Christians agree for the most part that stealing is wrong, and adultery, and murder, and lying. But we debate if homosexual relations are wrong, and for that reason I write. This paper explains why I am convinced that the Bible speaks against same sex relations. I am not persuaded that gay or lesbian relations are worse than other sins done outside and inside the church. The issue is that some say these unions are not sinful at all. I am writing mostly for young adults in the church who wonder about same sex desires and relationships.
Matthew Vines has done his homework; his kind and careful presentation has become well known. Along with a video he posted a transcript entitled: “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality,” (2012) which can be found at www.matthewvines.com/transcript. He believes the Bible supports gay and lesbian marriage, which I do not think is right. He and his followers deserve a thoughtful response, which I intend this to be. One need not know anything about Vines to make sense of this essay. For my purposes he makes a good starting point because of his friendly tone and because he interprets the Bible as same sex supporters normally do, using their classic arguments. I will not take up every point he makes, though I will take up every Scripture he uses and most of his arguments.
Sympathy for same sex believers Vines describes the dismal outlook of a Christian with deep same-sex attractions, but who because of Scripture may never express those longings in affection and love. I will not support his conclusions, but it seems an intensely difficult place to be. I do not know what it is like for Matthew Vines, but it certainly is a burden. It is only fair, though, to note here that many heterosexual Christians also live without sexual intimacy, in many cases because they follow Christ. I do not have a way out for Vines or men and women in that place, but my heart goes out to them.
Public unpopularity of opposing same-sex relationships I also have sympathy for people who out of faithfulness to Scripture and the Lord will not support and bless same sex relationships. This lack of support offends many who find it bigoted and oppressive. Peter wrote a letter to churches more focused on a hostile environment than any other NT writing except Revelation. But this hostility came by words not blows. Peter never mentioned chains or prison or blood or execution, only public insult: “they accuse you of doing wrong,” “the ignorant talk of foolish people,” “so those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander,” “they heap abuse on you,” and “you are insulted for the name of Christ.” And this is the experience of those who will not bless same sex unions.
The wrong fight As public policy more openly accepts homosexuality, some leaders of the North American church have loudly resisted. But public policy is the wrong fight. NT churches lived in worse moral climates than the North American church, but it never occurred to those churches, or to the apostles writing them, that the church should call the world to behave better. We have assumed that our cities or nations are some sort of step-sister to Israel, the whole group living in covenant with God. The NT letters assume nothing of the sort; we are rather like Jews living in exile, little pockets of faithful Jerusalem living in huge Babylon, just beginning the last exodus. The call is to be faithful to God, separate from the world, and considerate and respectful to everyone; but not to reform Babylon.
This mistaken fight has dark consequences: what person, struggling and confused about their sexuality, will now come to one of our churches? By fighting for public policy, we leaders have left behind the pastoral challenge of graciously coming beside these individuals, taking seriously the hunger of some for God, and walking with them toward God. The church must uphold God’s ways among God’s people, and it must also be a safe place for sinners who want God. We may not compromise either of those, a daunting task. I would not think it even possible, except that Jesus always managed both: to uphold God’s ways and to be a safe place for sinners wanting God. If we do not honour God’s ways, we have moved away from him; if sinners who want him are not welcomed, then we have lost the gospel and we are all of us in trouble. The church should be known for treating homosexuals respectfully and kindly. There is no Biblical reason to avoid this, and good reason to pursue it. This is the right fight.
The Bible and sexual fulfillment The Bible does not hold up sexual satisfaction as we do, neither the need for it nor the right to it. People can live fulfilled lives without any sexual intimacy, and many do so. The Bible sympathizes with the poor, the sick, the foreigner, and victims of injustice; but not those lacking sexual fulfillment. Same sex marriage must be right, people reason, because God would not be so unjust as to disallow anyone sexual satisfaction. This makes sense in our society, but not in the Bible.
In Matthew 19 Jesus taught that married couples could not divorce unless there had been adultery. The disciples were shocked by this stern ruling. They said, If that is how it is, it is better not to marry! Jesus’ standards were far stricter than they assumed. Some of them were married: at that moment they would not even have married had they known, or so they say. Jesus did not try to correct or soften their conclusion that it was better not to marry; instead he encouraged it – not every can accept this word [that it is better not to marry], only those to whom it has been given, and he ended with those can accept this should accept this. In between he spoke about eunuchs, those for whom sexual fulfillment was not possible at all. Some are born that way, he said. He probably meant those whose genitals by birth made sexual intercourse impossible, but the words would include any whose birth made heterosexual marriage impossible. By “eunuchs for the kingdom” Jesus has in mind people like himself, who chose to live celibate as part of obedience to God. Jesus in effect called himself a “eunuch,” putting himself in the same category as people born with abnormal genitals, and men who had been castrated. Jesus includes those made eunuchs by others, those who for their part would have married, but because of “others” marriage is not possible. This terse story leaves much unspoken. The effect is to make both marriage and celibacy difficult options; there are no easy options, but if you can live single you should. Not much sympathy for those without sexual fulfillment, and even godly marriage may not be worth the trouble.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul tells husbands and wives to stay sexually available to each other, in order to prevent immorality. But he was reluctant to give this advice, because he thought it better to be single: I say this as a concession . . . I wish you were all as I am [single and content]. To the unmarried and widows: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry. Later Paul comes back to this. A married man must think about pleasing his wife, and a married woman must think about pleasing her husband, and for Paul these were troubles. Those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. I would like you to be free from concern. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you. [A widow] is free to remarry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgement she is happier if she says as she is.
We must remember here that many heterosexuals in the church, including the married, live without sexual intimacy, and that not by choice. Many could find a partner if they permitted themselves to leave the Lord’s ways. They choose the Lord so they live without. They feel no call or gift to celibacy and wish their lives were otherwise.
