by Paul Thomas Cahill*
Most protagonists against the gay experience begin with a simple premise: Gay people are miserable, whether they know it or not; the life style(s) of gay people run the gamut of everything that is tawdry, seamy and nefarious; and most gay people live lives of quiet desperation. Sad to say, this is sometimes true, but it is by no means universal or anywhere near a majority. That it is at all true can be and usually is ascribed to the social environment in which those of us who happen to be gay were nurtured. When the weight of society ranges against you and your innermost desires, is it any wonder that negative self-esteem is the end result? A life of promiscuous sexuality and the debauchery that attaches thereto is not a mystery when viewed in this light. Where in this society are gay relationships or gay sexuality supported? Of course, the answer is obvious, else we wouldn’t be presenting this study. The point is just that. It is a catch twenty-two situation. There would be less promiscuity and debauchery if there were more support; there cannot be more support because society, through its dependence on the traditions of historic Judeo-Christianity, refuses to offer such support; therefore, since gay sexuality has been largely driven underground, there will be promiscuous sexuality and debauchery.
When a man or woman surfaces, however briefly, from a life of debasement, be it drugs or alcohol, bathhouse/public park/bookstore promiscuity, sadomasochistic behavior, etc., it is no wonder that many will begin a search for answers to the ensuing depression? The superficial response of the Church is to offer mystical bandages to real-life emotional hemorrhages. Through insensitive application of biblical injunctions, seen through the lens of tradition, hurting and vulnerable people are exhorted to “come out” of the lifestyle, without regard to the human being behind the behavior.
“If only you just stop doing what you’re doing, you’ll be on the road to recovery,” is often the admonition. But it isn’t quite that simple. While the Gospel is so simple that little children can understand, the principles of Christian living are not so simplistic. Ex-gay ministries are quick to proffer their statistics of their “success” stories, of conversions from gay to straight, or at least, to the uninvolved middle ground, asexuality. What they do not report is the number of human tragedies they are responsible for those who attempted to change, or at least be subjugated to the change ethic, only to heap failure upon failure. And they most definitely do not report the chilling statistics of the number of suicides, especially among the young, who out of sheer desperation after longing for release, can no longer face the prospect of their inability to harmonize their unchangeable orientation with the desired spirituality.
“In the Beginning…”
The starting point in the path toward “evangelical” understanding of homosexuality begins where it all began, the Garden of Eden. It is a given that God, in His act of human creation, created one human male and one human female. Further, He created them in such a manner as to preclude any alternative other than that they be for each other. However, to extrapolate from Adam and Eve and their circumstance to a blueprint for each and every human man and woman ignores a very important fact: These ancestors of the human race, by an exercise of the free will God had given them, caused to enter into that perfect Garden the evil of willful disobedience. This in turn began the deterioration of creation which numbered the days of the creation. As the human race progressed, more and more results of sin became manifest. First, Cain committed fratricide. It only got worse after that, until eventually, God felt compelled to destroy almost the entire human race, save eight souls. But this did not eliminate the results of sin. And to this day, we see its results around us. Sickness, deformity, warfare, cruelty, murder, strife. All that is wrong with this world can be laid at the foot of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God’s Perfect Plan for His creation, as far as its human inhabitants were concerned, was clear. Sin put an asterisk in that plan. As study after study is completed, the genetic/biological component for the predilection for homosexuality becomes increasingly more certain. We may decry this information, but we can no longer deny it. Even Jesus, when instructing his disciples, told them, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matt. 19:12 NIV, emphasis added) A thinking, open-minded person might be inclined to say that the possibilities are very interesting.
The “Sin” of Sodom
The next stop in the panoply of the evangelical argument is Sodom. Yes, the men of Sodom attempted to sexually violate the “male” strangers Lot was boarding. Much is made of the Hebrew word, “yadha” which is translated “know.” The word occurs 943 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and in only ten occurrences is it used to indicate some kind of sexual intercourse. The context would indicate that something other than social information is being sough in this case. This would have, if successful, resulted in gang rape by anal penetration. This was a practice by, among others, middle eastern people to totally humiliate those males they desired to subjugate, be they captives, slaves, or, in this instance, strangers. Without doubt, this was a wanton act of gross inhospitality, and no amount of evangelical waffling on this issue will color it differently. Holding that this single verse clearly demonstrates that every male resident of Sodom (forget about Gomorrah and the other cities of the plain for the moment) was a homosexual as the term is understood today is a stretch of biblical proportions. If Sodom was destroyed because of rampant homosexuality, where is the evidence of it. No mention of Lesbianism amongst the female residents. And what of the children. If all the males were gay, they crossed the line, and often. Lot offered his daughters in lieu of the strangers, something that would hardly have made much of an impact on males inclined to sexual behavior with other males, but certainly would have relevance to a mob bent on rape!
