The New Testament and Homosexual Practice

1. What does the New Testament say about homosexual practice?

The New Testament clearly and uncompromisingly affirms that homosexual practice is sin and unacceptable to God (Romans 1:24-18; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).  Jesus often condemns “pornia” which we translate as “immorality.”  The Greek word includes both unfaithfulness in marriage and homosexuality.  John 7:51-8:12 tells the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.  This text may have been added to John’s Gospel, but most scholars accept it as an authentic story about Jesus.  In that story, Jesus affirms the Old Testament sexual code (Leviticus) which was called “The Holiness Code.”  But he removed the penalty of death by stoning that Leviticus stipulates for adulterers.  The woman is asked to stop her self-destructive sexual behavior and, at the same time, Jesus intervenes to stop the stoning the Law demanded.


2. Misguided Readings of the New Testament

Some have tried to argue, “Jesus did not discuss homosexuality and we shouldn’t either.”  Or, they say, “Jesus was not against it so we need not discuss it.”  As indicated above, this is simply not true.  Jesus does not discuss bestiality.  This does not mean that he approves of it.


Unfaithful Trilogy: Slavery, Women, and Homosexuality

A second approach to the clear witness of the New Testament is to say, “Yes, the Bible is against it but that was the 1st century.  We live in the 21st century and so 1st century ethics can be set aside.”  This point of view usually presents a trilogy composed of:  slavery, women and homosexuality.  The claim is “The New Testament endorses slavery.  But we have gone beyond that and have made slavery illegal.  The New Testament is against female leadership in church but we have set that aside and ordained women.  In like manner, the New Testament is against homosexuality so now we must set this aside and ordain practicing homosexuals.”

Regarding the above mentioned trilogy the following can be said:  The claim that the New Testament endorses slavery is inaccurate.  Paul does tell slaves, “Obey your masters.”  We need to be realistic about Paul’s options.  In an autocratic state like the Roman Empire, it is one thing to express views in private.  It is something else to commit views to writing and circulate those views to churches where the document will be read in public.  The Baptist churches of Russia, throughout the Communist period, naturally (quietly) opposed Marxist atheism.  Do we really expect that living under Stalin, the Baptists should publish a document denouncing the Marxism and atheism of the ruling Communist authorities?  Obviously, the only advice the Church could offer in public document in such circumstances was, “Obey Stalin and the government.”  To say anything else would be to commit suicide and achieve nothing.  Paul offers the best advice he can to his readers who are caught in the horrors of slavery.  The point he makes is that even though they are slaves they have a freedom in Jesus Christ and a ministry as slaves.  At the same time, in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 Paul says, “Don’t become a slave.”  And he says, “If you are a slave, try to get free.”  That is, he is against the institution but he is honest enough to offer useful advice to those trapped by it.  If the slaves disobey their masters, they will be crucified.

Regarding women, the New Testament Church affirms that there are women disciples, women teachers of theology, women deacons, women pastors and a woman apostle.  At the same time, in 1 Timothy 2:11-16, Paul tells the women who are teaching heresy to be quiet, learn the faith, and submit to the doctrine of the Church.  (I have discussed this text extensively in a series of lectures and in a published essay.)  When we ordain women, we are fulfilling the New Testament vision of the place of women in the Church, not opposing it.

Thus, the attempt to set up the above mentioned trilogy is not faithful to the witness of the New Testament.  In this connection, a further attempt to undermine the witness of the New Testament is to argue that Romans 1 and Corinthians 6 are talking about homosexual prostitution and violence, not homosexual loving relations.  This argument dismisses “an inconvenient truth.”  Those who don’t like Paul’s views use the above misunderstanding of the text to dismiss them.  The Greek words in the text mean what they say:  homosexuality is sin.  When contemporary cultural attitudes are allowed to overrule New Testament teaching, then the New Testament is too often set aside.


