October 21, 2017

The Hermeneutics of Homosexuality

Mark Ward

Originally published in 2013, this article deals with Biblical interpretation and the raging controversy of homosexuality.

Changing American Attitudes toward Homosexuality

The pace of change in American attitudes toward homosexuality is something no one could have predicted when a Democratic president signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

Witness the difference even four years can make: When president-elect Barack Obama selected Evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer in 2009, a hue and cry was soon raised over Warren’s opposition to homosexuality. Apparently, a compromise was reached: homosexual Episcopalian bishop V. Gene Robinson got to pray too.

One term later, President Obama asked another evangelical pastor to pray at his second inaugural: Louie Giglio. Same hue, same cry. But this time Giglio backed away. It’s hard not to see this as a metaphor for the balance of national power on this issue. Change can happen fast.

The “Gay Christians”

The temptation for contemporary Fundamentalists will be to violate the clear teaching of Scripture (1 Peter 3:14–16; 4:12–16) by returning railing for railing and then bemoaning our loss of cultural influence. But it seems unlikely that we Fundamentalists, known for our rock-hard backbones, will ever give in to non-Christian pressure to justify homosexual acts.

Yet there is another danger waiting on the other side, even for Fundamentalists. It is the set of plausible arguments put forward by “gay Christians.”

There are numbers of them out there, some theologically liberal and others apparently quite conservative, but all desiring to be both Christian and gay. They even appeal directly to Scripture.

It’s their desire to remain in some sense Christian that makes them part of a relatively new brand of homosexual activist. Of course, Jesus warned some time ago about a false teacher “which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication” (Rev. 2:20). But I am not aware of any group in church history that has tried openly to wed “gay” and “Christian.”

Gay Christians don’t openly dismiss the Bible. In booklets, blog posts, and earnest YouTube videos, they instead put forth a case that the Bible you’ve always read doesn’t say what you’ve always assumed.

This means — and here’s my motivation for this article — that their arguments will sound persuasive to some people who want to retain their Christianity and engage in (or defend, or just tolerate) homosexual practice. This means, I think, that their arguments are coming your way, and you need to be ready — not so much because NBC News is likely to interview you but because you must exercise loving Christian watchcare for fellow souls in your church who experience same-sex attraction. They are the ones most likely to be hurt, confused, and tempted by the gay Christians.

Five “Gay Christian” Arguments

This issue of FrontLine is focused on Biblical hermeneutics — the art and science of Biblical interpretation. And the five gay Christian arguments below all raise important hermeneutical questions.

1. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality.

This argument is, of course, irrelevant. The red letters in our Bibles are not any more or less divine than the black ones. And it’s inaccurate, because Jesus did not have to mention homosexuality to condemn it.

One of the most powerful arguments against homosexuality is what might be called the “natural law” argument. Quite obviously, men and women were designed for each other. Paul calls this the “natural use” (Rom. 1:26, 27), and Jesus upheld it too, when arguing against divorce. Jesus considered God’s original design for human sexuality to be authoritative: “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:4).

2. Moses and Paul’s condemnations of homosexuality were colored by their limited knowledge: they were talking only about the exploitative forms of homosexuality common in their cultures.

This argument raises a very important hermeneutical issue. How necessary is an understanding of ancient history for accurate interpretation of the Bible?

Answer: It’s highly necessary. But does it all have to come from outside sources? What about the Bible’s own descriptions of the ancient world? Indeed, how many cultural practices in the Bible (levirate marriage, taking off one’s shoe to seal a deal, a betrothal period) are impossible to understand without a history book in hand? Generally speaking, the Bible provides enough information within its own pages to understand these practices.

I’m not arguing that Bible dictionaries are worthless. I am arguing, however, for what we call “the sufficiency of Scripture.” Did the Christian church have to wait till the development of the science of archaeology (just 150 years ago) to find out what Paul really meant when he condemned “men with men working that which is unseemly”? And why should I assume that ancient homosexual practices are clear but Paul isn’t?

Even the left-leaning Anglican bishop N. T. Wright has said,

When I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular . . ., they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention, it’s already there in Plato.[1]

3. The Old Testament condemns eating shellfish and wearing mixed fabrics, things every Christian does. Christians are picking and choosing the texts they want to obey.

