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

4.  Why biblical arguments for rejecting homosexuality fail: literal meanings

A.  Introduction

Doesn’t the Bible openly reject homosexuality?  The most common type of biblical argument against homosexuality is to point to one of the several proof-texts on homosexuality (such as Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” or Romans 1:26-27  “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.”) and then assert that they are "plain" in their meaning, they still apply today, and they should determine our personal behavior and church policy.

It all sounds very clear and obvious.  But it is only clear if you do not read any more verses.  Once you read the rest of the Bible, it is not so obvious what those verses mean.  Some plain texts disagree with each other.  Other plain texts are rejected, even by conservatives who hold that the Bible should be literally obeyed.  Other texts seem to plainly say that the homosexual texts apply to a narrow group of people.

Earlier, the word “hermeneutic” was introduced along with the idea that we have to think about how we read the Bible.  This chapter begins to look at this question.

Behind this way of rejecting homosexuality are two assumptions about how the Bible should be read.  The first assumption is that the Bible is a book of rules to solve our problems and to use it one should look up the subject to be considered, turns to the correct one or two verses and read off the answer in an unambiguous fashion.  The second idea is that the Bible is infallible or “inerrant”: incapable of error, is literally true in all particulars.

This chapter examines the problems with these ideas.  The next chapter examines other types of biblical arguments against homosexuality that are not so closely tied to specific texts.

B.  Selective application of inerrantist views

I have never found anyone, in print or in person, who follows through on the argument that all the laws in the Bible should be observed.  By this, I do not mean that people fail, from human weakness, to observe the commands in their own life.  Rather, I refer to the universal practice of rejecting some laws while insisting on others.  Those who argue that homosexual proof texts must, without question be obeyed, will, often in the same argument, wave away other legal texts.

Proof-texting is common, and done by all political persuasions.  The conservatives are easiest to skewer.  Leviticus 18:22 says "you shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination," and Leviticus 20:13 says "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."  Yet, almost no conservatives favor enforcing the punishment, why?  Where in the Bible does it say the punishment is not applicable?  Leviticus 18:19 says "You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness" and we all agree this is unimportant now, but where is the warrant for saying that verse 19 is irrelevant and verse 22 is God's holy word, tampered with at risk of condemnation? 

Where are the literalists thundering about obeying God’s holy word at the church’s ignoring the “clear word” on treatment for leprosy (Lev. 14) or shaving the edges of beards (Lev. 21:5)?  One verse certainly implies that a fetus is not a person (Ex. 21:22, in imposing a reduced punishment for causing a miscarriage), yet it has not stopped those who oppose abortion.

Even more amazing is Proverbs 11:1:  "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but an accurate weight is his delight." Why does the word "abomination" mean in Leviticus a situation on which our whole faith stands or falls, but when the same Hebrew word appears in Proverbs it is "politics" or "social action" and therefore to be waved away?  This is all the more significant as there are more verses in the Old Testament devoted to false weights than there are verses devoted to homosexuality. [1]

Various figures in the Old Testament are allowed moral practices that would not be considered acceptable by those opposed to homosexuality: multiple wives [2] , aggressive military campaigns, and slaves. [3]   Strangely, no one seems to think there is any problem with rejecting these practices, yet they are in the "law book" of scripture.

Conservatives tend to advocate strict application of the rules on homosexuality, but do not tend feel that way about “economic” texts that command tithing (Deuteronomy 14:22) or the forgiveness of debts (Deuteronomy 15:1) [4]

Flogging when done by followers of Islam many consider to be primitive or ungodly, yet it is commanded for certain offenses by Deuteronomy 25:1-3. 

Nor is selective application limited to the Old Testament.  What opponent of homosexuality considers Matthew 5:39 (“… do not resist an evildoer…”) normative, either for personal conduct or for a nation’s foreign policy? 

But liberals have much to answer for also.  They love Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus," but interpret away Ephesians 5.  They approve of Matthew 5:39, but are usually silent about Matthew 5:32, seven verses away, on divorce.

If you assume the Bible is a law book, then it turns out to be a law book nobody, liberal or conservative, wants to or can apply in all cases.  As a seminary professor put it, “Conservatives are literalists on sexual texts but interpret economic texts; liberals are literalists on economic texts but interpret sexual texts.” [5]

This similarity between liberal and conservative leads to the conclusion that the theory of "scripture as a law book" is not in fact what people believe.  It is the criteria they use when they have an opponent who is violating a law they like, but they don't apply it to themselves.


To claim that the Bible is infallible, or that a verse has an absolute demand on us, but then to immediately argue that other verses should be ignored is to show that the position of infallibility is being used as a weapon in an argument, and is not what the person actually believes.  I’m sure reasons can be given that homosexuality is a more important issue than intercourse with menstruating women, but once you start to say one verse is more important than another, then you are no longer using the literal obedience to scripture as your one and only principle of interpretation.

C.  The literal meaning of the proof-texts

What do the proof-texts actually imply, if you read them closely?  The answers are sometimes more complicated than would be expected.  Selected texts are examined here.

Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20

Jacob Milgrom in his magisterial commentaries on Leviticus [6] has suggested that the “literal” meaning of the Levitical prohibitions is not a prohibition on all homosexual activities.  Reading the text “literally” he points out the following: the prohibition applies only to ancient Israelites, or to inhabitants of Israel, it applies only to anal intercourse, it applies only to men, not women, and it may only apply to sex between men of the same kinship connections that is prohibited for heterosexual relations. 

Milgrom also contends that rules about homosexuality in Leviticus are concerned with and are derived from the command to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Thus male homosexuality and masturbation are prohibited (since they spill seed) but lesbianism is not (because it does not reduce the birth rate).  Milgrom then makes the observation that the “be fruitful” command has been fulfilled – even over fulfilled and thus the commands derived from it need not apply.

Even if this last point is not compelling, it is certainly the “plain meaning” of this text that it applies to Israel and not to all people.  Even more indisputable is that it applies to men and not to women. 

Genesis 2: “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife…”

Support for the primacy of heterosexual marriage is drawn from Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Conservatives argue that this indicates that God intends for men and women to come together in marriage and that homosexual unions are therefore prohibited.  Of course, this interpretation would also prohibit remaining single, which is in complete contradiction to the church’s glorification of celibacy for its ministers and bishops for most of its history.  Then too, does the movement of the man away from his family to the woman imply a matriarchal society? [7]   This seems the literal meaning of those words.

Others have not found the text so clear.  The author of Ephesians (5:32) called this verse “a great mystery” and applied it to Christ and the church rather than to relations between men and women. [8]  

Sodom, Gomorrah and Sodomites

The assertion is often made that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah [9] is primarily about homosexuality (as opposed to gang rape or inhospitality).  We “all know” that it is about homosexuality, except that the Bible doesn’t seem to know this.  When the story is referenced later in the Bible, the focus is not on homosexuality [10] but usually using the fate of the city as a warning of the ultimate punishment God can inflict.  Still more compelling is the point that if the attackers are homosexual, then the tactic of offering them a woman will not likely be effective. [11]   Yet, because Sodom, in modern usage, is considered a synonym for homosexuality, it is common to assume these verses condemn homosexuality.

The literal meaning of translated words

Certain words about prohibited sexual behavior do not always literally mean what they are assumed to mean. Examples would include the words often translated as “fornication” and “Sodomite.”  “Fornication,” (ponhro,j,) then and now apparently means “sexual immorality.”  We tend to assume that “sexual immorality” means what our society has traditionally condemned, but there is no explicit definition of this word in the Bible that would show it includes homosexuality.  The word translated (especially in older English Bible versions) as “Sodomites” [12] (avrsenokoi/tai, lit, “soft man”) is not a reference to Sodom at all.  The underlying word likely refers to a type of homosexual behavior, perhaps specifically the man who is penetrated by another male, but the word is not a Greek form for “Sodom.” [13]   If you had asked someone in Biblical times what a “Sodomite” was, they would have said, “someone who lived in Sodom.” 

D.  The Bible itself rejects a simple inerrant way of reading the Bible

The meaning of individual verses can be analyzed, but we can also look at the form of the Bible: what kind of material it has and how the text is put together.  When we do that, we can see all sorts of evidence that the Bible is not in the form of a series of inerrant laws.  Indeed, there are many aspects of the Biblical text that seem to be signals directing us not to try to read the text as a literally true set of laws.  Various examples include the following.

1.  Some historical events are described in more than one place in the Bible.  These multiple versions can contradict each other.  Examples from the New Testament include:

·        The account of the resurrection in the four gospels disagree about who was present and who Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. [14]

·        The cleansing of the temple by Jesus occurs at the beginning of his ministry in John 2:14-22 and at the end of his ministry in the other three gospels.

·        The ascension is put at different times in Luke and in Acts (and the same person is widely thought to have written both books.)

·        There are several thorny issues of disagreement in chronology, church policy and theology between the Book of Acts and Paul's letters. [15]


From the Old Testament, examples include the differences between the two creation stories in Genesis, or the claim that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (which flounders on the issue of how Moses could have written about his own death).

2.  There are contradictions in theological statements.  Some examples include:

·        Mark 9:40 says: "Whoever is not against us is for us," but Matthew 12:30 says:  "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." 

·        Romans 3:24: "... they are now justified by his grace as a gift..." and Galatians 2:16:  "we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ," are a bit hard to reconcile with James 2:24:  "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." 

·        Statements about the trinity disagree with each other.  John 7:39 strongly implies that the Holy Spirit is not an eternal person of the Trinity.  I John 5:7 sets up a different trinity. 

·        There are many examples from the Old Testament that certainly sound like God is changing as to intent: at first set on destruction, then wavering, then deciding not to punish.  Hosea, especially chapter 11, is one rather spectacular example. 

·        Romans 13 commands obedience to the government but Acts 4:19, 5:28 praises those who obey God and not earthy authorities and Revelation terms the government evil.