Neither Jesus nor Paul felt sorry for the unmarried. They both watched marriage from the outside, as single and celibate. Jesus and the disciples did not think either was easy, and Jesus recommended single life for those who could live that way. Paul certainly thought living single was easier and happier than living married, and an underrated choice.
God’s Kindness and God’s Commands. This paper is about something we will want to do but may not do – can that possibly be good news? Let us for a moment leave behind the matter of homosexuality. We can still agree that God’s standards, like the Ten Commandments, are good for people, and come from a God who understands humans and wants the best for them. Whatever God tells us about sexuality, and homosexuality in particular, it will come from a wise and loving Father.
Summary of my argument: two points. The pages that follow will make two basic points. First, the Scriptures assume that we will have a wide range of sexual desires. These will include good and bad sexual desires, and the Scriptures are not much upset by this variety. No one is perverted because of desire. For that matter, no one should be surprised that different kinds of sexual encounters are exciting and stimulating, both godly and ungodly sex. The Bible assumes people will find pleasure in this all, and that proves nothing. But before God these actions are either right or wrong. Right is sexual union between one man and one woman for life, or else celibate; wrong is the rest.
Second, physical bodies speak for themselves. The Scriptures regularly appeal to bodies. Consider the following, and compare them to same sex alternatives: 1, an erect penis and a vagina are a natural fit for each other; 2, neither organ is good for much besides sexual union; 3, these are the centers of sexual stimulation for men and for women; and 4, this union produces children. No alternative use of bodies can compete with this list. The alternatives claim to have natural desire but ignore the design of male and female human bodies. The Scriptures typically refer to bodies when they speak of human sexuality, bodies which God made: by both Scripture and body design, God made his intention clear.
Genesis 1-2 and “Suitable Helper”
Children in the Genesis 1 blessing In Genesis 1, after he had made everything else, God made humans, male and female, in his image and likeness. God blessed male and female in five ways: be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and rule the animals. The first three say the same thing three different ways – have many children. The third and fourth read “fill the earth and subdue it.” God wants the whole earth to be full of people and a good place for people to live. The NT does not make having children a priority, so in that sense there is not an argument here against marriages without possibility of children. Nevertheless the end of Genesis 1 ties closely together God’s blessing on people, and having children through sexual union. Same sex unions step outside of this. Already in Genesis 1 there is a shadow over these unions.
Not good for the man to be alone, I will make a suitable helper If Adam feels lonely and needs company, and if that is why God made Eve, then for a gay man another gay man would be more suitable than a woman. So Vines argues. But does the man feel lonely? God, not Adam, says it is not good for the man to be alone. Adam actually seems content. At this stage Adam was still complete, not yet divided into two fleshes; later he would lose a piece of himself, and then he would be ready to leave everything and be joined to his wife, the missing piece.
If Adam was lonely, we would expect God to make a suitable “partner” or a suitable “companion,” but instead God thought Adam needed a suitable “helper.” It sounds like Adam has a job to do and God thinks he needs help because Adam cannot do it himself. In Genesis 1 God had said be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. By himself Adam cannot be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; for that he needs a suitable helper and a good deal of God’s blessing. The story sounds like Adam was content but could not fill the earth and subdue it on his own, so God made Eve to be the suitable helper.
How the woman was made Bodies: the man and the animals were made from dust. Only the woman was different. God caused a deep sleep, dismembered the man, took from him “a piece of his side” in the Hebrew phrase, a piece that included bone and flesh, and from this piece God formed the woman. The man immediately recognized her as the other half of himself – this is bone from my bones, and flesh from my flesh, that is, “this is the other half of me.” Now, for the first time, the man experienced incompleteness, not wanting to be alone. And that is why we read in the next sentence, This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and is joined to his wife, and they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). They become one flesh because they began as one flesh, then God divided that one flesh into two, man and woman, and then the man and the woman become one flesh again. A man who partners with another man does not find the missing part of himself, and a woman who partners with another woman does not find the missing piece of herself, either. Two women can never become one flesh, according to the image of Genesis 2, nor can two men ever become one flesh, because neither couple began as one flesh. They are miss-matched to each other, and will not find their missing piece. According to Genesis 2, when a woman and man come together, and only in that way, each finds their missing piece. Because they began as one.
Genesis 2:24 (This is why a man leaves his father and mother, and is joined to his wife, and they become one flesh) is the Bible’s most important sentence about God’s design for marriage. Jesus quoted it to teach about divorce. Paul used it to teach the Ephesian men how to treat their wives, and to teach the Corinthian men to avoid prostitutes. Becoming one flesh is based on the couple beginning as one flesh, then being divided by God into two “fleshes,” man and woman. The separated bodies become one flesh again, which includes the whole range of relational and sexual complementarity. Bodies are central in all this.
Genesis 1 shows God blessing male and female with many children. Genesis 2 shows the perfect fit between man and woman in God’s design, both relational and sexual, separated parts coming back together. This explains the attraction between male and female, for they began as one. This we have from the first two chapters of the Bible.
The Bible’s “body” emphasis takes away a common argument from those who defend same sex unions. These defenders say that the Bible only condemned male cult prostitutes, or gang rape, or pederasty (sex with boys) and that these are different than a loving relationship between two men or two women. This argument believes that what counts is attitude not body. Since in this view what is going on in the minds of these gay unions is good, then the union is good. But the Bible always takes bodies seriously. The Genesis 2 creation story is about bodies. Paul told the Corinthian men that their bodies belonged to Christ, therefore leave prostitutes alone. In Romans 1 Paul introduced his description of same-sex unions with [they] dishonour their bodies with one another. This is why the empty tomb of Jesus is so important, and the scars on his hands and feet after he rose. Our present bodies will be raised gloriously; they are not left in the grave or the jar of ashes, but will be resurrected and live forever. Bodies matter. In the Bible same sex union is wrong because it violates how male bodies and female bodies were shaped by God to function, regardless of motive.
