Biblical Ethics and Sexuality
A couple of times lately I mentioned to people that I’d try to write something vaguely coherent about the Bible and sexuality – in particular about homosexual relationships. Were the Bible writers simply writing within their culture? Now that attitudes to sexuality are changing, can Christian attitudes change with it?
I’ve been putting off writing this because, to be honest, it’s a massive topic and it’s one in which there’s plenty of scope for hurt and disagreement. In order to do full justice to all the Biblical verses on homosexuality you’d need to write a book (such as this one, which someone has kindly already written…) What I’m going to do in this post is try and do a very brief, bird’s-eye-view of the Bible’s view on sexuality without going into too much detail.
Please note that I’m not trying to offer here a pastoral response to dealing with homosexuality or same-sex attraction. I’m not in any way condoning homophobic behaviour. This is simply examining the issue of what the Bible says about sexuality, not how to respond to it in a practical situation.
First things first: creation. All Christians are ‘creationist’, in the sense that all Christians believe that God created the world. Genesis 1-2 tells the story. In particular, if you read Genesis 2 you see that Adam (the name literally means ‘mankind’) is lonely and God creates a suitable ‘helper’ for him – a woman. (The translation ‘helper’ may be a bit inadequate, but let’s leave that aside for this post). It culminates in v24, where the narrator says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
A couple of things to note here: firstly, there is something poetic about the way that the one man, Adam, becomes two: the woman is taken from his very being. And yet, in the marriage relationship, they become one. One, becomes two, becomes one. There is something fundamental about the marriage relationship which is straight from the order of creation. The second thing is, this is an institution which begins before the Fall. How many aspects of being human can we say that about? Marriage is so fundamental that it is actually given before the Fall of Genesis 3.
I think it’s important to start off looking at creation because it’s a counter to the question of cultural context. If God’s intention was always marriage in this way, it can’t ever be a matter of cultural context.
Secondly, this view of marriage is actually affirmed by Jesus. People often point out that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, which is true – but he did mention marriage. In Matthew 19:1-11 (a passage which also has parallels in Mark and Luke) Jesus is asked whether it is permissible for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus answers them:
‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
So, here Jesus affirms the creation institution of marriage. Jesus takes the a question about the Law from the Pharisees and turns it around: they were asking whether it was permitted in the Law to divorce, whereas Jesus flips it around and looks at it from another angle: “Forget the law for a moment, what was the intention of God, from the beginning?” Which I think is a helpful approach when it comes to relationships.
Thirdly, the Bible never talks about sexual orientation. I think orientation is a fairly modern concept, I don’t know what people in Biblical times would have made of it. What matters is not who you’re attracted to, because we cannot change that – but instead, what you do with that attraction. I’ll come back to this shortly.
Finally, we come to the passages in the Bible specifically dealing with homosexuality. I don’t want to go through every passage (you can see a list and read them here), but there are a few things I’d like to say more generally.
- With regards to the prohibition in Leviticus: many people question whether it’s right to take Leviticus as authoritative when it comes to sexuality, given that it contains so many other commands which are not relevant to us today. It’s a valid question, but a full answer would involve a whole separate blog post (or book) – but for me I think the key is in relating Leviticus to the rest of the Bible. The New Testament also prohibits homosexual conduct – the witness of Scripture is consistent on that point. It’s not that we have Leviticus saying one thing and the New Testament saying another.
- There are no examples in the Bible where a same-sex, sexual relationship is commended in any circumstances.
- It’s very important to note that the Bible never makes homosexuality a ‘red-letter’ sin. In other words, it is simply seen as a sin amongst other things which are also sinful. ALL sexual behaviour outside of a heterosexual, lifelong relationship is sinful and falls short of God’s ideal. It’s not that God is simply “picking on the gays”.
- Homosexuality, and other sin, is seen as a consequence of the Fall – mankind’s rebellion against God. Because the Fall affected everything, because mankind are now essentially enemies of God, creation has been affected. Our own desires have been affected: all I need to do to prove this is look at myself. So much of the time, for example, I know that I care about myself more than I do about other people. My desire is not to do the right thing all the time, sometimes my desire is to do the wrong thing. This is most clearly expressed in the passage from Romans 1: people stopped worshipping God, so God gave them over to “whatever shameful things their hearts desired“. In other words, the Bible sees homosexuality – and all other sin – as a consequence of our turning away from God and worshipping ourselves instead of Him. Our own desires are fallen and can lead us astray, which is why we need God’s word to help us know what He desires.
In conclusion, my belief is that the Bible does not condone any sexual behaviour which is outside God’s design for marriage – sex within a committed, lifelong, relationship between one man and one woman. Both the Old and New Testaments witness to the sanctity of marriage, and teaching about homosexuality fits within this overarching context.
I do appreciate that in this post I’ve barely scratched the surface of the matter – there are many other things you could say (for example, looking at how marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church). There are a few books which you might appreciate for further reading; maybe start with “Is God Anti-Gay?” by Sam Allberry – it’s fairly short and very cheap! Sam is a Christian minister and someone who experiences same-sex attraction, so he should know what he’s talking about.
 Note: I don’t want to get sidetracked by issues around creation / evolution – suffice it to say for the purposes of this blog post I want to look at what Genesis teaches us theologically and leave it there.
 Understanding the purpose of the laws in Leviticus is not an easy task – there are disagreements in the Theological College I attend over the exact nature and purpose of the Law and its relevance to Christians today. However, it is important to note that the Law was given to a specific people at a specific time for a purpose – setting the Israelites apart from other nations. That does not mean that we are free to disregard the entire Law, or that we have to keep all of it. But it does mean some hard study is required to get to the bottom of it. As I said, the key for me is how those passages on sexuality fit in with the wider Biblical teaching.
 Some people claim that the relationship between David and Jonathan is a sexual one, which is commended. I’d say that was speculative at best – there is no real evidence for this, and it seems to me wildly inconsistent for the Bible to prohibit same-sex relationships in the Law while simultaneously commending such a relationship a bit later on.