Tuesday, 1 November 2016

What Did Jesus Make of Homosexual Practice?

At the present time, homosexuality is an issue that is very much in the spotlight in Christian circles.  In Western countries, professing Christians, i.e., people defining themselves as Christians, are increasingly abandoning the idea that homosexual practice is always wrong.  Instead, more and more of them are claiming that in certain circumstances it is acceptable to God.   

Setting the Old and New Testaments against each other

Professing Christians who make this claim sometimes try to contrast the Old and New Testaments.  Those taking this approach admit that the OT condemns all homosexual practice.  But they say that the NT, written under New Covenant conditions, teaches that this practice is at times morally acceptable.  Because the New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant, so the argument goes, this must mean that in some circumstances homosexual practice is not wrong in God’s sight. 

People who argue in this way, however, are fairly few in number.  And the reason for this is surely that there are passages in the NT which strongly and clearly condemn homosexual practice in an unconditional way.  See Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  And for more details on this point, see my article: What Attitude Should Christians Have to Homosexuality?

Setting Jesus against Paul

More commonly, professing Christians who try to use the NT to support homosexual practice take a different approach.  There are many who admit that Paul condemns this practice outright, but who claim that Jesus’ attitude as revealed in the Gospels is very different.  They argue that because Jesus’ teaching is most important, we should reject Paul’s understanding as mistaken.

Those who argue in this way have made two huge mistakes, however.

First, they have failed to acknowledge the authority of the Bible.  Scripture can rightly be described as ‘The Manual for the Human Life’.  And it is simply not the case that the NT contradicts itself in its moral teaching. 

Second, the Gospels provide us with strong evidence that in the time of His earthly ministry Jesus was firmly opposed to all homosexual practice.  It is this second point that I will discuss in what follows. 

Let’s turn, then, to see what the Gospels have to say about this issue:

Jesus on Sodom

In Matthew 11:23-24 Jesus says: 
23 And you will not be exalted to heaven, will you, Capernaum?  . . .  For if the miracles that took place in you had taken place in Sodom, it would still be here today.  24 Nevertheless, I tell you that on the Day of Judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’ 
He teaches something very similar, also by referring to Sodom, in Matthew 10:14-15 and Luke 10:10-12.

To begin with, we need to recognise that these passages fit very well with the teaching of the historical Jesus.  The evidence of the Gospels as a whole makes it clear that in His ministry Jesus told people to repent of their sins and to respond positively to Himself.  In the light of this, His sayings on Sodom look genuine.  They have Jesus written all over them.  So there is no good reason for claiming that Jesus never spoke the words in these verses.

In these passages Jesus clearly implies that what the people of Sodom did was seriously wrong.  It is true that He also implies that those who reject His message are even worse.  But the whole point of mentioning Sodom is because it is a benchmark for bad behaviour.   

So what sins of the Sodomites did Jesus have in mind?  Well, Genesis 13:13; 18:20-33; 19:13 tells us only that the Sodomites were very sinful, without giving any further information.  In Genesis 19:1-9, however, more detail is given.  In this passage they are portrayed as guilty of attempted homosexual rape.

Importantly, however, in first century Judaism the sin of the Sodomites had come to be associated simply with homosexual practice, without any connotation of rape.  This is similar to how ‘sodomy’ became a term in English to refer to male homosexual acts, also without a connotation of rape.   

Some might want to argue that Jesus could have had a different view from the usual one.  They might claim that when He condemned the Sodomites, He was specifically condemning homosexual rape, and perhaps other sins as well, but not consensual homosexual practice.

It is true that we shouldn’t just assume that Jesus held the views of His contemporaries on things.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand Him to be taking a different view of the sin of the Sodomites from that of mainstream Jews in His day.   

When Jesus says that on the Day of Judgment it will be more tolerable for the Sodomites than for certain others, He is giving a new piece of information – that the others will be in big trouble – by reference to a known piece of information – that the Sodomites will be in a lot of trouble.   

By using a comparison of this sort, it would be surprising if Jesus didn’t have the same understanding of the known piece of information as those listening to His words.  If He had differed from mainstream Jews in His understanding of what the sins of the Sodomites consisted of, it would have made much more sense for Him to have found a different way of stressing the sins of those who rejected His message.

Jesus’ sayings about Sodom therefore provide a significant piece of evidence that during His earthly ministry He believed all homosexual practice was sinful and liable to severe punishment.

