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

7.  What is sin? 

A.  Introduction

What do we want to know?

We have a question to pose to the Bible, we want to know what it says about homosexuality.  We want to know if this behavior is one God objects to or accepts.  That can be a question about the law, or it can also be framed as a question about sin, the term for disobeying God’s commands to us.

How will we find the answer?

Let’s remind ourselves of the principles we put forward in the last chapter:

  • The Bible is the highest authority; the source and norm of our decisions.
  • Each generation is permitted to interpret the Bible anew
  • Relationship with God is a primary concern
  • Scripture’s authority is in the book as a whole, not in individual verses.
  • We are to use our reason to find the meaning of scripture.

From these we know that we must ask more then just a question about homosexuality.  We have to ask how the Bible defines sin.

B.  What does the Bible say about sin, the law, and correct behavior?

The correct answer to this question would be to read the entire Bible with this thought in mind.  A second choice, one that is more practical, is to look at those texts in the Bible that seem to focus on the law.

I have selected texts that seem to do that.  This list is subjective, of course, but not arbitrary.  Certain texts seem to be talking not about one particular law, but about “law” as a category.  Some texts seem to be giving insight into the purpose, the point, the larger themes of the law and what is sin.  In the length of this study it is not possible to do a detailed study of each text.  However, it is worth reading them all slowly and thinking about what they are trying to communicate. 

None of the "official" passages about homosexuality appear on the list.  I avoid them deliberately, because if we focus first on those passages, we seldom focus on anything else.  Further, by examining only those passages we contradict our principles of interpretation by implicitly proceeding as if the Bible was a collection of moral laws, and that all one had to do was simply look up the correct subject in the index and find "the answer," without worrying about any other passages.  A procedure that only examines a few verses violates the principle that we should consider the entire sweep of scripture. 

The typical approach of exegesis on this issue, of only examining the few Bible texts on homosexuality or sexuality, is in fact, the unfair approach.  It rigs the outcome by assuming the "law book" hermeneutic.  It is also an invalid procedure because it excludes the possibility of these proof texts being interpreted by other scriptural texts.

The texts.

Exodus 20:1-17 (Deuteronomy 5:6-21): (The Ten Commandments)

Two of the ten are about sexual issues.  Both adultery and covetousness involve breaking promises and using or taking from others.

Deuteronomy 10:12-13: “So now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.”

This text is addressed to Israel, other texts below (from Jesus) will justify our applying this text to ourselves. It summarizes the law and the purpose of it.

Isaiah 1:16-17: “cease to do evil, 17learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Not merely private acts of being “good” are required, but affirmative acts in support of others.

Micah 6:8: He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Justly celebrated as a key text, stating the requirements of God in thematic, affirmative ways.

Matthew 5-7: The Sermon on the Mount

A longer passage, long pointed to as a summary of the teachings of Jesus.  God is concerned with more than exterior obedience, but also the interior of the person, thoughts, intentions, feeling.  The standard is perfection.

Matthew 23:23-28 (Luke 11:39): "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others … 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness….

The text also warns us against a particular type of mistake – worrying about small violations of the law and ignoring large violations.

Matthew 25:31-46, The sheep and the goats: “35for I was hungry and you gave me food … 40'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'…

The treatment of the poor is of first concern to God.

Mark 2:23-3:8 (Matthew 12:1-14, Luke 6:1-5):27"The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath"

The purpose of God’s laws is for our benefit.

Mark 7:17-23 (Matthew 15:10-20):  "… 20It is what comes out of a person that defiles.

21For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.  23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."

It is not the breaking of external taboos, but doing evil things that break God’s will.

Mark 10:17-22 (Matthew 19:16-23, Luke 18:18-23): The rich young ruler.

His point of disobedience was money.  Contrast with the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2ff) where money is not the person’s disobedience.

Mark 12:15-8 (Matthew 22:15-22, Luke 20:20-6): "…Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." And they were utterly amazed at him.”

How can we apply this rule without deep discussion about what it means?

Mark 12:28-34 (Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-8): “…he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;  30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  31The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."  32Then the scribe said to him, "… this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.”

This text allows us to claim continuity between Old and New Testaments about the core of God’s law.

John 13:34- 35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Romans 3:19-20: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.  20For "no human being will be justified in his sight" by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.”

Romans 6:1-2: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”

There are moral choices.  Not everything is acceptable.

I Corinthians 6:12-13 (10:23-4): “All things are lawful for me," but not all things are beneficial. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be dominated by anything.  13"Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

           

Law directs us to our true, god-given purpose.

                                               

Galatians 5:13-6:2: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

I Thessalonians 4:1-12: “… 3For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; 4that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, 5not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God;

 6that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter …”

1 Timothy 4:1-5: “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron.  3They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  4For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving…”

Hebrews 4:12: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

James 4:1-6: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? 2You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.

 3You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.”

I John 3:4: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness (avnomi,an, anomian); sin is lawlessness.”

I John 5:17: “All wrongdoing (avdiki,a, adika) is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal (qa,naton,, thanaton).”

C.  What do these texts tell us about sin?

In this section I will give a series of observations or conclusions drawn from these texts and other texts parallel or supportive of these key texts.

Observation 1: The Bible does not list all behaviors that are or are not sins.

