On November 3, 2005, the Philosophy Club at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette invited me to debate Dr. Rick Swanson on the question: “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” I do not have a complete transcript of the debate; however, I have decided to make my opening statement available.
Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?
I want to thank Dr. Keith Korcz and the Philosophy Club for arranging this event, and inviting me to be here. I thank you for being here, and also thank Dr. Swanson for coming to present his perspective. I look forward to an interesting clash of ideas, and hope all of you, regardless of what perspective you are coming from, will learn something from what we have to say.
Our topic this afternoon is, “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” That is not exactly the way I would have phrased the question, if I had been the one framing the debate. “Homosexuality” is a broad and ambiguous term. I believe that within the Biblical sexual ethic, sexual intimacy is restricted to the lifelong union of marriage, that marital union can only exist between a man and a woman, and thus that sexual intimacy has no place within a same-sex relationship. We get somewhat closer if we ask, “does the Bible condemn homosexual activity?”
At the same time, I am not comfortable with framing the debate in terms of condemning. I believe that the Bible does condemn homosexual activity. But I think it does so within the framework of challenging homosexual persons to a higher, more fulfilling life. And it is that challenge, rather than condemnation, which I hope will come out most clearly by the end of my remarks this evening.
Personal experience has little place in a debate about the Bible; the Bible says what it says whether I like it or not. Nevertheless, in my experience, the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality, while challenging, has pointed the way to genuine love, and genuine freedom. I talked more about the personal side of my experience in my Notre Dame Magazine article; copies of it are available after the debate for those who are interested.
However, this debate is not about me. It is about the Bible. I can’t possibly cover all of the ground in this brief opening statement. So I’m going to focus on just three points: first, I will talk about what love means in the Biblical context; second, I will examine the Biblical passages that prohibit homosexual acts (Leviticus 18:22, I Corinthians 6:9-11, and I Timothy 1:8-11); and finally, I will examine the argument in Romans 1 that homosexual acts are unnatural.
But before I make my case, I want to say a brief word about the debate itself. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates laments that in rhetoric, a specious argument which appeals to the audience’s prejudices is more effective than a valid argument which appeals to truths which the audience finds implausible. Unfortunately, debates about homosexuality are often emotional, and advocates on both sides are guilty of playing to the crowd with specious, but seemingly plausible arguments.
For example, those arguing that the Bible condemns homosexual activity—the position I am here this evening to defend—will frequently appeal to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 to show the evils of homosexuality.
But in the first place, God intended to destroy Sodom before the men of Sodom threatened the angels. In the second place, the sexual aspect of Sodom’s sin involved gang rape, not a consensual and monogamous relationship between two men. And in the third place, most references in both the Old and New Testaments identify sins other than homosexual activity as the cause of Sodom’s destruction. There are far better grounds for a Biblical case against homosexual activity. But these sorts of ill-considered arguments can undermine people’s faith in Scripture.
Homosexuality is an extremely controversial issue, and it can stir up very powerful emotions. One of the things I appreciate about academic debate, however, is that, at its best, it enables us to take a more careful, more reflective approach. I want to especially encourage those of you who believe that the Bible condemns homosexual activity to listen to Dr. Swanson with respect and a desire to understand. This does not mean we have to agree with him: I will certainly challenge his arguments in the debate, and others may to wish to do so in the Q&A. But I ask everyone to observe the respect and charity which is appropriate to an academic discussion.
My first point concerns the nature of love. At the University of Rochester a couple of years ago, I was invited to defend the traditional Christian teaching on marriage in a debate with Justin Lee, founder of the Gay Christian Network.
Justin pointed out that most Christians are willing to bless remarriage after divorce, even though the Bible says that those who remarry commit adultery, because they think that it is unreasonable to demand lifelong abstinence from those who are divorced. We recognize lifelong heterosexual marriage as the ideal. But in the case of divorce, many Christians think that remarriage can be an acceptable response to a difficult situation.
