This month Australia faces a postal survey on marriage law. The survey form asks the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” If the law was changed in this way, it would change the current meaning of the word “marriage”. In this context, a recent article in the local media claims that the Bible “never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly”. So what does the Bible say about same-sex marriage?
The term “same-sex marriage” or “marriage equality” is a modern term for “homosexual marriage” (a long-term homosexual relationship). What does the Bible say about homosexual relationships? We will look at the portion of the New Testament written to the church (Acts to Revelation) in the first century AD because the principles given in this part of the Bible are directly relevant to today. Homosexuality is mentioned specifically in three such passages and we will now look these in turn.
The book of Romans was written by Paul to the church in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire (v,7). After the introduction (v.1-15), the theme is given as God’s plan of salvation for humanity (v.16-17). This is the gospel (good news) about Jesus Christ and His resurrection “that brings salvation to everyone who believes”. Then Paul shows that everyone is a sinner in need of this salvation. He considers Gentiles who haven’t heard the gospel (1:18-32), self-righteous moralists (2:1-16), Jews (2:17 – 3:8) and then all humanity (3:9-20). He then shows how this salvation must be received by faith in what Christ has done (3:21 – 5:21).
The passage we are looking at describes Gentiles who reject God’s revelation:
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
The steps involved in understanding a passage in the Bible begin with finding the original meaning and then considering what has changed since that time before applying it to our situation today.
What did it mean in the 1st century AD?
Those who reject God’s revelation (which is available to everyone), are said to be ungodly and wicked, and they “suppress the truth” (v.18). As God reveals Himself in His creation these “people are without excuse” (v.20). The consequences of their choice to reject God’s revelation in creation are that they foolishly worship idols (instead of God) and behave wickedly (Rom. 1:18-23). Then Paul describes some of this behavior, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another (sexual immorality) … Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations (heterosexual marriage) for unnatural ones (homosexual sexual activity). In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women (heterosexual marriage) and were inflamed with lust for one another (homosexual sexual activity). Men committed shameful acts with other men (homosexual sexual activity), and received in themselves the due penalty for their error…. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:24-27, 32).
Losing a proper view of God (v. 23) leads to sexual immorality (v.24), including homosexuality (v.26-27). In particular, homosexual sexual activity is described as “shameful lusts”, “unnatural” and “shameful acts”. It’s an unnatural sexual activity because it’s an abnormal sexual activity. Natural (normal) sexual activity is in heterosexual marriage, which is fruitful (can produce new life). This was God’s order in creation (Adam and Eve were the first husband and wife). If Adam was homosexual, there would be no humanity!
This passage says that homosexual sexual activity (which was prevalent in the Roman Empire) was one of the characteristics of an ungodly lifestyle. The other characteristics of an ungodly lifestyle were idol worship (v.23, 25), other sexual immorality (v.24) and “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (v. 29-31). This list of sins identifies those who were not Christians.
God’s judgement for these people who reject His revelation is given in v.32 as eternal separation from God (spiritual “death”). What a sad outcome of going one’s own way. So rejecting God’s truth has eternal consequences. The only way for such people to avoid God’s judgment is to repent (stop this behavior) and turn to God.
So what did this passage mean in the 1st century AD? The characteristics of ungodly behavior are given and idolatry and homosexual sexual activity are condemned in particular. It meant that anyone who practiced idolatry was under God’s judgment. And anyone who practiced homosexual sexual activity was under God’s judgment. And the same applied to the behaviors listed in v.29-31. Everyone was condemned! All were sinners who deserved eternal punishment in hell. The only way to avoid this punishment was to accept the good news about Jesus.
So homosexual sexual activity was one of the characteristics of the flesh (sinful nature; Gal. 5:19-21). This means that the Bible condemned homosexual sexual activity in the 1st century AD. As there are no qualifications given, any and all homosexual sexual activity was condemned. They were all sinful.
How does it apply in the 21st century AD?
