Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Oh what the heck, me too: Christianity, homosexuality, and Ockham's Razor

The InternetMonk has generated quite a controversy with a post called “What Does the Bible Actually Say About Homosexuality?” , in which Chaplain Mike argues that the Scriptures are at best questionable against homosexual behavior. The CNN Beliefs Blog rarely goes a day without posting something on the topic as well (though they do little to hide what they feel is the correct interpretation). Meanwhile, many other blogs have come out (no pun intended) on the other side of the debate, reinforcing the more traditional Christian viewpoint.

But what is true?

As with so many things and so many debates about the Bible, what is important is to distinguish fact from interpretation. Facts are data which every objective observer would agree upon; interpretations are methods of understanding these facts. For example, everyone agrees that Leviticus 18:22 condemns homosexuality; whether this condemnation is valid today for a Gentile believer is an interpretation. We all agree on the fact; we disagree on the interpretation.

So here let us focus on separating the “facts” of the Biblical record—what are the data points—and then we will discuss the interpretations. Then we can get a much more clear understanding of the situation. And only after we discuss both the facts and the interpretations will I share my thoughts.

The Biblical Facts

The Bible talks about homosexuality directly in some places and indirectly in others. Let us review each of these.

A. Genesis 9:20-27

Noah was drunk and passed out, when his son Ham came in and “saw the nakedness” of his father. This same phrase is used in Lev 18:6-18 and 20:17 to refer to the sin of incest. So this passage refers to Ham performing some homosexual, incestuous act on his father. As a result of this sin, Ham and his sons received a curse from God.

B. Genesis 19

Lot has visitors at his house when the men of Sodom attempt rape the visitors. Lot in a panic offers his own daughters instead (at this point, I think, we must take away Lot’s “father of the year” award). The men become enraged and storm the house. This is considered one of the gravest sins of the Old Testament Scriptures, and God's violent response is infamous.

C. Leviticus 18:22, 20:13

Leviticus is a book written as a sort of manual to the rituals of Judaism, telling what defiles a man to keep him from God’s presence, and what rituals can restore him to God’s good favor. The book is outlined as such:

1:1-7:38: How to make sacrifices and offerings
8:1-10:20: Institution of a Jewish priesthood
11:1-16:24: Ritual uncleanliness (foods, discharges, diseases)
17: Holiness Code: Food
18: Holiness Code: Sexual Behavior
19: Holiness Code: Neighborliness
20: Holiness Code: Grave Sin
21: Holiness Code: Rules for Priests
22: Holiness Code: Rules for Eating Sacrifices
23: Holiness Code: Festivals
24: Holiness Code: Rules for Worship, and Blasphemy
25: Holiness Code: Sabbaticals and Jubilee Years
26: Conclusion: Obey the Law
27: Redeeming gifts and vows

All agree that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 clearly define homosexuality as sins, first under the holiness code of sexual behavior (along with incest, adultery, child sacrifice) and second under the holiness code for grave sin (along with occultism, pronouncing curses on parents, adultery, incest, bestiality, and sex during menstruation). As we shall see later, though, interpretations vary on whether these codes apply.

D. Romans 1:18-32

Moving to the New Testament, we enter Paul’s letter to the Romans. Here in chapter one, Paul is describing those who reject the Gospel of Christ and the unrighteousness that they fall into in their lives—his key statement is in verse 25, where he says that rejection of God leads to worship of ourselves. In verses 26 and 27, Paul says that women and men exchanged from natural use to unnatural uses, burning in their lust for members of the same gender.

E. 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:9-10

In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is discussing the types of unrighteousness which separates man from God, and he lists fornication, idolatry, adultery, theft, envy, drunkenness, male prostitutes, etc. He also uses the word arsenokoites. Then, it 1 Tim 1, Paul again mentions a list of unlawful behaviors, such as perjurers, kinslayers, liars, fornicators, etc. Again here, Paul uses the word arsenokoites.