Matthew Vines says this teaching is “wounding and destructive,” and I believe he experiences it in just that way. He blames the interpreters not the text, but it is the text and not the interpreters who are to blame for this.
A closer look at the “suitable helper” argument Vines believes that his orientation toward men, and lesbian orientation toward women, is natural and deeply rooted and thus intrinsically as valid before God as those with straight preferences. Let us consider other common preferences. Some men prefer young girls, and some men prefer young boys. There are many other preferences, but these two are well-known. This pedophile orientation often runs deeply in these men. In spite of how our society openly loathes them, and they are sent to prison and treated horribly, they commonly continue the same pedophile activity when released. Some of these men are brutal with children, but not all. Let us suppose something offensive: a Christian man who since his late teens has preferred young boys, or young girls. This man is willing to limit himself to one “partner,” to care for this child and generally treat him or her kindly. I know this is a distasteful illustration, but bear with me. On what basis would we say that this Christian pedophile may not express his natural orientation?
A common answer is “consenting adults.” I agree completely with “only consenting adults” in so far as it prevents rape and sex with children. This is good. But we have now agreed that morality overrules lifelong orientation, and that changes the argument completely. How do we separate gays from pedophiles, who also have their own natural sexual orientation? In this case, same sex supporters rightly no longer reason that lifelong sexual orientation overrules morality, for then they must bless pedophiles. So which morality will now govern sexual preference? “Which morality governs lifelong orientations?” is a profoundly different discussion than “Is it a lifelong orientation?” Different but ignored.
Genesis 19 and the sin at Sodom
The story and the sin Two men, who are really angels in disguise, visit Lot in the city of Sodom to warn him that Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed by God because of their sin. In the evening the men of the city come to Lot’s house and insist that he bring his two guests out, because the men of the city want to gang rape Lot’s two guests. When Lot refuses, the men move forward to break down his door, but the two angels strike the crowd with blindness, and their gang rape plan disappears.
Matthew Vines says that gang rape and gay marriage are entirely different from each other. He says condemning what the men of Sodom wanted to do does not automatically condemn gay and lesbian marriage. This is true, but if the Scriptures rule out all same sex unions, the distinction does not matter.
Sodom and Gomorrah in the rest of the Bible Vines rightly notes that the Bible refers to the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah some twenty times, and that homosexuality is not mentioned in any of them, with the exception of Jude 7. The Bible itself does not use the Sodom story to condemn homosexuality, and so we will leave it alone.
Leviticus 18 and 20
The Israelite standard: God not the Canaanites In Leviticus 18 Moses lists prohibited sexual unions. In Leviticus 20 Moses lists the punishments for these sins. In Leviticus 18 there are 17 sexual prohibitions: the first 12 describe different kinds of incest, and the last five other sexual sins: sex with a menstruating woman, adultery, offering one’s children to the god Molech (not a sexual sin), sex between men, and sex with an animal. The opening and closing of Leviticus 18 and the closing of Leviticus 20 present the same kind warning to Israel: “these sins are how the Egyptians live, where you come from, and how the Canaanites live, where you are going, and you must not be like them because you are the LORD’s people. They do all these things, and you Israelites must do none of them.” (God has always called his people to carry their sexuality very differently than their surrounding cultures.) Leviticus 18 emphasizes that these sins are the reason that the Canaanites are being driven off the land so Israel can take their place. If Israel turns to these sins, they also will be driven off the land. Israel must live God’s way regarding their sexual relations.
Leviticus 18 singles out sexual relations between two men as detestable. The list of punishments in Leviticus 20 uses the same additional description: a man having relations with a male as with a woman is detestable. At the end of the Leviticus 18 list, Moses declares that all the practices on the list are detestable, and uses “detestable [NRSV: an abomination]” of the whole list three times. But in both lists the only sin that is singled out as detestable/an abomination is a man lying with a male as with a woman. (This is why, when Ezekiel 16:50 says that the people of Sodom “were haughty and did detestable / abominable things,” there is a reasonable chance that the prophet has their same sex unions in mind.)
Leviticus 18 and 20 assume that God’s people will want to do these things. Sexual desire and impulse pull people in many different directions. Moses takes for granted that Israelites will want to commit one or more of incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality. Of course some will want to do these things, seems to be the logic, especially when they see others doing them; but, because they are the LORD’s people, they must not do them. Furthermore, the warning assumes that if Israelites try these alternative sexual unions, they will find pleasure in them, as the Canaanites did. There is both a freedom in this and a warning. The freedom: Scripture condemns no one for what they desire, what attracts them, or what they enjoy. The warning: some desires and attractions must not lead to behaviour. The Leviticus description of sexual union between men does not distinguish between planned gang rape of the men of Sodom, or gay marriage. They are both a man lying with a male as with a woman. Vines and others say that gay marriage was not known until recent times. We will see later in this paper that although gay marriage was not known, life-long caring relationship between two males was certainly known.
But are we under Old Testament Law? Here are Vines’ last words on Leviticus 18 and 20: “The default Christian position for nearly two millennia now has been to view the particular hundreds of rules and prohibitions in the Old Law as having been fulfilled by Christ’s death, and there is no good reason why Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 should be exceptions to that rule.” Vines has argued generally that NT believers are not under the law, and has given a few specific reasons why we should distance ourselves from these specific commands.
