A Biblical Justification for Accepting Homosexuality in the Church
© 2003, John P. Nordin

3.  Why non-biblical arguments for accepting homosexuality fail

A.  Introduction

Part of the justification for why we need a biblical argument for accepting homosexuality is made by showing that non-biblical arguments will not answer the question for a church.  In this chapter we will consider the arguments most commonly offered in support of accepting homosexuality.  Many of the justifications offered for homosexuality have little to do with religion at all, they are imported from secular debates.  While these arguments are often presented in a way that imply they are biblical arguments, they really have nothing to do with the Bible.   Not all of these arguments are used by the same people, the same movement, or at the same time.  The following paragraphs name and assess various common arguments.

There have been some arguments that use Biblical texts to support homosexuality.  These are also dealt with in this chapter.

B.  Examples of false justifications

Using psychology or social sciences to judge religious questions. 

These sciences are important in their own sphere and often valuable in providing context for religious questions, it is their use as a norm for religious questions that is a problem.  An example of this type of argument is to dismiss the food laws of kosher found in Leviticus. [1] The argument is made that these laws were “really” intended to keep people safe from food poisoning, and since we understand hygiene or food preparation better than our "pre-scientific" ancestors, the laws (including Levitical laws on homosexuality) no longer apply. 

This example illustrates two mistakes.  First, it asserts a factual claim that may not be true: commentators who write about Leviticus tend not to believe that the laws of kosher are motivated by concern about hygiene.  The second mistake is that it uses a type of argument that can be called “reductionistic.”  It assumes that a religious position is not motivated by religious reasons but is really motivated by reasons of psychology or beliefs about what is thought to be a scientific fact.  Once that is assumed, then the psychology or science can be rejected as old-fashioned, and the religious belief rejected.  Thus, a religious belief is reduced to something else.

A second example of a misplaced use of scientific arguments is the dismissal of opposition to homosexuality as really being "homophobia" or "fear of your own sexuality."  This employs psychology as a weapon to defeat people rather than to understand them.  This argument assumes that an explanation for a religious opinion is to be first found as a projection of some psychological dysfunction, and that once we reduce a religious question to a question of psychology we can solve it on those terms. 

This is not a form of argument religious people should use.  It undermines the very notion that there could be a religious argument at all.  The consequences of allowing this are dangerous.  If opponents of homosexuality arrive at their views as a projection of their psychology, then why shouldn’t proponents be subject to the same analysis?  If an opponent of homosexuality is homophobic, then why are not advocates simply projecting their narcissism and self-indulgence by contending that restrictive rules should not apply to them?  Perhaps proponents are still working out adolescent issues of rebelling against restrictive social institutions, or have unresolved issues about their mother?

Of course our psychology does influence and at times control the intellectual arguments we make.  The point is that we shouldn’t use such arguments in public against people we don’t know. 

Using the "natural" as a moral criterion. 

While I think this is the same issue as the immediately previous section, it plays out differently in the debate on homosexuality. 

A defense of homosexuality is sometimes made that it is “natural,” based on genetics, observation of early childhood behavior or surveying various cultures.  It does seem that scientific research has identified a "gay gene," or at least it appears so for now.  But this is not proof that the behavior should be accepted.  There might be a gene for homophobia; there are genes for diseases.  Cancer, for example, is deeply woven into our DNA [2] and would occur in some cases even if no one smoked and there was no pollution or human-created radiation.

Nor will surveying cultures and showing that homosexuality is widespread prove that it is “natural” or prove that it should be accepted.  It certainly seems "natural" for some people not to be faithful to their spouses, and for some people to abuse children or to be greedy.  It is quite natural to justify yourself, to give yourself the benefit of the doubt but hold others to strict standards.  War is a near-universal phenomenon of human culture and thus seems to be completely natural.

The Christian view of nature is to see it as “fallen:” filled with sin and death as the consequence of sin.  Some natural things belong to the fallen order, some do not. 

To be sure, claiming that homosexual behavior is natural is a useful counter to those who base their rejection of homosexuality on it being “unnatural.”  However, I think that the use of opponents of homosexuality of the concept of “unnatural” is the identical confusion as the use of “natural” is by proponents.  People who view homosexual behavior as “unnatural” tend also to view it as disgusting, offensive or dirty: categories of moral choices, not scientific observation.  And these categories tend to be about “what I grew up with” not “what I’ve thought about.”  In other words the “natural” vs. “unnatural” debate is often about “familiar” or “unfamiliar.”

