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March 10, 2011 Print

Dig Deeper: So What Does the Bible Say about Homosexual Practice?

by Jeff Johnston

Last month, Jennifer Wright Knust had a column on CNN’s Belief Blog, “My Take: The Bible’s surprisingly mixed messages on sexuality.” I’m always a bit suspicious when the mainstream media invites an “expert” to tackle Christianity. Doubly so when they discuss Christianity and homosexuality.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Knust’s column is filled with the usual mixture of revisionist theological arguments that get thrown against the wall to see what sticks.

Thankfully, CNN’s blog posted a response by Robert A. J. Gagnon, who is a leading biblical expert on homosexuality. His book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, is thorough and thoughtful, and is probably the best theological work on this topic. Dr. Gagnon’s response, “My Take: The Bible really does condemn homosexuality”[1], and his addendum, “More on Knust’s Blunders about the Bible and Homosexuality An Addendum to My CNN Editorial,” give an important biblical response to Knust’s revisionist theology.  

I thought it would be helpful to put some of Knust’s arguments side by side with Gagnon’s responses, so if you want to dig deeper, I’ll highlight three important points. 

What Did Jesus Say about Homosexuality?

First, Knust gives the stock response of many of those who push for acceptance of same-sex unions, that “Jesus, meanwhile, says nothing at all about same-sex pairing.” As one who fulfilled all the requirements of The Law, Jesus would have known and believed that God designed sexual behavior for the union of a husband and wife. The reality is that no orthodox Jew in the first century would have questioned the biblical prohibition against same-sex sexual activity. It probably wouldn’t have crossed their minds to question the Law and the Prophets on this issue.

But Jesus did discuss human sexuality, and he made statements that encompass all of us. Here’s how Gagnon quotes and explains Jesus’ teaching on this issue:

In rejecting a revolving door of divorce-and-remarriage and, implicitly, polygamy Jesus cited Genesis: “From the beginning of creation, ‘male and female he made them.’ ‘For this reason a man …will be joined to his woman and the two shall become one flesh’” (Mark 10:2-12; Matthew 19:3-12).

 Jesus’ point was that God’s limiting of persons in a sexual union to two is evident in his creation of two (and only two) primary sexes: male and female, man and woman. The union of male and female completes the sexual spectrum, rendering a third partner both unnecessary and undesirable….

Knust insinuates that Jesus wouldn’t have opposed homosexual relationships. Yet Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis demonstrates that he regarded a male-female prerequisite for marriage as the foundation on which other sexual standards could be predicated, including monogamy.

I’ll give her credit, Knust does add a new twist to this argument when she says of Jesus, “and when he discusses marriage, he discourages it.” In saying this, she completely ignores the fact that Jesus’ first public miracle took place at a wedding celebration – a gift of wine for the new couple – bestowing his blessing and approval on their union.  In his addendum, Gagnon addresses her strange assertion:

It is not accurate to say, as Knust does, that Jesus “discouraged” marriage. He merely created the option for those like himself who “made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven” on pragmatic missionary grounds (Matthew 19:9-12). Foregoing marriage and thus all sexual relations was an option for those who wanted to proclaim the message about God’s kingdom with greater freedom of movement and risk than would otherwise be the case with a spouse and children.

Only a Few Bible Texts Reject Homosexual Practice?

A second argument that Knust uses is that the Bible doesn’t say very much about homosexuality. She writes:

It’s true that same-sex intimacy is condemned in a few biblical passages. But these passages, which I can count on one hand, are addressed to specific sex acts and specific persons, not to all humanity forever, and they can be interpreted in any number of ways.

Here’s Gagnon’s response to this argument:

Knust dismisses the texts that reject homosexual practice as “few.” But limited explicit mention can be an indication of an irreducible minimum in sexual ethics that doesn’t need to be talked about extensively. Bestiality, an offense worse than homosexual practice, is mentioned even less in the Bible; and sex with one’s parent receives a comparable amount of attention to homosexual practice.

The Bible’s attention to homosexual practice is also not as limited as Knust pretends it to be. Knust leaves out some texts that have to do with homosexual practice. A case in point are the repeated references in Deuteronomy through 2 Kings to the “abomination” of the qedeshim (so-called “sacred ones”), cult figures who engage in consensual sex with other males, also echoed in the Book of Revelation (22:15; 21:8).

 Marriage in the Bible – from Genesis to Revelation

Gagnon continues his argument by describing the unity of the whole Bible, from start to finish, as it talks about marriage between a man and a woman. This is such an important point that I want to give it separate emphasis. Throughout Scripture, marriage is used as an image, the primary picture, of our relationship with God.

Genesis begins with the separation of humanity into male and female and with God’s blessing on them and on their union in marriage. All through the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a husband who is deeply in love with and pursuing his errant spouse, the nation of Israel. The imagery continues with Jesus’ parables about weddings and with Jesus as a groom who will one day unite with his bride, the church. The book of Revelation describes the wedding feast that takes place as the church joins with Christ. Here’s how Gagnon explains the importance of this with regard to Knust’s dismissal of “a few biblical passages.” 

Even more importantly, every biblical narrative, law, proverb, exhortation, metaphor, and poetry in the Bible that has anything to do with sexual relationships presumes a male-female prerequisite – no exceptions. A more consistent ethical position in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation could hardly be found. This is not, as Knust claims, “a very particular and narrow interpretation of a few biblical passages.”

In addition to the three areas described above, Knust and Gagnon also look at related biblical issues, including the creation account, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Bible and slavery, and the story of Jonathan and David.  For those who are interested, Dr. Gagnon’s book and website go into much more detail and explore, in addition to Scripture, what science and reason have to say about homosexual practice. 

[1] Dr. Gagnon writes: Note that the title is that of the Religion Editor, added at the last moment without checking with me. I would say ‘homosexual practice,’ not ‘homosexuality.’ My own suggested title was more positive: “The Bible’s surprisingly consistent message on sexuality.”