The Great Debate: Justin’s View

Back in 2003, my friend Ron and I wrote opposing essays about the Bible and homosexuality. I believe that God blesses same-sex marriage (“Side A”); Ron believes that gay Christians are called to celibacy (“Side B”).

We posted our views side by side as “The Great Debate” so that people could get both perspectives and compare them. My original essay is below; you can find Ron’s essay on his websiteThis online “Great Debate” got way more popular than either of us ever expected.

It’s been over 15 years since we wrote these pieces. We both hold the same basic perspectives—I still support same-sex marriage, and Ron still supports celibacy—but some of the nuance of our views and arguments may have changed, so we plan to post updated versions soon. In the meantime, we’ve kept our original articles online by popular request. Below, you can read my argument for same-sex marriage as I expressed it as a young man in 2003.

(For a more updated view, check out my book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate or any of the other resources on the Bible and Homosexuality page on my website.)

Justin’s View (2003)

As many of you know, I’m fairly conservative in my theological views.  I believe that the Bible is morally authoritative, that sex is for marriage, and that promiscuity is harmful to everyone involved.  For many years of my life, I also believed that all homosexual behavior was wrong – whether it consisted of anonymous hookups or committed relationships.  I believed, based on what I had read in the Bible, that even the most loving and monogamous of same-sex relationships was evil in God’s eyes.  But as I studied the Bible, my view on that subject changed.  I now believe that homosexual behavior is appropriate within the confines of a committed, loving, monogamous, lifelong, Christ-centered relationship.  Essentially, I’m arguing that a Christ-centered marriage is a good thing, regardless of the gender of the people involved. [1]

Ron and I disagree on this point, and that puts us on opposite sides of a debate that is splitting the church.  Traditionally, the church has condemned homosexual relationships, and many Christians believe it should continue to do so.  But a growing number of Christians believes the church has made a mistake and that the church’s position ought to be reformed.  In this essay, I’m going to refer to these differing Christian viewpoints as “the Traditional View” and “the Reformed View” respectively.

I support the Reformed View.  But even so, I still believe that the vast majority of homosexual behavior throughout history has been sinful.  (In my opinion, quite a lot of heterosexual behavior has been sinful as well!)  I think that the Biblical writers were absolutely correct to condemn the homosexual behaviors they witnessed in their cultures – not only because those behaviors were connected with other sinful behaviors (such as idolatry), but also because the specific acts themselves were wrong.

The passages that mention those acts (often called “clobber passages,” but I don’t care for that term) could be interpreted in two ways.  They might condemn only those specific acts and situations, or they might condemn all homosexual behaviors for all time, regardless of situation.  For instance, when the Bible speaks negatively of “tax collectors,” we realize that it’s not talking about modern IRS agents.  Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were frequently corrupt and cheated people out of more money than they owed.  So when the Bible talks about “tax collectors,” it’s not condemning all tax collectors for all time; it’s condemning the specific behaviors of the tax collectors at that time.

Are “homosexual offenders” condemned for the same reason as tax collectors, or are all same-sex relationships condemned for all time?  In a moment, when I go through the passages in question, you’ll see that there are no easy answers.  In fact, if we had to limit the discussion to only those passages, I’d feel really conflicted and wouldn’t be comfortable giving a definitive answer to this question at all.

The reason I do feel comfortable with a definitive answer is that I believe the Traditional View is internally inconsistent and conflicts with key Scripture passages.  I am convinced that a Reformed View is the only way to provide a reasonable, consistent standard for interpreting the Bible as a whole.

Four Traditional View Arguments: The Big “Why?”

Before examining the problems I believe are inherent in the Traditional View, let’s take a look at the various reasons people give for condemning same-sex relationships.  Not all Traditional Views are the same, and some of the arguments are better than others.

Of course, some people hold the Traditional View simply because it is the traditional view.  I’ve heard people say, “Two thousand years of church tradition can’t be wrong.”  But this approach ignores just how often church tradition has been wrong:  when astronomers challenged the traditional interpretations of Chronicles 16:30 and Psalm 104:5; when abolitionists questioned the Biblical support for slavery; when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses in defiance of the Catholic Church; when liberal Christians began suggesting that interracial marriage was not a sin in God’s eyes – in these and many other cases, social pressures were the catalyst for reforming the church’s traditions.  We are the body of Christ, to be sure, but we are an all-too-human body, and we’re still growing to spiritual maturity.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been some misguided reformers as well.  It should go without saying that not everyone who questions tradition is right.  But when we do question tradition, we need to be able to ask “why”:  Why does this tradition exist?  What is the point of this rule?  Where does this belief come from?

Here are the four most common answers I hear to the question of why.

Argument #1: “Our bodies were designed for heterosexuality.”

This argument is phrased different ways, from the cliche (e.g. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”) to the vulgar (e.g. various comments about “plumbing”).  The argument is the same: God designed our bodies to interact in a certain way, so we shouldn’t use them in any other way.

It’s certainly true that God designed our bodies with heterosexuality in mind; that’s how new human beings come into the world.  I don’t think anyone can deny that heterosexual sex is the way our bodies were built to function.  But does that mean that using our bodies in any other way is sinful?

God designed our ears and mouths so we could communicate – we listen, and we talk.  Every culture on earth communicates this way.  But some people are deaf, maybe because they were born that way or maybe because of something that happened to them.  Either way, they can’t communicate the way the rest of us do, so they have to improvise with what they have.  Most deaf people today use sign language to communicate, and even though that’s not what our hands were designed for, it gets the job done.  None of us would call that “sinful.”

The argument that “you shouldn’t do that because that wasn’t God’s design” is really more of an excuse than a real argument.  If anything becomes sinful just because it wasn’t part of the original design of creation, we’d have to condemn wheelchairs, makeup, open-heart surgery, bicycles, acrobatics, pre-packaged foods… well, you get the idea.

Argument #2: “Sex is for procreation.”

Some people will argue that procreation is a necessary aspect of sex, so that experiencing sexual pleasure in any way that isn’t open to the possibility of procreation is a sin.  This once widespread belief is now primarily taught only by the Roman Catholic Church and is rejected by most Protestants.

The Bible never says that sex must always be used for procreation.  In fact, the Bible makes it clear that sex is for other purposes as well; it forms a bond between people (1 Cor. 6:16) and is a marital responsibility (1 Cor. 7:3-5).  Procreation is only one part of the reason for sex, and many couples have sex on a regular basis without ever conceiving (sometimes by choice; other times not).

