basics reading journeys youthbridges-across faith science policy action

Search for God's heart and truth The Bible and Dialogue 
Jeramy Townsley's Home Page

Search for God's heart and truth
by Jeramy Townsley

My Position 

First, let me say that I am an Evangelical Christian, committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, his death, burial and resurrection, and our absolute need for Him for the forgiveness of our sins. Along with this is a commitment to the integrity of Scripture--realizing the need to try to understand the original intent of the author as s/he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, rather than trying to dismiss passages that don't conform to what I happen to want to believe.  

Second, for those of you who have found your way to my website, I want it to be a somewhat interactive place. I have my own beliefs about many things, including homosexuality, but I do not claim to "have arrived." In my search for God's heart and God's truth, I ask for your help. If you have anything productive, whether opposed to my position or in support of it, please post a message on the message board This list will be a continuing list for all who come here to see and learn. 

Supplementary note: To see messages prior to March 15, go to the old message board. Current messages are being posted in a new improved format, one which accomodates the larger message load.

[Webmaster's note: You are invited to the B-A webforums to discuss this paper (and anything else that you read on our site).]


I believe that the Bible does not condemn monogamous long-term homosexual relationships. There are a number of passages that allegedly refer to and condemn homosexuality. As for the Old Testament passages, I reject their application to the issue of homosexuality because they are either found contiguously with verses we wouldn't think of following anymore (abstaining from sex with a woman while she is menstruating on pain of social and religious ex-communication: Lev. 18.19-22, 20.13-18), they refer specifically to temple prostitution (I Ki 14.24, 15.12--newer translations are now translating these Hebrew words as "temple prostitute", not "homosexual"), or they have nothing to do with homosexuality to begin with (Gen 19-the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which we have no indication was related specifically to homosexuality, but to behaviors such as those characterized by the mob that demanded that Lot give up the men in his house so they could gang-rape them). 

 Arsenokoitai and Malakoi  

(1 Co 6.9, 1 Tim 1.9-10) 

There are only three New Testament passages relevant to the discussion. The two easiest with which to deal are 1 Co 6.9 and 1 Tim 1.9-10. In these passages we are given the distinct impression (in English translations) that homosexuality is sin. However, the Greek words used here do not refer to the homosexual proper. The first word, malakoi, is translated numerous ways: effeminate, male prostitute, catamite (a boy kept by a child molester) in other Greek literature. In fact, the literal translation of this word is "soft" and we have no idea what it means in this context (especially, since we find this word in a "list" format, there is no real "context" from which to derive a meaning anyway). It could just as easily have been translated malleable, coward, sickly, lacking self-control or morally weak (in a general sense), none of which have any specific homosexual connotations (see Herodotus, Histories 7.153 and 13.51; Aristophanes Wasps 1455, Plutus 488; Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1150a:33; Plato, Republic 556c). It is found several other times in Scripture, being translated as soft or fine referring to clothing in Matt 11:8 and Luke 7:25, and infirmity or malady in Matt 4:23, 9:35, and 10:1. 

 The second word, arsenokoitai, translated in the NIV as "homosexual offenders", is actually best translated as sexual aggressor (with the connotations of a rapist of slave trader), or male prostitute. This word is found in no extant Greek literature prior to Paul's use here, which complicates our understanding of the word. The literal translation of this compound word is (arsenos) male-bedders (koites), which could easily mean a man who sleeps around. 

The strongest argument that leads one to believe that Paul was referring specifically to general homosexuality is the possibility that Paul coined this term himself. If this is the case, then he probably created this compound word from the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) translation of Leviticus 20:13 (kai hos an koime:the: meta arsenos koite:n gunaikos...). However, this passage refers specifically to the holiness codes and thus probably implies some kind of ritual uncleanness (see Addendum 2 on the Old Testament passages; and again, this assumes both that he coined the term, and that he intended the term to refer back to this passage, neither of which have strong evidence). 

Moreover, one wonders why, if Paul is going to go to the extent of creating a novel word to prohibit male homosexual behavior, why doesn't he, in the same verse, create a complementary word prohibiting female homosexual behavior. The conspicuous absence of such a prohibition implies one of two things: 1) If Paul is using the term arsenokoitai to refer to homosexual behavior at all, he not prohibiting all homosexual behavior, only some type of male homosexual behavior that produced ritual uncleanness in the mind of the first century church (unless he is allowing for female homosexual behavior, prohibiting only male homosexual behavior), or 2) he is, in fact, not referring to homosexuality at all in these passages. In either case, neither arsenokoitai nor malakoi are justifiably translated as homosexual in any other Greek literature, which makes one question why they are translated that way here. 

