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Interpreting What the Bible Says about Homosexuals

by H. Edward Everding

H. Edward Everding, Jr. is professor of religious education and New Testament at The Iliff School of Theology, Denver. He joined the faculty in 1967 and served as its first vice president and dean of academic affairs in 1982-85. He is an elder in the United Methodist Church. Johnston is the author of Evangelicals at an Impasse: Biblical Authority in Practice (John Knox Press 1979), from which this text is Chapter Five. Other chapters from the same book in Religion-Online include "The Debate over Inspiration," The Role of Women in the Church and Family," and "Evangelical Social Ethics." Other works by Johnston include The Christian at Play, Eerdmans, 1983; Psalms for God's People, Regal, 1982: and The Use of the Bible in Theology: Evangelical Options (John Knox, 1985).


Let's begin with a story, a folk tale from Central Asia.

A man, having looted a city, was trying to sell an exquisite rug, one of the spoils. "Who will give 100 pieces of gold for this rug?" he cried throughout the town.

After a buyer was found and the sale completed, a comrade approached the seller and asked, "Why did you not ask more for that priceless rug?"

Perplexed, the seller asked in return, "Is there any number higher than 100?" 

This is a story of limits. It is also a story of opportunities. Does the seller really hear what his comrade is asking? What difference would it make if he could think a number higher than 100?

This story reminds me that there's more than one way to think about the Bible. If we listen carefully, we might discover new and different ways of understanding what the Bible says, what it meant in its own context and what it means to us today.

Likewise, is there only one way to think about homosexuals as persons? Are we willing to explore new and different skills for interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuality?

In this brochure, I share information and raise questions from interpretations which come out of my relationship with the Bible. In turn, I encourage you to formulate your own interpretations. I hope you will consider this a dialogue rather than a one-way conversation. Together, we can try hearing what the Bible says with new ears and maybe "think a number higher than 100."

 We Are All Interpreters

In the gospels, Jesus often begins a parable with the question: What do you think? He was inviting his hearers to think along with him -- in other words, to be interpreters.

Each one of us has ears to hear. We engage in the process of interpretation every day as we try to make sense out of all the different aspects of our lives. Interpretation involves simple things such as reading a newspaper, looking at a sunset, watching TV or talking with a friend. Interpretation also involves complex matters such as the way we think about our lives, our families, the environment, God and reality.

Laypeople often think of themselves as only the recipients of Biblical interpretation from teachers, scholars and pastors. Interpreting the Bible is something other people do by virtue of their education or expertise. But you can and should think of yourselves as Biblical interpreters in your own right. Whenever you tell a Bible story to a child in response to an urgent question, or recite a verse to yourself during a time of crisis or thankfulness -- whenever you incorporate the meanings of the Biblical texts in your daily life -- you are being an interpreter.

 The Process of Interpretation

What do you do when you try to understand someone or something other than yourself? Usually you listen and observe before you form an opinion or make a response. For example, when trying to understand a friend's problem, you listen carefully in order to understand what your friend thinks and feels in order to appropriate faithfully your friend's meaning.

Biblical interpretation works the same way. However, when interpreting the Bible, we often emphasize APPROPRIATING over LISTENING. But we limit our understanding of God's word if we quickly jump to conclusions about what a text means to us now before carefully listening to what the text itself says and what it meant in its own life context. To be faithful interpreters, we need to practice LISTENING as much as APPROPRIATING.

The following diagram illustrates the basic questions that can help us develop our interpreting skills.

  LISTENING

What does it say? What did it mean?

  Life Life

BIBLE UNDERSTANDING YOU

Context Context

  What does it mean now (to me/to us)?

APPROPRIATING

 

Who you are as an interpreter

We all interpret out of our own particular and unique life contexts which in turn shape the way we listen to the Bible. Our contexts include elements such as age, gender, race, ethnicity, education, class, nationality, cultural identity, and other related characteristics. Biblical scholars think of this as their "social location" and are careful to be aware of how it affects their interpretation. "Social location" -- your own life context -- is not something to be denied or eliminated, but rather to be acknowledged and consciously brought into the interpretation process.

 

* What are the main characteristics describing your "social location"? Include some of the elements listed above. You might also include a formative experience or significant life transition that has affected the way you think about things.

* Describe your feelings about your most favorite or least favorite television show or movie. How do these feelings reflect or grow out of your life context?