The use of this term for these banned sexual sins create a great deal of debate and interpretation, because they are rarely-used terms—in fact, these are the only two times that they are used in the New Testament. As such it is very hard to determine the "fact" in this case. The word arsenokoites is a compound word composed of arren—male and koite—bed or marriage bed.

This is a hot-button issue in textual translation because of its rarity. Thayer and Smith’s Greek Lexicon translates it definitively as “homosexual”, as do most of the major Biblical translators (e.g., NIV, ESV, NASB, Young’s Literal, HCSB, and NET). The NET Bible clarifies that this specifically refers to the physical act of penetration, not a sexual identity: in other words, they identify the sin not as homosexual orientation/feelings but homosexual sex acts.

However, the rarity of use does leave some room for translational argument. The word appears less than 100 times in all ancient documents combined, and generally speaking it refers to homosexual rape, pederasty, or male temple prostitution. Thus some say the proper translation of the word is "prostitute" or "pederast" rather than "homosexual". They also point out that androkoites is a common Greek word for homosexuality, and so they argue that Paul may have been avoiding this word on purpose. The more traditional translators above reply that Paul uses arsenokoites instead of the more common androkoites because he is referencing the common Roman term concubinus, or “male bed-mate”, which described a long-term homosexual relationship existing between two men before one of them married a woman.

As you can see, interpretation comes into play greatly in this case. What all can agree on as "fact" in this passage is that Paul lists several sexual sins, and some form of homosexual male sex—be it pederasty or male prostitution or more “normal” homosexual behavior—is outlawed. What exactly that form of sex is, remains up to interpretation.

F. Historical/Cultural

Thankfully, when it comes to history and culture, everyone basically agrees on the same facts:

• In the New Testament era, homosexuality was seen quite differently than in modern culture. One of the reasons that the terms are so difficult to understand is that sex was seen more from a standpoint of power than love; that is, Greco-Romans defined their sexuality not as “heterosexual” or “homosexual”, but rather as “dominant/penetrators” or “submissive/receivers”. So for those men who participated in homosexual acts, it was seen as perfectly acceptable if the “submissive” partner was of a lower social class (i.e., not free-born).

• Regarding Jewish society, the Levitical codes were quite clear, so any homosexuality was outlawed universally. (They were rather strange in this regard.) Most Christians throughout history have continued the Jewish attitude toward homosexuality; only in the last few years has it become a debated issue.

• Jesus never addresses homosexuality directly.

G. The Levitical Code and Christianity

The final fact which needs to be discussed is how the Levitical Holiness Codes apply to Christianity. Many pro-LGBT interpreters state (correctly) that we generally exclude Holiness Codes from New Testament behaviors. (Few Christians are concerned with avoiding the eating of shellfish, for example.)

The facts here are muddy, but we can say this:

1. The Mosaic Covenant in entirety (including holiness codes) were an agreement between God and the nation of Israel, and both Jesus and Paul are clear that these codes are not in effect for modern Christians.

2. On the other hand—some of the Holiness Codes discuss not ritual purity but rather grave sin which separates us from God at all times. (For example, bestiality and incest are mentioned in the Holiness Codes but not in early Christian documents, yet it is universally accepted that these are Christian sins as well.)

Summary of Facts

So, in true legal summation fashion, let me summarize the facts (which all objective observers should be abe to agree upon):

• The book of Genesis condemns the act of homosexual rape on more than one occasion.

• The ancient Mosaic Covenant clearly condemns any homosexual behavior.

• The Mosaic Covenant does not apply in whole to Christianity—some parts are Jewish-only.

• In Romans, Paul says that homosexual sex (male or female) is about self-worship rather than God-worship.

• In two other letters, Paul says that “man-bedding” (a term of debatable definition) is a grave sin.

• Early Jews, following the Mosaic Covenant, disagreed with homosexuality in any form.

• Although some forms of homosexuality were common in Gentile communities, Christians seem generally to have followed the Jewish mindset.

• Jesus did not speak on the issue of homosexuality (neither for nor against the traditional Jewish anti-homosexuality view).

These seem to be the facts with which we all agree.

