I took two years to carefully read through the Bible and take prodigious notes. Let’s have a look at what I found. We’ll start with a cheery topic: sodomy.
Ask most Christians about Sodom and Gomorrah and you’ll hear that God destroyed the city because the people were engaging in homosexual behavior. Read the story in Genesis 19, though, and you’ll see it is a commentary on mob mentality and rape. Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob to be raped in order to spare his guests.
To our modern minds, Lot’s offer appalls us, but we learned in chapter 2 about the Greco-Roman world’s emphasis on community honor and shame. For Lot to have allowed his guests to be raped would have brought great shame on his household and community. The low value of women in the patriarchal society was also a factor.
The sin of the mob (and of Sodom and Gomorrah) was meanness—a lack of compassion, kindness, and empathy for others. The eight times the New Testament references “Sodom” lack any mention of homosexual behavior. The biblical story of Sodom simply isn’t about homosexuality.
On the other hand, the Old Testament law commands men who engage in same sex relations be put to death. We’ve all heard homosexuality called an “abomination.” But what else does the Bible call an “abomination”?
1. Eating ham, bacon, sausage, lobster, clams, shrimp, etc.
2. Charging interest on a loan.
3. Burning incense.
The list of prohibitions is even wilder, including combinations of clothing, planting different plants next to one another, and engaging in sex during menstruation.
Matthew Vines in God and the Gay Christian goes beyond the simple debate of whether to ignore Old Testament laws and masterfully covers the complex issue of what modern Christians can learn from Old Testament law. If you want to go deeper into this topic, read his book. In this book, however, I’m content to know I’m not bound by all those Old Testament laws. And that’s good, because I really love bacon.
Now let’s evaluate the most challenging of the clobber verses from Romans 1:
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
When you read that, you likely conclude that Paul makes it clear that Homosexuality is sinful. But take the time to read the rest of that section of Romans: 1:18-32.
In the rest of the chapter, Paul makes the key point that people tend to not put God first. They tend to worship idols—anything that one loves more than God. Then Paul gives the example—not a command—about sex becoming an idol.
The true sexual sin of the times was excess—failing to have the moderation that was required of an elite man. Excess passion was considered weak and womanly. Here’s a first century quote from Dio Chrysostom that provides cultural context:
The man whose appetite is insatiate in such things (referring to sex with women), when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field, will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman's love, as a thing too readily given—in fact, too utterly feminine—and will turn his assault against the male quarters, eager to befoul the youth who will very soon be magistrates and judges and generals, believing that in them he will find a kind of pleasure difficult and hard to procure.
Dio then describes wine drinkers who become addicted and go to extremes. For both sex and alcohol, moderate use was appropriate and extreme use a problem.
Paul writes from this same cultural context. He uses homo-erotic sex as an example of failing to be satisfied with moderation and making sex an idol above God. In Paul’s patriarchal culture, homosexuality as we recognize it today didn’t exist. While plenty of homo-erotic activity went on, we don’t find any record of the kind of committed, same-sex relationships we see today. Paul wasn’t making a law against something that didn’t exist.
As you read Romans 1:26, perhaps the word “unnatural” is what bothers you most. You probably visualize how a penis fits into a vagina and think that’s natural, so anything else must be unnatural. But when you consider the amazing complexity of God’s creation, do you really want to base this important decision about what is right or wrong concerning sexuality on your need to keep things simple? Think about it: Paul wrote that homo-erotic sex was unnatural, but he wrote the same thing about men having long hair. Sorry, hipsters.
The most compelling reason for me to reject the idea that Romans 1 is a clear biblical rule against homosexuality comes in the verses that follow it.
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.
I commit many of those sins. I am occasionally wicked and often greedy. I gossip and have been known to disobey my parents. Sometimes I realize I’ve been heartless and ruthless. The amazing grace of God gives me hope that I am loved even in my sinful existence.
Paul isn’t trying to make us hate homosexuals in Romans 1; he wants us to recognize the kinds of behavior that lead us away from God. He wants us to put God first in our lives. Any of the sins of excess and idolatry make it difficult for us to put God first. That is Paul’s point.
Let’s move now to the last clobber verse: the catalog of sins. Since the translation matters so much, we’ll start with the King James Version, the earliest of the modern translations:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul wrote this letter to help the young, struggling church in Corinth develop holiness—to live moral and God-focused lives. Immediately prior to the verses shown above, Paul tells the church that the fact that they are suing each other means they are already defeated. He challenges them to submit to the injustice—even to allow themselves to be cheated—rather than sue. Then Paul describes ten types of wicked people and concludes that their conduct will keep them from inheriting God’s kingdom. Let’s go through that list and see how we fair:
1. Fornicators: This is the Greek word Pornea, explained previously, which is a non-specific word for sexual sins. Jesus stipulated that looking with lust at another woman is a sexual sin...I’m already in trouble.
2. Idolaters: The best definition for this seems to be putting anything in our lives ahead of God—yet another test most of us fail.
3. Adulterers: This is the Greek word Moichos, which means sex outside marriage for a woman or a man having sex with a married woman who is not his wife. Hopefully few of us fail this one.
4. Effeminate: This is the Greek word Malokoi, which seems to mean “softness.” It was used to describe “men who acted effeminately” against the patriarchal culture that required strong and self-controlled men. One commentator described the term as an ancient equivalent of telling a boy he “throws like a girl.” If you’re less than a manly man, you may fail this one…I don’t.
5. Abusers of themselves with mankind: The Greek word for this, Arsenokoites, is not used anywhere else in the Bible and almost nowhere else in ancient literature. It seems Paul combined two words to create Arsenokoites: Arseno means male; Koites means bed. No one can definitively say what the word means, but the NIV translates it as “homosexual offenders.” “Male prostitute” may be a better translation, though, since the few times it’s used elsewhere it seems to be grouped with economic sins. It couldn’t have meant “homosexuals” since that concept wasn’t developed until the late 1800s.
6. Thieves: A thief is someone who steals. This is another category in which we all miss the mark.
7. Covetous: It is defined as wanting what others have or being greedy. Every person I’ve ever met has been covetous.
8. Drunkards: A few teetotalers can say they never fall into this category, but most folks fail here on occasion.
9. Revilers: The NIV translates this as “slanderers,” so if we sometimes say things we wish we hadn’t, we probably fail in this category.
10. Extortioners: The NIV translates this as “swindlers,” which seems to involve the use of one’s own power to take advantage of others. You probably only fail on this one if you have any power.
Read through that list again. Is it as clear to you as it is to me that no one deserves to inherit the kingdom of Heaven? Any thoughtful Christian already knows this. We live with our sinful nature every day. We treasure grace because it allows us to transcend who we are and become who we are capable of being.
I’m amazed that these verses are still used to keep people who identify as LGBTQ out of the church. The idea that two members of the same sex could be in a committed relationship only became known as a part of culture in the late 1800s. In G-R times, same sex behavior was just another way for an elite man to have his sexual needs met. The Bible, read in cultural context, couldn’t have been prohibiting something that wasn’t known to the culture itself. So, looking at those clobber verses, how might we respond to people who attempt to use them to exclude LGBTQ people? Here’s a cheat sheet: