What the Bible Really Teaches About Marriage Equality

"The [Constitution] must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society." Chief Justice Earl Warren

On June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court legalized same sex marriages. According to a June 30, 2015 CNN poll, 59 percent of Americans agreed with the decision. Yet many who hold biblical faiths continue to grapple with the ruling. Some religious leaders, like The Very Reverend Gary Hall, Dean of Washington National Cathedral and Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, welcomed the ruling. Many others immediately condemned it, among them Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops and Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, both contending that marriage equality and homosexuality generally are sins forbidden by the Bible. More recently, the refusal of Kim Davis, an Apostolic Christian county official in Kentucky, to grant marriage licenses to same sex couples has focused renewed attention upon the ruling. Davis' subsequent jailing for contempt of court caused a furor of national proportions, replete with public demonstrations and outraged declarations voiced by a variety of religious organizations, church officials and other prominent religious figures and, of course, self-professed Christian politicians. Republican presidential aspirant and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee held a "Free Kim Davis" rally, at one point volunteering to take Davis' place in jail. A conservative Christian paramilitary group offered an armed security detail to protect Davis from further "unlawful" arrest. And in the neighboring state of Tennessee, officials of one county are actually considering passing a resolution "before God that He pass us by in His Coming Wrath and not destroy our County as He did Sodom and Gomorrah"! Obviously, the belief that homosexuality is condemned by the Bible as a major sin is deeply held. But what, if anything, does the Bible actually teach us about same-sex marriage and the equality of LGBT people? You'll be surprised.

At the outset, it is important to recognize that the people of biblical antiquity had no idea of homosexuality as an identity, an orientation or a lifestyle. In fact, there is no word in either ancient Hebrew or Greek that corresponds to "homosexuality" in the sense that we use it today. To the degree that the ancients might have referred to same gender sexual relations at all they would have only had in mind individual acts, not overarching identities. In fact, the term "homosexuality" was not even coined until the latter half of the 19th century. In addition, the first use of "homosexual" in the Bible did not occur until 1946 with the publication of the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible.

The first of the biblical passages that are understood to condemn homosexuality as sinful is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis (19:1-11), in which God destroyed those cities for their "wickedness." In this story we are told that a group of men insisted that God's servant Lot send out to them his three male visitors (who, unbeknownst to the men, were actually angels) so they could collectively "know them," i.e., engage in sexual relations with them. Lot strenuously resists their demand, at one point even offering his virgin daughters instead, but the men showed no interest in the young women. However, at no point does the text state or even imply that the men in the offending crowd were anything other than marauding heterosexuals; we are simply told that they sought to collectively have sex with Lot's guests, that is, to gang rape them. Despite these indications to the contrary, it long has been mistakenly derived from this passage that the crowd was comprised of homosexual men and that homosexuality was rampant in Sodom. This has resulted in the wrong-headed conclusion, unfortunately now widely accepted as biblical truth, that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed as punishment for the "sin" of homosexuality. It is from this mistaken reading of the story that we get the terms "sodomite" and "sodomy law," the latter of which for generations criminalized same gender sex in America and numerous other countries, even between mature, consenting adults. Tragically, such laws still stand - and are actively enforced - in an alarming number of nations.

Yet, the Bible itself tells a different story, that long before the crowd clamored for Lot's guests, God had already condemned Sodom as "wicked, great sinners" (e.g., Genesis 13:13), an apparent catch phrase for all types of transgressions. What did Sodom's wickedness actually entail? The book of Ezekiel (16:49) explains that it was not sexual sins, but rather "pride, excess of food... prosperous ease" (i.e., greed), and because it "did not aid the poor and needy". The prophet Jeremiah (23:14) gives the same general reasons; again same gender sexual relations are nowhere to be found. In the gospel of Matthew (10:14-15), Jesus implies that Sodom was destroyed for callous inhospitality - a real danger to social community and physical survival in peasant societies. The New Testament letter of Jude (1:7) does principally ascribe Sodom's destruction to sexual transgressions, but again without any reference to same gender sex: "Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah... indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust" (literally, "went after the flesh").

