By John Oakes

A Biblical Case against the Blessing of Same-sex Unions

“A Biblical Case against the Blessing of Same-sex Unions,”

By John Oakes

(This is a significantly edited and revised version of an address first given at a Synod Day on April 23, 2005, organized by the Task Force on Homosexuality and the Blessing of Same-sex Relationships of the BC Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.)

I will begin this presentation with an overview of different theological positions before trying to explain the hermeneutical principles that inform my own. I will then examine competing interpretations of the biblical testimony against homosexual practice, which I regard as decisive. Finally, I will  explain why I think that this, together with the overwhelming witness of Christian tradition, renders the blessing of same-sex unions unacceptable in the church.1

Four Different Perspectives on Homosexual Practice

Since my central contention is that the Bible provides the church with our ultimate guiding light on issues of human sexuality, it is  important to recognize the contributions of biblical and theological scholars. Some who favour a “traditionalist” approach, as I do, may sometimes argue that those who disagree with them are propounding novel arguments that have no real grounding in serious scholarship. But I do not share that analysis, for there are long-established perspectives on all sides of the issue before us.

Nearly 40 years ago, in his pioneering work Embodiment, James Nelson summarized no less than four main positions that could be said to reflect the broad range of “contemporary theological opinion” on homosexual practice.2

First, those with a “rejecting-punitive orientation” not only denounce homosexual sex acts, but take a punitive attitude towards those who practice them. As Nelson noted, this was effectively and in one sense, shamefully, the major position in Western society for centuries, and although no responsible major theologian would now advance it, anecdotal evidence would suggest that it is still quite commonly held in some fundamentalist circles.3

By contrast, a second position adopted by supporters of what Nelson described as a “rejecting-nonpunitive” stance, rejects homosexual practice, but not those who choose to engage in it. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth was a notable advocate of such a perspective, and it remains standard in many churches.4

Nelson defined a third, more liberal approach as “qualified acceptance,” listing Helmut Thielicke as a prominent example. According to Thielicke and others, homosexual practice falls short of God’s best for humankind, but provision should be made for “ethically responsible” sexual relations between those deemed incapable of abstinence. Finally, a position of “full acceptance,” championed by such authors as John McNeill, Norman Pittenger and Nelson himself, maintains that “gay persons desire and need deep and lasting relationships just as do heterosexuals, and appropriate genital expression should be denied to neither.”5

Nelson’s categorizations are neither indisputable nor necessarily comprehensive, but they still define some of the main alternatives in the current debate. Such positions have also been advocated on many different theological rationales, of course—from the inductive findings of normative biblicism to arguments based on much broader ethical considerations. My personal assumption, as I have already stated, is that what the Bible teaches about the legitimacy of homosexual practice must ultimately be decisive for Christian ethics. But it is obviously important to explain not only how I understand scriptural testimony on this issue, but why I operate from that assumption in the first place. And that is where I want to start.6

Key Ethical and Hermeneutical Assumptions

The Anglican tradition has traditionally valued the role of reason and church tradition as well, but it has tended to give the Bible pride of place. Article VI of “The 39 Articles of Religion,” a central founding formulary dating from the 16th Century, very clearly affirms, for example, that:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any[one] man, that it should be believed as an article of Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.7

On a similar note, Article XX, “Of the Authority of the Church,” states that:

it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for the necessity of Salvation.8

You could not make a much clearer affirmation of biblical authority. Yet we all recognize, of course, that it can be one thing to uphold such a view and quite another to agree on what a particular Bible passage means or how it applies to the church today. I personally take for granted, for example, that both the Old Testament [OT] and the New Testament [NT] are the inspired “Word of God.” But such an assumption does not rule out questions as to how OT should be understood in light of  NT teachings, or how scriptural ethics should generally be interpreted.

A conservative hermeneutic like mine will usually presuppose that normative or to use a more technical term, “deontological” ethical guidelines can be deduced directly from Scripture by virtue of its unique status and authority as the written revelation of God’s will and purposes. This does not imply that such a process will always be easy, or that its results will be incontestable. But there can at least be a common “court of appeal” for differences of interpretation, and there are good grounds to believe that God will aid Christian interpreters by the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

However, the exegetical process can be a very difficult one. So by way of introduction to an overview of the biblical testimony on homosexual practice, I want to highlight five key hermeneutical principles which inform my understanding of these issues.