* Recall a decision that you've recently made. How did that decision reflect or grow out of your life context?

* Think of your favorite Biblical text, image or story. In what ways does it reflect or grow out of your life context?

* What are your present thoughts and feelings about homosexuals? How might these thoughts and feelings be related to your life context?

 What you know about the Bible, sexuality, and homosexuals as persons

  Before exploring your way of interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuality, let's first consider what knowledge you bring to your interpretation.

Here is a list of terms and definitions to help you clarify your present understandings. In what ways do you agree or disagree with these statements?

 What is sexuality?

Every person is a sexual person. Our sexuality involves both the psychological and the physical. It includes instincts, drives, and behavior; the way in which we view our bodies; the emotional and physical feelings we have about others (male and female).

Who is a homosexual person?

The basis for deciding whether one is a homosexual person is the erotic preference for partners of the same sex.

Who is a transvestite person?

Transvestites are persons (often homosexuals, but also heterosexuals) who prefer clothing of the opposite sex.

Who is a transsexual person?

A transsexual is a person who feels trapped in the body of the wrong sex, therefore seeking surgery. The transsexual person usually has a psychological make-up quite different from that of most homosexuals.

What is homophobia?

Homophobia is the fear and hatred of homosexuality.

Now let's look at what you may or may not know about what the Bible says about sexuality and homosexuality in general. Note which statements surprise you and which ones do not. Which statements do you agree or disagree with?

Sexuality

1) In general, Biblical texts assume that the difference between male and female is constituted by God. Some texts portray the original being, Adam, as an androgynous being, that is, incorporating both male and female characteristics into one (Genesis 1:26f.;5:1). Some scholars think that Genesis 1 doesn't command heterosexual behavior, but only explains it.

2) Although Biblical texts in general depict human sexual activity as heterosexual and marital (although not always monogamous), these are not always presupposed as the norm. For Jesus, sexuality and marriage are irrelevant in the sphere of resurrection existence (Matthew 22:23-28; Luke 20:34). Paul considered the male-female distinction removed for those "in Christ" (Galatians 3:28). He also considered marriage and human sexual activity not obligatory in the end time (1 Corinthians 7).

3) In some texts the main purpose of marriage is procreation (Genesis 1:28) or containment of sexual impulses (1 Corinthians 7:9). In others, marriage is a provision for companionship (Genesis 2) or the structure for relationships characterized by order and love (Ephesians 5:21f.; Titus 2:4; 1 Peter 3:1f.). Marriage is sometimes used as an image for faithfulness in humanity's relationship to God (Hosea; Ephesians).

4) Throughout Biblical texts, there is a definite patriarchal emphasis. For example, household codes establish the relationship of superior husbands, fathers, and masters over subordinate wives, children, and slaves (Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

5) Human sexuality in Biblical texts is also portrayed in terms of qualities of relationship such as faithfulness, love, obligation, and justice. Sexuality is not simply how these relationships are acted out in genital sexual activity. In this understanding, what we refer to as same-gender relationships are affirmatively reported, such as those between David and Jonathan, Jesus and the disciples (especially the beloved disciple in John's gospel), Ruth and Naomi, and Mary and Martha.

Homosexuality

1) There is no single word in Hebrew or Greek which lends itself to a simple word-for-word translation of "homosexual." The word appeared in English for the first time in 1912 and in the Bible for the first time in the 1946 RSV in 1 Corinthians 6:9.

2) Biblical texts do not deal with homosexuality as a psycho-sexual orientation determined at birth or developed as a relationship between consenting adults.

3) No Biblical text presents an extensive discussion of same-gender behavior or same-gender relationships.

4) No Biblical text deals with the issue of homosexuality and ministry.

5) There is no reference to homosexuality in the four gospels.

6) Arguments from "silence" are inconclusive and should be weighed carefully. Some interpreters will state, for example, that Jesus had the opportunity to speak on behalf of homosexuals but did not. Others will claim that Jesus' silence meant he did not condemn homosexuality.

Your way of thinking about the Bible, sexuality, and homosexuals as persons

In addition to what we know, how we think will also affect our process of interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuality. As you consider the following ways of thinking about people, pick which one you most prefer and which one you least prefer. Give reasons for your choice. You may write your own statement which is different from these or combines elements from them.

