Harold W. Attridge: New Testament passages on same-sex relations must be read in context

Views Harold W. Attridge / October 2, 2022 Print this:
"Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Several New Testament passages often cited in discussions of the Christian assessment of same-sex relations present two sets of issues: what the text originally meant and what role they might play in constructing a contemporary ethical stance.

Romans 1:26-27

Without a doubt, the most prominent text is part of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, but the aforementioned verses need to be cited in a larger context provided here.

While claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for the likeness of an image of mortal man or of birds or of four-legged animals or of snakes. Therefore, God handed them over to impurity through the lusts of their hearts for the mutual degradation of their bodies. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

Therefore, God handed them over to degrading passions. Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another. Males did shameful things with males and thus received in their own persons the due penalty for their perversity.And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper. 

They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Rom 1:22-32).

The larger context reminds us that Paul’s overall argument in this section of Romans is that all human beings are sinful and in need of the righteousness that God has freely given to all, through the faith that Christ inaugurated. In order to make his point, Paul first deploys what is probably boilerplate Jewish rhetoric denouncing the wickedness of the Gentile world.

Paul will soon turn the tables and declare those who make this claim to be guilty of sin as well, but here he uses their rhetoric. He is not analyzing the principles of proper sexual behavior or examining its variety. He is following in the familiar footsteps of powerful Jewish critics of the Gentile world.

“None of the biblical texts mentioning sexual immorality provides a general framework for thinking about sexual ethics.”

Paul’s rhetoric polemicizes against idolatry, arguing that those who worship idols have been abandoned by God to their most base desires and practices. “They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite” (Rom. 1:29). This is not ethical analysis—it is a prophetic denunciation. 

In its focus on the role of “degrading passions,” Paul’s language reflects the influence of Stoic moralizing, which sharply contrasted reasoned, moral behavior with irrational emotional drives that gain control over the human self. The critique turns first to sexual behavior involving “unnatural” activity, a judgment that continues to reflect Stoic moralizing.

Paul declaims: “Their females exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the males likewise gave up natural relations with females and burned with lust for one another.” Paul clearly denounces same-sex behavior, while he does not explain exactly why it is “unnatural.” He probably does not have in mind the kind of “natural law” thinking that would later emerge in Catholic moral theology. 

It may be debated whether the judgment about the morality of sexual behavior, according to “natural law” theory, is correct. According to that theory, the “ends” of particular actions are determined by the Creator. The end, or telos, of human sexual activity is twofold: to unite the human beings who engage in it and to produce offspring.

In official Catholic teaching, both of those ends must be at least possible for a sexual act to be moral. Hence same-sex activity, which cannot end in reproduction, is deemed immoral, as is artificial contraception. Many people would question that reasoning, even if one assumes the premise that moral ends are built into the created order.

Why do both “ends” of a sexual act have to be present to guarantee its moral character? Certainly in the case of artificial contraception, the sensus fidelium is that it is not immoral.

Whatever one may think of “natural law” reasoning, it is not what Paul pursues. Rather, he works with an untested assumption that same-sex attraction and activity is not to be found among other animals. Other first-century moralists influenced by Cynic and Stoic traditions made similar appeals. Should a contemporary Catholic ethic of sexuality be grounded in such a set of assumptions? I would hope not.

Paul, and the Jewish preaching that inspired this passage of Romans, may have objected to certain kinds of same-sex behavior on grounds that most moderns would share. Coerced and exploitative sexual relations were no doubt a feature of many same-sex relations in Paul’s world. Such concerns need to be explicitly articulated and addressed in developing an ethic of sexual relations.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Paul writes First Corinthians from Ephesus to a community he founded, in order to answer questions about controversial issues. In the process, he offers guidance and admonitions about behavior, as he does in chapter 6. In the previous chapter, Paul had addressed a particular case of improper behavior: a man marrying his stepmother.

He then chides the Corinthians for engaging in lawsuits against one another, not what members of the Body of Christ do! These specific cases lead to a more general admonition about proper moral behavior, which is required for salvation.

Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. 

That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

The bottom line is to remind the Corinthians that they have been sanctified through their baptism and that, in their new life, they need to avoid things recognized as immoral. As was true in Romans, Paul’s admonition is not an analysis of ethical principles nor an application of general norms to specific cases. It assumes agreed upon vices and sins that are to be avoided.

Most of these are clear enough: theft, greed, drunkenness and slander are incompatible with membership in the Body of Christ. Paul begins with a number of sexual matters, some of which are also clear enough; fornication and adultery are to be avoided, along with idolatry. But then he uses two words, malakoi and arsenokoitai, literally “softies” and “male bedders,” whose meanings have been much debated.