Biblical references to Sodom and Gomorrah overwhelmingly cite the issues of greed, unscrupulousness and domination of others as their fatal transgressions; there is little if any mention of any kind of sex, heterosexual or homosexual. Perhaps even more telling is that Jewish scholars did not associate the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexuality until that interpretation was advanced by the writings of the first century A.D. Jewish philosopher Philo, some 600-700 years after the book of Genesis was written. Even then the notion was not cited with any measure of consistency until the sixth century A.D. The inescapable conclusion here can only be that the use of the term "sodomite" as a signifier for a homosexual person, with all its baggage of immorality and depravity, has no basis in the Bible, precisely because the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is not about homosexuality. This is a crucial fact to acknowledge because much of the social marginalization and outright abuse of homosexual people in the world today can be traced to this tragic misunderstanding.

There are only two other direct references to male-on-male sex in the Old Testament (lesbianism is never mentioned). The context for both of these references is the Israelites' immigration into the land of Canaan, whose entrenched and highly organized society already had well-established religious customs. As newcomers, there was much pressure for the outnumbered Israelites, with their still evolving social and religious traditions, to assimilate into the Canaanite religious orbit. In order to protect the integrity and distinctiveness of Israelite religion, specific laws and liturgical prescriptions were issued and imbued with sacred status to compel the people of Israel to obey them.

One of the Canaanite religious practices that biblical commandments were apparently codified to guard against was the ritual of male Canaanite priests honoring revered goddess figures by dressing like women, taking on social roles associated with women and, in some cases, even undergoing voluntary castration. Another Canaanite practice that militated against Israelite religious sensibilities was what some scholars have called male and female ritual "temple prostitution," which actually is sexual activity performed in the context of religious worship, apparently for the purpose of appeasing their gods of fertility. This, too, the Israelites were forcefully admonished to avoid: "None of the daughters of Israel shall be qedeshah (literally "a female holy/consecrated one" -- that is, a temple prostitute) -- "nor shall any of the sons of Israel be qadesh" -- a male temple prostitute (Deuteronomy 23:17).

It is with the backdrop of Canaanite temple practices that cross-dressing by Israelites in imitation of the Canaanite practice is declared an "abomination" (Deuteronomy 22:5). It is also in this context that the following commandments are issued: "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination" (Leviticus 18:22) and, "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death" (Leviticus 20:13). These pronouncements have the appearance of timeless biblical laws, yet it seems clear that they were specifically codified -- with little sense of the complexity of human sexuality -- to protect Israelites from seduction into the more powerful alien cultures that surrounded them. One of the most telling confirmations that the primary purpose of these pronouncements was to ensure the Israelites' fealty to the God and religion of Israel is found in Leviticus (19:1-2): "You are to be qadosh, ("holy"; literally "set apart," i.e., from the practices of other societies) "as I myself am holy".

As for the Old Testament, that's it for references to same gender sex. Not a word in Proverbs or the Psalms. The books of the biblical prophets like Amos, and Micah and Isaiah rail against every social and moral transgression in Israel, yet not one of them says a word about same gender sexuality.

So we see that when they are considered in proper social and historical context, the meaning of the Old Testament passages that are traditionally understood to brand what we today call homosexuality as sinful and depraved are simply too ambiguous to support that claim. Moreover, as noted above, there is no mention of lesbianism at all. But what we do find in the Old Testament is the story of the love between David and Jonathan.

In the first of two biblical texts attributed to the prophet Samuel, we are told that "the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David ... and Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul" and that Jonathan sealed their covenant of love by giving gifts to David (1 Samuel 18:1-4). Later, David and Jonathan are described as "kissing each other and weeping" at their separation (20:41). After Jonathan's untimely death, David cries out to him, "Your love for me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:20).

Here we have a biblical story of a great love between two men that is said to be even dearer to them than the love of the opposite sex. Now, there is no way it can be claimed with any degree of certainty that this account actually narrates a sexual relationship between David and Jonathan. For centuries men in many cultures have routinely kissed the cheeks of other men in both greeting and affection; perhaps that is the kind of kiss these biblical figures shared. Still, should this love be considered any less beautiful, would it descend from sacred to profane, become worthy of disgust or even of death, if we were to learn that the physical contact between Jonathan and David indeed did go further than mere kissing? It is a worthy question, if for no other reason than that the biblical narrative of the love between David and Jonathan attests -- in sacred scripture, no less -- that love between two people of the same gender can be as deep and as holy as any other love.

