A Response to Article by Robyn J Whitaker of Trinity College

by Professor Rikk Watts
5th September 2017


This paper is a response to an article, “Same-sex Marriage: What does the Bible really have to say?,” authored by Robyn Whitaker, of Trinity College, and published on the ABC website (Read the full story). After examining a handful of common proof-texts (Gen 19; Lev18:22; 20:13; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim 1:10; and Rom 1:26-27), Whitaker asserts that “critical biblical scholarship” has shown that “those who claim the Bible speaks against same-sex marriage are misreading its values. In fact, homosexuality barely comes up.” Indeed, given the small number of texts, she argues that the Bible is not particularly concerned about regulating human (homo)sexual behaviour at all; it is far more concerned about justice and equality.

This essay will argue, to the contrary, that the biblical material is both more complex and more straightforward than Whitaker suggests. It is true that the Bible does not specifically speak of “homosexuality” or “same sex attraction,” but that is hardly surprising since they are relatively modern terms, and the Bible’s basic concern is always with what humans actually do. Furthermore, Whitaker misses an absolutely foundational biblical idea—one that historically speaking transformed the ancient world and fundamentally shaped the modern one: all humans are of equal value. For the Bible it is precisely because the human body is integral to all humans being made in God’s image that the only appropriate arena for human sexual activity is in a monogamous male female relationship. As difficult as it might be for us to hear, anything else arises from an idolatrous revolt against God, constitutes a direct repudiation of his faithful, just, loving, and life-giving character, and results in a revolt against our own bodies. 

Some starting points.

At the outset, I want to recognize that this is a very difficult topic. It is one thing to discuss same sex activity in the abstract—which, given that I’m responding to an article, is more likely what will follow. It is quite another to have a heartfelt and vulnerable conversation with someone struggling with same sex (or child, and even animal) attraction. This is not at all to equate them. But I have had exactly these conversations, they are already out there in the literature, and the Scriptures are not coy about the breadth of human sexual appetites. In this respect, same sex activities are only a part of the Bible’s much broader perspective of human sexual behaviour.

That said, I have no interest in using the Bible as a weapon. All of us need God’s amazing grace. We can just as easily abuse others through pride, arrogance, bullying, and sarcasm as through inappropriate sexual activity. However, Israel’s just and compassionate God, most clearly seen in Jesus, wants to give us his eternal life. But it has to be on his terms; anything else would be impossible. It is in this spirit that I offer this response.

Unfortunately, and knowing something of how digital journalism works, right off the bat the title looks to me like “click bait.” But I suspect this was an editorial rather than a scholarly choice. No academic I know would make such a bald statement, especially on this topic.

Whitaker begins by appealing to the authority of “critical biblical scholarship.” This is fine, as long as folks know what is involved. First, her statement that “such scholarship seeks to take account of a range of disciplines including literary criticism, archaeology, history, philology, and social science to offer the most plausible, historically grounded interpretation of the Bible” does not just describe what we academics do. In the context of the current debate, it is clearly intended to claim the authority of expertise, and I suspect perhaps even to quell dissent (why else give no indication that critical scholarship is itself currently divided on this topic?). But there is no reason to be intimidated or overawed by the language. All this is largely common sense. When we communicate with others, most of us try to hear each other’s words in context, use the right words to say what we mean, take account of the other person’s history and background, etc. More importantly, “critical scholarship” is no silver bullet. Highly trained and competent people can still disagree strongly, and they certainly do on this topic. Unfortunately, readers are unlikely to get that impression from this article. In claiming to be a “summary of critical biblical scholarship” it could be seen to imply that all careful scholarship leads inevitably to the single view expressed. This is simply not the case.

Second, sometimes being “critical” goes a lot further than being thoughtful. In the minds of some, it means seeing the Bible as a merely human document and the product of unenlightened ancients—unlike us more knowledgeable modern scholars, of course. This stance is not always stated, but it can be there. I don’t share that view. I think there are very good reasons for seeing the Bible as far more than mere human reflection. And knowing something of the unparalleled and blood-drenched cruelty of the 20th century (Glover, Humanity), I’m not quite so confident of our modern “enlightenment.”

Third, those of us who work as academics, and at the very highest levels—(forgive the following) I have studied at Harvard, my PhD is from Cambridge, I’m a member of several internationally recognized scholarly societies, have chaired sessions at the world’s largest biblical studies conference, regularly present academic papers there and elsewhere, been published by elite academic publishers, etc. etc.—are very much aware that scholars are people and people have points of view, commitments, agendas, egos, blind spots, etc. And that includes me. What matters is how fairly, cogently, and thoroughly we consider all the evidence.

