What does the Bible say about homosexuality? The DEFINITIVE guide
When I came out of the closet at age fourteen in West Virginia, it made my relationship with my best friend, Daniel, very uneasy. Daniel was an Evangelical, and on more than one occasion he lectured me on how the Bible condemns homosexuality. To truly be a Christian, he said, the Bible said I couldn’t live “a gay lifestyle.”
Eventually Daniel cut me out of his life when we were in college, equating his acceptance of my life as a gay man akin to taking an alcoholic to a bar. In a long, rambling letter, he quoted scripture repeatedly, pointing to passages he and other conservatives say condemn homosexuality. These passages have been aimed like weapons at the hearts of LGBTQ+ Christians, destroying their faith — and sometimes their lives — in the process.
There are six passages in the Christian Bible that supposedly condemn homosexuality:
- The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18–19
- Two verses in Leviticus (Lev. 18:22; 20:13)
- Two verses in Second Testament “vice lists” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:9–10)
- And a short narrative from Paul in Romans (1:18–27)
Reading these passages in most modern English translations of the Bible, one would likely accept at face value the conservative’s claim that homosexuality is categorically forbidden. When we examine these passages more closely, however, in their original languages while placing them into their historical and theological context, we see this is definitely not the case. These are just homophobic attempts to shoe-horn the modern concept of homosexuality into ancient writings.
In this article, we’ll examine those six passages and show how they are commonly mistranslated and misinterpreted to denigrate homosexuality. Neither the Christian Bible, God, nor Jesus condemns homosexuality.
1. The Story of Sodom and Gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah may be the two most famous cities ever destroyed. Their story is told in Genesis 18 and 19, and referenced multiple times in both the First and Second Testaments as an example of God’s punishment for wicked behavior. (1)
Conservatives have twisted the moral of the story, reading it as an outright condemnation of all homosexual sex. A close reading of the story however shows that’s not the case. Most scholars now agree that the primary transgression described was the violation of strict hospitality customs common in the ancient Middle East.
In the story, God has decided to destroy the two cities if ten righteous people can’t be found. He sends two angels to the town to investigate, who are graciously welcomed and hosted by Lot, Abraham’s nephew. That night however, the house is surrounded by a mob:
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house, and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot and came near the door to break it down.
But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.
The angels then lead Lot and his family safely out of the cities, before God “rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven,” destroying everything that lived there. (Lot’s unnamed wife behind him, however, looked back, and turned into a pillar of salt.)
It may be hard for modern readers to understand just how seriously hospitality was taken in the cultures of the ancient Middle East. Public sleeping and eating accommodations were not readily available and thus became a social obligation. According to one writer, “to be inhospitable was not only to be despicable, it was also to be irreligious.” (2)
Another writer explains, “not only were public accommodations generally lacking, but the geographical and climatic conditions of many areas made it practically impossible for visitors to try to subsist for any length of time without some form of protection and help — at the very least provision of water and food — from the local population.” (3) The First Testament is full of examples of this requirement. (4)
The ideal response to visitors is demonstrated in the first part of the story. When the Lord appears to Abraham with three visitors in the heat of the day, Abraham welcomes them, brings them water and prepares them a meal. Abraham follows a pattern of gracious hospitality (brining water, baking bread, offering shelter) that can be found in similar stories in the First Testament. (5)
Further, a plain text reading of the story clearly shows the men of Sodom were not interested in homosexual relations per se, but rape as an act of sexual power. Rape was commonly used in the ancient world, as it is still today, as an act of intimidation and dominance. It’s a war crime.
In instances like this of “power rape,” as one author notes, the sexual identities of both the perpetrators and victims are irrelevant. “Homosexual violation, usually by folk we would call heterosexual, in many societies is used to teach subordination to slaves, trespassers, strangers, and newcomers to a community. These stories do not speak of sexual inclination; they are about sexual violence to obtain power over strangers.” (6)
The egregiousness of both sins — sexual violence and violating customs of hospitality — are more clearly demonstrated in another Biblical text, the story of an unnamed Levite and his concubine in Judges 19. In that narrative, a mob descends on the two as they are passing through the Benjamite city of Gibeah.
