Chapter 8

New Testament references (see also Addendum on Jude7)

The Gospels

We come now to the New Testament of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and what he taught about homosexuality, which was - precisely nothing!

He dealt with sexual sin. Adultery comes up in each of the gospels: Matthew 5:27-28; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12 (the Church sometimes changes Christ's teaching); Luke 18:20 (the same as Matthew 19:9); John 4:5-42 (also John 8:1-11; see below). Prostitution comes up in Luke 7:36-50 (see below).

Jesus reinforced the Ten Commandments, but interpreted the law on sexual sin, revenge etc. in a more spiritual way (see Matthew 5:27ff; 38ff ), and showed great compassion for sexual offenders. Instance the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11): the law demanded her death, and without his protection she would have died at the hands of other sinners.

Then there was the prostitute who came to Simon the Pharisee's home (Luke 7:36-50), and who is remembered as the one who, because she loved much, was forgiven much. Tradition has it that Mary Magdalen was also such a forgiven woman.

Jesus did not treat them according to the law, but with compassion, even though they had committed sexual sins that demeaned themselves and others.

Did Jesus heal a sick homosexual when he healed the centurion's servant (Luke 7:2-10)? It would have been entirely consistent with his compassionate love, (and with the centurion's surprising use of the Greek 'entimos' [precious/beloved] and 'pais' [child/son] to refer to a male slave).

Roman officers often had 'love' servants (who were dear to them) when on tour in difficult, far- way stations such as Israel. Was the servant in this account just such a one? Roman soldiers were not otherwise generally known for their compassion to slaves, who were mere possessions. More usually, slaves were subject to cruel, brutal treatment and sexual abuse - that is, unless loved by their master, who then often treated them well. But perhaps this centurion was different - we shall never know.

But you will look in vain for any teaching or guidance from Jesus on the issue of homosexuality, whether positive or negative. This fact is both interesting and enlightening. The Living Word is silent, and there are only words of welcome and love. Perhaps those who take the name of Christ should behave likewise.

Paul's key letters in context

 When we look at Paul's letters, there is a distinct change of emphasis and tone. Why is this?

The reason is that Paul saw the extent and influence of idolatry, and was obviously shocked by it. Fertility worship (and Emperor worship in key Roman centres) was found all around the eastern Mediterranean.

It corrupted male and female, young and old alike. There seemed no limit to the depravity which idolatry opened up to the worshippers of these gods. It was believed that these fertility gods had to be 'awoken' to their work by the 'sympathetic' sexual activity of those who worshipped them - a kind of 'pump-priming'.

 What had begun as worship was corroding the lives of individuals and society. Jews had constantly to struggle to keep such worship from corrupting their worship of God. Paul saw the same problem for the Church.

The practice and influence of idolatry was especially strong in major centres of population such as Rome, Corinth and Ephesus, as well as in places like Paphos in Cyprus, where Aphrodite was said to 'come out of the sea' to influence and corrupt nations.

This is the cultural background to the three key passages in the New Testament that relate to the issue of homosexuality, which were in Paul's letters to the Romans, to the Corinthians and to Timothy at Ephesus.

Rome had become a moral cesspit where sadistic violence and sexual depravity went hand in hand. The Romans were by nature a cruel people. Otto Keifer describes this well in his book 'Sexual life in ancient Rome'.

In earlier times, the nature of Rome's religious convictions had lent disciplined strength to society. But the impact of foreign gods - the earth and fertility goddesses Cybele and Isis, and Dionysus the god of wine and happiness - brought about the decay of Roman religion, and of Roman life.

Part of the price of being a nation that had subdued others had been to become influenced by some of the nations it had subdued. The Roman writer Tacitus described Rome as 'the common sewer into which everything infamous and abominable flows like a torrent from all quarters of the world.'

There were forms of 'marriage', but no constraints on sexual activity outside it. This was the norm throughout many nations in those times. And Roman festivals and initiations were a time for orgiastic pleasure - sometimes sadistic sexual activity, as some initiates were violated against their will. The mixture of sex, hedonism and violence proved a 'heady' brew.

Slavery compounded the problem. Masters and mistresses could do what they wished with their slaves, who had no rights. Lust could be, and was, satisfied with the nearest available (or most desirable) slave, with nothing to prevent it.

Rome was one of the worst centres, if not the worst, where all kinds of sexual abuse and depravity took place, and idolatry and slavery were at the centre of this corruption.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan port at the hub of major trade routes. Its character was similar to that of Rome, to whom the city owed allegiance.

