Today's debate over homosexuality is a remarkable opportunity, because it raises, in an especially acute way, how we interpret the Bible, not in this case only, but in others as well.
The crux of the matter is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic.
Some passages advanced as pertinent to the issue of homosexuality are, in fact, irrelevant. One is the attempted gang rape in Sodom (Gen. 19:1-29), a case of ostensible heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them "like women," thus demasculinizing them. (This is also the case in a similar account in Judges 19-21.) Their brutal behavior has nothing to do with the problem of whether genuine love expressed between consenting adults of the same sex is legitimate or not. Likewise, Deut. 23:17-18 must be pruned from the list, since it refers to a heterosexual prostitute involved in Canaanite fertility rites that have infiltrated Jewish worship; the King James Version inaccurately labeled him a "sodomite."
Unequivocal condemnations. Putting these texts aside, we are left with three references that unequivocally condemn same-sex sexual behavior. Lev. 18:22 states the principle: "You (masculine) shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." The second (Lev. 20:13) adds the penalty: If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them."
Such an act was regarded as an "abomination" for several reasons. The Hebrew pre-scientific understanding was that male semen contained the whole of nascent life. With no knowledge of eggs and ovulation, it was assumed that the woman provided only the incubating space. Hence, the spilling of semen for any non-productive purpose in coitus interruptus (Gen. 38:1-11), male homosexual acts, or male masturbation was considered tantamount to abortion or murder. Female homosexual acts are not mentioned at all in the Old Testament.
When a man acted like a woman sexually, male dignity was compromised, degrading himself and every other male. The patriarchalism of Hebrew culture shows its hand in the very formulation of the commandment, since no similar stricture was formulated to forbid homosexual acts between females. And the repugnance felt toward homosexuality was not just that it was deemed unnatural but also that it was considered unJewish, one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life.
Whatever the rationale for their formulation, however, the texts leave no room for maneuvering. Persons committing homosexual acts are to be executed. This is the unambiguous command of the Scripture. The meaning is clear: anyone who wishes to base his or her beliefs on the witness of the Old Testament must be completely consistent and demand the death penalty for everyone who performs homosexual acts. (That may seem very extreme, but there are some "Christians" urging this very thing today.)
Old Testament texts have to be weighed against the New. So Paul's unambiguous condemnation of homosexual behavior in Rom. 1:26-27 must be the centerpiece of any discussion.
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 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 person the due penalty for their error.
No doubt Paul was unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has little choice, and sexual behavior, over which one does. He seems to assume that those he condemned were heterosexuals who were acting contrary to nature, "leaving," "giving up," or "exchanging" their regular sexual orientation for that which was foreign to them. Paul knew nothing of the modern psychosexual understanding of homosexuals as persons whose orientation is fixed early in life, or perhaps even genetically. For such persons, having heterosexual relations would be acting contrary to nature, "leaving," "giving up" or "exchanging" their natural sexual orientation for one that was unnatural. Likewise, the relationships Paul describes are heavy with lust; not relationships between consenting adults who are committed to each other as faithful and with as much integrity as any heterosexual couple. That was something Paul simply could not envision. Some people assume today that venereal disease and AIDS are divine punishment for homosexual behavior. In fact the vast majority of people with AIDS the world around are heterosexuals. We can scarcely label AIDS a divine punishment, since non-promiscuous lesbians are at almost no risk.
The Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn.
Hebrew sexual mores. Nevertheless, the Bible quite clearly takes a negative view of homosexual activity. But this does not solve the problem of how we are to interpret Scripture today.
For there are other sexual attitudes, practices and restrictions, which are normative in Scripture but which we no longer accept as normative:
Old Testament law strictly forbids sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24). Anyone in violation was to be "extirpated," or "cut off from their people" (Kareth, Lev. 18:29, a term referring to execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or to flogging or expulsion; Lev. 14:24 omits this penalty). Today many people have intercourse during menstruation and think nothing of it. Should they be "extirpated"? The Bible says they should.
Punishment for adultery was death by stoning for both the man and the woman (Deut. 22:22), but adultery is defined by the marital status of the woman. In the Old Testament, a man could not commit adultery against his wife; only against another man by sexually using the other's wife. And a bride who is found not to be a virgin is to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21), but male virginity at marriage is never even mentioned.
characteristic of paradise, was regarded in Judaism as reprehensible (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa. 20:2-4; 47:2). When one of Noah's sons beheld his father naked, he was cursed (Gen. 9:20-27). Are we prepared to regard nudity in the locker room or at the old swimming hole or in the privacy of one's home an accursed sin? The Bible does.
Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced in the Old Testament. Neither is ever condemned by the New Testament (with the questionable exception of 1 Tim. 3:2,12 and Titus 1:1:6). Jesus' teaching about marital union in Mark 10:6-8 is no exception, since he quotes Gen. 2:24 as his authority (the man and the woman will become "one flesh"), and this text was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. A man could become "one flesh" with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse. We know from Jewish sources that polygamy continued to be practiced within Judaism for centuries following the New Testament period. So if the Bible allowed polygamy and concubinage, why don't we?
A man was not guilty of sin for visiting a prostitute.
Social regulations regarding adultery, incest, rape and prostitution are, in the Old Testament, determined largely by considerations of the male's property rights over women. Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of the unmarried and the property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). A man was not guilty of sin for visiting a prostitute, though the prostitute herself was regarded as a sinner. As we leave behind patriarchal gender relations, what will we do with the patriarchalism in the Bible?
The law of Moses allowed for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4); Jesus categorically forbids it (Mark 10:1-12; Matt. 19:9 softens his severity). Yet many Christians, in clear violation of a command of Jesus, have been divorced. Why, then, do some of these very people consider themselves eligible for baptism, church membership, communion, and ordination, but not homosexuals? What makes the one so much greater a sin than the other, especially since Jesus never even mentioned homosexu ality but explicitly condemned divorce? We ordain divorcees. Why not homosexuals?