What has changed since the 1st century AD? The biblical principles for the church to follow (including those in Romans) haven’t changed. And people still reject God’s revelation in creation. So human rebellion against God hasn’t changed. And idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexual sexual activity, wickedness, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice and gossip, slander still occur. And people are still God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, promise-breakers, cruel, and ruthless. So human nature hasn’t changed. But history, society and technology have changed. Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all homosexual sexual activity is unnatural and against God’s order of creation.
What about same-sex attraction? This passage is addressing homosexual sexual behavior and not just homosexual attraction. There is a difference between being a practicing homosexual and having a homosexual tendency. It is the sexual practice that the Bible condemns, not the orientation. There are many who have an attraction to their own gender but refuse to give in to it. By the power of the Spirit, they have disciplined themselves to resist the temptation and to live in purity.
What about loving homosexual relationships? These are what’s being addressed in the marriage survey. If they include homosexual sexual activity (such as same-sex marriage), then they come under God’s condemnation.
Isn’t it outdated to say that gays are “shameful”? In some societies homosexuality is promoted as an “alternative lifestyle” that should be accepted in a spirit of tolerance. And there is “gay pride” and rainbow festivals celebrating cultural diversity. This is not in God’s order of things but is an indication of humanity’s rebellion against God and against His order in creation. In God’s sight such behavior is shameful, and not something to be proud of. The difference is that the Bible presents God’s viewpoint and the alternative views are those of sinful humanity. On the other hand, the Bible says that heterosexual marriage is honorable (Heb. 13:4).
What did the media article claim about this passage?
In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender. He claims this is a result of idolatry and uses it as part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God.
This is a wrong assumption and an attempt to narrow the application of this passage. The passage was written to all at the church at Rome and not just to those who were married heterosexually. It isn’t restricted to any one part of society and not another. Instead, according to this passage any and all homosexual sexual activity was unnatural and against God’s order of creation. This includes so called “same-sex marriage” and “marriage equality” if it includes homosexual sexual activity.
Where is the evidence that the passage is about “swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender”? There is none! This is pure speculation. It comes from the writer’s alleged context of “Even if married (to a woman) and often prior to marriage, a wealthy man might have a young male lover or male partner”.
It is typical of the strong “them and us” rhetoric of the ancient world, serving a larger argument and is not a statement on sexuality per se.
Who are the “them and us”? The passage isn’t comparing Gentiles against Jews or Christians, because this section of Romans is showing that all are sinners. It’s showing similarities, not differences. The larger argument is that all the Gentiles were sinners. This means that all the items listed (including homosexual sexual activity) were sinful.
If it’s not a statement on sexuality, and homosexual sexual activity (in a loving relationship) is deemed to be acceptable to God, then can aspects of the other items listed (such as: idolatry, sexual immorality, wickedness, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice) be acceptable lifestyles in God’s eyes as well? According to this line of argument, murder is acceptable sometimes!
As New Testament scholar Sean Winter summarizes: “Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation.”
If “loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation” include homosexual sexual activity, then they are included in the scope of this passage because that is the topic being addressed. According to this passage any and all homosexual sexual activity is unnatural and against God’s order of creation.
The statement that “Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity” is a very low view of scripture. This is God’s view, not just Paul’s! It’s not just his cultural bias.
It is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.
As shown above, Paul was addressing homosexual sexual activity. If “sexual orientation” implies homosexual sexual activity, then what Paul says applies to such sexual orientation. And if “a committed adult relationship” implies homosexual sexual activity, then what Paul says applies to such relationships.
1 Corinthians 6
This letter was written by Paul to the church at Corinth. It deals with problems in the church about Christian conduct. One of the problems was that they were cheating and wronging other Christians when they were trying to resolve disputes in court. Paul says that they were behaving like unbelievers and he lists some other behaviors that are under God’s judgment. The only way for such people to avoid God’s judgment is to repent (stop this behavior) and turn to God (v.11).
“Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or 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” (1 Cor. 6:8-10).
What did it mean in the 1st century AD?
This list of sins identifies those who were not Christians. People who practice any of these (and similar) sins are not true Christians. Paul says, “do not be deceived” because the sexually immoral love to deceive others about their sexual immorality, idolaters about their idolatry, adulterers about their adultery, homosexuals about their homosexuality, thieves about their theft, the greedy about their greed, drunkards about their drunkenness, slanderers about their slander, and swindlers about their swindling.