That mob also demands the visitor, the Levite, be brought out to be gang-raped. Instead, the Levite offers up his concubine, who is raped until she collapses. The Levite then takes the concubine’s lifeless body home (it is unclear from the text when and where she dies), before cutting it up in pieces, taking it around to the other tribes of Israel, and demanding revenge.
So egregious was the Benjamites’ transgression of hospitality with sexual violence that it started a civil war, nearly wiping out an entire tribe of Israel. The passage often draws parallels to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—some scholars even insist the Gibeah narrative was written first. While conservative commenters are quick to use the same-sex sexual violence in Sodom and Gomorrah to condemn all homosexuality, they fail to do the same for the opposite-sex sexual violence in Gibeah. If homosexual power rape in Genesis 19 is the basis for prohibiting any homosexual act, why then is not heterosexual power rape not the basis for prohibiting any heterosexual act?
Further, whenever the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, never is homosexuality listed as one of those sins. Only in one instance is general sexual immorality, not homosexuality, of Sodom mentioned (Jude 7, though the epistle may be speaking of a later Jewish tradition that says the women of Sodom had sex with the angels). (7)
The prophet Ezekiel lists the “guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease but did not aid the poor and needy” (16:48–50). The prophet Isaiah declares the nation of Judah was almost destroyed for being too much like Sodom and Gomorrah, and then encourages them to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:9–10, 16–17).
When Jesus himself invokes the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah directly, he references the cities’ inhospitality, foreshadowing the reception his disciples will face. He says that those who reject their message will suffer more than the people of Sodom (Matthew 10:15, Luke 10:12), and that had his work been performed in Sodom rather than Capernaum, the Sodomites would have responded better (Matthew 11:23–24).
It was not until the 4th century CE that Christian authors started equating the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah with same-sex sexual intercourse outside of sexual violence, and even then it was only a minority opinion. It would not become a majority opinion until the Middle Ages, a subject we’ll return to in a minute. (8)
2. Leviticus 18 and 20
Nestled in the “holiness code” of the book of Leviticus are two passages that seemingly prohibit any male homosexuality. In English, they are commonly translated along these lines:
Man shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. (18:22)
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their bloodguilt is upon them. (20:13)
They seemingly support the conservatives’ argument that the Bible condemns homosexuality. But we must understand the context in which these rules were given, what they actually prohibited, to whom they applied in the ancient world, and to whom they apply today. Along with the two verses above, Leviticus also prohibits:
- Eating anything from water that doesn’t have fins and scales (i.e. shellfish like lobster, crab and mussels) — Leviticus 11:10
- Eating pork or touching the skin of a dead pig (i.e. footballs, leather) — Leviticus 11:7–8
- Tattoos — Leviticus 19:28
- Cutting your beard — Leviticus 19:27
- Horoscopes and psychics — Leviticus 19:31
- Wearing cloth made of two different materials — Leviticus 19:19
You may have noticed that some conservatives who claim to “live by the Bible” also shave, eat bacon, love football, and wear polyester-blend clothes. I jest here to make the point about for whom these rules were written: ancient Jews. These prohibitions do not apply to modern Christian life because 1) they were specifically developed by an ancient culture for that ancient culture, and 2) theologically they do not apply to us because of the new covenant established through Jesus Christ.
The laws of the First Testament were part of God’s covenant (or agreement) with the ancient Jews. They needed to be followed, and violations of the law (sin) needed to be atoned through sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem for that covenant to be kept. According to traditional Christian doctrine, however, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ established a new covenant nullifying the old one and the rules which accompanied it. (9)
The debate over whether or not Christians had to follow Jewish laws and customs was a main point of contention for the earliest Christians. This tension is reflected in Second Testament writings. The biggest issue was circumcision: Should non-Jewish, adult male converts be circumcised, as required by the Torah of Jews? In a world without modern anesthesia, this debate generated understandable controversy (at least if you ask me).
To the Jews, circumcision was a mark of their covenant with God. Paul argued forcefully that circumcision was no longer necessary. “We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ… If justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:16, 21). (10) We’re saved through Christ, Paul argues, not by following the laws of Leviticus.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself declares that he has not come to abolish the law but fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) and later declares that all the laws of the Hebrew Bible can be summed up in just two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… [and] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law” (Matthew 22:35–40, appears also in Mark 12:28–34 and Luke 10:27). Thus, Christians are not bound by the law of the First Testament.
