40 answers for Kevin DeYoung

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Dear Kevin,

I read your “40 questions for Christians now waving rainbow flags” with interest.

You described these questions as “sincere, if pointed.” I took this to mean you were open to response. So respond I have.

As much as possible, I’ve tried to follow your lead—offering what I hope are sincere, if occasionally pointed, replies.

A few of your questions seemed redundant (e.g. #2 and #3, #29 and #30). For the sake of not making an already long post even longer, I did not bother to repeat my answers in such cases. I can see how, for you, each question may have had its own nuance, but I felt the same answers applied, at least broadly speaking.

One last point before diving in… I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that what we’re cheering for is most certainly not “the sexual revolution,” if by that you mean an “anything goes” approach to sexual expression, which is what people usually mean by the term. I believe our sexual ethic should be shaped by Scripture, even if you and I have a different understanding of what that looks like in practice.

All right. Onto the questions…

1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated?

I’ve been wrestling with the relevant questions and issues for the last 4-6 years.

2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind?

Well, given that “verses” are an artificial construct imposed on the Bible in the 16th century… none.

For me, it started with a friend who came out on Facebook. Then I reconnected with a relative who’s gay. I happen to think they were the best possible reasons to reassess my views. They drove me back to the text—not to see how many proof texts I could amass on one side or the other, but to see whether I could discern a broader ethic or principle, showing how God wants us to relate to his LGBTQ image bearers.

(For what it’s worth, I did revisit some of the popular proof texts, as well.)

3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?

“It is not good that the man should be alone” may not only be true if you’re straight.

“Better to marry than to burn” may not only true if you’re straight.

But mostly, I would say this:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

(Here’s more on how I see “love your neighbor” as the Bible’s sexual ethic.)

4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church?

The same verses you would use to show that marriage between two opposite-gendered persons can adequately depict Christ and the church. (I’m pretty sure gender is not the main point of Paul’s analogy, since the church is not literally, anatomically female.)

5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship?

I don’t think most first-century Jewish rabbis ever had the opportunity to imagine such a thing, much less decide how they felt about it. That’s not a category into which homosexual behavior typically fell back in the first century. But if Jesus had been incarnated into our world today, I think he may well have been okay with it…or at least, almost definitely not as bothered by it as some of his followers are.

6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman?

Why do you use a passage in which Jesus is clearly talking about divorce to make a point about homosexuality? Context.

7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding?

In light of his audience and the examples he specifically mentioned—namely, a man and a woman divorcing on grounds of porneia, women serving as pornai (prostitutes)—I think he was most likely addressing illicit forms of heterosexual sex.

8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1?

As part of a rhetorical device Paul used to convince his fellow Jews they were just as guilty as Gentiles before God.

9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven?

Yup! As long as we understand “sexual immorality” (porneia) correctly. (See #7 above.) And as long as by “heaven” you mean the renewed creation.

10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to?

In the case of Revelation 21:8, the key word is pornois (a variant of porneia). Refer to #7 above.

As you know, 1 Corinthians 6:9 uses a relatively obscure term, arsenokoitai (literally “man bedders”), the precise meaning of which has been lost to history. But given where it shows up in other “vice lists” from the early church era, it probably referred to some form of “economic exploitation by means of sex.”

William Stacy Johnson suggests it’s a reference “the hedonistic homoerotic practices that were widespread in the Roman Empire” and “were almost always performed by social superiors on social inferiors.” In which case, I’m not sure 1 Corinthians 6 is applicable to two people of the same gender in a covenantal relationship characterized by mutual affection and equality.

On the other hand, the fifth-century saint John the Faster thought arsenokoitai referred to heterosexual anal sex. So there’s always that option.

Are we really going to hinge such an important question on the meaning of one obscure, notoriously hard-to-translate word?

11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?

Augustine failed to grasp that sex is basically a good thing, that it’s a gift from God to his creation.

Luther failed to grasp that Jews and peasants are people too, and ought to be treated with respect.

Pretty much all of them failed to grasp that slavery is bad. So what exactly is your point? Just because a belief—one which, we should note, is not contained in any ecumenical creed or confession—has long been held by the church doesn’t mean it gets a free pass.

No, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss something Christians have thought to be true for centuries, especially when it comes to core tenets of orthodoxy—one of which this is decidedly not. But neither should we act as if our predecessors were infallible. It’s the task of each generation to discern how best to embody God’s intended reality in our world, knowing we will always do so imperfectly.