I admit it. I have consumed shrimp while wearing a polycotton dress shirt — in a church, no less. Those are clear violations of Leviticus 11:12 and 19:19, respectively. And yet, sandwiched in between those two passages I seem to ignore is a verse I continue to appeal to, Leviticus 18:22: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” How do I justify this apparent inconsistency?

This argument can’t be answered in one line, but there is an answer. Christians have always known — since the time of Acts 15, at least — that the relationship of Gentile Christians to the Mosaic Law carries some difficulties. Jesus Himself recognized that followers of the Lord would have legitimate questions about the law and the Christian. He openly said He came to fulfill, not abolish, the law (Matt. 5:17). The law’s sacrifices, of course, were fulfilled in Christ’s own sacrifice (Heb 10:11–18). But Christ’s redemptive work also fulfilled the function of the Law as a teacher (Gal. 3:24, 25). That means that laws such as the one about mixed fabrics serve as an illustration of holiness but are no longer binding. The teacher’s lesson has been taught.

But as the New Testament makes clear, it’s still wrong to break the moral commands God gave before Christ. It’s always wrong to worship other gods, to murder, to commit adultery — and to practice homosexuality. Jesus did not dismiss the moral claims of the law. He showed that, in fact, the law concerned itself not only with our outward acts but also with our inner desires (Matt. 5:27, 28).

This is a complex issue worthy of your study. Don’t let this argument take you by surprise.

4. We don’t really know what the Greek word translated “homosexuals” in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 means.

Paul was a Pharisee who knew his Bible well. When he twice condemns arsenokoitai there is good evidence to suggest that he invented the word as a way of summarizing the prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus. This is the argument of the current standard conservative scholarly work on homosexuality, Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics.[2]

Admittedly, it is difficult to pin down the meaning of uncommon words with absolute certainty (and this sword cuts both ways: prohomosexual interpreters can’t absolutely rule out the traditional understanding). But given the Bible’s overall stance toward homosexuality, a pro-gay interpretation is unlikely, to say the least.

5. Ezekiel 16 never mentions homosexuality among the sins of Sodom.

It is true that homosexuality is never named explicitly in Ezekiel 16; the text refers only to an “abomination” the Sodomites committed (vv. 49, 50).

But remember, everything the Jews in Ezekiel’s day knew about Sodom — which had perished over a thousand years before — is contained in Genesis 19. What other abomination could Ezekiel be referring to than what Jews then and Christians today can read in Genesis?

Perfect certainty isn’t available here, either, but it doesn’t have to be. The case against gay Christian arguments is cumulative; it doesn’t rise or fall based solely on any of the Bible texts in this article.

The Future

“Gay Christian” arguments have been knocking down opposition to our left: unbelievers have been the first to pick them up, then liberal Protestants, then left-leaning Evangelicals[3] — tomorrow certain Fundamentalists?

I’m not fear-mongering, nor is this prospect as implausible as it initially sounds. The American values of equality and liberty have had a deeply formative influence on Fundamentalists (they have partly Biblical roots, after all). Already it’s tempting to nod when we hear, “The government has no business intruding itself into the bedroom!” Toss in some hermeneutical uncertainty about whether and how the Old Testament applies today (why do we eat shellfish, anyway?) and Fundamentalist opposition to homosexual marriage, at the very least, may fall.

As cultural pressure to accept homosexuality mounts, it will be very tempting to hedge. For the good of the culture and the good of Christians who experience homosexual temptation, get your hermeneutics in line now — so that your backbone can be not merely strong as a rock, but truly founded on one.

Mark L. Ward Jr., PhD, is a Bible curriculum author and Biblical Worldview Team member at BJU Press. He is a weekly evangelist in a Sunday outreach service at Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2013. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. National Catholic Reporter interview, May 21, 2004. []
  2. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 303–39. See also James B. DeYoung, “The Source and NT Meaning of Αρσενοκοιται, with Implications for Christian Ethics and Ministry,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 3:2 (1992): 191–215. []
  3. Whether or not writers such as Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evans, and Rob Bell are still in any sense Evangelicals, they certainly came from Evangelical backgrounds. []


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