There are few topics of theological debate within the Christian church which are debated with more fervour and passion than those surrounding the issue of homosexuality. Whilst there are many opinions on the topic, most arguments can be fitted into one of three major categories: 1) Some people are homosexual, there is something fundamentally wrong/sinful/evil/dirty about them and they need to be stopped/kept out of the ministry/kept away from children/segregated/sent directly to Hell; 2) Some people are homosexual through no fault of their own (as a consequence of either biology or upbringing) and there is nothing specifically wrong with that providing they never, ever act on those impulses, and 3) Some people are homosexual through no fault of their own and that is great, love should be celebrated in all its forms (see figure 1.). Clearly these positions are mutually exclusive; and since the debate is centred on individual identity of people and on the holiness of God, it is going to be a contentious issue. To navigate this tricky subject, one needs not only understand each of the main perspectives, but also where these opinions come from historically. Winning the argument isn’t really something that can be expected to happen when personal identity becomes wrapped up in the discussion, but perhaps a closer look at the perspectives of each party will allow the opposing sides to see where each other position is coming from and open a dialogue between people of different opinions. Perhaps this dialogue will reveal that Christians don’t need to agree on every point of theology to be siblings in Christ.
A good first step in understanding why Christians believe something is to check the Bible. There can be little argument that the Old Testament contains verses which appear to condemn homosexual sex between men. The important question which seems to be overlooked is: why? Leviticus states quite clearly “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman . . . If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death. . .” (18:22 & 20:13 NIV) When read in isolation, these verses appear to be condemning any kind of homosexual sex between men. Read in the context of the entire passage, these verses can be seen as part of an extensive list of practices commonly associated with the temple prostitutes of the local gods. summarises this passage by saying “No Israelite man or woman is to become a shrine prostitute.” (NIV) Earlier versions of the Bible translate the Hebrew word “Qadesh” as “sodomite” rather than “shrine prostitute” (1). The problems with this translation will be attended to shortly. Regarding these verses, it should be noted that the holiness code in Leviticus is postexilic, meaning it was added after the Israelite captivity in Babylon (2 p. 521) at a time when the very survival of Israel as a nation depended on rapid population growth; sex had to be primarily for the purpose of reproduction in a way it hadn’t been before the exile (3 p. 138). It can be seen that Leviticus is against male homosexual sex specifically in the context of temple worship practices, and possibly in the more general context of Israel as a nation for the practical purpose of encouraging reproduction. It also forbidsconsumption of pork (Leviticus 11:7-8), a command which the majority of modern Christians feel no compulsion to follow or force upon others either because they believe the original purpose of the verse was practical rather than spiritual, or because of certain verses in the New Testament (Acts 10:9-16 for example). By this same reasoning, a modern Christian should consider whether rapid population growth is still needed when considering to modern relevance of these verses. It also makes sense to consider what the New Testament says about these verses and homosexuality in general.
Romans 1:18-29 is often read as a general attack on homosexuality under the assumption that the “unnatural acts” referred to are exclusively homosexual in nature (5), though if this is the case, the actions being described must be accompanied with “all vice”. Assuming that the Bible is without error and any error in the conclusions formed from Bible study are on the part of the interpreter rather than mistakes in the Bible itself; If a homosexual, monogamous, life-long, marriage-like relationship can exist without necessarily being accompanied by malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness, envy and murder then the interpretation of “unnatural acts” as relating to every instance of homosexuality rather than specifically its use in relation to temple prostitutes is incorrect (6 p. 51; 7 p. 51). It would seem then, that while some passages of the New Testament speak against certain forms of homosexual practice; this is mostly in a context of ascetic belief which also condemns all heterosexual intercourse as well. The specific issue of homosexuality being considered a particularly heinous sin must therefore develop later in church history.
