No issue is as timely for serious and sensitive biblical and pastoral reflection than the question of a biblical view of homosexuality. I will be teaching on this issue with our youth group in our study of Romans 1 and have taken this opportunity to re-examine the complexities surrounding this hot-button issue facing Christians today.
What is lacking in many of the contemporary debates is the broader context from which the particular biblical texts are usually pulled to argue for or against the condoning of homosexual behavior. One of the most helpful and thorough treatments of the New Testament teaching on this issue is by Richard B. Hays. The following lengthy excerpt is from:
How is human sexuality portrayed in the canon as a whole, and how are the few explicit texts treating homosexuality to be read in relation to this larger canonical framework? To place the prohibition of homosexual activity in a canonical context, we should keep in mind at least the following factors in the biblical portrayal of human existence before God.
A. GOD’S CREATIVE INTENTION FOR HUMAN SEXUALITY
From Genesis 1 onward, Scripture affirms repeatedly that God has made man and woman for one another and that our sexual desires rightly find fulfillment within heterosexual marriage. (See, for instance, Mark 10:2-9, 1 Thess. 4:3-8, 1 Cor. 7:1-9, Eph. 5:21-33, Heb. 13:4. The Song of Solomon, however it is to be interpreted, also celebrates love and sexual desire between man and woman.) …This normative canonical picture of marriage of marriage provides the positive backdrop against which the Bible’s few emphatic negations of homosexuality must be read.
B. THE FALLEN HUMAN CONDITION
The biblical analysis of the human predicament, most sharply expressed in Pauline theology, offers a subtle account of human bondage to sin. As great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment, we like to think of ourselves as free moral agents, choosing rationally among possible actions, but Scripture unmasks that cheerful illusion and teaches us that we are deeply infected by the tendency to self-deception. As Jeremiah lamented, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9 RSV). Romans 1 depicts humanity in a state of self-affirming confusion: “They became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools…. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die — yet they not only do the but applaud others who practice them” (Rom. 1:21-22, 32). Once in the fallen state, we are not free not to sin: we are “slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:17), which distorts our perceptions, overpowers our will, and renders us incapable of obedience (Rom. 7). Redemption (a word that means “being emancipated from slavery”) is God’s act of liberation, setting us free from the power of sin and placing us within the sphere of God’s transforming power for righteousness (Rom. 6:20-22, 8:1-11, cf. 12:1-2).
Thus, the Bible’s sober anthropology rejects the apparently commonsense assumption that only freely chosen acts are morally culpable. Quite the reverse: the very nature of sin is that it is not freely chosen. That is what it means to live “in the flesh” in a fallen creation. We are in bondage to sin but still accountable to God’s righteous judgment of our actions. In light of this theological anthropology, it cannot be maintained that a homosexual orientation is morally neutral because it is involuntary.
C. THE DEMYTHOLOGIZING OF SEX
The Bible undercuts our cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment. Scripture (along with many subsequent generations of faithful Christians) bears witness that lives of freedom, joy and service are possible without sexual relations. Indeed, however odd it may seem to contemporary sensibilities, some New Testament passages (Matt 19:10-12, 1 Cor 7) clearly commend the celibate life as a way of faithfulness. In the view of the world that emerges from the pages of Scripture, sex appears as a matter of secondary importance. To be sure, the power of sexual drives must be acknowledged and subjected to constraints, either through marriage or through disciplined abstinence. But never within the canonical perspective does sexuality become the basis for defining a person’s identity or for finding meaning and fulfillment in life. The things that matter are justice, mercy, and faith (Matt 23:23). The love of God is far more important than any human love. Sexual fulfillment finds its place, at best, as a subsidiary good within this larger picture.
How then — keeping these larger canonical perspectives in mind — do we employ the three images of community, cross, and new creation in our interpretation of the New Testament witness concerning homosexuality?