In the New Testament, the significant passages thought to specifically condemn homosexuality are found in Romans and First Corinthians; in the four gospels Jesus neither speaks of it nor alludes to it. In Romans the apostle Paul writes,

God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural 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 due penalty for their error (Romans 1:26)


Contrary to widespread misinterpretations, here Paul's focus is neither male homosexuality nor lesbianism per se -- like everyone else in antiquity, Paul lacked a concept of alternative sexual orientations and identities -- but rather he speaks to what he calls "dishonorable passions:" purely lustful, orgiastic acts considered outside the pale of "honorable" sexual behavior; wanton sexual exploration and adventure, what in today's sexual vernacular might be called "freaky." Moreover, it must not be missed that when Paul speaks of those who exchange what is "natural" for what is "unnatural" he was condemning certain sexual actions by heterosexual men and women that had no motivation save lust; heterosexual persons wildly engaging in what was unnatural for them simply for sexual titillation. For this reason Paul's condemnation of "unnatural lusts" cannot be used as a blanket condemnation of same gender love and sexual intimacy; indeed, he is not describing love at all, only certain unnamed "dishonorable acts" between consenting heterosexual men and women that he considers "unnatural lusts."

It should not be overlooked that here Paul has made an argument from nature, declaring what is natural and what is not. Opponents of equal rights for gay Americans generally accept Paul's argument from nature without question. Yet, if an argument from nature is judged to be credible in Paul's case, should not the recent insights into human psychological and biological nature offered by modern science be taken seriously as well, i.e., that sexual orientation is established in early childhood and that the sexuality of an undetermined, yet an apparently significant percentage of homosexuals seems to have clear genetic origins? If marital policy and social attitudes toward homosexual Americans is to be based upon appeals to nature, even in part, then we should not be limited to ancient understandings of human nature offered without explanation. The insights of modern science rightfully should be considered as well.

In First Corinthians 6:9-10, however, Paul makes not an argument but an assertion:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakoi), sodomites (arsenokoita), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers -- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

Malakos, the singular form of the Greek term translated as "male prostitute," literally means "soft" or "effeminate." Its exact meaning for Paul is unclear, however. It is the judgment of numerous scholars that Paul uses the term here to refer to male child prostitutes. Yet many other scholars surmise that perhaps for Paul malakoi signified pedophiles. At any rate, his meaning cannot be conclusively determined.

Similarly, neither fully clear to us today is the meaning of arsenokoitai, the plural form of the term variously translated as "sodomite" and "sexual pervert," but it also seems to refer to some form of homosexual relationship, very possibly exploitive in nature. When it is considered that of their own volition a child will virtually never assume the degrading and physically painful role of an object of sexual exploitation, it is fully plausible that Paul uses malakoi to refer to children who are sexually exploited and that arsenokoita could refer to grown men who exploit them. Of this we cannot be certain, of course. Yet the case for arsenokoitai having the specific connotation of men who sexually exploit children may be strengthened by the fact that in the list of "the godless and disobedient" in 1 Timothy 1:10 (although it was probably written a generation or two after Paul's death by one of his disciples), arsenokoita is placed beside "slave traders," who were then, as today, notorious for all kinds of sexual exploitation of their enslaved chattel. But this reading raises the question of why an exploited boy would be denied entrance to the kingdom of God by the fact of his exploitation. Perhaps in Paul's strict morality he somehow understood both the malakoi and the arsenokoitai to be worthy of blame for their sexually immoral relationships. Or perhaps Paul is unwittingly blaming victims for their own victimization. But what is clear is that today the meaning of these terms for Paul is simply not clear. When this is coupled with the fact that there is no evidence that in Paul's day anything like a concept of homosexual identity was even close to taking shape, it becomes clear that we cannot conclude with any degree of certainty or integrity that what Paul condemned in his letters was what we today call "homosexuality."