According to official Roman Catholic teachings, sex is sinful whenever it is not “open to procreation.”  But the RCC applies this very inconsistently. Couples are allowed to have sex even when they know they are infertile, and fertile couples can deliberately plan their sexual encounters at times they know they will not conceive (known as “natural family planning”), as long as they don’t use condoms or other so-called “artificial” means of birth control.  Why should sex by an infertile couple be considered “open to procreation” when sex with a spermicide isn’t?  Is Natural Family Planning considered acceptable only because it is less reliable?  (If condoms were less reliable, would they be acceptable?)  Is there really anything “open to procreation” about a couple who know they are infertile because of physical deformities, age, medical conditions, previous surgery, or any other reason?

I know many wonderful Christians who are Catholic, but with all due respect, I believe this position is inconsistent and without Scriptural foundation.  After all, it derives primarily from the teachings of St. Augustine and is never mentioned in the Bible.  But if you’re going to use this argument anyway, you’d have to condemn sterile heterosexual relationships just as strongly.

Argument #3: “There are no examples of same-sex marriage in the Bible.”

This is a much better argument than the first two.  Essentially, it says this: If extramarital sex is wrong, then gay sex would only be permissible in a gay marriage.  But, the argument says, there is no such thing as a gay marriage in God’s eyes; every marriage in the Bible is heterosexual.

I agree with the first half of this argument; I believe that sex should be reserved for marriage.  Whether we like it or not, sex forms a bond with others, and that bond is difficult if not impossible to break.  When people have sex without a commitment, it can take quite an emotional and psychological toll once the relationship ends.  (Cameron Diaz’s character in Vanilla Sky asks her ex-boyfriend, “Don’t you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not?”)  Anonymous sexual encounters and one-night stands can be even more harmful, not to mention the potential for STDs.  Promiscuity ultimately results in a loss of self-respect, a devaluing of sex, and potential damage to others.  So I agree with this argument that sex ought to be in a marriage relationship, where the physical bond is matched by a relational bond and isn’t just an incidental side-effect.

And yes, it’s true that there are no same-sex marriages in the Bible.  But that’s what we’d expect anyway.  Same-sex marriages weren’t a part of the cultures in which the Bible was written, so obviously we wouldn’t expect to see stories of men and women with same-sex partners. [2]  In ancient Israel especially, marriage was as much about inheritance rights as anything, which resulted in such bizarre practices as levirate marriage (where men were required to take a dead brother’s wife and produce heirs for him – Deut. 25:5-6; Gen. 38:8) and God-ordained polygamy (Exodus 21:10-11; 2 Sam. 12:7-8). Even more shocking, a master could buy wives for his male slaves and then keep the wife and kids for himself after setting the slave free (Exodus 21:2-4), and women were forced to marry their rapists (Deut. 22:28-29).  There’s a lot more that could be said about these practices and the rationales behind them, but that would be a bit off-topic.  The point is this: Biblical examples of marriage reflect the culture both in what they include and what they do not.

Many things aren’t mentioned in the Bible, either because they weren’t part of the culture at that time (e.g. computer porn) or because they weren’t especially important issues to the Biblical authors (e.g. masturbation).  In cases like these, we use general Biblical principles to address the issue, relying on the Holy Spirit for guidance.  I’m going to suggest later in this essay that there are good Biblical reasons for supporting same-sex relationships even though they don’t appear anywhere in Scripture.

This particular Traditionalist argument has one other shortcoming.  These are supposed to be arguments about why same-sex relationships are sinful; yet this argument doesn’t answer that question.  It shifts the issue from “sex” to “marriage,” but it still doesn’t tell us why God would condemn a loving, monogamous, Christ-centered marriage between two people of the same sex.

To get the answer to that question, we have to move on to the fourth (and final) Traditional View argument…

Argument #4: “Because God says so.” (aka “There’s a rule against it.”)

Yep, this is what it comes down to.  No matter how wordy, complex, or sophisticated they get, every Christian Traditionalist argument I can think of ultimately relies on this basic principle: God has a rule against same-sex relationships, and even if we don’t fully understand or can’t explain the rationale behind it, in the end we’re just expected to obey, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac.

I’m not entirely comfortable with this answer, since it makes God seem arbitrary, and I don’t believe God is arbitrary.  By the same token, if God tells me to do something, then I want to obey Him.  So if God really does say so – if there really is a divine rule against same-sex relationships – then we need to follow it.

But is there one?

The Evidence for the Rule

Basically, the evidence for a rule against same-sex relationships consists of a few Bible passages where homosexual behaviors are condemned.  They are used as “prooftexts” for the Traditional View.  (A prooftext is a passage that is frequently quoted or referred to as a direct reference to a particular issue or theological question.  Prooftexts can be useful at times, but we must be careful to read them in their proper context, or they can lead us astray.)

If you’ve read much about this debate, you’re probably already familiar with most of these arguments, so I’m not going to spend too much time on them.  Still, I think we ought to briefly review the passages and see what kind of evidence they give us.

Prooftext #1: The Sodom Story (Gen. 19)

This passage is most often referred to by people who haven’t read it.  Of all the prooftexts, this one is the least relevant and the least helpful.

According to popular belief, “God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.”  If you read the passage for yourself, you’ll see this isn’t quite the way it happened.  Sodom and Gomorrah were set to be destroyed by God for a number of reasons (Ezekiel tells us they were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” and “did not help the poor and needy,” among other things [Ezekiel 16:49]).  Like any other city in Bible times, these cities were populated primarily by heterosexuals; Lot found husbands for his daughters there.

The only reason people today think of Sodom as “a gay city” is that passage in Genesis 19 where two angels come to warn Lot of the city’s impending destruction, and the men of the city respond to these visitors by forming an angry mob and threatening to gang rape them.  What most people don’t know is that this isn’t an isolated incident in Scripture.  Judges 19 tells a very similar story about a town mob threatening to gang rape a male visitor in the city of Gibeah, though in that story they end up murdering his concubine instead.  Does this mean that in Bible times, the landscape was dotted with “gay cities” everywhere that loved to rape men?  Of course not.  A threat of gang rape should be interpreted as an act of humiliating violence – a way of saying to a visitor, “You are not welcome here; we’re the big dogs.”  (Just imagine if you were in prison and a bunch of big, burly men threatened to rape you.  You wouldn’t assume they were gay men hitting on you; you’d realize that they were threatening you with the worst punishment imaginable!)  Although it might sound strange to our ears, this would have made sense to the earliest readers of these texts.

Generally, serious Traditionalist scholars don’t use the Sodom story to make their arguments, anyway.  They do, however, use the following passages.

