What does the bible say about homosexuality?

Well…

nothing.

At least that’s what Bo Sanders says:

Homosexuality was a medical term invented in the 19th century. It was in contrast to heterosexuality (notice the binary).  The Bible…is not talking about homosexuality. It didn’t exist. The Bible is not talking about the same thing we are debating. It can no more be addressing homosexuality than it can be talking about Television. There was no such thing. Our contemporary talk about sexual identity and sexual orientation is not on the Bible’s radar…Sexual identity/orientation is something we have to talk about in light of scripture’s teaching, but we can’t simply import our English words and concepts into the original text and assume that it is addressing the same things we are wrestling with.

Bo thinks that we’d be in a better position to have the conversation about same-sex marriage and the Bible if we cleared up this and two other misunderstandings right from the beginning. I think Bo is right about this. Of course, talking about sexual orientation “in light of scripture’s teaching” is still no small task. But it’s certainly not helpful simply to import modern concepts into a ancient text.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “What does the bible say about homosexuality?

  1. Jason

    Romans 1 and 2?

    • Joe

      Jason, it’s not that the Bible doesn’t address some issue comparable to homosexuality (and often translated as such into English), clearly it does. The point Bo is making is that what is at stake in the contemporary debate, sexual orientation, is a modern notion that simply wasn’t on the radar screen for ancient thinkers. In other words, there is no one-to-one correlation between what Paul was addressing in Romans 1 and 2 and what we mean when we talk about sexual orientation. We have to work harder than that.

      • Jason

        So, would he/you say (I know it’s dangerous to assume this, hence the question) that since the Bible doesn’t address it, we have to figure it out for ourselves? We have to use what guide if we do? Our reason? The common good? Individual rights? Again, this is assuming his premise that the Bible doesn’t address it, which I disagree with, but how do we flesh this out if his premise is right?

      • Joe

        Well, I can’t speak for Bo. But I certainly don’t think it means we’re on our own. It does mean that we have to interpret the Bible in light of reason, tradition and experience in order to understand how what it says about one thing translates into our understanding of another. That’s the work of theology. The fact of the matter is that there are myriad issues we deal with that the Bible doesn’t—and couldn’t—address directly. What does the Bible say about the atom bomb? Abortion? Euthanasia? Third-world debt? And even issues the Bible does address directly, it addresses as they existed in their own context. The Bible has some negative things to say about tax collectors. Does that mean we should try to shut down the IRS? No, (well, maybe we should, but not for biblical reasons!) Jewish tax collectors in the first century were necessarily in conflation with the Roman Empire, which had certain religious implications (Caesar worship and so forth). So, can and should think about the modern American tax code in light of the teachings of scripture? Of course! But there isn’t a one-to-one correlation. We have to work harder than that.

  2. “Bo thinks that we’d be in a better position to have the conversation about same-sex marriage”

    When having a conversation about same sex marriage, why should we care what the Bible says at all?

    That is, I’m assuming we’re talking about legal marriage. If you’re just referring to religious marriage performed by your church, then by all means.

    • Joe

      Hi, NotAScientist, welcome to the theologoholic conversation! You pose a great question and I have made this same point here and here. But in this particular post I do have the religious sacrament in mind.

  3. J.

    I really look forward to the day when the church will realize there are more important things than being concerned about gay marriage and abortion (ie american conservative talking points). It makes me never want to step foot in a church again.

    • norockstar

      J, the church where I pastor to teenagers cares much more about our community, congregation and neighborhoods than we do about debating hot topic issues. Obviously, we seek final truth from Scriptures and do our best to help our leaders and congregation navigate the thick gray area of important issues we are caring for people more than we are caring for debate. I was just in Haiti last week and the Haitian Christian Church (pastored by Hatians) is meeting major hunger needs and helping people in ways we cannot fathom all under the guidance and motivation of Christ. So please do step in a church again, if you don’t, you’re missing out on great things and missing seeing people’s lives flat out change for the better in this life and the next!