First, biblical texts should be read in light of their circumstances of composition and other historico-grammatical factors, if their initial meaning is to be properly determined. At the same time, their message cannot be applied to the life-settings of contemporary readers without a similar process of contextualization.

Second, in the case of OT guidelines, a further complication arises from the need to interpret them in light of NT sources. Most Christians agree, for example, that OT ritual and civil legislation is no longer binding on the church. But in the Sermon on the Mount and other places, Jesus also redefined a number of OT moral stipulations in the process of advancing his own “Kingdom ethic.” Even the requirements and prohibitions of the 10 Commandments should, therefore, be read through the NT filter of the teachings of Christ and the apostles. Moreover, the result for those who would truly imitate Christ by honouring his “law of love” is actually a much more demanding rule of life.9

Third, while the NT writings contain much of immediate relevance to ethical decision-making, neither Christ nor his followers came to establish a “new law” for Christians. So there can be significant dangers in extrapolating rules and regulations from the often occasional teachings of the NT, and especially from the epistles. A more critical hermeneutic can guard against such abuses by appropriate contextualization, including detailed consideration of authorial intent. But above and beyond that, it is important to stress that NT ethical counsel frequently represents the interpretation and application of pre-existing guidelines, rather than the invention of totally new ones. Moreover, the NT authors primarily understand authentic ethical conduct in terms of a loving response to God’s grace.10

Fourth, while a truly biblical ethic must clearly rest on scriptural foundations, it should not be distorted by unbiblical legalism—even when Scripture is its main source. Certain norms are very basic, such as those of the 10 Commandments and Christ’s twofold summary of them. Others can also be demonstrated. But non-legal sections of the Bible should not be read as law, and individual injunctions should always be interpreted within their particular contexts.11

Finally, on some subjects, the most authoritative teachings will often be found in general principles, rather than in specific stipulations. Furthermore, while the Bible provides important regulative boundaries for human behaviour, Christ’s own emphasis on the decisive importance of loving motivation should serve as a salutary reminder that truly ethical conduct involves much more than avoiding mistakes. In an ultimately “teleological” sense, it entails desiring and pursuing the very best that Christ himself has modelled.12

Revisionist Interpretations of Key Texts

In any consideration of the biblical testimony against homosexual practice, it soon emerges that such hermeneutical principles are crucial. My particular focus will be on a selection of competing interpretations of central NT passages and my overall conclusion is that while the significance of OT passages may be less conclusive in itself, the import of specific references in the NT epistles is unmistakable. So given the overarching framework of biblical principles of sexual ethics, which clearly limits legitimate engagement in sexual intercourse to the context of heterosexual marriage, the witness of the NT ultimately supports the second of Nelson’s four orientations towards homosexual practice—that of what he calls “non-punitive rejection.”13

A constant feature of the recent theological maelstrom surrounding homosexuality has been attempts to reinterpret scriptural teachings on the subject. Even those who have ultimately relied on extra-biblical sources of authority to develop their positions have often debated exegetical issues and questioned traditional interpretations in provocative and sometimes thought-provoking ways. So in order to elucidate my own interpretations of key passages, I will first consider the work of some of those who have sought to redefine Christian ethics on homosexual practice altogether. My analysis is obviously not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, I want to focus on some of the ideas of a few of the most influential commentators, whom theological conservatives would often describe as “revisionist,” like John Boswell and Robin Scroggs.14

As Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz argued, the general approach of interpreters who have denied the connotations of biblical texts against homosexual practice has been to seek to minimize or marginalize their import by redefining their application. It has thus been held that the apparent punishments of homosexual practice in the OT actually targeted much more particular shortcomings. The immediate sin of Sodom, for example, which was so dramatically and decisively judged in Genesis 19, was allegedly inhospitality or attempted homosexual rape, as was that of the men of Gibeah, who became the cause of Israel’s fierce vengeance in Judges 19–20.15