Going further, there are scholars who argue these verses in Leviticus prohibit only certain kinds of male homosexual sex. Leviticus 18:22 comes between two rules about sacrificing infants to the Canaanite god Molech and bestiality, both considered cultic, non-Jewish activity. Also, the Hebrew word translated as “abomination” here very often describes foreign cultic behavior in the Torah. As some argue, “what is condemned by the homosexual prohibition is not general homosexual behavior, but cultic homosexual relations in particular.” (11) The prohibitions are less about moral wrongs than they are about ritualistic purification and Jewish distinctiveness. (12)
There are also scholars who believe Leviticus 20:13 condemns not male homosexual activity but pederasty. Pederasty is an abusive sexual relationship between an adult man and a younger male or boy that was not uncommon in ancient Greece and Rome. The translation of “man” in the first part of the verse allows for only an adult male, while the second word allows for a translation of “boy” (as it is translated elsewhere in the Bible). (13)
3. Vice Lists of the Second Testament
Similarly to the seeming prohibitions in Leviticus, modern readers of English translations of the Bible encounter the word “homosexual” in two so-called vice lists of the Second Testament.
These “vice lists and virtue lists are rhetorical devices used by Second Testament authors to give moral advice to Christians by calling attention to the bad behavior of unbelievers, to the bad behavior Christians still might have, or to the virtues to which Christians should aspire.” (14) Commonly condemned are envy, lying, gossip, murder and greed. In just two instances are some sort of male-male homosexual activity mentioned, translated by the more homophobic to prohibit all male-male sex.
For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, the ultraconservative New International Version (NIV) translations reads:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
What the NIV translates here as the phrase, “men who have sex with men,” comes from two separate Greek words, malakoi and arsenokoitai. The first means basically “soft,” an extremely common term that makes it hard to know exactly what Paul is talking about. Some scholars have posited it means being the receptive partner in anal sex (i.e. bottoming), while others see it as meaning violating traditional gender roles. (15) Until the 1200’s, this word was commonly understood as masturbation. No new discovery was made then, rather there was a shift in public morality against same-sex sex. (16)
Conversely, the second word, arsenokoitai, is much rarer and its precise meaning is known. The word does not appear in Greek prior to Paul. Of the two Greek words from which it stems, arsēn means “male” and koitē means “bed,” which may signal why some translations have used the word “sodomite” or “homosexual offender. (17)
Taken together, some scholars believe the pair points to pederasty. This, one author claims, is the same-gender sex “that would have been observed most frequently by Paul. These were the master, old man, abusive sexual partner, or pederast on the one hand, and the slave, young boy, or victim on the other hand. That is why Paul pairs them in this sentence; they may be euphemisms for the active and the passive participants in a sexual relationship.” (18)
The term arsenokoitai reappears alone in a 1 Timothy vice list, an epistle scholars now believe was written by followers of Paul rather than Paul himself. Again, the ultra conservative NIV translates arsenokoitai in 1 Timothy 1:10 as “those practicing homosexuality.”
The best guess of scholars is that the word is used again here as a reference to pederasty, although that remains uncertain. The recent update of the New Revised Standard Version translation (the NRSVUE, the most commonly used English translation by academics), translates the term in both places as “men who engage in illicit sex” while rightly noting that the precise meaning of the term is unknown.
4. The Many Interpretations of Romans 1
That brings us to the passage over which there is the most debate. While some conservatives agree with some of the affirming scholarship above, rejecting homophobic interpretations of other passages, most generally see two verses in Paul’s letter to the early Christians of Rome as blanket condemnation of all homosexual acts, both male-male sex and female-female sex.
When read in context, however, this analysis quickly falls apart as well. Paul is clearly not condemning all homosexual sex acts, though scholars disagree on what precisely he is condemning. Beginning in 1:18, Paul writes:
Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made. So they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
For this reason God gave them over to dishonorable passions. Their females exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the males, giving up natural intercourse with females, were consumed with their passionate desires for one another. Males committed shameless acts with males and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to an unfit mind and to do things that should not be done.