Prooftext #2: Idols and Consequences (Romans 1:18-32)

Of all the prooftexts, this is the longest and most complex.  In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul talks about a group of people who “knew God” but “neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.”  Their hearts are darkened, and they begin worshipping idols.  As a direct result of this idol worship, they begin engaging in homosexual behaviors (which they previously were not doing).  Ultimately, they become depraved and God gives them over to a whole list of sins.

Most Traditionalists read this passage as referring to all humanity, with the idol worship used as a metaphor rather than a specific event.  In their reading of the passage, Paul is essentially saying, “People (in general) have turned from God (represented by idol worship) and as a result, have become sinful (including homosexuality).”  I don’t think the language of the passage quite supports that interpretation, however.

Paul begins by talking about all of humanity, to be sure, but he quickly moves to a specific example as a demonstration of humanity’s fallenness.  The specific example is one his Roman readers would be immediately familiar with: the fertility cults in Rome, where men and women engaged in sexual orgies that included both heterosexual and homosexual sex rites.  Remember, Paul wants a vivid example of fallenness for his audience, something they can all nod their heads in agreement with, because he’s getting ready to turn the tables on them in the next chapter.  In ancient Rome, “homosexuality” as a general phenomenon wouldn’t have been the vivid illustration he was looking for (unlike today, when many conservative pastors use it for just that). [3]  Roman fertility cults, however, were a great example that served his purpose nicely and required no explanation to his readers.

Notice that Paul talks about homosexuality in connection with the fertility rites (look for the “therefore” in v. 24 and “because of this” in v. 26), and not in the list of sins at the end of the passage.  This is our clue that Paul isn’t bringing it up as “another example of sinful behavior.”  Why, then, does Paul make such a big deal about the homosexual aspect of these rites?  For two reasons: 1) to highlight the “unnaturalness” of turning from God; and 2) to describe the rites in the most unappealing way he can think of, to unify everyone in saying, “Yes! How disgustingly immoral!”

Now let there be no mistake; Paul has nothing positive to say about homosexuality in this passage.  Clearly he views it as a bad thing, or at the very least, a “shameful” and “unnatural” thing.  We must recognize that.  At the same time, we must also recognize that homosexuality is not the point of this passage, even though some Christians today try to use it that way.  It’s mentioned for a specific reason in connection with specific acts that were familiar to his audience.

So this passage speaks negatively of homosexual behavior, but on the other hand, it does so in a context which is clearly sinful.  Paul does say homosexuality is “shameful” and “unnatural,” but he says the same thing (using the same Greek words) about men with long hair in 1 Corinthians 11:14, and we generally consider that to be cultural.  Is this a prohibition for all time, or is it a matter of context, like with the tax collectors?  Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s tough to say.  I wouldn’t put too much faith in either reading without something a lot more concrete to back it up.

Prooftext #3: The Sinful “Arsenokoitai” (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10)

Aside from Romans, the only other New Testament reference to homosexuality occurs in two passages known as “vice lists,” in which Paul casually mentions the “arsenokoitai” as a group of sinners.  People spend a lot of time debating about the translation of this word, because it appears only rarely in ancient writings.  Even the translators of the NIV couldn’t seem to make up their minds about it; it’s translated as “homosexual offenders” in 1 Corinthians, but as “perverts” in 1 Timothy. [Note: The publishers of the NIV changed their translation of these terms in 2011; references to the NIV in this essay were accurate when this essay was published in 2003.]

The word arsenokoitai is a compound work in Greek, and the parts of the word make reference to “male” and “bed,” which indicates that this word probably referred to some kind of male homosexual behavior.  The same Greek words (“male” and “bed”) appear in the Greek translation of the Leviticus passage I’m going to discuss in a moment, which tells men not to lie (“bed”) with a man (“male”), giving support to this theory.  On the other hand, we must be careful not to assume too much; Greek compound words don’t always mean what they might appear to mean.  “Cyclops” in Greek is a compound word literally meaning “round eye,” but we know from ancient literature that a cyclops was a mythical giant man having only oneeye – which makes sense once we get the connection, but isn’t something we could have figured out without all the literary references.

Still, I think that it’s fairly safe to assume that the arsenokoitai of Paul’s day were men engaging in some kind of homosexual behavior.  But what kind of behavior?  That’s pretty much impossible to know for sure.  Whatever it is, it would have to be something fairly common and well-known to Paul’s audience; these are very short lists of common sinners (e.g. thieves, greedy, liars, etc.) everyone would be readily acquainted with.  The most likely explanation is that Paul is referring to a practice that was fairly common in the Greek culture of his day – married men who had sex with male youths on the side.

The extramarital relationships of men with boys in ancient Greece are infamous even today.  Archaeological and literary evidence prove that these relationships were common for centuries in Greece, though they were frowned upon by many even while they were publicly practiced.  This would make a perfect target for Paul’s vice lists, and it would explain why, in both lists, he mentions the sin of the arsenokoitai separately after he mentions adultery – because technically, by Greek thought, having a boy on the side wasn’t adultery.

Another piece of evidence for this interpretation is the Greek word malakoi, which appears next to arsenokoitai in the 1 Corinthians passage.  Malakoi literally means “soft ones,” and could be translated simply to mean “morally lax.”  However, many scholars believe that “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” are meant to be taken together, so that the malakoi are the young men who service the arsenokoitai.  For this reason, the Jerusalem Bible translates malakoi to mean “Catamites” (that is, young male prostitutes), the New American Catholic translation says “boy prostitutes,” and the New International Version reads “male prostitutes.” [4 Personally, I don’t think that “prostitute” is the best word to use to describe these relationships, but it does at least convey the idea of a sexual relationship outside of marriage without getting into an entire history lesson.

That’s it for the New Testament, but there’s still one Old Testament passage we haven’t covered.

Prooftext #4: The Abomination (Leviticus 18-20)

In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, God gives Moses a long list of rules for the Israelites.  Some of these are rules we still follow today; others we don’t.  The most famous of all is in 18:22, which says, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman” (NIV).  The NIV translation follows this with, “that is detestable,” but the more famous version is the King James Version, which reads, “It is abomination.”

Now before you start freaking out or thinking God hates you, please understand that “abomination” in Hebrew refers to anything forbidden for the Israelites.  For instance, Leviticus 11 says that eagles are an abomination, and so are owls, storks, various types of water creatures, “and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” just to name a few.  Locusts, by the way, aren’t abominations.