Even the clear prohibitions of Leviticus have been similarly re-contextualized. Leviticus 18:22 commands the people of Israel: “‘Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable,’” while Leviticus 20:13 warns: “‘If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.’” But rather than having a more general focus, these texts are said to be concerned with maintaining cultic purity and/or to reject specifically idolatrous relations, including those with shrine prostitutes.16

While there seems some merit in such OT re-interpretations, they are not entirely convincing. But it is important to note that the revisionist exegesis of relevant NT passages has been pursued along similar lines. At a basic hermeneutical level, the normative value of biblical teachings has not always been rejected. Their import has simply been redefined. The three major NT references to homosexuality (Romans 1:26–7, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10) have all been treated in this way. Allied with a widely held empirical distinction between homosexual “orientation” and different ways of expressing it, subsequent interpretations have thus been said to allow the ethical legitimacy of homosexual practice within certain forms of relationship.17

Romans 1:24–7—Redefining the “Unnatural”

At first reading, the plain meaning of the major NT passage on homosexual practice, from Romans 1:24–7, seems irrefutable:

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

In the process of describing God’s response to human unbelief (1:20–1), the apostle Paul argues that what he calls “sexual impurity” (1:24) is the direct consequence of divine judgement on idolatry (1:23–4). “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity,” he argues in Romans 1:24–5, because “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” As a result, men and women engaged in “shameful lusts,” and the first example that the apostle gives is that of male and female homosexual behaviour, which he describes in verses 26 and 27 as “unnatural,” “indecent” and perverted.18

Revisionist commentators have sought to limit the application of these verses by two main strategies. First, with John Boswell in his ground-breaking 1980 study, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, some have argued that Paul is not condemning homosexual practice per se, but only among those whose primary sexual orientation is heterosexual. As Nelson has contended, quoting the Catholic scholar John McNeill,

when Paul uses the word “nature” [in verse 26], he “apparently refers only to homosexual acts indulged in by those he considered to be otherwise heterosexually inclined” . . . . it is difficult to read into Paul’s words . . . the modern psychological understanding of the gay person as one whose sexual orientation is fixed very early in life and for whom “natural” (heterosexual) relations would be felt as basically contrary to his or her own sexual constitution.19

Such an interpretation thus assumes a distinction between homosexual orientation and conduct which is not explicit in the biblical text, and it has been supplemented by further considerations. Nelson has also argued that the apostle’s main concern is to deplore the sinfulness of idolatry, while William Countryman has suggested that the immediate target of Romans 1:26–7 is the Jewish “impurity” of homosexual practice, rather than its sinfulness. More specifically, Robin Scroggs has contended that Paul’s condemnation is primarily aimed at pederasty, or exploitative sexual relationships between older men and adolescent males, and that the main purpose of the apostle’s list of sins in Romans 1:26–31 is not, therefore, to oppose homosexual practice in general.20

It is interesting to note that even some non-traditionalist interpreters have rejected these arguments. In his book, Gay Theology Without Apology (1993), for example, gay theologian Gary Comstock counters Scroggs and others to claim that “Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:18–32) is vicious and misleading in its description of us.” Likewise, Pim Pronk, while conducting a quite detailed analysis to show that the apostle’s concept of “nature” is not “the normative creation order,” ends by conceding that “Paul’s condemnation [of homosexual practice in general] is no less sharp for all that.”21

Yet among those who have sought to re-interpret Romans 1:26–7, the positions which Comstock and Pronk refute still constitute the major challenges to more conventional understandings. Moreover, the implication that Paul does not thus exclude the possibility of “ethical” sexual relations between consenting adults of homosexual orientation has been supported by parallel re-interpretations of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:9–11.

