Are same-sex relationships acceptable to God? An increasing number of Christians believe that they are. There are several arguments which are employed to defend this position, and some of these refer directly to the Bible’s teaching. What are these arguments and how convincing are they?
A different type of same-sex relationship
Biblical authors did not know about loving, committed same-sex relationships, and so what the Bible says can’t apply to those kinds of relationships today. And if the biblical authors do condemn same-sex relationships, this condemnation is based on reasons which we now know to be untrue.
It’s far from certain that the biblical authors knew nothing of the type of same-sex relationships we see around us today. While there were many forms of same-sex union in the ancient world, and many of these were not loving and committed, there is good evidence that some were. 1
Reflecting on this question, N.T. Wright has said, ‘As a classicist, I have to say that when I read Plato's Symposium, or when I read the accounts from the early Roman empire of the practice of homosexuality, then it seems to me they knew just as much about it as we do. In particular, a point which is often missed, they knew a great deal about what people today would regard as longer-term, reasonably stable relations between two people of the same gender. This is not a modern invention.' 2 It’s therefore very possible that biblical authors did know of relationships similar to those we see today.
The broader cultural context has been allowed a greater influence than the details of the biblical texts themselves.
When it is acknowledged that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships, it is often argued that this condemnation was based on reasons which are no longer relevant to us. In particular, in the ancient world same-sex sexual activity was often criticised as an outworking of excessive lust and for the way it undermined cultural expectations about gender roles.
However, there is no evidence in the relevant passages (e.g. Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9) that these reasons lie behind the biblical condemnations. The creation plan of male and female uniting as one flesh seems the more important background in each case. In this affirming argument, the broader cultural context has been allowed a greater influence than the details of the biblical texts themselves.
The Bible’s trajectory
The Bible doesn’t give the final word on every subject. On topics like slavery, we recognise a trajectory from acceptance to condemnation. The opposite can be seen for same-sex relationships: a trajectory from condemnation to acceptance.
Christians have rightly come to condemn all forms of slavery, and it is true that the Bible supports that position. While the Old Testament allows slavery, the form this took was very different to that which we might associate with the transatlantic slave trade or with modern day slavery. The slavery allowed in the Old Testament was more like a form of employment and those involved may be better described by the term ‘servant’ rather than ‘slave’. Forms of slavery in which people were considered the property of others and denied their own rights was strongly prohibited, in part because this had been the situation of the people of Israel in Egypt (e.g. Leviticus 25:39-43). Freedom from this sort of slavery was the foundational act of salvation for God’s Old Testament people. Old Testament law also outlaws kidnapping and selling people into slavery (Exodus 21:16) and provides other protections, for example insisting that slaves are allowed to rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-10).
In the New Testament, the reality that slavery existed is accepted, but the practice is never affirmed or encouraged. The New Testament authors also strongly challenge the way slavery was understood and practiced in their time. For example, human trafficking is condemned (1 Timothy 1:10), masters are commanded to treat the their slaves well and are reminded that before God they and their slaves are equals (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1), and, where possible, the freeing of slaves is encouraged (1 Corinthians 7:21; Philemon 16). Through these condemnations, commands and encouragements, the New Testament strongly communicates that fact that slavery is not what God wants. 3
In this way, the Bible radically challenges the concept of slavery and the way it was practised and sows the seeds that later flowered into abolition. It should therefore not be surprising that throughout church history, many Christians (though sadly not all) have expressed concerns about slavery. There have always been some small shoots from the seeds sown in the Bible, even if they didn’t come into full bloom until recent centuries in many parts of the world.
When we turn to the topic of sexuality, however, we find no seeds of change. The Bible consistently teaches that sex is reserved for one-man, one-woman marriages and that same-sex sexual relationships are not acceptable to God. The New Testament affirms this and even strengthens the prohibitions of the Old Testament (e.g. Matthew 5:27-28; 19:7-9).
We also find that, unlike in the case of slavery, where there were diverse views in the Church from its earliest centuries, the Church has been unanimous and consistent in its view that sex and marriage are reserved for opposite-sex couples. The Bible contains no seeds for change on this position and church history shows no evidence of shoots emerging from such seeds.
The silence of Jesus
Jesus was welcoming to and inclusive of all people. He never talked about same-sex relationships, so he can’t have objected to them.
From what we see of him in the four Gospels, Jesus never directly addressed the question of same-sex relationships. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that he thought they were acceptable to God. There are many topics Jesus didn’t talk about but which we can fairly assume he believed to be wrong (e.g. incest and rape). There is no reason to assume that Jesus’ silence shows his approval.
Indeed, the reality is quite the opposite. Jesus ministered mostly among Jews, all of whom would have agreed that same-sex relationships are not acceptable to God. If Jesus shared this perspective, it makes sense that he wouldn’t need to address it directly. It is where there is disagreement with the dominant view that we should expect a topic to be addressed. This is what we see in the letters of Paul: writing to churches that included Gentiles, Paul directly addresses the topic, because the Christian view differs significantly from that of the Gentile world of his day.
While Jesus doesn’t talk about same-sex relationships, he does talk about sexual ethics and marriage. Most important is the discussion with the Pharisees where his combination of Genesis 1:27 (on being created male and female) and Genesis 2:24 (on the one flesh union of marriage) reveals his conviction that marriage is reserved for opposite-sex unions (Matthew 19:3-9).
On inclusivity, Jesus was wonderfully welcoming. Even those excluded and hated by others were welcomed by Jesus and indeed they seem to have been drawn to him. However, welcome does not necessarily mean approval of behaviour.
Welcome does not necessarily mean approval of behaviour.
We see this in Jesus’ response when he was criticised for his association with sinners and those excluded by others. He didn’t deny that their behaviour needed to change, instead he explained why he had come: ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32). The welcome of Jesus is meant to lead to repentance. To know what that repentance looks like, we have to ask what the Bible teaches about how we should live.
Jesus doesn’t call us to affirm everything that everyone does – no Christian would really believe that to be true. But Jesus does call us to love and welcome everyone and to call them to the repentance that brings true life and true freedom. Somehow, Jesus managed to uphold God’s incredibly high standards concerning sex and all areas of life, and yet still be incredibly attractive to those who were failing to live up to those standards. The same surprising combination should be the aim of every Christian.
- For a helpful summary of scholarly perspectives on this matter, see John Pike, ‘Were Loving, Faithful Same-Sex Relations Known in Antiquity?’, Psephizo.
- John L. Allen Jr., ‘Interview with Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright of Durham, England’, National Catholic Reporter. Accessed 4 June 2020.
- On the biblical view of slavery, see Peter J. Williams, ‘Does the Bible Support Slavery?’, bethinking.org.
- For examples, see Will Jones, ‘The Church Changed Its Mind on Slavery. Why Not on Sex?’, Psephizo.