In the same way, Justin argued that the “Gospel response” for Christians would be to bless same-sex unions, even though the “letter of the law” in the Bible might forbid them.
I agreed with him that if we reject the Bible’s teaching on the matter of remarriage, we are on shaky ground when we appeal to the Bible to condemn gay relationships. But when I said that I thought the Bible was right on remarriage, he accused me of being an un-Christ-like Pharisee, of putting the Law ahead of the Gospel, and of lacking pastoral sensitivity to Christian couples in difficult situations.
It’s an accusation I’m beginning to get used to. Several years ago, I spoke with a United Methodist pastor who was spearheading the effort to remove a pastor of his denomination from ministry for officiating at a same-sex union ceremony.
He is the kind of pastor who preaches stem-winding sermons about the gay agenda causing the breakdown of the family. But I’ve known a lot of families that have broken down, and the gay agenda rarely has anything to do with it. So I asked him if he had ever celebrated a marriage between a man and a woman where at least one spouse was divorced. When he said that he had, I asked him about the circumstances of the divorces, reminding him that Jesus said, “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). I pointed out that unless he was very restrictive about the circumstances in which he would perform a second marriage, he appeared to be picking and choosing which of God’s standards he upheld in his ministry. In response, he lashed out, accusing me of being an un-Christ-like Pharisee, of putting the Law ahead of the Gospel, and of lacking pastoral sensitivity to Christian couples in difficult situations.
I am accused, by both a conservative pastor and a gay rights activist, of betraying the Gospel and being a Pharisee because I say that, “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” But if my words betray the Gospel, then Jesus Himself betrayed the Gospel, because I am quoting His words. It was the Pharisees who permitted divorce and Jesus who forbade divorce and remarriage. In short, we have a standard of “Christ-likeness” according to which the words of Christ Himself were “un-Christ-like.” Even more troubling, the position which supposedly is based on “grace” and not on “law” is in fact exactly the position that the Pharisees advocated and which Jesus rejected.
I tell this story because I think it shows that many of the leading advocates on both sides of the debate about homosexuality and the Bible misunderstand what the Bible says about Christ, and what the Bible says about love.
Christ calls us to follow Him. But to follow Him means to take up our Cross. We are called to love: but love demands a willingness to suffer with and for the beloved. Jesus tells us that there is no greater love than to lay down our life for our friends. And Paul tells husbands to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for Her. The love Christ calls us to does not accommodate itself to our fallen nature; instead, it shows us how our nature is to be transformed into the image of Christ.
Love, then, requires sacrifice. But this is not enough to prove that gays and lesbians must sacrifice sexual intimacy. Indeed, the lifelong commitment of marriage is one of the paradigm cases of sacrificial love. Dr. Swanson could agree with everything I say about love and sacrifice, and argue that gay marriage provides a way to live out that sacrifice in a meaningful way.
In order to get to the conclusion that homosexual acts are always wrong, I need to do some more work. And so for the remainder of my opening statement, I’m going to develop two different strands of that argument. The second strand of my argument will explain why homosexual acts are wrong, by developing the Natural Law argument sketched out in Romans 1. But first, I simply establish that there is a consistent prohibition, articulated in both the Old and New Testaments.
In Leviticus 18:22, we read, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” On its face, this prohibits all sexual activity between two men without distinction.
However, various gay Christian advocates have proposed that we need to take the cultural context into account when interpreting this text. In the surrounding cultures, homosexual activity was often associated with pagan cult prostitution, or with initiation rituals involving minors. Thus (it is argued) Leviticus does condemn some forms of homosexual activity, but those prohibitions are not applicable to committed, monogamous relationships between consenting adults.
I agree that cultural context is important. But I think that these arguments ignore a crucial piece of cultural context. The Hebrew culture described in the Bible is a culture that is obsessed with drawing fine distinctions. For example, Christ says to the Pharisees, “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?” (Matthew 23:16-17). The Hebrew mind does not overgeneralize; if anything, its weakness is in finding distinctions where no distinction exists.