1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:9–11—Retranslating Terms

The meaning of these two Pauline texts also seems fairly explicit at first sight. As the NIV translates 1 Corinthians 6:9–10:

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

The general tone is obviously one of warning and the two most contentious Greek terms in the context of the present argument, μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται in verse 9, are rendered “male prostitutes” and “homosexual offenders” respectively.22

In 1 Timothy 1:9–10, Paul makes a similarly wide-ranging statement:

We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine

The NIV favours the translation “perverts” for the word αρσενοκοιταις on this occasion, but the implication apparently remains clear. Male homosexual practice is both immoral and sinful.23

The main way in which commentators and theologians have sought to reject such a conclusion has been to dispute the meanings of μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται. Thus Boswell has argued that neither term definitively “connoted homosexuality in the time of Paul or for centuries thereafter.” μαλακοι probably signified nothing more than “masturbators,” and αρσενοκοιται “male prostitutes.” Unlike Boswell, Scroggs concedes a specifically homosexual context, suggesting that the two words refer to the passive and active partners in male intercourse respectively. But he limits their application by contending that Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians is primarily to pederastic prostitution. As conservative scholar Thomas Schmidt has noted, Countryman has supported Boswell’s interpretation of αρσενοκοιται in his 1988 study Dirt, Greed and Sex, contending that “the independent occurrence . . . in 1 Timothy 1:10 strains Scroggs’s supposition of a complementary pair of terms.”24

Yet while such differences remain, the net effect of all these re-interpretations is very similar. Even some conservative scholars, including the NIV translators, have effectively implied or conceded that μαλακοι in 1 Corinthians 6:9 may not have an exclusively homosexual reference. But the consequences of the work of other commentators have been much more radical. Paul’s apparent condemnations of male homosexual conduct are refuted altogether, as by Boswell, or they are redefined so as to denote a much more specific practice, such as pederasty, as by Scroggs. Either way, as in similar re-interpretations of Romans 1:24–7, the ground is left open for the possibility of ethical homosexual practice, because all the major NT texts that appear to condemn it are ultimately denied such an import.

Traditionalist Rebuttals

The major problem with the revisionist conclusions of interpreters like Boswell and Scroggs is not so much that they are objectionable for those who would uphold a traditionalist sexual ethic. It is that they lack the support of conclusive biblical scholarship.

Despite the impressively documented and often persuasively argued efforts of Robert Gagnon to refute such a concession, I am ready to concede that the issue is not so clear-cut with Old Testament references. Grenz seems right to acknowledge limitations in traditional interpretations of the Sodom and Gibeah episodes, for example. Given the immediate contexts of Genesis 19 and Judges 19–20, a strong case can be made that “it is indeed unlikely that homosexual activities per se are in view here.” The sins of inhospitality and intended homosexual rape are obviously of immediate relevance, and while the failings of Sodom are often portrayed in very general terms elsewhere in the Bible, only one subsequent biblical mention (Jude 1:7) clearly cites “perversion,” and the meaning of that term remains disputed.25

Similar problems surround the interpretation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, since both are part of a “Holiness Code,” which is concerned with questions of cultic purity and lists many stipulations that would not now be regarded as universally binding. In addition, the second text requires the death penalty for male homosexual practice, which is obviously totally abhorrent to any ethic that seeks to respect the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, because both Leviticus texts are also surrounded by other sexual prohibitions—against incest and bestiality, for example—that remain widely upheld, the question ultimately seems one of hermeneutical principle. In other words, to what extent does any Levitical standard remain generally applicable to Christians today, and on what criteria?26

Yet if the import of specific OT texts is debatable, the arguments against revisionist interpretations of the three key New Testament passages seem much more decisive. Thus even though the leading evangelical commentator Gordon Fee has largely accepted the force of Scroggs’ interpretation of the Greek terms μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται in 1 Corinthians 6:9, centring on partners in male prostitution, the general homosexual connotations of both words have been clearly demonstrated elsewhere.

