Red Letter Bible – Does Jesus see homosexual behaviour as sinful? 

Now and again I come across people saying or writing that Jesus did not speak out against homosexuality and therefore must have approved it.[1] He was loving and tolerant. 

I saw one person state confidently on Twitter the other week that she had a Masters in New Testament Studies and had studied all four Gospels closely and nowhere does Jesus condemn homosexuality (or abortion for that matter).

My sister posted an article in our family WhatsApp showing how in Australia any church that says homosexual activity is sinful are seen as ‘hardline’ – why can’t they be like other churches that have moved with the times and see how outdated the church’s teaching is?

The subtext: Why can’t they be more like Jesus? Why can’t the church change with the times?

This argument that ‘Jesus never condemns homosexuality, therefore must have condoned it’ frustrates me and fails on many levels.

First: The argument fails on canonical grounds:

If you are going to critique Christianity then you have to do so on historical Christianity’s terms not yours. And creating a dichotomy between Jesus’ teaching and the rest of the Bible is to mistreat Jesus and the Bible.

Christians for two thousand years have believed the whole Bible is the Word of God and has authority. Yes, we must read it within the three horizons of its immediate context, covenantal context and canonical context. But we can’t and we don’t (as Christians) elevate Jesus’ words over the rest of the Bible, especially the rest of the New Testament.

We don’t create a mini canon within the wider canon of Scripture. We’re not red-letter Christians who only believe Jesus’ words. Paul and the disciples were writing as disciples and followers of Jesus. And Paul clearly states sex between a man and a man, and between a woman and woman is a sin (see Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10).[2] Therefore, to make Jesus and the Gospels the sole arbiter of this debate is lazy and misguided.

Second: The argument fails because of bad historical methodology:

It is a historical fallacy to make a positive argument from silence, especially when the historical setting speaks negatively against this.

To say Jesus condoned homosexual practice because he didn’t condemn it is not how historians study history. We don’t base our arguments from silence, especially when we know what the wider culture believed – to do so is simply to apply a faulty method of historical reasoning to your historical argument.[3]

The end result: your argument is deeply flawed. In addition, too often today we take our present-day ideals and try to impose them on different historical cultures. You can’t read history like that and hope to be a good historian.

Third: The argument fails on historical grounds:

People fail to put Jesus in his historical context. He was a Jew living in Palestine, living under the authority of the Torah. It would have been inconceivable for a popular Jewish Rabbi to have condoned such practices, especially one who said to enter the Kingdom of God you have to be more righteous than the Pharisees (Matt 5:20).

That is not the kind of teaching that condones homosexual behaviour. He likely didn’t discuss it directly because as a Jew living in Jewish Palestine teaching Jewish people, the Law was clear on this (see for example Leviticus 18:22; 20:13) and it was largely a non-issue. It only later became an issue when the Gospel was preached to the Romans and Greeks, where such practices were deemed acceptable in most cases.[4]

Fourth: The argument fails on theological grounds:

Christians believe that Jesus is our sinless Saviour and lived a sinless life (2 Cor. 5:21). We believe he obeyed and fulfilled the Mosaic Law as the perfect Israelite (Rom. 8:3-4). He said himself he did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets (i.e. the whole of the Old Testament) but to fulfil it as the One it was pointing to (Matt 5:17).

If he had condoned homosexual behaviour, he could not have perfectly kept the Torah, since the Torah clearly states homosexual practice is a sin (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). If you break the Torah, even one command, then you are a sinner under God’s curse (Gal. 3:10).

In fact, Jesus himself said to the Pharisees, who were looking for any reason to arrest him and kill him, “Who among you can convict me of sin?” (John 8:46 CSB). All they could do in response was to call him names, but they couldn’t point out in what way he was sinning, certainly not on moral grounds. There’s no conceivable way the Pharisees would have allowed Jesus to get away with such teaching. To them it was sinful and everything we know about the zeal of the Pharisees for God’s Torah tells us they would have called him out on it.

Fifth: The argument fails on Biblical grounds:

Despite the fact Jesus did not directly condemn homosexual practice, his hearers would have understood he included it in his teaching on sexual sin.

