Phrased in this way—‘Doesn’t the Bible have very little to say about homosexuality?'—the question is meant to downplay the importance of Biblical texts addressing homosexuality. David Lamb, for example, says:
However, despite some Christians’ preoccupation with the topic, homosexuality is not a major biblical issue. The Ten Commandments are focused on the big sins (idolatry, murder, adultery, and coveting), and homosexuality isn’t one of them. Leviticus doesn’t even mention lesbian behavior or sexual orientation. Only a few verses in the Old Testament and New Testament mention homosexual behavior…. The Old Testament is much more concerned about adultery, rape, incest, and even more concerned about goat-boiling [Exod. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21], than homosexuality.
The following offers a critical response to Lamb and others who attempt to downplay Biblical teaching on homosexuality in such ways. First, I will outline what would need to be argued successfully if one were to accept Lamb’s argument. Second, I will expand the discussion by countering the errors in Lamb’s statement. The purpose of this response to Lamb (and others) is to show the inadequacy of his reasoning and interpretation of Scripture. Readers are referred to my expansion of a number of these points, with ample reference to primary source literature, for more developed arguments.
What Needs to be Argued if One is to Argue This View
The suggestion that the Bible has only a little to say about homosexuality, if anything at all, is often stated rather than argued in any depth. In the book cited, Lamb has very little to say on the topic apart from referring readers to other sources and arguing (incorrectly) that Genesis 19 is not about homosexuality. If one were to explore a thesis such as that in the quotation from Lamb, above, one would need to argue the following:
- That Christian theology and practice depend on the frequency that a topic is mentioned in Scripture.
- That only specific references to homosexuality count, not general proscriptions of sexual immorality. For example, Scripture is not to be read in terms of a sexual ethic but only in terms of specific sexual sins.
- That we in our day know more than they did in antiquity or throughout Church history, whether about sexuality or about the interpretation of specific texts.
- That the Ten Commandments are limited to the specific proscriptions mentioned and are not to be understood as topical (such as ‘adultery’ and ‘coveting’ not being used with reference to sexual immorality in general and homosexuality in particular).
- That Scripture does not see homosexuality as a serious sin, compared to other sins.
- That the New Testament does not reaffirm Old Testament sexual regulations: there is no intertextual ‘force’ or interpretation that heightens certain Old Testament texts, such as homosexuality.
Of the arguments that need to be presented, Lamb only pursues the sixth argument noted above and fails to do so adequately. The most generous way to put this is to say that he rushes over a few points rather than tackles issues with scholarly interest. Alternatively, one might suspect that the lack of in-depth study is required for his thesis, which would not survive more in-depth study.
Point 1: The ‘Frequency’ Error
We might compare Biblical texts on homosexuality to texts on bestiality. The Old Testament proscribes bestiality on four occasions: Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23; 20:15-16; Deuteronomy 27:21. In fact, we could reduce this to three times since Leviticus 20 repeats Leviticus 18. Perhaps we could even reduce this further to two times, since Deuteronomy entails a covenant renewal of the laws given at Sinai. Maybe we should even reduce this to 1 proscription in the Old Testament if we are to understand the Pentateuch as a unified work. Even so, bestiality is only mentioned four times at most, and this is either once more than homosexuality (if the story of Sodom is taken to entail homosexual sin, which Lamb does not) or twice more than homosexuality.
Moreover, the New Testament reaffirms Old Testament teaching on sexuality and homosexuality in particular, but it does not once mention bestiality. Just how far will the hermeneutic of Lamb take him in new directions for sexual ethics? Since bestiality is listed as a sin so infrequently in the Bible, and since no New Testament text reaffirms the Old Testament on this sexual practice, are we to follow Lamb’s logic and allow not only homosexuality but also bestiality in Christian sexual ethics? Hopefully, this example reduces Lamb’s hermeneutic of counting texts to absurdity rather than leads someone to affirm bestiality as well! Of course, the hermeneutic of counting texts is seriously flawed. The Christian world has long affirmed that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). In Romans 1.32, Paul simply states that people know both the sin and the punishment from God’s decree—a statement that not only follows after a list of sins but also his specific elaborations on the sins of idolatry and homosexual practice and orientation.
Point 2: The ‘Specificity’ Error
Scripture needs to be read not simply exegetically (interpreting specific verses) but also Biblically (as a canonical text). Thus, we need to look for the wider understanding within Scripture. So, for example, Scripture does have a sexual ethic: the only appropriate place for sex is within marriage between a man and a woman. Therefore, any sex outside this union is sinful—including homosexuality. Marital practices, laws dealing with pre-marital sex, unique cultural practices in antiquity (concubinage, levirate marriage, polygamy), and laws against prostitution, cross-gender, or same-sex practices can all be explained with regard to this simple ethical conviction that is offered in Genesis 2.24. The New Testament affirms the Old Testament’s sexual ethic.