 Romans 1.18-32: God's Wrath on Idolaters 
The third passage of difficulty is Rom 1.26-27. There is no other passage that has presented me with serious difficulty other than this one. I come at this text in two ways. First, with the possibility that this text cannot be understood in any way other than condemning homosexuality, I look to standard hermeneutical rules, one of which is to not ground a weighty theological belief based on one passage. If it is true that this passage condemns homosexuality, but I find that it is the only reliable passage which does so, I cannot say that homosexuality is necessarily sin. Such is the case with passages in 1 Co which indicate clearly that women should keep silent in church. This command (if taken literally) was not followed in the early church, nor is it followed today. This is/was not because we feel the need to "erase" passages we don't agree with, but that there is obviously something going on there that we, today, don't understand, since women did in fact teach in the early churches (during which they presumably had to speak). Moreover, all major theological doctrines in Christianity are built around statements that are repeated several time in Scripture: God loves, Jesus died and resurrected, Jesus is coming back, all have sinned, etc. 

 My second approach to this passage is to try to understand what it means *if* it isn't a broad condemnation of homosexuality. While Romans 1:18-32 is the primary text used from the New Testament by those people who condemn homosexuality, that has not always been the interpretation of this passage. For example, verse 26, which is the only verse in Scripture which refers to lesbian behavior, is often used to round out the beliefs of those who condemn all homosexuality is sin, since all of the other alleged condemnations of homosexuality specifically refer to male-male behavior, linguistically excluding female-female behavior. Looking back at early interpreters of this verse, while some have believed that this verse referred to lesbians (John Chrysostom), many key church leaders have not held this view, such as Clement of Alexandria and Saint Augustine (Brooten, 1985). The problem is that, in addition to the structural complexity of the passage, there is an uncertainty in the meaning of certain phrases in the text, primarily "exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones" (NIV, v. 26b). For example, this idea could (outside of the context of this passage) refer to sex with a barren or pregnant woman, sex with a menstruating woman, pedastery, sex between animals of different species, etc., since the person was exchanging the Judaic understanding of the purpose of sex (procreation) for behaviors which could not produce children (Brooten p. 247, 1996; Ward p. 271-273). 

Romans 1:18-32 is a complex passage, and any quick reading of the English translations gives the clear impression that all forms of homosexuality are being condemned. However, the issue of whether or not homosexuality is sin should not rest on a quick reading of a translation. Digging into a passage, looking at patterns in and purposes of a passage as a whole is the only way that we can find out what any text is really about. This is true of Romans 1. English translations lack a dynamic quality that is found in the original language, and obscures patterns that help us clarify the meaning and purpose of the text. The primary pattern in this passage is the usage of the phrases "they exchanged" (met/yllaxan; v. 23, 25, 26b) and "God gave them over" (paradwken; v. 24, 26a, 28), which enclose three parallel thoughts between verses 23-28. 

Parallelism is extremely common in the Hebraic wisdom literature (e.g., most of Proverbs), and involves repeating a thought in a different way for emphasis. Paul, having been trained as a Pharisee in the Old Testament Scriptures, would have been very familiar with this Biblical technique of emphasis, and it is clear from the structure of this passage that Paul is using this technique to emphasize God's wrath against the sin of idolatry. He begins in verses 18-20 by showing the readers that there is some part of God's character ("His eternal power and divine nature" NIV) that can be seen in creation itself, apart from the special revelation found in His Scriptures. Thus, even Greeks are without excuse as far as to whom they should direct their worship. Moreover, we are told that these Greeks did actually know God from His creation, however "they neither glorified Him as God, nor gave thanks to Him" NIV v. 21). These Greeks, and Paul was specifically referring to all non-Jews (see v. 16 for Paul's breakdown of people-groups for this chapter: there are Jews, and then there is everybody else (hellyni), translated as Greeks in the NASB, and Gentiles in the NIV), were engaged in human philosophies (Stoicism, etc) and religions which sought to understand and worship creation apart from the Creator. Though they at one time knew God (v. 21), they eventually ended up in the position that they "did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God" (NIV, v. 28). Paul shows us in this chapter that this progression of not glorifying God as God to abandoning the concept of God leads to any number of sinful behaviors (murder, etc), as described in the last several verses of the chapter (1:29-31). Finally, we see that while somehow these Gentiles knew the laws of God, and knew that breaking these laws deserve death, they not only practiced these behaviors, but approved of others who did the same (v. 32). 

