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Romans 1:27 appears to speak of homosexual relations as sinful. Is this actually the case? Would the Bible really condemn people for such acts, or is it speaking about something quite different from what we understand as homosexuality?
In our day speaking negatively of homosexuality is often declared to be evil. Several factors have led to this. First, postmodern society believes that all personal options are equally good. Thus one should take pride in one's ethnic background or religion or sexual preference. None is better than another and no one should judge another. This postmodern view may express a truth about our relative human judgments, but does it give God's view? What if God really does exist and has a view by which he will judge the world in the end? Furthermore, there are limits to our tolerance of cultural diversity, for we are not very accepting of Nazi culture, for example.
Second, genital sexual expression is viewed as a right and even as a necessity for emotional health. This is a new view, which ignores the fact that many who cannot function sexually (such as impotent males) can and do live full and meaningful lives. Unlike food and water and shelter, sexual expression is not a need. Nor is it a right. Many people, whatever their sexual inclinations, are deprived of opportunities for full sexual expression (think of those heterosexuals who want to be married but cannot find an appropriate spouse) and, while it may not be a desirable situation for them, it is not that they are being wronged.
Third, homosexuality has found increasing acceptance in our society. However, acceptance does not make something right. Nor does the evidence that homosexuality may be inborn make it right. Some types of personality are apparently inborn, and we think of these varieties of personality types as equally good, but alcoholism, schizophrenia and a tendency to violence may also be linked to genes, and we look at these as genetic defects. We view them as bad and try to control their expression.
Fourth, there have been attempts to label any rejection of homosexuality as "homophobic" and thus make a rejection of this lifestyle appear wrong. Such labeling begs the question. Is one "kleptophobic" if he or she calls theft wrong? It is not always an issue of fear (phobia) at all, but one of sober judgment about what is right and wrong based on a given standard. For Christians the standard has been the Bible, so that is why looking at this passage is so critical.
There are several passages in the New Testament that refer to homosexual genital sexuality: Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10 and Jude 7. These build on the Old Testament attitude toward homosexuality found in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. What conclusions can we draw from these texts?
First, all of these passages condemn particular sexual acts. None of them speak of homosexual desires. In the Scriptures it is not homosexual temptation that is wrong, but the actual acts themselves. This is an important distinction, for it reminds us that the Scriptures honor people successfully struggling with temptation rather than condemning them for their temptations. The man who has never been tempted to commit adultery is not more virtuous than the man who has successfully resisted repeated significant temptations. The first man is only untested in that area.
Second, we recognize that while homosexual practice does not appear to have been common in Palestine, it was a significant feature of the Greek culture. It is not that Greeks were exclusively homosexual, for in fact the general practice was bisexuality, with wives being necessary for procreation, but the use of prostitutes and boys also being more or less accepted. It is also not true that all Greeks equally accepted homosexuality. One form of it, pederasty, was debated by Greek thinkers.
Third, we notice that the explicit rejection of homosexuality is found mostly in Paul's letters, for he was the Christian writer most in contact with the Greek world. Romans was probably written from Corinth and 1 Corinthians was, of course, written to Corinth. It is sometimes argued, then, that Paul's concern was only with pederasty, that he was entering one side of the discussion which was common in the Greek world. However, his language in this passage is not a description of pederasty. A case can be made for making 1 Corinthians 6:9 refer to that vice, but such a case is not totally convincing to scholars in this field. What it looks like is going on in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is that Paul, living in the Greek world, needing an example of vice to use in his letter, used the vice that he found close at hand, homosexual practice, which included, but was not limited to, pederasty.
In other words, homosexual practice was not a major problem within the church. It was a problem in the Gentile world around the church. Why was this the case? Probably the reason is that the church taught fidelity to one's wife. For example, look at the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19. When in Matthew 19:9 Jesus prohibits divorce, the disciples respond in shock that it would be better not to marry than to be stuck forever with a single woman. Rather than softening his statement, Jesus comments that it might be good not to marry and distinguishes those who cannot marry due to sexual dysfunction from those who choose not to marry because of "the kingdom of heaven." In other words, he gave people only two alternatives: faithful marriage (and he has already made it clear in Mt 5:27-28 what he means by faithfulness) or celibacy. While Jesus does not appear to have been married, Simon Peter was. It would be Paul who would follow the route of celibacy.
Turning to Paul, we find the same alternatives offered. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 he rules out "sexual immorality" by which he means sexual intercourse with a person who is not one's spouse, especially a prostitute. He makes the alternative clear in 1 Corinthians 7:9: if one does not have the gift of celibacy, then one should marry. For the same reason married couples should practice regular sexual intercourse (1 Cor 7:2-5). One can read through the whole of the rest of 1 Corinthians 7 and find only two options: celibacy or faithful marriage. These same two options are offered to the widow and to the never-married, to the old and to the young.
As we noted above, in the Greek world as in the world today there were very few who were exclusively homosexual. Most men married out of duty to their family, if for no other reason. The church had only one instruction to such men and women: your wife or husband is to be your exclusive sexual focus. Satisfy one another. There is no option of a homosexual relationship on the side. For the few who were not married the church had two options: remain celibate or marry. Again homosexual sexual intercourse is not an option. By stressing these two positive options (rather than ranting against homosexuality) the early church appears to have had little problem with the practice of homosexuality, despite its being in the world around them.
Does the Bible really condemn homosexuality? The answer is yes, it does. In every place it mentions any homosexual practice it roundly condemns the practice. In no place does it speak positively of homosexuality. Does the Bible dwell on the issue, especially since parts of it were written in a world full of bisexuality? No, it does not. Instead the Bible focuses on its alternative. It encourages sexual expression in the context of a faithful marriage, and it exalts celibacy for those who cannot or choose not to marry. Both are honorable lifestyles. There is no third way.