Still, abomination or not, the prohibition of male-male sex is pretty straightforward.  And at the beginning of the passage, God tells us why He’s giving these rules – because He wants to keep the Israelites pure and separate from the polytheistic cultures surrounding them (Lev. 18:1-4).  This helps explain why the Israelites are forbidden to shave (Lev. 19:27), get tattoos (Lev. 19:28), wear clothing made of mixed fabrics (Lev. 19:19), or have sex during a woman’s period (Lev. 18:19).  It also helps explain the rather strange comments about things like sacrificing children to Molech (Lev. 18:21) and eating fruit too quickly from a tree (Lev. 19:23); and why the Israelites are forbidden to have sex with a woman and her daughter (Lev. 18:17) but nothing at all is said about sex outside of marriage or having multiple sexual partners.  Outside of the context of keeping the Israelites separate, it would be a very odd collection of rules.

I’ve heard people quote Leviticus to forbid homosexuality and tattoos, but other than that, people generally don’t turn to Leviticus for moral guidance.  There’s something very haphazard about that approach to the Bible, picking and choosing passages like side dishes at a buffet.

Responding to the Prooftexts

As we look at these passages, we’re faced with a dilemma.  On one hand, here are three examples of homosexual behaviors being condemned – in Leviticus, in Romans, and in the vice lists.  On the other hand, both of the New Testament examples describe situations that even Reformers like myself would consider sinful, and the Leviticus passage requires some major selective reading to make it work.

Unfortunately, this is where the argument usually stops.  It’s not very satisfying, is it?  We’re left with a bunch of questions, some half-baked “maybes,” and very few real answers.

The Traditional View’s argument from these passages is pretty weak, but it’s also enough to make a lot of gay Christians feel uneasy and conflicted.  There’s just something in your gut that says, “Yeah, but if there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality, then why all the negativity in Scripture?”  For most of us, that’s counterbalanced by a feeling in our hearts that says that loving, Christ-centered relationships are a good thing, regardless of gender.  The end result?  Total frustration and confusion.

Of course, this isn’t the only issue that should make you feel conflicted like that.  For instance, sometime you might want to try doing a study of the New Testament passages that talk about the role of women in the church.  Try reading 1 Timothy 2:11-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and tell me that doesn’t give you a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach.

To be perfectly frank, the only reason we’re having this debate now about same-sex relationships instead of about women speaking in church is that our culture’s standards have changed.  A few decades ago, hair length was a major cultural statement, and many Christians quoted 1 Corinthians 11:14 to prove that men should have short hair.  Today, very few of us would take that approach.  Similarly, most of us have no trouble explaining away the “women must be silent” passages with a cultural explanation – something about how women in Paul’s day were causing problems by interrupting the service, or speaking about things without the education to back themselves up, or violating cultural standards and thereby making the church look bad.  I’ve heard all kinds of cultural explanations for Paul’s prohibition there, often made by the same people who resist applying that logic to the homosexuality prooftexts.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  If we’re going to seriously be “not of this world” and follow Christ at all costs, how can we approach the Bible with a constantly changing standard, always trying to adapt it to fit our preconceived ideas?  That’s exactly what the church has done for many, many years.

Unless we’re going to start requiring women to wear head coverings (1 Cor. 11:3-13), we’re going to have to find a clear, consistent way of determining which passages in Scripture we’re still obligated to follow, and which ones we’re not.  And it has to be a standard that we can apply in every culture and in every context, not something that lets us reinterpret things every few years to suit our desires.

More on that later.

But first, let’s suppose we decided to interpret these passages the way the Traditional View does – as a condemnation of all homosexual relationships for all time, no matter how loving, monogamous, or committed they might be.  Even if we accept the initial premise and the prooftexts, can the Traditional View really stand up to scrutiny?

Problems with the Traditional View

I have tremendous respect for Ron and the other Christian Traditionalists I know.  I have no doubts about their sincerity or the depth of their convictions.  But I am unable to share those convictions because I believe their reasoning is flawed.  I believe there are inherent problems with the Traditional View that go much deeper than how you interpret the homosexuality prooftexts.

To explain what I mean, let’s imagine that you and I are Traditionalists.  That means that not only do we condemn homosexual behaviors like the ones referred to in Scripture, but we would have to condemn ALL gay relationships, no matter how wonderful they might seem.

So for instance, let’s say we know two couples – one gay, and one straight.  These couples are both Christian couples, and they’re both equally devoted to Christ.  Both couples have made committments to stay together and be faithful to one another for the rest of their lives.  Both couples have a certain sense of complimentarity, so that each person’s strengths and weaknesses help to balance out their partner.  Both couples pray together; both couples serve together; in fact, in every respect, these couples are identical.  The only difference is that one is gay and the other is straight.

According to the Traditional View, we’re supposed to celebrate and admire one of these couples, while we condemn the other one as an evil thing in God’s sight.

Or here’s another way of putting it.  Suppose my friend Billy meets someone and falls in love with this person, named Sam.  Billy and Sam spend months, maybe even years, getting to know one another, and as they grow closer to each other and to Christ, they decide to form a lasting bond, to promise to be together forever in a marriage in front of God.  So Billy comes to me about it and I, being a Traditionalist, respond by saying, “That’s immoral and disgusting!  You and Samuel are doing a terrible thing before God!”  Billy blinks for a moment and then replies, “Sam is short for Samantha.  She’s a girl.”  Suddenly, my opinion changes.  “Oh, well then, that’s wonderful!  All the best to you!  What a blessing!”

In this case, nothing at all has changed about Billy’s commitment, Billy’s motivations, Billy’s relationship with Christ, or even Billy’s specific actions.  Everything is exactly the same, with one exception: Sam went from male to female in my mind, and that somehow changed the relationship from being disgusting and immoral to being holy and beautiful – even though, in either case, Billy’s motivations and actions are exactly the same.

There’s something a bit unnerving about that, isn’t there?  It doesn’t seem quite right.  But if we’re going to be Traditionalists, we’d have to explain this discrepancy by reminding ourselves, “There’s a rule that says that’s the way it has to be.  It’s not up to me; it’s up to God.  God says same-sex relationships are sinful, so they must be.”

But now we have an even bigger problem.

We’ve built our entire Traditionalist argument on one important premise: the idea that all people are either male or female.  That way we can distinguish the “holy” relationships from the “sinful” ones.

But what if we find out that Sam isn’t male OR female?  Then what?