To some, what Paul is condemning is idolatry and homosexual sex related to it. They point to how the sexual acts are introduced in verse 26: “for this reason.” “That initial statement means that the homosexual behavior is the result of the idolatry described in the previous verses. In other words, the idolatry and the homosexual behavior go together and describe the same people… Paul is not speaking about all homosexuals; he is speaking about a specific group of homosexuals who engage in a particular form of idolatrous worship.” More specifically, the same writer contends Paul is condemning the Egyptian cult of Isis, given the passage’s reference to theriomorphic (animal) worship. (19)
Another theory is that Paul is not condemning sexual acts at all. John Boswell, whose famous book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality ushered in a new age of questioning homophobic exegesis (analysis) of Biblical texts when it was first published in 1980, argues:
The point of the passage is not to stigmatize sexual behavior of any sort but to condemn the Gentiles for their general infidelity. There was a time, Paul implies, when monotheism was offered to or known by the Romans, but they rejected it (vv 19–23). The reference to homosexuality is simply a mundane analogy to this theological sin; it is patently not the crux of this argument. Once the point has been made, the subject of homosexuality is quickly dropped and the major argument resumed.
What is even more important, the persons Paul condemns are manifestly not homosexual: what he denigrates are homosexual acts committed by apparently heterosexual persons. The whole point of Romans 1, in fact, is to stigmatize persons who have rejected their calling, gotten off the true path they were once on. It would completely undermine the thrust of the argument if the persons in question were not “naturally” inclined to the opposite sex in the same way they were “naturally” inclined to monotheism. What caused the Romans to sin was not that they lacked what Paul considered proper inclinations but that they had them: they held the truth, but “in unrighteousness” (v. 18), because “they did not see fit to retain Him in their knowledge” (v. 28). (20)
Going further, Boswell also argues that Paul is not saying homosexual behavior is unnatural. Even at that time, homosexual behavior was well known in animals and appears in contemporary literature. The people who “gave themselves up” were not going against a general law of nature, but giving themselves up to what is natural for themselves, their own heterosexuality. Also, to argue that Paul is saying there is a natural moral law against homosexuality being transgressed would be anachronistic. A theory of such natural moral law would not be fully developed for another thousand years after Paul’s death. (21)
More recently, liberal Evangelicals have also read this passage not as condemnation of all homosexual sex, but of homosexual sex outside of monogamy. (22) Still others see Paul’s concern of who is the bottom, while others say Paul is again condemning pederasty. There is no clear consensus.
The Larger Problem With the Whole Argument
Whatever Paul meant in Romans 1, or with the word arsenokoitai, it’s clear to scholars that he was not referring to the modern concept of homosexuality. The word “homosexual” itself didn’t appear in English until 1891, and didn’t appear in any Biblical translation until the 1950’s. (23) Efforts to shoe-horn the term and concept into the Bible reveals much more about the standards, mores, and homophobia of the culture of the translators than it does about what these ancient cultures actually considered immoral.
As Boswell notes in his book, homosexual sex was fairly common and accepted as part of life in ancient Greece and Rome, particularly in major urban centers. It was not until the collapse of Rome in the 4th century that homophobia began to emerge in the Christian church (notably in the ascetic movement, i.e. Origen and Clement of Alexandria). It was not until 533 that the first laws banning homosexual sex were declared in Europe by the emperor Justinian. However, there’s no evidence that these laws were widely supported or enforced. Indeed, openly gay people, along with Jews and other outsiders, continued to flourish and rise to positions of power for quite some time.
It was not until the late 12th and early 13th centuries, Boswell argues, that there was a profound shift in public attitudes towards homosexual sex and all non-procreative sexual activity more generally. The causes and repercussions of such a shift are beyond the scope of this article, but it’s safe to say the continued oppression of the Queer community stems in no small part from this shift.
As a collection of ancient writings in foreign languages, the Bible is actually a great scapegoat for modern intolerance. Think about it: both the cultures which produced it and the languages in which it was written are so extremely foreign to us that one can find or create justification for just about any idea, no matter how oppressive it may be. As we have seen, some cherry pick, washing passages completely of context, while others anachronize, imposing modern ideals and beliefs on ancient writings. The homophobic interpretation of the passages above are examples of how conservatives regularly do both.