Corinth was a byword for licentiousness. To behave 'like a Corinthian' meant to be debauched. Local influences such as the Temple of Aphrodite the fertility goddess, combined with a large number of people living away from their home environment, helped create a situation where 'anything goes'.

Ephesus housed the main temple of the fertility goddess Artemis - another corrupting religious influence. As the main Roman city of Anatolia, it shared all the characteristics of Rome: the arena with its games and sadistic gladiatorial fighting; its 'earth goddess' Artemis linked to Cybele, the 'goddess of love outside marriage'; as well as Emperor worship and other gods.

The corrupting effects of fertility religion were seen in many centres around the Mediterranean, but Rome, Corinth and Ephesus were among the worst, linked by trade routes and depravity.

This was the scene that Paul surveyed in the eastern Mediterranean, and the young churches in those cities had to be warned. False gods and false teaching corrupted individuals and whole societies. These foul religions had the opposite effect of the gospel of Jesus, which brought real love and dignity to those whom the Gospel truly touched.

In the light of this cultural background, we shall now consider the three New Testament passages in detail.

Romans 1:18-32

The immorality of Rome forms the backdrop to this passage in Romans, which must be read and understood in the context of the case Paul is making for the guilt of humankind. The ancient writers of the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings saw a pattern - a cycle - in the history of Israel, and interpreted it accordingly.

In the same way, Paul saw a pattern whereby humanity goes wrong and suppresses the truth about God.

The argument begins thus (summarising verses 18-22): humankind rejects the plain truth about the Creator God, even though the evidence of his work is around for all to see.

Then (summarising verses 23-25) humankind turns to idolatry, exchanging the truth of God for a lie, and the glory of God for images resembling humans or animals. (The human images were probably the statues of goddesses like Aphrodite - although Paul was probably thinking of Emperor worship too. Perhaps the most corrupting god we humans worship is ourselves. Paul would doubtless have had all these in mind.)

Consequently (summarising verses 26-32) humankind no longer acknowledges God, and becomes debased in life, with passions perverted, and filled with every kind of wickedness.

So this passage is about what happens when people refuse to recognise the living God and turn to idolatry.

Paul was certain of this because he had seen it. The argument hinges around verses 23-25, and also verse 26, which starts 'Because of this ...' Paul saw idolatry as the reason why there was so much wickedness and depravity in the world.

Worship of other gods, especially the gods of fertility, had corrupted and depraved those involved.

Rome was a major centre of such idolatry. It was not that they were irreligious but that their worship was misplaced. Every kind of sexual or other immorality was found in Rome; prostitution (male and female) and pederasty were common, and adultery rife. The situation was perhaps epitomised by Empress Agrippina, who served in a brothel out of sheer lust.

People had become dissatisfied with their natural heterosexuality and its moral expression, and were turning to what were for them unnatural acts.

The picture painted by Paul, (especially in verses 26-32), is not one I associate with the lesbian and gay Christian people known to me, any more than with the heterosexual Christians I know. Paul is not addressing the love of homosexual or heterosexual people - love which is God-centred, responsible, faithful, committed and enriching - but the depravity resulting from worship of other than our loving Creator God.

Those who 'tear' a verse or two out of their proper context here to condemn all homosexuals and all same-sex relationships - including the truly loving expression of that sexuality - are, sadly, abusing the scriptures.

In Romans 8:30-34, Paul writes:

'... those whom he called, he also justified ... If God is for us, who can be against us? ... Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies! Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.' [NRSV]

And as we are reminded in Romans 8:1:

'There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!' [NRSV]

1 Corinthians 5:9-13; 6:7-11

Corinth was like Rome in its sexual immorality. Sexual immorality (a man sleeping with his stepmother) had raised its ugly head in the church, so Paul was worried and angry (1 Corinthians 5:1, 9-13). In 1 Corinthians 6:7-9 he inveighs against various wrongdoers as he develops the point he is making: that by going to law against fellow Christians they are no better than the wrongdoers he goes on to list in verses 9- 10.

But take careful note of the people to whom Paul is referring. For this is quite different from the logical argument he sets out in Romans. It is a list of the wrongdoers who, he believes, will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

In describing the sexual sins, Paul uses four Greek words; the first two are:

* pornoi - the sexually immoral (Paul has already used this of the man sleeping with his stepmother);

* moichoi - adulterers.

