The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), John Martin, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
There has been much discourse about homosexuality in our country recently due to the polarizing matter of whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Congress has spoken and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will soon be lifted. That settles the policy issue but not the moral issue of whether or not it’s OK to be gay. For Christians, the scriptures must be our ultimate spiritual and moral guide, whether or not the conclusions we draw from them are popular or politically correct.
What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? Surprisingly little.* Jesus and the Gospels never mention it, and the word “homosexual” appears nowhere in the canonical books, except in some recent English translations like the New International Version. (Apparently the term “homosexuality” wasn’t even coined until the 19th century.) In fact, if it weren’t for a few verses in the epistles of Paul, Christians would have no scriptural basis to condemn it.
The creation story in Genesis privileges heterosexual sex (God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve) but it does not logically follow from that fact that all homosexual sex is immoral. In Genesis chapter 19, Sodom (where we get the word “sodomy”) was marked for destruction before the unfortunate incident in which the Sodomites, not knowing Lot’s houseguests were angels, demanded Lot hand over these strangers that they “may know them” (Gen. 19:5). It is probable but not certain that “to know” here means carnal knowledge as was traditionally assumed. And if it is referring to sex, what do we make of the fact that righteous Lot offered his virgin daughters to be raped? It may be that inhospitality, not homosexuality, was the great evil of the Sodomites. Jesus practically said as much in Matthew 10:14-15 and Luke 10:10-12. The book of Leviticus calls homosexual acts an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). But it also calls eating shellfish an abomination (Lev. 11:10-12). God gave the Jews the Levitical laws to set them apart from the Gentiles around them. Ritual purity and not morality seems to be the issue here.
In the New Testament, although the Gospels ignore the issue, Paul said some pretty strong words about homosexuality, which I find much harder to dismiss than the Old Testament passages discussed above. He uses the terms “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” (1 Cor. 6:9) and “them that defile themselves with mankind” (1 Tim 1:10) in lists of serious sins, and in the case of the former, mortal sins. These terms are commonly assumed to be euphemisms for homosexuals, which is plausible but debatable. That brings us to the single passage of scripture that condemns same-sex acts as immoral in no uncertain terms:
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.” (Romans 1:26-27)
Attempts to explain away the clear condemnation of both homosexual and lesbian sex in this passage seem to me contrived (for example, recently deceased Harvard Minister Peter Gomes claims it’s talking about heterosexuals who act against their sexual orientation), and Paul’s argument fits nicely with natural law theory. In fact, Paul argues from natural law in the very passage in question when he says the Gentiles “show the work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15).
According to natural law theory, those things are good which fulfill their natural function. The natural function for sex is procreation, so sexual behavior that promotes procreation is good, and it also fulfills the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Behavior that violates the human inclination to procreate is bad. For example, sex that is purely recreational or commercial (e.g., prostitution) violates the natural function of sex. Homosexuality does too, not merely because it does not lead to procreation (as is true of straight sex most of the time), but because it can never lead to procreation. It is in this sense that homosexuality is “unnatural,” not because there is a lack of evidence for homosexuality in nature but because it does not fulfill the natural function of sex. I’ll admit that there’s often a double standard, because a lot of heterosexual behaviors are also unnatural by this test, and most natural law theorist are not as passionately against these behaviors as those practiced by same-sex partners. However, this inconsistency does not make the argument any less valid.
Even if some people are born with a homosexual orientation (I have no idea whether that’s true), it still wouldn’t make homosexuality “natural.” It would make homosexuality a genetic defect. If a person is born blind or deaf or lame, we don’t call blindness or deafness or lameness “good.” These are tragic accidents of nature. Those born with such handicaps are of equal value as those without them and should be protected from unfair discrimination and abuse. But it’s illogical to promote an abnormality as a positive good.
One of the most famous natural law theorist the German philosopher Immanuel Kant built an ethical system without any appeal to religion, only reason. His ethical system emphasizes doing one’s moral duty, regardless of the circumstances or consequences. His first rule is to do only those things whose moral principle we could wish to be a universal law. Lying would be out of the question because we could not wish that everyone lie all the time. Homosexual behavior also does not pass this test, because if everyone were gay the human race would quickly become extinct.
Thus, the biblical teaching against homosexuality (what little there is) agrees with natural law that homosexual behavior is morally unacceptable. That said, we shouldn’t treat gays and lesbians like lepers or criminals. We are all sinners and God loves us anyway. He loves homosexuals as much as heterosexuals. We should too.
*For much of the biblical interpretation in this post I have relied on Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: W. Morrow, 1996), 144-72.