What DOES the Bible Say? – An Overview
The following article is from Chapter 3 of Pastor, I Am Gay by Rev. Howard H. Bess, pastor of the Church of the Covenant, Palmer, Alaska
© Copyright 1995 Howard H. Bess.
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Used by Permission
All Christians grant some level of authority to the Old and New Testament writings. When Christians deal with ethics and morality, they either start with the Scriptures or at least listen attentively to their commentary and counsel.
Developing a “hermeneutic”
The study of the Bible is more than merely reading the material. Serious study of the Bible involves the adoption of a hermeneutic. Hermeneutics is the science of literary interpretation. A student’s hermeneutic sets the rules and guidelines to be used in the study. Conclusions can be no better than the hermeneutic rules that are adopted.
One basic rule of most hermeneutic systems is “Never ask the Bible to answer a question that it does not address.” Such a rule should be a truism, yet it is violated over and over again. For example, the Bible cannot be asked to answer scientific questions of the 20th Century. The Bible material was written in pre-scientific eras. It is understandably silent on 20th Century understanding of chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, or geology. My adopted hermeneutic does not allow me to ask the Bible 20th Century scientific questions.
Does the Bible in fact say anything that is applicable to the present discussion?
As we approach the Bible on the subject of homosexuality, we must ask the root question: ” Does the Bible in fact say anything that is applicable to the present discussion?”
Some facts are accepted by everyone. At the head of the list, Jesus said nothing on the subject. There is not a single word in the Gospels, even by inference, about any type of same-sex sexual activity. Jesus did not hesitate to comment on the evils of his day. He said nothing about homosexuality. Arguments from silence are always weak at best. Nevertheless, Jesus’s silence on this particular subject is worthy of note.
Additionally, everyone agrees that there is no word in the original language of either the Old or New Testament that can be properly translated homosexual or homosexuality. There is no reference in the Bible to homosexual orientation. Apparently there is no known reference in any other extant writings of the eras of the Biblical writings. One can only conclude that male homosexual orientation was not a concern to Jesus, to the writers of the Bible materials, or to the societies in which they lived.
Whenever same-sex references are made in the Bible, it is always a reference to some particular sexual act.
I do not consider myself a Biblical scholar. I do consider myself an informed student of the Bible. My congregations have been dependent upon me to be a capable and conscientious student of the Scriptures, so that I might in turn give informed interpretations of the Scriptures to them. When the first member of my congregation said to me, “Pastor, I am gay,” I became a committed student of the subject. Specifically I became committed to finding out what the Bible says about homosexuality.
Ten passages are commonly held to have
some relevance to the subject:
Sodom and Gomorrah Genesis 19
Genesis 19 records the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no reference to homosexual activity in the passage. Two messengers from God, referred to as angels, visited Lot. Men of Sodom and Gomorrah did not want the messengers from God in their cities. They demanded Lot turn his guests over to them for sexual abuse. Lot offered his daughters instead. If the passage is any commentary about sex, it is about abuse and rape, not homosexuality. Another rule of hermeneutics is that Scripture should be allowed to comment on Scripture. Allowing Scripture to comment on Scripture, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were inhospitable attitude (Luke 10:10-13) and failure to care for the poor (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
Deuteronomy 23:17 I Kings 22:46 I Kings 14:24 II Kings 23:7
Four Old Testament passages (Deuteronomy 23:17, I Kings 14:24, I Kings 22:46, and II Kings 23:7) forbid both male and female prostitution in pagan temples. The people of God were warned against selling themselves sexually for pagan religious ceremonies. A male temple prostitute performed sexual acts with another male, a clear homosexual act. I would not allow modern heterosexual prostitution to be used as a negative commentary on the morality of sexual relations between a loving husband and wife. Neither do I see any relevance of ancient male temple prostitution to the discussion of homosexuality and the practice of Christian faith in the late 20th Century.