What Christians do with the OT deserves some thought. Much of the OT applies to us, and much does not; how do we know which is which? The NT helps us, and I will answer in two parts: first on the NT about the OT laws generally, and then on the NT specifically about OT sexual laws. So first, what does the NT say about us obeying the OT in all non-sexual matters? When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he responded to all three temptations by quoting from Deuteronomy. The Gospels were written long after Jesus died and rose, and this temptation story was included to give an example to future disciples, most of whom like us were Gentiles. In another place Jesus said the two great commands were: love God with all your heart, from Deuteronomy 6, and love your neighbour as yourself, from Leviticus 19. All followers of Jesus understand themselves bound by these, and one does not get the feeling that these are exceptions. In Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says six times, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you.” “You have heard it said (plus quote)” refers to OT law every time. And in each case “but I say to you (plus new teaching)” increases the rigor of the OT command. Jesus did not abolish the command, or reduce or even paraphrase it; he made it more demanding. So we may not simply assume the OT laws do not apply.
But there are certainly commands in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that do not apply to us. The NT teaches that we are not bound by OT food laws, or by circumcision. Nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the NT, so those are still in effect, but the fourth commandment, keep the Sabbath holy, has been left behind. To leave no doubt about the Sabbath, the NT tells us twice that we are not bound by OT Sabbaths or holy days. The OT purity laws have all fallen away as well, and also the temple service and sacrifices. On any given OT topic we need to see what the NT does with that topic, because we get our direction from the NT.
In the matter of sexual relationships the NT affirms OT teaching. (Jesus was actually stricter than the OT about marriage and divorce, and about adultery in one’s mind.) Leviticus 18 lists twelve kinds of incest, and then a few other sexual sins. In the NT, John the Baptist told Herod that it was wrong for Herod to marry his brother’s wife, a kind of incest mentioned in Leviticus 18 and 20. John the Baptist, who preached “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” just as Jesus did, understood the Leviticus 18 sexual standards to be still in effect. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul sharply corrected the church at Corinth for tolerating a man sleeping with his father’s wife, another specific form of incest listed in Leviticus 18 and 20. So the NT does not openly take away any of the incest laws, and it affirms two of them.
The command against sexual intimacy with a menstruating women has probably been taken away along with the other purity laws. The NT repeatedly mentions the sin of adultery, one of the five sins Moses added to the incest list, so that law is certainly still applies. And the Levitical law in question here, against homosexual union, shows up three times in the NT. So, taking sexual behavior as a general category of instruction, the NT continues the OT standards. The NT does not do away with any OT standard of sexual behavior, the way it does away with food laws and circumcision and the Sabbath. The NT repeats some other laws in Leviticus 18, and in three places the NT repeats the Leviticus 18 rule on same sex unions. Matthew Vines himself does not support the prohibition on sexual union between men, or with a menstruating woman, but I expect he would support the other 15 of the 17 prohibitions in Leviticus 18. Unless he has remarkably tolerant views on incest, he himself would take the normal Christian position on Leviticus 18 and 20 to be obedience.
Infrequency of same sex prohibitions in the Bible Vines says that other sins like incest, adultery, and bestiality are mentioned “multiple times” throughout the rest of the OT, but same sex unions only in the two Leviticus lists. This exaggerates. Bestiality is mentioned two other times, both in Moses’ law. Deuteronomy 27 mentions three of Leviticus’s twelve incest rules. And that is all for bestiality and incest. Adultery on the other hand occurs many times in both Testaments, because that was something that Israel struggled with, and the church also up to the present day. Leviticus 18 and 20 clearly intend to give a complete list of sexual sins. After that, the Bible’s writings are almost all “occasional,” they were ad hoc writings, written to suit the occasion, the needs of God’s people at that time. Neither Israel nor the church needed much teaching on bestiality or incest or homosexuality, because these were rarely a problem; adultery on the other hand was a regular problem, so mentioned frequently.
On the other hand there are more Biblical references to same sex unions than Vines acknowledges: Genesis 19, and Judges 19 which is an Israelite repeat of the Sodom story, Leviticus 18 and 20, Ezekiel 16:50 (and possibly 18:12 and 33:26), Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10, and probably 2 Peter 2:7 and Jude 7. We should add to these the texts that speak of homosexual cult prostitutes: Deuteronomy 23:17-18; 1 Kings 14:24; 15;12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7; Job 36:14; Revelation 22:15 (and probably 21:8). This is still not a long list, and has been taken to mean that Scripture has not much concern about same sex unions. But consider incest in the NT letters. It is not mentioned in any of the sin lists, and not mentioned at all except for the man living with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. And yet Paul treats that situation as drastically and sharply as anything in any of his letters. If the Corinthian man had not done this, we could argue that incest was acceptable in the churches, based on the silence of the NT; and yet we know this to be not remotely true. The NT letters say considerably more about same sex unions than they do about incest.
In Romans 1:18 to 3:20, Paul brings all humanity under the verdict of guilty before God. There is no one righteous, not even one, reads Romans 3:10, and that summarizes this section. Paul intends to put Gentiles and Jews both on the same level before God. So Romans 1:18-32 shows how Gentiles have turned away from God, Romans 2 traps Jews who think they are better and not sinners like the Gentiles, and then 3:1-20 concludes: there is no one righteous.
This progression (Romans 1:18-23) begins with idolatry: the Gentiles are condemned for rebellious idolatry. But is this fair? The Gentiles did not have Moses and the prophets like Israel did, so how could Gentiles know about God? How could they know idolatry was wrong? Paul explains: what may be known about God is plain to [the Gentiles], because God made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people [i.e. Gentiles without Scripture] are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20). God deliberately made himself plain through material creation. God’s invisible qualities are clearly seen and understood by the visible things he made, as he intended in making them. For just this reason Gentile idolatry is rebellion. In spite of clear evidence of God and his invisible qualities in material creation, people turned away from the Creating God to worship creatures he had made, or worse, things people themselves made.
As a result of this rebellion, God gave them over to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another (1:24). God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (1:26-27).
Everyone has clear evidence of God in material creation, says Romans 1, but people leave this behind to worship created things. This basic choice away from worshipping God, a choice from wisdom to foolishness (1:23), leads to foolishness in relationships and life. Paul offers same sex unions as the first evidence of this degrading foolishness that comes from idolatry.