You see, although they’re rare, gender anomalies do exist.  Many people have abnormalities that prevent them from being classified as male or female.  Some have both sets of genitals; others have deformed genitals; some have bodies that don’t match their chromosomes; others have chromosomes that aren’t XX or XY; and still others have bodies that don’t match their brains.  It’s a field that gets more and more complex the more you study it.  Most of these people find a way of publicly identifying as male or female, but their bodies may in fact be more like the opposite gender, or anywhere in between.

Most of us are just glad not to have to deal with problems like that, so we simply put it out of our minds.  But this is a very real problem that affects many real people.  It’s not their fault they were born with these difficulties, and this is the only life they’ve got.  So if they fall in love with someone who loves them just as they are, then how do we advise them?  We can’t just write it off as “an exception to the rule” – not if we really believe that gender marks the difference between holy marriage and living in sin.  No, somehow we’d have to find a way of distinguishing, but how?  Would we just go by the gender they identified with?  Even if their body was quite different?  Would we go by external genitals?  By chromosomes?  What about the ambiguous cases?

Even if we could come up with some sort of standard for judging the ambiguous cases, wouldn’t it seem a little bit arbitrary?  Yet somehow we’d have to go on believing that gender is crucial to God – so crucial that marrying someone of the wrong gender can keep you out of the kingdom of God.

But that’s only the first problem we face.  The second one is even more mind-boggling.

We based our Traditional View on the idea that we need to follow Biblical standards for right and wrong, even when it doesn’t make sense to us.  Even though the homosexuality prooftexts could have been explained in other ways, and even though none of them referred to gay marriage or covenant gay partnerships of any sort, we still decided that the most straightforward reading of these verses said that homosexuality was wrong.

The trouble is, if we apply that same reasoning to other passages, we’re going to end up with some major headaches.

For instance, let’s take a look at a passage I mentioned earlier, 1 Corinthians 11:3-10.  The passage reads:

Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since his is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.

So now what?  It doesn’t make sense to argue that this is only a cultural command if we’re not going to accept the same argument for the homosexuality passages.  In fact, it would make even less sense to argue for a cultural interpretation here, when Paul clearly tells us that his reason for giving this command is because of the order of creation “and because of the angels.”  Whatever that might mean, it doesn’t sound cultural, does it?

Or what about Romans 13:1:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

I was just reading an article where a conservative minister used this passage to prove that both the American Revolution and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience were sinful acts.  Using our current method of interpretation, we’d have to agree.  Furthermore, we’d have to condemn even the actions of German Christians who resisted the Nazi government.

This can’t be right… can it?

When it comes right down to it, no one consistently applies Scripture passages in a literal, word-for-word, direct application to today’s problems in every case.  Any honest Christian has to admit that there are at least some passages that either a) don’t apply today; b) still apply but don’t mean what they seem to mean on the surface; or c) are overruled by other passages or biblical themes.

The problem is, how do we know which passages are which?  As I said earlier, we need a clear, consistent standard that we can apply across the board.

This is more bad news for the Traditional View, though.  I’ve been studying this issue for quite a few years now, and I still haven’t found any supporter of the Traditional View who can give me a clear, consistent standard to explain why we should apply the gay prooftexts to same-sex marriage and yet not follow the letter of the text on issues like slavery, women in the church, hair length, money lending, and so on.  Most Traditionalist Christians I’ve talked to are content to simply change standards as they go, arguing for a cultural reading of one passage and a literal reading of another, without any reason for doing so other than their prior beliefs about what the Bible ought to say.

The closest I’ve ever seen to a clear, consistent standard like this from a Traditionalist Christian is a book by William Webb entitled Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals.  Mr. Webb realizes this is a problem for the Traditional View, and his book (published in 2001) is an attempt to fix this problem – to give us a clear, consistent standard to explain why the church has changed its mind on slavery and (to some degree) on women but shouldn’t change its mind on homosexuality.  When someone pointed me to this book recently, I thought, “At last!  Someone on their side has recognized this problem and is trying to fix it!”

Here’s the thing, though.  Mr. Webb’s attempt at a “clear, consistent standard” is a list of eighteen separate criteria, none of which are particularly clear.  I do admire him for making the effort, but somehow I just don’t think he’s accomplished what he set out to do – especially considering I could just as easily use his own eighteen criteria to make a pretty strong case for the Reformed View.

But in my opinion, the real “death blow” to the Traditional View is a crucial passage in Romans.

The Romans 13 Problem

Romans 13:8-10 reads as follows:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

This is one of those passages that I think you have to read over a couple of times to grasp the full magnitude of what Paul is trying to convey.  In my book, it ranks right up there with John 3:16 as one of those super-important passages that every Christian should know.  If you’re not familiar with it yet (and even if you are), seriously, read it again.

Paul makes an incredibly bold statement here.  He says that whatever commandment there may be can be summed up in the rule to love your neighbor. [5]  What a concept!  To put it another way, Paul is saying that if we lived our lives with a truly loving spirit, acting in truly loving ways, we would automatically fulfill every one of God’s laws.  We wouldn’t have any need for specific rules.

For example, adultery is an inherently unloving act.  If you were living in a loving way toward your spouse, you’d keep your vow without being told to.  Similarly, you wouldn’t murder someone if you loved them, and you wouldn’t steal from someone if you loved them.  And if you truly love someone, you don’t covet the things they have; instead, you’re happy for them when good things come their way, not lusting after those things for yourself.

We could literally go through every single one of God’s commandments and show that each one of them is simply an extension of this basic principle to live a life of servant love.  (“Love” here of course doesn’t mean romantic love; it means the deep, abiding, unconditional love that comes from God.)

But wait – the very definition of the Traditional View says that even when two relationships are equally loving – even when they’re motivated by the exact same selfless desires and the exact same servant hearts – that one of them can be ruled sinful just because of a person’s gender.  Traditionalists say that this command is from God.  But if it’s from God, then why does it contradict the rule Paul gives us here – a rule that applies to every other commandment?

Incidentally, this passage in Romans 13 isn’t just some random, obscure passage.  Paul spends almost the entire book of Romans building an argument about law, grace, and sin, trying to explain what the Christian gospel is all about.  Paul uses the word “law” 74 times in twelve chapters!  The passage I just quoted from Romans 13 is the conclusion of Paul’s grand argument; it’s the last time “law” is mentioned for the rest of the book.

Throughout all of his letters, Paul was concerned with two problems in the church.  On one extreme were the Christians who weren’t living like Christians.  They were indulging themselves, behaving badly, and making the church look horrible.  On the other side were those Christians who were so concerned with following all the requirements of the Law that they were putting a tremendous burden on themselves and others.