1) I tend to approve or disapprove of people based on my values and the values of my friends or my group. For instance, I may think that gays and lesbians are bad because they don't follow what I believe is God's law for human sexuality. Or I may think that gays and lesbians are okay because they cannot help the way God created them.

2) I believe that people should be evaluated on the basis of how they do or do not contribute to society. For instance, I don't think that gays and lesbians should have special laws to protect their rights because they threaten social stability by undercutting family values. Or I may think that the rights of gays and lesbians should be protected because they make significant contributions to society and have been oppressed in the past.

3) I think that people should be seen as individuals with intrinsic worth, as ends in themselves rather than as means to other ends. For instance, I think we should distinguish between responsible and irresponsible homosexuals as we do heterosexuals and treat them accordingly. Or I don't think we should label persons as homosexuals or heterosexuals at all, but treat all people with respect and love.

Your image of the Bible and how you understand its authority will also affect your way of interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuals as persons. As you consider the following ways of thinking about the Bible, pick which one you most prefer and which one you least prefer. Give reasons for your choice. You may write your own statement which is different from these or combines elements from them.

1) I image the Bible as a set of guidelines or rules or instructions for the Christian life. It contains truths which have absolute authority for what we believe and how we should live. Therefore, as an interpreter, I tend to look for the one true meaning or lesson that will be useful for me and others.

2) I image the Bible as a source of symbols and ideas -- like forgiveness and grace and faithfulness -- which can help people who find them meaningful and useful. While I believe the Bible contains truths, I also believe that truths can be different for different people, so I don't assume that my interpretation is the only legitimate one. Therefore, as an interpreter, I study the Bible to determine which concepts, verses, and symbols are valid for me and then apply them in my daily life.

3) I image the Bible as a dialogue partner which makes possible my personal encounter with God within my community of faith. The Bible has authority for me because it challenges me to evaluate my life in relation to myself, to others and to God. However, my understanding of what is "true" may change because of changes in my life situation. Therefore, as an interpreter, I try to converse with the messages, people and traditions of the Bible and let the meanings I discover affect my personal commitments and life vision.

 

LISTENING AND APPROPRIATING PROCESS

  This process is designed to help you practice your listening and appropriating skills in interpreting Biblical texts. Try to listen with new ears to what the texts say and what they meant in their own context and then what they mean in your life context.

1) Read the text aloud.

2) Make notes of your initial impressions. How do you feel about the text? What do you like or dislike? Understand or don't understand?

3) Concentrate on listening to what the text says and what it meant in its own life context. Here are some questions that might guide your listening.

* How does it begin?

* How does it move to its conclusion?

* What are the key words and ideas?

* How does it relate to the verses which come immediately before and after?

* What life context does it address?

* What is its purpose in response to that life context?

4) After praying or meditating or reflecting on what the text says and meant in its own life context, make notes of what you might find meaningful to your life context. Identify insights, new information, images of God and human responsibility, personal feelings, guidelines, concepts, struggles, and so forth. Be free to use your imagination. But stay in dialogue with what the text says and what it meant in its own life context.

5) In conclusion you might write your appropriation of the text in a prayer, poem, drawing, paragraph or sentence. Or you might want to imagine how you could put the meanings of the text into some sort of concrete action.

Your way of interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuals as persons

What does the Bible say about homosexuals as persons? We now see that this question presupposes both what we know and ways we think about the Bible, homosexual persons, and ourselves as interpreters.

Let's work on interpreting the actual texts. There are only six Biblical passages (perhaps eleven, if you count parallel stories) which refer to homosexuality -- that is, same-gender genital activity, predominantly between males. These passages are located in contexts which deal with other, in some cases much broader topics.

Whether in a group or by yourself, begin your interpretation of each text by using the LISTENING AND APPROPRIATING PROCESS. Once you've done this, turn to the SUGGESTIONS FOR LISTENING. Use them along with the Biblical Tools which follow and the information presented earlier on what the Bible says about sexuality and homosexuality in general. Consider these your "dialogue partners." Remember, though, you are your own interpreter and, in a sense, your own expert.

Texts

Genesis 19:1-11 in the context of God's promise to Abraham (Genesis 18-19) and the parallel story in Judges 19:22-30).

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in the context of other laws in Leviticus 18-20.

Deuteronomy 23:17-18.

Romans 1:26-27 in the context of the letter's introduction (Romans 1-3).