In this passage, “men who have sex with men” is a translation of two Greek words “malkos” (Strongs #3120) and “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733). The NET translation notes for these words are given in the Appendix.
The Greek word “malkos” (Strongs #3120) means “soft or effeminate” (Strongs concordance). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means “soft, soft to touch or metaphorically, and in a bad sense: effeminate, of a catamite (a boy kept for homosexual practices) or a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness”. This word occurs four times in the New Testament (Mt. 11:8 (twice); Lk. 7:25; 1 Cor. 6:9).
The Greek word “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733) means “a male engaging in same-gender sexual activity” (Strongs concordance). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means “a male who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite”. This word occurs twice in the New Testament (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).
These words are translated in 1 Cor. 6:9 as follows:
NIV: “men who have sex with men” (Comment: the translation of two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts).
ESV: “men who practice homosexuality” (Comment: The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts).
HCSB: “anyone practicing homosexuality” (Comment: literally “passive homosexual partners, active homosexual partners”).
NET: “passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals” (Comment: see translation notes in the Appendix).
This means any and all male homosexual sexual activity is sinful and bars one from the kingdom of God. There are no qualifications.
How does it apply in the 21st century AD?
The other behaviors listed in this passage can still occur today; wrongdoing, sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindling. So human nature hasn’t changed. But history, society and technology have changed. Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all male homosexual sexual activity is sinful and its practice bars one from the kingdom of God. Ongoing male homosexual sexual activity is one of the characteristics of unbelievers.
What did the media article claim about this passage?
Paul is using a standard list of vices here to make a wider rhetorical point.
The main point of this passage is that the Corinthians should stop behaving like unbelievers. This list of sins (wrongdoing, sexually immorality, idolatry, adultery, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindling) identifies those who were not Christians. As each of these is a sin in God’s eyes, then homosexual sexual activity is also a sin in God’s eyes.
Where some English translations might include “homosexuality” on this list, the translation is not that simple, which is why various English words are used (adulterer, immoral persons, prostitutes).
The ESV, HCSB and NET translations use the words “homosexuality” and “homosexual” and the NIV says “men who have sex with men”, which is equivalent. See the Appendix for detailed translation notes. In this context, the two Greek word seem to mean “the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”.
The Greek word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 means “soft” or “effeminate” and captures the Graeco-Roman distaste at a man taking a “female” role. In the Bible it is commonly used to describe fancy clothing, and outside the Bible was a term for cult prostitutes.
See the Appendix for detailed translation notes. In this context, the Greek word seems to mean “the passive partner in consensual homosexual acts”.
The word arsenokoites is rarer. Scholars have debated whether it refers to male prostitution or pederasty or something else. To translate it as “homosexual” is problematic for two reasons: it is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.
See the Appendix for detailed translation notes. In this context, the Greek word seems to mean “the active partner in consensual homosexual acts”. Paul’s treatment is so general that it includes “sexual orientation” and “a committed adult relationship”.
1 Timothy 1
This letter was written by Paul to Timothy to instruct him about the care of the church at Ephesus, including to oppose false teachers of legalism and Gnosticism. Some of the false teachers were teaching about the law, but they didn’t know what they were talking about (v.7). Paul then explains that the purpose of the law is to reveal people’s sin and to produce conviction of sin. The passage we are looking at has a list of sins that keep people from God.
“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the 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 the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which He entrusted to me” (1 Tim. 1:8-11).
What did it mean in the 1st century AD?
This list of sins identifies ungodly behavior. It includes: those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the sexually immoral, those practicing homosexuality, slave traders, liars, and perjurers (lying under oath).
The Greek word translated “those practicing homosexuality” is “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733), which means “a male engaging in same-gender sexual activity” (Strongs concordance). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means “a male who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite”. So it means homosexual sexual activity. This word occurs twice in the New Testament (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).