This conclusion comes from observing what kinds of material are in the Bible, especially the New Testament.  The Bible does not devote most of its text to discussing which behaviors are and are not sins.  The focus of the Gospels and Acts, and some of the letters is Jesus (who he is, what he does, his relationship to God, how he dies, his resurrection), and not just the implications of the rules Jesus offered.

The letters are different, but they also are situational writings, not systematic treatises, which means, at a minimum, that we have to understand the words about sin in their context before we can appropriate the texts.  The more systematic treatises (Romans, Hebrews) are concerned with the nature and role of Jesus (primarily), not a systematic analysis of proper behavior.  In short, the subject of the New Testament seems to be Jesus and not the quirks of human life generally.  When we look at the selected texts in the previous section, we observe some interesting patterns.

1a.  The New Testament assumes you already know what is good and evil.

The Bible seems to assume a preexisting knowledge of what is right: "do good, shun evil." (I Theses. 4:1-12, James 4:7-10).  Sometimes these exhortations touch on the content of obedience (Gal. 5:13-6:2), but that almost seems accidental or by way of illustration only.  The main issue seems to be how to help you live up to what you already know you should do or to overcome your despair at not doing the right thing (in other words: to offer salvation).

1b.  The New Testament offers general principles, not list of rules

Jesus typically preaches in terms of sayings or parables, not a list of rules.  The sayings are deep, not legalistic, and their exact meaning has been debated for centuries.  A list of these would include:

·        Mark 7:17-23: "what comes from the inside defiles"

·        Mark 12:28-34: "love God and love your neighbor"

·        Matt. 5:3-12: the beatitudes

·        Matt. 5:13: "you are the salt of the earth"

·        Matt. 6:21: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

·        Matt 7:7-11: "Ask and it will be given you"

·        Matt 7:12: the golden rule

·        Mark 12:5-8: "render unto Caesar"

·        Luke 9:23-4: "deny yourself and take up your cross"

·        Luke 10:9: "the Kingdom of God has come near you"

·        John 6:35: "I am the bread of life"

·        John 14:1-6: "I am the way, the truth and the life”

1c.  The New Testament offers examples of good living, not rules.

When pointers to good living are needed, Jesus tends to tell stories rather than give laws (Luke 10:25-37: the Good Samaritan, as paradigmatic example, and also the various "the Kingdom of God is like," parables).  Jesus’ habit of teaching in parables has been interpreted as being a refutation of thinking, as if the warm fuzzy feeling you got from a parable was better than an idea.  I think the reason for parables is that the ideas of a story are less subject to reductionism and legalism than if they were stated in rule form.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is a more profound way of teaching about love of neighbor (for example) than a verse that said “never pass strangers who are in trouble” would.

1d.  The New Testament is not primarily a book of spiritual advice.

Throughout Christian history, people have written books of spiritual advice such as the Philokalia in the early church or the Imitation of Christ from the Medieval church.  The Bible is not like those books which analyze, for example, how to live without your emotions being out of control, discuss the various deadly sins, discuss stages of spiritual progress, and give specific advice.  There is very little of this in the Bible. [1]

Observation 1 applied to homosexuality.    

The Bible is not systematic on moral or sexual issues: as people have noted, in the area of sex, there is nothing on bestiality, group sex, pornography, sex involving children, etc.

If you know what is a sin and what is not, the Bible tells you specifically how to deal with others who sin against you and how to deal with your own sin.  It does not really tell us in a systematic way by an encyclopedia of laws what is sinful and what is not.  It certainly does not give us a complete list of actions that are sinful.  We cannot expect therefore, that the Bible will necessarily tell us exactly what to think about homosexuality by a direct command.  Of course the Bible does have some illustrative cases.  “Lusting after a woman in your heart.”  Nothing is said about lusting after men.  Would any of us think that absence meant that it was acceptable?

This I think, is not a dismissal of the Bible, but rather to read it with utter seriousness: I assume the form of the Bible is as determinative of its meaning as its content.  If the form is an almost steadfast refusal to be pinned down to legalistic rules, why are we so anxious to convert it to a series of legalistic rules?  If the Bible tends to refuse to define morality as the observance of a list of rules, why is that the question we always put to the Bible?

This first observation has found support for our hermeneutical principles from Biblical texts.

Observation 2: The Bible addresses individuals, calling them choose good behavior and reject sin.

Observation 1 does not mean that the Bible is unconcerned about proper behavior.  There is quite a long series of texts indicating that choices do exist, and must be addressed by each person.

2a.  There is good behavior and there is sin and evil.

Some Bible passages exhort us to do good, (Mark 12:28-34, Romans 6, I Theses. 4:1-12) and others speak of the existence of moral choices (Matt. 7:24-7, Gal. 5:13-6:2), and call us to make that choice.  Evil does exist; the human situation is not just bad communications or a reaction to childhood trauma (Matt. 5:1-9, Mark 7:7-13).  The choices humans make have consequences, because God judges these choices (Matt. 7:15-20, Matt. 23:23-8, Matt 25:31-46).

Despite a human fondness for shades of gray, the Bible is fairly consistent at offering a stark choice between good and evil.

2b.  Godly life does involve our behavior.