Moreover, Leviticus also prohibits a number of other sexual sins, including incest, adultery, and bestiality. Adultery and bestiality, like homosexuality, are simply condemned. However, the chapter devotes 12 verses to defining which kind of relationships are incestuous. If the prohibition on homosexual acts had exceptions, it seems quite likely that the text would have detailed them, in the same way that it gives precise details of the boundary defining incest.
Leviticus alone, however, does not provide much of a basis for a prohibition on homosexual acts, because some prohibitions in Leviticus (e.g. the prohibition on sowing two kinds of seed in the same field or mixing two kinds of fabrics) certainly do not apply in the New Covenant in Christ.
In the New Testament, there are two important passages that reinforce the prohibition on homosexual acts: I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-9. Each of these passages is a vice list: that is, a list of prohibited behaviors. In the original Greek manuscripts, each of these lists condemns a category of sinners called arsenokoitai, along with various other categories, like adulterers and thieves.
Who are the arsenokoitai? My New Testament Greek lexicon defines arsenokoites (the singular of arsenokoitai) as “one who lies with a male as with a female, sodomite, homosexual.” However, various scholars have called this definition into question. Soulforce founder Mel White, for example, claims that “Greek scholars don’t know exactly what arsenokoitai means.” These two vice lists are the first times the word appears in any ancient Greek manuscripts, and other occurrences are rare.
However, I believe that the mysteriousness of this word is greatly exaggerated. In the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament in use at the time of Christ—Leviticus 18:22 reads, “You shall not koiten [lie with] an arsenos [a man] as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).
Suppose I have a text which says, “it is unlawful to lay bricks.” I also have a second text, written much later, that says “bricklayers are lawbreakers.” It would seem inconceivable to me to say that “English scholars don’t know exactly what ‘bricklayer’ means.” This is exactly analogous to the linguistic problem of interpreting the meaning of arsenokoitai in this passage. The transformation from “it is unlawful to lay bricks” to “bricklayers are lawbreakers” is identical to the transformation from “you shall not koiten with an arsenos” to “arsenokoitai shall not enter the kingdom of God.”
The fact that some Greek scholars reject this interpretation should come as no surprise: there are scholars who argue that God is not the Creator, or that Christ was not born of a virgin, or that He wasn’t the Son of God, or that He did not rise from the dead. But if Christians had to give up their beliefs every time a scholar professed disbelief, Christianity would have died long ago.
Among the Apostles, Paul was the foremost opponent of imposing Jewish rituals and dietary laws on Gentile Christian converts. He publicly confronted Peter for hypocrisy in observing the law. And he was the Council of Jerusalem’s primary advocate for setting aside the ceremonial law. Paul would have fervently opposed rules prohibiting certain foods or sowing two different kinds of seed or wearing mixed fabrics. But despite his insistence that we live not under law but under grace, he also maintains the Old Testament prohibitions on certain sins, including homosexual activity.
So far I have argued that Paul called homosexual activity wrong. But why? The answer is found in the most important New Testament passage on homosexuality: Romans 1.
Writing to the Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul says that, “what can be known about God is plain... Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature … has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20). Moreover, Paul asserts in Romans 2 that certain Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires” because it is “written on their hearts.”
This law written on the heart is not the law of Old Testament ceremony. When Paul said that the Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires,” he did not mean that they abstained from pork, circumcised their male children on the eighth day, refused to wear mixed fabrics, or observed the Passover on 14 Nisan. He meant that there is an innate moral law, written into the human heart, which all can perceive, whether they have received divine revelation or not.
However, Paul is clear that this “Natural Law” does not hold sway in every heart. He argues that “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.” Thus sin, at work in every human heart, at least partially obscures this natural revelation.
As an example of this turning from the Creator to the creature, Paul says in Romans 1:26-27 that “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
Paul’s argument, consciously or unconsciously, echoes Plato’s argument in the Laws: “one certainly should not fail to observe that when male unites with female for procreation the pleasure experienced is held to be due to nature, but contrary to nature when male mates with male or female with female.” In fact, Plato and Paul use exactly the same Greek phrase—para phusin, unnatural or contrary to nature—to describe homosexual acts.