Also, the fact that Scripture has a consistent sexual ethic is clear from the New Testament’s reaffirmation of the Old Testament’s ethic. This explains why New Testament authors can use general terms for sexual immorality without explaining what is in view in particular. New Testament words such as porneia (sexual immorality), aselgeia (licentiousness or debauchery), koitai (sexual excesses), akatharsia (uncleanness), and so forth are only understood with reference to teaching in the Old Testament.
Point 3: The ‘Ignorant Ancestors’ Error
Protestants, in particular, are susceptible to this error, although they should not be. The error is often seen in theological argument, however. Most Protestants seem happy with an argument that makes no mention of Church history. They either forget that 2,000 years of the Church’s teaching is relevant to Biblical study and Church teaching, or they are so in the habit of being critical of Church history that they do not listen carefully enough to it. Instead of being guided by what the Church has taught, they either ignore its teaching or are critical of it (and often without giving it adequate study in the first place).
The same sort of error occurs fairly regularly when reading Scripture in context. Modern scholarship has rightly emphasized the need to read Scripture in its original context, and most people are willing to see what light this sheds on the meaning of ancient texts, including Scripture. However, this work is scholarly work: average people do not know the original languages, history, and customs of the Bible. Thus, people are dependent on scholars. If scholars do not do adequate work, or if they hide their uncertainties, people can easily be misled. What has happened regularly in recent years is that a handful of rather loud scholars have misrepresented the primary source data in order to affirm a conclusion people wanted to hold in any case. In a word, well-known scholars have pulled the wool over people’s eyes. Such scholars claim that the text was really referring to something else, that the word means something else, or that the text no longer applies to a new context. While scholarship should be valued, the problem with this issue in particular is that poor scholarship abounds. As an example, consider all the contradictory interpretations suggested for the reinterpretation of a particular verse. For example, while the Church has always held that Paul was speaking against homosexual practice in Romans 1.26-27, now one scholar suggests he was speaking about idolatry, another about temple prostitution, another about unclean sex, another about the exploitation of slaves for sexual gratification, another about being lustful or oversexed, and so forth. So, which is it to be? The revisionist scholars are happy with any argument, as long as it is not the one that the Church has always taught: it simply does not fit their agenda.
Another version of this error is that antiquity was not as sophisticated as we are today. We now know about homosexual orientation, the argument goes, whereas they did not know about this in antiquity. This ‘orientation’ argument is deeply flawed, as some such scholars have had to acknowledge once they started to read ancient sources more seriously (as, e.g., Plato’s Symposium). In fact, the Graeco-Roman world explored a variety of theories about homosexual orientation. The ancients may have held some unpopular ideas about orientation, such as that it was due to astrological matters, but it also entertained the same sort of issues we do today about nurture and nature. Our culture, including our academic culture, assumes evolutionary development and is ready to believe that ancients lacked our sophistication. Of course, we do know some things better than they did in antiquity, but not on the issue of sexual immorality, including homosexuality, transgenderism, bisexuality, intersex, bestiality, and the like.
Point 4: The ‘Literalist’ Interpretation of the Ten Commandments Error
The Ten Commandments are not limited to the specific proscriptions mentioned and are to be understood as topical. Paul himself applies the commandment not to commit adultery to sexual immorality in general and homosexuality in particular 1 Timothy 1:10. (Paul intentionally expands several of the Ten Commandments in 1 Timothy 1.8-10.) The Jewish author, Philo, writing nearly at the same time as Paul, applies the commandment not to commit adultery to various sexual sins, including homosexuality.
Point 5: The ‘Interpreter’s Weighing of Sins’ Error
One often hears people say something like ‘Sin is sin.’ By this, they mean to argue against the notion that one sin is worse than another. The intention behind this argument is to deflate any argument in regard to a particular sin. Sometimes people will say, ‘Why are you so hung up about that sin when there are other sins too?’ Such a person may have an agenda to press his or her own concern, such as the concern for social justice, over against a focus on a sexual sin, such as homosexuality. There are several issues to unpack in this sort of argument.
First, Scripture does differentiate between various sins. Some acts are not sinful in themselves but become sinful because of their implications, such as eating food offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10). Some sins in the Old Testament require a sacrifice as a sin offering or a purification offering, whereas other sins require ostracism from the community or the death penalty. Some sins are against other people, whereas some sins are against God himself. Some acts are described ritually, others legally, and others as sins in the Old Testament. While we might affirm that all sin misses the mark of God’s intention for us, the Bible is full of examples of some sins being more serious than others. In the case of homosexual practice, the sin is very serious, indeed. It is a sin against creation, a sin against God’s revealed Law, a sin calling for the death penalty in Leviticus, and a sin that Paul says will keep one from the Kingdom of God.
Second, the weighing of sin is a matter of interpreting what Scripture says about such matters; it is not some agenda that the interpreter brings to the text. In fact, this was one of Jesus’ concerns in regard to the Pharisees. The issue was not that they were trying to live Biblically according to the regulations of God in the Old Testament, the issue was rather that they constantly misread Scripture because of the agendas that they brought to the text. They obscured the meaning of a text, weighted a minor matter more than a weightier matter, and, in general, came up with ways to protect their sins while pointing out the sins of others. In other words, they rather than Scripture played the role of the scales by which various sins were weighed.
