In this series of blogs, we’re examining theology that impacts transgender people. Traditionalist interpretations typically forbid any gender identity that is different from person’s sexual organs at birth, or whatever is on their birth certificate. I don’t see much biblical support for this viewpoint.

For those whose internal sense of gender is out of line with their pysical appearance at birth, or for those who have a sense of gender that is somewhere in between male and female, traditionalist theology demands they live as the gender of their sexual organs and not what their brain is telling them. Trans people are often told that this is the only way to be in harmony with God’s will.

In the last blog we looked at Genesis 1:27, which is the seminal verse used by traditionalist theologians to refute trans and non-binary lives. For those for whom the entire subject might be new, I also wrote an introductory blog about trans lives. In this post we’ll look at a couple other verses and the accompanying reasoning used to support traditional, non-affirming theology.

But God Doesn’t Make Mistakes

Sometimes Psalm 139:13-14 is quoted, as it is in the document from the General Conference of SDAs Executive committee, and in the Biblical Research Institute’s statement from the Ethics Committee:

For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

Transgender people are often told that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” This means for the person speaking that are the gender of their anatomy. But it doesn’t take long to realize that there are lots of ways in which humans are born that are not typical. This may mean they are in need of medical intervention, or may simply be a matter of human variation.

No one would bat an eye at removing an extra finger or toe. No one would say in such a situation that “God doesn’t make mistakes.” Sometimes babies are born with cancer, did God knit that cancer into their bodies when they were in the womb? Of course not!

This does not mean that being transgender should be equated to a birth defect or cancer, because it most certainly is nothing of the sort. It’s simply to point out the inconsistency in saying “God doesn’t make mistakes” as an argument that anatomy is supreme, never to be altered, and always the best indication of who we are. That is manifestly false.

When the psalmist wrote Psalm 139, anatomy was not in mind at all. Psalm 139 is a poem about God’s intimate knowledge and guiding of the psalmist’s life. It’s not about the relationship between biology and psychology. The actual message of the psalmist is not negated by someone being transgender or non-binary.

There is the other rather obvious challenge to this view. Some people are born intersex, with some degree of both male and female sexual organs or DNA. The reality of human biology is not compatible with the teaching that God creates only male and female, doesn’t make mistakes (meaning that God doesn’t deviate from this typical pattern), and that the binary distinction of gender are ever-present.

If God’s will for someone’s gender is expressed clearly in their sexual organs, what is God’s will for intersex people? Sometimes, in their misplaced discomfort with anyone who isn’t typical, doctors have surgically altered newborn intersex babies to make them more typically male or more typically female. This has been disastrous for intersex people whose lives and sense of gender often don’t align with the doctor’s hasty decision.

Sometimes people are unwilling to test their particular theology or ideology against the physical world around us, the world God has given us. This is one such example. Only a steadfast refusal to engage with the implications of the truth of God’s creation as we know it can allow a traditionalist understanding to be maintained on this point.

Even though it might make cisgender people uncomfortable, sex organs don’t always fit the binary. And if sexual organs can refuse to fit the binary, why can’t the central nervous system also refuse to fit the binary? Of course it can and does.

Seeing Trans People as God Sees All People

I’m disturbed at how quickly theologians claim to know the will of God, based on so little scripture and with so little understanding of the lives of trans and intersex people.

I’m disturbed by how easy it is to judge intersex and transgender people.

I’m disturbed by how quickly religious people sometimes make decisions about what is best for others without paying attention to medical consensus, the reality of God’s creation, scripture itself, and the wisdom and insight of trans and intersex people.

I’m disturbed that making these judgments come so easily even though they result in severe danger to transgender lives.

Why these hasty decisions? Why this focus on exterior anatomy? Why this cavalier disregard for the psychological impact of our judgments?

And here’s a question you may not have considered, when talking about this issue, why do traditionalists always assume that God will change a person’s mind to match their anatomy? Why not the other way around?

The Bible gives us an answer to this question. It’s because people tend to focus on what they can understand themselves. They tend to focus on what they can see. We prefer to make judgement based on outward appearance, on what we can confirm. Human understanding hates trusting in what we may not see or understand. What do we understand? Externals.

But is this the way that God sees us? 1 Samuel 16:7 says,

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So why are cisgender people so confident to say they understand the will of God for transgender people despite the fact that nowhere in scripture is gender defined in terms of sexual organs? Is it possible that, as this verse suggests, this preference for exterior organs that we can understand over another person’s mind that we do not understand is only an expression our fallen nature? Is it our sin that leads us to focus on outward appearances and does not see the heart? Could it be that we have labeled trans people as sinners when we are the sinners?

God Made Us to Be Whole

What the Bible does teach is that we should be whole. The concept of wholeness is used by traditionalists to argue that transgender people should live as the gender of their sexual organs.

Is that a logical interpretations of scripture’s call to be whole? Here’s the statement made by the Executive Committee of the General Conference of SDAs:

From a biblical perspective, the human being is a psychosomatic unity. For example, Scripture repeatedly calls the entire human being a soul (Gen 2:7; Jer 13:17; 52:28-30; Ezek 18:4; Acts 2:41; 1 Cor 15:45), a body (Eph 5:28; Rom 12:1-2; Rev 18:13), flesh (1 Pet 1:24), and spirit (2 Tim 4:22; 1 John 4:1-3). Thus, the Bible does not endorse dualism in the sense of a separation between one’s body and one’s sense of sexuality.

This statement is problematic because it does not confirm, but ignores the “psychosomatic unity” of transgender people. It says that you can be whole by ignoring your own brain and what it is telling you about your gender, or it assumes despite no evidence or scripture to support them, that God will change a person’s brain. This reasoning works by preserving appearances over internal lives. It demands people to present themselves in a way that is consistent with their appearance without regard to their psychology, and paradoxically calls this wholeness.

Is this not a common problem in the church? Who of us has not had the frustrating experience of people wanting us to keep quiet about our ideas, our choices, or our values when they conflict with expectations? Being whole does not mean presenting an exterior appearance that is not a challenge to anyone. True wholeness is being genuine. It’s authenticity. It’s integrity. How I wish we would learn this lesson!

Wholeness is when what shows up on the outside is a true expression of the inside. It’s not the appearance of wholeness in the judgement of those who affirm only what they understand. Such a preoccupation with the exterior is in fact brokenness, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. Wholeness is not the person who makes big public gestures that make people admire them, it’s the person who is true and honest with God who sees the heart (Matthew 6:1-6).

So if transgender people threaten the external appearance too many are focused on, they are not expressing brokenness, but a level of integrity that is extreme. They are willing to defy social expectation for the sake of wholeness.

We who are cisgender must learn to stop focusing on outward appearance and be more like God, who sees the heart.

Instead of trying to make trans people change to be cisgender like us, we should appreciate them for who they are. When we do, we learn from them. We learn how to live with integrity, how to be brave, and how to be whole. Trans people can and should be fully embraced members of our communities. They can build up the church, enrich us, and teach us. They can be a corrective for our fallen tendency to focus on appearance and devalue integrity.

How like fallen humanity is it to vilify those who are most vulnerable in society? How like God is it to use those who are despised and rejected by man (Isaiah 53:3)? If we are not careful, we will fail to see Christ in transgender people. Such is the nature of our obsession with appearance.

In my faith tradition, which teaches that the Sabbath is on the seventh day of the week (Saturday) and that it was never changed to Sunday, it’s popular for evangelists to offer huge amounts of money to people if they can find the verse that says it was changed. The same challenge could be offered to find the verse that condemns transgender identities. It’s not there.

Once I was really open to asking the question, coming to affirm transgender and non-binary identities was easy. There isn’t any condemnation of trans people in the Bible. Yes. You read that right. There is no condemnation of trans people in the Bible.

There are a lot of misinformation or partial information about trans people in traditionalist settings, and I’ve written about those here. If this topic is new for you, or if you’ve only heard it from one side, you really should read it.

Today I want to talk about the main text of scripture that is offered as the reason trans people should be discouraged from affirming their gender when it differs from their exterior appearance, particularly sexual organs. There are a couple other minor texts to be addressed, but the lion’s share of the argument rests on one verse alone.

“God Created Them Male and Female”

The Biblical Research Institute (the official theological branch of the Seventh-day Adventist church) said that “in scripture, our gender identity is, to a significant extent, determined by our birth sex with God being the author of gender identity.” But does the Bible say this?

They provide Genesis 1:27 and a couple verses that quote Genesis 1:27 (Gen 5:1-2; Mark 10:6) as evidence, but where does this text teach “our gender identity is… determined by our birth sex”? Particularly since by “birth sex” they generally mean sexual organs? I don’t see anything at all about anatomy. Here’s the verse:

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

On these three lines rests nearly all non-trans-affirming theology. Yet this verse simply does not say what they say it does. They are looking for a passage to prove that gender is determined by the way a person’s exterior presents their gender, but this verse says literally nothing about that subject.