For example, when Jesus says in Mark 7:21-23 (CSB): “For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, self-indulgence, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person”, his hearers would have understood homosexual practice to be implied from that list.

This is because of the word ‘sexual immoralities’ which is from the Greek word Porneia. The fact that Jesus speaks of ‘sexual immoralities’ and ‘adulteries’ shows us Jesus is speaking of more than just unfaithfulness in marriage. He used it as a term to convey all sexual sin outside of marriage.

As well as this broad meaning, historically the earliest Christians saw it used particularly to speak out against prostitution and homosexual practice in what was the first sexual revolution.[5]

Jesus was clear on what marriage is in Matthew 19 when quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 when he said, ‘“Haven’t you read”, he replied, “that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and he also said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate”’ (Matthew 19:4-6 CSB).

He clearly grounds marriage between male and female and then says that the alternatives are: some people were born eunuchs, others made eunuchs, and yet still others choose to live like eunuchs (i.e. not having sex) for the sake of the kingdom of God (Matt 19:11-12). There are two choices for Christians when it comes to sex, either sex within marriage between a male or female (becoming one flesh), or celibacy. There’s no third way. As difficult and as painful as this is for some and as much as we should seek to speak truth in love, we cannot allow our feelings and experiences overrule the Bible and create an alternative or modern solution within the church. For Jesus says: ‘what God has joined together, let no man separate’ – these are apposite words for those who try to make Jesus fit their pro-homosexual worldview. 

[1] Some Christians don’t see a distinction between homosexual behaviour and homosexual inclination or orientation – that the whole person is sinful and needs to repent of his/her temptations and inclinations. But I am persuaded of the fact that the Fall has broken us all sexually and so clearly homosexual inclination is a result of the bigger picture of sin and yet choosing not to follow your inclination is not sinful but faithful, because it seeks to say no to temptation and sexual desire. The emphasis of this article is on homosexual behaviour as sinful and yet is encouraged to be seen as acceptable within the church. For more on this read Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay? He writes: ‘We should expect a number of Christians to experience forms of same-sex attraction. We live in a fallen world…Being Christian makes us no less likely to fall ill, face tragedy, or experience insecurity. It is not un-Christian to experience same-sex attraction any more than it is un-Christian to get sick. What marks us out as Christian is not that we never experience such things, but how we respond to them when we do’, p. 41.

[2] 1 Timothy 1:10 also speaks against an argument that goes like this – Christianity once believed slavery was okay and not sinful and changed its mind on that, so why not homosexuality? Well, 1 Timothy 1:10 includes ‘practicing homosexuality’ with ‘slaver traders’ as unlawful and sinful. What is more, Paul constantly undermines slavery at various times. Whether it’s asking Philemon to accept his former slave Onesimus back not as a slave but as a ‘dear brother’ (Philemon 1:15-16), or when Paul says ‘slave or free’ we’re all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), Paul is radically changing the way slaves are to be treated and recognised. Or when Paul says if you can earn your freedom then do it (1 Cor. 7:21-23). Even though Paul doesn’t say flee your masters but obey them (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22) and Peter says honour them even when they are cruel (1 Peter 2:18), (which in itself was subversive and revolutionary), this kind of subversion to slavery soon led later Christian thinkers to see slavery and having slaves as utterly repulsive – which was a revolutionary thought in the ancient world. For example, John Chrysostom described slavery as ‘the fruit of covetousness, of degradation, of savagery… the fruit of sin, [and] of [human] rebellion against … our true Father’. Homilies on Ephesians, Homily XXII. The point is, that early Christian teaching on slavery saw it as sinful, not okay.  And they saw it as sinful because they saw it as sinful in the Bible.

[3] We also know that the Gospels did not record everything Jesus taught or did (John 20:30 and 21:25). Like all history, the Gospels are edited. This should make us pause before categorically stating Jesus must have condoned homosexual behaviour.

[4] See William Loader, The New Testament on Sexuality, pp. 83-91 and Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, pp.35-37. Harper even discusses evidence of same-sex marriages between men, and between women, dispelling the myth that the Greco-Roman world did not have the categories of romantic homosexual love.

[5] See Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin.

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