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Does the Bible NOT Oppose Homosexuality? by Robin Scroggs


Robin Scroggs is a professor of Professor of Biblical Theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of numerous books of biblical scholarship, including Jews, Greeks, and Christians (1976) and New Testament and Homosexuality (1983).
In recent years a few adventurous interpreters have boldly claimed that the Bible actually does not oppose homosexuality. Here we are clearly in a different kind of argument, now not over the hermeneutical principles of the application of Scripture but over the directly interpretive task of determining just what Scripture says. In the first instance below, however, the primary tool is psychological.

1. The Bible does not oppose homosexuality because it does not speak of true or innate homosexuality but rather of homosexual acts by people who are not homosexuals. A person may be born, so the argument runs, with a homosexual orientation--or at least is directed toward same-sex fulfillment from his or her earliest days. By those who begin with this judgment such a person may be called an invert. He or she may or may not engage in homosexual acts. In contrast, a pervert is said to be a person who engages in acts contrary to his or her orientation. Thus a heterosexual person who engages in homosexual activity is a pervert, just as a homosexual person would be who engages in heterosexual acts. While there does not appear to be agreement amongst psychologists or sociologists as to cause, there is broad agreement among some of them that "the genuine homosexual condition, or inversion . . . is something for which the subject can in no way be held responsible.... "

The distinction between inversion and perversion is then applied to the relevant biblical texts. "Strictly speaking, the Bible and Christian tradition know nothing of homosexuality both are concerned solely with the commission of homosexual acts.... " Or a similar statement by Seward Hiltner: "At least in its reference to homosexuality, therefore, the Bible does not speak at all to the principal way in which homosexuality must be understood today." If this is so, then the Bible is clearly irrelevant for the contemporary discussion and cannot be used to argue for or against the acceptance or ordination of homosexuals.

2. The Bible does not oppose homosexuality because the texts do not deal with homosexuality in general. Here the key phrase is "in general." Homosexuality may be frowned upon, but the real reason for the biblical injunction lies elsewhere. Again the reader must wait until later chapters to see the detailed exegetical investigations. Here only the conclusions can be listed. Deut. 23:17-18 inveighs against female and male cult prostitutes. But it is at least a strong option that the male prostitute serviced females rather than male". Thus the KJV [King James Version] translation ''sodomite'' has no contemporary scholarly basis and must be judged a mistranslation. Even if such a male did service other males, it is prostitution per se which is prohibited, not homosexuality in general.

Lev. 18:22 and 20:13 clearly legislates against male homosexuality. But why? Is the objection purely sexual, or is it otherwise? One possible answer is that the basic objection is to the wasting of male semen. As the UCC study guide says: "The condemnation of male homosexual acts must be seen in the context of the procreative ethic which it served." Thus the law may be primarily directed not against same-sex relationships in and of themselves but rather against the result of male homosexuality. Since today "wasting of semen" may not be considered a sin at all, the contemporary relevance of the law is nullified.

Similarly these laws can be seen as directed primarily against foreign religious practices. If so, then the separation of Israel from "the nations" and not primarily some horror of homosexuality in itself is the purpose of the prohibitions. Tom Homer defends this view and concludes: "What we do know about these Levitical writers in respect to their aversion to homosexuality is that this aversion was cultic in origin.... "The UCC study guide raises this same possibility, although it prefers not to answer its own question. "The question is whether the code forbade homosexual acts because they were wrong per se, because they violated the procreative ethic, or because they were involved with idolatry?"

Even more popular has been the attempt to deny that the sin of Sodom described in Genesis 19 was sexual in nature. The evil as ascribed to the cities in later Jewish and Christian traditions is not homosexuality. Rather, when the sin is identified, it is lack of hospitality. The citizens do not want to "know" the angels in a sexual sense; their aim is to identify just who these strangers are and perhaps to eject them from their city. As D. S. Bailey summarizes this view: "The association of homosexual practices with the Sodom story is a late and extrinsic feature which, for some reason, has been read into the original account." He is followed by John McNeill: "The sin remains primarily one of inhospitality." Thus Genesis 19 does not attack homosexuality. The story in Judges 19 is susceptible to the same argument.

In I Cor. 6:9 and I Tim. 1:10 the words usually thought to point to homosexuals are extremely ambiguous. One word, malakos, literally means "soft" and is no technical term for a homosexual. The second, arsenokoitai, obviously has sexual connotations. Since, however, the New Testament occurrences are the earliest appearances of the word, it is not easy to be sure what it means. John Boswell in his recent study denies that it refers to a homosexual person in general but rather specifically to the male prostitute, who could serve heterosexual or homosexual clients. At any rate, the sin is prostitution, not homosexuality in itself. If this is so, neither passage condemns homosexuality in general.

It might seem that only a series of verbal pyrotechnics could eliminate the seemingly obvious reference to homosexuality in Romans 1. This has, however, occasionally been attempted. George Edwards in a paper prepared for the UPC Task Force argues forcefully that the statements in 1:26-27 must be seen in light of the larger purpose of Paul in the first two chapters. In Romans 1, Paul describes the fall from true obedience to God and sets out certain sinful consequences of this defection. But then, Paul immediately attacks someone, simply called "the man" with the following words. "Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (Rom. 2:1). From the context Edwards argues that this "man" is the prideful Jewish boaster (cf. 2:17) who thinks himself better than the pagan. The intent of Paul in these chapters is to show the Jew that he is on the same level as the Gentile; both are in need of grace.

Edwards summarizes: "Paul has not introduced the material in 1:18-32 to moralize upon the repulsive character of the unenlightened and certainly not to provide a preview of Christian imperatives which formally begin at Romans 12. Paul takes up in this section the altogether familiar outlook of the Jewish alazon [boaster] so that this alazon is set up for the total deflation that follows in Romans 2. Consequently Rom. 1:18-32 is not paranetic [ethical] material at all." Since the purpose is not ethical exhortations, Edwards believes it illegitimate to use the passage to establish Christian objections to homosexuality. "It is insisted that attacks on homophilic behavior based on Rom. 1:26f are hermeneutically unsound."

Boswell comes to the same conclusion. Listing his claims in two propositions perhaps can communicate most clearly his position. (1) "The point of the passage is not to stigmatize sexual behavior of any sort but to condemn the Gentiles for their general infidelity." (2) "What is even more important, the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he derogates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons." Paul is stigmatizing persons who have gone beyond their own personal nature to commit homosexual acts. But this means they must be by nature heterosexual. Thus Paul does not address the situation of persons who are "by nature" homosexually oriented. This argument depends heavily, of course, on the distinction between inversion and perversion described above.

By these means various scholars have attempted to deny the relevance of some or all of the biblical passages which have been presumed to oppose homosexuality. This is not to say that the scholars I have mentioned would deny the relevance of all of the passages. My purpose, however, is to show that the scholarly machinery is available for one who would want to eliminate the Bible completely from the current discussion. Perhaps the person who comes closest to using them all is Boswell, as can be seen from two of his claims: "In sum, there is only one place in the writings which eventually become the Christian Bible where homosexual relations per se are clearly prohibited--Leviticus--and the context in which the prohibition occurred rendered it inapplicable to the Christian community, at least as moral law." "The New Testament takes no demonstrable position on homosexuality."

Excerpted with permission from The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate by Robin Scroggs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 7-11.


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