It was this second group that Paul was addressing in Colossians 2:20-23:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

But what about God’s law in the Bible?  Doesn’t it give us a lot of rules like that?

Paul explains this apparent contradiction in Galatians 3:23-25:

Before this faith [in Jesus] came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

We are no longer under the supervision of the law!  Can you believe it?

Not Under a New Law

I think that this concept was too radical for many Christians, because it seems that no sooner had Paul written this than people started trying to find ways to explain it away.  For instance, some Christians will claim that the Old Testament can be divided into “moral laws” and “ritual laws,” and that we’re no longer under the supervision of the ritual laws, but we’re still under the supervision of the moral ones.  This has several problems, one of which is the fact that the Old Testament itself does not contain any distinction between “moral” and “ritual” laws; it calls breaking any of the laws “sin.”  (For example, see Lev. 5:1-6.)  The only way anyone “distinguishes” between the two is by deciding ahead of time which laws they think should still apply and drawing the line accordingly.  Secondly, even if there were such a distinction, Paul doesn’t say “we are no longer under the supervision of the ritual law,” he says “the law.”  Period.

In a similar fashion, some Christians will try to claim that what Paul means by “the law” is only the Old Testament law, and that Paul gives us a new law in the New Testament.  But that isn’t at all what he says; Paul makes it perfectly clear that we as Christians are not under the law – Old Testament or New Testament.  He’s not trying to remove one law only to put us under another one; he’s trying to show us that in Christ, we are free from the law.

But being free from the law isn’t the end of the story.  Paul also wants us to realize that we must avoid the other extreme; we must not sin.  Galatians 5:13-14 says:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Notice how Paul addresses both extremes in this passage.  First, we’re called to be free, and that means we’re no longer bound by the rules and regulations of the law.  On the other hand, he says, sin is still a very real possibility for us, and we shouldn’t use our freedom from the law as a license to sin.  Just as we shouldn’t be bound by rules, we also shouldn’t be bound by sin.

Some of Paul’s critics must have been concerned that without the rules of the law, we wouldn’t be able to know what is or isn’t sin.  But that’s why Paul tells us the alternative: we must “serve one another in love.”  And again, he reminds us, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

According to Paul, if we live a life of servant love, we will be doing everything that the law requires of us.  No further rules and regulations are necessary.

This idea didn’t start with Paul, either.  Even back in the Old Testament, God says through the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6).  Sacrifice, of course, was a part of the law God had given them, but what does God mean by “mercy”?  Well, according to my Zondervan NIV Study Bible:

[This Hebrew word] can refer to right conduct toward one’s fellowman or loyalty to the Lord or both – the sum total of what God requires of his servants. […] The same Hebrew word is translated ‘love’ in v. 4.

So what God most wants is love – toward our fellow human beings and toward God.  And Jesus reiterates that when he tells us that “love God” and “love your neighbor” are the two great commandments (Mark 12:28-34).  See how everything starts to fall into place?

Jesus and the Sabbath

Jesus himself gives us the best example of how to understand the Scriptures on this subject.  For the Jews, one of the all-time most important commandments was the commandment to keep the Sabbath, which meant doing no work at all from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  Throughout the Old Testament, God uses the Sabbath as a sort of measuring stick for determining whether God’s people are living the way they should.

Then in Matthew 12, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the grainfields, and the disciples are picking grain.  The religious leaders confront Jesus about this, asking, “Why are you letting your disciples break the Sabbath?”  Then Jesus himself publicly heals a man on the Sabbath, and that gets the religious leaders even more upset.

Now if I were Jesus, I probably would have responded by saying, “Hey, healing isn’t exactly work.  So technically I’m not really violating the Sabbath.”  What’s surprising, though, is that Jesus doesn’t make that argument.  He implicitly accepts the Pharisees’ contention that he’s violating the Sabbath law, but then he makes the argument that sometimes it’s okay to violate the letter of the law!

To make his case, Jesus gives them the example of David, who ate consecrated bread when he had no food, even though only priests were allowed to eat consecrated bread (Matt. 12:3-4).  He also points out that their own common sense would tell them to save a sheep that fell into a well on the Sabbath, even though that would clearly be work (Matt. 12:11-12).

In verse 7, Jesus quotes a scripture to back himself up:

If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Remember that line?  Notice, Jesus is building on a principle here that he expects the religious leaders to already know.  This passage isn’t just about the Sabbath; it’s about the law in general and how Jesus expects us to read the Scriptures.

The Purpose of Rules

But if Jesus is telling us that we’re allowed to break the rules sometimes, what does that mean?  Is God getting soft on sin, becoming mellower as the years go on?

Well, of course not.  God detests sin and cannot have anything to do with it.  But God also knows, in His infinite wisdom, that mere rules and regulations are not always sufficient to define what is sinful.  The specifics of the situation make a huge difference.

Even we humans can recognize this.  Killing another human being, for example, is both a sin and a terrible crime.  But there are situations in which we would not hold someone accountable for killing, such as if it was in self-defense.  There might even be times we would approve of their actions.

If you think about it, I’m sure you can come up with many examples of behaviors that would be wrong in one situation but right in another.  To account for this, our human laws contain all kinds of specific exceptions and long-winded explanations for even the simplest of crimes, and our court system contains numerous checks and balances to allow for human common sense to temper, interpret, or sometimes even override the letter of the law.  No one would want to be tried in court by a computer, because we know that only a human being has the reasoning ability to look at a situation and see all the nuances and extenuating circumstances that need to be taken into account.  A computer could hand down a judgment based on a strict interpretation of exactly what the law says, but only a person can assess the situation and apply the law in a manner that is consistent with its intent.

If even we humans, with our pitiful understanding of good and evil, can see that rules are inadequate, then why would we expect anything less of God?  As Jesus made clear through the Sabbath incident, God judges our actions on a case-by-case basis, taking into account our heart, our motives, and the specifics of the situation, not just mindlessly applying a set of rigid rules.  Jesus gave several examples of situations where the Pharisees’ rigid approach to the rules was in conflict with God’s holistic approach.

But if God doesn’t judge us based on a set of rules, then why did God give us the rules in the first place?

The rules of Scripture do have value.  They do have a purpose.  Even Jesus didn’t do away with the law; in Matthew 5:17 he says:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

The law has not been abolished.  But by putting the focus on fulfillingthe law, Jesus reminds us that the rules existed for a purpose, not just to give us regulations.  When that purpose is fulfilled, the specific regulations no longer apply.

