Making Sense of Sin

April 20, 2012

Why do I believe homosexuality is not a sin?

At bottom, because it makes no sense to believe that it is God’s will for us to believe homosexuality to be a sin, a sin to be avoided even if that requires celibacy of those who have a natural orientation to be sexually attracted to those of the same sex.

Yes, there are five key Bible texts that are regularly brought forward to declare homosexuality a sin. They are the ones named in the 1982 Indiana Yearly Meeting Minute. Two are from Leviticus. I set these aside because there are many rules in Leviticus to which we (sensibly) no longer pay any attention – even many rules that have not been ‘repealed’ by anything said subsequently in the New Testament. (I know of no Bible text that says it is OK to wear cloth made of two fibers, but we don’t take this to be a sin today.)

There is the text in Romans 1:21-32. But this is a passage where Paul is laying out the consequences of idolatry, and one of these consequences is finding oneself given up to shameful, unnatural lusts. Idolatry, not homosexuality is the sin discussed here, and lustful, wanton sex is surely sinful, whether same-sex or opposite sex.

And there are the verses in I Corinthians (6:9-10) and I Timothy (1:9-10). With these the biggest problem is one of translation. Whatever translation of the Bible you use, you should know there is no Koine Greek word that corresponds to our word “homosexual.” We do not know with any certainty what these verses are referring to when a translator uses “homosexual” or “sodomite” to convey what Paul wrote.

I believe that Paul, in all these verses, is discussing the pagan practice of Temple prostitution, the only form of same-sex sexual relations Paul was likely to have known about, and one that involved men and younger boys. Such Temple prostitution was a despicable practice, but it is not homosexuality any more than brothels are heterosexuality.

My understanding of these texts has been drawn from reading a number of weighty scholarly works. I acknowledge that there are other Bible scholars who disagree with my reading of these Bible verses. So how are we to choose between these understandings? That is where I want to understand the larger sense or meaning of the Bible.

There appear to be two principal ways that we might understand what is sinful. One way is to have an authoritative, explicit list of what are sins. Sins are the behaviors or attitudes that are on that list. Alternately, we could have a general principle (or two or three) that helps us understand what is sinful in behavior or attitude. Let’s call these ‘the list approach’ and ‘the principle approach.’

I believe the first is the approach of the Old Covenant and the second is the approach of Jesus’s New Covenant. The first is the approach of the Hebrew Bible, and the second is the approach of Jesus’s transformative teaching.

The first gives us all the detailed rules in Leviticus as well as the Ten Commandments. The second gives us the two Great Commandments (Matthew 22: 37-40). Asked (as a tricky test) which Commandment (of the Ten) is the greatest, Jesus refused to pick one. “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” He turned away from naming the negative to accentuating the positive. And instead of a list, he gave us two underlying, unifying principles to understand what is sinful – and also to understand what is loving.

Jesus’s two great principles make sense of the Ten Commandments. Each “Thou shalt not” is a way we might not love God or might not love our neighbor. See how Jesus transforms the list into principles?

Homosexuality is not included in the Ten Commandments, of course, but it does – some argue – show up in other lists such as the list in 1 Corinthian 6:9-10 of “those who will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Does it make sense that it should be on such a list? Emphatically no. Homosexuality is a form of love and an invitation to committed intimacy that parallels the love and invitation to intimacy of those whose sexual attraction is to members of the opposite sex. Those giving themselves to intimacy, heterosexual or homosexual, should do so with commitment and steadfast faithfulness. To do otherwise, to give in to causal passing lusts, is to risk harm to others as well as to oneself.

The sin is wanton sex, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Homosexuality itself is not a sin.

I am acknowledging here that I find the Bible as a text that is sometimes ambiguous or unclear. I am acknowledging that the Bible requires careful study and even interpretation. One way I look at the Bible is to try to make sense of the whole, not just to take it verse by verse, snippet by snippet.

The way I believe we should look at sin, as a principle rather than as a list, is a fruit of interpretation, a fruit of trying to make sense of the Bible. But why do I think this is the right approach? Why should we expect the Bible to make sense?

The answer to that is that in the Gospels, the only way I have of directly knowing the teachings of Jesus as He walked the earth. In the Gospels I never see Jesus reeling of lists of dos and don’ts. Quite the contrary. Instead, I see Him over and over again teaching us how to love God and one another and how to avoid sin. He doesn’t do that by lists. He does it with parables and examples and positive principles that help us learn to make sense of sin, understand it. He doesn’t ask us to commit a list to memory. For me, that points to a way to approach the Bible: Jesus teaches us how to read the Bible.

And for me, this way of understanding the Bible leads me to believe homosexuality is not a sin.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Bible, Homosexuality and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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