Fee has conceded there was another “technical word” for youthful “male prostitutes” (NIV), and Gagnon has conclusively shown how μαλακοι is better translated as referring to “passive partners in homosexual intercourse.” As David Wright has argued, there is also strong evidence that αρσενοκοιται, which appears nowhere previously in extant literature, was coined directly from the Septuagint Greek texts of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which represent the clearest Old Testament statements on homosexual practice, however one interprets their contemporary application. The word, which is rendered “homosexual offenders” by the NIV, literally means “those [men] who take [other] males to bed” and almost certainly has a general reference to active partners in homosexual intercourse. So there is no conclusive evidence in either 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 that the apostle Paul is stigmatizing male prostitution or pederasty as specific sins, rather than male homosexual practice per se.27

Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that such an interpretation is consistent with Paul’s position elsewhere, when account is taken of the broader context of the disputed verses in Romans 1. For as Grenz has argued, the apostle’s “purpose was to offer a corporate indictment of pagan society,” including all homosexual practice, not to condemn unnatural homosexual acts by constitutional heterosexuals or pederastic prostitution, as Boswell and Scroggs have argued.28

Many conservative scholars have addressed Romans 1:24–7, but in refuting Countryman’s thesis, Schmidt has provided one of the most cogent treatments in his 1995 study, Straiqht and Narrow? Concluding that “Paul’s profound analysis of the human condition in Romans 1 finds in homosexuality an example of sexual sin that falsifies our identity as sexual beings, just as idolatry falsifies our identity as created beings,” Schmidt counters not only Countryman’s arguments, but those of Boswell and Scroggs as well. His main point against Countryman is that Paul does not portray homosexual practice as a feature of Gentile culture that is “impure” by Jewish standards, but no longer sinful under the new dispensation of the gospel. On the contrary, the apostle designates it as sin, as Schmidt’s analysis of key Pauline terminology shows very clearly.29

At the same time, in a compelling discussion of the historical background to Romans 1, the author argues that there was far from universal acceptance of same-sex relations among Gentiles. Moreover, “since Paul’s first reference in the passage is to relations between females, and since he makes a link to relations of mutual desire between males, it would be impossible for any Gentile to limit the application of Paul’s words to pederasty, much less find approval or neutrality in those words.” Scroggs’ attempted re-interpretation of Romans 1:26–7 as a specific condemnation of pederastic conduct is thus misplaced.30

Last but not least, Schmidt shows that Paul cannot be critiquing individual heterosexuals who betray their sexual identity by engaging in homosexual practice, as Boswell has argued, because the apostle’s indictment is against “the corporate rebellion of humanity against God,” and he assumes a normative creation order in which “created humanity has a heterosexual orientation.” Schmidt is cautious in his treatment of the much debated Greek phrase, παρα φυσιν, which the NIV translates “unnatural” in verse 26, but he persuasively demonstrates that “it would have had negative connotations for Paul’s audience.” Thus his argument amounts to a convincing refutation of some of the most influential attempts to re-interpret Romans 1 and it has since been supported, refined and extended by Gagnon’s massive scholarship. Indeed, together with the clear testimony of 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1Timothy 1:9–11, Romans 1:26–7 can be seen as decisive proof that the apostle Paul regarded all homosexual practice as sinful.31

Normative Conclusions

The consequences of such an analysis of New Testament materials are, therefore, far-reaching for anyone committed to the normative authority of Scripture. And they become even stronger when allied with a proper understanding of general biblical principles of sexual morality.

As Grenz and others have argued, the central witness of Scripture is that heterosexual marriage is the only legitimate setting for sexual intercourse. The evidence for this is wide-ranging. But the import of the creation narrative, which establishes committed relationships between women and men as God’s intended context for the full expression of human sexuality, is clearly foundational. So are biblical commandments against adultery and repeated references highlighting the unique place and value of marriage. Most conservative scholars would contend that the witness of Scripture sees no legitimate place for any form of full sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage. In fact, as Gagnon and others have persuasively shown, Paul’s teachings are entirely consistent with Judaeo-Christian precedent and their broad scope, especially in Romans 1, is only to be expected.32

Returning to the five key principles that I outlined earlier, it is such considerations that also foreclose, I think, any attempt to marginalize relevant texts or to limit or deny their contemporary application on hermeneutical grounds. The message of biblical writings from both Testaments is not only decisive and coherent in not affirming homosexual practice of any kind. It is clearly intended, as in Romans 1, to be general, even universal in application and it is entirely consistent with the most important ethical principles to be found in Scripture, including those expressed in the 10 Commandments, which explicitly outlaw adultery, for example.