12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?

You seem to be suggesting that it’s imperialistic for us to commend the affirming view to our sisters and brothers in the majority world. Question: did this aversion to imperialism stop your fellow evangelicals from promoting anti-gay legislation in places like Uganda—legislation that exposes lesbian and gay Africans to harassment, imprisonment, and in some cases death?

Have you considered how imperialism tainted early missionary efforts in the majority world, the introduction of the Bible there, and how people were taught (primarily by white Westerners like you and me) to interpret it in the first place?

13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman?

No. But I don’t think most people who hold the traditional view are motivated by “personal animus and bigotry” either. Just because someone opposes same-sex marriage does not mean they’re a bigot.

At the same time, just because you’re not a bigot doesn’t mean you don’t have room to become more loving. We all need to grow in our compassion and understanding.

14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?

What if one of them is abusive? Are you suggesting that’s better than two gay dads who provide a loving, safe environment and don’t abuse kids?

15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion?

“There is no evidence that the development of children with lesbian and gay parents is compromised in any significant respect relative to that among children of heterosexual parents in otherwise comparable circumstances.”
–Patterson, “Children of Lesbian and Gay Parents,” Child Development, 1992

“Children raised by lesbian women do not experience adverse outcomes compared with other children.”
–Anderson, Amlie & Ytterøy; “Outcomes for Children With Lesbian or Gay Parents: A Review of Studies From 1978 to 2000,” Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 2002

“Extensive data available from more than 30 years of research reveal that children raised by gay and lesbian parents have demonstrated resilience with regard to social, psychological, and sexual health despite economic and legal disparities and social stigma.”
–Perrin & Siegel, “Promoting the Well-Being of Children Whose Parents are Gay or Lesbian,” American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013.

16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad?

In my opinion, the state does have an interest in prioritizing the placement of children in households with two parents—though there are also loads of single parents who are wonderfully qualified to adopt. As I’ve indicated in my responses to #14 and #15, I’m not nearly as convinced as you are that gender is the critical factor here.

Churches, on the other hand, have every right to advocate for whatever arrangement they find most compatible with their understanding of Scripture. If we’re talking about faith-based adoption agencies that receive federal funding, then the answer is a bit more complicated. (And I won’t pretend to know what it is.)

17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment?

Sure. Marriage is a stabilizing force in families and communities.

Marriage can also be a powerful tool for regulating sexual activity—providing an appropriate context for healthy sexual expression and discouraging harmful sexual activity—e.g. limiting (one hopes!) the number of sexual partners someone has and thereby reducing the transmission of disease.

Some of us just don’t see how these ends and purposes have anything to do with the gender of the participants.

18. How would you define marriage?

Depends if we’re talking civil or sacramental marriage.

Civil: a state-sanctioned union of two people in which they share a common household (finances, property, etc.).

Sacramental: a divinely sanctioned union of two people in which they covenant to love each other exclusively, serve one another, nurture one another (socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically); and form a family with one another (which may or may not include children).

19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?

No, gross. The negative effects of inbreeding are well documented.

20. Should marriage be limited to only two people?

Yup. As Jon Stewart said, nobody is born a polygamist.

Besides, if anything opens the door to polygamy, it’s patriarchy, not homosexuality.

21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married?

On the basis of responsible legislation which excludes inbreeding and polygamy (as well as marrying your pet goat) from the legal definition of marriage.

22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license?

Of course. Marriage still requires consent from both parties. Kids cannot consent to being married—or be held to just about any legal contract, for that matter.

23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage?

Well, my 4-year-old might think so, given how many times she’s asked to “marry” me. But most reasonably intelligent adults understand this is not the case.

24. If not, why not?

Because same-sex marriage is about one previously excluded class of people being given access to the institution; it does not fundamentally alter the nature of that institution. Marriage is still at its core two people uniting in an intimate relationship and forming a common household. The idea that gays getting married somehow renders the institution meaningless is silly.

25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion?

Yes, absolutely. The Supreme Court was weighing in on the fourteenth amendment, not the first.

Caveat: please don’t mistake public disagreement for persecution. Christians who oppose same-sex marriage have the right to not be persecuted for their beliefs. None of us have the right to not be criticized.

26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue?

Yes, if there is genuine persecution or discrimination taking place.