This seemingly obvious corollary is simply another blow against Lutheran extremism on grace, that tends to imply that sanctification is some sort of evil that limits God's action.  Again such passages as Mark 10:17-23; Matt. 7:21; Matt 25:31-46; Mark 10:17-23, and the whole book of James are relevant here.

 

2c.  The choice of good and evil is put to each individual

It is common to say that there are "no solitary Christians" or to emphasize that Christianity is a religion of relationships and that the early texts were read in a community.  However, when we examine the form of texts that give moral choices, or moral exhortations, I find that the majority of these texts are read most naturally as being addressed to individuals, and present moral choices as an individual choice.  Almost all of our listed texts apply.  There is little in the New Testament from the perspective of a nation, let alone a nation state, or from the perspective of the tribe or region.  (The Old Testament talks about the "nations," but when it describes morals it has as much about the solitary "stranger" in Israel's midst as it does about rules for dealing with slaves taken in battle.)  There is nothing, I think, on the rights of governments or nations.  Even Romans 13 is about how we, as individuals, relate to the government.  The Old Testament prophetic tradition aims its barbs at individual leaders as often as at "the nation."

Of course, groups are referred to, either to be attacked for bad moral choices (Pharisees, scribes, lawyers), or as categories to be cared for (widows, those in jail).  But it is not suggested that these groups can be rejected because of the worst behavior of its members (as for example, we say that because some gays are promiscuous, it proves that the gay lifestyle is inherently bad).

Matthew 18 is the exception that proves the rule.  As just about the only verses that assume that moral choices involve group process, it is quoted extensively, perhaps to our detriment since it takes this exceptional verse and assumes that it is the rule.  There are also verses about the qualifications of church leaders, but these are also addressed largely to individuals, talking about how the individual should regard leaders and the qualifications of individuals. to be leaders  Again, moral decisions do not seem to involve group process.  I Corinthians is a major exception here, being consciously addressed to a self defined group and dealing with divisions within the church. Thus, while there are significant exceptions, the primary mode of address is to individuals.

2d.  The Bible directs us to our own sins, not our concern for the sins of others.

The exhortations on sin are seldom about our need to control or defeat the sins others are committing.  "Turn the other cheek" hardly leaves much room for various uses of the law.  Matthew 7:1-4 (take out the log) is the key text (also see Galations 6:1).  Even the dreaded 5th chapter of Ephesians is consistently written in terms of the things YOU owe your neighbor, and has not one word about what you can demand from your neighbor.

The only possible exception to this that I can see is the Old Testament prophetic attack on the wealthy and powerful as a group.  Yet, that same document admits the existence of good kings, so even here it isn't the group you belong to as the unjust behavior that is being attacked.

This single-minded Biblical focus on the solitary person standing before God is perhaps the hardest, most bitter aspect of the Bible for us to swallow.  We think we're basically OK, but there is serious sin somewhere else.  In all my years of leading Bible studies, I have never once, never once, succeeded in getting a group to examine its own sins.

In this aspect, as in so much, the Bible is wise.  There is a parallel to modern psychological insights about change: you can only change your own behavior.

Observation 2 applied to homosexuality

Having decided that there is indeed a choice between good and evil, some might immediately jump to the conclusion that these passages prove the sexual law of marital fidelity and celibate singleness with gays left in the dark, but that jumps the conclusion.  As yet, nothing about specific sexual rules have been determined.

This observation certainly does refute certain forms of arguments offered in favor of a generic "acceptance" of homosexuality that see freedom as an unlimited good.  The unintended legacy of the 60s often leads us to construct moral arguments with "freedom" or "self-expression" and "self-growth" as absolute virtues (forgetting the context of moral repression those arguments were a reaction against, a context that no longer exists).

Any real argument for homosexuality must recognize that there are some things we have to be against.  Any defense of the virtues possible in a homosexual life must recognize that not all behaviors are virtuous.  This is both required for its own sake and as an effective means to reach consensus. Many reluctant to accept gays do so out of a concern, misplaced or not, with the decline in morality generally in society.  Such people fear that acceptance of homosexuality is just another step towards total lawlessness.  When they hear advocates speak of "homosexuals" as a group, without any notion of a spectrum of behaviors within the group, then there is a tendency (aided by the mass media) to assume that the extreme forms of lawlessness are typical of the group as a whole.

Gays also have a stake in this argument, for they do not seek acceptance as just another crazy quirk to be indulged in; Christian gays seek acceptance of the possibility of holiness in a life of being gay and not celibate.  The argument that "well, we all sin, so let's take gays too," is not a friendly one to homosexuals or to those who take the biblical commands of holiness seriously.

The Biblical focus on one’s own sin suggests that the most important aspect of the process of the debate on homosexuality is not what straights demand from gays, nor what gays say to justify themselves, but what gays say about sin within the homosexual lifestyle.  As heterosexuals, what we should focus on is to assess how we see gays addressing the temptations to sin in their lives.  Do we hear gays calling for their brothers and sisters to lead a godly life as a gay person, or do we hear calls for self-indulgence?  Are they attacking narcissism and consumerism in the gay lifestyle or defending it?