We also recognize names. Whitaker mentions two. William Loader is one and, while a significant scholar, it is fair to say that he is known for his particular stance on this issue. She also mentions an Anglican publication. No offence intended, but the Anglicans, being a very broad church, can be a mixed bag. However, what immediately struck me was the absence of any reference to someone like, e.g. Robert Gagnon, who has written one of the major technical works on the subject (The Bible and Homosexual Practice). Is this because Gagnon is a conservative who takes a very different view from that championed in this article? I hope not. It would be a pity since I am sure that both the author and her readers would have benefited from hearing his side of the debate.

Old Testament

Genesis 19

Moving on to the article’s treatment of specific biblical texts, the engagement with the Old Testament (OT), even if restricted by word limits, is a little underwhelming, even misleading. The author’s account of the Sodom story (Gen 19), in spite of recognizing its complexity, nevertheless assumes a simple either/or stance: it is not about homosexuality but gang-rape. But biblical narratives are rarely so singular, and so I would add, as do others, a third consideration: the need to show hospitality to sojourners. Given what the OT has to say about all three, it seems more likely that what makes Sodom so repellent is its combination of all three major transgressions. In my view, the claim that Gen 19 has “nothing” to say about homosexuality or mutually consenting adults of the same gender, while in one sense technically correct, ignores the fact that Gen 19 still involves male to male sex and hence is in real danger of glossing over the larger cultural and religious context of the OT (see below); something that critical scholarship is supposed not to do.



Whitaker next discusses Leviticus (18:22; 20:13) but here too says very little about the larger context. The author sees these texts as referring not to sexual orientation but to a married man committing adultery with another male. But if the concern was simply adultery, why not say it? “Thou shalt not commit adultery with a male.” Now, the author is correct in noting that the ancient world had no notion of sexual orientation. But I suspect that’s irrelevant because the only issue here is the act. For this reason I do not see the Bible condemning people simply on the basis of even their deepest attractions (Matt 5:28 deals with an intention well beyond attraction). It is sometimes argued that if the ancients had known about sexual orientation, the biblical teaching would have been different. Not only does this beg the question (how can we possibly know this?), but I cannot see any contextual justification for such a claim, and in any case our concern is with what the texts actually say.

So what kind of act is in view? Starting with the larger context, Leviticus 17-26 is concerned that Israel does not imitate the practices of the surrounding nations. This apparently included all kinds of sexual activity, especially among families (Lev 18:2-23). It should be clear that in general, Israel put far more boundaries around the expression of sexual desire than its neighbours. In that larger world, the most acceptable form of male to male sex was cultic prostitution in association with idolatry (see Rom 1:18-25 which blames idolatry for the degrading use of the body). Outside this setting, pagan nations generally regarded it as disgraceful (e.g. in middle Assyria, one would be castrated). Now, if, as some suggest, Leviticus condemns this most acceptable expression of male to male sex, it is unlikely to be any more positive about much less acceptable ones.

But is this all? Notice that the very next verse concerns sex with animals, which was not a cultic activity. Nothing is said of the setting, implied violence, or adultery. The issue is, again, simply the act. So what was the problem? Given Genesis 1-2, the best explanation seems to be that it was seen as a violation of the created order, where humans, male and female, are alone made in the image of Israel’s unique god, Yahweh. Sexual relations between humans and animals transgresses the very order Yahweh himself spoke into being out of the chaotic formlessness and emptiness. It not only violates his good Shalom but because it transgresses Yahweh’s own creative word, it constitutes a direct repudiation of his character. Hence the severity of the sanction.

If this is the underlying idea, then perhaps there is no need to invoke cultic prostitution as the background for male to male sex in the previous verse. For the Jewish Torah, male to male sex (and, I would argue, by extension female to female sex) is condemned for the same reason: it represents an idolatrous attack upon the divine order and hence Yahweh’s own character. There is nothing here to suggest that sexual orientation or a loving, committed relationship trumps this reality. It apparently cannot, not because such a relationship does not matter, but because there is something sacred about the human body which transcends even “love.” How so?


The Human Body and the Image of God

The answer seems to lie in the word “image.” In the ancient world, something could be an image only if it was three-dimensional and could be seen and touched. This is why the ancients made images of their gods. Indwelt by the breath of those gods, the images were believed to be their physical presence upon the earth. What one did to the image, one did to the god. For Israel, that role, utterly astonishingly, was given by God to human beings (which explains Israel’s deep concern for justice and why they alone made such a point about the physicality of the resurrection). The very physicality of our bodies, including our maleness and femaleness, was integral to our imaging God. Not only were our bodies meant to tell us who we are and how we should act, but to use them in inappropriate ways was a deliberate affront to the Yahweh who made us.