The Old Testament regarded celibacy as abnormal, and 1 Tim. 4:1-3 calls compulsory celibacy a heresy. Yet the Cath olic Church has made it mandatory for priests and nuns. Some Christian ethicists demand celibacy of homosexuals, whether they have a vocation for celibacy or not. This legislates celibacy by category, not by divine calling. Others argue that since God made men and women for each in order to be fruitful and multiply, homosexuals reject God's intent in creation. But this means that childless couples, single persons, priests and nuns would be in violation of God's intention in their creation. Those who argue thus must explain why the apostle Paul never married. And are they prepared to charge Jesus with violating the will of God by remaining single? Certainly heterosexual marriage is normal else the race would die out. But it is not normative.
In many other ways we have developed different norms from those explicitly laid down by the Bible. For example, "If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity (Deut. 25:11f.). We, on the contrary, might very well applaud her for trying to save her husband's life!
The Old and New Testaments both regarded slavery as normal and nowhere categorically condemned it. Part of that heritage was the use of female slaves, concubines and captives as sexual toys, breeding machines, or involuntary wives, which 2 Sam. 5:13, Judges 19-21, and Num. 31:18 permitted and as many American slave owners did some 150 years ago, citing these and numerous other Scripture passages as justification.
The Problem of Authority. These cases are relevant to our attitude toward the authority of Scripture. They are not cultic prohibitions from the Holiness code that are clearly superceded in Christianity, such as rules about eating shellfish or wearing clothes made of 2 different materials. They are rules concerning sexual behavior, and fall among the moral commandments of Scripture. Clearly, we regard certain rules, especially in the Old Testament, as no longer binding. Other things we regard as binding, including legislation in the Old Testament that is not mentioned at all in the New. What is our principle of selection? For example; virtually all readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting: incest, rape, adultery, intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned these behaviors which we generally allow: intercourse during menstruation, celibacy, marriage with non-Jews, naming sexual organs, nudity, masturbation and birth control. The Bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not.
Likewise, the Bible permitted behaviors that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, levirate marriage, sex with slaves, concubinage, treatment of women as property, very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13). While the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it. Of the 20 sexual mores mentioned, we only agree with the Bible on 4 of them, and disagree with it on 16!
If we insist on placing ourselves under the old law, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment of the law (Gal. 5:3). But if Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), if we are discharged from the law to serve, not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6), then all of these biblical sexual mores come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot then take even what Paul himself says as a new Law.
Judge for Yourselves. The crux of the matter is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand-year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. Many of the practices that the Bible prohibits we allow, and many that it allows, we prohibit. The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture or period.
Sexuality cannot be separated from the rest of life. No sex act is "ethical" in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person's life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God. What we have are simply sexual mores which change, sometimes with startling rapidity, creating bewildering dilemmas.
I agree that rules and norms are necessary. But rules and norms also tend to be impressed into the service of the Domination System, and to serve as crowd control rather than to enhance the fullness of human potential. So we must critique the sexual mores of any given time and clime by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Such a love ethic is non-exploitative (hence, no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence, no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring and loving. St. Augustine already dealt with this in his inspired phrase, "Love God, and do as you please."
Our moral task then is to apply Jesus' love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn't mean everything goes. It means that everything is critiqued by Jesus' love commandment. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviors in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.
Christian morality, after all, is not an iron chastity belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, as for heterosexuals, being moral means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others, and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus.
Christian morality, after all, is not an iron chastity belt.
In a little-remembered statement, Jesus said, "Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:57) Such sovereign freedom strikes terror in the hearts of many; they would rather be under law and be told what is right. Yet Paul himself echoes Jesus' sentiment when he says, "Do you not know that you are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life!" (1Cor. 6:3 RSV). The last thing Paul would want is for us to respond to his ethical advice as a new law engraved on stone. He is himself trying to "judge for himself what is right." If new evidence is in on the phenomenon of homo sexuality, are we not obligated to reevaluate the issue in the light of all available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves?
Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether the Biblical judgment is correct. The Bible sanctioned slavery, and nowhere attacked it as unjust. Are we prepared to argue that slavery is biblically justified? 150 years ago, when the debate over slavery was raging, the Bible seemed to be on the slaveholder's side. Abolitionists were hard pressed to justify their opposition to slavery on biblical grounds. Yet today, if you were to ask Christians in the South whether the Bible sanctions slavery, virtually all would agree that it does not. How do we account for such a monumental shift?
What happened is that the churches were finally driven to penetrate beyond the legal tenor of the Scripture to an even deeper tenor, articulated by Israel out of the experience of the Exodus and the prophets and brought to sublime embodiment in Jesus' identification with harlots, tax collectors, the diseased and maimed and outcast and poor. God suffers with the suffering and groans toward the reconciliation of all things. Therefore Jesus went out of his way to declare forgiven, and reintegrate into society in all details, those who were identified as "sinners" by virtue of the accidents of birth, or biology, or economic desperation. In the light of that supernal compassion, whatever our position on gays, the gospel's imperative to love, care for, and be identified with their sufferings is unmistakably clear.
In the same way, women press us to acknowledge the sexism and patriarchalism that pervades Scripture and has alienated so many from the church. The way out is not to deny the sexism in Scripture, but to develop an interpretive theory that judges even scripture in the light of the revelation of Jesus. What Jesus gives us is a critique of domination in all its forms a critique that can be turned on the Bible itself. The Bible thus contains the principle of its own correction. We are freed from bibliolatry, the worship of the Bible. It is restored to its proper place as witness to the word of God. And that word is a Person, not a book.