The fact that “arsenokoites” is included in the same list as murder means that in God’s sight homosexual sexual activity is a serious sin. This was how it was to be viewed by the early church.
How does it apply in the 21st century AD?
The other behaviors listed in this passage can still occur today; murderer, sexual immorality, slave trading, and lying. So human nature hasn’t changed. But history, society and technology have changed.
Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all male homosexual sexual activity is sinful.
We may think that we are going well because we aren’t involved in homosexual sexual activity. And we may condemn the sinful behavior of others. But often we can’t see our own sin. We neglect what is sinful in our lives. Paul told the self-righteous, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same (kind of) things” (Rom. 2:1). It’s easy to be a hypocrite.
Paul also challenged the Jews about hypocrisy, “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law (Rom. 2:21-23)?
Likewise, do we lapse into idolatry (anything that replaces God), greed, deceit, gossiping, and lying? These are all listed alongside homosexuality in the passages we have looked at (Rom. 1:22-31; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). The Bible says that people who practice any of these (and similar) sins are not true Christians. The solution is to confess our failures and repent (change behavior) and turn to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). So let’s always try to honor God and follow His will, be content and generous, and be honest,
How should we deal with instances of homosexual sexual activity? We can look at how Jesus responded to adultery and how Paul responded to incest (Jn. 8:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). Jesus didn’t condemn or pardon the adulteress, but He told her to “leave your life of sin” (Jn.8:11). And Paul said that ongoing sexual immorality amongst church members, including homosexual sexual activity, is to be judged by excommunication (1 Cor. 5:9-11). If the offender is sorry and repentant of such a serious sin, they should be lovingly restored to church fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11). This means that Christians should not tolerate homosexual sexual activity or same-sex marriage amongst church members.
Also, Paul says that Christians are not to judge the sins of unbelievers because God will judge them at the great white throne (1 Cor. 5:12-13; Rev. 21:11-15). This means that Christians should tolerate homosexual sexual activity and same-sex marriage (if it is legalized) amongst people who aren’t church members.
Note that although textural scholars believe that John 8:1-11 wasn’t included in the original biblical text (autograph), it’s probably an accurate saying of Jesus Christ.
We have seen that the statement that the Bible “never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly” is untrue and deceptive. It is true that the Bible doesn’t specifically address “same-sex marriage”. But it does condemn homosexual sexual activity, which is a broader subject than same-sex marriage. Therefore, by simple logic, same-sex marriage is condemned as a lifestyle for the New Testament church. Likewise, same-sex marriage is condemned as a lifestyle for the church today.
Appendix: Translation notes, NET Bible
- “malkos” (Strongs #3120)
This term is sometimes rendered “effeminate,” although in contemporary English usage such a translation could be taken to refer to demeanor rather than behavior. BDAG 613 s.v. μαλακός 2 has “pert. to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate esp. of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship.” L&N 88.281 states, “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’ …As in Greek, a number of other languages also have entirely distinct terms for the active and passive roles in homosexual intercourse.” See also the discussion in G. D. Fee, First Corinthians (NICNT), 243-44. Many modern translations have adopted the phrase “male prostitutes” for μαλακοί in 1 Cor. 6:9 (NRSV, NLT) but this could be misunderstood by the modern reader to mean “males who sell their services to women,” while the term in question appears, at least in context, to relate to homosexual activity between males. Furthermore, it is far from certain that prostitution as commonly understood (the selling of sexual favors) is specified here, as opposed to a consensual relationship. Thus the translation “passive homosexual partners” has been used here.
- “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733)
On this term BDAG 135 s.v. ἀρσενοκοίτης states, “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor. 6:9…of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. μαλακός…1 Tim, 1:10; Pol 5:3. Cp. Rom. 1:27.” L&N 88.280 states, “a male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’…It is possible that ἀρσενοκοίτης in certain contexts refers to the active male partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with μαλακός, the passive male partner.” Since there is a distinction in contemporary usage between sexual orientation and actual behavior, the qualification “practicing” was supplied in the translation, following the emphasis in BDAG.
Written, September 2017
Also see: Jesus and marriage
Gender and marriage