The men known as the church fathers, whose writings form the basis of selection for the modern Bible canon, gave far greater attention to all forms of sexuality that Paul’s writings, and rejected all sexuality. “Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome – praised virginity and looked on sex with horror” (2 p. 524). The second century Acts of the Apostles advised married couples to abstain from sex (8 p. 33), Eustathius of Sebastia even went so far as to say married people could not be saved (2 p. 525). Even then, homosexuality was not specified as more detestable than any other kind of sex, although Augustine did allow that the sinful pleasure of sexual intercourse within a marriage was redeemed by the desire to produce children (9 p. 192). In the fourth century, the orthodox church separated from the Gnostic in its approach to sexuality by restricting abstinence to the clergy and allowing the laity to be sexually active to whom they are inclined, this appears to be (accompanied by forgiveness of sin through confession) a definitive decision in religious practice which placed orthodoxy as the dominant Christianity. By the end of the fourth century all the celibacy requirements for church membership were removed, castration was outlawed, and genital contact of any combination was restricted to marriage, (2 p. 525) including same sex marriage (10).
It isn’t until the eleventh century that the official church dogma begins to specify homosexual sex acts as intrinsically different to heterosexual sex acts. The most regularly invoked argument against homosexuality from the Bible is that the Sodomites of the city of Sodom were practicing Sodomy and God hates sodomy and that is why he destroyed the city of Sodom (Genesis 19). There is a key word in this claim which needs to be seen for what it is. It wasn’t until a deliberate creation of two new words by 11th century theologian Peter Damian, that homosexuality became specifically abhorrent in the Christian mindset (2 p. 533). The words he invented are the root words for “Sodomy” and “Blasphemy”. “Sodomy” took a story about the identity of Israel and reduced it to a list of offences and then incorporated all of these sins into a single word, causing any one of these acts to be associated with all of the others in the one word (6 p. 29). In its original context, Sodom’s primary sin is arrogant self indulgence, growing from a “violent eruption of distorted desire” (Ezekiel 16:49-50; M. Jordan 1997, 31) in the parallel story of the prophet’s concubine in The Book of Judges 19 and 20, where a Benjamite city does nearly the exact same thing and is destroyed by the Israelites, the judgement brought upon the host city is not said to be for homosexuality but inhospitality and violence, “There is no text of the Christian Bible that determines the reading of Sodom as a story about same-sex copulation” (11 pp. 30-31).
Thomas Aquinas is often looked to for support in this argument by modern scholars from both sides of the debate. His Natural Law is used to claim that homosexuality is a sin against nature and therefore against God himself who created nature (5 pp. 105-106); while his Virtue theology is cited by those arguing for homosexual rights (7 p. 29 & 31). The argument from Natural Law relies on the assumption that only humans engage in homosexual sex, as was believed at the time. Bruce Bagemihl states that while the argument that if animals don’t do something it is unnatural for humans and if they do it is natural for humans to do it is a vast oversimplification of the issues, that yes, “homosexuality occurs in nature and apparently always has” (12).
Aquinas himself, however, was far from fixed on the issue; placing wise interpretation of scripture in relation to current finite understandings of the Natural Law and Virtues as of far higher importance than reliance upon the Natural Law exclusively (2 p. 533; 7 p. 38). He saw the homosexual acts in Romans 1:18-29 as a vice of disordered passions permitted by God in judgement of their primary sin of idolatry, with the result of reduced reproduction leading to extinction and death (2 p. 42). Since “Contemporary genetics denies that homosexuality appears among certain communities for the purpose or with the result of killing them out…” (2 p. 49) it seems that Aquinas’ own methods of reasoning would require him to abandon the claim of homosexual sex being innately different in nature to heterosexual sex.