We can perhaps say more. Why are incest and adultery also included in this list and just as harshly condemned? I suspect it is because one cannot easily separate being made in God’s image from the Jewish concept of family. This is hardly to suggest that singles are not made in God’s image; after all, Jesus was single. But it strongly implies that there is, in general, something about human maleness and femaleness that is intimately linked to our ability to be parents of children. From this perspective, Lev 18:2-23 can be seen as deliberately repudiating the broad range of free-wheeling sexual practices of the surrounding nations that might in any way undermine the well-being of the family. The same idea seems to unify Leviticus 20:10-21. For Israel, strong and stable families are not only essential for building strong and stable societies; even more importantly they are intended to reflect the character of God. In other words, Israel’s concern is not primarily about an individualistic sense of sexual fulfilment, but instead care for and the nurturing of others and especially family. In other words, and as we all well know (and recent research continues to affirm): mum and dad need each other, and little girls need their mums—and dads—and little boys their dads, and mums.

Unfortunately, the article says nothing about this essential Jewish conviction; a conviction which is so fundamental that it appears in the very first chapter of the Old Testament. In my view, to miss this critical starting assumption calls into question every subsequent interpretation.


‘Good Sense’?

Whitaker goes on to note a range of other activities that the OT describes as abominations. Since Christians no longer observe some of these, e.g. we eat pork, it is implied that we should no longer regard the others as timeless truths either. But surely that depends on the particular activity. Not sacrificing our children to Molech is not just “good sense.” (This remark strikes me as something of a giveaway. Apparently what matters most to the author is not what God thinks but what some scholars think makes good sense. But how reliable a guide is this? Have we so quickly forgotten that the high point of Hellenistic philosophy’s “good sense” included justifying slavery, generally demeaning women and the lower classes, despising the weak, and regarding non-Hellenes as somewhat second rate? Of all people, we 21st century folks should well know where this kind of autonomous “good sense” can lead; again see Glover above). Sacrificing children on the altars of any god is an abomination from which everyone should refrain even today. In other words, each of those denunciations needs to be examined in its own right.

And here again there is little attempt to understand these admonitions within their larger cultural and historical setting. The reason eating pork was an abomination appears to be because it was especially associated with idolatrous pagan meals. Remember, the key concern throughout is to safeguard Israel from assimilating to the cultural practices of the surrounding nations. What might initially strike us as bizarre, unrelated requirements turns out, on more careful reflection, to be an integrated network of regulations aimed precisely at making it extremely difficult for Israel, like the Amish, to assimilate. And why? Because assimilation would inevitably lead to idolatry and with it the degradation of humans and the family. For Israel, the wildness of human sexual appetites, unless carefully controlled, led inevitably to our degrading ourselves and others.

This might seem odd or even quaint to some moderns, were it not for the fact that it was this distinctively Jewish, and therefore Christian, belief that everyone was made in unique Yahweh’s image that gave rise to what we now call universal human rights. For the biblical authors, and most explicitly Paul, to deny Yahweh’s strict boundaries around sexual conduct would mean destroying the integrity of the very story that proclaimed and safeguarded the dignity and value of all people, regardless of gender, race, or social status.

There is one last point before we move to the New Testament. Israel’s Scriptures largely focus on regulating what is approved. Hence, they have quite a bit to say about how male and female marriages work. On rare occasions, they comment on regulating what is not approved (e.g. a prostitute’s wages should not be brought into the Temple, Deut 23:18). But nothing is ever said about regulating male to male (or female to female) sexual activity, even if in a committed, long-term, loving relationship. Why not? In the light of Genesis 1-2 the implication seems clear: the image-bearing character of our physical male and female bodies meant it was simply not an option.

New Testament

Graeco-Roman Practice

Turning now to the article’s treatment of the New Testament (NT), the author describes Graeco-Roman attitudes which allowed wealthy men to take younger male lovers and for whom, in a patriarchal society, being penetrated was the major source of shame. Such attitudes, she claims, find their way into e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10.

The social context of sex in the Graeco-Roman world was very different from ours. Marriage, especially among the elites (which is the only group for which we have much evidence), was much more about family alliances, status, power, and legitimate heirs. For the elite male, sexual mores were fundamentally about governing whose body—female or male—I could enjoy with impunity. There is also some evidence that in such circles young, pre-pubescent boys were highly sought after. At the same time, it appears that the lower classes were not so accepting of sex between males. Plato condemned it and early Roman society outlawed pederasty. Paul’s condemnation of female to female sex would also have received strong and widespread affirmation.