For example, if Coca-Cola fires someone because they signed a petition supporting traditional marriage, I would strongly object. If they fired someone for relentlessly badgering their LGBTQ coworkers, not so much.

On accreditation… I don’t wish to see Christian schools punished for maintaining a traditional evangelical view on homosexuality. But please bear in mind that accrediting agencies are private organizations. They have the right to set their own criteria. If they choose to rescind a school’s accreditation over its policies on homosexuality, it’s not necessarily valid to play the “government persecution” card.

Related question: if a wedding photographer has the right to refuse to serve a gay couple, shouldn’t a private accreditation agency have the right to refuse to serve a college it considers anti-gay?

27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?

Bullying is bad, period.

But are you really going to equate the bullying of evangelicals and Catholics with the bullying of gays and lesbians? Especially when 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBT? Especially when LGBT youth are 4-6 times more likely to attempt suicide?

Who’s the bigger bully here?

28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles?

I hope churches that marry same-sex couples will offer premarital counseling beforehand, mentorship opportunities with older married couples, counseling for those in struggling marriages, etc. In other words, pretty much the same kind of support they offer to heterosexual couples.

To your point, perhaps this is an opportunity for all of us to commit ourselves to strengthening marriage.

29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline?

LGBTQ members of the church should be held to the same standard of sexual ethics (fidelity within marriage) as heterosexual members.

30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage?

See #29.

31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found?

Preach and teach God’s Word as they always have. (They’re not all Bible-burning liberal apostates.)

32. If “love wins,” how would you define love?

I would define love as an active, robust commitment to the flourishing of others—a reflection of God’s commitment to our own flourishing.

Also, as all that’s necessary for the fulfillment of the law (see Paul in Romans 13)

33. What verses would you use to establish that definition?

Probably the same ones that you would… 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 13, etc.

34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love?

Love is obedience to God’s command, according to both Jesus and Paul. If you love God and love (i.e. seek the good of) your neighbor, you are obeying God.

35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make?

Yes. We do it all the time. (Albeit badly.)

36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith?

Sure. Once I changed from being an Arminian to a Calvinist, but it didn’t stick.

As much as you might want to uncover signs of a slippery slope, the truth is, everyone’s understanding of faith changes over time—or at least it should.

Or are we so bold to assume we have everything figured out already?

37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost?

It hasn’t.

My passion for the historic orthodox faith—as expressed in the Nicene Creed, which I say every week without crossing my fingers—is unchanged by my perspective on gay marriage.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. I hope I’m even more motivated to proclaim the good news of a God who loves everyone and wants everyone to know him.

38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples?

There are plenty within my own tribe, the Episcopal Church, who are deeply committed to orthodoxy and evangelism. (Though we have room to grow, especially with respect to evangelism.)

At the same time, many of us would argue that making our churches more welcoming is an essential part of evangelism. Most gays and lesbians would never come and hear the gospel in your church, because they wouldn’t see it as a safe or welcoming space for them.

Removing barriers between people—barriers that shouldn’t be there in the first place—is an important step toward gospel proclamation. Not the only step, to be sure. In my context, our challenge is to make sure we take the next step after that. Your challenge is to take the first step.

39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead?

Yes, yes, and yes.

40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind?

I think Paul had in mind the general sinful condition of all humanity, as demonstrated by his rhetorical turn in chapter 2.  Paul’s point in Romans 1-2 was that we are all guilty of idolatry (worshiping the creature instead of the Creator). Morgan Guyton observes that the vice list in chapter 1 was “intended to elicit disgust” from Paul’s Jewish audience, just before he dropped the rhetorical boom (“You, therefore, have no excuse…”).

Paul also said the people he’s referring to were “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.” So, as Morgan notes, when you encounter gay Christians who clearly don’t rise to this level of depravity, you have to ask whether “same-sex marriage is evil” is really the point Paul is trying to make here.

—//—

Food for thought, I hope. I don’t expect anything I’ve written will change your mind. But I hope you’ll reconsider your assumption that those of us who see things differently than you are “swallowing everything the world and Facebook put on our plate.” Many of us have wrestled with, thought about, and, yes, prayed over these issues for a long time—especially those among us who are LGBTQ, for whom this is so much more than an “issue.” I hope, out of respect for them, these questions will become a conversation-starter instead of a discussion-killer.