  4. Watson

    Two relevant resources, for those looking for a little further reading:

    Paul, the Goddess Religions and Queers: Romans 1:23-28
    http://www.jeramyt.org/papers/paulcybl.html

    But the Bible Says? . . . A Catholic Reading of Romans 1 (and 2!)
    http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng15.html

  5. Michael

    There was no single word for “homosexuality” used in the Bible, but the Bible regularly describes homosexual behavior in both the Old and New Testaments and categorically identifies the behavior as sin. To say that the Bible never addresses homosexuality seems quite naive.

    • Joe

      Thanks for stoping by theologoholic, Michael! Let me just reiterate what I said to Jason above: Obviously the Bible addresses certain same-gender sexual behavior. It would be naive indeed to assume that it doesn’t, or to assume that the author and readers of this blog don’t know that. The point being made in the quote in the post, however, is that what is on the table in contemporary debates about the Church and same-sex marriage is the notion of sexual orientation, which is an identity marker invented in the 19th century. The Bible simply could not have addressed the issue of sexual orientation, because it did not exist when the Bible was written.

      • Michael

        Joe, the Bible doesn’t merely address “certain same-gender sexual behavior.” Rather it addresses all same-sex sexual behavior and categorically identifies it as sin. Modern terms like “sexual orientation” seem rather irrelevant when the Bible defines all same-sex sexual behavior as sinful behavior.

      • I doubt that the concept of sexual orientation didnt exist when the Bible was written. Ive heard that claim before and regard it as a falsehood. We know from the Bible itself (egRomans 1) and other ancient records (eg from Flavious Josephus, Dio Chrystostom, Clement of Alexandria etc etc) that homosexual activity and even homosexual relationships were not unknown in ancient times. Modern psychologists have crystallised the concept of homosexuality from a mere behaviour into an identity. But records from the early centuries, eg Philo in The Special Laws III, indicate awareness of people who preferred and persisted in same sex relationships. The people of that era may not have used fancy Freudian terminology, but they seem to have grasped the idea of sexual orientation; that some people prefer sexual relationships with members of the same gender.

      • Joe

        Thanks for dropin’ in, stasisonline, hope to see you around more often!

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  7. Richard Harrison

    Joe – Greetings. I picked up on your site through the discussion on Bo’s site. My background is St. Olaf, Luther Seminary. Worked for the NCC on civil rights in late ’60’s. Have written numerous essays for my brother’s website Youthministryassociates.org – have an essay there about why we tend to talk past each other on subjects like this. From the comments here, and on Bo’s site, I see real confusion about sharing a basis for interpretation. Pat Kiefert at Luther Sem developed a model based on the work of Hans Georg Gadamer – I find it very helpful. There are two horizons for the act of interpretation – that of the text and that of the interpreter. Neither should be subsumed by the other but must meet and work together to produce useful conversation. Of course this model puts sharp questions to the notion of the authority of Scripture – but in the Protestant/Reform tradition that notion has always been open to discussion (even if in practice some have thought they have closed it). Considering your current graduate work you might consider taking a look at Kiefert’s doctoral thesis at the U. of Chicago (don’t know the year). His work has been aimed at merging the horizons of philosophy and theology, and he did great work over the years with Don Juel, also at Luther (later Princeton), in working with local pastors (mostly Lutheran) to incorporate Biblical texts more fully in worship and the life of the congregation.
    i would be very interested in contributing to a discussion of how we can focus our thinking and conversation about the Bible and current issues so that we can discover (and make good use of) new ground that is truly shared by those who come from different theological backgrounds. My experiences in Alabama in the ’60’s with civil rights showed me at an early age what real harm is done by people who are not evil but unclear in their thinking (see Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on the ‘banality of evil’ – that evil is the result of thoughtlessness).
    Enough here. You have my email. Best wishes to you in your work and your ministry. Rick

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  9. Joe

    I’m always happy to entertain opposing view points, but saying that someone who disagrees with you is then necessarily following satan is just not how theologoholic conversations work. Sorry @purgejudah, I have to delete your comment.

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