

The problem here is a dispute about the meaning of two Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai. Malakoi is a fairly common word with several possible meanings; literally, malakoi means 'softies', people who are soft or feeble in some way. There are passages in which it means 'cowards' and passages in which it means people who are morally weak, those without moral fibre. It appears (though even this seems to be disputed by some scholars) to have sexual connotations in at least one passage (much earlier than St Paul's time). But there seems no compelling evidence for one side or another. Arsenokoitai is a very rare word, which may in fact have been coined by St Paul. Because in both passages it occurs in lists of various sinners, there's no helpful context to speak of. It's a compound of roots meaning 'men' and 'lier with' -- but whether it means men who lie with other men, male prostitutes, or something else altogether is currently a matter of heated, even intemperate, debate. It almost seems as though translators would do better to leave the words in Greek at this point!

The "Red Herrings"

Genesis 19 ( and Judges 19 (

Both these stories (the second of which is particularly savage) are principally about the failure to respect the values of hospitality. For example, in Ezechiel, the sin of Sodom was seen as arrogance and inhospitality (Ez 16.49), and this type of interpretation is also followed by the rabbinic Sages. In the letter of Jude, the sin of Sodom does seem to have been sexual in nature, and to involve the attempt by humans to have sexual intercourse with angels, recalling the story of Nephilim born from relations between human women and angels (Gen 6.4). But it was only as the result of a mediaeval Christian interpretation that the emphasis was changed and the sin of Sodom began to be seen as sodomy (in the modern sense). Originally the fact that threats of rape in both stories are made by gangs of men against other men (or angels in male form) is incidental to the sin for which the gangs of men and their city or tribe are condemned. Modern commentators have tended to emphasise the attitudes towards women that make it possible for the hosts in both stories to offer the humiliation of daughters and concubines as substitutes for the humiliation of foreign guests. It is an instructive reminder of the extent to which these attitudes have been challenged and changed by Scripture itself and later readings. These stories have much to teach us but it is not, I think, anything to do in particular with same-sex activity.