By Bill Hunt
The controversy over the moral status of homosexual relationships is tearing the churches apart. Whole regions of the worldwide Anglican Communion are threatening to withdraw over the ordination of openly gay or lesbian priests and bishops. (i) Protestant synods have put pastors on trial for having homosexual partners. (ii) Priests refuse communion to people just for sympathizing with gay Catholics, (iii) and the Vatican has provoked a debate over whether homosexual persons are “intrinsically disordered.” (iv) The issue of legal recognition of gay marriage crosses denominational lines and causes divisions within congregations.
The main reason that many Christians see homosexual relationships as problematic is that they are sincerely convinced that homosexual activity is gravely immoral. They contend that the biblical condemnation of homosexual activity continues to bind all Christians.
It is important to understand that these Christians are taking a principled stance. Many oppose discrimination against lesbian and gay individuals in secular employment and public accommodations. (v) However, since they believe that homosexual activity is sinful, they contend that it is not permissible for their leaders to be lesbian or gay. Moreover, since in their eyes homosexual activity is against the natural law, they see secular recognition of gay marriage as destructive to the fabric of society.
What stance should those who support civil rights for lesbian and gay persons, including legal marriage, take? Should they concede that all forms of homosexual activity are immoral but that for the greater good in a pluralistic society gay and lesbian persons should be allowed to enter into same sex unions? Or, should they argue that committed, adult, consensual, loving relationships are holy and good and deserving of societal recognition and church blessing? If the latter, how does one deal with the biblical condemnations?
In my estimation, it comes down to looking at Christian moral teaching, including the teaching in passages from the Bible, in a developmental perspective. This means looking at scriptural passages in their historical and cultural context and taking into account developments in the intervening millennia. It means considering the taken-for-granted presuppositions of the biblical era and examining them in the light of subsequent discoveries. We have to ask why the biblical authors condemned homosexual activity and see if those reasons still apply.
The Biblical Condemnation
Although it is restricted to male homosexual activity, it is important to understand the full force of the biblical condemnation. Leviticus 18.22 states: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20.13 repeats: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
These passages come from the Torah, the core of the Hebrew Bible and thus carry particular authority. Moreover, the prohibition is on a par with each of the Ten Commandments (except for coveting) insofar as it carries the sanction of the death penalty. (vi)
It is true that Christians have set aside many condemnations of the Torah, including some of the Ten Commandments, because they are not repeated in the New Testament. But, that is not the case here. Even though Jesus does not repeat the condemnation (and thus it has no “dominical warrant”), in Romans 1.26-27 St. Paul reiterates the Levitical prohibition: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for this error.” (vii)
In addition to the argument from Scripture, these same Christians appeal to the Church’s natural law tradition. Although no Ecumenical Council ever condemned homosexual activity, they point to great thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (viii) and Dante (ix) who considered it to be “contra naturam.” True, in recent years the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has distinguished between homosexual orientation and activity, (x) but it still condemns the latter.
This approach is summarized in section 2357 of the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.” (xi)
Some would say that this settles the issue. The Church can never change. However, there is a similar case where the teaching of the Church has clearly changed - a moral practice widely condemned in the Hebrew Bible, alluded to by Jesus himself in the Gospel of Luke, condemned by an ecumenical council, and banned for more than a millennium as contrary to the natural law. Yet, today the Church approves many forms of this practice. If the Church could change its condemnation on that issue, isn’t it possible, or even likely, that it could at least modify its blanket condemnation of all homosexual activity?
The Example of Usury (xii)
More than a dozen texts from all three parts of the Hebrew Bible (Law, Prophets, and Writings) condemn taking interest on a loan - not just exorbitant rates of interest, but any interest at all. The same Book of Leviticus that condemns male same sex activity also says: “Do not extract interest from your [poor] countryman either in money or in kind . . . You are to lend him neither money at interest nor food at a profit.” (Leviticus 25.36-37) And Exodus 22.25 reads: “If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.”