Plato, of course, is famous for his discussions of homosexual love. His Symposium is a dialogue about the nature of eros, or love—where discussion focuses almost entirely on homosexual eros. The Phaedrus is a discussion of rhetoric, sparked by dueling speeches on the nature of eros, again in an almost entirely homosexual context. Plato is deeply sympathetic to erotic desire between two men. But he insists that sexual activity is only natural when male unites with female; homosexual acts pollute the love two men share. This is where we get the phrase Platonic Love—that is, love which is deeply felt, but does not involve sex.
Even as a very hormonal teenager dealing with same-sex attraction, I could see that there was an obvious “fitness” to heterosexual relations which did not exist for same-sex relations. This was very frustrating, since I was not drawn to the female form at all, and powerfully drawn to the male form. Yet there it was.
I think this points out an important point about the word “nature.” I could easily have said, “these feelings are natural”—that is, these feeling are spontaneous. But something can be natural in that sense without being natural in the deeper sense that Plato and Paul have in mind. The reason that we are tempted blind ourselves to the deeper truths about the world is that we want to follow these spontaneous feelings. For example, a heterosexual teenager may want to sleep with his girlfriend, or a married man may be attracted to a woman not his wife, or a gay man may be sexually attracted to another man.
All of these feelings are “natural” in one sense. But they are all inconsistent with the deeper nature of human sexuality, which is ordered to the lifelong union of one man and one woman.
When our culture began to consider divorce, many argued that when couples find themselves facing “irreconcilable differences,” they would be happier if they separated; yet according to a study by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, 78% of those who stay in “very unhappy” marriages report their marriages are happy 5 years later. Moreover, second marriages are even more likely than first marriages to end in divorce.
With respect to premarital sex, many argued that the opportunity to explore the relationship more deeply before making a commitment to marriage would lead to more durable marriages. But according to Janet Smith of the University of Dallas, those who have sex before marriage are more likely to have marital problems, up to and including divorce, than those who wait.
And today many gay activists argue that greater social acceptance and the availability of legal recognition for gay relationships will reduce dangerous anonymous sexual practices and promote stable, responsible gay relationships. In fact, however, health officials say that the highest rates of AIDS infection and anonymous sexual practices occur in precisely those urban areas where gay relationships enjoy legal protection and social acceptance.
Each of these arguments seems superficially plausible. But suppose I adopted the following process of thought: My car has a little notice by the gas tank that says, “Unleaded fuel only.” But unleaded fuel can be expensive. Suppose I were at a gas station and noticed that I could save several cents a gallon by filling the car with diesel fuel. Again, this seems superficially plausible: lots of cars do run on diesel fuel. But if I tried to put diesel fuel in my car, I would find that it didn’t work very well, because my car is not designed to function with diesel fuel. In the same way, the problems that crop up when we embrace divorce, premarital sex, or homosexual unions indicate that human sexuality is not designed to function that way.
Each step on the road to gay liberation has been taken with apparently good intentions, yet each step has only made matters worse. We are, to use an unfortunately mixed metaphor, pouring oil on troubled fires.
I think many people, just looking at the prohibition arguments, see the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual activity as just a weird, arbitrary rule that God imposes, as if I were to say, “If you use my hair dryer, I will kill you.” In fact, it is more like saying, “If you use my hair dryer in the bath tub, it will kill you.” The danger is not an arbitrary danger—it is due to the nature of hair dryers and bath tubs. And the prohibition on homosexuality is not an arbitrary prohibition: it is rooted in a true understanding of human nature, created male and female.
The Christian teaching on homosexuality was not easy for me to embrace; but I knew that to justify a gay relationship to myself, I would have to blind myself to a truth that was written on my own heart, however much I did not like to find it written there.