The Two Common Interpretations

Ultimately I think that all of the great variety of Christian stances on homosexuality can be broken down into three interpretive paradigms.

Paradigm A: Pro-LGBT

Under this paradigm, the Genesis passages are interpreted as condemnations of rape, not homosexuality. The Mosaic Covenant condemnations may be ignored under the New Covenant as not applicable to Gentiles saved by grace. The Romans passage is interpreted as referring to fornication and promiscuity (based on the reference to “self-worship”) rather than monogamous relationships. The word arsenokoites is translated as pederasty or temple prostitution, based upon the fact that these are the ways it is generally used elsewhere in ancient Greek literature. Though early Jews and Christians throughout history have been anti-LGBT, this is seen as an unloving failure to treat all of God’s people the same, and thus it is believed that now is the time to change such beliefs. Jesus’ silence is seen as neither proof nor disproof of this belief, because Jesus was silent on many ancient practices that Christians rebel against (such as slavery).

Paradigm B: Homosexual acts are always a sin

The other Christian interpretation is muddled about the Genesis passage--some say that it is about rape, some say it is about homosexuality. Regarding Leviticus, though the Holiness Code should not be accepted in its entirety, all of the sins listed in the same passages as homosexuality are still considered immoral by all Christians—incest, bestiality, occultism, adultery, child sacrifice, etc. So, they argue, why would homosexuality be the only sin in this list which we now say is acceptable? If the LGBT Christians accept homosexuality, why not incest or adultery or bestiality, if you just throw out the entire holiness code for sex? This interpretation further takes all of Paul’s three condemnations in the traditional Christian sense (i.e., as references to homosexuality). It accepts the ancient Jewish/Christian view that homosexuality is wrong, and takes Jesus’ silence on the matter as confirmation—since He spent so much time talking about other things in the holiness codes, this is a strange one to leave out if He disagreed.

I think that these are pretty fair arguments for each side.

So now, what is my take?

My Take, Part I: On Debatable Things

Look in the upper-right of this blog, and you see something that I repeat time and again: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

So let me just come right out and say it: homosexuality is not an “essential”. Go ahead, read the creeds from Apostles to Chalcedon. Read the plan of salvation. Notice that in the entire Bible, we have only a handful of passages referring to homosexuality. This is not an “essential” of the faith. It is okay for honest believers to disagree on this issue.

So, I have two things to say about how to show love in this case...one thing for each side of the debate:

Paradigm A: If you accept the LGBT viewpoint and are a believer, then please go read Romans 14. Paul is talking about how some Christians, on the “debatable” points of how to apply the holiness code to eating, come up with different results: some Christians applied the holiness code and others did not. In your mind, this is the same as your situation—those who see homosexuality as a sin have “weaker” and more primitive faiths than yours on this debatable matter. This is just what Paul said about those who still did not feel comfortable eating meat. So what did Paul advise? Do not treat them with contempt (14:10), and understand that even though you may not see homosexuality as unclean, it is very unclean in the eyes of those who hold to Paradigm B. Paul thus tells you to be careful not to be a stumbling block (14:13), and that you could be destroying their faith (14:15). He says that to “flaunt” your freedoms in front of them when you know it will distress them is not an act of love, but of cruelty since it hurts their faith (14:15-16). This doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to hide your lifestyle from the world or stay “in the closet”; but it does mean that you should find a church where LGBT Christianity is accepted, and try to be loving and cognizant of the fact that most others around you have a different viewpoint—so openly ‘flaunting’ this lifestyle will divide and drive Christians apart not together. (Example: I have no problem with moderate drinking and do not find it to be against the teaching of Scripture. Yet my in-laws are teetotaller Baptists. So when I am around them, I am very careful to keep my acceptance of drinking "private", so as not to be a stumbling block. I argue that it is the same with homosexuality: if you are a Christian and LGBT, then you must be aware that most Christians are not of the same mindset. So do not flaunt your lifestyle but keep it private, lest you harm the faith of those around you.)