Now Whitaker is, I think, correct in that Paul is most likely condemning at the very least this elite practice. His use of two Greek words, the more common malakoi (“soft, effeminate,” 1 Cor 6:9) and the rare arsenokoites (1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10), fits this pattern. The former describes men who act sexually as women, and the second, apparently, a man who beds another man (cf. the Greek text of Lev 18:22; 20:13). Together they describe the passive and active partners in male to male sexual activity. Depending on the particulars, this may or may not have direct parallels with our modern situation.

However, can I suggest that the more important question is to ask why Paul takes the stance he does? Consider the evidence. In some 1,800 places the NT authors cite or allude to some 2,500 OT texts. By comparison Graeco-Roman sources appear no more than a half dozen times. This massive imbalance is not what one would expect of writings supposedly influenced by Graeco-Roman prejudices one way or the other. On the contrary, as several recent books have shown the great conflict between Christians and the pagan world was precisely because the essentially Jewish gospel stood in profound opposition to idolatry and, in this case, the sexual practices that came with it. It is much more likely that the NT’s stance on sexual practice is thoroughly embedded in Israel’s story, into which story Gentile believers were now to be grafted (Rom 11:17-22).

Seen from this perspective, this is not primarily a matter of same sex activity where a more powerful male dominates a weaker one. It reflects a much larger concern with human sexual action in general and that based on a radically different view of what it means to be human and hence what we actually do with our bodies. What drives Paul, and the OT Scriptures on which he relies, is not just an unimaginably high view of the human body, but, shockingly for the ancient world, of every person’s body whether elites, slaves, low class women, powerful males, vulnerable young boys, or whatever. On this view, Paul’s response to a particular ancient cultural expression is based on a much deeper universal that speaks beyond that time. As in the OT, there is nothing here about commitment, love, or sexual orientation. The only point at issue is what is being done to the body. This is one of the constant themes in Pauline sexual morality: our bodies are for the Lord and the Lord is for the body (and of course: he made them to be indwelt by himself through his Spirit; 1 Cor 6:12-20).

For Paul, idolatry, which is revolt against Yahweh, leads finally to a revolt against one’s own body (Rom 1:18-25); that’s hardly a Graeco-Roman view. This is seen no more clearly than at the very point where we most, in this life, image God: bearing and rearing children. To claim that this has nothing to do with loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation is entirely to miss Paul’s point. Far from reflecting “a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity” (seriously?), Paul rejects such actions because they repudiate the original intention inherent in the maleness and femaleness of the human body. Such acts are prohibited because they originate, ultimately, in idolatry and rebellion against Israel’s one true God whose image all humans bear. Indeed, when Paul confronts the Jews in the next chapter, he replaces same sex activity with adultery. This suggests that he sees them in the same light, adultery being a common metaphor in the OT for idolatry.

Given Paul’s devotion to Jesus, we are not surprised that Jesus seems to have exactly the same view. When asked about divorce, he appears to hold that the only valid context for the expression of human sexual desire is male/female monogamy (Mark 10:6-9). That neither he nor Paul, nor any NT writer ever offers guidance on any other form of sexual contact (except to cease and desist) suggests they held exactly the same view as their Scriptures. Indeed, this has been the position of the universal Church in all its stripes and cultural expressions for nearly two thousand years, and for the long history of biblical Israel before it. No one seriously questioned that following Jesus, and the God whom he embodied, meant strict limits on human sexual activity. And it’s hardly the case that they didn’t know of the temptation to express sexual desires across a range of relationships.

Putting It In Perspective

In her final statement, the author suggests that all this needs to be put in perspective. Since only a tiny percentage of texts (on her count .016%) deal with this topic, monitoring “human (homo)sexual activity” is, she claims, not a particular concern of the Bible, especially when compared to demands for justice, equality, etc. But is this really a reasonable assessment? She surely cannot mean that since offering children to Molech has even fewer texts, it is of even less concern. As for the OT, so too for Paul and for Jesus: sexual activity outside of male/female monogamy means one will not inherit the kingdom of God. How often does this have to be said for it to be a serious consideration? Seeing that we are talking about eternal life, or not, I should have thought that saying this even once would warrant serious attention. Verse counting not only ignores the contextual matters that critical scholars are meant to study, it thereby runs the risk of trivializing the issue.

But aside from the above, the biggest problem for me is the implicit idea that all this is really about [what seems reasonable to] us, that is, God’s “generous love [for us?] and a profound concern for [what we judge to be?] justice.” Now God is surely about these things. But what the author seems unable to countenance is that the Bible might actually be first about our response to God. Who was it who said that the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? If so, then perhaps it is only in listening to what he has to say that we can begin to understand what truly generous love and life-giving justice actually look like. And the Scriptures are very clear that the only appropriate venue for a truly loving and just expression of human sexual desire is within a monogamous male and female relationship.

About the Author: Professor Rikk Watts is a Professor of Theology at Alphacrucis College.