Morality Ch. 9: Homosexuality

The Bible strongly condemns same-sex hedonism and changing one’s sexuality. What would it have said about same-sex faithfulness practiced today and about people born different?

I feel that I should “come out” and admit that I am a nonpracticing adulterer. What I mean is that I am married, but I’m still attracted to other women, though I don’t act on this impulse. I’m far from alone in this condition, and I’m guessing that this admission won’t exclude me from any church positions. But what if instead I declared that I am a “nonpracticing homosexual”? This would be a much more difficult admission to make, and many churches would rule me out for leadership positions and wouldn’t invite me to preach. Some churches would exclude me from membership, and I may feel uncomfortable even attending some churches.

What is the moral difference? In neither case am I acting on my inclination, so why is one regarded as reprehensible in some way? Why is it acceptable to be attracted to a woman other than my wife, but not acceptable to be attracted to a man? Yet many churches that would be willing to have an ex-adulterer as a minister would not consider having a homosexual person, even if he said he had always been celibate. This cannot be regarded as a moral stance; we should recognize that this is homophobia.

The Bible clearly condemns homosexual practice (Lev 18:22; 20:13), though it does not condemn homosexuals. In contrast, the nations surrounding ancient Israel despised homosexuals but only outlawed homosexual practice if it involved rape.1 The Middle Assyrian code from the fourteenth century BC contains a very insightful law concerning homosexuality:

A#19 If a man furtively spreads rumors about his comrade, saying, “Everyone has sex with him,” or in a quarrel in public says to him, “Everyone has sex with you,” and further, “I can prove the charges against you,” but he is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike that man 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off his beard; moreover, he shall pay 3600 shekels of lead.2

This law shows that homosexual behavior was shameful – because making this accusation without proof was punishable as slander. If the accused had been proved guilty of adultery, he’d face the death penalty. However, no punishment is prescribed for the accused person if proof is presented that he did indeed sleep with other men. So it wasn’t illegal, though most considered it shameful.

We don’t have any evidence in the Old Testament that those with homosexual inclinations weren’t shunned, though the lack of something rarely proves anything. However, the rabbis, who constantly imbibed and lived the Hebrew Bible, made the following rule, which suggests they weren’t homophobic: two unmarried men may not sleep together under the same cover.3 This rule shows that they knew very well that some men were attracted to other men rather than to women. They also saw that the law condemned these activities, but this didn’t make them try to identify and exclude this type of person from their community. They simply ruled that all unmarried men should avoid situations where such men might be tempted – without making any implications or accusations about specific individuals. Of course, this wasn’t foolproof, because some would get married anyway to hide their inclination, but it was a sensible proportionate safeguard without any homophobic discrimination.

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Greek fashion

The New Testament was also countercultural in this area. Paul condemns something that he called arsenokoitēs (literally “man-lying”) – a word that didn’t exist in Greek (Rom 1:26; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). It is formed by merging the two words in italics in the ancient Greek translation of Leviticus: “If a man lies with a male …”4 Like all Jews did, Paul condemns homosexual practice on the basis of the Old Testament. But contemporary Greek and Roman culture didn’t regard it as illicit – though most Romans looked down on those who practiced it.

Paul had an uphill struggle trying to convince Gentiles that homosexual practice was immoral. Alexander the Great had publicly taken his male lover with him on military campaigns and promoted him to second-in-command of the army. Consequently, long-term homosexual relationships became fashionable in Greek society and were regarded as more intimate than the business of making legitimate heirs with one’s wife. It isn’t surprising that many Romans – who regarded Greeks as highly cultured – emulated this lifestyle.

However, Roman society was much more interested in hedonistic homosexuality than long-term relationships. Conscientious dinner hosts provided boys as well as girls for recreation after all-male dinner parties. This was supported or tolerated by most Romans, though some strict philosophers criticized it as a mere quest for titillation to spice up jaded sexual palates.

Some forms of homosexual practice were beyond the pale even for Romans – in particular, being a passive (i.e., penetrated) partner. Romans would penetrate a male slave, but it was regarded as degrading and humiliating for a Roman citizen to let himself be used in this way. Someone who allowed this was called malakos – effeminate or soft. When the emperor Nero married his long-term lover, Roman society wasn’t shocked by the fact that his lover was male, but because the lover was an ex-slave and most of all because Nero wore a bridal dress. This implied that he was the penetrated partner, which was beyond all Roman decency.

Lesbianism was also totally unacceptable. It was so far off limits that it is almost never mentioned in Greek or Roman literature. The only known case is the poetess Sappho, who lived in about 600 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos (from which we get “lesbian”), but the hints about her sexuality weren’t recognized in her poetry until the nineteenth century. Like Queen Victoria, people didn’t like to think that such things happened. Interestingly, Jews were well aware of women who, in rabbinic language, “rub against each other.”5

Clever tactics

Paul decided to exploit this inconsistency in Roman attitudes toward male and female homosexual practice. At the start of his letter to the Romans, where he wants to show that everyone has sinned, he uses this to trick Gentile readers into acknowledging that they too have sinned. First, he condemns women who “exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones” (Rom 1:26). We can almost hear the Roman reader draw in a breath of shock that such things would happen. Having gotten their attention and agreement, Paul then trips them up by continuing: “in the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another” (v. 27). By pointing out the similarity between what women and men are doing, he traps his Roman readers: if they agree that female homosexual practice is unnatural, then the same must be true of male homosexual practice.

