Homosexuality and Culture: Biblical and Modern

Richard B. Hays, noted and well-respected New Testament scholar, is referenced on multiple occasions on the debate of the viability of homosexual relationships and sexual activity within a biblical and Christian context. From his landmark book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, published by HarperOne, 1996, I want to engage some of his commentary and concluding remarks, particularly those which involve and follow his exposition of Romans 1:18-32.

I do not think that Dr. Hays, in his concluding remarks and in expressing his views in general, intends to harm homosexual persons emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually: though, we are at times forced to admit that, for some persons, any worldview not in total, unconditional support of homosexual sexual activity (including gay marriage) is tantamount to bigotry and hatred. This error is unfortunate, and it does not help the cause of the LGBTQ community. Even Gene Robinson, retired gay Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire, does not advocate the naming of "bigot" to his opponents (link). Dr. Hays makes all too clear his view that homosexual sexual behavior, though considered sinful by his hermeneutic, is not any more or less sinful than any other sin named in Scripture. He communicates as objectively as is possible, in my opinion, and aims solely to be faithful to the tenor of Scripture on the subject of homosexuality from his perspective. I want to engage his views.

In his chapter "Homosexuality," Dr. Hays writes, "God's wrath and judgment are already at work in the world" (385) by means of homosexual practice. Homosexual activity is not a punishment for idolatry; its presence is "a consequence of God's decision to 'give up' rebellious creatures to follow their own futile thinking and desires." (388) I want to challenge this understanding. The apostle Paul's "portrayal of homosexual behavior" is of a "secondary and illustrative character," according to Hays, of both the pervasiveness of sin and of God's just judgment against the same, whether or not such rebellion is proactive in nature. Dr. Hays comments on this last point: "not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry." (388) He then maintains that Paul "singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God's created order." (388) This reality homosexual persons create when they "'exchange' these created roles for homosexual intercourse." (388)

But if homosexuals do not willingly, willfully, rebelliously choose their same-sex attraction -- a point which Dr. Hays (and most others today) concedes (390, 397, 402-03) -- then there remains no sense whatsoever in which we "exchanged" alleged created roles. We did not proactively choose to "exchange" alleged created roles. If homosexual reality is not a punishment for idolatry, but is a consequence of people being rebellious regarding God's sovereignty, then why are not all rebellious non-believers homosexual? His conclusion is unwarranted. Moreover, is he suggesting that God makes such rebellious people homosexual? How, exactly, does God "giving people up" to their rebellion result in homosexual attraction? Furthermore, why do some people remain heterosexual, given that they, too, were "given up" for their rebellion?

Dr. Hays continues, "When human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator's design." (386). But, given that people do not choose their sexual orientation, how, then, did they originally "reject" the Creator's alleged design? Moreover, what do we insist regarding homosexually-oriented persons who become regenerate followers of Christ? Since they do not then "exchange" their homosexual attraction for heterosexual attraction,  even if they engage in same-sex sexual activity (to even the slightest degree), the traditional view maintains that such a one is still "rejecting" the Creator's design (of male-to-female sexual intercourse). Let us think this through the issue of design.

My first homosexual sexual experience (with a friend my own age) happened around age twelve. I had already received Christ Jesus as Lord and Savior at age seven. I knew nothing, however, about sexual activity; and even though I had heard that homosexuality was sinful, I had not a clue what that entailed. What was sinful: being attracted to the same sex? -- engaging in a particular homosexual sex act? -- or all kinds of homosexual sex acts? Again, I knew nothing about sexual activity, to say nothing of homosexual sexual activity. Though ignorant, I cannot claim that I was innocent. I was attracted to other boys (and some men), and I wanted to engage them emotionally, relationally, and sexually during my teens (though the opportunity for such only presented itself twice); and, still, I would have considered myself a believer in and follower of Christ. Was I proactively "rejecting . . . the Creator's [original] design"? No. I was not rejecting any notion of God whatsoever.

Still, I realize that ignorance does not excuse me (or anyone else) for sinful actions. Even if one considers homosexual sexual activity to be sinful, from his or her "biblical" stance, ignorance and overt rebellion are still polar opposites; even if the victims of the former are still culpable for their actions. Dr. Hays agrees, as he brilliantly states:
Thus, the Bible's sober anthropology rejects the apparently commonsense assumption that only freely chosen acts are morally culpable. Quite the reverse: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen. That is what it means to live "in the flesh" in a fallen creation. We are in bondage to sin but still accountable to God's righteous judgment of our actions. In light of this theological anthropology, it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral [merely] because it is [viewed as] involuntary [to any person]. (390)
Nevermind the fact that same-sex attraction has always felt "natural" to me. I never had a sense that I was rebelliously abandoning a "natural" impulse for women in lieu of an "unnatural" one for men (cf. Rom. 1:27). Again, though, my same-sex attraction did not derive from a proactive rebellion against or an explicit rejection of God or any notion of rebelling against God's so-called created order: a point which brings me to the subject of the apostle Paul's referents.



