It seems to me that there are three main positions in the debate about the acceptability of homosexual relationships in the light of the Bible:
- The traditional view which recognises and accepts that the Bible does not approve of homosexual relationships. Those who hold this view claim the label evangelical for themselves; rightly in my view.
- The liberal view which acknowledges that the Bible does not approve of homosexual relationships, but which argues that we are no longer bound by the Bible. Arguments for rejection the biblical view can include a) our (alleged) advanced knowledge of human nature and of human sexuality in particular, b) a general disregard of biblical ethics and c) the thought that the Bible shows a trajectory towards various kinds of liberation which includes homosexual practice.
- The view which argues that because we read the Bible better than our predecessors, we have come to understand that it does leave space for homosexual sexual relationships after all.¹ Various people who hold this view also claim the label evangelical for it.
This contribution aims to show that the first two positions are tenable positions, but that the third is not and that it cannot be called evangelical.² I will do this mainly by using the words and thoughts of liberal biblical scholars who take position 2, that is, they acknowledge that the Scriptures leave no room for homosexual activity (and then go against the Scriptures).³
For at least a generation now, learned and not-so-learned readers of the Bible have attempted to re-examine what the Book says about homosexuality, often with the stated aim to get to position 3.⁴ There have been countless efforts to make the Bible say that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are acceptable, but those who hold positions 1 and 2 are not convinced. They agree that the countless attempts of revisionists have not made position 3 tenable.
In the meantime, some progress has been made. We have learned more about the cultural background of Jesus, Paul and the rest of the early church. We have also learned to forget about Genesis 19, the story about Sodom, in this regard, because it first and foremost describes other sins. Thirdly, we have realised (again) that homosexuality is not a worse sin than many other sins; we should not overemphasise it. Fourthly, the study of homosexuality in the Bible has in fact shown that throughout the Book marriage is an important institution. Fifth and most important, the majority of scholars have no reasonable doubt that the relevant texts themselves, those from Leviticus and from Paul, simply speak negatively about homosexual practice. And although Jesus does not mention the issue in so many words, He does confirm that marriage is between a man and a woman, which also excludes other types of sexual relationships.
In the third point above I said that homosexuality is not a worse sin than many other sins. We ned to keep the matter in perspective. The great author C.S. Lewis, probably the best lay theologian we had, says it thus:
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong…, the pleasures of power, of hatred…. A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.⁵
Let me now come to my stated aim. I will quote some liberal scholars who have concluded that the biblical texts forbid same-sex sexual relations. The first of them is the Pauline scholar E.P. Sanders (1837-2022), who wrote:
Today we know a lot more about homosexuality than the ancients did, and we know that some people are born that way. Here I shall briefly abandon my preferred role, that of historian, and say that I do not agree with those who wish to defrock gay clergymen or excommunicate gay laypeople. That is, as a Christian I agree with the liberal attitude towards homosexuals in much of contemporary Christianity. If I were running a church, I would do my utmost to combat condemnation of homosexuals and also actions that would limit their roles in my church. But I also think that those of us who hold this view should not yield to selective and arbitrary biblicism by playing the same game: “proving” our views by selecting revising and quoting the Bible. We should let Paul say what he said, and then make the decisions that we should make, which should take into account the modern world, rather than only the ancient world.⁶
That is plain, isn’t it: Sanders acknowledges that Paul is opposed homosexual activities. Attempts to argue otherwise he calls ‘selective and arbitrary biblicism’. His response to his exegetical conclusions is to disagree with Paul and by implication with the rest of the Bible.
Similar words, including a condemnation of intellectual dishonesty come from New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (1943–). Arguing against the orthodox position, Johnson writes about the challenge ‘to take our tradition and the Scripture with at least as much seriousness as those who use the Bible as a buttress for rejecting forms of sexual love they fear or cannot understand.’ And I quote:
The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy – that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.⁷
Again a scholar who uses plain language: ‘we know what the text says’, i.e. it condemns homosexual relationships – and Johnson wants to stand ‘in tension with the clear commands of Scripture’ because he wants to create room for homosexual activity.