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in the context of Paul's instructions (1 Corinthians 5-6).

1 Timothy 1:8-11.

Biblical Tools

If possible, have some of the following recommended sources available for your study. It is also important to compare different translations of the texts.

HarperCollins Study Bible. New Revised Version. With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. General Editor Wayne A. Meeks. New York: HarperCollins Publisher, 1993.

Harper's Bible Commentary. General Editor James L. Mays. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Harper's Bible Dictionary. General Editor Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introduction and Commentary for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocrypha, With General Articles. Editor Charles M. Laymon. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Editors Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. (emeritus), and Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. (emeritus). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Peake's Commentary on the Bible. Editors Matthew Black and H. H. Rowley. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1962.

KJV = King James Version

RSV (46) = Revised Standard Version (1946)

RSV (72) = Revised Standard Version (1972)

NRSV = New Revised Standard Version

NIV = New International Version

TEV = Today's English Version

JB = Jerusalem Bible

NEB = New English Bible

 

SUGGESTIONS FOR LISTENING

 Genesis 19: 1-11

  *Identify what was considered offensive in this story.

*Compare the NEB with the RSV (72) for information about the intended behavior of the "men of Sodom."

*What do you think was the purpose of that behavior?

*If possible, read the article on "hospitality" in Harper's Bible Dictionary, pp. 408-409.

*What was the sin of Sodom for which "the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord" (19:13 NRSV)? See how that sin was understood in Isaiah 1:10; Ezekiel 16:48-49; Jeremiah 23:14; Matthew 10:14-15; Luke 10:10-12; Jude 5-7; 2 Peter 2:4-11.

Judges 19:22-30

*Identify what was considered offensive in this story.

*List the differences from and similarities to Genesis 19:1-11.

*Read the larger context in Judges 19-21. How did the various acts of violence relate to the abomination of the men of Gibeah (20:6) and to Israel's reprisal (20:12f.)?

 Deuteronomy 23:17-18

(see also 1 Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7)

*It is important to read these texts in several different translations, if possible. Start with KJV and then contrast that version with the RSV (72), NRSV and NEB.

*What life situation is suggested by the more recent translations for the texts?

*If possible, read notes on these texts in one of the study Bibles or commentaries. What information do they supply? What are your conclusions?

 Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

*What does the text say?

*To whom is the law addressed?

*What kind of behavior is indicated and prohibited? What reasons are given for this behavior to be labeled "an abomination?"

*If possible, read the article "abomination" in Harper's Bible Dictionary, p. 6. How do these texts relate to what is described in the article?

*The "holiness laws" in Leviticus 17-26 deal with lists of "unmixable classes or categories." Note the introductions to various lists in 17:1; 18:1-5; 19:1-2; 20:1 and so forth. What were the purposes of these lists for Israel?

*What other behaviors are listed in the immediate context of 18:22 and 20:13? Are the prohibited behaviors similar or different? What do you think was the purpose of listing these kinds of behaviors?

Romans 1:26-27

*What kind of behavior is attributed to "their women" and "the men?" Compare the NRSV with the RSV (72) to see how some translators understand the word "natural."

*When Paul refers to "them" (1:26), let me suggest that he refers to Greeks or Gentiles. Here it is necessary to read the context beginning at 1:16. In 1:16-17, Paul states the letter's thesis about God's salvation and righteousness. In 1:18-3:20 Paul presents an extensive discussion about the "wrath of God" for Gentile sin (1:18-32) and Jewish sin (2:1-3:8), and concludes that "all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin" (3:9-20). This is his long prelude to a lengthy discussion about God's righteousness and salvation "for all who believe" (3:21-8:39).

*What is "this reason" why "God gave them up to degrading passions?" See 1:18-25 for Paul's discussion of the "sin" or "error."

*Are the "unnatural" sexual relationships the only result of this sin? See 1:28-32.

*How does Paul characterize or describe the unnatural relations in 1:26-27? Why do you think he would refer to these as not "natural"?

*What do you think was Paul's purpose in emphasizing that "God gave them up" (1:24, 26, 28) to these various behaviors?

 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

  *Begin this study by reading KJV and RSV (46). The word "homosexuals" first appeared in the Bible with this RSV (46) translation.

*Contrast how these verses are translated in RSV (72), NEB, JB and TEV. Consult the chart on the facing page for these translations, including the translation by Edgar Goodspeed.