God created gender. Yes. Gender exists. But just because gender exists doesn’t mean it exists in a binary way. How might gender be expressed? What do we do when someone’s brain is at odds with their reproductive organs? What should we do when someone’s brain is telling them they are a different gender than what can be perceived on their exterior? What do we do when people are intersex? It certainly doesn’t offer clarity on these kinds of questions.

Deconstructing Gender

Sometimes trans affirmation is interpreted as a war on gender, or a denial of gender, and therefore out of harmony with this verse in which God created gender. But trans people are not destroying gender.

What transgender and gender non-binary people are doing as a way of exploring life as they live it is looking at gender in a ways that explore innate and culturally constructed understandings of gender. In my experience, trans and gender non-conforming people think with more depth and insight about gender than anyone else. They aren’t erasing it. They are delving into the meaning of gender for themselves and society.

In fact, if anyone confirms the innate nature of gender it’s trans people. They experience a deep innate sense of gender that goes against every experience of socialization they have. Because their exterior often presents as a different gender than their innate sense of gender, they are treated as boys their whole lives, for example, but gender is so innate psychologically that they still know themselves to be girls. Trans people don’t destroy gender, they testify to it. If gender is innate even for them, it must be for cisgender people as well.

Getting back to the text, trans people don’t deny the creation of male and female, not by any means. I see in them a beautiful expression of God’s good creation of gender.

Plain Meaning

If there is a more sophisticated way of understanding this text, I’m open to it, but I haven’t heard it yet. What I do hear from non-affirming people is that this text is clear in condemning trans and non-binary people, but it is not. The plain meaning is simply that men and women are both expressions of the nature of God. That’s what it says. Men and women. Both in God’s image. Simple.

I’ve always loved Genesis 1:27. Despite the history of Christianity, and it’s persistent struggles with misogyny, this verse unequivocally states that the image of God is not reserved only for men. It speaks to me of the power of scripture to challenge injustice, even in this most ancient text. What a beautiful testimony to inspiration.

The interpretation of this text that it means that gender must match genitalia only makes sense if you begin with that understanding of gender and read it into the text. It does not say that gender is based on genitalia. It does not say that minority gender presentations are an affront to God or to creation. It does not require people to live as the gender society perceives them as. It gives no advice or indication of what to do when the brain is out of odds with the sexual organs. Nor does it give advice on what to do when a person is intersex, presenting physiology that is neither distinctly male or female, and living the biological reality that not all people are created male and female in the sense of either/or, some are male and female in the sense of both/and.

People use this text to say other must be completely male or completely female. When some people don’t present that way, either because they are transgender or intersex, they want to force people into those boxes no matter what the consequences. But such a reading is imposed on the text. As we shall see, there are good reasons to see that this text itself illuminates the beauty of transgender identity.

God’s Gender

Here’s another part of Genesis 1:27 that is so simple yet easy to miss. If we, as male and female, are created in God’s image, what does that say about the gender of God?

God is both male and female. Not male one day and female the next, but always and eternally composing all it is to be male and all it is to be female.

Being more like God certainly does not require a harsh gender binary. Quite the opposite. Sin goes against the character of God and is not in harmony with it. To do something evil means to do something that is in violation of the character and nature of God. But God’s gender is neither male nor female, but both.

So how could a transgender or non-binary gender identity be out of step with God’s character? Why would we want to force non-binary or transgender people into an unbending standard that is out of harmony with the way God describes themselves?

There are people in the world who experience gender in non-binary ways, and those people can teach us something about the nature of God. We should not exclude them or force them to try and fit the mold of our own understanding. Such an attempt is out of harmony with Genesis 1:27 and not an affirmation of it.

Many people in the LGBT community celebrate such expressions. I’ve been taught by genderqueer people how to acknowledge and embrace my own more masculine characteristics that I never was able to change anyways. I’ve learned from my transgender friends how destructive it can be to deny this diversity, and how beautiful and life-affirming it is to celebrate gender diversity.

Hebrew Merism

The Hebrew language also offers a clue for why this texts should not be understood as describing gender in terms of a binary. Hebrew thinking and language in fact precludes such an understanding. Binary and dualistic thinking is a product of Greek thought, not Hebrew thought.

Genesis 1:27 could be a Hebrew merism, a statement which “combines two words to express a single idea; it expresses ‘totality’ by combining two contrasts or two extremes.” This definition is from an article published by the Biblical Research Institute, a conservative, Seventh-day Adventist theological entity.

An example of merism is saying “heavens and earth” to express all of creation, including the sun and moon which were understood to be between the heavens and earth. Another example is describing all of the Hebrew scriptures as the “Law” and the “Prophets,” when in fact they also include a third section described as the “Writings.” The intention is not to exclude the Writings, but to include them.

Is the statement “male and female” a merism? Maybe, maybe not, but to say the the verse is clearly and definitively a prohibition against anything but a strict binary in which all of humanity must fit fully on either one side or the other is to violate the way the Hebrew language functions. Such an interpretation cannot be supported by the text.

By now I hope you see that the primary text used to limit the treatment options of transgender people, to force them to live as if they were cisgender, simply does not hold up to scrutiny. There are a couple other texts to examine, but this is the main text offered as a clear statement against transgender people.

All transgender people want is the freedom to make their own decisions about how to best handle the difficult decisions they face. What they need from us is support for the lives they choose to live. What they can teach us about God and gender is profound. We need to extend the basic dignity of allowing them to define themselves, to choose their pronouns, and to choose their treatment options.

My wish for the church is that cisgender people would have more humility, more compassion, and more clear thinking on the reality of the biblical text and its teachings.

In the next blog, I look at a couple other texts used to condemn trans and non-binary identities and discuss the argument that a trans identity implies that God messed up: With Transgender People, God Doesn’t Make Mistakes, but We Do

I was so encouraged to get this message for a pastor friend of mine recently. He recently reached out with such an open heart and mind, that I wanted to share his questions and my responses. He actually asked a couple other questions as well, and I’ll be mentioning one of those later. I know he’s probably not the only one who’s asking, so that’s why I made it a post. His statements were framed in grace and understanding. I edited for brevity.

How big of a role does experience play in your journey, vs hermeneutics and solid biblical data? Now, just to clarify, I have not been keeping up with your blog, so I’m not implying you don’t have hard hermeneutical data (in fact, it seems that you do have at least some), I’m just asking, from your view, is your journey mostly founded on experience or hermeneutics? I also don’t want to bash experience, as we all have those mystical experiences in Christianity, separate from our intellectually religious pursuits. But I ask because anyone can say they had an experience or a feeling or an impulse, but most critics will care more about the data (scientifically modern people as Adventists tend to be these days).

The short answer is “yes!” I wouldn’t ever have come to the view I did if scripture didn’t allow for theology that affirms LGBT sexuality and gender with a solid, conservative hermeneutic. I don’t think experience would ever have been enough for me in the absence of good biblical “data,” as you say. I was utterly unwilling to go against scripture in favor of my experience. I’m also not sure I would have asked the question as seriously as I did without experience of the reality of non-affirming theology.

I used the hermentutics (the way of interpreting scripture) taught to me at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. I applied the approaches I was taught to test affirming theology, test non-affirming theology, and examine the text for myself. Non-affirming theology fails the test. Affirming theology makes all of scripture make sense, not only the texts applied to LGBTQ people, but the major themes and promises of scripture as well.

In looking at the texts that are usually seen as prohibitions (Gen 19:1-5, Lev 18:22; 20:12, Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Tim 1:9-10), if you focus on the author’s intent it’s not hard to see what they authors themselves had in mind. Applying these texts in ways that are out of harmony with the author’s intent is not sound hermenutics. That’s what non-affirming theology does.

Non-affirming theology also relies on the argument from absence. This argument says that since there are no same-sex relationships or alternate gender identities in scripture they are sinful now. But just because something didn’t happen then doesn’t mean it’s prohibited now.

These are the basic arguments that non-affirming theology are built on, and I don’t believe them to be hermeneuticly sound. In fact, according to what I was taught in my conservative seminary, they are not sound principles.

When I think about the way I thought before this theological shift, my biggest regret is that I relied too much on my social context, a type of experience. Everyone around me seemed in agreement that same-sex relationships are wrong and scripture was clear. Even those who weren’t didn’t speak publicly about their disagreement.

My conclusions at the time did not come from hermeneutics. I never had studied it carefully and prayerfully, because my social context was uniform in this belief. I didn’t realize this until later, but the signs were all there.

Unfortunately, my social context came from an organization that doesn’t base its theology on hermeneutics, at least not in this instance. It has never once in its history made a serious biblical inquiry on the topic, neither have most non-affirming theological organizations. Non-affirming theology has been assumed and scholars have worked to support it.