But it is the other two words that are often used to condemn homosexuals, so let's look more closely at them both:

* malakoi is the first term and literally means 'soft'. In the sexual sense it seems to refer to the passive partner in male prostitution; it is equivalent to the term used in Deuteronomy 23:17, which is how it is translated in the NIV and NRSV:

-'male prostitutes' [NIV/NRSV]

 -'homosexual perverts' [GNB]

 -'sexual perverts' [RSV]

 -'catamites' (boys kept for same-sex sexual acts) [Jerusalem Bible].

But note the wide variation in the translation of this term!

* arsenokoitai is the second term, and derives directly from those texts in Leviticus that we examined in chapter 7; Paul is pointedly referring back to Leviticus 20:13, where the phrase 'ho an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gunaikos' (translated today, possibly incorrectly, as 'he who lies with a man as with a woman' ) would have been familiar to him from the Septuagint (the 3rd century BC Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).

The Leviticus reference, which we have already examined in context in chapter 7, is almost certainly where Paul gets his word from. This word, which is extremely rare, is used only twice in the New Testament - both times in Paul's letters.

In view of what Paul saw on his travels, he may well have used the term to include other forms of sexual abuse between males such as prostitution or pederasty, where lust and not love was the motive. But we don't know. We simply know the origin of the term, and that Paul, a former Pharisee and Rabbi steeped in knowledge of the Law, would have known that too.

When we look at the interpretation of 'arsenokoitai' in modern versions of 1 Corinthians 6:9, we understand the difficulty the translators must have had, but there seems to be no acknowledgment of the source of the Greek word from the Leviticus text. And again there is a wide variety in how 'arsenokoitai' is translated:

-'homosexual perverts' [GNB]

-'sexual perverts' [RSV]

-'sodomites' [NIV/JB/NRSV].

These translations generally seem to indicate that the translators do not sufficiently understand the terms 'malakoi' and arsenokoitai'. Although in the right ballpark, the range of translation shows they are obviously not accurately understood, and as a result the loving and good are 'lumped-in' with the 'abusive'; those who should be encouraged are indistinguishable from those who should be challenged.

The translations seem to be reflecting the corrupt morality of Corinth rather than the origin and associated meaning of the Greek term. And of course, by the very nature of things, there were bound to be many more heterosexual perverts than homosexual perverts!

Before we go on, just a brief comment on the GNB's translation 'homosexual perverts' for both 'arsenokoitai' and 'malakoi'.

The word 'perversion' means literally 'wrong or bad use' of something - in this case sexuality. Of the various translations, the RSV's 'sexual perverts' probably comes closest to the spirit of the Greek, though the activities described would no doubt have included mostly heterosexual perverts.

But let us consider the GNB's translation 'homosexual perverts'. Any heterosexual would agree that 'heterosexual perverts' refers to those heterosexuals who pervert their sexuality, and that this doesn't imply that all heterosexuals are perverted.

Well, the same applies to the term 'homosexual perverts'.

The same-sex sexual acts that Paul writes about in Corinth all involve abuse and perversion. They may be committed by homosexuals, heterosexuals or both. They are acts which undermine the worth and dignity of those involved.

But again, this does not fit the case of responsible, loving, faithful gay and lesbian Christians. Like some heterosexuals, there are some homosexuals who damage themselves and others with their lusts, abuses and perversions. Equally, there are many responsible homosexual people, as there are heterosexual people, in loving, faithful, committed unions blessed by God.

But this is something which Paul did not touch on. He seemed unaware of it, just as he seemed unaware of other things that we are aware of today. So again, we find that a general condemnation, especially of faithful homosexual Christians, is misplaced.

After 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul goes on to write in verse 11:

'... and this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God.' [NRSV]

This is the gift to all who are in Christ - and as the man said in Romans 8:1:

'There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!' [NRSV]

1 Timothy 1:3-11

We have already noted that Ephesus housed the Temple of Artemis, the fertility goddess (see Acts 19:21-28).

The artefacts made by the Ephesian craftsmen depicted a many-breasted woman, sometimes with two stags - a significant symbol!

Ephesus was also the main Roman city of Anatolia (Asia Minor), subject to all the various Roman influences. Like Corinth it was on a major trade route and therefore subject to the influences brought in by travellers.

Much the same can be said of Ephesus as of Rome and Corinth. There were the same violent games, the same gods, and the same licentiousness and depravity.