*The translations differ because the translators were seeking to identify Paul's intended meaning of two Greek words: malakoi and arsenokoitai. The former meant "soft" with derivative meanings of "effeminate" or "passive" or a male who plays the part of a woman, hence "catamite." The latter was a compound word of "male" and "bed" which had the connotation of a male who lies with a male, hence "sodomite." This is the earliest known occurrence of arsenokoitai.

*What other behaviors are listed in 6:9-10? What was Paul's conclusion in 6:11?

*What was Paul's purpose for this list and its conclusion in relation to his discussions in 6:1-8 and in 6:12-20?

 1 Timothy 1:8-11

  *Begin this study by comparing different translations. For example, the NRSV translates the beginning of the list in 1:10 with "fornicators, sodomites." The word "sodomite" is arsenokoitai found in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Other translations of 1 Timothy 1:10 include "for them that defile themselves with mankind" (KJV) and "perverts" (NEB and NIV).

*What other behaviors are listed in 1:9-10? *What topic does the author introduce in 1:8? What does the author say about this topic?

*How does the author relate the list in 1:9-10 to this topic? What seems to be the author's purpose?

  

SUGGESTIONS FOR APPROPRIATING

  Here are some possible ways to appropriate what the Bible says about homosexuals as persons. These correspond to the three ways of imaging the Bible discussed earlier: as offering rules for behavior, concepts for belief, and images of faith.

 Rules for Behavior

  Interpreters have drawn various conclusions about the implications of these texts for rules of behavior. Usually the implications are negative, such as do not practice homosexual behavior or do not treat homosexuals as equal.

There may be other Biblical rules which have a bearing on our interpretation of the behavioral implications of these texts. For instance, consider the commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" in Matthew 19:19 and Matthew 22:39 - Mark 12:31 - Luke 10:27. Or "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged" in Matthew 7:1 - Luke 6:37.

 Concepts for belief

  Some interpreters think that all the texts about homosexuality point to the same concept, namely that homosexuality is an abomination.

There are other concepts you may hear from these texts. For instance, the general invocation for covenant fidelity in Leviticus 18-20 and Deuteronomy 23. Or the portrayal of the human condition as sinful and the potential for transformation because of God's grace in Romans 1-3. Or the emphasis on communal solidarity in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.

 

Images of faith

In Romans 1, Paul appeals to the image of God as Creator. He says that the appropriate behavior for humans as creatures is to worship and honor only God. As we reflect on that image, we might consider how we make our images of sexuality, heterosexuality, or homosexuality into idols.

Christians also have the opportunity to interpret the Bible in light of their image of Christ. You might use a brief creedal summary to see how that would shape the way you interpret the texts. For instance:

Christ died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 6:10f.). We all need and receive God's forgiving and liberating grace portrayed through Christ's death on the cross.

Christ is risen from the dead for our new life (1 Corinthians 15:4; Romans 12:2; John 11:25). We all have access to the transforming power of Christ.

Christ will come again to collect us all into one (1 Thessalonians 4:17; Ephesians 1:10). We believe that Christ's coming will complete his work of unification already begun (Galatians 3:28). Therefore we seek to live out that image of being one in Christ.

 

Think about these Suggestions for Appropriating the meaning of the Biblical texts in relation to your way of interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuality.

* In what ways do you find the rules for behavior suggested above helpful or not helpful in this situation? What about the concepts for belief? Images of faith?

*What other rules for behavior do you find in the Bible which might apply here? Other concepts for belief? Images of faith?

Perhaps you feel better equipped now to evaluate and respond to the various arguments or information concerning homosexuality you encounter in church, the media, and the political arena. You might try summarizing your way of interpreting what the Bible says about homosexuals as persons using your new LISTENING and APPROPRIATING skills. Your understanding may have changed since beginning the process of study and reflection in this brochure.

You also now have some Biblical interpretation skills that you can apply to other Biblical texts -- those that are your favorites or those that have proven difficult to understand. You might even try using these LISTENING and APPROPRIATING skills during the many times in your daily life when you're called on to be an interpreter. In any case, I hope you've found this process helpful -- trying together to "think a number higher than 100."

 

(The story which begins this essay is found in Robert Ornstein's essay on The Psychology of Consciousness in a book by Thomas Roberts and Frances Clark called Transpersonal Psychology in Education (Bloomington, IN: The Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1975, 33).


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