See, God’s rules, like human rules, have a purpose.  Think about the human rules we follow in everyday life; each one of them exists for a reason.  Traffic rules exist to prevent accidents.  Classroom rules exist to promote a healthy learning environment.  Even board game rules have a purpose:  to make the game fun.

All of God’s rules have purposes behind them.  For instance, animal sacrifice was a major part of Israelite worship.  I don’t think there’s anything inherently pleasing to God about slaughtering living things, but shedding the blood of choice animals was a way to show the severe consequences of sin to God, and it gave the Israelites a way to be forgiven for their transgressions.  But as Hebrews 10:1 says, “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves.”  Colossians 2:17 says, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

When Jesus was sacrificed on the cross, he provided the ultimate fulfillment of the animal sacrifices.  His death and resurrection accomplished the purpose that all the Old Testament regulations about sacrifices could only point towards – the final reconciliation of God with God’s people.  As a result, the sacrifices were no longer necessary.  It’s not that the laws were abolished, but they became irrelevant once their purpose had been accomplished.  They were fulfilled.

This helps explain why God seems to change His mind so much in the Bible.  Just compare Deut. 23:1-3 to Isaiah 56:3-8 or Leviticus 11:1-47 to Mark 7:15.  In cases like these, God gives a command for a particular purpose (for instance, eunuchs are excluded to demonstrate God’s holiness).  Once the command is no longer necessary to accomplish that purpose, it becomes obsolete.  Then other considerations (such as compassion) take over.

Approaching the Bible this way – looking at the reasons behind each command rather than just the letter of the law – fits perfectly with Jesus’ approach to the Sabbath.  (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” [Mark 2:27].)  It explains why God’s standards sometimes seem to change as the cultural situations change, even though God Himself is changeless.  And it gives us a solid foundation for suggesting that head coverings are no longer necessary for Christian women, because they wouldn’t serve the same purpose today that they did when Paul first commanded them.

Jesus even takes this one step further.  In many cases, he points out, adhering to the principle rather than the letter of the law actually holds us to a higher standard.  Following the principles behind each command shows us that adultery can happen in your heart (Matt. 5:27-28), that hatred is no better than murder (Matt. 5:21-22), and that even giving to the poor is useless if it’s done for the wrong reasons (Matt. 6:1-4).  Over and over again, Jesus reiterates that God is more interested in the underlying principles than in the rules themselves.

In this light, the Traditional View’s insistence on continuing to follow a rule in the absence of an underlying principle strikes me as not only inconsistent, but unbiblical. [6]

In the early church, the hot topic of debate between Christians was circumcision.  It’s hard for us to understand now why circumcision was such a big deal to them, but at the time, the church was splitting, tempers were flaring, and many feared the new faith wouldn’t survive if “the other side” got their way.  Sound familiar?

The earliest Christians were Jews, of course.  Jesus was a Jew, and he taught in Jewish forums.  The only Scriptures these early Christians had were the Jewish Scriptures – what we now call the Old Testament.  The Jewish Scriptures taught that God demands allegiance, and possibly the most important sign of this allegiance was the covenant God made with Abraham – the covenant of circumcision.  Every male born into a Jewish family was to be circumcised as a sign of devotion to God (Gen. 17:9-14).  If a non-Jew wanted to convert and become acceptable to God, he had to take up residence with the Israelites and be circumcised, no matter how old he was (Exodus 12:48).  This was God’s command.

The Scriptures could hardly have been clearer in demanding circumcision for all who would worship God.  So when the early Christians began to reach Gentiles with the gospel, they naturally expected these Gentiles to do the same thing God had demanded of all the past converts.  The issue at stake wasn’t whether Gentiles could become Christians; it was whether Gentiles could become Christians without first having to be circumcised.

The Gentiles were in the position many modern-day gay people are in.  I doubt they had much theological knowledge or understanding of Scripture to back them up; all they knew was they were trusting this Jesus guy, and they were NOT about to let someone take a knife to them.  The pro-circumcision group was probably a lot more pious and a lot better at quoting Scripture passages to back themselves up, and I imagine they made a lot of good arguments about tradition and the need to endure sacrifice and suffering for Christ’s sake.  Yet somehow, they were wrong.

Even Peter and Paul had a public confrontation on this subject (Gal. 2:11-14).  The pressure for the pro-circumcision view was so strong that many Gentiles probably thought it would be easier to get circumcised and not take the heat from the rest of the Christian community.

Paul believed this issue was much more important than just circumcision, though.  In Galatians 5:2-6, he says:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. […] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

For Paul, circumcising the Gentiles wasn’t just unnecessary – it was downright sinful.  Why?  Because it was essentially putting them back under the law – a law that Christ died to free us from.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being circumcised.  Paul’s point is that we must not allow ourselves to be duped into following rules for the sake of rules, thinking that’s a prerequisite for pleasing God.

“The only thing that counts,” Paul reminds us, “is faith expressing itself through love.”

Hints in the Spirit-Inspired Scriptures

Not that long ago, there were many churches that taught that slavery was an institution supported by God.  They shut their eyes to the bad fruit being borne by the slave system, and they ignored all the things the Bible says about loving your neighbor as yourself, and the equality of human beings.  They would find that handful of passages that mentioned slavery (after all, it was part of the culture in which the Bible was written) and they would try to apply those verses to us today, without acknowledging that they were based in the culture and no longer relevant to us.

The abolitionist movement had an uphill battle in some respects because there weren’t specific verses that said, “slavery is bad.”  Instead, they had to rely on the overall message of Scripture, and that’s not easy to do.  The abolitionists did find a few verses to help them make their case, though.  One of the best passages they found was Galatians 3:28, which, according to the NIV, says:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Now when Paul wrote this, he probably didn’t intend it as part of an argument against the institution of slavery.  He was making a point that whoever you are, when you become a Christian, your identity is in Christ, and nothing else should divide us.  But the abolitionists argued that Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that there was a deeper meaning here that even Paul himself might not have realized.  It’s a great argument, and I agree 100%.

What’s really interesting about this passage, though, is that it’s usually not translated exactly right.  There’s a strange little grammatical thing that Paul does in this passage, and most translators aren’t quite sure how to render that into English, so it usually gets overlooked.

If you look at the original Greek text, what the passage actually says is this:

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

It’s a strange choice of words.  Paul doesn’t say “neither male nor female” as he does with the other two groups; he says “no male and female.”  Why does he say and instead of nor?