This is clear from the fact that each time they gather in the Adventist denomination to discuss theology as related to LGBTQ people they begin by saying they already agree on non-affirming theology. You cannot be a professor at the Adventist seminary or a scholar at the Biblical Research Institute if you dissent from the accepted position.

So how can you accept a position as scriptural without ever undertaking to study it with integrity and objectivity? Not based on hermenutics and scripture.

So my shift towards affirming theology is a shift towards greater integrity in my interpretation of scripture. It’s away from a purely experiential perspective towards one that relies on sound hermeneutics.

My ability to move forward on this issue also came from my Adventism and the values of progressive revelation, justice, and reliance on scripture rather than creeds or tradition. In order to move forward, we need only reconnect with these core Adventist values. We need to again think of ourselves as a movement and not an organization.

I could see how someone could read this particular post on hermeneutics and think I’m not using a conservative hermenutic.

I add a caveat. When our theology seems to be causing harm, or when a minority group claims it is harming them, we should be willing to re-examine our theology.

I’m not advocating changing theology to match what we think is compassionate. I’m advocating a humble approach and a willingness to seriously re-examine scripture with integrity and an open heart and mind.

Scripture itself teaches us that we should pay attention to the fruits of our theology and care about the lives of others (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 7:12, 16, 23:4; Luke 6:31, 11:46). Scripture also makes promises about the results of following Jesus (Matthew 7:9-11; Galatians 5:22-23; Philippians 4:7).

Good theology produces good fruit.

In that sense, I’m not sure hermeneutics and experience are ever supposed to be divided. One is the study of inspired words, the other is the study of God’s creation. If we understand correctly, they will be in complete harmony.

I don’t see the authors of scripture burying themselves in the text and failing to look at the world around them, and neither should we.

Neither do I see them using scripture to make excuses for doing whatever they want, and neither should we.

The Bible is not a closed book, and our understanding never arrives at perfection. We need to be more humble and keep searching, praying, and learning until we get it right.

My heart beating and my hands shaking, I read Romans 1:24-27. Aware that I am attracted to other women, knowing that my commitment to the authority of scripture meant I wouldn’t be willing to shrug or explain these verses away, I was afraid of what they meant for my life, and what they said about me as a person.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because 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 up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Do these words apply to me? I’m in love with a woman, does that mean I’m experiencing shameful, unnatural attraction? Has God me up to the “lusts of [my] heart to impurity”? And if I ever were to follow my inclinations and have a romantic relationship with a woman, no matter how committed and caring I am, would this relationships be shameful, unnatural, and would I receive in myself some type of “due penalty for [my] error?

Many believe these words are the most damning in scripture for those who would dare affirm LGBT sexuality. For many, though it’s easy to see how the other passages of scripture are unrelated to love between people of the same gender, Romans 1:24-27 is the exception.

My conclusions are different. After much prayer and study, I found the good news in these verses. I believe it has nothing to do with loving and romantic care between people of the same gender, but that they still have an important word to speak to all of us—gay straight, and bisexual alike.

It’s About Consumption Not Care

Let’s start with verse 24, because that is the verse that first introduces the conversation about sexual acts:

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.

Too often Romans 1:24-27 is read backwards, with the same-sex acts mentioned at the very end in verse 27 read into verses 24 to 26, but that’s the wrong way to read. The first introduction is that lust and impurity with groups of people who are dishonoring their bodies not with private intimacy between two, but “among themselves.”

Paul is talking here about the same thing he addressed later in the same book. Romans 13:13 says, “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

Paul is writing to Rome. In this passage he is specifically speaking about Gentiles to a Jewish audience living in Rome. So he was speaking about Romans. We know that wealthy Romans sometimes had orgies, often involving slaves and inferiors. This behavior is referenced in scripture and there are extrabiblical accounts as well. Read Browson’s Bible, Gender, Sexuality for more information. These men would have had wives waiting at home with no say in the matter while they indulged in orgies.

This is Paul’s introduction to the topic and should not be separated from the continuing discussion in verses 26-27 which only expand on verse 24.

To say that these married Romans were a group of gay men would be to read into the text in the service of a point that one is seeking to make, but not the point Paul was making. To say that these relationships between people of the same gender involved fidelity and care is unfaithful to the text. The wives would certainly disagree.

It’s a Result of Idolatry

Perhaps the first part of this passage I noticed did not apply to me at all was when it spoke of this same-sex eroticism as being the result of idolatry. After describing idolaters who abandoned their creator for images and objects of created things, they “therefore” were given up to “lust of their hearts and impurity” (vs. 24).

Just in case that word “therefore” isn’t convincing enough. Paul made it explicitly clear in verse 25, stating that this is happening “because” of their exchanging worship of God for worship of images. He then returns to further explain the nature of the sexual sin in verses 26-27.

I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I certainly hadn’t abandoned worship of God. I was at seminary pursuing full-time ministry as a vocation. I wanted to be faithful to God, serve God and my church in ministry, I was fully committed to serving God and my church for the rest of my life, whether or not I was offered a job to do so.

What was I doing wrong? Why was I experiencing something that was the result of idolatry?

Maybe it hadn’t. Maybe my sexual orientation is something different. Surely what was happening to me didn’t fit what Paul was describing as a continued falling away from God that began with idolatry. If the first part didn’t fit, maybe this part didn’t fit either.

The Theme of the Passage is About Objectification

Stepping back and looking at the big picture of this passage made it make more sense. Paul does make this context clear.

  1. Worship of God is replaced with images; their fidelity to God is replaced by objects that look like created things.

  2. Honorable sexual relationships were replaced with dishonorable; their fidelity to their spouses also broke down and was replaced by sexual objectification of others.

  3. Righteous treatment of others was replaced by exploitation, malice, hate, and harm; their fidelity to humanity in general broke down.

I’ve written an in-depth explanation of how this works in the context of the passage if you would like to understand it better.

Same-sex sex is an especially useful example in this case precisely because in their society it never happened in the context of love and fidelity. There was always some level of exploitation whether it was sexual assault, pederasty, or orgies as in this case.

Same-sex sexuality wouldn’t serve as such a good example if Paul were writing today and not 2,000 years ago, because two men or two women who are married, share a mortgage, and raise children would be completely out of place in this passage.

For those who object, saying that what’s important is that Paul says “men committing shameless acts with men” is speaking not to context but to the specific acts, I have two things to consider.

First, we don’t treat all of Paul’s writings that way. When he says in 1 Corinthians 11:6 “it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head,” we certainly don’t take this as a commandment or a matter of church discipline. It’s the context of their day that men have short hair and women long hair, and violation of this cultural standard is shameful.

Second, this verse does occur in a context. Paul is talking about specific people who go from idolatry to sexual consumption to generally consuming other human being in their hateful and selfish conduct.

Same-sex eroticism only and always occurs in such contexts in scripture. Perhaps there is a reason for that. Maybe that’s the only context the biblical writers ever considered? We certainly have no evidence otherwise.

Vocabulary of Unbridled Lust

In his description of the behavior of the Romans, Paul scours the dictionary for every word he can use to describe their behavior in terms of consuming and exclusive lust, often stacking them on top of each other for emphasis.

In the course of three verses (24,26-27) Paul uses the words epithumia, pathe, exekauthesan, and orexei, all synonyms for lust. Some of these words individually are used elsewhere in the context of marriage, but taken together, with no context or indication of care and love, Paul has something else entirely in mind.

He is emphatically communicating his point. This isn’t the healthy sexual appetite in the context of care and fidelity, but lust, passion, desire, and craving unbridled and immoderate.

No Meaning for Same-Sex Couples

So what makes people willing to apply a verse about orgies in the context of idolatry, adultery, and objectification to same-sex couples? Same-sex couples do not belong in this passage. They wouldn’t fit. That much should be obvious.

One reason is probably that people are looking for a direct answer from scripture to their question about whether same-sex relationships are wrong. I understand that desire. But we shouldn’t try to force scripture to answer directly questions it never asked directly. When we are asking a question that was never asked in the Bible, we shouldn’t expect a direct answer.

Paul answered the questions of the churches in Rome in the 1st century. Not the questions in Ireland in the 5th century. Not the questions in China in the 14th century. Not the questions in modern Western cultures in the 21st century.

Some things are timeless. There are basic questions about love, the worship of God, and the treatment of others that are asked by all people at all times. The questions about sexual orientation do not fall in this category, and there are many other questions in our modern society that aren’t answered directly in scripture.

God must trust us to apply his principles. God must expect us to do the same thing Jesus did in Matthew 5-7 and understand the heart of God’s word and how it applies in our lives.

The other reason this passage is often applied to LGBT people is less innocent. The reason someone who does understand the context would think this passage is appropriate to same-sex couples is if they believe such relationships are inherently selfish and characterized by uncontrolled lust, objectification, and the breakdown of basic fidelity.