Always allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, here is what the prophet Ezekiel has to say about the matter “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned, they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Eze. 16:49,50, NIV)
Further, Ezekiel is telling the Jews that they are doing more detestable things than even the Sodomites did, yet no one has ever claimed that all the Jews at the time were actively homosexual. It is obvious that what ever the sin of Sodom was, universal homosexuality was most definitely not it. The Authorized Version translators of the Bible notwithstanding,”Sodomy” is not a legitimate English word to describe the sin of Sodom as equivalent to homosexuality.
“It Is an Abomination”
Next we come to the Law Code of Leviticus. This will pose several problems for us, mistranslation being not the only one. First, the Hebrew. Two words are involved: “toevah” and “kadesh.” In Lev. 19:22, the KJV has, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” The NIV translators have it “detestable.” The word “toevah” does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft, but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, involving ethnic contamination or idolatry (John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, pg. 100). In Lev. 20:13, the proscription against “man lying with a man as one lies with a woman” appears, on the surface to be a blanket condemnation of homosexual behavior, until one views the verse in the context, not only of the Law Code, but the cultural environment as well.
The Lord God called the Hebrews (the Children of Jacob/Israel) out from among the indigenous population of Canaanitic peoples, which were worshippers of other gods and rituals. The Decalogue stated that they were to have no other gods before them, and that was first and foremost. In Deuteronomy 23:18, we read, “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore, or the price of a dog, into the house of the LORD thy God for any vow: for even both these are abomination unto the LORD thy God.” “The price of a dog” refers to the Hebrew “keleb, keh’-leb” from an unused root meaning to yelp, or else to attack, a dog, hence (by euphemism) a, male prostitute. In 1 Kings 15:12, we read, “And he took away the sodomites out of the land, and removed all the idols that his fathers had made.” The Hebrew word the translators ascribed “sodomites” to, is “qadesh,” a (quasi) sacred person, i.e. (techn.) a (male) devotee (by prostitution) to licentious idolatry, unclean.
Among the practices of the Canaanites, temple prostitution, male and female, was part and parcel of ecstatic worship. It is difficult in the extreme for we products of 20th Century civilization to envisage sexual intercourse as part of ritualistic acts of worship, but for many centuries, mankind believed that in the transmission of the “seed” coupled with fertility mysticism, good thing were bound to happen. But the behavior was in conjunction with “other gods” and so was to be proscribed. No doubt that male homosexual behavior received a less than favorable acceptance in the patriarchal society of the Hebrews. However, the so-called “blanket condemnation of all forms of homosexual behavior that is crystal clear to our understanding” is not borne out in the texts in question. They are specific and direct, dealing only with ritual prostitution used in conjunction with worship of the divine, and not to be tolerated because of the idolatrous aspects. That is the only thing certain.
David and Jonathan
I want to say something in passing regarding David and Jonathan. I am not here making a case for either David’s or Jonathan’s orientation as being homosexual. Since constitutional homosexuality was not even conceptualized until the late 1800’s, pre-exhilic Hebrews and other middle eastern peoples cannot be faulted if they didn’t have hard and fast concepts of sexuality. That there was a lack of cultural stigma against male-to-male sexual behavior (in a non-ritualistic sense) can be claimed as the result of anthropological investigation into the behaviors and mores of the times. Could David and Jonathan have had an erotic relationship conjointly with their intensely stated love for each other that surpassed that of the love of a woman (2 Sam. 1:26) Only myopic evangelicals and Orthodox Jews insist that there could not have been any eroticism between them, because they would not have violated God’s commands. Yet, David’s life is replete with willful disobedience in other areas, so why not here as well, assuming that they had the same view towards Leviticus as contemporary evangelicals do. Rather, if we see that male-to-male non-ritualistic eroticism could be considered apart from the Levitical Code, David and Jonathan’s possible sexual liaisons become possible and understandable. This takes nothing away from David’s later escapades with Bathsheba and others.
