Homosexuality in the Bible and Early Church


Much has been written about homosexuality from what is contained within the Bible. It is surprising to see how much doctrine and many theological arguments can be made out of less than ten verses. Homosexuality is a term that was coined in the eighteen hundreds. The idea of what constitutes same sex attraction to some degree is universal between that era and today, so the writer will use the term homosexuality to describe male on male sexual acts or female on female sexual acts, without being graphic. There three separate sections that this topic must be separated into. These are Old Testament writings, New Testament writings, and writings of the early church fathers.

Old Testament Writings

The first mention of a homosexual act takes places in Genesis 9, with the story of Noah and Ham. This story is told in many ways, but when looked at from a Jewish rabbinical view point, the story unfolds that Noah consumed too much wine and became drunk. Ham, seeing his father’s drunken state went in and had sexual relations with his father as a sign of dominance. Ham went to his brothers and bragged about what he had done, at which point the brothers went in and covered their father. Noah knew what had happened to him when he awoke, and proceeded to curse Ham’s child Canaan for his father’s actions. In this example, while same sex actions took place, there is not an indication of same sex attraction, but rather a show of dominance of the younger over the elder.

The second reference that mentions a homosexual type story also takes place in Genesis within the famed story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Without having to recount the entire story, when the angels entered into the dwelling of Lot, the men from the city approached and demanded to know them in a sexual manner. The angels blinded the men and were able to escape the city, but the intent to want to have a same sex act was clearly made. The problem with understanding this story is that one must understand that people in that era would often sodomize others as a sign of dominance or victory over an opposing foe. The case can easily be made here that this was not an instance of sexual lust, but rather as an attempt to humiliate new comers to the city in case they were spies. The Bible does not give this detail out, but it was also written from an understanding where that culture and traditions were relevant. Supporters of modern homosexuality point to references of the sins of Sodom that are in Ezekiel. This reference lists the sins as failure to help the poor and needy. There is a reference in verse fifty to detestable practices, but supporters of this view also reference that prior to this passage, Israel is being charged with prostituting itself out and sacrificing children to false gods, which the next reference forbids.

The third reference takes place in the book of Leviticus. Both chapters eighteen and twenty deal with sexual sins and both speak out against sex between two men. The verses reference a man having sex with a man as he would a woman and the act being considered an abomination and repulsive, depending on which translation is read from. To understand the verses in a better understanding, both chapters reference that Israel is not to do what is done in Canaan currently or Egypt in which they had just left. Both of these cultures made use of pagan temple prostitutes who were either male, female, or transgender. The arguments have been made by researchers that these verses are actually talking about using pagan prostitutes instead of a sexual relationship between two consenting adults. This view is supported by the fact that the verse that precedes this law in chapter eighteen speaks against sacrificing children to Molech, who was a pagan god that was worshiped by the Canaanites. This positioning of the verses along with a challenge that the second occurrence of the word male can also be used to reference a prostitute gives some pro homosexual supporters an argument that these laws are not referencing a relationship like the incest and adultery bans that precede them, but rather a form of pagan idol worship. References to Deuteronomy (23:17-18) seem to support this position as it forbids sons or daughters to be used as temple prostitutes and that the wages of these practices are forbidden from being brought into the house of the Lord. Those that oppose this stance reference that same sex marriage took place between women in Egypt, this is where the inclusion on lesbianism comes from, and that there are historical references to same sex relations between men outside of any form of temple worship by the surrounding cultures. It is the reference to not do the acts that the people who God was removing from the land that gives support to rabbinic tradition that sex between two men or between two women was forbidden and seen as an abomination by the Lord.

The final passage in the Old Testament takes place in the nineteenth chapter of the book of Judges. In this story, a Levite is returning home with his concubine who had run away to her father after committing adultery. During the trip home, they group stopped in the town of Gibeah which was in the land that was controlled by the tribe of Benjamin. In what seems to be reoccurrence of the episode in Sodom, the men from the town came to the house where the Levite was staying and demanded to know him sexually. The owner of the home protested as it would be seen as a betrayal of his obligation of hospitality, so the Levite pushes the concubine outside, where the men rape her until she is dead. The Levite, outraged at what has transpired, cuts his concubine into multiple pieces and sends one piece to each of the tribes of Israel to show them what has occurred by the hands of the Benjaminties. What is interesting in this story is that nowhere, is there a charge of homosexuality or even attempted homosexuality by the Levite, who is the keeper of the Law. The outrage can be seen as either being inhospitable, which was socially unacceptable at that time or at the attempted rape of the Levite by the men. The claim that nothing had happened like this since Israel had come from Egypt can be seen as a reference back to the passages in Leviticus that forbids sex between two men. What had happened to the woman is not seen as acceptable under modern standards, but the story starts out mentioning that she had committed adultery prior to this occurring and her death matches the death of a harlot. Not to take away from the barbaric treatment of the woman, the readers must remember that this was acceptable treatment in that time period. Without a clear understanding of what the outrage was, the reader must draw conclusions based on what is known of that time. The word used to describe the sexual advances by the men is the same word that is used to describe the desires of the men in Sodom, yadha. D.S. Bailey states that “this word denotes violence and power and less about sexual desire as is understood in today’s context.”