“You have made us for Yourself, O God,” St. Augustine said, “and our hearts are ever restless until they find rest in You.” Our ultimate happiness can only be found in communion with God. Yet in this life, we also find great happiness in communion with others. There are two great forms of this communion: marriage and friendship. Adam and Eve are the great Biblical archetype of marriage, and they are described as becoming one flesh. David and Jonathan are the great Biblical archetype of friendship, and the Bible says that they became one in spirit.
To accept that the Bible condemns homosexual activity is to accept the challenge to direct one’s desire for same-sex intimacy towards Platonic friendships. Some will also try to change their orientation so that they can eventually enter a heterosexual marriage.
I have only been able to give a thumbnail sketch of what I believe the Bible teaches. There’s a lot more I would have liked to say, and we could spend days discussing these issues. But I will end here. Thank you for listening.
In 2003, Justin Lee, the founder and Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, invited me to write an essay defending the traditional Christian belief that homosexual activity is wrong, and that gays and lesbians who are unable to marry a person of the opposite sex are called to celibacy. Justin wrote a companion essay arguing that God blesses gay marriage. Justin has made the two essays into a prominent GCN feature called the “Great Debate.”
For the Summer 2004 issue, Notre Dame Magazine planned to do a special issue focused on homosexuality and the Catholic Church. They invited me to contribute an essay describing how I came to accept Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Rather than focusing on theological arguments, they asked me to focus on telling the story through my own journey and experiences. The whole package won the 2005 first place Press Award for “Best investigative writing or analysis” from the Catholic Press Association. This is a somewhat revised version of the essay. Click here for the original version on the Notre Dame Magazine website.
In late 2002 and early 2003, there was an ongoing controversy in the letters section of the New Oxford Review over the editors’ use of the word “fag” in an article. With encouragement from several members of Courage who were deeply frustrated with the exchange, I wrote this essay, which was published in the June 2003 issue of the New Oxford Review.
This essay was originally written in 2003, in response to the planned protests of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings in Washington, DC by Soulforce, a pro-gay group. Edited slightly to remove references to the original protest, it still provides a good overview of some aspects of Catholic teaching related to homosexuality.
Also written in response to the Soulforce protests, this essay examines prejudice against gays and lesbians, and attempts to provide a Catholic Response.
This is the keynote speech I gave at the January, 2007 Gay Christian Network Conference in Seattle, WA. It voices frustration at the ways that gays and lesbians are sometimes treated by Christians, and focuses on the importance of obedience to God, even in the most difficult circumstances.
If you knew nothing about human biology, you could listen to most of our debates about abortion and never realize that men are involved in any way. We talk about the woman’s body, the woman’s right to choose. We in the pro-life movement talk about the unborn child’s right to life. But what about the father? In this speech, delivered at the March 25, 2006 Symposium on Life Issues at St. Monica's Catholic Church, I looked at the role of men in building the Culture of Life.
On January 22, 2006, the Knights of Columbus invited me to give a brief reflection at a memorial service for the unborn, held at Mt. Angeles Memorial Park to commemmorate the 33rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.
On November 3, 2005, the Philosophy Club at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette invited me to debate Dr. Rick Swanson on the question: “Does the Bible Condemn Homosexuality?” I do not have a complete transcript of the debate; however, I have made my opening statement available here.
On January 23, 2004, the Washington, DC chapter of Courage and the Georgetown University chapter of the Knights of Columbus invited me to speak at Georgetown about Catholic teaching and homosexuality.
[The responses in this section were originally written in response to questions I received from friends or others. Before posting them here, I edited both question and response in order to enhance clarity and readability.]
Question: In God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door, Alan Chambers writes, “This is why I believe that it is so important to clarify that just living a celibate gay life is just as sinful as living a sexually promiscuous one. The sin is in identifying with anything that is contrary to Christ, which homosexuality clearly is” (218). Would you be willing to identify as a “gay Christian”? How do you think such an identity relates to the arsenokoitai of whom Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 6? [ Read response ]