I have a strong suspicion that this is another example of the Holy Spirit speaking to us through Paul’s words.  The phrase “male and female” dates back to Genesis, where God creates Adam and Eve as the first couple, and we are told that “male and female He created them.”  Many Traditionalist Christians have taken to quoting that phrase, saying that if God created them “male and female” then that means that every couple for the rest of humanity should be male and female, and that any deviation from that is sinful.  It’s a common argument; we hear it all the time.

That’s why I think it’s so interesting that Paul wrote this passage as he did.  First he says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek,” and the matter of inviting Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) into the Christian community was the first major controversy of the church.  Then he says, “neither slave nor free,” and we know that the issue of slavery and the integration of the races was another huge hurdle that the church had to overcome to be what God intended.  Finally Paul says, “no ‘male and female,’” and that’s the phrase we keep hearing in the current debate over gay couples in the church.

If we truly believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible’s authors, we need to be on the lookout for those hints embedded in the Scriptures that may speak to us in a way their original authors wouldn’t have expected.  Paul would have had no idea how this passage could alter our modern view of slavery or homosexuality, but I think the grammatical error here is a clue to us that God knew exactly what He was doing.

Another interesting passage is 1 Timothy 4:1-6:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.

Again, I’m not suggesting that Paul had same-sex marriage in mind when he wrote this passage.  But I do think it’s interesting that he says he has received specific instruction from the Holy Spirit that in later times, Christians will be forbidding people to marry and will need to have their errors pointed out to them.

Paul, of course, was a major proponent of celibacy for Christians; he believed that remaining single and celibate was the ideal (1 Cor. 7:8).  But Paul didn’t believe anyone should be required to remain single, if for no other reason than that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9).  And while Paul says almost nothing about the benefits of marriage in his letters, even he is forced to agree with the Holy Spirit that forbidding someone to marry is more than a bad idea; it’s the sort of thing “taught by demons.”

If nothing else, this passage serves as a reminder to us that being too restrictive and calling things sinful when they are not is just as dangerous to Christians as the opposite.

The Final Argument

Of course, as long as there’s a difference of opinion in the church on this issue, there will always be good arguments on both sides.  Ultimately, I believe it’s up to us to look for the most important piece of evidence: the fruit of a relationship.

In Luke 6:43-44, Jesus says:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit.

You see, sin always shows itself.  Sin is like the monkey’s paw in W.W. Jacobs’ famous horror story; it promises good things, but it never delivers.  We sin because of the good we think we’ll get out of it, but in the end, the negative consequences of our sins always outweigh any positives we could have attained from them.

If same-sex relationships were sinful, we wouldn’t need theological debates to tell us that; it would be readily apparent from the fruit of those relationships.  Indeed, the fruit of many same-sex relationships through history has been bad.  Just take a look at how Paul describes the fruit of the Romans’ actions in Romans 1!  The same can be said for the secular gay community today; a promiscuous, bar-hopping lifestyle filled with drugs, alcohol, and short-lived relationships bears the fruit of emptiness and despair.  After all, modern-day gay culture is famous for its “drama,” isn’t it?

But if you’re fortunate enough to know a Christ-centered gay couple, you’ll notice something remarkably different.  These relationships are actually bearing good fruit.  The fruit of the Spirit are in abundance in such relationships – love, joy, peace, patience, and all the rest.  You can argue all you want about the meaning of this passage or that passage; the fact remains that I know monogamous, Christ-centered gay couples whose relationships are living proof of God’s blessing on them.  Bad trees don’t bear good fruit.

We may always have questions, but in the end, sometimes we just have to accept the evidence of God’s work as the only proof we need.  It was the deciding factor for the early Christians (Acts 11:15-18), and I believe it will one day be the deciding factor for the church on this issue as well.


I wrote this essay in response to those of you who wanted to know why I believe what I do.  But remember, this essay is only a human opinion, and although my views have been shaped by years of prayer and Bible study on this issue, they still remain a flawed human interpretation of things.

If this is an issue that matters to you, please don’t base your views on something like “Justin says this” or “Justin believes that.”  Take your time to study the Bible for yourself.  Read the passages I mentioned, in their context, to understand them better.  Read arguments on both sides of the issue, and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions.

Most of all, pray.  Pray every day for God’s guidance in your life and for the wisdom and humility to admit when you’re wrong.  If you find that you disagree with fellow Christians, remember that they are still your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And they may yet have something to teach you.

Follow Christ at all costs.  Nothing matters more than that.

Footnotes [Note: These footnotes were all included with the original 2003 essay.]

1. Modern gender theory distinguishes between the words “sex” and “gender,” so that technically I ought to say “sex” when I’m talking about biology. For this essay, though, I use them interchangeably, and often say “gender” rather than “sex” to help distinguish it from the alternate definition of “sex” (i.e. sexual acts).

[back to the essay]

2. There is some evidence to suggest that the centurion’s “servant” healed by Jesus in Matthew 8:5-13 was in fact his male lover. Nothing negative is said about this relationship. Similarly, other biblical characters (such as David and Jonathan) are said to have had same-sex romances. I think the evidence in most of these cases is scarce, but even if these were romantic relationships, I certainly wouldn’t consider them “marriages.”

[back to the essay]

3. Of course, there was homosexuality in Rome, but generally, as in Greece, it was a matter of sexual liaisons in addition to an existing heterosexual relationship. Paul’s talk of an “exchange” of one for the other is quite convenient to apply to the modern-day gay community, but it really wouldn’t have applied well to general Roman homosexual activity.

[back to the essay]

4. Some other translations simply translate malakoi and arsenokoitai together as “homosexuals,” believing that Paul is distinguishing between active and passive partners in male-male intercourse. This doesn’t make much sense, though, when you consider that the 1 Timothy passage only mentions one of these groups (arsenokoitai) without the other (malakoi). If arsenokoitai and malakoi really referred to active and passive partners, it would be quite strange indeed for Paul to mention only active partners without mentioning the passive ones. On the other hand, it’s much easier to believe that Paul might mention “men who solicit prostitutes” without mentioning the prostitutes themselves, or that he might mention “men who have sex with boys” without mentioning the boys.

Incidentally, until a few centuries ago, malakoi was translated to mean either “effeminate” or “weakling” – both of which probably stem from a misunderstanding of the term “soft ones” in Greek.

[back to the essay]

5. I think it’s safe to assume that Paul means to include “love God” as well; it’s certainly implied although not stated outright, and the two commands are linked elsewhere in Scripture. Here Paul is focusing on how we interact with other people on earth.

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6. Of course, Traditional View apologists will no doubt argue that they do have an underlying principle, but as I explained at the beginning of this essay, I find those arguments unconvincing for a multitude of reasons.

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