It was here that Timothy was stationed when Paul wrote to him from Rome.

In 1 Timothy 1:3-5, Paul writes about false teachers - those who 'occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies ... rather than the divine training ... which aims for love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.' [NRSV]

He goes on in verses 9-10 to list those who are 'lawless and disobedient, godless and sinful, unholy and profane ...'

Later in this list he includes the words 'pornois' and 'arsenokoitais' - forms of two Greek terms that we have already seen in 1 Corinthians - although this time, interestingly, he does not include malakoi.

How do the principal Bible versions translate these terms?  The Greek 'pornois' is translated as;

-'immoral' [RSV/GNB]

-'immoral with women' [JB]

-'fornicators' [NRSV]

-'adulterers' [NIV]

This term is again translated in terms of  heterosexual sin, and the NIV opts for a very restricted meaning.

The Greek arsenokoitais is translated as;

-'sexual perverts' [GNB]

-'perverts' [NIV]

-'sodomites' [RSV/NRSV]

-'immoral with boys and men'[JB]

Here again, the translations are varied and can mean many things. Bearing in mind the Levitical origin of 'arsenokoitais', ie temple prostitution, the translators seem to be interpreting in terms of what was known to be going on at Ephesus.

In essence this is about male prostitution and other forms of same-sex sexual abuse associated with idolatry and false religious teaching.

This is in stark contrast to what Paul said in verse 5: '... love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.' [NRSV]

Now this sounds much more like my gay and lesbian Christian friends. I certainly don't recognise them in Paul's description in vs 9-10.

Paul's other letters

Paul wrote many other letters to churches, including those of Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae and Thessalonica, and there are some common themes running through all of them. One of these is sexual immorality, which is rife everywhere. All his letters contain strong words about this.

We have to remember that in the ancient world, sexual relationships outside marriage were normal and accepted. Sexual appetite was something simply to be gratified. It was Christianity that brought morality into this aspect of life.

But note that Paul does not use the terms 'malakoi' or 'arsenokoitai' again.

Galatians 5:16-21

Paul was concerned that people should know real love and not its counterfeit, which in verse 19 he describes as:

- porneia - 'sexual immorality'

- akatharsia - 'impurity'

- aselgeia - 'debauchery'.

 Take a look at what various modern translations give in verses 19-21.

Then compare this with verses 22-23: '... the spirit produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. There is no law against such things as these.' [GNB]

It is such a spirit that I find in my lesbian and gay Christian friends.

Ephesians 5:3-5

Just before this passage, Paul has been comparing the old life with the new, calling on his readers to live in love and renounce the old ways. In verses 3-5 he describes the sexual sins of those who will not share in God's Kingdom as:

- porneia - 'sexual immorality'

- akatharsia - 'impurity'.

Again, take a look at how some modern versions translate these verses.

Then think about lesbian and gay Christians, and their experience of Christ in relation to Ephesians 3:20-21: 'To him who by means of his power working in us is able to do so much more than we can ever ask for or even think of ...' [GNB]

However, this passage raises an obvious question!

Given that Paul sent this letter to Ephesus, which is where Timothy was when Paul wrote to him, why does he not include the term 'arsenokoitai' here as he does in 1 Timothy?

The reason this letter does not contain this same specific reference to same-sex sexual abuse is because it was not written for the Ephesians alone, but was a circular letter to all the churches (see Colossians 4:16).

Whenever Paul wrote specifically to a church where he knew people, he included greetings to them.

Now he knew and loved the people at Ephesus, but there are no greetings in this letter because it is not specific to Ephesus. That he did not use the term 'arsenokoitai' either is another indication that it was not specific to Ephesus. It also shows that the term 'arsenokoitai' was meant to be specific to certain localities, and cannot thus be used as a general condemnation.

Colossians 3:5-9

Again, Paul is contrasting the old life with the new. In verse 5 he tells his readers to put to death the following things:

- porneian- 'sexual immorality'

- akatharsian - 'impurity'

- pathos - 'passionate desire'.

Now take a look at how some modern versions translate these terms.

In verse 11 Paul goes on to write of those who are in Christ: '... there is no longer Greek and Jew ... Christ is all and in all.' [NRSV] Likewise, in Christ there is no longer heterosexual and homosexual; Christ is all and in all.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-7

In this passage Paul describes the sexual sins that God wants us to be free of:

- porneias - 'sexual immorality' (v.3)

- pathei epithumias - 'lustful desire' (v.5)

- akatharsia - 'impurity' (v.7).