In four texts within a few chapters the prophet Ezekiel praises the person who does not take either advance or accrued interest and condemns the one who does so. (18.8, 13, 17; 22.12) The Psalmist states that those “who do not lend money at interest” are among those who shall be admitted to the worshiping congregation. (Psalm 15.5)
For more than a millennium, theologians appealed to Luke 6.35 (“Lend expecting nothing back”) as an indication that Jesus himself condemned usury. (xiii) Moreover, both the Jewish and the Christian traditions condemned usury as against the natural law. Both St Thomas Aquinas (xiv) and Dante (xv) felt that way. Even the ecumenical Council of Vienne (1312) condemned usury. (xvi)
Why did prophets and theologians, councils and bishops condemn usury for so many centuries? There were three main reasons. First, in an overwhelmingly agrarian society where coinage was scarce, there was a strong bias against merchants and trade. Merchants had a reputation for driving hard bargains and taking advantage of peasants in sales. A merchant was also suspect because while traveling about the countryside he was often away from home at night. Thus, he was unable to guard the virtue of his wife and daughters, as an honorable man should.
Second, ancient Israelites saw charging interest on a loan as taking advantage of a desperately poor person. Interest rates of fifty percent per year were common. (xvii) All too often, borrowing started a spiral of debt leading to the peasant’s loss of his land.
Finally, ancient Israelites understood money to be only an inert indicator of value with no use other than to provide a means of exchange. (xviii) If one lent someone a cow that produced milk, one could charge that person for the use of that cow. But, money didn’t produce anything; it had no use. So, to charge interest was to go against the nature of money and treat it as though it had a use. Hence, the term “usury” and the contention that charging interest was against the natural law.
As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, commerce increased, paper money became much more common, and the attitude toward merchants changed. Cities prospered from trade and commerce, and merchants were often considered benefactors and elected to public office.
Also, it became increasingly evident that money could stand for productive assets like cargo on a sea voyage. A loan with interest could actually help a merchant finance an enterprise or lift a person out of poverty. Money did have uses after all - and good ones. As the awareness of the legitimate uses of money grew, the condemnation of charging any interest changed to the condemnation of charging excessive interest to take advantage of the poor. Hence today, our condemnation of usurious interest on a loan.
The point is that the cultural understanding of money, which lay under the prohibition of charging any interest at all, had changed. With it changed the absolute condemnation of usury in any form and the permission of usury in some forms.
One must ask: Is a similar development going on with respect to homosexual activity? What happens if we delve even deeper into the biblical texts and ask: Why did the biblical authors condemn all forms of homosexual activity?
Another Look: Honor, Reproductivity, and Purity (xix)
Biblical studies over the last century or so have clarified the basic underlying rationale for the condemnation of same sex sexual activity in the context of ancient Israelite society and its core social values.
In the ancient society from which the Bible emerged the supreme value was honor - public esteem enjoyed by a person or group. (xx) Honor was primarily a male attribute. Ancient biblical society was patriarchal, and it was taken for granted that men were superior to women. Honor was also visible, concrete, and tangible - even spatial. The honorable man controlled all the important enclosures: his city, his home, the wombs of his women, and his own body. A man lost honor or was shamed when someone penetrated these spaces against his will or wrested them from his control.
The second fundamental social value was reproductivity. (xxi) In contemporary American society parents are proud if their children surpass them in education, wealth, or success. Not so in ancient Israelite society. It was considered shameful for a man to rise above the status of his father. To surpass one’s father was to dishonor one’s father. A man’s role was to reproduce his father by begetting and raising sons to carry on his father's name. He began this project by planting his “seed” in the hopefully fruitful “soil” of his wife’s womb.
The third core value was purity (xxii) (also known as cleanliness or holiness) in the sense of being separate or apart. The leaders of Israel were convinced that idolatry had led to the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BCE) and the subsequent Babylonian Exile. The restored nation, therefore, had to be pure of any trace of idolatry and any practices associated with the idolatrous peoples surrounding them. Images of God or the gods were forbidden, of course, but so were practices thought to be associated with idolatry.
Israelite purity also involved culturally conditioned decisions about what was appropriate. Water creatures should have fins and scales, making crawfish and shrimp unclean. One shouldn’t weave a fabric from two kinds of thread, or sow two kinds of seeds in the same field. Animals with cloven hooves should chew their cud, thus making swine unclean. Blood should stay in its place under the skin, so bloody sores that pierced the skin were impure or unclean.