3. What is at stake?

If we set aside the clear Biblical teaching on this subject, there are at least three consequences.  These are:


a. Polygamy.  We now have at least 5 million Muslims in the U.S.  Their religion and tradition allows for four wives and as many concubines as the Muslim can afford.  If our banner is “Jesus is inclusive and we must be inclusive,” then all American Muslims must be allowed up to four wives plus innumerable concubines.  When hard times come along for an individual Muslim family, then our social services (of course) will take care of the one man, his four wives, his x number of concubines and their 70 children.

We must also consider the African continent.  At least 350 million Africans have become Christian in the past 100 years.  For thousands of years African cultures have allowed an African man to have an unlimited number of wives.  We from the West (both white and black) have proclaimed monogamy as a Biblical standard to the Africans.  African Christians have accepted these standards and have insisted that their leadership be monogamous.

I had an African seminary student from the South Sudan who was ordained by the Presbyterian Church of the Sudan.  He then acquired three wives and wrote a book defending his actions on the basis of the Patriarchs.  The Church of the Sudan defrocked him.  He is allowed (with this three wives) to attend church, but he cannot serve as a pastor.  The African churches have standards and they keep them, even if those standards are not in tune with their culture.  Should we in the West now apologize to them and say, “We in the West have set the Biblical standards aside – sorry about that – multiple wives are just fine.”

Finally, what about the Mormons?  One part of their religious tradition is what they call “plural marriages.”  They see this as a spiritual calling.  We as a nation refused statehood to Utah until it outlawed these plural marriages.  If we now set the Biblical standards aside, we will have to apologize to the Mormons, accept polygamy, and make the many adjustments necessary all across our culture.


b. Bestiality.  I have an Episcopal priest friend who in his degenerate youth was involved in an inner-city gang.  His gang had good relations with a Hispanic gang.  The Hispanic gang was involved in bestiality.  If the Biblical standards are set aside, we have no way to label such activity as sin.


c. Finally, what about pedophilia?  Fortunately, Western culture is still against this form of sexual behavior.  But what if someone argues (as did some of the ancient Greeks):  Sex between a loving teacher and a “mature” youth is beautiful.  Without the Biblical standards of sexual behavior we will have no reply.

I could go on.  What if a male pastor decides that his special calling is “multiple marriages?”  He sees many single women in his congregation and decides that he will move in with them, one at a time, for six months on a rotating basis.  If the women are agreeable and it is a loving relationship, why not?  Without the Biblical standards there will be no way to reject such a “form of ministry.”

Jesus was Inclusive of All People, but Not of All Lifestyles

Yes, Jesus was “inclusive.” This means that he loved everybody but he did not accept everybody’s lifestyle.  He criticized the Pharisees for their self righteousness and the Herodians for their correct politics.  As well, he criticized the woman taken in adultery for her immorality.  By implication, Jesus also criticized the Woman at the Well in John 5 for her lifestyle.  Jesus showed the loved of God to all, but he did not endorse all lifestyles and all forms of sexual conduct.


Setting Scripture Aside

One of my deep concerns is the fact that if we set aside the New Testament standards on this question, then the door is open for us to set aside anything else in the New Testament which we don’t happen to like.  Some Church leaders have already started down this path.  The deity of Christ, the Trinity, the atoning power of the Cross, and many other things are all re-negotiable for such thinkers.

The Christian faith in Western Europe and North America is declining dramatically.  In the “Global South” (Asia, Africa and South America) the Christian faith is expanding dramatically.  The leadership of the Global South is horrified at our accommodation to our culture.  They are stunned that we are considering the ordination of practicing homosexuals.  My fond hope is that the Gospel will yet come to us afresh from beyond the oceans that isolate us from the wider world, and rescue us from our accommodation to our culture.

A man with partial vision who says, “My calling before God is to drive a bus” must be told, “My dear friend, we love you, and we are very sorry that your sight is weak.  We understand that you think you are called by God to drive a bus, but we cannot allow you to do so.  The danger of your hurting others is too great.”  The homosexual must be loved and encouraged by the Christian community but should not be held up as an approved model to be emulated.

Kenneth E. Bailey, Th.D., is a Presbyterian author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies based in New Wilmington, Pa.  He also is Emeritus Research Professor of New Testament at the Ecumenical Institute (Tantur) in Jerusalem.

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