Jesus on marriage

Matthew 19:3-6 tells us: 
3 Some Pharisees came to [Jesus] and tested Him.  They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” 
4 He replied, “Haven’t you read that He who created them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore, let no one separate what God has joined together.” ’ 
In vv. 4-5 Jesus quotes the creation account in Genesis 1:27; 2:24.  Mark 10:2-9 contains very similar words of Jesus, also quoting Genesis 1:27; 2:24.

Again, the first thing we need to recognise is that there is good reason for believing that Jesus really did teach what is found in these passages.  The teaching on divorce and remarriage attributed to Him in the Gospels is at odds not only with the Jewish Law of Moses, but also with Greek and Roman customs.  And this difference helps to authenticate the teaching as genuinely from Jesus.  It also makes perfect sense that He would have based His strict approach to divorce and remarriage on the Genesis account, as He is portrayed doing in Matthew 19:4-5 and Mark 10:6-8. 

Genesis 2:24 states that a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, and Jesus apparently understood this as a reference to physical joining in sexual intercourse.  This is certainly how Paul understands this verse in 1 Corinthians 6:16. 

But in Genesis and in Jesus’ words, becoming one flesh also seems to imply something more, that in sexual union there is a deeper level of bonding, as 1 Corinthians 6:16 also implies.

Importantly too, both Genesis and Jesus’ words in Matthew and Mark (and Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians) strongly suggest that this deep bonding is only appropriate in the context of a marriage relationship between a husband and wife.  And this means that Jesus would not have condoned homosexual acts. 

Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in Matthew 19:3-6 and Mark 10:2-9 is therefore strong evidence that He believed that all homosexual acts are sinful.

The centurion and his slave

In Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:2-10 stand the accounts of the centurion whose slave is healed by Jesus.  There are some who claim that in these accounts, especially in Luke’s version, Jesus endorses a homosexual relationship.  They argue in this way:

In these passages, the Greek word pais is used to refer to the slave (Matthew 8:6, 8, 13; Luke 7:7).  In the Greco-Roman world pais was sometimes used of a male slave who was his master’s homosexual partner.  Luke’s account also uses the Greek word entimos to describe how the centurion viewed the slave (Luke 7:2), and this word means ‘precious’.  Therefore, we have evidence of a homosexual relationship between them. 

This is an extremely weak argument. 

First, in the Greek of NT times, the word pais just meant ‘(male) slave’ or ‘(male) servant’ (or ‘child’ in some contexts).  This word didn’t in itself suggest that the slave/servant in question had a sexual relationship with his master.

Second, in the Greco-Roman world most male slaves didn’t have sexual relationships with their masters, and there is not even a hint in the context of either Matthew or Luke that this one did. 

Third, in context the word entimos probably actually means something like ‘highly valued’ rather than ‘precious’.  However, even if entimos does imply that the slave was dear to the centurion, there is still no reason for seeing any implication of a sexual relationship between the two. 

In short, there is no suggestion in this passage that Jesus is endorsing a homosexual relationship.

Those born as eunuchs

In Matthew 19:12 Jesus states: 
‘For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.  And there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by people.  And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’ 
Some claim that when Jesus refers here to those who were born as eunuchs, He is thinking about people who have homosexual orientation.  And they say that His words show that He is endorsing homosexual practice.

This argument is entirely without foundation. 

Technically, a eunuch is a man who has been castrated.  So, those who were born as eunuchs are apparently men who were born without testicles. 

It is true that in the latter part of the verse Jesus speaks about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  And here we should understand the word ‘eunuch’ loosely as a reference not to those who have literally castrated themselves but to those who abstain from sexual relations.  Despite this loose usage later in the verse, it is most natural to understand the word literally in the reference to those who were born as eunuchs.

Most importantly, however, whether the word is used literally or figuratively, the most important characteristic of a eunuch is that he is celibate!  To interpret those born as eunuchs as practising homosexuals is therefore an extremely implausible interpretation of Jesus’ words. 

Nothing entering can defile

In Mark 7:15 Jesus teaches: 
‘There is nothing that goes into a person from outside that can defile him . . .’ 
And a few verses later, in Mark 7:18-19, He continues: 
18 . . . “Are you also so lacking in understanding?  Don’t you understand that nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, 19 because it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out into the latrine.”  (Thus He declared all foods clean.)’ 
Some claim that in saying that nothing entering a person can defile him, Jesus is implying that homosexual acts are not sinful.