Note that Paul begins with women, with lesbian relationships. In the ancient world, unlike male same-sex relationships, lesbian relationships were normally caring, mutual relationships. Age or power inequity was rare among lesbians. But Paul rules these out with equal passion to the more common male same-sex unions.
Matthew Vine’s explanation Vines says this text applies only to those who knew God and who were “naturally” inclined to have straight sex. These people exchanged God whom they knew for idols, and as an expression of abandoning God they also abandoned their “natural” opposite sex desires and pursued “unnatural” (for them) same sex unions. Thus, says Matthew Vines, people who have long standing same sex attractions are not violating Paul’s words at all, because they are not going against what is “natural” for them. Vines and same sex supporters generally take “natural” and “unnatural” in Romans 1 to describe internal disposition and inclination. I will take up these three problems with this view: 1, the emphasis on material creation in this text, on what has been made and can be seen, leads us away from taking “natural” as internal tendency; 2, it makes no sense to apply this to the other sins Paul lists a few verses later; and 3, Paul’s normal use of “natural” is not custom or internal tendency, but obvious to all by material observation.
Emphasis on material creation God intentionally made himself known in material creation, so that everyone has visible information from God about God. His invisible qualities are evident by the physical things that we see. Everyone is culpable. How one feels or thinks, or what one wants, are not factors at all in Paul’s logic. So when Paul says that both women and men exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones, the general train of thought so far would lead us away from taking “natural” and “unnatural” as internal disposition and inclination, and would lead us toward some factors in the material makeup of female and male bodies.
A few verses later Paul lists 21 sins that have come from leaving God behind. We should ask why Paul began with a long description and critique of one sin, same sex unions, before moving to a simple list of other sins. Remember that Paul in this section (Romans 1:18-32) shows that Gentiles are guilty before God by going against what can be visibly known about God from material creation. It is not clear that same sex unions are worse sins than those listed later, so why did Paul begin with this sin, and why is this the only sin he developed? The answer is that physical anatomy shows God’s intention. Along with idolatry, same sex unions provided Paul with a clear example of Gentiles pushing away what God had made visibly and materially plain to them. As noted earlier, physical bodies speak for themselves. An erect penis and a vagina are a natural fit. They are the centers of sexual stimulation for a man and a woman respectively. Neither is much good for anything else, which cannot be said of mouth or anus. And this union produces children. None of the alternative sexual uses of bodies can begin to compete with this list. Every adult knows these things. Material creation is not random, but deliberate revelation from God, made plain to Gentiles without any special communication from God. Same sex unions, as idolatry, go against what God made plain in visible material creation, specifically the way he designed male and female bodies. That is most likely why Paul began with same sex unions and why he developed only this sin.
Internal “inclination” and other sins Vines argued that same sex unions are wrong only if they go against one’s “inclination” or “disposition” (his words). If one is inclined and disposed to same sex unions, then there is no sin, he reasons. Let us take that logic to the other sins Paul listed after his discussion of same sex unions, the other sins that proceed from ignoring what God has shown about himself in visible creation: They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy (1:29-31). Are any of these sins to be pronounced righteous if the person is internally inclined and disposed toward them? That notion is not to be taken seriously, and I doubt that Matthew Vines would take it seriously. But then internal disposition and inclination does not made same sex unions righteous, either.
“Nature” in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 Vines and others argue that “natural” in Romans 1 means ancient cultural custom, not what is inherently clear to everyone, and they use Paul’s words on head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 to support this. That would mean exchanging “natural” use of bodies for “unnatural” in Romans 1 merely means going against ancient custom. (Vines contradicts himself regarding the meaning of “natural.” When he began to explain Romans 1 he said “natural” meant “internal inclination or disposition.” But later, still discussing Romans 1, he claims that “natural” means “custom,” on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11.)
The key lines are 1 Corinthians 11:14-15: Does not nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? What does Paul think that nature teaches us, and how does it teach this? That is the question. 1 Corinthians 11 on head coverings troubles NT scholars, because they do not know exactly what the women in the Corinth church were doing with their heads, or what it meant in that church. I will concern myself only with the focal point: what does Paul mean by “nature” teaching us?
Outside of Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 11:14, Paul uses “nature” in five texts: Romans 2:14-15, Romans 2:27; Romans 11:21-24; Galatians 2:14-16; and Galatians 4:7-9. In all of these “nature” refers to something inherently or biologically real as set in place by God. If by “nature” Paul means “ancient custom” in 1 Corinthians 11, it would be the only place he uses “nature” that way; the rest are quite different.
Is there a way to take “nature” that fits better with Paul’s other uses of that word? One solution is common male baldness, and Gagnon quotes Synesius of Cyrene (400 C.E.) who argues this way about men’s and women’s hair in order to defend his own early baldness: not all men go bald, by any means, but it is common enough now as then that no one sees it as unnatural. Men’s beards thicken through middle and old age, but their hair often thins. It is true that some women have facial hair, and some go bald, but these are rare enough to be considered unnatural, then as now. In this way nature teaches us about which gender should have long hair on its head, and which should not. Synesius believes baldness for men to be the ultimate goal of “nature,” even though it does not happen to all men.
I am not sure that male baldness is what Paul had in mind when he spoke of what “nature” taught about men’s and women’s hair. I know that other writers in the ancient world took this posture toward nature and men’s and women’s hair, and I know that this fits better than “ancient custom” with how Paul normally uses arguments from “nature.” Paul’s usual use of “nature” suggests something along these lines.