In other words, they believe LGBT people are inherently inferior and that when we make loving commitments to each other we aren’t motivated by love and care like those who make commitments to people of the opposite gender. They think we belong in Romans 1 with idolaters, people consumed by lust, hateful, arrogant, and foolish people who despise righteousness.

When you encounter such interpretations, you can be sure the willingness to apply these texts to people like myself are not based on a careful reading of scripture. Sometimes what’s really happening is a misunderstanding of who LGBT people are. It’s a misunderstanding of the type that once landed same-sex couples in prison in America for expressing affection (and still does in many countries), that leads to accusations of LGBT people being pedophiles for no reason but their orientation, and that fosters disgust, hate, and sometimes violence against sexual minorities. This understanding has no place in the heart of a Jesus follower.

Beloved LGBT readers, when you find in yourself love that is holy and good, the desire to give to another person all the beautiful ideals given to us in 1 Corinthians 13, and the desire to unite yourself with another human in such love, I hope you can see that your love is not what is being described by Paul. I hope you can learn to embrace the queer and beautiful love you have been given by God. I hope you can embrace the truth that is in Jesus, that love is worth sacrifice.

Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, who describes herself as having been lesbian until converting to Christianity, had this to say: “Romans 1, especially verses 24-28, contains the most frightening lines in Scripture to anyone struggling in sexual sin.”

Many who teach that same-sex relationship are sinful believe that in Romans 1 they have found the smoking gun. Consider this statement by Robert Gagnon in The Bible and Homosexual Practice:

“With good reason, Rom 1:24-27 is commonly seen as the central test for the issue of homosexual conduct on which Christians must base their moral doctrine. This is true for several reasons. It is the most substantial and explicit discussion of the issue in the Bible. It is located in the New Testament. It makes an explicit statement not only about same sex intercourse among men but also about lesbianism. And it occurs within a substantial corpus of material from a single writer, which allows the interpreter to properly contextualize the writer’s stance on homosexuality” (p. 229).

I’ve had my own struggles with this passage of scripture, sometimes related to fear. Reading scriptures with openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit is the least talked about and most difficult part of discerning the will of God as expressed by any particular text. I’ve had to struggle through fear and defensiveness. Often, I wanted to believe Romans 1 does condemn same-sex relationships so that I wouldn’t lose everything I had as a pastor and respected part of the Seventh-day Adventist community. The reasons for fear are varied and personal.

Ultimately, Butterfield offers advice in a different part of her book that is probably more helpful. “When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack onto it.”

Let us approach with passage with trust and not fear, curiosity and not defensiveness, humility and not self-righteousness. We just might learn something.

Because there is far too much for one blog post, I’m going to tackle this passage in three posts.

  1. Interpretations that are non-affirming of same-sex relationships

  2. Interpretations that are affirming

  3. The relevance to our lives today and what Paul might say if he were here

First Look at Romans 1:18-32

The first thing most people do, myself included, is to simply read the passage. I recommend that you take a couple minutes to do so now. Romans 1:18-32.

The most important section for our discussion is verses 26-27:

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

First, I want to recognize that simplicity of this passage. Taken on face value, it is describing sexual encounters between people of the same gender, and it is not complementary. These acts are a result of God giving them over. They are shameless, unnatural, and involve a penalty.

If all you need to know is what you know from your first reading of these two verses, you can stop reading now. If you have no curiosity about the context, and no openness to the thought that your understanding of words can change once you learn more about the circumstances and context in which they were spoken, then you won’t enjoy this post.

Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which this verse is found, contains sixteen chapters and 433 verses. These are two of those verses. That these two verses are such a small part of this book does not mean they are insignificant or should be ignored. On the contrary, these are important verses for this discussion and that’s why I’m taking so much time on them. What it does mean is this: They need to be taken in context of the other 431 verses.

Think about the last time you wrote an email. I mean a long email about something important. You made it long because there was a lot you wanted to talk about. You made it long because you didn’t want to be misunderstood.

The worst thing someone could do would be to come along and pull out two sentences, say those two sentences were clear, and make an assumption about what you were saying. You would hate it. You would not think they were taking you seriously. You would not appreciate it at all.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was a long, important letter. He wouldn’t appreciate this approach of taking two sentences out any more than you would. He would want to be understood. And there is one other huge factor that gives us good reason to ask ourselves what he meant by what he said, rather than simply going on our first impression, and that’s that his words were written 2000 years ago when Rome was the capital of the world. A few things have changed since then. We shouldn’t assume too much.

Something all of us need to get over is the idea that our first impression of any verse of scripture upon reading the English translation is always correct. That’s just lazy.

I’m not talking about those desperate moments when you just need to hear from God and you open up your Bible for some inspiration. I’m not talking about that. I am not saying we can’t read our Bibles and have confidence that God has inspired scripture.

I am saying that when it comes to verses that have serious doctrinal and practical implications for our lives and the lives of others, we should never take the 15 second version of a Bible study. We should dig deep.

Romans 1 is About Honoring God’s Creation Pattern

Christians who do not affirm same-sex sexuality also believe that understanding the context of this passage is important. They generally argue that Romans 1 is a reference to the creation narrative in Genesis 1-2.1

They believe Paul is not only making an isolated statement, but that his argument roots sexual expression in the creation of man and woman. Any sexual expression that is not between a man and a woman is wrong. It’s important for their case to make this argument, because if unrestrained lust is the only reason these sexual encounters in Roman 1:26-27 are wrong, it leaves to door open for same-sex committed love that is about covenant and not objectification.

Romans 1:18-24 is certainly packed with references to creation. In the position paper on “homosexuality” published by the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, the following statement was made:

Paul begins by referencing the “creation of the world,” and the power and divinity of God seen through “what has been made,” but then reflects how the story has changed. Humans now remake the glory of God into an “image” and “likeness” of “corruptible man,” as well as of “birds,” “animals,” and “creeping” things. The human then ends up worshiping these very creatures that humans were meant to have dominion over, and abandons the natural use of the “male” and the “female.” The inversion is complete, instead of having dominion over the beasts, humans now worship and serve “the creature rather than the Creator.” They remake the image of God, in which both male and female were fashioned, into an intensification of either masculinity or femininity (Rom 1:20–25).

While this view certainly has much to commend it, the more I read Romans 1 in both Greek and English, the more apparent it became to me that this is a subtle shift away from Paul’s actual argument.

There are a few problems with this interpretation:

  • Paul doesn’t describe people exchanging dominion of animals for worship of animals. There is no mention of dominion or the responsibility of man to animals.
  • The list of things worshiped includes people as well as animals, so even the exchange of worship isn’t worship of animals, but worship of all created things, including humans.
  • There is no reference to the creation of man, the woman being from the man, or any of the ways Paul typically references the creation story. In terms of the creation of man and woman, the only words that connect are the word “man” and the word “woman.”
  • The only aspect of creation that Paul directly sites is that God is creator and people and animals are the creation. In doing so there is shared vocabulary, but not shared ideas.
  • The reference to images are better understood as relating to idolatry than creation.

Sometimes the implication is made that by using the word “nature” (Greek phusis) Paul is referring to the creation narrative, but that would be the only time in 11 uses of the word that Paul references creation. Furthermore, “nature” does not appear in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 in the Greek translation, the LXX. It’s much more natural (pardon the pun) to think that Paul was using the word the same way he always does, as a simple description of how things are.

It’s About God, Not God’s Creation

There is a much more simple way to understand what Paul’s talking about. Read the passage carefully. Paul isn’t talking about the order that should exist among the creatures, but the order that should take place between the creatures and their creator. I recommend a careful read of Romans 1:18-25. Here are some points worth noting:

  1. The foundational idea is that what is plainly known to anyone is the existence and power of God through creation, what is known as general revelation. Paul specifically points out that even Gentiles should know this. They don’t have Genesis. Paul makes plain what the content of their knowledge should be: that God is God and God is powerful. This is known through observing creation. It is not specific knowledge about the creation narrative (vs. 19).

  2. They knew God, but they chose to worship God’s creation instead of God, that worship of creation includes both animals and humans, not a changed relationship between animals and humans (vs. 20-21).

  3. They did this through idols (vs. 22-23).

  4. Closely tied with this idol worship is giving in to lustful hearts and dishonoring sexual behavior “among themselves.” Their sexual behavior did not involve the covenantal boundaries of marriage. This may refer to an orgy (vs. 24-25).

I’d also like to expand on the way Paul uses the word “image,” because the argument is made that it’s a reference to the creation of man and woman in Genesis 1:27, which reads: “So God created man in his own image/ in the image of God he created him/ male and female he created them.”

However, Paul’s use of the word better follows the Old Testament prophets who spoke of exchanging the glory of God for graven images. Paul said in vs. 23, “[they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Isaiah 42:8 says, “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (NASB).