That is the general outline of the chapter. The primary focus of the chapter is on Gentiles who stop worshipping God, and who "exchange/substitute" (met/yllaxan) the worship of idols for the worship of God. While one could easily postulate that the substitution here could be extended metaphorically to anything which takes our focus off of God (human philosophies, busy-ness, religiosity, etc.), Paul's language here seems to limit us specifically to explicit idol worship. Both of the first two parallel passages (vs 23-24, 25-26a), which are clearly bounded by the repeated phrases "they exchanged" (met/yllaxan; this word refers to a substitution of one thing in place of another) and "God gave them over" (paradwken; this word refers to God allowing the natural course of events to occur from the behavior initiated by the Gentiles--God didn't "cause" them to have the "sinful desires" (v. 24), "shameful lusts" (v. 26a) or "depraved mind" (v. 28), but when the Gentiles abandoned God, paradwken implies that God stepped back and allowed the natural course of events to happen) very graphically describe idol worship as it would have been found in Greek and Roman cultic rituals of the time of Paul's writing. 
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools  

23 and exchanged (yllaxan) the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over (paradwken) in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.  

25 They exchanged (metyllaxan) the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over (paradwken) to shameful lusts.  

Even their women exchanged (metyllaxan) natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. 28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over (paradwken) to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.  

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy,murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. 

The third parallel part is similarly bounded with the Greek words metyllaxan and paradwken, but does not quite follow the pattern of the first two parts. As in the first two parts, we see that God has given them over to wicked behavior (v. 28). However, in both of the first two parts we see that what they exchanged were clearly idolatrous behaviors, while in the third part, we see sexual behaviors being exchanged/substituted. This is the primary difficulty with this text. If one allows that the things being exchanged in vs. 23 and 25 are metaphors for anything which draws us away from God, then one can easily say that the sexual behaviors described in vs 26b-27 describe general homosexual behavior. However, it seems like a poor handling of the texts to allow for such a metaphorical meaning, when the texts are so explicitly concrete in their descriptions of cultic idolatry ("images made to look like mortal man" and "worshipped and served created things"). In the same way, in order to preserve the symmetry of the parallel verses, one would be safest to conclude that the third parallel similarly refers to cultic idolatry. The fact that homosexual conduct is described in this regard makes sense when one realizes that homosexual temple prostitution was a common phenomenon of cultic idolatry rituals in the geographic location and time in which Paul was writing. Taking this interpretation of Romans 1:26b-27 preserves the symmetry inherent within the text. 

The only way to make this text refer to all homosexual behavior as opposed to merely cultic temple prostitution is to either rip it from its context, or to take a liberal interpretation of the text and make the three parallels metaphorical instead of literal. This is especially clear when one looks closer at the structure of the third parallel, and compares that to the other two parallels. I might note that close analysis of the structure is an appropriate technique to use with Paul. Paul was not ignorant of the rhetoric of the day, nor was Paul careless with his words. Paul was a master craftman when it came to language, and all of his letters show a great attention to detail and structure. 

At any rate, within the first two parallels, we see that God gave them over to evil behaviors because of certain actions they took ("exchanging the glory of God for images", and then worshipping and serving created things rather than the creator). God does not necessarily give them over because of what they have exchanged, but because of the actions taken because of the exchanges (in the second parallel, they have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, but the resulting action is that they "worshipped and served created things"). 

In the third parallel, they exchange natural relations (phusikyn chrysin) for those which are against nature(para phusin) as described in verses 26b-27. However, it was not those exchanges which led to God giving them over. Those exchanges resulted in verse 28, "they did not think it worthwhile to retain a knowledge of God" (NIV), which is what caused God to give them over. It was not the sexual behavior which caused God give them over, but their abandoning their belief in God which caused Him to give them over. The sexual behavior was a key part of the process of them rejecting belief in God, just as making idols, and worshipping/serving idols was a key part of the process in verses 23-26a. 