Australian William Loader (1944–) is the author of various scholarly books on sexuality in the ancient world and in the Bible; he has probably written more on the subject than anyone else. In a simple Bible study he writes as follows:
The passage [Romans 1:16-32] has been a source of controversy, especially since there has been a growing realisation, reflected not only in the public mind and media but also in government legislation, that there are some people who are genuinely gay and that not all gay people are like the ones Paul speaks of. Some, sensing the tension, try to explain away the harshness of what Paul says, claiming that he is referring only to sexual exploitation of minors or sex acts in specific places like pagan temples. Others similarly try to argue that Paul is happy about people being gay as long as they are celibate and objects only when they act on their sexual desires. It has more integrity to respect what Paul says and why he says it and not to try to water it down, but at the same time to recognise that people now, with very good reason, no longer share the assumption of Paul and Jews of his day that all human beings are heterosexual.⁸
These words are more problematic than those of Sanders and Johnson, because Loader thinks that Paul also criticises who are ‘gay’ and ‘celibate’. Few people would agree with that. In any case, Loader argues that because we now know better than Paul, we should abandon his teaching. Loader’s position is what I dubbed position 2a above: because of our (alleged) advanced knowledge of human nature we can no longer abide by the biblical rules. The problem with this view is that when Paul writes about ‘nature’, he does not mean any individual but God’s original intentions with his creation.
By the way, Loader has written separately about the attitudes of the Jews of Jesus’ time and of the entire intertestamental period. All of them also clearly opposed homosexuality, like Paul. This information is also available elsewhere.⁹
My fourth and final liberal is Bernadette Brooten, a biblical scholar and a lesbian. Like the others, she has no doubt that in Romans 1 Paul condemns ‘homoeroticism, particularly female homoeroticism’ and calls on her readers to ‘no longer teach Rom 1:26f as authoritative’.¹⁰ She also concludes that, despite what can often be heard, people in antiquity did know about lesbian love. This conclusion of hers is another argument against the idea that we in our time know so much better than Paul and his contemporaries that we have to go against what they wrote. Homosexuality is not a modern concept.¹¹
In conclusion, self-declared liberal scholars support the orthodox claim that the Bible, in this case especially the New Testament, disapproves of homosexual activity. Attempts to make the Book speak otherwise are indeed special pleading.
- A pioneer was John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
- For my first contribution to the discussion of the proposed changes to Ministerial Rules, written in June 2022, see http://www.evangelicalbaptist.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Contribution-to-the-discussionby-Pieter-Lalleman.pdf.
- For ‘homosexual‘ also read ‘lesbian’ and ‘bi-sexual’.
- Here I use Bruce Clark, ‘Ten Theses on Homosexuality and the Church’ at https://mereorthodoxy.com/tentheses-on-homosexuality-and-the-church/ [accessed 20/05/23].
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Bless, 1952), at the end of the chapter on Sexual Morality. [Because of the many reprints it is useless to give a page number.]
- E.P. Sanders, Paul. The Apostle’s Life, Letters and Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015) 370, at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/2017/05/e-p-sanders-pauls-life-letters-thought/.
- L.T. Johnson, ‘Homosexuality & the Church. Scripture & Experience’ at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0 [accessed 20/05/23].
- William Loader, ‘Human Sexuality and the New Testament’ at https://billloader.com/SexualityStudies.pdf [accessed 20/05/23].
- E.g. Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality; Contextual Background for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983) 66–98; James B. De Young, ‘A Critique of Prohomosexual Interpretations of the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha’, Bibliotheca Sacra 147 (1990) 437– 454.
- Bernardette J. Brooten, Love Between Women. Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 302, at https://archive.org/details/bernardette-j.-brooten-lovebetween-women/page/301/mode/2up [accessed 20/05/23].
- Brooten, Love Between Women, 361. A similar argument for male homosexuality in Preston Sprinkle, Did Adult Consensual Same-Sex Relationships Exist in Bible Times? at https://www.centerforfaith.com/resources?field_product_category_tid=1 [accessed 20/05/23].
Revd Dr Pieter J. Lalleman has been the minister of a church in Surrey since February 2021.
Previously he was a tutor at Spurgeon’s College in London for over twenty years, teaching
biblical studies. He was Academic Dean of the College 2002-2015. Pieter [pronounced
Peter] has been an ordained Baptist minister since 1993. His hobbies are teaching, classical
music, modern public transport, history and Sudoku.
His popular books include:
- The Lion and the Lamb. Studies on the Book of Revelation
- Enduring Treasure. The Lasting Value of the Old Testament for Christians
- In the Power of the Resurrection. Studies on the Book of Acts
- The Hidden Unity of the Bible. The Use of the Old Testament in the New