Thomas was such an extraordinary teacher of morals, his texts lent themselves to abuse. Instead of becoming the occasion for rethinking the teaching on sodomy, the Summa became an occasion for concealing the paradoxes of sodomy under an apparently simple explanation of the sin. (6 p. 137)
The barbaric treatment of homosexuals for the following millennium has no further theological justification than what has been mentioned already, and has little to add to this discussion than shock value. There were studies performed in the early stages of psychology which showed that homosexual psychiatric patients were more prone to psychiatric illness than non-hospitalised heterosexuals (3 p. 138). The initial conclusion was that homosexuality is a mental disorder. Later studies showed that the actual correlation is that psychiatric patients of any sexuality tend to have psychiatric illnesses and that “no inherent connection existed between homosexual orientation and emotional disturbance” (3 p. 139). The fact is that scientists are still far from having a complete understanding of sexuality, let alone a clear basis for a morality on the subject (11 p. 5).
Where does all this leave modern Christianity on this contentious issue? The current author does not claim to have any absolute answers for the question of homosexual legitimacy, but perhaps Aquinas, who has been used by both sides of the conflict in modern and ancient times, can provide advice on where to go from here.
Aquinas insists on the presence of mistakes in what counts as virtue, in what counts as natural law, and in the interpretation of Scripture… none of them, singularly or together, can eliminate all moral disagreement this side of heaven. (7 p. 32)
The vice of pride is the gravest, foremost and ruling sin of all sins (7 p. 35), when both sides of this division are determined that they are exclusively right about an issue for which, according to Aquinas, there can be no certainty, any progress towards an acceptable conclusion will require a Christ-like humility from both sides. Clashes over homosexuality should not divide churches; as peaceful dispute of theological issues is scripturally supported. Division and hatred is not. In deciding which of the commands is worthy of greater consideration, I will conclude by allowing a greater theologian than myself express the core message of this teaching, and allow the reader to determine what is meant.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (NIV, Mark 12:28-31)
1. ReligiousTolerance.org. What the Bible says and means anbout Homosexuality. [Online] 2009. [Cited: 6th June 2010.] http://www.religioustolerance.org.
2. Christian Intollerance of Homosexuality. Greenberg, DF. & Bystryn, MH. Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1982, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 88, pp. 515-548.
3. Sex, Sin, and the Church: THe Dilemma of Homosexuality. Berliner, AK. 1987, Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 26, pp. 137-142.
4. Loughlin, G. Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Victoria : Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
5. Aquinas, T. from Commentary on Romans 1:18-29. [ed.] Eugene F. Rogers. Theology and Sexuality. Oxford : Blackwell Publications, 2002.
6. Jordan, MD. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
7. Rogers, EF. s.l. : Blackwell Publishing, 1999, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 27, pp. 29-56.
8. Davies, SL. The Revolt of the Widows: The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts. Carbondale : Southern Illinois University Press, 1980.
9. Erickson, C. The Medival Vision: Essays in History and Perception. New York : Oxford University Press, 1976.
10. Rogers, Eugene F., [ed.]. Office of Same-sex Union (eleventh century). Theology and Sexuality. Oxford : Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
11. Jordan, MD. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
12. Animals do it: whether humans wish to regard it as natural or unnatural, homosexuality has always occurred in the animal kingdom. Bagemihl, B. 2001, Alternatives Journal., Vol. 27, p. 36.
13. Payer, PJ. Sex and the Penitential: The Development of a Sexual Code. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1936.
14. Grace, JH. God, Sex and The Social Project: The Glassboro Papers on Religion and Human Sexuality. New York : The Edwin Mellen Press, 1978.
15. Rogers, EF. Theology and Sexuality. Oxford : Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
16. Disjuncture, Continental philosophy’s new “political Paul,” and the question of progressive Christianity in a Southern California Third Wave church. Bialecki. 2009, American Ethnologist, Vol. 36, pp. 110-123.
17. Aquinas on Natural Law and the Virtues in Biblical Context: Homosexuality as a Test Case. Rogers, EF. 1999, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 27, pp. 29-56.
18. —. Rogers, EF. s.l. : Blackwell Publishing, 1999, The Journal of Religious Ethics, Vol. 27, pp. 29-56.