Last but not least, the teachings of Christ plainly assume a traditional understanding of sexual ethics, which he actively upheld, even though he never taught explicitly on the subject of homosexual practice. As Gagnon has shown quite persuasively:

Jesus did not overturn any prohibitions against immoral sexual behavior in Leviticus or anywhere else in the Mosaic law. He did not regard sexual ethics as having diminished importance in relation to other demands of the kingdom. It is highly unlikely that he would have held some sort of secret acceptance of homosexuality in the face of the uniform opposition within the Judaism of his day. Clearly, he did not adopt more liberal positions on other matters of sexual ethics such as divorce and adultery. Instead, he was more demanding than the Torah, not less. He would have understood the tension between his affirmation of the model of male-female union in Genesis 1–2 and the alternative model presented by same-sex unions. Consequently, the idea that Jesus was, or might have been, personally neutral or even affirming of homosexual conduct is revisionist history at its worst.33

If we add to the testimony of Scripture the witness of church tradition, which has generally refused to endorse homosexual sex acts in any setting, as well as the continuing consensus fidelium of the world church, the case for adopting what Nelson has described as a “rejecting” or non-affirming position towards homosexual practice becomes, in my view, overwhelming. Since the act itself is so specifically targeted, there would not even seem scope for qualified acceptance of it among those deemed to be of homosexual orientation. However, that does not mean that rejection of homosexual conduct should ever be combined with a “punitive” attitude towards those who practise it. On the contrary, since the Christian gospel ultimately concerns God’s grace in spite of human sinfulness, the church is called to welcome gays and lesbians just as they are and to extend the promise of healing and forgiveness through Christ to them as to everyone else.34

Such an affirmation is especially important in the context of an argument like mine which rejects homosexual practice as immoral. Christians have a long history of homophobic attitudes and actions, of which we should all, I believe, repent. Many gays and lesbians continue to feel alienated from and even oppressed by the church and that should give great cause for regret, as we consider how we have acted unjustly and insensitively towards our brothers and sisters of homosexual orientation.

But although I firmly believe that gays and lesbians should have full access to every right and privilege normally granted to heterosexual individuals in society at large, my understanding of biblical ethics simply does not permit me to endorse the blessing of same-sex unions in the church.

My basic reason for this is very simple and that is that I do not believe that it can ever be right to bless a relationship, however positive it might be in other ways, which involves, as an intrinsic and even defining characteristic of it, the continual practice of immoral sexual conduct. I share the view expressed in Occasional Celebrations of The Anglican Church of Canada (1992) that “we bless people not to increase their spiritual dignity but to give thanks for the role they have been called to play within the reign of God and thus to release them to play their part.” I am prepared to acknowledge that good can emerge from committed homosexual relationships and I willingly recognize, for example, that the caring and compassion that so many have shown in the midst of the AIDS epidemic has put many of their theologically conservative critics to shame.35

But I cannot accept that Christ ever calls people into relationships that are intrinsically committed to the regular practice of immoral sexual conduct. What is more, I firmly believe that the main message of redemption that the church has to bring to gays and lesbians has much more to do with upholding the promise of divine healing and even rescue from homosexual practice, than with affirming same-sex unions by blessing and thus expressing Christian approval for them.36

Again, I would argue that the witness of Scripture is very clear on this point. In 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, for example, Paul effectively warns that all unrepentant sinners, including those practising male homosexual sex, may not “inherit the kingdom of God.” But he does not stop there. Just as he points out in Romans 3:23–4 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “are justified freely by his grace,” the apostle reminds the Corinthians that divine pardon extends to everyone who is willing to repent and to come to Christ in faith. “And that is what some of you were,” Paul writes to his readers in 1 Corinthians 6:11, referring to all the different kinds of sinner that he has named. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). There could be no stronger argument, to my mind, for proclaiming the deliverance and reconciliation which only Christ can bring, and I cannot, in good conscience, support any rite that would risk undermining that biblical message.