In Romans 1:26 Paul mentions women exchanging natural relations for unnatural, before going on to the men in 1:27. Same sex supporters frequently argue that homosexual relationships were condemned because of some relational inequity. Either one partner was much younger than the other, or it was intended to humiliate or dominate the penetrated man, or some other violence or power imbalance. Same sex supporters would say that a caring mutual relationship between two men would not have been condemned. But if this argument was correct, Paul would not have mentioned lesbian relationships, for in the ancient world they were typically mutual and without the other imbalances. If Paul condemns lesbian along with male homosexual relationships, then the attitude of the two partners toward each other is not a factor. The design of female and male bodies provides the primary guidance.
Summary of Romans 1:26-27 Visible material creation makes plain the invisible God, as God intended, so all idolaters are rebels against the obvious physical evidence for God. Same sex unions are the first sin Paul named, and the only sin he developed, probably because these unions go against the obvious physical realities of men’s and women’s bodies. Defending same sex unions from long standing internal disposition and inclination does not work, because of Paul’s emphasis on external visible material creation. The internal inclination argument also makes no sense when applied to the sin list that follows in 1:29-31, for these sins all come from internal inclination. “Natural” in Paul means “evident from observable realities in how things are made and function.” 1 Corinthians 11 is the only apparent exception to this use of “natural,” but since there is ancient precedent for taking Paul’s “natural” head covering by hair that way as well, we should not assume “natural” means “custom” in 1 Corinthians 11 or in Romans 1. That Paul included lesbians means his concern was not power or relational imbalance between the partners. Same sex unions ignore God’s intention, which he made clear in nature to everyone by how he made male and female bodies.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
This text is one of three times Paul lists sins with a particular warning attached, that those who do these thing will not inherit the kingdom of God. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men* nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The NIV footnote to “men who have sex with men*” says these words “translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.” I will explain why I agree with this. The second word is the compound word arsenokoites, from arsen which means “male” and koite which means “bed,” often with a sexual flavour. A literal rendering would be something like “male-bedder,” someone who takes males to bed. Although arsen and koite separately are common enough, to our knowledge Paul is the first one to put these together into one word. He uses this same word in 1 Timothy 1:10, the only places this word occurs in the NT. Later Christian writings used the word to mean a homosexual, and all the Greek lexicons render it that way.
Because this is the first time the word occurs in Greek literature, Vines and others argue that we simply do not know what the word means, and we should leave it vague rather than render it something like “active participants in homosexual acts.” After all, they say, many English compound words do not mean what the separate parts suggest, and Greek is the same.
It is true that in Greek as English, there are compound words that do not mean what we would gather from their parts, words like “honeymoon” and “strawberry.” But Paul must have known that he was using a compound word that was unknown or at least rare. In a case like that, the compound in Paul’s mind would normally mean exactly what a surprised reader would gather from the parts, that is, “male-bedder,” a man who takes males to bed in a sexual way. All compound words make sense in a literal way when first used, or there is no meaning at all.
Paul may well have had an additional reason to put “male” and “bed” together. Leviticus 18:22, discussed earlier, reads this way in Hebrew: you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a woman. The LXX (the Greek Old Testament, which Paul certainly knew and sometimes quotes) renders Leviticus 18:22 this way: you will not sleep with a male (arsen) in bed (koite) as with a woman. That is, Paul’s Greek Old Testament used arsen for “male” and koite for “bed (with a sexual tone)” when it condemned same sex unions in Leviticus 18. Leviticus 20:13 (LXX) uses the same two words in the same way. If Paul had these Leviticus texts in mind when writing about same sex unions, which is likely, this particular compound would come easily to his mind. It is also possible that Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s time already used this compound to describe homosexual unions of their day in the language of Moses.
As a compound, arsenokoites suggests the more active or initiating role in the relationship (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 also have that sense). The other word Paul uses, malakoi, means “soft” and when paired with arsenokoites would mean the more passive role. Unlike arsenokoites, malakoi (soft) was a common word with a wide variety of uses. It could refer to “soft” decadent living, and to men who were heterosexual. But we must remember that Paul used this word in a list that took people out of the kingdom of God: These people will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived. And again at the end: such people will not inherit the kingdom of God. Whatever sins occur in such a list are completely opposed to God’s ways, so malakoi must have some strong sense here. The passive partner in homosexual unions is the most likely meaning.
Philo, a Jew of Paul’s time who lived in Alexandria, wrote at some length about same sex unions in his time, specifically about the behavior of the passive homosexual partners who arranged to have more feminine features. Twice in this discussion Philo uses the adjective malakia (softness, effeminacy) to refer to the behavior of these men, along with an-andria, unmanliness. These men allow themselves to be penetrated as women by other men, and they take further steps to alter their appearance to their feminine role.
To summarize: Paul lists sins that will certainly (“do not be deceived”) keep the Corinthians believers from the kingdom of God. Two of the first three are sexual sins: the sexually immoral, idolaters, and adulterers. The next two are “the soft ones and the male-bedders.” In the context, with the way Leviticus 18 and 20 use “male” and “bed,” there is no real doubt about what “male-bedder” means: an active homosexual, a man who takes another man to bed sexually. Between “adulterers” and “male-bedders” we have malakoi, “the soft ones,” admittedly not a clear term. But since it occurs between two different sexual sins, and since it occurs in such a stern list, it is a gravely serious sin and probably sexual. The word certainly could be used in Paul’s day of passive homosexual behaviour – Philo makes that clear – and in this list it occurs beside a word (male-bedder) that portrays active homosexual behaviour. Thus there is no good reason to doubt the NIV footnote, and several good reasons to affirm it: malakoi and arsenokoites convey the passive and active partners in homosexual acts.
Did the Ancient World Understand Gay Orientation?
Vines says “the concept of sexual orientation, and of same-sex orientation in particular, didn’t exist in the ancient world.” He claims this in different ways several times in his presentation. This argument assumes that same-sex unions then were entirely different from same-sex unions now, so Biblical prohibitions on homosexuality do not count for today.