A close reading of the text shows that it’s about the connection between creation and creator, not how the creation relates to each other, and that idolatry leads naturally to God “giving them over” to all kinds of lust. Note that the first time Paul speaks of this lust (vs. 24) there is no mention of same-sex sexuality, so the assumption that that’s all he’s talking about is specious.

This linking of idolatry and lust is not a new concept in scripture. Both the Old and New Testaments are full of close connections between idolatry and sexual licentiousness (Exodus 32; 1 Kings 14:24; Isaiah 57; Hosea 4:12-14; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; and Revelation 2:14, 20, 21:25). Sometimes those sexual behaviors involve same-sex sex, and sometimes they don’t. They always involve sexual encounters that are purely driven by lust and which have no relational or covenantal context.

What Does Same-Sex Sex Have to Do with Idolatry?

So it’s referring to idolatry and not the creation narrative, does that mean it’s not a legitimate restriction of all same-sex sex? We need to understand is how it’s connected to idolatry, and then we can answer that question.

Occasionally, I’ll read an argument about same-sex sexuality that connects it specifically to idolatry in a way that heterosexual sex doesn’t connect. John Piper makes the argument in this post:

When you exchange the glory of God for idols, the main one that you exchange the glory of God for is yourself. The idol that you have is yourself. Well, what sex is yourself? My sex is male… The deepest thing that I’ve ever hit upon for why God would disapprove of this is not just that the Bible says “Don’t do it,” and not just that God created male and female. Deep down there is a kind of idolatry involved in same-sex relationships that is very profound.

This is an argument that only sounds profound. It doesn’t translate to reality. A marriage relationships with someone of the same gender is about as much like a relationship with yourself as a friendship with someone of the same gender is a friendship with yourself. Just because someone is the same gender does not mean they aren’t an entirely different person. Each person who is not yourself is an entirely different human being. This should be obvious.

You aren’t kissing yourself when you kiss someone who also has lips. You aren’t having sex with yourself when you have sex with someone who shares your genitalia. You aren’t sharing thoughts with yourself when you share them with someone of the same gender and sharing them with someone else when they of a different gender.

Piper is using an allegorical argument that does not translate to human relationships. It certainly has nothing to do with the way scripture presents the connection between idolatry and sex. Scripture does not make this connection as a gender-based connection, rather it is connected with adultery.

Idolatry, Adultery, and Covenant

Idolatry in scripture is compared to adultery, prostitution, and sexual immorality in general (Jeremiah 2; 11; Ezekiel 16:20-34; 23). The entire book of Hosea is dedicated to this metaphor. That’s because God’s relationship with Israel is a covenantal relationship, just as marriage is a covenant (Isaiah 42:5-8).

Israelites who worshiped other Gods were like adulterous spouses because they violated the covenant Israel made with God in to book of Exodus (see chapters 19-20). It’s a failure in fidelity either for lust or security, either because they are drawn in by the allure of the worship of other gods or the promise of reward from foreign powers and gods.

That covenant that Israel made was not for Israel only, but for the whole world, as Isaiah references in the verse above. Paul has no problem applying it to Rome, because all of us are God’s creation. Paul is calling all people to covenant with their creator and specifically calling Romans out as “without excuse” (vs. 20) and bound to their creator-God.

Idolatry is understood as a betrayal of covenant as a result of being controlled by lust and fear. A biblical understanding of the relationship between sex and idolatry is that failure in covenant with God leads to failure in covenant in human relationships.

Those relationships begin with spousal relationships, but they don’t end there. The Prophets are full of descriptions of the failures in fidelity to all those in society who most need it, and of selfishness and lust for gain run wild (see Isaiah 1:15-18; 46:6-7; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 10:1-25; Amos 5:10-12; Revelation 18:2-3).

This is exactly what the later half of Romans 1 is about (vs. 28-32). So what Paul is doing is not referencing the two chapters at the beginning of the Old Testament, but the overarching cautionary message of the Old Testament and especially the prophets. God made a covenant, people broke that covenant, which lead to broken covenants in their primary familial relationships, followed by broken covenants with all of society, especially the most vulnerable.

The core motivation is selfishness, not in terms of bizarre metaphors about loving yourself when you love someone of the same gender, but the basic human impulse towards self-gratification at the expense of someone with whom we have made a covenant.

Scripture often connects idolatry and adultery, but only occasionally includes references to same-sex sex when it does so. That’s because it’s not by nature a gender issue, but an issue of fidelity versus selfishness.

Same-sex sex makes a particularly stark example precisely because it was never part of a covenant in ancient Rome or Israel. To say that this verse is specifically denying covenantal same-sex relationships would be to degrade the core of Paul’s argument. Paul isn’t forbidding covenant for certain genders, he’s pointing out violations of covenant. That is the whole point of the idolatry and adultery motif in scripture, and it is certainly not something that would be lost on Paul’s Jewish audience.

Blame Shifting

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the non-affirming interpretation is the way in which it shifts blame. Rather than focusing on the ways in which humans objectify each other through sex, it puts the blame on gay marriage, as if Romans 1 is addressed to queer people and not straight people.

As with all minority groups, there is a long history of the LGBT community being scapegoated. You can see it today in calls to save marriage by denying it to same-sex couples. If I marry another woman someday, it poses no threat to any marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, it affirms that I see value in marriage.

The truth is that there are more straight divorces than there will ever be gay marriages, but no one wants to outlaw divorce. And there are more straight people in relationships who choose not to be married than there will ever be same-sex marriages, but again there is no desire to mandate marriage for straight people.

Traditional Christian churches have a tendency to focus on the small LGBT community. It’s funny how the things we do in our lives show up in our interpretation of scripture. Then those interpretations in turn justify further scapegoating of the LGBT community. Blaming the queer community is much easier than looking in the mirror, learning to be less selfish, and keeping your own covenants.

Romans 1:26-27 is often treated as if it applies only to the 5% or so of sexual minorities, not straight people. Yet the reality is that Paul was just talking about people. There are reasons why same-sex sexuality was a great example in Paul’s day for the failures of infidelity and selfishness of all people, and those will be discussed in the next blog post on Romans.

More to Come

I know this post doesn’t answer all the questions you might have about this passage, and I’d love to hear your questions in the comments. I’ll talk later about why same-sex sexuality is used to speak about lust. I’ll also talk about what this passage does mean for us today, and whether it permits same-sex relationships. All those questions and more need to be asked.

However, the foundational understanding espoused by those who do not affirm same-sex relationships is that this passage is about defying the creation of gender-based marriage in Genesis 1-2. That argument is not supported by the text, which is referencing the honor do to God who is the life-giver as opposed to Greek idolatry, and the desire to consume that can blind us to the truth, mar our connection to the creator, and bring selfishness into all our relationships.

Selfishness and broken relationships are not being singled out by Paul as a primary aspect of same-sex covenants and not straight covenants. The selfish desire to consume others is a human issue, not a gay issue. This verse is a challenge to all of us, not only to sexual minorities.

1 See Also, Gagnon, Robert. The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 289-297. Gagnon also argues that through referencing creation Paul is talking about the biological complimentary nature of male and female for procreation and pleasure. He further asserts that this is what Paul means by “nature.” These types of arguments are called ontological arguments, and will have to be left for a future post.

People turning to the Bible for answers about same-sex relationships often believe they find references to LGBT people in two particular passages in the New Testament. They are both lists of vices, and they share the same very unique vocabulary.

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality” 1 Corinthians 6:9 (ESV).


“The sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” 1 Timothy 1:10 (ESV).

Rare Vocabulary

In order to understand the meaning of the New Testament vice lists that have been translated as referring to sexual minorities, it’s important to learn a little bit of Greek vocabulary. Specifically, you need to know the word arsenokoites. This is the word Paul uses in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 that is sometimes translated “homosexuals.”

The reason you need to have some understanding of this Greek word is that there are some translation issues that need to be explained. Most of the time the translation of the Bible you have is beyond excellent. Understanding of the Greek usually adds nuance but doesn’t change the meaning of your translation. However, one exception is when a text contains a very rare word.

arsenokoites is translated in these passages as “men who practice homosexuality” and is often applied to LGBT people and the sexual intimacy in our relationships. These two verses are the only places the word arsenokoites shows up in the New Testament. It is also the first time the word shows up in any Greek text anywhere and it wasn’t used again until much later. Yet Paul assumes his readers understood it. So it is possible that the term was used exclusively by the Christian community. So where did they get it?

Reference to Leviticus

The New Testament Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, verses translated “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman,” the author uses the words aresenos and koite. Many believe arsenokoites is Paul’s simple shorthand to refer back to these verses by combining the two words: arsenos + koite = arsenokoites.

This is what I think Paul was talking about, and I share this understanding with non-affirming scholars (see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice or Richard Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh).