New Testament Writings

Jesus is never recorded as directly speaking out against homosexuality. In this silence on this topic, church tradition holds that whatever the understanding was by the first century Jew at that time would help dictate or direct our understanding on the topic. Jesus is recounted as speaking towards marriage, when admonishing the Jews listeners on divorce. According to Jesus, marriage was envisioned to be between one man and one woman and divorce not occurring, unless there were instances of adultery. Those who support homosexuality will point to the understanding on this passage as Jesus saying that marriage is to be between two committed partners and should last the life time of the couple. It is seen more as speaking to those who would give out a divorce decree to their wives when displeased instead of supporting the man and woman model of marriage. This is supported by the claim that same sex marriage was not practiced and same sex attraction was not understood at this time. Those who oppose homosexuality, point to the same sex marriage that the Emperor Nero undertook not long after the crucifixion of Jesus.

In the letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul makes one of the strongest arguments against what is seen as modern homosexuality. In the first chapter, Paul spells out how when men and women turn away from God and towards man made wants and desires, the men and women will eventually exchange the natural sexual desires for unnatural desires toward the same gender. Since the reference to same sex attractions is preceded by the reference to idolatry, homosexual supporters point out that what Paul is speaking against is not same sex attraction but rather the temple prostitution that is referenced in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Those who oppose homosexuality will make the point that it is when mankind turns away from God that what is natural is exchanged for what is unnatural or “against nature” occurs. Idolatry is not denied in this argument, but it is rather a symptom of people worshipping themselves and their ideas instead of the living God.

Paul makes another reference to homosexuality in the first letter to the Corinthians. In this letter, the Apostle Paul lists ten types of people who will not inherit the kingdom of God. This list contains fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, and the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai. The Apostle Paul also uses this word arsenokoitai in the first letter to Timothy. Dr. Boswell released a study that indicates that the word malakoi was translated as masturbators by the early church until the sixteenth century. The word malakoi is now translated as male prostitute due to better linguistic understanding. Boswell also points out that arsenokoitai is a combination of two words from the Septuagint that reference the passage in Leviticus that is referencing men who lie with men. In both cases, such actions are thought of, by those who support homosexuality, to occur primarily in pagan temple worship. Dr. Bill Mounce and Dr. Craig Blomberg both agree that the word arsenokoitai comes from the Septuagint words referencing Leviticus. They hold that the words when translated actually describe the act of homosexuality as being active and not passive. This would mean that Paul was speaking against two men from having sex and not against those who simply had desires. With idolatry and prostitution being specifically addressed, it gives some support to those who speak out against homosexuality.

Jude, brother of Jesus, is the only other New Testament writer to specifically address the issue of homosexuality. In his letter, Jude points to Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities that surrounded them and says that they committed sexual sins and pursued homosexual activities. This is the first biblical writer who directly makes the comparison that the same sex act that was attempted on the two angels was indeed sinful. Those who oppose homosexuality point to this as a clear sign of what was intended when referencing Sodom and Gomorrah. Other writers point out that the words translated as homosexuality here actually translate in to strange flesh and is not a clear indication that same sex orientation is wrong or sinful.

Early Church Writings

Compared to the biblical writers, the early church fathers were more prolific in their writings about homosexuality, specifically in pedestry which is the taking of a young boy by a wealthy mentor to be groomed into a higher social standing. This practice has been in place well before the Roman Empire. The Didache spoke directly against pedestry as well as abortion, which was not specifically addressed by the Bible in 70 A.D. Justin Martyr spoke out against the prostitution of young men and women in 151 A.D. in First Apology. Clement of Alexandria wrote of the Greek gods attraction to young boys as sexual objects in 190 A.D. and then of the Sodomites and their burning passion for young boys in 193 A.D. Tertullian said that “all other frenzies of lusts which exceed the laws of nature, and are impious toward both human bodies and sexes, we banish, not only from the threshold but also from the shelter of the Church” in 200 A.D. From the time that the New Testament writers until Augustine in 400 A.D., the early church leaders have been writing about various issues with homosexuality of one form or another. While the majority of the writings have dealt with the use of children, under the age of 15, as sexual objects, other writers have gone forth to try and interpret what the biblical writers actually intended.

Writings on homosexual activities were an issue as they were being practiced by those “pagans” who were around the Christians until Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire. It can be seen as that the early church fathers were trying the draw a line in the sand in which to keep the flock clean and pure from sexual immorality. What is not clear though is if their original understanding was influenced by unwritten teachings or based solely on their understanding of the biblical writing. As demonstrated though, both sides to the argument can make a case either for or against what is considered to be homosexuality.

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One response to “Homosexuality in the Bible and Early Church

  1. Pingback: Your Questions About Men Loving Women | Signs You Met the Right One

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