But in the end, all of this discussion about science confuses “what is” with “what ought to be.”

Our fetish of being democratic, being individually autonomous, and our use of privacy rights as a criterion for deciding religious questions.

These are separate arguments, but related in using arguments appropriate for a secular democracy in a religious discussion.  We want to vote on all issues, even issues that require expertise to decide, because no one's opinion can be allowed to have any more weight than anyone else's.  Conversely, we do not want to be bound by anything, seeing ourselves as totally autonomous, able to say "none of your business," about our own behavior and "live and let live" about our neighbor's.

In democratic society, we can indeed adopt the view that people are free to do what they want as long as no one else is harmed.  And, we insist, or hope we could insist, that people are treated as individuals, not as members of groups.  These rules limit the inevitably abused and abusive power of the state.  From this perspective the issue of homosexuality is easy to solve.  Homosexuals are free to practice their lifestyle until such point as an individual homosexual harms someone else. 

However, civil liberties as a criterion may be the proper answer to the question for a democracy, but it can't answer the question for the church.  Everything is God's business (but not necessarily the church bureaucracy's business).  We can't say "none of your business" to God (as Jonah discovered).  Sexual abuse, alcoholism, arguments that rip people apart, consumerism, workaholism, burnout, and drugging yourself with hours of television all take place in the "privacy of our own home," and often between "two consenting adults."  It does not mean that there are no moral issues at stake.

The pain we cause homosexuals as a reason for changing our views.

Homosexuals are undoubtedly discriminated against in the church, suffering abuse, rejection as well as being patronized by well-meaning but uninformed people.  Then, they suffer abuse from fellow homosexuals for being associated with an institution that has inflicted so much pain on gay people. [3]   This situation is compelling, and induces compassion in many Christians. 

However, we can’t simply refer to this pain as a reason for changing the church’s policy.  We can see this more clearly by using the same argument on different cases. Would we stop our opposition to gambling because of the pain our opposition causes compulsive gamblers?  Would we stop our opposition to wife beating because of the pain and embarrassment we cause these men?  If homosexuality is wrong, then the church as an obligation to challenge gays to confront their lives.  Simple affirmation of what people “want to do” is not a Christian view: consider how much of Christian life is about "taking up your cross" and "denying self", even "losing your life to save it"?

This argument commits the fallacy of "assuming the conclusion."  What is assumed in this argument is that the pain homosexuals endure for being challenged about their lives is unjust pain.  In other words, it assumes the conclusion.  Also, as a practical matter, this argument won’t be effective.  People opposed to homosexuality are not going to find the pain a gay person feels in an unaccepting church to be a problem.  They will regard it as just.

Of course, the church inflects much less pain on gamblers or even sexual abusers than it does homosexuals.  That is something all should reflect on. 

However, this is close to being an important argument.  I will argue in a later chapter that the experience of gays is of relevance to our decision, but in a different way.

Using contemporary cultural mores as normative. 

Sometimes we say, "society has changed" as an argument for adopting a new ethic in the church on some issues.  But culture is not a god.  Some changes are to the better (civil rights, environmental concerns, women's liberation), while other changes are a horror (crime, more addictive drugs, violence against children, family breakdown).  This view attempts to short circuit the entire argument by painting the church as "behind" and appealing to our sense of guilt to make us want to "catch up" to society.  It is easy to fall into this argument since the church is so routinely “behind” the culture in harmful ways.

Some people do often just assume that “modern” is “progressive.”  Thus the Bible, since it is from an older, pre-scientific culture, is assumed not to contain the “latest insights,” or use “modern wisdom.”  This is an assumption, based on the truth that modern science is an advance on ancient science.  However, if the Bible is scripture, then it must be timeless.  Of course we will use modern insights to understand it, but if this is a religious argument, it cannot assume that secular culture is superior to the core text of the religion.


