Saturday, November 25, 2006

The biblical view of homosexuality (part 1)

About three years ago, I was sent the following note by email:
Wyeth, I hope you don't mind my asking:
Where in the Bible are the words that make homosexuality so forbidden/sinful/wrong? I am interested in the current "gay bishop" controversy raging, especially here in NE, but don't know the Bible, and do not have the experience to find certain passages.

Probably a lot of people have this question on their minds, and wonder why is it that evangelicals are so opposed to homosexuality. I think calling evangelical Christians, or others who oppose homosexuality, "homophobic" is not helpful since it is doubtful we're afraid of homosexuals or homosexuality (at least, I'm not). We just believe homosexuality is sinful because it is a perversion of God's intended purpose for sex and sexuality, and it violates his commands regarding sexual behavior. What follows is my slightly edited response to the note I received. Perhaps something I wrote then might prove useful to you as you think through this issue in light of today's culture.
No, I don't mind at all. This issue, of course, is being discussed and debated far outside the reaches of the Episcopal/Anglican Church. Even in our nondenominational, evangelical church family...

It's also a relevant subject for me, personally, because [I've known and worked with people] who are gay, lesbian and transgender. I'm on good terms with all these people... And then, there are the black men I've met or known in the black church that were gay (generally known to be gay, but not "out-of-the closet" because of the negative attitude towards homosexuality in the black community, especially the black church)...

I'm also concerned about the issue of homosexuality because of the growing hostility towards those who, like me, insist on holding to traditional Christian teaching against homosexuality. Naturally, I'm a product of my cultural upbringing (the black community traditionally is rather conservative on "moral" issues—black politicians and "leaders" like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, notwithstanding), but I've also been shaped by my understanding of the Bible.

Anyway, here goes (Are you ready?). This is long, but I don’t want to just throw out verses without some context and explanation. Also I want to try to show how all of the Bible fits together on this issue and how all this relates to the Christian church.

I’ll start with the Old Testament. These are the passages addressing homosexuality that I know of (all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible [NASB] translation):

Leviticus 18:22 (written between 1446-1406 BC)—"You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination."

This verse is one of a list of commands that God gave to Moses for the Israelites (God's people in the Old Testament/Covenant). It occurs in the context of a series of prohibitions concerning sexual behaviors (incest, verses 6-18; adultery, v.20; and bestiality, v.23) that I think most people and religions would recognize today.

Leviticus 20:13—"If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltiness is upon them."

Again, this is a command from God for His people (the Israelites) under the Old Covenant. The context is a list of sins (vs. 2-16) which demanded capital punishment under this law code: sacrificing children to idol gods, v.2; treating parents with contempt, v.9; adultery, v.10; incest, vs.11-12, 14; and bestiality, vs.15-16. The point of such harsh punishment was to emphasize the absolute holiness of God and God's demand that His people keep themselves pure from the sins of the people groups that lived about them.

Then, there is the record concerning the Mesopotamian cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in about 1900 BC, written in Genesis 18:16—19:29.

Here’s the gist of that passage: The patriarch, Abraham, is visited by three men—in reality, heavenly beings in human form (one of them is probably God, the preincarnate Christ, Gen.18:13, 17, 20). Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who lives in Sodom. Lot was righteous, in that he worshiped the true God of Israel, but he lives among wicked people. Concerning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God said, "Their sin is exceedingly grave" (Genesis 18:20). Two of the men/angels go to Sodom to see for themselves just how wicked the city is. The text reveals that the men of Sodom practiced homosexuality (Genesis 19:5). In the end, the angels declare that the place is so wicked it must be destroyed. Lot and his family are ordered by the angels to leave the area immediately, and God Himself destroys these cities by sending "brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven" (Gen.19:24).

Through the prophet Ezekiel, God commented, concerning the guilt of Sodom (Ezekiel 18:49-50), "She and her daughters [i.e. surrounding cities] had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed [i.e. destroyed] them when I saw it." Sodom's sin was pride and arrogance; homosexuality (“committed abominations”, referring back to Leviticus 18:22 ) was the byproduct of their arrogance toward God.

Jumping to the New Testament, the apostle Peter writes (about AD 66), regarding Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:7-10),

“If [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge the flesh in its corrupt desires and despise authority.”

These are the only passages in the Old Testament, to my knowledge, that deal with homosexuality. One thing is clear: homosexual relationships are nowhere endorsed in the Old Testament. Whenever homosexual conduct is mentioned, it is condemned.

Now, in the New Testament, there are only two passages directly addressing the issue of homosexuality, both of them in the writings of the apostle Paul (writing about AD 55-57).

From Romans 1:18-32:

(Verse 18) “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” (Verse 21) “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.” (Verses 24-25) “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

And here are the key verses in Romans 1:

(Verses 26-32) “For this reason, God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural [literally, “against nature”], and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts [literally, “the shameless deed”] and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, hater of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death [remember Leviticus 20], they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

It is clear that homosexuality is being referred to in vs. 26 & 27, and the apostle Paul calls the orientation “degrading” and the acts “unnatural” and “indecent” and “error”. Homosexuality, along with other sins, is “worthy of death”, according to the Law. What the apostle also condemns, and what I believe is particularly relevant in light of the current controversies, is giving “hearty approval” to others who practice the same behavior. Today, gays and lesbians are encouraged to come “out of the closet”; teens are encouraged to embrace their same-sex attractions; through various media, the message is proclaimed, directly or indirectly, “Being gay is alright; it’s good!” The apostle roundly condemns the idea of “celebrating” sin.

The other passage from the apostle Paul’s writings is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”

I think what is important here is that the apostle does not single out homosexuals. Rather, homosexuals are seen as one of many categories of sinners. The point is, those who have a lifestyle characterized by sin will not enter God’s heaven (will not “inherit the kingdom of God”). This is consistent with what the apostle John wrote (1 John 3:7-10) in about AD 90:

“Little children, make sure so one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness [we’re talking about lifestyle, here—the overall tenor of one’s life] is righteous, just as He [God] is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed [God’s Spirit or nature] abides in him; and he cannot sin [i.e. live a lifestyle characterized by sin], because he is born of God. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.”

The apostle John makes clear here that the person “born of God” is the same person who also “practices righteousness” and is therefore a “child of God’.

Concerning “children of God” and being “born of God”, the apostle wrote a few years earlier (John 1:12-13),

“As many as received Him [Jesus], to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man [i.e. physical birth], but of God [spiritual birth].”

And then, about AD 64, the apostle Peter wrote (1 Peter 1:23,25),

“For you [believers] have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God [i.e. Scripture, the Bible]. And this is the word which was preached to you.”

John and Peter, both part of the original group of 12 disciples whom Jesus taught, are merely borrowing Jesus’ words:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

So, in summary, the Bible nowhere speaks approvingly of homosexual desire or practice. Everywhere homosexuality is mentioned it is condemned. The Old Testament Law labels homosexuality as an “abomination” punishable by death. Under the “New Covenant”, homosexuality is no longer a capital offense, in terms of physical death, but the lifestyle would be a sign and symptom of spiritual death in those persons who embrace that practice. All sin, including homosexuality, is against God’s will for His people.

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