“Malokoi and Arsenokoitai”
The remainder of the Biblical record revolves around the Apostle Paul and his thoughts and pronouncements. I will first deal with 1 Corinthians/l Timothy, and then deal with the first chapter of Romans.
The cultural environment of the Greek world of the 1st Century, as far as homosexual behavior was concerned dealt with two major areas. First, there was the refined temple prostitution activity. Only now, it had taken on a significant self-mutilation aspect that made it particular detestable. In the course of ritual worship, temple prostitutes, male and female, would have sexual intercourse with worshippers during drunken orgiastic excesses, often including self-emasculation. The Temple of Diana at Ephesus was notorious for such practices, and Paul, first as a Pharisee of the Pharisees and then as the Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ to the gentile world, would have been utterly appalled at such spectacles. Paul spent some considerable time in Ephesus and Corinth, also a center of Grecian temple worship, including the afore mentioned prostitution. Secondly, Hellenistic society practiced the institution of male mentorship of older established man to younger protege. This often included anal intercourse by the older upon the younger, usually until the young boy reached puberty. It was not unheard of for the relationship to continue beyond puberty, but this did not receive universal social approval. In fact, many of the leaders of Athens wrote extensively against the practice, out of a sense of the betrayal of the younger man’s right to progress into a proper manhood.
This practice was called “paiderastes,” from which we get the word identifying anal intercourse, “pederasty,” losing to some degree the identification with children, except in the term, “pederast” or “pedophile.”
Paul would have certainly known of the “paiderastes” and would no doubt not have approved, in view of the problems with adult/child power inequities. But he failed to mention this in any of his letters. What he did mention, on two occasions, was “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai,” which were enigmatic for the Church for the first 400 years. “Malakoi,” meaning soft, in fabric or morality, is not as clear in meaning in the vice lists Paul includes in his letters to the Corinthian Church or to his star pupil, Timothy. There has been much speculation as to his exact meaning, but there is no positive evidence to indicate his meaning beyond this speculation. He could have meant the morally lax or the sexually impure, but anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s.
“Arsenokoitai” poses a slightly different problem. It is a compound word, composed of the roots “arsen,” man or male, and “koitai,” beds, usually the marriage bed, from which the English word “coitus” is derived. Since there existed a better descriptive word, “paiderastes” to describe more general homosexual behavior, Paul must have had something else in mind. In view of his attitudes toward the ritualistic practices in the temples, including the prostitution, this could have been what he had in mind, there being no specific word in existence to describe it. An alternative may be indicated by the fact that the compound word itself is in the plural form. It may mean nothing more complex than “male sexual beds” and be Paul’s coining of a word signifying a promiscuous heterosexual male. We cannot know for certain, but what it most definitely doesn’t mean is “homosexuals” which many modem English Bible translations make it mean. This is not some hopeless, wild-eyed attempt at Scripture-twisting to suit the homosexually committed justify their Biblical approval, or at the least, non-condemnation. It is rather an honest attempt to understand the “clear” intent and meaning of Biblical passages in light of the culture and environment of the 1st Century.
It is interesting to note that Paul further admonishes that “so were some of you.” Since in another part he plainly states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the “some” is not meant to be exclusionary of others. Rather, Paul is indicating that the unregenerate will not inherit the kingdom, and he gives examples. The malakoi and arsenokoitai were placed in the same category as thieves, the greedy or covetous, drunkards, slanderers or revilers and swindlers. Since Paul was a precise writer, does it stand to reason that he would strain at the gnat of a rather insignificant portion of the population, the homosexuals, and ignore the much more populous heterosexually promiscuous?
Next, we come to Paul’s letterto the Roman Churches. It is considered to be the best and most concise compendium of Christian theology ever done by one man and published in one work.