In the case of sexual immorality, including homosexuality, the New Testament regularly reaffirms Old Testament sexual regulations. There is no ‘re-weighing’ of Old Testament sexual ethics, such as saying that one should pay more attention to an ethic of care for the poor and outcast than for sexual rules and regulations. Instead, the seriousness of sexual ethics is reaffirmed by the Jewish New Testament authors as the Church encountered the Gentile world, with its different and very loose sexual ethic. Scripture’s teaching on sexual ethics had to be taught to the Gentile converts (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8) rather than Christian missionaries re-weighing Scripture’s teaching on sexuality to make the faith more palatable to Gentile culture.
Point 6: The ‘Each Text on Its Own’ Error
This issue has already been brought up: Biblical texts do not stand on their own but are interrelated. This is so not only because we speak of a ‘canonical text’ of Scripture but also because various authors also make reference to other Biblical texts. That is, there is an intertextual relationship to consider in Scripture.
Leviticus 18.22 is reaffirmed in Leviticus 20.13. The restatement within the same Biblical book (indeed, within the Holiness Code in Leviticus) has to do with Leviticus 18 ordering sins according to their type and Leviticus 20 according to the punishment to be meted out. The two texts together offer a strong, intertextual affirmation that homosexuality is a grievous sin. Moreover, these texts rest on an earlier Pentateuchal understanding of marriage in the creation text of Genesis 1.26-28 and Genesis 2.24: marriage has to do with the male and female forming a kinship relation in accordance with God’s design so that children may come.
Leviticus 18.22 also has Genesis 19 in view, since the former text is introduced at the beginning of the chapter as a proscription against practices of the Canaanites. Genesis 19, together with its echo in Judges 19—another intertextual relationship—illustrate Canaanite sexual practice that Israelites are told not to do—homosexual unions in particular.
While some scholars have attempted to read Genesis 19 as anything but a reference to homosexuality, the fact of the matter is the text is a story about how many and how extreme were the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. Various texts pick out this or that sin of Sodom, but this should not lead one to think that no mention of other sins means that there were no other sins in the authors’ minds. More importantly, both Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2.6-10 understand Sodom’s sin as sexual, not as a sin about showing hospitality (as some have argued in reference to Genesis).
Romans 1.26-27 is in the context of an argument about what is revealed in creation about God and his purposes. This, together with the language of man, birds, animals, and reptiles in Rom. 1.23, shows us that Paul is thinking in terms of the creation texts in Genesis. Also, Paul’s conclusion in Rom. 1.32 that people should know that those who practice ‘such things’ ‘deserve to die’ likely involves thinking about Leviticus 20.13, which says the same thing about men who engage in sexual acts with one another.
Already mentioned, Paul’s sin list in 1 Timothy 1.8-10 reflects and expands the Ten Commandments. Paul is ‘thinking Biblically,’ and in so doing he expands the commandment not to commit adultery to include homosexual practice. Not only so, but Paul’s use of a term that he apparently coined—a compound of two words that appear side by side in Leviticus 20.13—suggests that his reference to homosexuality derives from his interpretation of the Mosaic Law. The unique term is arsensenokoitai, men who lie together, and it is also found in Paul’s sin list in 1 Corinthians 6.9.
Thus, the Biblical texts on homosexuality engage one another and help to interpret one another canonically. Together, they stand as a consistent teaching against homosexuality, based on both an understanding of God’s purposes for sexuality and marriage and God’s revealed Law to Moses. The New Testament reaffirms both.
Beyond this specific reading of the texts on homosexuality, one should also note that Jesus, too, interpreted the same Genesis texts on ‘male and female’ and ‘one flesh’ (Gen. 1.26-28; 2.24) with respect to a marriage ethic. In his case, the application of the text was to the matter of marriage and divorce (Matthew 19.4-6). First, it should be noted that Gen. 1.26-28 is related to 2.24: one cannot, as some have recently attempted to do, separate the ‘kinship’ of ‘one flesh’ unity from ‘male and female’. Genesis is speaking about gender, procreation, and marriage in ways the Church has always understood until very recently some have come along and tried to find new meaning in the text to suit their new agendas. Homosexuality was not an issue for Jews, who had a consistent and Biblical teaching on the subject. Thus, Jesus would not have been asked about homosexuality by the Pharisees, as early Christians were asked once the faith spread to non-Jewish, Gentile contexts. Had Jesus been asked about homosexuality, however, he would have developed his teaching in the same way that Paul did: from the relevant Old Testament texts on God’s creation of male and female for marital procreation and on God’s teaching in the commandments of God that he came to affirm.
Despite claims that Scripture has little to say on the subject of homosexuality, we see that, in fact, it addresses the topic significantly. Various authors writing in various cultures affirm the same perspective: homosexuality is a grievous sin. They do so as part of a larger sexual ethic that shows theological consistency, and they do so intertextually (one text referencing another), thus affirming a Biblical perspective on the subject. On inspection, the argument that Scripture has little to say on the subject fails miserably.