One of the biggest barriers in conversations surrounding faith and sexuality is the assumption that the Bible “clearly” supports a certain position. In order to “elevate the conversation” as Andrew Marin urges in Love is an Orientation, it is helpful to have a general, foundational understanding of biblical hermeneutics (methods of interpretation). More specifically, it is important to give due consideration to the different interpretations of what are commonly referred to as the “clobber passages”. This overview of both traditional and liberal perspectives is by no means an extensive study on the topic, and my aim is not to persuade people one way or another. Instead, as Wendy VanderWal-Gritter writes in Generous Spaciousness, I hope that ultimately “embodying a posture [of ‘generous spaciousness’] rather than a polarizing position will help people live in the tension of their own beliefs (or uncertainty) [and] their high regard for the Scriptures…” (p. 249).
The Traditional Stance
In Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, William J. Webb argues for the traditional understanding that Scripture condemns homosexuality. Throughout the book, he uses what he calls “The X → Y → Z Principle” as a model for developing a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic” (p. 30). He explains, “[this] principle illustrates how numerous aspects of the biblical text were not written to establish a utopian society with complete justice and equity. They were written within a cultural framework with limited moves toward an ultimate ethic” (p. 31).
For example, in biblical times, slavery was allowed but with better conditions than slaves had in the original culture. In the world today, working conditions have been greatly improved and we are working toward the ultimate ethic of completely eliminating slavery. Similarly, the Bible depicts a moderated patriarchy with fewer abuses of women than in the original culture. In our culture, the status of women is significantly improved. Although the ultimate ethic is still a somewhat contentious topic, there is clear movement toward “interdependence, mutuality and servant-like attitude in relationships” (p. 38). With regard to homosexuality, Webb uses this same model to point out the movement from “mixed acceptance and no restrictions of homosexual activity” in the original culture to “negative assessment and complete restriction of homosexual activity” in the Bible (p. 40). He sees this movement as being “clearly in one direction and complete” (p. 39) and therefore argues that the ultimate ethic would maintain the direction of the biblical text although with greater understanding, grace, respect, and compassion.
Interestingly, Webb does state that “Within a pluralistic society, such as we experience today, Christians should actually defend the rights and freedoms of homosexuals to live out their beliefs. We should not legally impose our sexual ethic on others” (p. 40).
The “Clobber Passages”
There are many approaches to biblical interpretation, but it is generally agreed that it is important to consider the context of the passage, the culture in which it was written, the specific choice of words in the Hebrew or Greek language, and the overarching message of the Gospel. Here we will consider the passages dealing with same-sex sexual behavior more specifically.
• Genesis 19
This is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ezekiel 16:49-50 gives additional insight into this passage:
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
Pro-gay theologians argue that since these transgressions do not even remotely resemble committed, monogamous same-sex relationships, it is more accurate to attribute the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to the violation of the strict hospitality laws of the Old Testament.
• Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
These are sections of the Holiness Code, which was given to the Israelites to help them live as God’s chosen people, set apart from the pagan practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites. The word “abomination” is the Hebrew word toevah, which means “ritually unclean.” This is the same word used in reference to many prohibitions with a significant cultural component such as eating pork and shellfish. Therefore, many believe that these verses cannot be used to imply that homosexuality is intrinsically immoral.
• Romans 1:26-27
In Generous Spaciousness, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter explains that some people suggest that the phrase para physis, translated as “unnatural” in verse 26 “cannot mean ‘immoral’ because Paul uses this word to describe God’s act of including gentiles in Romans 11:24. Paul also uses the same wording in 1 Corinthians 11:14-15 to state that long hair on men is against nature. This raises the question of whether it is inherently immoral (that is, for all times and all places) or a statement for that culture” (p. 160-161). The Message translation of these verses offers a fresh emphasis:
“Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either—women didn’t know how to be women, men didn’t know how to be men. Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another, women with women, men with men—all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love, godless and loveless wretches.”
• 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:9-11
The word arsenokoitai, which many believe simply refers to pederasty (sex between a man and a boy), is found in both of these passages. Again, VanderWal-Gritter explains the predicament with the translation of this term: “[arsenokoitai] is a composite term of ‘male’ and ‘bed’ not found in Greek writing prior to Paul. […] Both Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom, who were both vigorously opposed to homosexuality, did not use arsenokoitai in their writings, even though they used thirteen other words to describe homosexual persons and homosexual behavior” (p. 161). We cannot know for sure what Paul meant when he used this word.
This is only an overview of a few of the cases that illustrate how it is possible to arrive at different conclusions when it comes to biblical interpretation. There are many resources available for further investigation of this complex subject. For example, in Love is an Orientation, Andrew Marin spends much more time exploring the eternal principles of these passages in order to find “overarching lessons about what is being described about God and his will for our lives…” (p. 118). As we continue to navigate the intersection of the Christian and LGBTQ communities, may we also humbly remember that “while Scripture may be inerrant, there are no inerrant interpreters of Scripture” (Generous Spaciousness, p. 164).