Of course, it could be said that in a "climate of judgment," it is unrealistic to expect this sort of vulnerability in public by gays.  They wouldn't want to provide ammunition to their opponents. This is a weak argument.  If gay people talking of transformation within their own lives, calling for a godly life and visibly leading a godly life in the church does not receive acknowledgment, why would gay people want to be a part of such a church anyway?  Those who are rabidly opposed to gays are not listening to anything.  Those who care first about God and godly living are the ones who will listen.

The same standards apply to those opposed to homosexuality.  The primary task of assessing sin is to assess their own sin.  Rather than being obsessed with the sins of others they are called to assess their own sins.  They are certainly permitted to voice their opposition to sin but being vitriolically anti-gay is hardly following the Biblical mandates of how to treat the sin of others. 

This is no small matter, nor a simple debating point.  I’ve been at a “discussion” of homosexuality [2] where the air was so thick with hatred that I am fairly certain that the reason the openly gay speaker was not taken out and burned at the stake had more to do with cultural conventions than the self-control of the heterosexuals in attendance.  Is not the Bible crystal clear that filling your heart with venom, stirring the passions of hatred, and spewing extreme words are sins?

Try to imagine a much different public debate: the gays stand up and talk about their struggle with sin in various aspects of their lives.  The straights do likewise.  The gays acknowledge the struggle of straights to live godly lives.  The straights do likewise.  Mutual insights are shared, the parallels and contrasts noted.  There is some gentle inquiry about how sin and the struggle against it is engaged in other's lives.  All leave enlightened.  Of course, such a proposal will be universally dismissed as "naive" and not cognizant of political realities.  I disagree: true naiveté is assuming that anything but bitterness, self-justification and stalemate will come from a debate where gays think the only sin is not to openly affirm your homosexuality, and anti-gays think the only sin is to be gay.

Nor does the persecution of homosexuals by some in the church excuse homosexual Christians from serious self-examination.  The bankruptcy of much of the debate on homosexuality is revealed by this: there has been little or no public discussion of what sin is after you understand yourself to be gay.

Observation 3: Sin cannot be defined by examining Old Testament Law.

While the New Testament does not throw away the concept of Law, it does reject the applicability of the detailed, specific rules of the Old Testament Law.  This is another reason why a neglect of Old Testament texts does not prove fatal to our argument. 

3a.  The New Testament is not very concerned with the Old Testament Law.

We should look again at Mark 7 and parallels; it is a rather breathtakingly offhanded way to toss aside the food regulations of the Old Testament.  Most of the Levitical code is not debated or even referred to in the New Testament.  The major New Testament discussion of the code, the book of Hebrews, is devoted to proving that the sacrificial system has been abolished! 

Passages such as Matthew 5:17-9 affirm the law generally, but given the contrary passages of Mark 7, and the verses later in Matthew 5 that intensify various laws, it seems that we cannot read 5:17-9 as any sort of simple affirmation of the specific rules of the Levitical code.

In short, note what is missing: nowhere in the New Testament are the specific Levitical laws debated (like they are in rabbinic Judaism).  The New Testament is not a Mishnah or a Talmud.  The New Testament points in a different direction.  It must be said that this is not intended to imply that Judaism, then or now, thought holiness came via external observance of the law.  Thus, our argument, rather than attacking a straw man of legalistic Judaism, is in continuity with a key strand of Judaism.

3b.  The New Testament rejects the concept that obeying Old Testament rules is sufficient for morality.

The passage of Mark 7:7-13 seems an explicit rejection of the sufficiency of the code.  Likewise the various Sabbath controversies (Mark 2:23-8; John 9 among others) also point in that direction, as does the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22).  The law brings the consciousness of sin (Romans 3:19-20) but does not save.

3c.  Obeying Old Testament rules can be fraudulent.

There is such a thing as obeying the rules for the wrong reasons (Matt 23:23-8).  For example, one can be sexually circumspect for fear of sexually transmitted diseases rather than for commitment.  A related example would be a gay couple who have decided to be faithful primarily because of AIDS, and not because of benefits to their relationship with each other and with God.

Would anyone suggest that in the examples given, there was no sin?  Would we think that Jesus would not challenge people in those situations? 

The law cannot bring holiness.  What Jesus surely said is that artificial boundaries about Law cleanly separating good behavior from sinful behavior are an illusion.  If "lust in your heart" is a sin, than simply observing the commandments must not be enough to live without sin.  Lutheranism should know this.  The traditional "law" on marriage, "celibate while single, faithful while married" (and married understood to be heterosexual), is totally inadequate to address the sinfulness of sexuality, even in marriage.  Sex can separate two faithful married people.  Sex can be used to manipulate, sex can make you feel empty, sex can intimidate, the lack of sex can make you feel guilty, the obsession with sex can distort -- all within a faithful marriage.

It will only get worse.  Technology permits two people to go on-line and talk each other through a fantasy of sex with each other.  No intercourse has occurred, no Biblical law broken, but would you say there was no possibility of sin?  When these encounters enter virtual reality and yield tactile and visual feedback, albeit synthetic and exaggerated, there will still have been no intercourse.  Perhaps a man can be represented to his partner as a woman, as well, so you could have homosexual virtual sex between people of two different genders.  As these cases spin out the Law looks less and less relevant and Jesus seems more and more discerning: observing the Law will not save us from sin. And as Jesus also observed, keeping the law is sometimes sin as well, when you keep the Sabbath and avoid helping a neighbor in need.