The New American Bible (NAB) translations, “boy prostitutes” and “sodomites,” offer one set of options. Many more have been considered, including “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind,” from the King James Version, and “male prostitutes” and “men who engage in illicit sex,” from the Revised Standard Version.

“The general framework for thinking about sexual morality should not be determined by generalized condemnations of undefined behavior.”

Exactly what behaviors Paul has in mind is not clear. Again, the first-century environment in which prostitution was not uncommon, forced sexual relations with enslaved people was a fact of life and pederasty, although often condemned, was enshrined in classic sources (e.g., Plato’s Symposium) should not be forgotten. This is not a thoughtful analysis of human sexual orientation or activity, but a standard denunciation of Gentile immorality.

1 Timothy 1:10

Another list of vices appears in 1 Timothy 1:10, a letter probably written in Paul’s name by a disciple. The context, like the two earlier texts, sketches an extensive vice list:

We know that the law is good, provided that one uses it as law, with the understanding that law is meant not for a righteous person but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, practicing homosexuals, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching. according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted (1 Tim. 1:8-11).

Two sex-related words appear at the beginning of verse 10: pornoi and arsenoikoitai. The first, which the NAB renders “the unchaste,” is related to the word for “prostitute” and is the root of the word “pornography.” The generic translation of “the unchaste” captures the broad denunciation of inappropriate sexual behavior.

The second word, “male bedders,” also appearing in 1 Corinthians, is too narrowly translated as “practicing homosexuals.” Male behavior is in view, but the precise issue is as uncertain here as in Paul’s genuine letter.

Jude 6-7

One final text is sometimes brought into the discussion of the New Testament and the ethics of same-sex activity. The Epistle of Jude, attributed to a disciple who was probably a relative of Jesus (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3) and a brother of James, probably the author of the epistle of James.

The brief letter offers a general warning against false teachers, described as “godless persons, who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v. 4). These teachers are then compared to Biblical villains:

The angels too, who did not keep to their own domain but deserted their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains, in gloom, for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding towns, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual promiscuity and practiced unnatural vice, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire (vs. 6-7).

The first comparison is the “fallen angels,” who, according to the legend of Genesis 6, had intercourse with human women. The second comparison is to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who according to Genesis 19, attempted to assault two angels sent by God to visit Lot in Sodom.

The locals were, of course, duly punished with sulphur and fire (Gen. 19:24) for their crime. Although the Sodomites gave their name to sinful sexual behavior, their major fault was not respecting Lot’s guests. The phrases referring to the sin of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah emphasize the sexual dimension of their action.

“All of the passages in the New Testament reflect the kind of condemnation of immorality that was part of a Jewish (and then a Christian) critique of contemporary culture.”

The first, ekporneusasai, recalls the pornoi of 1 Tim 1:10, and is appropriately translated as “engage in sexual promiscuity.” The second phrase, apelthousai opiso sarkos eteras, is literally “going after other flesh,” which captures some of the violent aggression in the action condemned.

Violent, coerced sex of any kind is never acceptable. All readers can agree on that principle, whatever assumptions about sexual behavior lie behind these two verses of Jude.

Scripture and contemporary sexual ethics

None of the biblical texts mentioning sexual immorality provides a general framework for thinking about sexual ethics. As noted in connection with Romans, the language of what is “natural” does appear, but that language has little relationship to theories of “natural law.”

All of these passages in the New Testament reflect the kind of condemnation of immorality that was part of a Jewish (and then a Christian) critique of contemporary culture. There were in the first century, as there are today, sexual practices, especially violent and coercive sexual engagement, that deserved negative judgment by readers of scripture and anyone else with a sound moral compass.

Yet the general framework for thinking about sexual morality should not be determined by generalized condemnations of undefined behavior. Our sexual ethics should be more nuanced and sensitive than that, grounded in the command to love, as all Christian ethics should be.

Harold W. Attridge

Harold W. Attridge is a New Testament scholar and retired professor at Yale Divinity School, where he was dean from 2002 to 2012. A former president of the Catholic Biblical Association, he has authored or edited over 20 books since 1981.

All articles by Harold W. Attridge

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1 Comment
  1. In each passage cited, there are more admonitions about entirely NON-sexual issues than otherwise:

    “…They are filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed, and malice; full of envy, murder, rivalry, treachery, and spite. They are gossips and scandalmongers and they hate God. They are insolent, haughty, boastful, ingenious in their wickedness, and rebellious toward their parents. They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless…”

    “…nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers …”

    “…but for the lawless and unruly, the godless and sinful, the unholy and profane, those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the unchaste, […], kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching…”

    Seems to say more about those who ignore the BULK of the passages to condemn the small part….