The end result of this thinking has real life consequences. When we try to impose upon our lives and society the close-minded thinking of previous generations (i.e. the homophobia of 13th century Europe), that oppression, in turn, leads to the creeping evils of addiction, deaths of despair and suicide, and the outright horror of systematic oppression, murder, and genocide.
A better way of interpreting the Bible
A better way to understand the lessons of the Bible for our lives is examine each seemingly Biblical decree or story through the lens of the Greatest Commandment. If what we think we are reading on the page violates the only things God has commanded us to do (love Him, and love each other as we love ourselves), then what we are reading should not be a guide for moral living.
Most conservatives, even the most homophobic, already do this to some extent. According to Jesus himself, divorce is only acceptable in cases of adultery or sexual immorality (Matthew 5:31–32). Most of us view following this Biblical “decree” as violating God’s commandment to love.
For example, should a woman stay with her faithful, sexually moral though abusive husband? Leaving him would be an act of love for her children, who’s own emotional and physical safety are at risk. No moral person would condemn her for breaking Jesus’ decree that divorce should only be sought in cases of adultery. God’s commandment to love supersedes it.
Similarly, we in the LGBTQ+ community are commanded to love others as we love ourselves. Inherent in this commandment is the fundamental advice so frequently given by RuPaul, “how in the hell are you gonna love somebody if you can’t love yourself?” Even if the Bible did prohibit gay sex, God’s commandment to love what he created — ourselves — would supersede such a homophobic commandment.
Happy Pride everybody.
- This article will use the terms First and Second Testaments, the culturally sensitive way to refer to the commonly called Old and New Testaments. This is common in academia. A tale similar to the one of Sodom and Gomorrah is also told in Islam’s holy book, the Quran, though the cities are not mentioned by name (11:74–83 and 29:28–35).
- E. Day, Social Life of the Hebrews. (London, 1901), p. 170, quoted in Fields (see next note).
- Weston W. Fields. 1997. “Sodom and Gomorrah: History and Motif in Biblical Narrative.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. Supplement Series. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
- A short list, compiled by Fields: “Abraham’s servant (guest) welcomed by Rebekah (Gen. 24.10–59); Abimelech, his advisor, and his army commander (guests) given hospitality by Isaac (Gen. 26.30, 31); Joseph and his brothers (guests) in Egypt (Gen. 43); Moses in Midian (a guest who becomes a sojourner, Exod. 2.16–22); Boaz and Ruth (sojourner, Ruth 2, 3); David’s men (guests) with Nabal’s servants (1 Sam. 25.14–16, 21); the man of God from Judah (guest) and the old prophet (1 Kgs 13.18–22); Elijah (guest) and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17.7–24);, and Elisha (guest) and the Shunammite woman (2 Kgs 4.8–11)”
- Fields, pg. 56.
- Robert K. Gnuse, “Seven Gay Texts: Biblical Passages Used to Condemn Homosexuality.” Biblical Theology Bulletin: Journal of Bible and Culture, vol. 45, no. 2, 2015, pp. 68–87. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146107915577097.
- John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2015), pg. 97.
- Boswell, chapter 4.
- This orthodox view is supported Biblically by Hebrews 8:13, “in speaking of a new covenant, [Jesus] has made the first one obsolete,” and in Romans 10:4, where Paul writes, “for Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”
- Boswell would call this conflict a “profound trauma” for the early church, pg. 104.
- Gnuse, pg. 76.
- Boswell points out this was the interpretation given by later Jewish commentaries like those of Maimonides in 12th century Spain.
- Gnuse, pg. 77.
- Gnuse, pg. 79.
- Benjamin H. Dunning, ‘Same-Sex Relations’, in Benjamin H. Dunning (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of New Testament, Gender, and Sexuality, Oxford Handbooks (2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 4 Oct. 2019), pg. 577. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190213398.013.39.
- Boswell, pg. 107.
- Dunning, pg. 577.
- Gnuse, pg. 80.
- Gnuse, pg. 81.
- Boswell, pp. 108–109.
- For more on this viewpoint, see Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian (Convergent Books, 2015).
- See Merriam Webster’s Dictionary for “Homosexuality” and “Has ‘Homosexual’ Always Been in the Bible?” from United Methodist Insight.