           

Observation 3 applied to homosexuality.

There is simply no reason to feel a loyalty to the Levitical code or to any code of law as a solution to moral choice.  We need a code of conduct, but it's not in Leviticus.  We are allowed to disregard provisions of the code as other imperatives of the Bible mandate.

           

Observation 4: Failure to love God completely is sin.

The command to love God fully comes labeled for us as one of the two key commands.  When we think of love in terms of our behavior and moral choices, the word obedience comes to mind.  Various New Testament texts tell us of the content of that obedience.

The story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22) seems of profound relevance here.  The ruler was not a conventionally disobedient nor impious man, Jesus (as Mark reports) loved him, very high praise.  Yet the young man turns away from God sorrowful because Jesus put his finger on the one key point of the ruler's disobedience: money.  While this story tells us something about money, it seems to say even more about total obedience: about loving God with all your heart and mind.  Jesus did not tell him that we are all sinners and that's OK, but with unerring precision named the source of disobedience.

Other texts (Matthew 5:21-37, Matt 23:23-8, Mark 12:28-34) also point us beyond a surface or partial obedience to God.  Likewise, a number of texts in the Sermon on the Mount that tell us to trust God for our livelihood, also urge us to fully depend on God.  For example, Matt. 5:29-30 tells us to prefer obeying God to all other habits, even dear ones that we think are part of us.  Other texts (Matt 5:11-12, Math 7:21) tell us that part of obedience is confessing God.

It should be clear that staring intently into the demands for total obedience is terrifying.  No one can meet this standard.  But it is the only standard consistent with an utterly holy God.

4a.  Observing the law may be breaking the law.

Obeying the Sabbath law may be breaking a more serious law (Matthew 23:23-28).

4b.  The spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law.

Of all the things that could be said about Jesus and his comments on what is or is not right behavior, surely one would be that he has no patience with surface observance that masks an inner rebellion. 

Observation 4 applied to homosexuality.

If obeying God fully is a key aspect of life, then we should ask that question in terms of sexual behavior: Is your sexual behavior impeding your obedience to God?  Is your sexual activity drawing you closer to God?  Does it seem holy?  Is it done out of obedience to God?  Can you place the religious and the sexual portions of your life together without shock or embarrassment?

These are difficult questions to answer, of course.  We’re not used to putting any sexual thoughts in close proximity to religious ones.  A history of assuming that sex is somehow “dirty”, or at least a “passion” we should suppress [3] complicates our answer.  Nonetheless, some thoughts can be offered.

Sometimes it is the denial of sexuality that leads to distance from God.  The covering up of sexuality or sexual orientation, lying about who you are (including lying to yourself) leads to areas of your life being put off limits and to a living in denial.  This is going to be associated with a distance from God because you cannot bring this part of your life into your prayer life or into your relationship with God. 

So, does being homosexual, and living as homosexuals, distance you from God?  It may distance you from the church and its anger, but the many Christian gays would testify to another reality. 

In the context of this question, Romans 1 is of interest.  In Romans 1:18-32, the major New Testament proof text on homosexuality, Paul argues that when people turn their back on God (no longer live in obedience) then they take up sinful practices, of which homosexuality is a prime example.  Paul argues in the form of “If A then B”: If people turn their back on God, then they will sin (by being homosexual).  We note that the logical interpretation of his argument does not establish that all homosexual behavior is the result of disobedience, but rather that those who disobey may exhibit that disobedience by engaging in homosexuality.  As a matter of logic if the statement “If A, then B” is known to be valid it does not establish the validity of  “If B, then A.”

Further, Paul's argument is in the form of a factual claim, he argues that people made a religious decision and it led to observable behavior.  Therefore we can examine life and see if it agrees with Paul's claim.  If we encounter gay people who are obedient to God, and obedient in the realm of sexuality as described above, then it seems as if they are not an example of Paul's argument. 

Some homosexual behavior might fall under Paul’s condemnation.  A person might engage in homosexuality out of trendiness, to be daring, to seek self-destruction or to spite the church or family.  This behavior would be a result of disobedience to God and could be condemned as sin, but it wouldn't refute that there are other homosexuals who are obedient to God, any more than a heterosexual turning from obedience to God to abuse his wife would prove that all heterosexual activity was the result of similar disobedience.

It is important to note here that I am not arguing that Paul is wrong or that this verse should be thrown out of scripture.  I’m arguing that the claim Paul makes does not apply to all homosexuals, just to those who engage in homosexual behavior as a direct result of a prior sin.

If this is a hard conclusion to follow or seems like hair-splitting, I’d suggest that this is solely because we are assumed to consider homosexuals as a uniform group but never consider heterosexuals in the same way.  We are quite aware of many heterosexual sinful behaviors but never attach that condemnation to all heterosexuals as a group.

Observation 5: Failing to love our neighbor fully is sin.

One key command is to love God, the other to love our neighbor. [4]   What are we to do for our neighbor?  It is not a simple question.  The texts that urge "loving your neighbor" link it to "loving yourself," an equally deep remark.  In James 2:1-8 love of neighbor is connected to not showing favoritism to people on the basis of how much money they have.  What can we say about behavior to the neighbor based on our texts?

