Pastoral Response: LGBT
Trigger warning: this article offers a historical-grammatical view of homosexuality in the Bible, which is a moderate one in the Western perspective. Whether you call yourself a "progressive" or a "traditionalist," I doubt you will find this essay 100% agreeable. That said, I hope you will consider it helpful in the real-world practice of the Christian faith, especially regarding the LGBT community.
In most English-language translations of scripture, you will find either "homosexual" or the old-fashioned term "sodomite" at 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim.1:10. Neither one of them are literal, but "dynamic" thought-for-thought interpretation. Before even addressing the underlying Greek, know that our English terms refer to different contexts of same-sex attraction. For "homosexuality," which only entered the English language in the late 1800s, there is an abstract concept of desire for one's sex. The word "sodomite" refers to a belief that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah due to their homosexuality (Gen. 19:1-29). The problem with using this term is its limit to religion. However, the Greek word that Paul of Tarsus used in both verses was arsenokoites (G733), which referred to a same-sex action instead of an identity. Here is a breakdown of this weighty noun: airō (G142; "to lift upward") → arsēn (G730; "male") + koitē (G2845; "bed," especially for marriage). Thus, an arsenokoites was a man who lifted another man onto a bed for coitus—the active partner who was presumably the stronger of the two. The word arsenokoites was rarely used in Greek literature, and it never appears in the Septuagint (LXX), the de facto translation of the Old Testament for Hellenistic Jews. Instead, Paul derived the term from the LXX reading of Lev. 20:13: "Whoever beds with a male in the marriage-bed of a woman, an offense did they both" (Greek: Kai hos an koimēthē meta arsenos koitēn gunakois, bdelugma epoiēsan amphoteroi). This means that Paul was not writing to gentiles, but to Hellenistic Jews who were familiar with Leviticus. If he was speaking to Greeks, Paul would have used erastēs ("erotic lover") and erōmenos ("erotic beloved") for the active and passive roles.
An arsenokoites stood in contrast to the other man, who was a malakos (G3120), the "soft" passive one. Nearly every biblical translation incorrectly renders malakos as "effeminate" or "male prostitute" in both verses. Again, this is a paraphrase, even in versions that are supposed to be "literal," or word-for-word. The adjective malakos is also found at Matt. 11:8 and Luke 7:25, where Jesus talked about the "soft" robes of Herod. Therein, "soft" refers to the age of the malakos partner, not an effeminate personality. Even in English, we often describe a younger individual as "tenderhearted" without making any further judgment about their gender. The context of both 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 most likely refers to pederasty, the sexual relationship between a man and a younger male. This is the main reason the translators for the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) chose to render malakos as "male prostitute," because pederasty often happened in pagan cultic prostitution—but not always.
Many Greeks and Romans believed that intercourse should only happen between a man and a woman to conceive a child, with pleasure reserved for same-sex relationships—most often with slaves, prostitutes, and anyone else that was barred from holding Roman citizenship. When biblical translators consider malakos in the context of prostitution and other exploitive relationships among men, they too readily consider the slang behind the word. Even in our lingo, we often call other people "soft," either to ridicule their weakness or praise their kindness. However, these labels do not get us by in more formal settings, such as the workplace. Given the socioeconomic context, it is clear that malakos had more to do with the viewpoint of a "man-bedder" looking to exploit a vulnerable outcast than merely one's effeminacy. In Greece and Rome, male homosexuality was not celebrated as a public expression of love between citizens, but a way to exploit the conditions of the oppressed.
However, for women, there was an elevation in status when it came to homosexuality. In this very patriarchal society, women felt a type of role reversal in lesbianism. The demonym "lesbian" originally identified the residents of Lesbos (Greek: Lesvos), an island in the Aegean Sea. The Greek poet Sappho (c. 510–c. 670 BC) was from Mytilene, a city that still exists on Lesbos and mentioned in Acts 20:14. She is a controversial figure even in our time, as scholars from all over the humanities debate whether Sappho was a proto-feminist, homosexual, or a prostitute. Her poetry and teaching at Lesbos inspired gay women to identify themselves as "lesbians" from time immemorial. Despite all of the controversy, Sappho's poetry was a sociopolitical commentary on ancient Greece, which still reveals much about humankind in our time, as well. Sappho had a school of disciples (Greek: thiasos) which she dedicated to the pagan goddess Aphrodite. It is debatable if Sappho herself was gay, as many of her writings alluded to a desire for men. However, there were many hints of female homoeroticism in her thiasos that prepared women for marriage—that is, to men.
By now, you probably see how weighted the scriptural view of homosexuality is toward the masculine. In the ancient Hebrew culture, where men were charged with leadership in the family, it was shameful for them to neglect this responsibility for mere pleasure. Unlike the Romans and the Greeks, the Hebrews were not concerned with balancing family and entertainment, but with survival. The background here is socioeconomic, as the Hebraic people never had an empire and were always on the move or surrounded by hostile nations. Men needed to both fight and protect their families, thus homosexuality was a threat to both. Having fewer children would result in vulnerability for an attack, as well as the ultimate annihilation of their people. To add to these fears of nonexistence, every ancient culture suffered high infant mortality rates—children were a precious resource. In the ancient Near East, most people turned to nature religions, in which they invoked gods and goddesses for protection and abundance. Because femininity represented childbirth and continuation, its symbolism was extended to both agriculture and religion. For hundreds of years, the Hebrews struggled with a treacherous devotion to these false idols while paying lip service to God himself. Only after Israel's exile to Babylon did they finally abandon these pagan religions.