Likewise males, whether animal or human, should mate with females. Moreover, heterosexual intercourse was considered unnatural in any position other than face to face with the male on top. (This may well be what Paul is referring to in Romans 1.26 when he says: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural . . . .” Almost certainly Paul is not referring to lesbian relationships.)
Given this male-dominated culture of honor, reproductivity, and purity, it is not hard to see why the ancient Israelites condemned same sex sexual activity. For a man to be penetrated by another man was considered a violent invasion of his most personal space. It was a loss of honor because he had been reduced to the status of a woman. Male homosexual activity was also a violation of the value of reproductivity. It made no sense to try to reproduce one’s father by sowing seed in a barren field. Finally, it was unclean or impure because it led to confusion of male and female roles and was associated with the practice of pagans.
Questions Raised by the Behavior of Jesus
Although the gospel writers do not directly refer to homosexual activity, they do present a picture of Jesus that calls into question the cultural presuppositions that led to the biblical prohibition. Let’s take these core social values in reverse order.
The Gospels relate the conflict of Jesus with Jewish authorities over matters of purity or cleanliness. Jesus instructs the disciples who have been sent out two by two to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide . . .” (Luke 10. 8) In other words, they were to eat what was put before them and not ask questions about the purity of the food. In John’s Gospel Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink even though “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (John 4.9) Mark depicts Jesus as healing an impure leper by touching the man. (Mark 1.41) In the eyes of his contemporaries this would have rendered Jesus impure.
In the wake of the successful mission to Israelites in the Diaspora and later to gentiles, most, if not all, of the purity rules were abandoned. Even the prohibitions of the so-called Council of Jerusalem do not seem to have been absolute. (Acts 15.28-29) For example, Paul allows eating food sacrificed to idols. (See 1 Corinthians 8.)
Jesus also radically undermined the value of reproductivity. Nowhere in the canonical Gospels does Jesus mention his earthly father. He abandons his home and his inherited social status as a construction wood worker to become a preacher who moved about from place to place. Jesus is at odds with his extended family (See Mark 6.1-6.), and he instructs his followers to turn their backs on the most sacred family obligations for the sake of the Kingdom. (See, for example, Matthew 8.21-22.) Jesus appears to have been unmarried, or at least to have had no son of his own to carry on his father's name. Nowhere in the Gospels does he encourage his followers to have children.
Jesus undercut the rigid distinction between the sexes that was so much a part of male honor at his time. There were women among his disciples and friends. Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as speaking with unrelated women in public; performing miracles on their behalf; and praising the wisdom of their responses. Women were the first witnesses of the resurrection.
In the church that sprang from the ministry of Jesus, women were initiated by the same ritual of baptism as men were; women assumed active leadership roles; and women participated fully in the highest expression of the liturgical/sacramental life of the church - the Eucharist.
The ultimate indication that it was not shameful for a man to act like a woman comes in the story related in John’s Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Washing of feet was a job for a slave. However, ordinary peasants could not afford a slave, so the job fell to the least honorable person in the household, one of the women. (xxiii) By depicting Jesus as washing his disciples’ feet, John portrays Jesus as deliberately setting aside one of the main tenets of male honor and taking on a distinctly female role – thus demolishing the predominant cultural rationale of his time for the prohibition of male same sex activity.
The biblical condemnation of male same sex sexual activity was based on ancient cultural presumptions of honor, reproductivity, and purity. The ministry and teaching of Jesus radically undercut those presuppositions. Today we no longer take it for granted that men are superior to women, that the main purpose of sexual activity is to beget male children to carry on one’s father’s name, or that all purity rules are mandatory.
What is the status of a moral condemnation when its cultural underpinnings have been removed? Given the “Copernican” revolution in our understanding of human sexuality during the past century, and given the radically changed circumstances of our time, it seems that the blanket condemnation of every kind of homosexual activity goes too far.
Just as over the centuries the Church found a way to distinguish between different kinds of interest-taking, so also it seems that contemporary Christians are in a position to review the condemnation of homosexual activity found in the biblical passages and to distinguish violent, exploitative sexual activities from those that are loving, adult, and free. This enables us to see homosexual relationships in a positive light and even envisage same gender unions blessed by the Church.
(i) See, for example, “Africans Threaten Split from Anglican Church,” New York Amsterdam News, August 27, 2009.