5a.  Our behavior towards our neighbors has a privileged status.

Mark 12:28-34 lifts love of neighbor as one of two key commandments.  How we treat our neighbors, and special categories of neighbors that are vulnerable or weak, such as spouse or widows, figure centrally in such texts as: Matthew 5-7, Matt. 25:31-46, I Thessalonians 4:1-12, James 1:27

5b.  Helping others sometimes takes precedence over religious observances.

The proper meaning of Sabbath was a key issue, witness such texts as Mark 2:23, Matt. 5:23-4, from our list, and also Luke 14:1-6 and Mark 3:1-7.  Perhaps the extensive controversies about food given to idols and circumcision in Paul's letters would apply also.

5c.  Being opposed by someone does not cancel our obligations to them.

Matt 5:38-48.  If gay people are seen as enemies by some straights, and gay bashers as enemies to gays, than the special way we are to behave to enemies should apply to our behavior.  This would involve praying for each other (and not just praying that the other stop doing what we don’t like), and should regard turning enemies into friends as the goal. 

5d.  Loving the neighbor does not mean an avoidance of confrontation.

But whatever obligations we have, even to enemies, apparently does not mean that we cannot oppose behaviors that seem wrong.  Consider such texts as Luke 4 (Jesus challenges his home town), Mark 7 (where he deals with the religious establishment), Mark 10:17-22 (where he challenges a righteous man, in total contravention of all rules of "meeting people where they are."), Matt.  23 (The Pharisees are Jesus' neighbors, are they not?) and also Luke 10:37-54.

Other texts can be read in modern terms as a rejection of co-dependence, triangulation, and a concern about what others might think (Matt 15:1-20, Mark 2:23-8).

5e.  Obligations to God can take priority over certain family obligations.

While it is common to speak of the texts that show helping taking priority over the Sabbath, we might also consider texts like Mark 3:20-38, Matt. 8:18-22 and Luke 12:49-53 that show Jesus indicating that obligations to God can and do take priority over aspects of our relationships to our closest neighbors, and our family.    

5f.  Certain uses of sexuality against neighbors are sin.

Several texts speak of how sexuality can exploit others (I Theses. 4:1-12).  Sexual sins are included in lists of sins in Mark 7:22 and Galatians 5:19.  Other passages such as I Peter 4:3 and  II Peter 2:7 condemn a life of dissipation in general and include sexual dissipation specifically. 

However, we cannot assume the conclusion that homosexuality is condemned by passages speaking of lawlessness, licentiousness or dissipation.  Asserting that these terms include homosexuality is a circular argument.  If homosexuality is indeed illegal, then indulging in it is lawlessness.  However, if homosexuality is not illegal, than doing it isn't outside the rules. 

What licentiousness does seem to include is an inner degeneracy, a behavior without limits, being driven by passions that are not from God or for our benefit.

Matthew 5:21-37, intensifies common sexual rules, as does Mark 10:2-9 in regard to divorce. We infer from these texts, that sex is a serious business and that sexual relationships have consequences (this would be the import of I Corinthians 6:15-20 as well).

5g.  What does loving our neighbor consist of?

Several texts point to aspects of loving our neighbor. I Corinthians 6:12 speaks of what builds up the community and puts us in mind of the old term of "home-wrecker" for those whose behavior does not build up a family.  Luke's parable of the Good Samaritan directly says that helping in time of trouble and weakness is being neighborly.  Matt 25:31-46 and James 1:27 also point us to offering direct help for physical problems and suffering.  Galatians 5:13 seems to point to more general attitudes of how we should help each other.

Observation 5 applied to homosexuality

It appears that we can oppose our neighbor when their behavior is offensive, but not with contempt or hatred (Matt. 18, Luke 18:9-14).  The, perhaps unoriginal, story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 sorts these two out beautifully, as Jesus deflects those accusers with false motives, yet also deflects the woman from her sin.  It is amazing that this story is sited for only the first reason as if Jesus refused to take a stand against her behavior.

It also appears that sex is a significant battleground of moral choices involving our neighbor (and our lovers and spouses are certainly our “neighbor”).  Since sex is powerful and changes relationships, it can be destructive.  One person can be used sexually in a way that does not build them up.  Some people, children included, are not at a stage where they can make meaningful choices.  Marriage and long-term sexual relationships are then particularly a potent area of sexual power.

This observation leads us to examine the motive for straight people to be so concerned about homosexual behavior?  Is the motivation fear, or a real concern for them as individual persons before God?  Do we wish their best interests?  Is our concern to stop homosexuality in our culture a concern to remove something that we have decided is tearing our families apart or is it projection: looking for something to attack so we don't have to confront our own inability to lead our families?

Concern for the neighbor is opposed to letting them suffer.  The Good Samaritan does not teach us that those who walk in a dangerous way deserve the punishment they get, it teaches us to help people in trouble.  Certainly we should be able to agree that we would, as a church, stand forthrightly against physical violence against gays, support those who care for those dying of AIDS, and even oppose laws that lump ordinary homosexuals with convicted sex offenders.  But, as important as those positions are, they are peripheral to a straightforward justification of homosexuality.

Observation 6: What is sin can vary from person to person.

The bare statement of this observation probably induces apoplexy in some and worry in others.  How could the rules vary from person to person and isn’t that “situational ethics” or just an excuse to justify our own behavior?