  1. The consideration of biblical scholarship in this paper, which was not intended to be exhaustive, all pre-dates 2005, and since I first wrote it, I have not read anything to cause me to change my position in 2017. The strongest recent work advocating a more “liberal” position based on detailed biblical exegesis has been James Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). Primarily by offering cultural and textual recontextualizations of relevant biblical materials, Brownson essentially argues, 109, that “what is normal in the biblical witness [i.e., exclusively male-female sexual unions] may not necessarily be normative.” But while his scholarship is impressive and his argumentation careful and ingenious, he ultimately fails to escape the clarity and rigour of the more traditional interpretations that he seeks to deconstruct.
  2. I  use the more neutral, technical word “homosexual,” as well as referring, more colloquially, from time to time, to “gays and lesbians.” I have done so for the sake of clarity and when I speak of and sometimes against “homosexual practice,” it is homosexual sex acts to which I am referring. It is not my intention to pass or imply any moral judgement on people of homosexual orientation per se.
  3. James B. Nelson, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theoloqy (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), 188.
  4. Ibid., 188–9.
  5. Ibid., 189–97. See, for example, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III:4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), 166.
  6. Ibid., 196–210. Nelson especially cited Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex (New York: Harper & Row, 1964); John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual (Kansas City, MO: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976); Norman Pittenger, Time for Consent: A Christian’s Approach to Homosexuality (London: SCM, 1976).
  7. Nelson’s categorization of Thielicke’s position, Embodiment, 196–7, as “qualified acceptance” seems debatable, for example.
  8. Anglican Church of Canada, The Book of Common Prayer [BCP] (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1962), 700.
  9. BCP, 706. The Anglican Church of Canada remains formally committed to “The 39 Articles of Religion” by virtue of its continuing and constitutional commitment to the “Solemn Declaration” of 1893, which includes a stated determination, ibid., viii: “by the help of God to hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments, and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word, and as the Church of England hath received and set forth in The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England; together with the Psalter or Psalms of David, pointed as they are to be sung or said in Churches; and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests and Deacons and in the Thirty–nine Articles of Religion; and to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity.”
  10. See, for example, Ex. 20:1–17; Mt. 5:17–7:27, passim. Cf. Rom. 13:9–11.
  11. E.g., Jn. 14:15–21; Eph. 5:1–2; Col. 3:12–14.
  12. Ex. 20:1–17; Mt. 22:34–40.
  13. E.g., Lk. 9:23–4; Phil. 2:1–11. A “teleological” approach to ethics is here understood to be one that determines the moral worth of actions in relation to their ultimate ends. Stanley Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 102, for example, described his own, “basically teleological approach to the contemporary issue” as one “that draws from considerations of God’s telos—God’s purpose—for human relationships as given in part in the creation narrative.”
  14. The word “revisionist” is simply intended to refer throughout this paper to interpreters or interpretations of key texts regarding homosexual practice that have sought to revise traditional understandings of them.
  15. See, for example, Nelson, Embodiment, 181–8, 204–10. By contrast, Waldo Beach, Christian Ethics in the Protestant Tradition (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press,1988), 61–4, takes a similar position without discussing specific texts. For an extended account of the history of interpretation of key passages, see Robert Gagnon’s magisterial study The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001).
  16. See esp. Gn. 19:1–29; Jdg. 19–20. Bible translations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version [NIV] (Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society,1973–84), unless otherwise stated.
  17. Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics: A Biblical Perspective (Vancouver: Regent Bookstore, 1995), 204–5. See also, Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 36. It should be noted that all these references concern male homosexual conduct.
  18. While Nelson, Embodiment, 186–8, redefined the application of Romans 1:26–7, he accepted that 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1Timothy 1:10 condemned “homosexual acts,” but ultimately rejected the authority of those texts.
  19. For a good example of a “traditionalist” interpretation of this passage, see Douglas Moo, Romans 1–8 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press,1991), 99–111.
  20. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 107–13; Nelson, Embodiment, 186, citing McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 55.
