Readers of The Lutheran know the ELCA has been involved in a study of human sexuality with specific reference to homosexuality and whether homosexual people should be ordained as pastors. Pastors and others received a thorough study, Background Essay on Biblical Texts, as part of the ELCA’s study.

Members of some congregations have not had the opportunity to read this study, or they may have been turned off by its length and detail. But even for those who do read it, I share some insights that I have not seen in this study. I will also ask some questions to ponder as you consider the biblical texts, leaving you free to draw your own conclusions.

I am in no way involved in the process for determining the ELCA’s position or policies on the issues before the church. My purpose is to inform and invite reflection on the subject of homosexuality and the church today, while not trying to persuade anyone toward any conclusion on the issues at hand.

In dealing with biblical texts, it is easy to read into or out of them what one wants to find. Therefore, different and conflicting interpretations of the texts often occur, which is well demonstrated in the study mentioned. I will deal briefly with the crucial texts and with another passage in Paul that helps enlighten our understanding of those texts.

There are only three passages in the New Testament that we can be sure specifically mention homosexuality—Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-11. We can omit a fourth text, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, because it adds nothing to the two most significant passages in Paul’s letters. (All passages are from the New Revised Standard Version).

The first text is Romans 1:26-27:

For this reason God gave them [Gentiles] up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
This is a very problematic passage. Scholars hold wide differences of opinion about what Paul says, even about the meaning of several of his Greek words. It is probably true that “natural intercourse for unnatural” means homosexual relationships between women, as most scholars think, although a few think the relationship is that between women and men. Paul does not specifically mention homosexuality in the list of vices that follows in Romans 1:28-32, which may support the latter view. However, he also does not mention adultery in the list. In any case, the repetition of “men” shows that Paul’s emphasis is on the relationships of men with each other.

The second passage is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

There is no question that the Greek word translated here as “sodomites” refers specifically to sexual relations between males. The single Greek word (arsenokoites) is a combination of two words: arsen, meaning “male,” and koite, meaning “marriage bed.” Paul says nothing here about homosexual relationships between women. We should further observe that “sodomites” is one kind of sinners among others. Does Paul mean that sodomites are worse sinners than the rest he mentions? Does he not say, “None of these will inherit the kingdom of God”?

Now look at 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons … or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters …. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one …. Drive out the wicked person from among you.

The letter about which Paul says he “wrote” was obviously written before 1 Corinthians and is not extant. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 there is no reference to homosexuality, but I include it because it enlightens our understanding of Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9.

Most of the same vices occur in both of the Corinthian passages. Are those vices more or less serious than homosexuality, which Paul does not include in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13? The Greek word translated “sexually immoral persons” is the same as that translated as “fornicators” in 1 Corinthians 6:9. It refers specifically to males, especially male prostitutes and their immoral behavior. Paul uses it and related words a number of times to mean illicit sexual behavior of any kind. Obviously, Paul thinks people having the vices mentioned are quite bad. He advises the Corinthian converts not even to eat with such people and to expel them from their community.

What, then, shall we make of all this? Is it too easy to center attention on one vice to the neglect of others that Paul thought were of equal or even greater importance?

The word translated “sodomites,” for example, occurs infrequently in Greek literature, nowhere in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), and only in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 in the New Testament. On the other hand, drinking and drunkenness, adultery and divorce are condemned much more widely in the Bible than homosexuality. Other behaviors are frequently condemned in both testaments, here with new Testament evidence (with Greek vocabulary):

Homosexuality is not among the vices Jesus mentions, nor does it occur in any of these other passages. Drunkenness is, however. A decade ago alcoholism among the clergy was a major concern at some places in the ELCA, and may still be. Instead of expelling alcoholics, the church provided counseling and treatment.

Jesus linked divorce and adultery. Consider these passages:

  • Mark 10:11-12: “He [Jesus] said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’ ” (see also Matthew 19:9).
  • Luke 16:18: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (see also Matthew 5:32).

Offhand I can think of 10 Lutheran pastors who are divorced or have married a divorced person. On that basis, I think it fair to assume that there may be hundreds of such pastors, male and female, currently serving ELCA parishes. Is the church to consider them as adulterers? And how about divorced and remarried people in our congregations? Should we not eat with them, and should we or the church drive them from among us? In Paul’s view, not ours, was homosexuality a greater vice than the others he mentions?

I write this to inform, invoke serious thought and to help put in perspective the difficult question of having partnered homosexuals serving congregations.

Edwin D. Freed
Freed is professor emeritus of biblical studies at Gettysburg [Pa.] College and a retired ELCA pastor. He is the author of two newly released books from Equinox, The Apostle Paul and His Letters and The Morality of Paul’s Converts.

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