There is no doubt that the world is full of misery because people decide that rules for others do not apply to them, including people who cheat on their spouses and corporate executives who write pension rules more favorable for themselves than others.

However, notice carefully how Jesus behaved to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17) and to Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2).  Note that both stories do appear in the same gospel (Luke 18:18).  In one case, the command is to sell all he had and life a life of total poverty.  In the other, giving up one fourth of his money was enough.  So what is the rule?  Consider the Hebrews text we listed above that suggests that what the Word of God does is to penetrate to the soul of a person.  Consider also the observation we made that total love of God is the standard.  In these two cases, different behaviors were required by the person for total obedience.  Different behaviors were required in order to avoid sin.

The next and final observation, on passion, is so important to our understanding of sexual sins that we give it a separate section.

D.  Passion, sexuality and sin.

Passion as a concept is not just about sex.  Passion is our desires, our wishes that lead or drive us to do things, even things that are not that helpful to us.

There are a number of texts that typically associate sexual issues with concerns for lawlessness and dissipation. 

To assist this process I present a second set of texts that overlap the list we’ve been working with now.  I present texts that are about sexuality, licentiousness, control of the body or passions.  Again, this is a sample of what the Bible has to say, not an exhaustive list.  I believe it is a representative list.

Bible texts about passion and sexuality

For convenience, I repeat some of the texts listed previously.  Please read each and consider its meaning.

2 Samuel 11: The story of David and Bathsheba

A classic story of passion leading to illicit sex and murder.

Jeremiah 17:9-10: “The heart (bLeh, libba) is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?  10I the LORD test the mind (ble)) and search the heart (tAyl'K.), to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings”

Matthew 5-7:5:21You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'  22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.  23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  …  27"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.'  28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Mark 7:17-23 (Matthew 15:10-20):  “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”

Romans 6: “should we continue in sin?  ... by no means! ... Do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.”

Romans 13:13: “... let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

1 Corinthians 5:  “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you ... for a man is living with his father’s wife.”

1 Corinthians 6:16:Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh."

1 Corinthians 7: “… 9each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. ... it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Galatians 5:19: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

Ephesians 2:3: “All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

Colossians 3:5: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).”

1 Thessalonians 4:1-12: “That each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, ..”

1 Timothy 4:1-5: ”… For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving…

James 4:1-6: “And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.”

1 Peter 4:3: “You have already spent enough time in doing what the Gentiles like to do, living in licentiousness, passions, drunkenness, revels, carousing and lawless idolatry.”

Conclusions from these texts

1.  Passion is a problem.

While it would be left to the spiritual writers to extensively explore the concepts of passion and self-control, the Bible directs us to the idea that humans, as they are constituted in a fallen world, possess urges and drives that lead us to sin.

While we believe that we were designed by God to behave well, there are forces at work within us that lead us to indulge ourselves and to destroy ourselves and our neighbors.  Thus simply listening to our bodies, our hormones, doing what is "natural" or "feels good" is not a sufficient criterion for godly living.  See: Luke 9:23-4; Romans 6; Gal 5:13-6:2; Theses. 4; James 4:1-6.

2.  Sexuality is a temptation to abuse the neighbor.

In several of these texts, the collection of images used suggest the Bible’s concern that sexual drives provide a strong temptation to self-indulgence at the expense of the neighbor.  See Matt. 5:27 and I Thes. 4:1-12.  Other texts that list vices associate sexual licentiousness with crimes against the neighbor. 

Some specific insights about sexual holiness seem possible.  Sexual sin seems to be the use of sexual appetites for the building up of self at the expense of others.  God is telling us in many ways that to build self up at the expense of others does not build the true self in a lasting way.  Building the self up in a way that enhances the community is more godly.  Sex that manipulates, or deceives another explicitly or by silent assumption (she thinks he's committed, he knows she thinks that, but he's not) cannot be consistent with God's claim on our lives.  Sex seems a particular area of temptation to sin.

As a result the Bible advocates strategies of self-control, marriage among them.  By providing a positive outlet for sexuality it allows us to use this urge in a positive way.  This is a rather shabby way of talking about the joys of total intimacy between two people, but apparently, it was the context Paul needed to address.  Leaving that issue aside, why would not the same argument apply to homosexuals?  Looked at dispassionately, it might suggest the church as a duty to bless and encourage homosexual unions.

3.  Sexuality is a temptation to sin by self-deception.

While I am not aware of the New Testament ever using self-deception as a concept, it seems to be strongly implied by a number of texts.  We are warned that our daydreams have consequences (Matt.) or that our cravings lead us to wrong actions (James). 

Certainly this accords with our observation of human life.  We are always attracted to, and wishing to love, people we shouldn’t.  Our judgment about our own relationships is faulty at best and driven by changing emotions. 

Passion and the law

Passion comes over us, we are inflamed with desire and we do things that are not in our best interest and certainly not in the best interest of our neighbors.  However, people do not all have the same type of passion.  And this means that the law needed to control passion is not as simple as some suppose.