Para Phusin and Natural Theology

At this point, it may be instructive to look at the phrase para phusin ("against nature"). In the cultural backdrop of Judaism, the primary reason for sex was procreation. Any sexual acts which did not work to fulfill this goal was para phusin. This is seen in other writings of the era, such as Philo, Josephus and Plato (Ward; Brooten 1996; DeYoung 1988). Philo, speaking as a Jewish writer contemporary with Paul, specifically "condemns men who knowingly marry barren women . . . thereby destroying their seeds. . . . These men are like pigs or goats, and are thus antagonists of God and enemies of nature" (Ward, p. 271). Similarly, regarding pedastery, Philo says that the active partner (the dominant, "insertive" male) is para phusin because he "does not procreate" (Ward, p. 272). Clement of Alexandria, speaking from an early Christian perspective, similarly makes the claim that in order for sex to be in accordance with nature, procreation should be the result (Brooten p. 247, 1996). Linguistically, there is no specific reason why verse 26 could not refer to men having non-vaginal sex with women (Miller), however, the context seems somewhat prohibitive of that interpretation (specifically, the usage of the word "similarly"/"homoiws" in verse 27). Regardless, the usage of para phusin is another difficult part of this passage, not only because it does not clarify the nature of the relationships that "their (the male Gentiles') women" exchanged, but it also classes Paul's entire argument into a very debated area, namely that of "natural theology." As discussed elsewhere in this paper, Paul's usage of natural theology is not very helpful to us as we attempt to apply New Testament rules to Western society. In ancient Greece and Judaism, since women were little more than property, there were strict sex-roles that had to be maintained. Any show of dominance of a woman, or passivity of a man was an "exchange" that was "against nature." Take, for example, Paul's clear command in 1 Timothy 2:11-14 that women must be silent and in submission to their men, which Paul relates back to the creation account with Adam and Eve (the created "natural order"). Then in 1 Corinthians 11:3-17 Paul makes a similar case, this time claiming that "the very nature (phusis) of things" (NIV, v. 14) should make it evident to us that men must have short hair, and that women must have long hair. However, this is neither evident to those in most cultures today, nor is it currently practiced among Christians. The reason for this dismissal of Paul's commands isn't a rejection of the Gospel, but an acceptance that the cultural dogmas of Paul's time which subordinated women as property are no longer in effect today, and it would be inappropriate for us to tie the Gospel to such ideologies. So Paul's argument "from nature," rather than universalizing his case to all places and all times, seems to do the opposite, and limits the consequences of issues tied to natural theology to Paul's own time and culture. Similarly with the homosexual descriptions in Romans 1:26-27, even if the behaviors mentioned there didn't already seem to be limited to cultic temple prostitution by the context of the triple parallelism, Paul's linking the behavior to natural theology seems to further limit it, and calls into question its relevance for today's culture. 

Moreover, not only does Paul tie the sexual behavior described here to his natural theology, but he also ties it to the word exekauthysan, which describes the men as "inflamed with lust" (NIV). This word, which literally means "utterly consumed by fire" (Hultgren), describes a behavior which has nothing to do with a normal, monogamous relationship. This kind of lust is one that grows to control all of one's thoughts and is insatiable. This is not the kind of simple longings and drives described earlier in the passage ("sinful desires"/"epithumiais", "sexual impurity"/"akatharsian", v. 24; "shameful lusts"/"pathy atimias", v. 26, NIV), but describe an all consuming force which takes control and destroys. While this type of phenomenon can admittedly be found in some homosexual relationships, it is by no means limited to homosexual relationships, and it is certainly not typical of homosexual relationships (despite what some tenets of the media would like us to believe). So this is a further exclusion of this passage from referring to all homosexual relationships. 

There are several reasons that lead me to believe that this passage is not condemning all homosexual behavior, but is only condemning temple prostitution/idol worship. First, when looking at the structure of the passage, it seems clear, from a conservative interpretation, that the sin in verses 26b-27 must be somehow related to some concrete form of idolatry, not an abstract concept that describes all homosexual behavior. Rather, the concrete form of idolatry that fits in with the structure of the parallelism, yet also conforms to the homosexual content of the passage, seems to clearly indicate that Paul's intent was to solely condemn homosexual cultic temple prostitution. Second, even without trying to conform to the parallelism, one can see that the primary issue of chapter one is that idolatry leads to abandoning the belief in God. The third parallel shows that whatever kind of sexual behavior is referred to, it causes them to stop believing in God (vs 26b-28). However, there is a huge population of gays and lesbians who believe in God. I am personally involved with multiple organizations which contain Christian gays and lesbians, and can bear witness to the existence of such people. These are not people who claim to believe in God, but live lives of promiscuity, etc. These are people who are either celibate gays (looking for a monogamous, long-term relationship), or are in monogamous, long-term homosexual relationships, but who also have strong beliefs in and love for the God of the Bible, and who have a strong commitment to obeying the teaching of Scripture. In the absence of such models, it would be much easier to accept that Romans 1:18-32 claims that all homosexuality is sin, because it would then be obvious that since no homosexuals believed in God, therefore verses 26-27 refer to all homosexual behavior. However, since there are many gay/lesbian Christians (Evangelical/Catholic/Pentecostal, etc.) who have a strong belief in God, then it becomes obvious that verses 26-28 cannot refer to all homosexual behavior, otherwise Scripture would be in error. The final two reasons why I believe this passage is not referring to all homosexual behavior, especially behavior that can be applied to today's culture, is the fact that Paul ties the homosexual behavior to natural theology, which, in other cases of Paul's teachings, seems to limit those doctrines to Paul's own culture, and to the fact that Paul further limits the behavior described in these verses to behavior characterized by an all-consuming, destructive passion, exekauthys 