Finally we come to the Gospels. Nowhere in any of the four Gospels does Jesus mention or even allude to same gender sexual love. What he does declare in Matthew's Gospel (25:31-46) is that the primary way every person is to be judged as worthy of heaven or hell -- apparently no matter what their personal beliefs might be -- is not by the standard of who they share intimate love with, but rather by whether they have lived justly, whether they have tried to serve those in need and labored to establish justice in the land. In the final analysis, there is nothing in the words of Jesus anywhere in the gospels that gives even the smallest sense that anyone will be judged by whom they choose to love, as long as they do choose to love.

Finally, the term "traditional marriage" is often used to challenge the right of gay people to sacralize their bonds of affection in marriage. As biblical scholars, cultural anthropologists and social scientists of various disciplines have acknowledged for generations, there has been a wide range of marital arrangements throughout history that many different cultures have considered traditional, if not sacred. And in the last four decades, reputable church historians, including the distinguished Yale historian, John Boswell, have uncovered and laboriously translated records that indicate that same-sex marital rites were performed at least in post-Apostolic and Medieval era Christian churches. It is possible that these documents represent non-sexual same gender marital bonding for the purpose of uniting power, authority, clan or resources. But whether these same gender unions, or any subset of them, were sexual in nature or not, by all indications they were still same sex marriages recognized and officiated by the ancient church.

The Bible itself speaks of a number of kinds of marital relationships, not only without condemning any of them, but also without presenting any one marital practice as "traditional." In the Bible there is polygamy, concubinage (an arrangement of sexual relationship in which a woman lives with a man but with a lower status than his wife (or wives); there is Sarah's urging of Abraham to impregnate their slave Hagar; there is Jacob marrying the sisters Rachel and Leah simultaneously and impregnating the female slave of each to boot. Moreover, in the gospel of Luke (20:27-44; cf. Deuteronomy 25:5-6) Jesus speaks without criticism or judgment about Levirate marriage, which holds that if a man dies childless, his widow is compelled to marry his eldest living brother so she might bear a child- preferably a son -- in the name of her dead husband. If the eldest brother dies without giving her a child, she is to marry the next eldest brother. If he should die without fathering a child with her, then she is to marry the next eldest, and on down the line of male siblings until she either bore a child or ran out of brothers.

None of these marital arrangements are condemned or treated as exceptional by the Bible. What is most important is to recognize, however, is that neither does the Bible affirm any of them as the biblical ideal. In other words, the notion that there is one "traditional" type of biblical marriage is not supported by the Bible. Of course, there are various cultural notions of traditional marriage that hold sway and are even valorized in various societies, but these must be viewed as just that: cultural traditions, not biblical traditions. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with extolling certain cultural practices as traditional. Indeed, as long as they are not harmful, coercive or destructive, there can be much to commend cultural traditions to any given society. However, widespread social acceptance of a cultural practice as "traditional" is not the same as biblical sanctioning. Indeed, there are societies that have traditions that run counter to the dictates of the Bible, such as the practice of immolating widows upon their husbands' funeral pyres as in some parts of India, for instance.

From all indications, opposition to same sex marriage will remain a controversial topic in American society for some time to come. Many of its opponents will continue to reference the Bible to buttress their arguments. But by now it should be clear that such claims only stand up to scrutiny if they willfully ignore translational issues and the crucial considerations of historical and social context. For as we have seen, the passages used to support the widely held belief that homosexuality is inherently sinful are far too ambiguous and far too open to dispute for anyone to be able to declare with anything like certainty -- or integrity -- that the Bible conclusively condemns it. The evidence is simply too slim to be the determining factor of anyone's happiness and life-chances, much less the life-chances of millions of people. And if homosexuality cannot be conclusively proven to be a biblical sin, there can be no biblical basis for condemning marriage equality as sinful. To put it quite plainly, one may oppose marriage equality on other grounds, but no one can rightfully use the Bible to do so.

The paraphrase above of Chief Justice Earl Warren's 1958 Trop v. Dulles opinion challenges our society to evolve its standards of decency. The Court's ruling that all Americans have the legal right to marry the spouse of their choice is a welcome answer to that challenge. After all, is that not what the Bible means when it tells us to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?

As for the Kim Davises and Mike Huckabees of the world, I accept that they are sincere in their belief that the Bible unequivocally declares homosexuality and same sex marriage to be sinful. They just happen to be sincerely wrong.