This argument is overstated. Plato’s Symposium 170-193 records different speeches on the topic of same sex love and heterosexual love, and different arguments for the superiority of same sex love. It is true that the young lovers are often boys. Pausanius advocates a love that only begins when the boys start to have minds of their own, which he says is approximately when they begin to have a beard. “Those who begin from that moment to fall in love with them are prepared to love in the expectation that they will be with them all their life and will share their lives in common.” Pausinius is critical of some forms of pederasty; he condemns exploitive relationships, and stresses that the bonds created ought to be lifelong. His own lover was Agathon, in a relationship that began when Agathon was 18, and was still ongoing twelve years later.
Still in this part of Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes says people were created in one of three ways: women who want women, men and women who want each other, and men who want men. Speaking of the same sex male relationships, still assuming that one is younger and one older, Aristophanes says “these are they who continue with one another throughout life . . . [each] desiring to be fused into a single entity with his beloved and to become one person from the two.” In Pseudo Lucian as well, a certain Callicraditas describes the love of the older partner: “the [younger partner] of whom he is fond should travel through life without stumbling and without swerving unsteadily, reaching old age without sorrow.”
These are a few excerpts from Gagnon’s lengthy quotes and discussion. There are frequent ancient references to same sex love being more noble and virtuous than love of women, to lasting relationships, to high degree of mutual tenderness and loyalty and affection. It is true that these relationships involve one partner significantly younger than the other. But some of these speakers criticized any relationship with pre-bearded boys, and had in mind a mutual caring that would last for many years. Is it gay marriage? No, it is not. But one cannot say that the ancient world had no concept of a lifelong caring same-sex relationship, because they did. And ancient lesbian relationships were typically between adult consenting partners.
This paper has a narrow aim, to show that the Scripture clearly prohibits same sex unions among God’s people, and to respond to some common arguments against this clarity. But affirming the Bible’s teaching is only a part of our calling. The church being a good place for those who want God and who are confused and distressed about their sexuality – that is equally important, and hard to achieve. We, the church, are ourselves the poor in spirit who inherit the kingdom of heaven. Let us honour God’s intention for human sexuality, and also invite all to his Banquet. Jesus always taught God’s ways, and sinners who wanted God found him attractive. We must do the same.
We honour God’s ways by consistently teaching what God has called us to do, and what he’s called us to avoid, in all sexual and non-sexual ways. We encourage each other to live these out. But we all sin in many ways, says James (3:2), and we agree. So every day we pray, “Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive each other, don’t lead us into testing, don’t lead us into temptation, rescue us from evil, rescue us from the evil one.” By this life together we honour God’s ways and we are a good place for sinners who are hungry for God. Those of us with same sex desires and hunger for God fit as well into this as any of the rest of us; we can be brought into this, and should be brought in.
The church could be famous for treating homosexuals well. Let us do good to all people. Respect everyone. May you increase and abound in love for each other and for everyone. Christians could speak out when same sex people suffer violent attack, and generally be kind and respectful. The media gives only two choices on how to treat homosexuals: bless their unions, or oppress them. But we are not limited by these two. Let us resolutely refuse both. We will kindly speak God’s ways to those who are interested, as people who ourselves stumble in many ways, and we will invite all to join us. We will unfailingly be considerate and respectful to all, in their presence and in their absence.
No lesbian or gay couple has attended our church, but if they did I would want to treat them as we did an unmarried couple. A man and woman with children began to worship with us on Sunday mornings. In conversation with them we learned that both had been in previous relationships, had children, and then those relationships had come apart. Now these two were together, not married, and had had one or two children together. We welcomed this family from the start. We do not make baptism a requirement for the Lord’s Supper, and they shared that with us also. After all, Jesus offered bread and cup to Judas, who he knew had already agreed to betray him. In these ways we seek to treat all people considerately and with respect.
For my part, I continued to teach marriage and for this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). I bring this into a sermon once or twice a year, because there are teens and young adults growing up in our church, and their friends simply move into each other’s apartments when they want to share a bed regularly. Our youth need to know that this is one of the ways that God’s people live differently than the world around us. In this way we seek to honour and uphold God’s ways.
For some months the couple experienced the warmth of the larger group as well as knowing that God wants a man and woman married before they become one flesh. They heard others in the church acknowledge that we all sin and struggle with sin, and we confess and are forgiven. I would not rush this stage; people need to get a feel for the pulse of the group. As it happened, after a few months, this couple stopped attending. They split from each other and both moved away.
Their unmarried state would have come up before long, possibly at baptism. For the couple’s sake, I want to be patient; but our youth (and others) are watching to see if we mean what we say, so we cannot wait too long to challenge the couple. We have baptism once a year, and in the Sundays leading up to baptism we have two or three pointed sermons on the cost of discipleship, on leaving family behind for the sake of Christ, on leaving possessions behind, and on laying down our very lives. The NT attaches repenting to baptism too often to ignore; I take “repent” to mean “decide to live God’s way.” These baptism and discipleship sermons are for the whole congregation, because we all need reminders of whole gospel: repent and be baptized, believe and be saved, receive forgiveness and the Spirit. At baptism or sooner, someone would have approached the unmarried couple and kindly pointed out the gap between their unmarried state and their wanting to follow God. Or, as the case could be, the gap between their same sex relationship and their wanting to follow God. I do not think there would be an ultimatum, but they would not be baptized without addressing that gap.
There is no formula or handbook for these situations. We would handle it something like this, others would do it differently and quite possibly better. Our guide would be the twin priorities of honouring God’s ways and treating all respectfully and kindly.
Below is a selection from Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church,” in the 15 June 2007 edition of Commonweal. I (Ed Neufeld) do not agree with Johnson’s conclusion. What I like about this quote is that although he affirms same sex unions, he know the Bible condemns them. He is wrong to differ with the Bible, but unlike Matthew Vines, Luke Timothy Johnson knows the Bible clearly prohibits these unions.