As mentioned above, Paul referred to the holiness code in Leviticus when he wrote about same-sex relationships between men. In both Old and New Testaments, the authors were not that concerned with lesbianism. Paul was the first biblical writer to even specifically mention it, which was when he said, "For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (Rom. 1:26-27). One of Paul's contemporaries, Philo of Alexandria (20 BC–AD 50), had an equally harsh view:
As men . . . go mad after other women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature . . . so by degrees, the men became accustomed to be treated like women, and in this way engendered among themselves the disease of females, and intolerable evil; for they not only, as to effeminacy and delicacy, became like women in their persons, but they also made their souls most ignoble, corrupting in this way the whole race of men (De Abr. 1:135-36).
This means, by the first century, many Jewish commentators read the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as God's judgment for the sins he would later forbid in Leviticus: incest, inhospitality, rape—and, yes, homosexuality. Philo's context was Sodom (1:133, 37). Likewise, the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (c. AD 37–100) wrote,
About this time the Sodomites grew proud . . . and impious toward God, in so much that they did not call to mind the advantages they received from him: they hated strangers, and abused themselves with sodomitical practices. Now when the sodomites saw the young men to be of beautiful countenances, and . . . they resolved themselves to enjoy these beautiful boys by force and violence; and when Lot exhorted them to sobriety . . . and promised that if their inclinations could not be governed, he would expose his daughters to their lust, instead of these strangers; neither thus were they made ashamed" (Ant. 1.11.1, 3).
Frankly, it is odd that first-century Jews would consider homosexuality a reason for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This is because the prophet Ezekiel said, "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it" (Ezek. 16:49-50). Granted, the "abominable things" clause may refer to the same-sex acts of the men with the angels. Jude, who was one of Jesus' brothers, seemed to believe this when he wrote, "Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 1:7). The main thing to keep in mind when reading any scriptural mention of Sodom and Gomorrah is that God judged these cities for multiple offenses; to chose one sin over the other defeats this purpose. Ironically, Jude's phrase sarkos heteras (G4561; G2087) contrasts with our English word "heterosexual." When he employed the adjective heteras, Jude referred to the "strange flesh" of angels when the men of Sodom tried to rape them. For us, the prefix "hetero-" means something more akin to "other" with a decidedly positive connotation.
With the historical-grammatical method, it is possible to read the background and meanings of the original texts to arrive at either a more permissive or restrictive understanding. That said, a more moderate approach considers the scriptural mentions of homosexuality to be down-the-middle. In the first place, God repeatedly tells us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (e.g., Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19, 22:39)—this can never be put aside for mere bigotry. However, marriage is a sacrament, a means of grace; it is neither a right nor a privilege, but a gift between a man and a woman to further God's kingdom (Gen. 1:26-27; 2:24; Matt. 19:4-6; Mark 10:6-9; Eph. 5:32). However, scripture does not present a clear solution to the modern view of homosexuality as an orientation, as its main concern was homosexual behavior. Our context involves too many abuses such as chemical castration, conversion therapies, false exorcisms, overt hate crimes, and systematic discrimination to overlook the trauma of real LGBT men and women. Christians should stand up to these abuses, but most chose to willfully and sinfully engage in them. The grief of depression and suicide among LGBT youths is a serious matter. Homosexuality is more of a pastoral concern rather than rote theology, which is why this essay is filed under "ministry." We must be willing to listen to experiences on both sides of the issue, realizing there are many nuances and complexities. In addition to scripture, let us consider this fair and evenhanded research from the American Psychological Association:
There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed: Kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all people the true love of peace, and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth; that in tranquility your kingdom may go forward, till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Attridge, Harold W., and Wayne A. Meeks, eds. HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006.
Bateman IV, Herbert W. Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook. Ed. John D. Harvey. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2013.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019.
Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Brawley, Robert L., ed. Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996.
Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality: with Forewords by Stephen Halliwell, Mark Masterson, and James Robson. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Anchor Yale Bible–First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Fortson III, S. Donald, and Rollin G. Grams. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.
Gagnon, Robert A. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.
Greenberg, David F. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Halperin, David M. One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. "Girl, Interrupted: Who was Sappho?" The New Yorker. New York: Condé Nast, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/girl-interrupted.
Poole, William Gary. "Flavius Josephus." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.
"Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality." APA.org. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2020. http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.
Shukla, Gaurav, Kathleen Kuiper, and Marco Sampaolo, eds. "Philo Judaeus." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Philo-Judaeus.
⸻. "Sappho." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sappho-Greek-poet.
Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: A Survey of Jesus and the Gospels. Second ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
Whiston, William, trans. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Version. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987.
Yonge, C. D., trans. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Version. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993.