Summary of Evidence

Finally, after the positive evidence given above, I would like to point out some negative evidence. First, Jesus never mentions homosexuality. Of all the things Jesus talked about, including sexual mores, if it were an important issue to Him, I would think the writer of at least one of the four Gospels would have written it down. Second, the New Testament seems to be rather sloppy in its condemnation of homosexuality if it is in fact being condemned, given that the only words it uses are open to broad interpretation ("soft", "child molester", and idolatrous, lust-related sex acts), rather than words that *clearly* refer to homosexuality, such as arrenomanes or erastes. Further, the I Co 6:9 usage of the juxtaposed terms arsenokoitai and malakos has been seen by some commentators as a prohibition of both active and passive roles in the homosexual act. This usage is inappropriate, however, because neither term has such a connotation for this usage in any other Greek source. Moreover, there were already specific juxtapositions used to refer to these two roles of homosexuality, namely drwntes and paschontes, or paiderastai and paidika. Thus the argument that Paul created these terms for lack of better terms has no linguistic support. 

 To summarize the above evidence, and the evidence provided in the addenda, there are three primary reasons why I have become convinced that homosexuality is not sin. First, the linguistic and cultural evidence, "allows" me to accept the proposition that homosexuality is not condemned in Scripture. Each of the relevant Scriptural passages that allegedly condemn homosexuality are found to be not referring to homosexuality at all, are found in a context which makes them irrelevant to loving, commited homosexual relationships, or are simply mistranslations. Second, if God wanted to condemn all homosexuality, He blatantly failed to do so for the first 4000 years of history considering that there is not the slightest hint of condemnation for lesbianism, only for male homosexuality, even though lesbianism existed at the time of the writing of the Old Testament, and that in verses contiguous with the prohibitions on male homosexuality, there are specific female sexual behaviors that are similarly prohibited (which counters the argument that the OT ignores female morality, and thus would not address lesbianism). The obvious conclusion from this, is that God's intent was not to condemn all homosexuality, only some form of male homosexuality that, for reasons that are somewhat obscure to us today, makes those individuals ritualistically unclean. It makes no sense for God, who in the New Testament shows us the inadequacy of the Old Testament Law, to add new Laws on top of the old Laws by suddenly including lesbianism in His list of prohibited behaviors, as is alleged to be the case in Romans 1. Finally, Jesus makes it exceedingly clear that all of the Law and the Prophets are summarized in two commands: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:36-40). Neither of these two commands are violated by homosexual marriages, anymore than they are in heterosexual marriages. Homosexual Christians are no less apt to engage in behaviors which clearly exhibit the characteristics of these two commands, or of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) than are heterosexual Christians. Therefore, I find no Scriptural or phenomenological evidence for the traditional Evangelical allegation that homosexuality is sin. 

It is based on the evidence above that I have to tentatively conclude that homosexuality is not sin. We are told that "love comes from God" (1 John 4.7). If this is true, and the love between a man and a woman in a long-term, committed relationship is truly love (which we can assume that logically is from God), then why would not the love between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman in a similar relationship not also be from God? I contend that it is from God, and that He blesses homosexual relationships as he does heterosexual relationships 

Jeramy Townsley (updated 3/7/1998) 

Search for God's Heart and Truth: 
The Bible and Homosexuality
Addendum1: Marriage
Addendum2 Old Testament
Greek Culture and Homosexuality
David and Jonathan
The Teleological Arguement
(Argument from Design)
Concise Bibliography
Comprhensive Bibliography

[Top |Next]