Last year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA appointed a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage. The committee was given two years to study how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed tradition and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.

This adult education course tries to do something similar over an eight-week period for St. Andrew Presbyterian in Iowa City. Throughout this discussion, we hope to hear from class participants’ personal experiences and questions concerning sexuality and the Presbyterian faith.

For questions or comments, contact Jeff Charis-Carlson at

Monday, September 21, 2009

Quick guide to the biblical passages on homosexuality

Here’s a quick summary of the Traditional and More Light interpretation of the biblical passages that get used when discussing homosexuality. Please realize that these are simplified versions of larger arguments and that there is no monolithic interpretation of these passages for any side of this debate. Also, please realize that although I use the term “More Light,” these paragraphs are my summaries of various positions. They not pulled directly from any sources from the More Light Presbyterian movement.

Creation (Genesis 1-2)

Traditional: The passage says that “God created man in his own image … male and female he created them.” The male/female paring is part of the human creation and is symbolized in marriage. As the second chapter asserts, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” God’s command, “be fruitful and increase in number,” likewise asserts that procreation is one of the main purposes of marriage.

More Light: The creation story isn’t about defining sexuality or identifying sexual prohibitions. And — because it is not concerned with the questions that are being asked of it by traditionalists — neither does it suggest that procreation is a necessary purpose for marriage. Indeed, Chapter 2 seems to stress companionship as the main purpose of marriage — “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19)

Traditional: Whatever other many sins get attributed to the people of Sodom, homosexuality should be counted among them. The story says clearly that God punished the men of Sodom after they called on Lot to deliver “the men who came to you tonight” so that they could “have sex with them.” Lot offered to give over his virgin daughters to the men of Sodom, but that only enraged them more. The angels responded by striking the city residents with blindness so Lot and his family could escape.

More Light: Ezekiel 16:49 is equally clear when it says that the sin of Sodom was that its people were “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.” The men of Sodom violated the ancient near east’s code of hospitality — as shown when Lot says, “Don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” The residents were not after sexual gratification, they were intending to gang rape and thus humiliate the strangers and aliens in their midst.

Holiness Code (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Traditional: Leviticus 18 says, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” — an “abomination” in the King James — and that “Everyone who does any of these detestable things, such persons must be cut off from their people.” Leviticus 20 likewise says, “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Although some of the prohibitions outlined these chapters are no longer viewed as taboo, the vast majority of them are still part of Christian teaching — including prohibitions against incest and bestiality. Thus, the prohibitions against homosexual behavior can’t be dismissed away as easily as the “More Light” proponents would like to believe.

More Light: Among many limitations on sexual relations, Leviticus 18 also includes “Do not approach a woman to have sexual relations during the uncleanness of her monthly period” — which seems an act that is ritually unclean rather than something inherently sinful. The commands for purity and non-defilement are so strong, in fact, that other holiness code passages focus on not combing two different fabrics or two different seeds. In this way, the prohibitions against homosexuality are viewed as taboo because they blur gender distinctions (and don’t allow the Israelites make a clean break from the idolatrous actions of their neighbors). Just as the dietary restrictions were removed with vision of Peter before he baptized Gentiles into the faith, homosexuality isn’t idolatrous or otherwise sinful in itself.

Sin of Onan (Genesis 38:1-10)

Traditional: The sin of Onan illustrates how much the early Israelites valued clear family lines and how much they valued the role of procreation in marriage. Onan was supposed to impregnate his late brother’s wife to ensure his brother’s line would continue. But Onan “spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother.” The Lord killed him for the act.

More Light: Onan’s story does illustrate the importance of procreation in ancient near east culture and suggests that the prohibitions against homosexual acts came because the Israelites needed to grow stronger by having more children. Onan’s sin, however, was also to deny his sister-in-law the opportunity to get pregnant and contribute to society in the only way possible for her.

Jesus on Divorce (Matthew 19:1-12)

Traditional: Jesus never dealt with the question of sexuality directly, but in his passage he reaffirms the male-female paring of the creation story: “‘Haven't you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’” Jesus also stresses that God’s original purpose was that marriage would last and divorce would not be an option.

More Light: For decades, churches have been dealing with this passage in terms of approving re-marriages for divorced members as well as ordaining ministers on their second marriages. It would be easy enough to say that similar grace should be granted to homosexuals in committed relationships. But Jesus’s own statements on alternative sexuality (eunuchs), familial obligations (especially to his mother and brothers) and discussion of post-resurrection marriages (where there won’t be any) further complicate any discussion of his statements here.

Against Nature (Romans 1-2)

Traditional: This is the most damning passage because, in describing the general depravity of human beings who have turned away from God, Paul says, “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” Even if the Sodom passage and the holiness codes are explained away as part of the old covenant, Paul’s words here show that the prohibition against homosexual acts continues into the new covenant.

More Light: In the very next chapter, Paul turns to discuss how the Christian faith moves beyond the strictures of the law outlined in chapter 1. In expanding the gospel to include the uncircumcised, Paul shows how the early church decided that God didn’t require Gentiles to become Jews in order to embrace the gospel and to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit: “If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised?”

Excluded from Kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Traditional: The passage lists “male prostitutes” and “homosexual offenders” among other sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God. They rank along with the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers.

More Light: The exact meanings of the Greek words translated “male prostitutes” and “homosexual offenders” are under dispute. In “The Message” Eugene Peterson translates the list as, “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it.” Paul was focused on men who offered themselves, for money, in the service of pagan gods. He was not talking about same-sex couples in monogamous, loving relationships who are actively seeking after Christ.

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