Paul used the same tactic in 1 Corinthians 6:9 when he lists two types of homosexual partners. He first names the malakos (the passive partner) which, as I’ve already said, was unacceptable for Romans themselves. Paul followed this immediately with arsenokoitēs (the active partner or the one who penetrates), which was perfectly acceptable in Roman morality. Putting the two side by side highlights Roman hypocrisy in this matter and makes the reader realize that if one practice is unacceptable, then so is the other. It is the same technique as a modern environmental campaigner might use: “We condemn those who continue to cut down rare hardwood trees and those who build kitchens out of them.”

Is Paul writing about the same kind of homosexual practice that happens today? Human inclinations are unlikely to have changed much in just a couple of thousand years, so we must assume that people had the same kinds of inclinations then as now. Romans knew that some men were only attracted to men, and there were also men who copulated with anyone or anything during drunken orgies and even when they weren’t drunk. Plutarch had a genteel way of describing those whom we’d now call “exclusively homosexual” – he said that “some men cannot mount their mare.”6 That is, even if they married, they couldn’t do the business. Jews also knew that if a man wasn’t married by age twenty, it was safer not to let him share a blanket with another man, because his inclinations may not have been directed toward women.7 However, Paul isn’t describing someone like that.

We know that Paul isn’t describing men who can’t be aroused by women because he says that they “exchanged” natural relations for unnatural, and “abandoned natural relations with women” (Rom 1:26-27). These men changed from having relations with women (probably lots of them) to having those same relations with men – and they probably changed back again, too, perhaps during the same party. These were men who would be universally regarded as degraded, perhaps even by themselves.

It is necessary for Paul’s argument that every reader condemns them. If they don’t do so, they won’t realize their own guilt when he concludes: “Although they know … that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (v. 32). Every Gentile addressed by Paul’s letter is guilty – not of doing these things, but of approving those who practiced them. They don’t condemn the orgies that Paul refers to – they either attend them or envy those who do. The most debauched parties were organized by the richest and most powerful men in Rome, whom everyone had grudging respect for.

Today, this kind of behavior is much more democratized. Anyone can book a hedonistic holiday or attend a party where no social conventions are followed. Anyone can have a “fling,” chasing any kind of sexual fantasy or fetish on the internet or in the flesh. And if someone finds out and criticizes, they are labeled as a prude or judgmental.

What did Paul condemn?

According to the tests that I use throughout this book, the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality must be timeless. Both the Old Testament and New Testament teaching was countercultural because contemporary societies did not outlaw homosexual practice. So the command that God is giving to believers shouldn’t be expected to change in different cultures. And the command against homosexual practice does appear to be consistent through the Bible, especially as the New Testament terminology (arsenokoitēs) is based on Leviticus 20:13.

However, we should not shy away from asking what precisely Paul and the Old Testament were condemning. As we saw when we looked at Romans 1, it is easy to jump to conclusions that are wrong. It may well be that the other texts (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10; the prohibitions in Leviticus) refer to something different from what is condemned in Romans 1, but what is it precisely? We can’t argue that Paul refers only to homosexual rape like that at Sodom, because he condemns both those who penetrate and who are penetrated (arsenokoitēs and malakos respectively in 1 Cor 6:9). However, there still remains a wide spectrum of homosexual behavior, from hedonistic bisexual promiscuity to lifelong committed same-sex partnerships. That the word arsenokoitēs is unique to the New Testament makes it very difficult to determine exactly what it refers to.

Some interpreters are more certain than I am about identifying precisely what Paul condemns. My inclination is to bring a practicing homosexual to Jesus, like they bring the woman caught in adultery (in John 8:2-11). The people clearly want Jesus to condemn her, but he declines. I’d like to think that I’d be among the first drop my stone and walk away – leaving the person with Jesus.

1^ Robert Gagnon has collected all the ancient literature in The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001).
2^ Translation based on the Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, ed. Martha T. Roth (Chicago: University of Chicago Oriental Institute, 1964-2010), and The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions, Monumental Inscriptions and Archival Documents from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (New York: Brill, 2003), 2:355.
3^ Mishnah Qiddushin 4:13 (
4^ Arsenos koitēn is the Greek Septuagint translation of Lev 20:13.
5^ Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 26b (
6^ Plutarch, Moralia: Conjugalia Praecepta 8 (
7^ Mishnah Qiddushin 4.13. I discuss this further in “Evidence of Non-Heterosexual Inclinations in First Century Judaism,” in Marriage, Family and Relationships: Biblical, Doctrinal and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Thomas A. Noble et al. (London: Apollos/Inter-Varsity, 2017), 138-54 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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