This, however, is a total misinterpretation of what Jesus is saying.  The context has to do with eating certain foods, as v. 19 makes clear.  So to understand His words as referring also to something other than foods is unwarranted.  There is no support here for the view that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice.

Two on one bed

In Luke 17:34, referring to the time of His return to earth, Jesus states: 
‘I tell you, on that night there will be two on one bed.  One will be taken and the other will be left.’ 
The Greek literally reads ‘on one bed’, although ‘in one bed’ is a possible English translation.   

In this verse the Greek words for ‘one’ and ‘other’ are both masculine.  Some therefore claim that Jesus is thinking about two men in a sexual relationship sharing a bed, and that He is endorsing homosexual practice. 

At first sight, this argument might seem to carry some real weight.  However, we should be careful not to rush to any conclusions.

First, it is quite possible that a man and a woman are in view in this verse, despite the two masculine words.

We need to bear in mind that NT Greek often uses the masculine gender when referring to a combination of people who include at least one male and at least one female.

It is true that things are somewhat different in this verse, since the masculine words are each used to refer to a single person.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t look unreasonably awkward if two masculines are being used with reference to a man and a woman.  The Greek language was probably flexible enough to allow this.

It is important to note that there is a good reason why two masculine words might have been chosen in preference to one masculine and one feminine, even if a man and a woman are in view in this verse.  If one masculine and one feminine word had been chosen for ‘one’ and ‘other’, a decision would have to have been made about whether the man or the woman was taken or left behind, i.e., which was and wasn’t saved from God’s judgment. 

However, it is not difficult to believe that Luke wouldn’t have wanted to portray Jesus expressing a decision of this sort.  Using two masculine words to refer to a man and a woman would allow Jesus’ saying to avoid any suggestion of whether the man or the woman is saved.  (Jesus’ original Aramaic could also have been ambiguous.)

Second, even if v. 34 does have two men in view, that in no way has to suggest a sexual relationship between them.  Different cultures have very different attitudes to non-sexual bed-sharing.  The key factor is often the amount of space available. 

Today, as in the first century, there are places in the world where houses typically have only one room (see Matthew 5:15).  In such cases, people have no option but to sleep close together.  Even in Luke’s Gospel itself, we find a man and his children in bed (Luke 11:7), where the Greek most naturally suggests the same bed, which would presumably have been a mat on the floor. 

Of course, even if the bed of Luke 17:34 is envisaged as being in a one-room house, it is still true (if the reference is not to a man and a woman) that only two men are mentioned being present.  Someone might therefore want to argue that the fact that no other family members are referred to is evidence for a homosexual relationship between these men.

We do need to be very careful, however, not to read too much out of concise sayings like this one.  Jesus really gives us very little information here, and scenarios other than a sexual relationship would fit well as the context of His words. 

When all things are considered, there is no need at all to think that Luke 17:34 portrays Jesus endorsing homosexual practice.

Summing up

That concludes our survey of the most relevant biblical passages on Jesus’ attitude to homosexual practice.  So what have we found?

Firstly, Jesus’ sayings about Sodom and marriage strongly suggest that in the time of His earthly ministry He viewed all homosexual practice as a serious sin.  And secondly, there are no passages that contradict this. 

Of course, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), His attitude will not have changed since. 

A warning

In preparation for writing this article, I spent some time researching the kinds of arguments that people use to support the view that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice.  What struck me was how weak these arguments tend to be, as I hope I have shown in some of the discussion above.  If it weren’t such a serious matter, many of the arguments are so bad that they would actually be quite amusing. 

When people argue in a careless way, it is often because they think they would have nothing to lose even if their arguments are actually wrong.  I get the impression that many of those who say that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice have a similar attitude.  They think there will be no price to pay even if they are mistaken.  And so they are not really trying to be honest in their interpretation of the Bible.

This is foolishness of a very high order and also very tragic.  In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul explicitly tells his readers not to be deceived into believing that practising homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God, i.e., end up in heaven.  It is a tragedy that many have allowed themselves to be deceived in exactly this way.  Paul is clear that unrepentant practising homosexuals are firmly on track for punishment in hell.  And God’s warnings in the Bible are meant genuinely, so we can be sure that He will follow through on them.

It is true that people are saved by faith in Christ and not by doing good deeds.  But, according to the Bible, if someone has saving faith, that faith will always be expressed in a concerted effort to do what is right.  There is an unbreakable bond between saving faith and fighting against sin. 

Therefore, if someone is unrepentantly involved in homosexual practice, this is a sure sign that he or she does not have saving faith.

See also: