A Biblical Sexual Ethic

In the light of the debate on reducing marriage to include same-sex unions, what does the Bible actually teach about same sex relationships?

The Old Testament

Genesis, the first book in the Bible, presupposes that to be human is to share humanity with the opposite sex. This is part of God's original plan for the created order - the creation of the man and the woman. The Genesis narrative is opposed to a Greek myth of an original hominid that was cut in two subsequent to its creation. Such a myth produces a metaphysic that says what is fundamental is “being human”: sexual differences are simply a matter of anatomical “plumbing”. The Bible, on the contrary, says that what is fundamental is your “being a human male or a human female”. There is equality but fundamental difference; and true sexual fulfilment is in the complimentarity of the male and the female - equal but different. That is the message of Genesis 1-2. You then have Genesis 19 and the incidents relating to Sodom. At one stage it was argued that these are not about homosexual behaviour but inhospitality. That is now rejected by serious scholars. The verb “to know” in the account undoubtedly means “to have sex”.

Moving on to Leviticus you find prohibitions on homosexual genital acts (18:22 and 20:13) interestingly sandwiching the great command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18). It is argued, however, that other things are also prohibited in Leviticus that we regularly allow. That is true. But the Church of England interprets the Old Testament following its Article VII. That says: “although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” Article VII, therefore, implies that Christians have long found problems with the application of some of the Old Testament. Interpretation then has to be governed by Article XX. That says: “the Church hath … authority in controversies of faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another.” You must, therefore, go to the New Testament for guidelines to help you understand the Old. You then properly can go back to the Old Testament and interpret it in the light of Christ. What, then, do Jesus and the New Testament have to say?

Jesus’ teaching

Jesus himself did not teach a great deal about homosexual sex. He referred to Sodom in Matthew 11:23-24: “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” He is, therefore, condemning Capernaum’s indifference to himself and his teaching as worse than the violence and sexual sins of Sodom. That is important for all Christians to remember in this current debate.

Jesus also may have been saying something about homosexuality in Matthew 19:12 where he said: “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.” He is teaching that some people do not experience heterosexual marriage because of choice (for “the kingdom of heaven”), while others because of the fallenness of the world - either the fallenness of men (castration or social circumstances), or the fallenness of nature (birth). Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd Century certainly took the latter to refer to “some men, [who] from their birth, have a natural sense of repulsion from a woman.” Most probably Jesus did not teach much on homosexuality because the Jews of his day were strictly opposed to such practices. Judaism was unique among the religions of the Ancient Near East in prohibiting homosexual sex. By forcing the sexual genie, as someone has put it, “into the marital bottle” it had a profound effect on the heightening of male-female marital love and of eroticizing marriage. In some cultures wives were mere child producers: pleasure was obtained from men, mistresses or prostitutes. This prohibition against homosexual relations was part of the process that helped to elevate the status of women.

Jesus, of course, generally upheld the Old Testament laws on sexual behaviour (Matthew 5:27-30; Mark 7:21-23). He only spoke of sexuality in the context of lifelong heterosexual marriage (Matthew 19:4-9). Yes, Jesus stressed the need for love. But nowhere did he teach that a motive of love can justify anything. He never taught his disciples that because of “love” they could ignore the Old Testament moral law: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17).

The New Testament generally

When we look at wider New Testament teaching we can see distinctions made between the Levitical commands. Some of these the New Testament sees as provisional until Christ. That was obviously true of the sacrificial systems and the details of the priesthood. But discerning what is merely cultural or temporary (and so non-binding) from what are fundamental matters of basic morality (and so permanently binding), can only be learnt from seeing what is actually taught in the New Testament. For example, in the Old Testament a “eunuch” was not fully accepted into the worshipping people of God. But in the New Testament the Ethiopian eunuch most certainly was (Acts 8:27-39). By contrast the New Testament makes it clear that practising homosexuals (and for that matter adulterers and fornicators) are still not welcome until they repent.

It used to be said that in New Testament times there was no understanding of a natural homosexual condition: we now know better. That is simply false. Aristotle as early as the fourth century BC certainly distinguished between congenital and conditioned homosexuality. In the Nicomachean Ethics he says that homosexual practice is “sometimes the result of congenital tendencies, sometimes of habit.” This means you cannot ignore Paul in Romans 1 and his teaching on homosexuality. So Paul has to be taken at face value when he says, in Romans 1:24, speaking of the judgment of God on sin: “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural 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 indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” Then referring to these and other sins, Paul concludes, verse 32: “although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.” Of course, that is not the last word from Paul.

The last word is his message of forgiveness at the Cross where Christ died for our sins in our place. In the Church there will be sinners of all sorts including those forgiven of sexual sin. There certainly were at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians in a section on immorality, Paul says this: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:9-11). Paul is saying people can change; and there is evidence that people can and do change today. True, many also are not changed; and there are people, who have experienced the forgiveness of Christ and the power of the Spirit, yet continue to struggle with homosexual temptations. But if we cease to define people by their sexual attractions, they are not “homosexuals”: they are simply “Christians having to deal with inappropriate sexual feelings”. And that is something most Christians have to deal with from time to time. The key is not to be “enticed”. So your strategy must be based on James 1:14-15: “each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” That is why it is important to say “No!” in the early stages. That is why it is very wrong for bishops and other clergy to suggest that homosexual activity (or any sexual intercourse outside marriage) is permitted. It makes it hard for a person who is trying to say “No!” Also the “gay agenda” is very wrong in suggesting a “gay identity”. People are not “homosexuals” - a class on their own. We must insist they are just “people” like everyone else.


Referring to a homosexual orientation, David Mills puts it like this: “an orientation is simply a recurring temptation whether your genes or your brain tissue or your toilet training or the devil or bad companions present it to you.” Of course, the devil works at our weakest points. For some that is sexual temptation. For others it is alcohol. For others it is an uncontrollable temper. For some it is over money. Did the rich young ruler have an orientation to prefer wealth? Surely it is better to say he was tempted to greed. And, of course, heterosexual single people seeking to be faithful to God’s standard of abstinence before and within marriage also often find life hard and may, indeed, be tempted sexually. Such people are too often ignored.

The point is this. We all have different dominant temptations. No one, therefore, can be “holier than thou”. The Bible says we must learn to “put to death whatever belongs to our earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5). But then we are to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

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