Look again for yourself at how some modern versions translate these.

In the passage leading up to this, Paul comments (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13) 'that in Christian love (agape) and holiness we are blameless before God'.

In his letters, Paul is constantly contrasting Christian love (agape) with various Greek terms which amount to counterfeit love. He can see temptations and dangers all around, especially for people who have previously been involved in such things, and he rightly warns them.

He is particularly worried when someone is tempted and overcome, as in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 5:1), so that for a moment, in his anger, he feels the only way is to remove the offender - throw him out of the church.

Later on, as Paul remembers his past life and how he was forgiven, so he entreats them to restore the offender.

To sum up

In his letters Paul was attacking sexual immorality generally. But in his letters to Rome and Corinth, and to Timothy at Ephesus, he mentions a form of sexual immorality that was a particular problem in those cities:

- When writing to the Roman Christians, he includes a graphic description of the same-sex sexual abuse and depravity springing from idolatry.

- When writing to the Christians at Corinth and to Timothy at Ephesus, he uses the terms 'malakoi' and 'arsenokoitai' to convey what he has so graphically described when writing to the Romans.

But neither of the two terms occurs in any of Paul's letters apart from these two - to the church at Corinth and to Timothy at Ephesus. It is another reason why 'arsenokoitai' (a word based directly on Leviticus 20:13) should not be seen as a word of general condemnation. Otherwise Paul would have undoubtedly used it in his other letters.

Given the context of the situation that Paul's converts faced, his letters and language are understandably strong on the subject of sexual immorality and abuse of all kinds, including male same-sex prostitution and abuses like pederasty.

But nowhere at all does he even write about, let alone condemn, people who are in loving, faithful same-sex relationships.

When he writes specifically about same-sex sexual activity, it is always in the context of idolatry, lust and sexual abuse - never of the enriching love that can be shared by homosexual Christian partners in a truly loving relationship as enjoyed and shared by any married man and woman.

So Paul's writings cannot be used to condemn such love. It would be blasphemy to condemn it, for such love is born of God - it is the very essence of God. When people do condemn, they do so in ignorance, both of Paul's writings and of the love they them-selves condemn.

Some final instances

Revelation 21:8; 22:15

In two passages in the last book of the New Testament canon, John writes about those people who will be kept outside the gates of the city - the New Jerusalem that has the 'tree of life'.

Among the groups mentioned in both instances are the by now familiar pornoi - the 'sexually immoral'. But there are no graphic descriptions of same-sex sexual abuse such as we found in Romans 1, nor does he use the term 'arsenokoitai', (or 'malakoi').

In the second passage John does use the term kunes - literally 'dogs' - which some people incorrectly link with homosexuals. But it is actually used to refer to male prostitutes (see Deuteronomy 23:18 [KJV]), and sometimes even to false teachers (see Philippians 3:2 [GNB]).

To conclude

So there we have it! Nowhere does the Bible condemn truly loving expression, whether sexual or otherwise, between homosexuals in a relationship that is loving, committed and faithful, because the biblical writers seem to know nothing about such people or such relationships.

As with other gifts, it is not what we are given, but what we do with those gifts, that the Bible applauds or condemns.

We may use our sexuality to love and enrich another, or we may use it to debase and destroy the dignity of others and ourselves. It is the use to which we put our gift of sexuality that concerns our God and his word.

The Bible condemns sexual immorality and abuse of all kinds - heterosexual and homosexual. But it encourages true love, whether love for God, or 'agape' love for others, or friendship love, or enriching, faithful sexual love for a beloved. All such love - true love - is given by God. It is one of God's greatest blessings.

God has made a world full of rich variety in every way. If we care to see it in this way, we can praise God for its richness.

It is only when, in our ignorance, we refuse to acknowledge things as they are - wanting creation to be in a nice tidy order that we can understand - that prejudice blights the lives of good people who are different from us.

'Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in them' [NIV]  These words from 1 John 4:16 are profound truth, and apply to homosexual people just as they apply to heterosexual people! God has a purpose for all his people, including his gay and lesbian people - consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.

The homosexual Christians I know hold to God's purpose, they are faithful in Christ, and God gives them His Spirit and the power to love others with a love that is righteous and acceptable to God in Jesus. That is enough for God; it should be enough for God's people - the Church.

 

Homepage

Next Chapter

Contents

Articles