“The task [of taking Scripture and tradition seriously] demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel. [Emphasis mine, as below]
I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality.”
 1 Peter 2:12, 15; 3:16; 4:4, 14. Jesus’ last beatitude, in the Sermon on the Mount, agrees: He blesses those who are “persecuted,” and offers these specifics: “they insult you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely. . . This is how they persecuted the prophets” (Matthew 5:11).
 1 Corinthians 5:9f – I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world . . . . 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. Believers are to associate freely with the sexually immoral people of the world, and are not to judge them. That involves a substantial change of policy for some of us, but Paul is adamant. Christians manage what happens inside the church, God deals with those outside.
 Matthew 19:10-12.
 1 Corinthians 7:6-9.
 1 Corinthians 7:28,32,35,39-40.
 Genesis 1:28.
 Matthew Vines treats Adam as a man who happens to have straight sexual desires not gay. But Adam and Eve are not presented in Genesis as a man or a woman who happen to be anything. They are prototypes, the models God himself shaped directly and uniquely, carrying the essence of male and female humans, who from that time on pass this on to their children. That is the intention of the story, and the NT treats both of them this way.
 Genesis 2:18.
 “Helper” does not imply that Eve was subordinate to Adam. God is our “helper” in Psalm 10:14; 30:10; 54:4; and 72:12, and literally dozens of psalms say things like “O God, help me” or “The Lord is my help and shield” (Psalm 115). That Eve was a “helper” means only that Adam needed help.
Vines quotes Genesis 2:18, “I will make a suitable helper.” In the next sentence he paraphrases, “a suitable helper or partner.” In the rest of that paragraph Vines ignores “helper” and mentions “partner” by itself six times. His shift of emphasis is subtle but significant; do not miss it. A partner or companion is not the same as a helper.
“Suitable” deserves its own comment here. Holladay’s Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon lists the Hebrew word here, kenedgō, as originally “opposite, counterpart” with the sense “corresponding to him” in Genesis 2:18, 20 (p. 226). That is, the Hebrew sense of the word “suitable” favours one made to complement and fit the other, a “fitting helper,” rather than two who are the same as each other.
 Matthew 19; Ephesians 5; 1 Corinthians 6.
 Sexual union only for consenting adults historically is not a self-evident human principle. It is considered self-evident in my North American culture, but in few other cultures. “Consenting adults only” suits our society because it rules out violent sex and child abuse and permits adult same sex unions, all generally accepted social norms, hence self-evident. It also welcomes adultery and incest: sexual intimacy and marriage between a brother and sister, between a man and his mother, or a woman and her father, and so on.
 Leviticus 18:24-28.
 Leviticus 18:22; 20:13.
 In this part of his argument Matthew Vines appeals to Acts 15. He rightly states that in 49 CE the church leaders gathered at what came to be called the Council of Jerusalem, and decided that the Old Law would not be binding on Christians. So far he is right. But Vines has gotten himself in trouble, because the church leaders did ask Gentile believers to keep four OT laws, and the most common explanation for these laws is that they come from Leviticus 17-18, which Vines wants us to dismiss. In Acts 15:20, they want Gentile believers to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from meat of strangled animals, and from blood. Commentators do not know for sure where those leaders got those four laws, but the most common explanation is that these come from Leviticus 17-18. Commentators often prefer this explanation because here we find all four laws near each other, and additionally, both Leviticus 17 and Leviticus 18 state that foreigners living among the Israelites must also keep these laws – that was not true of many other OT laws. If this explanation is correct, then the “sexual immorality” that the church leaders wanted Gentile believers to observe would be exactly those sexual laws of Leviticus 18.
 Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16.
 Leviticus 18:16; 20:21.
 Leviticus 18:8; 20:11.
 Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10.
 The thinking behind no sexual union with a menstruating woman probably came from the weight Moses’ law put on body fluids. A woman’s flow of blood was a cleansing flow, rinsing away death to be ready for life, and a man’s semen contained life. Life flow and death flow should not mix. A woman is not fertile during this time anyway, so body function indicated that this was the wrong time for sexual union.
 Exodus 22:19; Deuteronomy 27:21.
 A few paragraphs later Matthew Vines says that in the ancient world, homosexuality was not “a different orientation or something inherent” in some people. He notes that several times in his transcript. But here he interprets “natural” as if Paul meant precisely an “orientation or something inherent.”
 Gagnon, 264-66.
 Gagnon, 375-76, and note 42. Epictetus was a Stoic-Cynic philosopher of Paul’s day. He argued that women were “by nature” smooth, and if a woman was hairy it was exceptional. But if a man was not hairy, it was exceptional. And if a man removed his hair he was complaining against his “nature” (A. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, 2000, p 845). So it is certainly possible that Paul meant that men “naturally” have more hair elsewhere but less on their heads, and women “naturally” have the reverse.
 In the next verse, 1 Corinthians 11:16, Paul unquestionably refers to custom: “we have no other practise, nor do the churches of God.” This appeal to common practise suggests that what “nature itself teaches” in the previous sentence was something other than culture or common practise.
 The other two lists are Galatians 5:19-21 and Ephesians 5:5-6. The three lists differ from each other, but they all begin with “sexual immorality.”
 Gagnon, 315.
 Philo, Special Laws 3:37-42, cited in Gagnon, 308-312.
 Gagnon (350-360) has lengthy quotes and discussion from Plato, Symposium (written about 360 B.C.E.) 178-193; from Plutarch, Dialogue on Love (died 120 C.E.) 750B-751B, 752B-C; and from Pseudo Lucian (about 300 C.E.) 30-49.
 Gagnon, 351-52.
 Ibid, 354.
 Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 3:12.