The persons whom Paul describes at Romans 1:18-32 are those who "knew God" but "did not honor him as God or give thanks to him." As a result, they "became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened." (Rom. 1:21) Therefore, their futile thinking, and the darkening of their understanding, was the direct result of their rejection of God and not of homosexual desires or even of homosexual sex. In other words, homosexual desires or engaging in homosexual sex were not imposed upon them as a punishment for their idolatry. I agree here with retired United Methodist minister Jimmy Creech: "For Paul, a 'base mind' and 'improper conduct' [cf. Rom. 1:28] emanate from idolatry and rebellion against the truth of God" (Adam's Gift, 33), and not from homosexual desire and/or homosexual sexual activity.

What conversation I see neither side of this debate engaging is: What about those who knew God, who honored him as God and loved and gave thanks to Him, but at the same time experienced same-sex attraction and may have longed to be or were engaged in a monogamous relationship with someone of the same sex? What about those people? Will they become futile in their thinking, their "senseless minds" being darkened? If such people do not exchange "the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (Rom. 1:23), but worship God in Christ through the Spirit as God should be worshiped, will God "give them up" in the lusts of their hearts -- "give them up" to "degrading passions" (Rom. 1:26) -- "give them over" to a debased mind and "to things that should not be done"? (Rom. 1:28) Would the sexual activity of such persons still be considered "degrading passions"? Would such persons, who desire to form a monogamous, same-sex relationship, be acceptable to and be blessed by God?

In this role of Devil's advocate, I am assuming the traditional and conservative answer remains a resounding no to any blessing of same-gendered sexuality; especially in light of a traditional and conservative understanding of the entire passage of Romans informing their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9, the corresponding of arsenokoités -- some form of homosexual sex -- with the Septuagint (LXX: the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Old Testament) of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 -- the proscribing of male-to-male sexual relations. If arsenokoités refers to male-to-male sexual activity of any kind, then all forms of homosexual sexual expression are explicitly forbidden in such a framework.

If, however, arsenokoités has reference to male-to-male temple prostitution, involving idolatry, or some form of sexual exploitation (link) -- and refers to such at Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 (LXX); 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10 -- then the blessing of monogamous homosexual relationships is open for discussion and perhaps universal Christian acceptance. Re-examining these texts must be accomplished in light of history, historical context, and void of an overarching presumption or bias.

So much is at stake in weighing these issues -- so much from so few passages. Did the subject of homosexuality not seem so very cut-and-dried many years ago? (It was a "settled" issue.) In less than fifty years we have gone from "Homosexuality is an abomination!" to debating and arguing over the viability of blessing same-sex unions and marriage. No doubt this is merely a sign of our times. Less than forty years ago many Christians were debating and arguing over the viability of women in ministry (as are some still). Less than fifty years ago many Christians were debating and arguing over the viability of the civil rights movement. In the mid-nineteenth century American Christians were debating and arguing over the viability of slavery. Scripture was used to support all sides of these arguments; and today scriptural passages regarding homosexuality are being re-examined, scrutinized, and used in support of all persuasions.

Dr. Hays, even though his view holds that the Bible does not condone homosexual sexuality, argues that the Church should support civil rights for homosexuals (State) (400), yet without blessing same-sex unions (Church) (402), and that each congregation should decide whether or not to ordain same-sex-attracted individuals, himself an advocate of such ordination. (403) I agree with him here to a point: the State should have the right to decide about gay marriage, etc., while the Church should reserve the right to protest and/or deny performing blessings for same-sex unions. The State should not dictate or violate the conscience of any minister. If a same-sex couple wants to wed, there are plenty of ministers, including State officials, who will see to their marriage.

Also, Hays is convinced that the subject of homosexuality garners too much attention, that it is a minor concern in light of economic injustices, and that "the most urgent champions of 'biblical morality' on sexual matters become strangely equivocal when the discussion turns to the New Testament's teaching about possessions." (381) After all, the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:10), not homosexuality. My own view is that we would probably all fair better in concentrating on the Gospel, praying that Christ's power be manifest among us, and that the Spirit of holiness conform us increasingly to the image of Christ than in overtly fighting cultural wars.

At the same time, we should preach against sin graciously but firmly, calling all people -- heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual -- to repentance and faith in Christ by the grace of God; while we also fight for social justice, fight against bigotry, racism, bullying, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, oppressing minorities and intimidating the undocumented. Since same-sex marriage is legal in this country, I will fight for the right of any same-gendered couple to wed, and I think this is the Christian stance to take. Others disagree.

But let me leave you with this thought: Jesus does not fight conservative evangelical cultural wars. He teaches that "if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you." (Matt. 5:40-42) This is unabandoned and radical love. Even if you personally disagree with same-sex marriage, you should still fight for the rights of same-sex couples, given the legality of the marriage issue -- that is, if you care to actual be biblical, and want to obey Christ's words above.

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Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: HaprerOne, 1996).

Jimmy Creech, Adam's Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor's Calling to Defy the Church's Persecution of Lesbians and Gays (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).