Paradigm B: If you are a believer and believe homosexuality is a sin, let me simply ask you a question: how do you treat those around you who are also guilty of other sexual sins? Are you leading political activism to ban sex outside of marriage? Or adoption by single parents? Or to outlaw remarriage of a divorcee? Or to make divorce possible only in the case of adultery? Or to outlaw pornography? Why is it that you can “live and let live” with other sexual behaviors but you cannot “live and let live” with homosexuality? We are called, above and beyond all else, to be forgiving and non-judgmental to those around us. You believe that homosexuals are living in continual sexual sin, and you condemn them for it. Recall what Jesus said: the cup of measure you use against others is what will be used against you. So before you condemn them for sexual sin, examine your own life—are you sinning sexually? Do you masturbate while thinking lustful thoughts about someone other than your wife? Do you look at pornography? Did you have sex outside of marriage? Did you get divorced for a reason other than adultery and then remarry? According to the New Testament, all of these are examples of ongoing, continual sexual sin. So before you hold the homosexuals to this kind of standard, be sure that you are truly pure as well. Be loving in all of your conversations with LGBT people. Remember that the essential point of our faith is: do they believe in Jesus? Do they believe Jesus lived, died, and lived again? Do they accept to follow His Lordship in their lives? This is an issue far more important than how they translate a particular archaic Greek word. So treat them with the love that they deserve. Remember what Paul says in Romans 14:13-18: to stop passing judgment on other Christians, to see them as someone for whom Christ died, and that anyone who chooses to live peacefully with those of different theologies is serving Christ and pleasing Him.

In summary for both sides: LOVE each other! This requires both the pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT sides to remember that salvation before Christ comes first and foremost above all things. Accepting His Gospel is what we are called to do, and to do so we must remember that we are all sinners. (Sinning heterosexually is not somehow better than sinning homosexually!) Do not judge each other, and do not be a stumbling block that keeps others from accepting Jesus into their lives. This requires that anti-LGBT people show love to those who are gay, and are able to have healthy Christian relationships with believers of any sexual orientation. This also requires that pro-LGBT believers understand and love their brethren enough to see that openly flouting a LGBT lifestyle will be a stumbling block to other Christians, and out of respectfulness these things should be kept as private and modest as possible.

My Take, Part II: What Do I Believe?

Ah, so now I finally get to it: what do I believe?

As I have stated above quite thoroughly, we all seem to agree on the facts, and so it is just a question of interpretation at this point—which debatable interpretation seems more likely to be true?

I analyze situations like this by referring to an old philosophers/scientific principle: Ockham’s Razor. Ockham’s Razor (often misquoted in popular science) is simply a good reminder for developing any theory or interpretation of facts: “do not needlessly make assumptions.” In other words, if you have two different interpretations which explain the same data equally well, the one which requires fewer assumptions to do so is the preferred interpretation.

Now to agree with Paradigm A, you must assume: the other sexual acts of the Mosaic Covenant are still wrong, but for some reason homosexuality isn’t; the Romans passage does not apply to monogamous homosexual relationships—but there is no evidence for this; arsenokoites should be translated in a way that is not about “normal” homosexual relationships, despite the agreement of the majority of Biblical translators; and the early Jewish and Christian beliefs have no bearing on the situation. Further, you must assume that Jesus was silent about this radically different view of sexuality being acceptable.

So these are all assumptions that must be made to support the conclusion.

In Paradigm B, you only must accept that arsenokoites has been properly translated by most Christians throughout history. No other assumption is really needed to make your case. You can even completely ignore Leviticus and still make a strong case if you translate arsenokoites in the traditional manner.

So when I look at the interpretations, it seems to me clear that the first paradigm (the pro-LGBT paradigm) must accept many more assumptions (and more aggressive assumptions) in order to make their case than the “homosexuality is a sin” crowd does. You can make a case for homosexuality being okay using Scripture (the case is not entirely open-and-shut), but it is VERY hard to do so. Indeed, at times the “interpretation” seems to me to be crossing the line into “twisting the Scripture” territory. The assumptions required for this interpretation, in other words, seem to go beyond the realm of what is acceptable and into the realm of “confirmation bias”—accepting only the parts of the Bible that agree with you and ignoring the obvious implications of the rest.

