I have written a Grove booklet on Same-sex Unions: the key biblical texts which is available from the Grove website. It explores, briefly, all the main biblical texts in the Old and New Testaments which come up in the debate on the issue.
Here is the chapter on the gospels and Acts.
The material in the gospels and Acts is of quite a different kind from the texts we have been looking at so far, in that there is no explicit mention of same-sex sexual activity. Arguments from this part of the New Testament therefore need to be made by inference to a large degree. This does not mean that there is nothing of importance here. But it does mean that we need to read realistically, taking historical context seriously, and being aware of the dangers of arguments from silence.
One of those arguments is that Jesus said nothing directly about the question of same-sex unions, and the inference made is that Jesus’ teaching has nothing to contribute. This is not strictly true, as we can see from two sets of texts.
First, in relation to the dispute about divorce (Mark 10.6, Matt 19.4), Jesus returns to the creation accounts. He emphasises the gender binary of humanity by citing Gen 1.27 first, before citing the explicit teaching on marriage in Gen 2.24. Marriage is not to be dissolved trivially, since it represents the restoration of the original unity of humanity.
Secondly, Jesus mentions sexual morality in Matt 15.19 (par Mark 7.21):
For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
It is worth noting that ‘sexual immorality’ (porneiai) is in the plural, and is included as a separate item from ‘adultery’ (moicheia). This term would include premarital sex before marriage,27 and sex with a prostitute, but would also refer to illicit sexual unions prohibited in Leviticus 18.28 Given Jesus’ ‘conservative’ approach to sexual ethics generally (such as supporting the more restrictive of the approaches to divorce), it is difficult to imagine that he did not also share the characteristic Jewish rejection of same-sex relations.
Against this, it is often noted that Jesus caused a scandal by his association with ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ (Mark 2.15–17; Luke 5.29–31; Matt 9.10–13), that he touched the ‘lepers’ (Matt 8.3) and others who would have been considered unclean (Mark 5.25–34). Eating meals with such people was particularly significant, since sharing food in someone’s home was a sign of acceptance of them.29 This was clearly a significant aspect of Jesus’ ministry, and one we need to take seriously. In some ways it is continued in the first generations of Christians; from what we can tell, the Jesus movement was particularly attractive to those in the lower echelons of first-century society. If any marginalized group in society is missing from the church, this suggests that we are not following Jesus’ pattern of engagement.30 But we also need to observe:
- Jesus’ scandalous association with ‘sinners’ never leads to accusations that he himself behaved immorally. Rather, where the Pharisees see themselves as being in danger of contamination by the uncleanness of sinners, Jesus appears to act as though it is his holiness which will ‘infect’ those around him. Had Jesus relaxed biblical teaching on sexual relations in any respect, it would have been the first thing used against him by his opponents. The silence here is very significant.
- Jesus explicitly reinforces his association with ‘sinners’ in his teaching about his mission and the kingdom of God: ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’ (Matt 21.31).
- Jesus’ consistent teaching in relation to the kingdom is that it demands a response of ‘repentance’ (Mark 1.15). God’s initiative in coming close to us must lead to a response of change, in our thinking, in our behaviour and in the direction of our life.31 In Matt 21.31, Jesus links the comment about those entering the kingdom with the teaching of John the Baptist, and Luke 3 gives an account of the specific changes John’s preaching demanded.
So Jesus’ association with ‘sinners’ was not simply a question of hanging around with undesirables, or even welcoming them, but being prepared to take the risk of being with them in order to preach the good news of the transforming power of God’s presence in his kingdom. If anything marked him out from the Pharisees, it was his belief that even these ‘sinners’ could change and be transformed.32 This is typified in the encounter with the woman caught in adultery in John 8. In this encounter, Jesus simultaneously confronts the hypocrisy of the accusers, pronounces forgiveness to the woman, and affirms the possibility of change and transformation: ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more’ (John 8.11).33
Several other arguments have been made to suggest that Jesus’ teaching should lead us to accept same-sex activity:
- Dan Via, in his debate with Robert Gagnon, notes that Jesus comes to bring ‘life and life in all its fullness’ (John 10.10). Via argues that, for people with same-sex attraction, to deny sexual expression to that would be to prevent them living in this ‘fullness of life.’ This raises some significant pastoral questions, but it does seem to set aside Jesus’ own example as a single person, who appears to have experienced ‘fullness of life’ without such sexual expression, and with it the long Christian tradition of celibacy.34 In relation to the text of John, it also requires us to separate this idea from Jesus’ teaching a few chapters later, that this full life is found in ‘obeying my commandments’ (John 14.15); somehow or other, this ‘fullness’ is present in the restriction of obedience.
- Some have argued that Jesus himself set aside OT laws (such as the importance of Sabbath in Mark 2.27 and food laws in Mark 7.14–19) on the basis of common sense and human need. These are, in fact, better understood as Jesus restoring both Sabbath and food to their original creation purposes.
- Others have suggested that there are ‘hidden’ affirmations of same-sex relations in the story of the centurion’s servant (Matt 8.5–13) or the two men in a bed (Luke 17.34). But, as with the story of David and Jonathan, such approaches are imposing a sexualized reading for which there is no evidence in the text and no real possibility historically.
- It has also been argued that the admission of the Gentiles into the people of God, following the council in Acts 15, offers a paradigm for the church’s response to those with same-sex attraction. The difficulty with this is that it ignores the nature and rationale of the fourfold prohibition in Acts 15.29, which correspond to the laws that apply to ‘resident aliens’ in Lev 17–18, including the prohibition on same-sex activity.35
Acts 15 requests Gentiles to refrain from certain activities which were viewed as part of their Gentile identity and there is a strong case that amongst these was homosexual practice…[T]he value of Acts 15 for those seeking further to revise traditional church teaching on homosexuality is very limited. Indeed, by focusing attention on the Jerusalem council, revisionists may, ironically, have highlighted yet another biblical basis for insisting that, even as the church continues to struggle with this issue, to repent of its past hostility to gay people, and to welcome them into the church and learn from them as gay Christians, it must appeal to all disciples of Christ to refrain from homosexual conduct.36
27 Thus Joseph’s action in Matt 1.18–19.
28 See R T France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007) pp 586–587 and 208–209.
29 This makes Jesus’ instructions on sending out the 12 and 72 challenging for his followers (see Luke 10.7–8).
30 The group consistently missing from churches in the West has been the working class, and especially working-class men.
31 The Greek word here, metanoeo, has a sense of ‘thinking again’ but also translates the Hebrew shuv, which means ‘turn,’ literally in the sense of a change in direction and metaphorically meaning a change in direction of life.
32 Note that elsewhere he commends the teaching of the Pharisees; it is their failure to live out their teaching that he condemns (Matt 23.3).
33 The Lukan style of the passage makes it unlikely that it was part of John’s gospel originally, and poor textual support raises questions about its historical authenticity. But the episode seems highly characteristic of what we know of Jesus elsewhere in the gospels.
34 It is worth noting here that we have no evidence that Jesus was heterosexual in terms of contemporary categories of sexual orientation.
35 Richard Bauckham, ‘James and the Gentiles (Acts 15.13–21)’ in Ben Witherington III (ed), History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts (Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp 172–173.
36 Andrew Goddard, Gays, Gentiles and the Church (Grove Ethics booklet E121) p 25.