A different aspect of this issue comes from those who reject the Bible as narrow, or quaint, implying that the Bible might be quite all right for "religious" questions (death, perhaps) but it has no bearing on "real" or "practical" questions.  By contrast, I think the Bible is only too obviously about real and important questions.

 Making Spiritual and charismatic experiences normative. 

Conventional charismatic activity is not much in evidence in Lutheranism or other mainstream denominations at the moment, however, this is also the proper name for views that the Bible can be interpreted by what "I know" independent of tradition, what "I just feel" or "what my heart tells me."   This view holds the Bible hostage to private views claiming a spiritual authority by inner revelation.  Of course, an inner enlightenment that puts the speaker at odds with the entire church is sometimes God's work (for example, Luther).  But such inner authority must, we hold, be able to articulate an argument that is shaped and remains obedient to scripture (as did Luther).  If God has revealed something to you, is it likely it is inconsistent with what God revealed in scripture?  Not if we think scripture is revelation from God.

The ELCA sexuality document makes this mistake when it seems to suggest without qualification that the experience of gay and lesbian people should be taken, in an uncritical way, as equal to the Bible in authority. [4]   Curiously, opponents of homosexuality also claim the right to private revelation.  They castigate advocates of change as "innovators" undermining "the church's historical tradition," yet they also declare that if the church changes its mind on homosexuality, they will regard that decision as invalid, and not one they must observe.

This privatistic view inevitably backfires, undermining any collective decision-making.  The church needs a public, collective policy that will bind its public activities of ordination, church membership, and so forth.

Attempts to bypass the proof texts for cultural reasons.

There is no doubt that the modern institution of a committed relationship between two homosexuals of relatively equal age, power and status was unknown in ancient times. [5] For that matter, the stereotype of homosexuals as being promiscuous, having vast numbers of partners and forming a separate “queer” sub-culture was also not the ancient pattern.  Homosexual behavior in classical Greek culture (500-400 BC) was typically between an adult male and a young man who had not yet reached puberty. [6]   Condemnations of homosexuality by Paul (made approximately 50-65 AD) may have been addressed to a behavior we would view as child molestation rather than homosexuality.

That situation has been used to argue that the Bible texts about homosexuality should not be considered binding on us.  But this is not a valid argument.  An argument about cultural differences still is assuming that scripture addresses issues in a legal way, and that its wisdom is to be assessed with the form of distinction-drawing used by courts for assessing case law.

There are other problems in resorting to this move.  Perhaps the Biblical authors would have objected to equal relations between two adult homosexuals if the option had been given them.  Also, if we are to use the changes in culture as a reason to bypass a text, why should that only apply to homosexuality?  We don’t have the same economic system as 2,000 years ago, does that mean that the Bible’s many texts on economic justice do not apply to the current society? 

While this type of argument might support a change on homosexuality, it is not the sort of hermeneutic we want to adopt for all issues, and so we shouldn’t use it here.

Attempts to find proof-texting support for homosexuality.

There are a few attempts to find support for homosexuality in the Bible.  Passages used include the references to the “beloved disciple,” [7] and the suggestion that David and Johnathen’s love [8] implies a homosexual connection.  However, this view can’t survive any serious exegesis. [9]

In any case, I will in the next chapter start to explain why such proof-texting should not be considered a valid approach to justifying homosexuality.

C.  Conclusions

The forms of justification listed in the previous section form a rather large fraction of the justifications offered for changing the church's position.  None of them would really be considered a theological argument.  Many of them are simply further examples of the anti-intellectualism and individualism that are endemic in our nation's culture.

[1] For a recent, extensive, treatment of Levitical laws, see Milgrom, Leviticus.

[2] Varmus & Weinberg, Genes, 1993.

[3] “It was harder to come out as Christian to my gay friends then it was to come out as gay to my Christian friends,” words from a gay, Christian friend of mine, in 1987.

[4] First Draft, p. 13 line 5, p. 16 line 39-40.

[5] Nissinen, Homoeroticism, p.57ff.

[6] Cohen, Law, sexuality, and society, pp. 171ff; Thornton, Eros pp. 99ff; Oxford Classical Dictionary, “homosexuality.”

[7] For example, John 19:26 “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he….”

[8] I Samuel 18-20, 2 Samuel 1:26: “my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

[9] Nissinen, Homoeroticism, p. 119.