The Holiness Code
Leviticus 18:19-23 Leviticus 20:10-1
Two more of the pertinent passages are from the Old Testament: Leviticus 18:19-23 and Leviticus 20:10-16 are a part of the Holiness Codes. The theme of the codes is summed up with “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” To be holy or pure before God was something more than merely being moral. Every area of a person’s life was involved. Some instructions in the Holiness Codes became central to Christian understanding. When Jesus commanded his followers to love their neighbors, he was quoting from the Holiness Codes. On the other hand, the Holiness Codes carry instructions that all Christians ignore. According to the codes, a worker must be paid his wage on the day of his labor. A field is never to be harvested to the edge. Two types of yarn are never to be woven into the same cloth. Raw meat is not to be eaten. Tattoos are forbidden. Bigamy is clearly acceptable.
Imbedded in the Holiness Codes along with an almost endless number of instructions and commands is found a prohibition of a specific homosexual act. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman.” The book of Leviticus itself gives us little help in understanding the intent of the command. Leviticus tells us nothing specific about the forbidden homosexual act. It gives us no context for the command. Christian hermeneutics give priority to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth over the Old Testament. Jesus set new standards for what it means to be holy. He embraced some Old Testament standards. He rejected and openly violated some other Old Testament standards: his breaking of Sabbath rules kept him in constant tension with religious leaders. He ignored some Old Testament standards. He raised justice, mercy, kindness, and love to new heights.
In the light of Jesus’s life and teachings, the two Holiness Codes passages fade into obscurity and irrelevance. The Old Testament informs and instructs, but it is the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus that the Christian churches have embraced as normative and as having final authority.
It is well for hermeneutics to raise a general caution. Can any ancient prohibition set in a little known and little understood context be properly superimposed over a modern setting? In particular can the Holiness Codes statement have any relevance to the relationship between two men or two women in the 20th Century in a committed relationship that is characterized as genuinely affectionate and respectful? I think not.
New Testament Passages
Romans 1:26-2:1 Timothy 1:10 I Corinthians 6:9-11
This leads us to consider three passages in the New Testament. All three references about sexual deviance are found in the writings of Paul. They are Romans 1:26-2:1, I Corinthians 6:9-11, and I Timothy 1:10. These passages have always been difficult to translate and even more difficult to interpret because there are no clear English equivalents into which the key Greek words can be translated. The most exhaustive study of the issues involved was published by author Robin Scroggs in his book The New Testament and Homosexuality published in 1983.
In his study, Scroggs takes us into the Jewish and Greek worlds of Paul’s day. He researched the sexual practices and the issues of morality of that day as reflected in literature extant from that day. He found no indication of interest in same-sex sexual relationships between consenting adults. What he did find was the widespread practice of pederasty. In its usual form pederasty was a form of prostitution in which young boys were used sexually by heterosexual males. Devout Jews and Christians were understandable critical of this practice found widely among the Greeks. It is in this context that the words and expressions used by Paul are found in other literature o the same period.
It is Scroggs’ argument that the three references from Paul which we have cited are not commentaries about homosexuality in general, but understandable references to the widely known practice of pederasty among the Greeks. Scroggs confronts us with another rule of hermeneutics. He maintains that for moral and ethical passages of the Bible to be applied to today’s world, there must be some reasonable similarity between the contexts then and now. In this case the contexts are so dissimilar that the three passages become irrelevant. To make his point even clearer, Scroggs coccludes that Paul can be shown to be against only that which he was clearly against.
What Does the Bible say about homosexuality? “Not Much!”
One further observation is worthy of consideration. Nowhere in the New Testament is there a discussion of homosexuality or of any homosexual practice. The three New Testament references are part of lists made in the larger contexts of other discussions. Even if the importance of these three passages could be maximized and be shown to be directly relevant to today’s discussion, the very incidental nature of the references would relegate them to secondary importance.
When a parishioner asks me what the Bible says about homosexuality, my most honest answer must be “Not much!”
I have expressed my best studied opinion. But I am no more than an informed student. I am not a New Testament scholar. I can ask no one to agree with me because of my standing as a scholar. I would ask that every pastor and church leader, who is serious about the issue of homosexuality and the church’s ministry, take the time to sort out the facts, the fiction, the myths, the mysteries, and find a model of understanding. It is out of that model of understanding that the strangers in our midst can become our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
© Copyright 1995 Howard H. Bess
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Used by permission