Community. The biblical strictures against homosexual behavior are concerned not just for the private morality of individuals but for the health, wholeness, and purity of the elect community…. Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to “glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20) grows out of his passionate concern, expressed repeatedly in 1 Corinthians, for the unity and sanctification of the community as a whole. Fornication with a prostitute is wrong, among other reasons, because “your bodies are members of Christ” (6:15). Thus, to engage in sexual immorality defiles the body of Christ. Through baptism, Christians have entered a corporate whole whose health is at stake in the conduct of all its members. Sin is like an infection in the body; thus, moral action is not merely a matter of individual freedom and preference. “If one member suffers, all suffer” (1 Cor. 12:26)…. A similar logic would certainly apply, within Paul’s frame of reference, to the malakoi and arsenokoitai of 1 Corinthians 6:9. The community of those who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ ought to have put such behaviors behind it. The New Testament never considers sexual conduct a matter of purely private concern between consenting adults…
We must hasten to add that Paul’s corporate concern is for the church, not the wider civil society…. The right to privacy may well be a useful principle for a secular political order. Such a political right, however, does not extend carte blanche to sexual conduct within the church, where the question of each member’s responsibility for the spiritual well-being of the community as a whole imposes a particular and far more stringent set of normative criteria for evaluating our actions. At the same time, the church also provides the koinonia, within which living out the obedience of faith is supported and sustained.
Cross. ….The human rebellion and unrighteousness summarized in Romans 1:18-32 create the condition of crisis that makes the death of Jesus necessary. “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The human unrighteousness detailed in Romans 1 is answered by the righteousness of God, who puts forward Jesus to die for the unrighteous (Rom. 3:23-25), enabling them to walk in newness of life….
What are the implications of this act of God for understanding what Romans 1 says about homosexual practices?
First of all, the wrath of God — manifested in God’s “giving up” of rebellious humanity to follow their own devices and desires — is not the last word. The gospel of the cross declares that God loves us even while we are in rebellion and that the sacrificial death of his own son is the measure of the depth of that love. That is the fundamental theological logic underlying Paul’s “sting” expose of self-righteousness in Romans 2:1: we should not leap to condemnation of others, for we — no less than those who are engaged in “the dishonoring of their bodies” — are under God’s judgment, and they — no less than we — are the objects of God’s deeply sacrificial love. This has profound implications for how the Christian community ought to respond to persons of homosexual inclination. Even if some of their actions are contrary to God’s design, the cross models the way in which the community of faith ought to respond to them: not in condemnation, but in sacrificial service….
Second, the cross marks the end of the old life under the power of sin (Rom. 6:1-4). Therefore, no one in Christ is locked into the past or into a psychological or biological determinism. Only in light of the transforming power of the cross can Paul’s word of exhortation be spoken to Christians who — like my [gay] friend Gary — struggle with homosexual desires:
“Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:12-14).
Paul’s references to homosexual conduct place it within the realm of sin and death to which the cross is God’s definitive answer. All of this is simply to say that the judgment of Romans 1 against homosexual practices should never be read apart from the rest of the letter, with its message of grace and hope through the cross of Christ.
New Creation. A similar point can be made here: neither the word of judgment against homosexuality nor the hope of transformation to a new life should be read apart from the eschatological framework of Romans. The Christian community lives is a time of tension between the “already” and “not yet.” Already we have the joy of the Holy Spirit; already we experience the transforming grace of God. But at the same time, we do not yet experience the fullness of redemption: we walk by faith, not by sight…. Those who demand fulfillment now, as though it were a right or guarantee, are living in a state of adolescent illusion. To be sure, the transforming power of the Spirit really is present in our midst; on the other hand, the “not yet” looms large; we live with the reality of temptation, the reality of the hard struggle to live faithfully. Consequently, in this time between the times, some may find disciplined abstinence the only viable alternative to disordered sexuality. The art of eschatological moral discernment lies in working out how to live lives free from bondage to sin without presuming to be translated prematurely into a condition that is free from “the sufferings of this present time” (Rom. 8:18).