Let’s consider two cases, drinking alcohol and committing adultery.  Some people can drink socially and there is no problem.  Some people are alcoholics and cannot stop their drinking.  For them, the only salvation consists in obeying a firm law never to drink at all.  But that law does not need to be adopted by every person.  More subtle distinctions of rules apply as well, based on the situation.  Some motorcycle riders will refuse all alcohol consumption prior to riding but would have a beer before driving a car: balance is more important to riding a motorcycle than a car.  Airplane pilots who drink socially are forbidden to do so prior to flying.

Adultery, by comparison, does not work that way.  I have no doubt that there are some people who have committed adultery, not been found out, and went on to maintain a deep relationship with their spouses.  But no one thinks that is really acceptable.  In adultery, everyone has to sneak around and if the person committing adultery as any moral conscience to them, they feel guilty and distant from their spouse, so they are no longer “one flesh,” a sin.  In any case, promises made before God were broken, another sin.

It is interesting that in the United States in recent years, some have tried to apply the rules of adultery to drinking and prohibit all consumption of alcohol before driving or to claim that even social drinking always indicates a problem with alcohol.  Most people object to such claims as excessive or legalistic or evidence of a fanatical approach to the problem of alcoholism.

Sexuality in general, though, has rules like the distinctions made for the use of alcohol.  Sex is powerful, it changes the nature of your relationships to people, as our texts suggest.  Yet, it is a basis for sustaining married life and the species itself.  While some are called to celibacy or have it forced upon them, not all are.  So, given the powerful temptations of sex, rules are suggested, such as waiting before initiating sexual relations in a relationship.  Having sex too soon, distorts both partners ability to judge the fitness of the relationship.  Other rules limit what we say at work, how we act towards the gender we are attracted to so that we can avoid being in a situation where we are tempted.  Pastors have rules prohibiting their sexual involvement with people they are counseling.

People can violate these rules and still make good choices, but many people cannot and the risk of self-deception and temptation becoming too strong are so likely that the rules are a good idea.  Since these rules have grown up around heterosexual sexual situations, lets refer to them as the rules for heterosexual partners.

Homosexuality and passion

What about homosexuality?  Is the passion involved in homosexuality more like the situation of alcohol use (or the situation of rules for heterosexual partners), or, on the other hand, is it more like adultery?

There is some argument, seldom raised in polite company, but there nonetheless, that homosexual acts and thoughts are, by definition, self-indulgent, licentious and degenerate.  The argument goes that gays are always promiscuous and that love for someone of the same sex is inherently narcissistic as opposed to seeking fulfillment in “the other,” and so on.  When one goes into the shadows of the church one can hear this argument made crudely.

There are a number of responses.  First notice how this argument is grounded not in scripture or theology, but in experience.  If the argument is “all homosexuals are promiscuous, so homosexuals are bad” then the existence of gays who aren’t promiscuous refutes the argument. 

We used to group gays together and assume that they could not be, for example, teachers, because they would inevitably molest children.  We’ve eventually realized, after ruining many lives, that this isn’t true at all.  Gays molest no more than non-gays.  A similar analysis of clichés about homosexuals will reveal the same answer: once we state sins in more neutral terms (molesting, murder, licentiousness, manipulation) we discover being gay does not make you do these things.

Likewise, the notion that loving your own gender is narcissistic is also a claim from experience, not the Bible.  One wonders whether seeking a heterosexual partner to validate you isn’t also narcissistic.  A man can desire a beautiful trophy woman on his arm to give him status, a woman can desire a successful man to elevate her social standing.  And two homosexuals may find each other challenging and endlessly different, and their relationship not be narcissistic.

More tellingly, the argument about inevitable dissipation in homosexual life comes from without.  It is an argument about “the other,” analogous to lawyer jokes and slams on professions made by those who don’t have contact with the profession.

The argument does call attention to the concept of the besetting sin, a type of sin that a certain group may be prone to.  It may be that lawyers (to continue the example) are prone to sharp practices, just as professors may be prone to like to hear themselves talk.  A besetting sin doesn’t call for the abolition of the profession.  Homosexuals may have certain besetting sins, especially in this culture and time.  So do heterosexuals.

Biblical texts on passion cannot, then, be used to reject homosexual activity.  This is not to reject the texts, which seem very wise about the power of sex to distort.  The texts should be applied to people of all sexual orientations.

E.  The Nature of the Bible’s teaching on sin

In summary, we should notice what we did and did not learn about sin from all that the Bible had to say on the subject.

The Bible wishes to teach about sin, not simply tell us what to do.

The Bible passages do list some sins, but also describe the choice between sin and obedience to God.  The parables and sayings of Jesus seem designed to have us think, not just to follow blindly a set of rules.

The Bible expects us to acquire skill in judging what is sin

We are told to look into our hearts, that all things are lawful but we should chose to do beneficial things and we are told to love.  We are warned against passion and what it can do to our sexual judgment.

It seems then that the task of Christian living to continuously go through the process of identifying behaviors not in obedience (being convicted of sin) and seeking change (amendment of life) to bring them into obedience.



[1] Exceptions would include the letter of James.

[2] An ELCA synod convention in the late 80’s.

[3] Here it would be worth considering how Christianity came to this view.  Especially relevant would be the association of monastic ascetic life as one without sexuality.  A comparative study of other religions would also be of use.

[4] So labeled by Jesus, and echoed by Paul at Gal 5:14.