As a Christian theologian who also is openly gay, I am asked almost daily how I can justify my “lifestyle” as an LGBTQ person with my Christian faith. For years, this question perplexed me and caused me to stay in the closet, believing that God desired for me do my best to either become heterosexual or else to repress this “sinful” desire within me to align with what I believed was the “clear teaching of Scripture” on the LGBTQ identity and relationships.
My chief concern has always to been to honor God and to live in alignment with the truth revealed in Scripture. And so, for the past decade, I have devoted my life to studying and teaching what the Bible says not just about homosexuality, but about sexuality and gender as a whole. My studies have taken me across the country and around the world, visiting ancient biblical sites, consulting with the world’s leading biblical scholars and theologians, obtaining two degrees in biblical theology and leading me to begin a doctorate program focused on sexuality and gender in Scripture.
I guess you could say that I wanted to make sure that I was right on this one; and as a Protestant, one of the chief ways to have confidence in the correctness of one’s beliefs about any issue is through a robust study of the Bible.
After 10 years of critical study, I have become utterly convinced that the Bible does not condemn LGBTQ identities, sexual expression or relationships in any form. But rather than offering a robust, detailed examination of each of the “clobber passages” of the Bible (scriptures cited as condemnation of LGBTQ people), I want to offer a brief summary of the explanation I give when asked what the Bible teaches about LGBTQ identity.
I do this in hopes that it might help other LGBTQ Christians and allies when they are confronted by those who remain convinced that LGBTQ identity and relationships are sinful.
Simply put, the six references to homosexual sex in Scripture are all references not to consensual, loving, same-sex behavior, but references to sexual exploitation, abuse and idolatry. If you open up the Bible to any of the clobber passages and read the entire chapter to which each singular verse or story belongs, you will find multiple references to the worship of idols and to other heinous, exploitative and abusive sins.
In Leviticus 18, for instance, which contains the infamous verse “a man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, for this is an abomination” (22), one only needs to return to the beginning of the chapter to gain an understanding of the context of this condemnation. Verses 1-3 state:
The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.
The context of the chapter is God giving the Israelites a series of commands to not engage in the practices and customs of surrounding pagan nations. Notice, as New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine noted in her piece on Outreach, this list of commands is aimed only at the Israelites and no one else. These aren’t universal moral laws, but laws specific to the religious context of the ancient Israelite people.
The pagan nations of Egypt and Canaan were not devoted to the one true God of the Jewish people, but to a pantheon of gods and goddesses who required various practices and sacrificial offerings that would have been considered blasphemous to Jewish people. Every following command in Leviticus 18, then, should be read in light of this narrow and specific context.
Leviticus 18 focuses primarily on the impure sexual and sacrificial behaviors of these pagan nations. For instance, some ancient Egyptians worshipped the goddess Sakhnet, and every year they would host a feast in her honor that involved drunkenness, dancing and ritual sex. Often, the sex that would occur in these rituals was between people of the same-sex and was what we would consider exploitative and abusive.
There is some evidence that the ancient Canaanites also engaged in such ritual prostitution to worship their goddesses Astarte and Ishtar, among others. Similarly, almost every other sexual prohibition in Leviticus 18 refers to an incestuous practice rather than other general sexual behavior.
Considering this context, it seems clear that whatever Leviticus 18:22 is condemning must be related to either (or both) the idolatrous ritual practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites, or to same-sex incestuous relationships between males. This does not include loving and consensual same-sex relationships.
The same argument applies when examining the most famous New Testament “condemnation” of homosexuality as well: Romans 1. The entire chapter is a description of how the Roman culture descended into idolatry. They go from “knowing God” (v. 21), to worshipping created things (v. 23) and in the context of that idolatry, we’re told:
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (vs. 24-25).
The “therefore” indicates the behavior about to be described is related to, and a result of, the aforementioned idolatry. So, the question we must ask is, “Was there a place in the ancient Roman world where people would engage in homosexual sex in the context of idol worship?” And the answer, unsurprisingly, is “yes.”
Just like the ancient Egyptians and Canaanites, the early Greco-Roman world had many gods and goddesses, including Bacchus, Aphrodite and Voluptas, who were worshipped through “sexual sacrifice.” Similarly, the ancient Roman world had many instances where homosexual sex was encouraged as a symbolic act of domination. Male Roman citizens were permitted to use both conquered men of other nations and young boys for sexual gratification, which is something that the Apostle Paul would have been familiar with as a member of a people who had been conquered and colonized by the Roman Empire.
In other words, the context of Romans 1 clearly indicates that the described sexual behavior isn’t just “regular” sexual intercourse between people of the same sex (which was also common in the Greco-Roman world), but some behavior in relation to either Roman idolatry and/or the immoral, exploitative behavior towards vulnerable populations that was permitted within the Roman Empire.
If you read the other “clobber passages” in Genesis, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and Jude in their literary contexts, every single chapter discusses some sort of same-sex sexual behavior that is tied to exploitation, idolatry and/or cultural differences, rather than offering a straight-forward condemnation of the act of homosexual sex itself. Not to mention that there’s not a single verse that references a condemnation of same-sex romantic relationships—all condemnations center on exploitative and idolatrous sexual behavior.
There is obviously much more to say about each one of these passages, how the church has interpreted them historically and how an anti-LGBTQ posture became a hallmark of modern Christian ethics and theology. (My book The Gospel of Inclusion provides a deeper dive into these topics.) But for our purposes here, I hope this brief exploration of the biblical clobber passages helps you begin to see that, in fact, the Bible is clear in its condemnation in all six of the so-called clobber verses. It’s clearly condemning idolatry, sexual exploitation and abuse.
This seems to be a far timelier and convincing message that the church desperately needs to heed in our modern day. From a biblical perspective, there is no reason to believe that LGBTQ relationships or identities should be condemned by the church. In fact, I believe LGBTQ people and relationships should be celebrated as a unique expression and reflection of God’s creativity and ever-expansive love.