·        The baptism stories of Jesus, with their lurking adoptionism [16] do not agree with John 1. 

·        Baptismal formulas in Acts (4:19, 5:28-29, 19:5) do not agree with the one in Matthew 28:19.

3.  There are images and metaphor that cannot be equated with literal meanings.  What is the literal meaning of a reference to God having emotions of anger, regret, pity [17] and the like, or of God being described as having human appendages and organs and moving about like a human? [18]   These passages do have meaning, but they cannot have a literal meaning like a legal language does.

4.  We also know that the use New Testament writers often make of Old Testament passages would not be consistent with viewing scripture as inerrant. [19]   The citations of the Old Testament in Mark 1:2 and Matthew 27:9 are simply incorrect.  In addition, John 7:38 and I Corinthians 2:9 quote texts not in the Old Testament.  For that matter, Jude 14-5 quotes I Enoch 1:9 as scripture.  The difference between the Septuagint and Hebrew Old Testament texts is also troubling for establishing the inerrant text.

5.  The intended audience of various passages are different.  Some sections seem most obviously to be addressed to Israel, some to specific communities, some to the world. [20]   When God is described as the “one who brought us up out of Egypt,” this can’t refer to descendents of Gentile Christians.  The Bible is different from a true law book that is a uniform collection addressed to a defined group.

6.  There are four gospels describing the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.  This observation deserves more attention.  The four present a similar story from beginnings, to baptism, to ministry, to opposition, to a pivotal week in Jerusalem, to the death of Jesus at the hands of the authorities, to his resurrection.  And yet, there are great differences of tone, emphasis, material, stories, sequence, motive and meanings.  In one sense the four gospels do not disagree about anything that matters.  And in another sense, they disagree about many specific details.  Why are their four gospels and why do they diverge in just this way?  Is it a testimony saying that the meaning of Jesus can never be captured in one vision?  Is it also a testimony that literal-mindedness is not where the true lies? 

When issues such as these are raised, people typically feel that the Bible has been attacked, undermined or ridiculed.  Yet, all of these examples are based entirely on internal aspects of scripture.  One solution is to say that the scripture is a disorganized, inconsistent book.  Another approach is to question our assumption that the Bible is a law book and thus must be consistent the way laws must be.  To me, these observations about scripture prove that we are not to be literalist about scripture, indeed, that the Bible itself is giving evidence that we are not to use it primarily as a book of laws.

While arguments like these in this section are often used by those who wish to tear down the Bible, I believe that, to the contrary, these arguments prove the genius of the Bible.  Few laws written two thousand years ago have any relevance to our society, nor are they even referred to other than by historians.  By contrast, the Bible still proves able to speak to people. 

E.  Conclusion

All the evidence of this chapter demonstrates that the theory that the Bible is intended to be a law book is false.  It cannot be used that way, is not used that way, and the Bible itself does not intend it to be taken that way.  Therefore arguments that look at two or three verses of scripture and come to conclusions about homosexuality are not valid.

[1] See Leviticus 19:36, Deuteronomy 25:13-15, Proverbs 20:10, Micah 6:11.

[2] Gen 4:19 for an example; Exodus 21:10 for the law permitting the practice.

[3] Exodus 21:20-26; Leviticus 25:44-46.

[4] For careful discussions of this book, see Nelson, Deuteronomy and Tigay, Deuteronomy.

[5] Prof. Robert Smith, Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, personal conversation.

[6] Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, and Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22 (especially at 1785-90).

[7] Westermann, Genesis 1-11, p. 253.  Westermann does not think the verse implies a matriarchal society.

[8] As did early church writers Augustine, Jerome and Quodvultdeus.  Louth, Genesis 1-11, p. 70.

[9] Genesis 19.  Note that God had resolved to destroy the city for its wickedness prior to this assault (Gen 18:20-33).

[10] The clearest statement is Ezekiel 16:49: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  Jude v.7 specifies a sexual sin, but not which one (gang rape is a sexual sin). 

[11] Nissinen, Homoeroticism, p. 48, 51.

[12] Used at I Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:10.

[13] ponhro,j and avrsenokoi,thj.  See Balz, EDNT.  Also, Martin, Dale, B., “Arsenokoites and Malakos”

[14] Also note the differences with what Paul says about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.

[15] Johnson, Acts, p.4-5; Brown, Introduction, p. 324; Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 133.

[16] Adoptionism holds that Jesus only became divine later in life after being born human.  Orthodox Christian theology insists that Jesus was divine from the beginning.

[17] Respectively, see: Isaiah 30:27-30, Genesis 6:5-6, Judges 2:18

[18] For example, Psalm 33:18: “Truly the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love”

[19] Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis, 1991.

[20] Deuteronomy contains a number of introductions to legal rules.  These introductions seem to literally mean they apply to people living within biblical Israel.  For example, Deuteronomy 12:1 “These are the statutes and ordinances that you must diligently observe in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to occupy all the days that you live on the earth.”  Other examples are at Deuteronomy 4:1, 6:1, 8:1.