(ii) See, for example, “Ousted Gay Pastor Leads New Lutheran Church” posted March 29, 2012 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
(iii) See, for example, “Same-sex Marriage Supporters Denied Communion,” Minnesota Public Radio, October 31, 2010.
(iv) See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” October 1, 1986, n.3.
(v) See, for example, Angelo Lopez, “Evangelicals for Gay Rights,” Everyday Citizen, May 16, 2012.
(vi) See Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 404.
(vii) The passages from Leviticus and Romans are the key texts. For a critical analysis of all the biblical texts relating homosexual activity (or thought by some to do so) see John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 91-117.
(viii) Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 154, articles 11 and 12.
(ix) Inferno, especially Cantos 15 and 16.
(x) Loc. cit.
(xi) Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 625.
(xii) On the subject of usury see John T. Noonan, Jr., The Scholastic Analysis of Usury (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957); idem. A Church That Can and Cannot Change: The Development of Catholic Moral Teaching (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 127-142. See also Noonan’s perceptive comment on page 212 that for many scholastic moralists usury was “the mirror opposite of sodomy.”
(xiii) See, for example, the letter “Consulit nos” of Pope Urban III (1185-1187) in Henricus Denzinger and Adolfus Schoenmetzer, Eds. Enchiridion Symbolorum Definitionum et Declarationum de Rebus Fidei et Morum, Editio XXXIII (New York: Herder, 1965) [=Denzinger, 13th ed.], section 764, page 243, where the Latin version of Luke 6.35 is: “Date mutuum, nihil inde sperantes.”
(xiv) See, for example, Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 78.
(xv) See The Divine Commedy, Hell, Canto 11, lines 94 – 111 and Canto 17 in The Comedy of Dante Alighieri The Florentine, Cantica I Hell (L’inferno) translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1949) pp. 136-141; 174-179.
(xvi) See Decree 29, “Ex gravi ad nos,” in Centro di Documentazione Istituto per le Scienze Religiose – Bologna, Ed., Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, (Freiburg: Herder 1962) [COD 1962], 360-361. "If indeed someone has fallen into the error of presuming to affirm pertinaciously that the practice of usury is not sinful, we decree that he is to be punished as a heretic." (David J. Palm Translation. See: www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=646&CFID=145253886&CFTOKEN=23244077) See also Canon 25 of Lateran Council III (1179) in COD 1962, 199, and Canon 13 of Lateran Council II (1139) in COD 1962, 176.
(xvii) “The elites used their wealth to make loans to peasant farmers so that the farmers could plant the crops. Interest rates were high; estimates range to 60 percent and perhaps as high as 200 percent for loans on crops. The purpose of making such loans was not so much to make a large profit, at least by the standards of the ancient world, but to accept land as collateral so that the elites could foreclose on their loans in years when the crops could not cover the incurred indebtedness.” William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speach: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 161.
(xviii) “As Aristotle reasoned, coined money had originated as a store of value and a medium of exchange; although coins struck in precious metals had an intrinsic worth, they served chiefly as a standard to make other goods commensurable.” Bruce W. Frier, “Interest and Usury in the Greco-Roman Period” in David Noel Freedman, Editor-in-Chief, The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Six Volumes (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Volume 3, p. 423b.
(xix) For this threefold scheme I am particularly indebted to Leland J. White, “Does the Bible Speak about Gays or Same-Sex Orientation? A Test Case in Biblical Ethics: Part I,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Spring 1995), 14-23.
(xx) On honor see, for example, Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 27-57; Jerome H. Neyrey, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1998); Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Second Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 369-372; and White, op. cit., 16-17.
(xxi) White, op. cit., 17-18.
(xxii) On purity or holiness or cleanliness see White, op. cit., 18-20; Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Third Edition, Revised and Expanded (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 161-197; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume Four: Law and Love (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 342-415; and Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Second Edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 395-398.
(xxiii) A possible reference to this is found in 1 Timothy 5.9-10 where one of the “good works” that serve as a qualification for putting a widow on the list of Christian workers who serve the community is that she “washed the saints’ feet.” See Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, Editors, The New Oxford Annotated Bible [with the Apocrypha] containing the Old and New Testaments. New Revised Standard Version. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) ad loc. including footnote.