  21. Nelson, Embodiment, 186–7; William L. Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988), 98–123, cited in Thomas E. Schmidt, Straiqht and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 64–5; Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1983), 59–60, 109–18, 130–1, 140.
  22. Gary David Comstock, Gay Theology Without Apoloqy (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 1993), 42; Pim Pronk, Against Nature? Types of Moral Argumentation regarding Homosexuality (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), 273–8, esp. 274, 278.
  23. Both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy are here assumed to be authentically Pauline.
  24. It is important to note that there is no mention of female homosexuality in either passage. Moreover, the translation “male prostitutes” (1 Cor. 6:9) can obviously be read as referring to both homosexual and heterosexual prostitution.
  25. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 106–7, 335–53; Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality, 62–5, 101–9, 127; Schmidt, Straiqht and Narrow?, 95, citing Countryman, Dirt, Greed and Sex, 119, 128. Scroggs, 118–21, also suggests that αρσενοκοιταις in 1 Timothy 1: 10 are men who practise sex with homosexual prostitutes.
  26. See, for example, Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 43–157; Grenz, Sexual Ethics, 204. For an extended and somewhat revised consideration of these passages, see further, Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 36–40. For the “immediate relevance” of the “sins of inhospitality and intended homosexual rape,” see, for example, Gn. 19:5, 8; Jdg. 19:22–3. For “very general” portrayals of “the failings of Sodom,” see Jer. 23:14; Ez 16:46–58. The key Greek phrase in Jude 7, απελθουσαι οπισω σαρκος ετερας, literally means “going after strange flesh,” which could be a reference to attempted cohabitation with angels, as well as homosexual rape (cf. Gn. 19:1–5). The other word with clearly sexual connotations in Jude 7, εκπορνευσασαι, means “indulging in immorality.” Gagnon, 87, describes this “reference to sexual immorality” as “ambiguous,” although arguing, 88, that “both Jude 7 and 2 Peter 2:6–10 [an even more debatable reference] . . . connect the sin of Sodom with passions for sexual immorality, not failure to provide social justice or inhospitality.”
  27. See, for example, Lev. 18:6ff.; 20:15–16. For discussion of the Leviticus passages, see, for example, Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 100–6; Grenz, Sexual Ethics, 204–5; Schmidt, Straiqht and Narrow?, 89–92. Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 40–7, offers a nuanced discussion of some of the exegetical and hermeneutical challenges of these texts.
  28. Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,1987), 243–4, 241; Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 306–12; Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, W. F. Arndt, et al. (eds.) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 488, 29; D. F. Wright, “Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10),” Vigiliae Christianae, 38 (1984), 125–53, esp. 126–9, cited in Schmidt, Straiqht and Narrow?, 95–6. For a useful list of different translations of the key words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, see Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, 338. See further, Gagnon’s extended discussions of μαλακοι and αρσενοκοιται, 303–36; Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 56–9.
  29. Grenz, Sexual Ethics, 205. See further, Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 48–56.
  30. Schmidt, Straiqht and Narrow?, 64–85, esp. 85, 64–5, 71–84, addressing key words in Romans 1:24–8.
  31. Ibid., 65–6.
  32. Ibid., 78, 83, 82; Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 229–303.
  33. Grenz, Sexual Ethics, 82–4; Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 62; Schmidt, Straiqht and Narrow?, 39–63; Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 43–183, 229–339. See Gn. 1–2; Ex. 20:14, 17; Mt. 5:27–32; 19:3–12; Mk. 10:1–12; 1 Cor. 7; Eph. 5:21–33. The “broad [theological] scope” of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 provides one of the clearest indications that in condemning homosexual practice, he is expounding fundamental biblical principles. He is not simply making an occasional and much more limited pastoral observation, for example.
  34. On Jesus’ attitudes to sexual ethics, see Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 185–228, esp. 227–8; P.D.M. Turner, ”Biblical Texts Relevant to Homosexual Orientation and Practice,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 26.4 (1997), 435-445. Cf. Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 60–1.
  35. On “the witness of church tradition,” see Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming, 63–80. “Consensus fidelium” literally means “consensus of the faithful.” The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the world’s Christians still refuse to affirm homosexual practice of any kind. Since the Bible’s obvious concern is with the immorality of homosexual activity per se (esp. Rom. 1:26–7), the question of homosexual “orientation,” however defined, is normatively immaterial, although very important from a pastoral perspective.
  36. Anglican Church of Canada, Occasional Celebrations of The Anglican Church of Canada (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1992), 119.
  37. Cf. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 490–1.