And as such, Paul goes to great lengths to lay out the ground work for his system of theology. Naturally, just as John does when he describes Jesus Christ as the Word Incarnate, Paul begins by describing the state of humankind, from the creation to the incarnation. In view of the fact that Paul’s Bible was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, which contained the Apocrypha, and he, being a trained Pharisee in the law and Scriptures, he would have been very familiar with the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, especially the 13th and 14th chapters which have close parallels to the 1st chapter of Romans. Keeping in mind that Paul is not far away from the consciousness of the real world he resides in, his basic understanding of the human condition is one of idolatry, and all human moral activity revolves around the worship of the gods. Paul is not writing about human beings, in their rebellion and wickedness, willfully and voluntarily converting themselves from heterosexuals into homosexuals; rather, he is talking about idolatrous ritual worship practices in the temples of the civilized world he knows only too well. He is most certainly not condemning an innate homosexual orientation that he could not have conceived. He probably would not have approved of “paiderastes,” but we do not have his thoughts on the subject. We don’t know what he would have thought about homosexuality as it is understood by most of the medical and psychological practitioners of today, other than those who are also evangelicals and wear permanent blinders.
The Bottom Line
Finally, there is the small matter of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, Son of the Most High God and the Perfect, unblemished Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. He came, not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill the Law. But what does that mean? Are we above the Law? As Paul said, “Absolutely not!” (Rom. 6:15 7:7) Rather, he said that we would not have known what sin was except for the Law it pointed the way. But it could never produce righteousness or salvation it took the atoning sacrifice of the Lamb to provide for salvation. We are absolved from the penalty for transgressing the Law, which we cannot help doing. The Law leads to only one destiny death.
Christ fulfilled the Law by taking our place in death as the penalty for sin. Each and every one of us, man and woman, black and white, Jew and Gentile, gay and straight, fail to hit the mark of God’s perfect standard (“hamartia”), even willfully missing the mark! God doesn’t demand perfection of us prior to our becoming His adopted children. Jesus’s righteousness covers us. Our lives are records of our path to perfection, as God purifies us for His presence through trials and testings. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV) Paul told us how to achieve it when he wrote, “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Rom. 10:9,10, NIV)
Evangelical Christians spend so much time and energy trying to find ways how to exclude people from the “koinonia” (fellowship) of the Church, yet Jesus ate and fellowshipped with outcasts and sinners: lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes and (yeech!) Samaritans! He even had kind words to say for eunuchs made that way from birth (eunuchs were more than men without testicles, but men incapable of marriage and/or fathering children). Will the Church ever pull its head out of the traditional sands of ignorance? I fear, with the wagon train mentality of “us v. them,” the answer is not favorable. I plead for tolerance and openness, for understanding and an end to hatred. And some are even daring to practice true agape love, bereft of the hatred and fear that comes from an inability to divorce “hating the sin” from the sinner. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of gay men and women are rushing into an eternity without the knowledge of the Savior. They will pay the ultimate price for unbelief, but can the Church avoid censure and sanction for their willful disobedience? I submit that the answer is in the negative.
P.S. This is by no means an exhaustive study of the Biblical record regarding the “clear” condemnation of homosexuality. For further study, consult the attached bibliography.
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Bell, Alan P. and Weinburg, Martin S. Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.
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On the Complexity of Symbols. Boston, Beacon Press, 1986.
Christensen, Michael J. The Samaritan’s Imperative: Compassionate Ministry to People Living with AIDS. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1991.
Christensen, Michael J. City Streets, City People: A Call for Compassion. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1988.
Clark, Donald H. Loving Someone Gay. Berkeley, CA Celestial Arts, 1987
Coleman, Peter. Gay Christians: A Moral Dilemma. London, SCM Press/Philadelphia, Trinity Press International, 1989.
Cosby, Michael R. Sex in the Bible: An Introduction to What the Scriptures Teach Us About Sexuality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1984.
Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1988.
Day, David. Things They Never Told You in Sunday School: A Primer for the Christian Homosexual. Austin, TX, Liberty Press, 1987.
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Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1983
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Ebert, Alan. The Homosexuals: The First Book in Which Homosexuals Speak for and about Themselves. New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976.
Edwards, George R. Gay/Lesbian Liberation: A Biblical Perspective. New York, The Pilgrim Press, 1984.
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Martin’s Press, 1988.
McNeill, John J. Taking a Chance on God: Liberating Theology for Gays, Lesbians, and Their Lovers, Families and Friends. Boston, Beacon Press, 1988.
McNeill, Donald P., Morrison, Douglas A., and Nouwen, Henri J. M. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1982.
McNeill, John J. The Church and the Homosexual: Updated and Expanded Edition (3rd).
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Another Christian View. Revised and Updated. New York, HarperCollins, 1994
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Relcaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past. New York, Meridian, 1989
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Faith. Freedom CA, The Crossing Press. 1991
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Daily Meditations). San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1994