What is the sin in homosexuality?
By the Rev. James Ellis Griffeth
Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on homosexuality and a way forward for The United Methodist Church, excerpted from Griffeth’s fuller paper, ”An Introduction to the Biblical Texts (Re. Homosexuality) with Insights from the Quadrilateral.” Part 1 (September Advocate) talked about the context for such an exploration in light of the pending UMC Commission on Human Sexuality and the fear of a UMC split. Part 2, here, discusses specific Scripture as related to homosexuality. Part 3, next month, discusses homosexuality and the UMC Quadrilateral. Read Griffeth’s full paper here, and read his paper on the Wesleyan quadrilateral here.
What does Scripture say? It is a puzzlement that many people are content to say, “The Bible calls homosexuality a sin” without having studied what the Bible says about it and without considering the context in which the Bible speaks about it.
There are six Scripture verses that are most often quoted as opposing homosexuality. The reader is urged to read not just the verse or two directly about homosexuality, but the verses above and below that form the context of the statements.
The six passages are:
1) Genesis 19:1-11, particularly 19:5 in which “know” means “have sex with”;
2) Leviticus 18:17-23, particularly 18:22;
3) Leviticus 20:8-21, particularly 20:13;
4) Romans 1:26-32, particularly 1:26-27;
5) 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, particularly 6:9, which cites “sodomites” in NRSV and “both participants in same sex intercourse” in CEB; and
6) 1 Timothy 1:9-10, particularly 1:10, which cites “sodomites” in NRSV and “people who have intercourse with the same sex” in CEB.
A longer paper exploring these six passages in some detail is available. See the editor’s note for access to that paper.
A very brief summary of that exploration of these six references follows:
Genesis 19 is a story of the threat of the men of Sodom to gang rape the angels/messengers/men sent to Lot. The threat of homosexual rape is an angry act of rejection, defilement, degradation and humiliation.
The two Leviticus references are part of the “Holiness Code” (Leviticus 17-27). That code seeks to prescribe various actions and condemn other actions in order to promote holiness among the people. Also, in Old Testament days, the Jewish people were so often beset (and defeated) by neighbor nations that a “siege mentality” was developed, which included a strong bias that every sex act should have the potential to produce another little Hebrew.
In Romans 1:26-27, Paul’s argument against homosexuality is that “same-sex” activity interferes with one’s relationship with God and with other persons, because there is something “unnatural” at the core of it. Paul does not state what is unnatural. This understanding may reflect Paul’s deep grounding in Jewish teaching, especially the siege mentality bias. Meanwhile, Paul’s preference was that all Christians be celibate.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Paul appears to address issues from the Greco-Roman Gentile context in which much of his ministry occurred. It seems clear that Paul is here condemning the Roman understanding, i.e., that it was acceptable (even admirable) to be the masculine (macho) participant in a same-sex encounter, but not acceptable to be the weak/receptive participant (who was “like a woman”). Clearly Paul would oppose the various ways in which non-consensual sex (same-sex and opposite-sex) was easily forced upon underlings with impunity within in the Roman world. It also likely addresses the issue of having sex with a temple prostitute (male or female) as an act of worship in certain Greco-Roman religious cults.
1 Timothy 1:9-10 addresses similar issues as 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and includes other sins that unrighteous people might commit.
The Bible does not address the issue of consensual same-sex relationships with equal partners mutually involved.
What is the sin?
All of the above leads to a big question that is hardly ever mentioned: “What is the sin in homosexuality?” Consider the possibilities:
Is the sin of homosexuality the sin of having sex in a way that cannot produce offspring? If so, perhaps it would be a sin for heterosexual married couples to engage in sexual activity in circumstances (infertility or using contraception) in which a child cannot be conceived. Some Christians have that belief, but that would seem a strange belief for almost all members of the UMC.
Is the sin of homosexuality the domination, humiliation and actual harm inflicted when persons are coerced unwillingly into homosexual activities by a person with the power to command such? All Christians would agree that such coercion (and its results) would be sin, but is it sin when the sexual activity is mutual and consensual?
Is the sin of homosexuality the physical attraction that some men feel for men (or that some women feel for women) rather than feeling the attraction to persons of the other gender? A common modern expression is “We can’t control how we feel, but we are responsible for our actions.” If married heterosexuals sometimes feel attraction to persons of the other gender (not the marriage partner) but decide to refrain from acting on those feelings for the sake of the partnered relationship, they would be applauded for their faithfulness. So where is the sin for partnered homosexuals who behave with similar restraint?
Is the sin of homosexuality the disobedience of the word of God in the six noted passages regarding homosexuality in the Bible? If the sole criterion is a literalist interpretation of the six passages with no consideration of context or concerns about the intentions of meaning of the ancient words and texts, then the answer is, “Yes, disobedience in the sin.” But Methodism has not embraced the literalist interpretations that have been promoted by our ultraconservative and fundamentalist brothers and sisters for the past century and a quarter.
Since the time of the Wesleys, Methodism has embraced four standards for evaluating theology and biblical interpretation; they are Scripture, which is primary, tradition, reason and experience. Working together and informing each other, they guide us in making theological judgments and ethical decisions. In recent decades, taken together, they have become known as the Quadrilateral. It may be that by using the Quadrilateral, it can be determined that homosexuality may be faithful Christian practice in some situations.
Is the sin of homosexuality the desire of committed (and faithful) same-sex couples to share in the activities of life and to share emotional intimacy with each other? If that is sin, with whom is it acceptable for homosexual persons to share activities of life and emotional intimacy — or are they to live a life void of such companionship? There are no easy answers, but the question “What is the sin of homosexuality?” is worthy of exploration.
Finally, there is the absence of any comment whatsoever about homosexuality in the words attributed to Jesus (nor anywhere in the four Gospels). It is interesting that most of the church has agreed in recent decades that the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels regarding remarriage after divorce need to be reinterpreted to allow for the grace and love that Jesus taught and exemplified to be applied to that painful dilemma. But many are insisting that teachings about homosexuality that are not attributed to Jesus must be taken literally with no reinterpretation.
For a few decades many Christians in the United States have been enthusiastic about asking, “What would Jesus do?” in any number of situations involving ethical decision-making. However, those same WWJD Christians have been strangely silent about using the WWJD formula in the homosexual dilemma. How do we apply WWJD where Jesus is silent?
Perhaps we need to review Jesus’ love for and advocacy for any number of outcast and downcast sinners and review Jesus’ criticism of the prevailing religious establishment of his own day and time regarding several issues. Perhaps we need to ask, “What would Jesus do about consensual relationships, including sexual activity, between two same-sex persons who are committed to God, committed to each other and committed to their relationship together?”
Griffeth is a retired member of the South Carolina Conference of the UMC.