Ultimately both the quantity and the degree of the assumptions required to accept the pro-LGBT view are more higher than the traditional interpretation.

So as for me, to put it plainly: I do still agree with the traditional view that marriage is between a man and wife, and that homosexuality is a sin.

But I strongly caution all of my fellow Christians in this way: almost no one in this debate is handling it in a Christlike manner, on either side. Too many Christians have forgotten that the thing which binds Christians together is not a lifestyle of works, but a lifestyle of grace—and that we are commanded not to let things which are “debatable” divide us. Those who are pro-LGBT are forgetting Paul’s Romans 14 advice and are becoming stumbling blocks to their brethren; those who are anti-LGBT are forgetting that they too are sexual sinners and Christ died for us all.

All seem to forget that our true goal in evangelism is to unify against the forces of Darkness and show the world that Jesus really lived, really died, and really lives again—and will come again. That is essential. All else is debatable.

Love one another. Debate the Scripture--absolutely! Try and convince each other and pray for one another. Such things are healthy and helpful in all areas of theology, especially when we are trying to become more pure followers of Jesus. But be very, very careful that you do not judge other believers. That is not your place, or your right. And if you judge them for ongoing sexual sin, Jesus says you too will be judged for your ongoing sexual sin. So debate the debatable things--but only if you can do so in love.


  1. I came here from a link on Internet Monk's dicussion. I thought you have done a good job with this. Especially in putting your finger on the fact that there is so little Christ in the discussion. Thanks

  2. Hi, Michael. My response is too long to fit in the box, so I posted it on Open Salon at http://open.salon.com/blog/urban_forager/2012/07/26/a_response_to_michael_belote

    1. Urban, I must say thank you for a thoroughly intriguing and well-written response. And you definitely have me on one point: using Ockham's Razor against my comment on translating arsenokoites is brilliant and a fair critique of inconsistency on my side.

      Your response is as compelling as anything I've ever read on the subject, and I'm going to need more time to think through and process it. I might need to make some changes to the way I have thought about things as a result. Thank you for that - challenging each other lovingly and respectfully is exactly what helps us all become more Christlike in the end.

      I think the one thing that stands out the most to me in your response, and the one thing that I now regret about my original post, is the comparison to alcohol/teetotalling. Not being LGBT myself, of course I have no way of experiencing the potentially harmful effects of "keeping quiet", so I fear I came across insensitively here, for which I apologize.

      My primary point was that we must be respectful of each other and note that we can build relationships first based upon the shared Christ that we have, rather than expending our energy trying to convince everyone else of our interpretations (pro- or anti-LGBT). For example, I had a co-worker at a company where I was on staff who was "moderately open" about her lesbianism (she neither hid it when it came up, nor brought it up often). Despite the fact that there were many non-Christian liberals on our staff, I was the only one she felt comfortable hanging out with and going golfing with: because I did not judge her, while the others all did.

      And that was the main point I was going for: that our focus as Christians is to be united in the essential theologies, rather than divided in our interpretive differences. Any offense I caused with poor word choice, I apologize for. I do still feel like Paradigm B is the one which makes the most sense, but your very thoughtful response gives me pause, and more time of consideration of Paradigm A is needed on my part. Thanks for that!

    2. Urban,

      I did (as promised) give some thought to your arguments over the past few weeks and while intriguing they still leave little doubt as to the Biblical stance regarding homosexuality. Reading the comments regarding sexuality by the early church fathers and other ancient Jewish writers re-confirms what I already believed: it was the overwhelming stance of the church at the time that homosexuality was not a valid alternative lifestyle--not simply pederasty, but any homosexual activity. There can be little doubt regarding this, and therefore it again seems to me that Ockham's Razor clearly sides with this interpretation.

      But again, I do state that we should be able to have the discussion with love and not hate, on either side of the debate.