I differ with them on the nature of what behavior Leviticus references. I’ve written two blogs on the topic to demonstrate that when scripture is allowed to be its own interpreter, it leads us to the conclusion that Leviticus is referring to aggressive actions for the purpose of domination through humiliation, the specific humiliation of forcibly treating men like women through abuse of power.

These acts would be wrong regardless of the gender configuration. It is difficult for those of us who have or desire loving romance with someone of the same gender to understand why our relationships would be compared to such violent acts.

Additional References to Exploitation

In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul gives another indication that this relationship is an abuse of power by using the word malakoi. This is the second Greek word that is important to know, and it refers to being weak, passive, soft, or effeminate. Often it is used to describe a passive partner in a same-sex erotic encounter.

According to what is probably the best lexicon for understanding New Testament Greek (BDAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), malakoi was often used of a catamite, a boy slave that Romans used for sex. It could also refer to pederasty, a common Roman practice in which an older man would initiate an early teenage boy into sexual experience. The boy always took the so-called passive role because the relationship was unequal.

The difference between a catamite and pederasty was not a difference in kind, but degree. A boy who was a victim of pederasty had more advantages because of it and there was less stigma attached to him, but he was still a victim of the abuse of power. Paul’s use of arsenokoites connected the contemporary Greco-Roman practices to the levitical prohibitions, all of which were based on humiliation and abuse of power.

These were not familial relationships, but sexual relationships. They involved no commitment and took advantage of difference in power and social status. They were sexually exploitative relationships taken on by men who also had wives at home. In short, the behaviors were lustful and selfishness on the part of the arsenokoites and humiliating for the powerless malakoi.

The Problem with Equating These Verses to Queer People

These relationships dishonored the sacredness of God’s creation. They violated the humanity of the boys and young men who were socially expected to accept this abuse. They insulted the wives these older men left at home. Nothing about this situation is holy or good. They are violations of the primary biblical mandate to love all people as God’s sacred creation.

For those straight folks who are reading this: If someone were to tell you your relationships were wrong because of a biblical story like the one found in Genesis 19, where Lot’s daughters get him drunk and rape him so they can get pregnant, you wouldn’t accept it. Just because the daughters are women and Lot is a man doesn’t mean it applies to you. It’s wrong because of incest and rape, not because of their genders. This much is obvious.

It’s not much different as a queer person to read that disgusting sexual practices in ancient Greece and Sodom and Gomorrah have any relevance to you and your relationships. Sure, the genders are the same, but that’s where comparisons end. Our desire isn’t to sexually dominate someone else. We don’t want to humiliate someone. We aren’t looking for a straight marriage plus a young kid on the side. These behaviors are unrelated to us and our lives.

The difficulty is that unlike opposite-sex sexuality, there are so few stories of any type of same-sex eroticism in the Bible that they all get lumped together and applied to us. That’s because we’re trying to find a direct answer for a question the Bible never directly asks. That’s dangerous.

As much as we want a “thus say the Lord,” there are all kinds of issues on which we don’t have one. Is democracy a legitimate form of government? What about socialism? Is birth control okay to use? Is healthcare a human right in the modern economy? Should there be limits on social media use? God has given us principles to apply and live by, not a manual with the answer to every question we will ever ask.

In the New Testament, they never asked whether it would be wrong for two men to marry. They never considered that women could fall in love and have a family together. The Bible does address abusive same-sex eroticism that men who were married to women were engaging in on the side. That’s what we find in these texts.

Whether you are gay or straight, the way to honor the intent of these verses is to honor the dignity and humanity of all people, to never use sexuality to exploit another human being, and to honor the commitments you have made to a partner. That is biblical sexuality.

For those of us who are queer: Go in peace. Be affirmed. These verses aren’t about us.

I received a sincere question on my Facebook page that I want to address here:

“Why does the Bible make it so clear about it being 1 man and 1 women the times it talks about marriage? I’m hoping your study has produced an idea that I can chew on.”

“Marriage is between one man and one woman.” This is a popular definition for those who would exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage. Where in the Bible are these words found? Nowhere. The phrase, “marriage is between one man and one woman” is a modern, non-affirming definition that is not found in the Bible. I’ll argue that it’s also not supported by the Bible.

The Bible Describes, but Doesn’t Define Marriage

Genesis 2:24 is usually cited as a Biblical definition of marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (ESV). Jesus also quotes this verse when he is asked about divorce. But even within scripture, this phrase was not interpreted as a restrictive definition.

Saying what will happen is very different from prescribing the only thing that can happen. “For this reason a man will leave…” No one disagrees that men leave their families of origin and marry women. Those of us who advocate for the legitimacy of same-sex commitments aren’t preventing men from marrying women.

The question is not whether men will keep marrying women, but whether that is the only option. Making a restrictive definition out of this text is stretching it too far.

For example, no one has a problem with a man not marrying at all. But if these words are to be taken as prescriptive, a man who never marries has also fallen short. Calling this verse a definition of marriage is a way to cleverly side-step this problem. But it does not say “marriage is…” It says “a man will.”

So why are some people comfortable with two men who never marry and remain celibate, but uncomfortable if those two men decide to marry each other? Either way they haven’t done what this verse says should be done. They have not chosen to “hold fast” to a wife. It’s inconsistent to make an exception for singleness, but not for same-sex marriage.

Men will marry women. On that we agree. It is a gift from God. But not all men will marry women. And that’s okay.

Biblical Examples Defy the Modern Conservative Definition

Polygamy was widely practiced and widely affirmed in the Old Testament. There are indications in the narrative that it isn’t a good idea. The first person to marry multiple wives was a guy named Lamech, and he was a horrible man who bragged about murder (Genesis 4:19-24). Multiple wives also caused endless problems for Jacob and his family (Genesis 37-44) and other families in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, elders are restricted to one wife (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 1:6).

Still, polygamous marriages were marriages. No one was putting them in air quotes. No one was saying “so-called polygamous marriages.” They were legitimate, with full social and legal status (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15-17). In certain situations polygamy was even required by the law of God (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Jacob, David, Solomon, Moses, and many others had multiple wives. In short, polygamous marriages are also biblical.

Yet these biblical marriages are in contrast to the one-man-one-woman definition that is popular among conservatives today. Our western understanding of marriage has changed, and our legal code excludes polygamy. This isn’t a restriction in scripture, but it makes sense to us today.

The Bible Doesn’t Exclude Same-Sex Marriage

We restrict polygamy when the Bible allows it, because it’s a good and healthy restriction. Why not allow something that the Bible never restricts?

The handful of texts that restrict same-sex sexual acts refer to exploitation and depersonalized lust. Love, marriage, and commitment between people of the same gender was never addressed in scripture, because it wasn’t a question asked in their society. So there is no restriction placed on same-sex marriages in the Bible.

We regular make decisions about things the Bible never addresses directly. The Bible gives no advice on voting, on whether or not healthcare should be universal, on the use of contraceptives, or on bullying in social media. Yet we do have all the information we need from scripture if we apply the values at the heart of scripture.

This is where the discussion should take place. Catch phrases about the biblical definition of marriage are more rhetorical than theological. The Bible speaks about marriage in ways that are more complex and culturally conditioned than what is represented by traditional, non-affirming churches. We prefer simple answers. We prefer a biblical definition that can fit on a protest sign. But that’s not what the Bible gave us.
So, what if same-sex marriage makes the lives of LGBT+ people and their families better? What if queer people can contribute more to society if they aren’t shamed and excluded? What if they can provide much needed families for foster children? What if they can be life-affirming, life-giving, and holy representations of the love of God? Who are we to deny these good things to queer people when the scriptures do not?

This is Part 2 of a series on posts about the Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse. If you’re wondering why on earth we wouldn’t just take the super-clear, plain understanding of the laws in Leviticus, check out Torah Part 1.

For so long, I thought that affirming the sexuality of LGBT people like myself was at odds with the Bible, but I never understood why. People who affirmed LGBT people seemed to be doing what Jesus would do. But for those of us who take a high view of scripture, it isn’t enough to feel that something is more loving, we need to understand how that love is biblical love.

It wasn’t until I took a much closer look at the Bible that I realized how much better it’s teachings are than I could imagine. I want to share with you some things I learned about the texts of Leviticus and Genesis.

In my conservative and traditionalist seminary, I took a class on interpreting and applying the Old Testament Law. One of the principles I was taught is that the narratives of the Torah explain the laws of the Torah. That’s why I think it best to take the three Old Testament passages related to same-sex intercourse together along with the one additional passage that’s ambiguous. They help us to understand what is meant by the prohibitions in Leviticus.

The Leviticus verses, both 18:22 and 20:13 say, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” So we need to look at the stories that depict just such an act or an attempt at such an act.

The Sin of Ham

A strange story appears in Genesis 9. After the flood, Noah and his three sons were starting their new lives. Noah promptly planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and lie naked in his tent. Ham went in and saw him, but not only that, the original language gives the idea that his eyes lingered on his father’s nakedness. In another seminary class, I remember the teacher describing how Ham was a homosexual and was disgustingly turned on by his father’s naked body. He then went out and told his brothers about Noah’s nakedness. The brothers walked backwards with a blanket to cover his nakedness.

No one is really sure what happened here. Uncovering someone’s nakedness is a euphamism for sex, but Noah uncovered his own nakedness and that’s not really the same. There is something less than rape and more than nothing going on here. There is a definite sexual tone. In verse 24 Noah sobers up and realizes what Ham “had done to him.”

One thing we do know, whatever happened Ham’s brothers reacted very differently than Ham did. They wanted to show their father respect, while Ham wanted to spread knowledge of their father’s disgrace.

The sexual overtone of this verse doesn’t seem to be about lust. If it was, he wouldn’t be bragging to his brothers. Yet he would speak so brazenly to his brothers if his goal was to humiliate his father. The indication is that same-sex eroticism here is about humiliating Noah.

The Sin of Sodom

This passage is where the word sodomy comes from. The story is found in Genesis chapter 19, but it really starts in chapter 18. I suggest a quick read. The basic story goes like this:

  • Angel’s show up at Abraham’s tent. He doesn’t know they are angels. He invites them in, gives them the best food, is all-around an awesome host.

  • They tell Abraham who they are and that they’ve come to destroy Sodom. Abraham pleads with them and they agree that if they find even five good people there they will spare the city.

  • The angels show up in Sodom. No one knows they are angels. No one helps them out. So they decide to sleep on the street. Lot realizes this is a terrible idea and invites them in.

  • Every single man in the city, young and old, gathers outside Lot’s home demanding the men to gang rape them.

  • Lot asks them to take his daughters instead, and they refuse then begin to push into the house.

  • The angels rescue lot and blind the men of Sodom who still try to get at the men but can’t.

  • The next day Lot and his family get out of there and the angels destroy the city.


Long before I had affirming theology, back when I was still trying desperately to be straight, I remember a line from a sermon describing the men of Sodom as “a group of gay men.”


Even when we live in this world of globalization, where queer people often pick-up and move to cities that are more gay-friendly, the most I’ve ever heard of is a city of 50% queer people (Palm Springs, CA, correct me in the comments if you know of a gayer city). So the idea that every single man in this city is gay is preposterous.


Besides, the idea that gay men are into gang rape is disgusting. I often see this type of reasoning in non-affirming works of theology, the assumption that queer people are different in more than just the gender we are attracted to. I’ve read that gay men would be into being temple prostitutes, that they would welcome castration, and in the Sodom story that they would be into gang rape. I know some great gay men; they wouldn’t hurt a fly.


A plausible explanation that scholars and commentators confirm is that these men were not motivated by sexual desire. They were engaging in a practice that has sadly always existed and still does today, men raping men to humiliate them and remove any threat.


Sodom was a city that had been attacked before (Genesis 13-14). While Abraham showed himself to be an exceptional host, Sodom showed itself to be bloodthirsty and violent to strangers. They craved a reputation that would strike terror in their enemies. Unlike the “gay men” explanation, this explanation takes the whole of the text into consideration.

Implications for Leviticus

So could the passages in Leviticus be referring to situations of power, humiliation, control, and violence?

If we arrive at the answer to that question not by falling back on our own personal prejudices, but by comparing scripture with scripture and relying on the narratives of the Torah itself, that is exactly what these verses are about.

There are still more reasons to see them this way.

In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 the command is phrased differently than the other sexual prohibitions. The normal phrasing for sexual intercourse is that “you shall not uncover the nakedness.” Yet these verses say “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman.” Why the difference?

A sad reality of the Ancient Near East is that men had more intrinsic value than women. That’s consistent with the men in Sodom scoffing at Lot’s offer of his daughters. They wanted to inflict maximum pain, that meant harming those who had the most status and value.

In the Old Testament law, decisions are made by men, even women who aren’t slaves are bought and sold, and the vows a woman makes to the Lord can be retracted by her husband or father. Women had more agency in Israel than in surrounding nations, but much less than men.

So to lie with a man as with a woman isn’t described as a sexual intimate act of “uncovering his nakedness,” it’s an aggressive act of “lying with a man like a woman.” This is by nature an act of humiliation.

It’s not hard to arrive at that conclusion looking only at the Biblical text. It’s only confirmed by any book on Ancient Near Eastern same-sex eroticism. Male-to-male intercourse was viewed as a one-way act of domination of one man by another. The man who was dominated was treated as a woman and humiliated.

This understanding matches the narratives. It matches the laws. But it’s also a good interpretation for one more crucial reason: It’s a compassionate interpretation.

Interpreting this verse in the least nuanced, most literalistic way possible results in harm to LGBT people like myself. When applied to people who are in committed relationships of love and self-sacrifice, there is no harmony with the primary command in the Bible: Love God and our neighbor. How does limiting loving relationships promote love?

On the other hand, interpreting these prohibitions as I have suggested is in complete harmony with the most important principles of scripture. This command protects the vulnerable. It affirms biblical sexuality of love and respect. It brings judgement on aggressors and rids Israel of a disgusting practice that brought harm and pain.

It is also in harmony with the approach to Torah that Jesus himself took. Part 3 is coming for a detailed discussion of how Jesus interprets in Torah in Matthew 6-7.

In a sense, those of us who affirm same-sex marriage as biblical will always have an uphill battle because we are arguing against the plain meaning of scripture in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which at face value is a simple prohibition against male same-sex intercourse.

Whenever there is confusion, and particularly when emotions are high, arguments that are simple are appealing. The argument that these verses are the plain word of God offers a very simple, clear, and straight forward answer. But the very simplicity that makes it compelling is also a liability. Interpreting the Bible is not always simple. Sometimes it takes effort, and there is nothing wrong with that.

This is the first in a series of three blogs what will address the verses about same-sex sexual behaviors in the Torah. Part 2 is available now, part 3 is coming soon. There are also three verses in the New Testament that will be addressed in future blogs. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, and there are three places where same-sex sexual behaviors are mentioned (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22; 20:13), and possibly a fourth in Genesis 9 where it is implied.

In this first blog, the subject is the levitical laws, the second blog will address the narratives, primarily the story of Sodom, and how it informs the levitical law. The third blog will examine the implications of Jesus’ own approach to interpreting and applying the Torah.

The Plain Word of Scripture

The first question to address is why we would ever go against a plain command ofGod. Let’s begin by looking at the first of the two texts in question:

Leviticus 18:22 (ESV) says, “A man shall not lie with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination.”

Notice the specificity and economy of words in this text. There is no mention of mediating circumstances, and no excuse offered for those who would look for exceptions. The plain meaning is that sex between two men is wrong. Period. End of Story.

However, there is a follow-up question that needs to be asked. If this is the hermeneutic (meaning the method of interpretation) you have chosen, the hermeneutic that the clarity of the statement and the plain reading is the right one, are you willing to apply this method to all the verses in Leviticus? Or at least all of the texts where you can’t sight a clear reason not to, such as commands related to the temple service which was abolished by Christ?

The only way it makes sense to take a strong literalistic stance on this verse is if you do so with other verses as well. Otherwise you aren’t following scripture, you’re following your own inclination.

Leviticus, Literally

So let’s look at some other verses…

Leviticus 19:20-21 (ESV) says, “If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.”

This verse makes room for men to own women and to have sex with them without their consent (known today as rape). The only problem with a man owning a woman and having sex with her is if she has been promised to someone else. Female sexuality is bought and sold. That’s the plain meaning of this text.

Leviticus 21:9 (ESV) says, “And the daughter of any priest, if she profanes herself by whoring, profanes her father; she shall be burned with fire.”

We all know PKs (Priest’s Kids?) can be a real problem. Pastors, if your daughter gets out of control, your reputation might suffer. That’s an age old problem for which Leviticus has an answer. Burn her at the stake. That’s the plain meaning of this text.

Leviticus 24:19-20 (ESV) says, “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.”

In this verse a specific action is shown in the clearest of language. There are no excuses or mediating circumstances. If you harm someone, intentional or not, you must receive the same bodily injury. Period. End of Story. That’s the plain meaning of the text.

Leviticus 25:44-46 (ESV) says, “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and females slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever.”

Its clear yet again. Slavery is okay. Nothing wrong with it. There it is in the Bible clear as day. The plain meaning couldn’t be more plain.

Leviticus 20:13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

That one sounds familiar. It’s essentially a restatement of 18:22, but this time with a command to kill them both, and a promise that their blood is upon them and you are not culpable for their deaths. Plain meaning of scripture. Who am I to apply one half of a text literally and ignore the last half?

When Literal Is Immoral

These are just a few verses from Leviticus, there are many more verses in the Old Testament whose literal meaning is questionable. When we hear the verses on slavery and the devaluation of women, we automatically start thinking about reasons why they might not apply to us.

But why do we do that? The answer is simple, because we believe slavery is harmful and therefore immoral, and because we believe women should be valued equally to men. We are looking for ways out of the literal understanding of these verses, and there are ways out of the literal meaning of these verses, and they are legitimate.

We also don’t believe anymore in the retributive justice of the Old Testament, the eye for an eye, because Jesus showed us a better way (Matthew 5:38-42). Shouldn’t we be interpreting these verses the way Jesus did? If the possibility exists that this interpretation is harming people, shouldn’t compassion for those people at least cause us to reexamine our viewpoint?

As a woman who has a longing in myself to for a committed romance with another woman, and as someone familiar with the history and trials of LGBT people, I can tell you that there is good reason to believe that the plain meaning of these verses hurts people. Anyone who is paying attention and listening to the lives and stories of LGBT people knows this.

Beyond Literal

Does that mean we should just throw them out and never worry about them again? Absolutely not. I disagree with many of the LGBT affirming theologians who show a lot of verses from Leviticus we don’t follow anymore then just throw the whole thing out. I don’t dismiss these verses just because they appear in Leviticus.

I believe every verse of scripture has something to teach us. No word is without value and meaning. Yet I do not believe we should always seize on the meaning that first strikes us.

We shouldn’t decide the present-day application of a text before we have questioned and done our homework, and certainly not before we have considered the real lives of people impacted by that verse. When compassion gives us reason to question the plain meaning, we should look again at our interpretation.

When understood in their context, the laws about slavery, the treatment of women, and retributive justice did make people’s lives better. If you had to be a woman in the Ancient Near East, Israel was the best place to be. Women had more rights, more protection, and more agency there than anywhere else. Same thing if you had to be a slave. There were limits placed on slave owners. And the eye-for-an-eye law was much better than laws in other nations where a rich man’s eye was worth a poor man’s life.

All of scripture is seeking the redemption of humanity. Taking the plain meaning of scripture is sometimes just an excuse for laziness. We need to look again.

The next step is to compare scripture with scripture so we can better understand the levitical verses on male same-sex intercourse. We take that up in Part 2.

People want to know why I have done what I have done—going against the teachings of my church, giving up my career as a pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, and losing the only community I have known. That’s what happened when I came out as bisexual.

In some ways, my reasons might be unique. I changed my thinking about God and what the Bible teaches before I changed my thinking about myself. It wasn’t about desire for me, or even about being able to be open about who I am. It wasn’t until later that I saw how important those things are. Only after I knew the approval of God for my sexuality did I dare be honest with myself about it.

In many ways, it was a journey of years, but it culminated in a period of several months of intense study and prayer. I’d like to share with you what that process was like and what drove me to and through it.

Compassion Came First

The immediate catalyst was the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but all that did was amplify the agitation that already dogged me. LGBT people were hurting, even when they tried to follow the church’s teachings. Christianity isn’t supposed to be easy, we’re supposed to take up a cross after all, but it isn’t supposed to tear you apart from the inside.

Besides, same-sex relationships seemed like a sin that existed only in the abstract, not in the real world. Who did it harm? How does it dishonor God? How does it harm one’s self? How does it harm anyone else? Can you really hurt someone by loving them in commitment and self-sacrifice?

Something wasn’t adding up. What was I missing? How is the gospel good news for people who experience same-sex attraction?

Foolishly, I didn’t see that these were questions about myself. I had long ago decided not to pursue my desire for a relationship with a woman. What I wanted to know was how I could better minister to my congregation, including the members who are LGBT or who have LGBT people in the family.

Psalm 119 describes the goodness of God’s laws. If God is prohibiting this, then that prohibition makes people more spiritually whole, and breaking it is destructive to the soul. I believed the problem was in my understanding, not in the prohibition against same-sex relationships. I expected to find a better understanding of the theology my church teaches. I expected this because of faith in God and his goodness. But I also knew that in the process I had to become better versed on the theological perspectives of both sides, so at the suggestion of Herb Montgomery, a friend of mine, I picked up Gender, Bible, Sexuality by James V. Brownson first, and eventually an entire shelf of books, and started reading.

What Does the Bible Say?

I often heard LGBT apologists say the Bible never speaks to sexual orientation, that none of the passages apply to the current situation. I didn’t find that compelling back then. I wasn’t concerned with what the Bible doesn’t say, I was concerned with what it does say.

So when I approached those six passages of scripture that mention some type of same-sex sexuality, I wanted to know what they were talking about. Whatever they were about, that would be in harmony with the compassionate and loving heart of God.

It wasn’t hard to find out what these passages were talking about. No matter what commentaries or books I read, no matter what conclusions they reached about whether same-sex relationships are wrong or right, I always found that what is being talked about in these verses is exploitative sexual behavior like rape, prostitution, and adultery, and out-of-control lust in the case of Romans 1. There was no limit or concern for marriage and commitment. In none of these verses would the behavior be condoned if it were heterosexual instead of homosexual. These verses are some variation on the theme of men degrading men by using physical or social power to dominate them sexually by treating them sexually like women.

What Did Verses About Same-Sex Sexuality Accomplish?

I don’t have a problem with the rules and statements about slavery in the New and Old Testament not because I think we should live by them today, but because they made life better for the slaves in Israel. Slaves in the Ancient Near East were better off in Israel than anywhere else. The laws affirmed them as a human beings and not mere property. They set significant limits on how slaves were treated.

Similarly, I don’t have a problem with statements in both the New and Old Testament that limit the autonomy of women because the real impact of these scriptures was positive by moving society in the right direction. They accomplished greater freedom and equality relative to their societies. If we were to apply these verses according to their plain meaning today, we would be accomplishing the opposite goal. We would enslave people and take away the civil rights of women. A literal interpretation sometimes undermines the meaning and function of the Bible.

With this in mind, I considered the verses about same-sex sexuality. I took myself out of my modern mindset and put myself in theirs. Instead of asking about sexual orientation and marriage, the question I asked was this:

What would have been the impact of these verses on the culture in which they were written?

They accomplished protection for the vulnerable and accountability for the outrageous, out-of-control lust of men who were almost certainly married to women. It’s unlikely that they would have stopped even one same-sex relationship between adults. Those weren’t happening.

Could it be that these texts prohibiting same-sex sexual exploitation were there for the same reason as verses about slavery and the limitations on the autonomy of women? These texts would be life-giving when they were originally given. It’s not hard to see how they have a powerful modern application as well that supports the sacredness of each person, the value of protecting the vulnerable, and the right that each person has to sexual autonomy against exploitation.

What is harder to see is how they relate to committed, monogamous marriages between people of the same gender. When I finally took the time to read and understand these verses, I had to acknowledge that applying verses about same-sex exploitation to same-sex marrige was a stretch. I was surprised to discover this. It messed everything up for me. All my plans, my career, even my firm and convenient decision to never date women.

Caring About What the Bible Cares About

I have read the verses referencing same-sex sexuality over and over. You could read all the texts in 1-2 minutes. I realized that none of these verses were part of a larger passage where the topic of same-sex sexuality is taken up as the theme. In each of these texts, it is only mentioned briefly and is secondary to the main point. In each of these texts, context shows that they refer to exploitative sexuality or out-of-control lust. Non-affirming Christians want to apply them to all same-sex sexuality, but what if they are stretching too little and too far?

I believe in the inspiration of scripture. Scriptures tells one story. There are places where that story is told clearly and boldly. There are other places where it is more difficult to understand because it’s being applied to people and situations dramatically different from our own. It’s only when we pay attention to the major themes of scripture that this becomes clear. Setting aside the most important principles in favor of a few texts is not taking scripture seriously, it’s explaining away the heart of the gospel in favor of selective literalism.

Gradually, I realized that we allowed a handful of texts to hijack the heart of scripture. Our theology was not leading us to treat LGBT people as we want to be treated. I’ve also come to believe that the traditional condemnation of same-sex relationships degrades the foundational ethics of marriage. You can’t save marriage by limiting it heterosexuals. That’s a distraction. It doesn’t address the real problems of selfishness, adultery, and complacency that are causing divorce and destroying marriage.

What we need is a biblical understanding of sexuality that addresses actual problems not manufactured problems. What we need is the true heart of the verses that address same-sex sexuality, which is to shun sex that is exploitative, selfish, and based on pure lust. Sex is not for that. Sex is meant to be given from the heart in love and fidelity to one’s spouse. Literalistic interpretations are obscuring the real meaning. Sex can be given from the heart in the context of a life-long commitment to a same-sex partner. It happens all the time. Such love is pleasing to God.