—//—

Finally, some other responses that are well worth reading:

Image: Kevin Wong on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

About Leviticus 18…

Leviticus may be foreign territory for most Christians, but we’ve all heard Leviticus 18:22 (and its sister passage, Leviticus 20:13). This is one of a handful of “clobber texts” used to argue that homosexuality is unacceptable.

For many, Leviticus 18:22 is one of the most straightforward condemnations of homosexual activity in the Bible. But hang on a minute. Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t just sit there by itself. It has a context that shapes its meaning, as I was reminded while reading the whole book recently.

Many of us have assumed there’s only one way to interpret this text. But what if we’re wrong?

I can think of three options for interpreting/applying Leviticus 18:22 today.

Option #1: The conduct described in Leviticus 18 is universally prohibited because it violates the “natural order” of things.

On the surface, this view has a lot going for it. It’s the traditional view. It’s how most Christians through time have understood Leviticus 18. (It’s also how I read this text for most of my life.)

We can all agree (I hope) that at least most of the behaviors described in Leviticus 18 are unhealthy. There are 17 “do not’s” in this chapter, including the one about a man sleeping with another man. Twelve of the 17 “do not’s” deal with incest. One involves sex with animals (18:23).

But Leviticus 18 isn’t always clear-cut. What, for example, do you do with the command about “sexual relations during [a woman’s] monthly period” (18:19)? Leviticus forbids that too. Most Christians I know don’t think we’re obligated to keep this law today. And it certainly isn’t something we’d put in the same category as, say, an old man molesting his grandchild (18:10).

Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage provides a good example of the typical evangelical approach to passages like Leviticus 18:19. Driscoll argues there’s a difference between Leviticus’ ceremonial laws (which deal with “the priesthood, sacrifices, temple, cleanness, and so forth”) and its moral laws. The latter are repeated in the New Testament and are still binding; the former applied only to Israel and are no longer in force. Driscoll puts the prohibition against sleeping with a menstruating woman into the “ceremonial law” category and says it’s “no longer binding on us.” But he considers everything else in Leviticus 18, including the prohibition against a man sleeping with another man, as moral (and therefore binding) law.

And that’s the problem with Driscoll’s approach. He makes a special exception for one verse in Leviticus 18 (the one most likely to affect him, conveniently enough) while insisting the others still apply. He acts as if Leviticus needs our help sorting its laws into meaningful categories. He and most evangelicals treat Leviticus as if it were a random assortment of laws, given without rhyme or reason — a jumble of ceremonial, civil, and moral laws listed in no particular order.

This approach ignores the inherent literary structure of Leviticus and imposes artificial categories on its content. So we miss what should be painfully obvious: Leviticus 18 is a single unit of content. Its beginning and end are clearly indicated. The laws here are grouped together for a reason. (More on that later.) In other words, Leviticus makes no distinction between sex during a woman’s period and the other activities prohibited in chapter 18.

All of them are described as “detestable practices” or abominations (Hebrew, toh-ey-vah), which Israel is to avoid at all costs. Leviticus 20 goes even further, calling for any man who sleeps with his wife during her monthly period to be “cut off from their people.” (The term translated “cut off” can also mean annihilate, kill, or amputate. In other words, more than just a slap on the wrist.)

But this is where Leviticus gets confusing (even more so than usual). Because just a few chapters earlier, sex during a woman’s period is characterized as a minor infraction, resulting in a man being ritually unclean for a week.

So which is it? Cut off from the community entirely? Or briefly excluded from ceremonial worship? Make up your mind, Leviticus!

The point is, almost all of us are selective about which regulations in Leviticus 18 we view as universally binding. Unfortunately, the categories we use to distinguish between “binding” and “non-binding” don’t take into consideration the content and structure of the book itself.

For the sake of consistency (if nothing else), we should either accept all the prohibitions in this chapter or concede that option #1 isn’t as persuasive as it first seemed.

Option #2: Leviticus 18 is addressing the issue of sexual conduct within the context of worship.

To start, let’s look at the larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts of Leviticus 18.

First, the larger context. Leviticus 18 is part of a book whose name means “pertaining to the Levites,” i.e. the Israelite priestly clan. Leviticus was Israel’s liturgical playbook. It dealt primarily with matters pertaining to worship: sacrifices, ritual cleanness, holiness, and the practice of redeeming property. Its chief purpose was to help Israel distinguish between what was holy and what was common as it related to worship, so they could avoid “defiling [God’s] dwelling place.”

Now zoom in a little closer. Leviticus 18 is surrounded by prohibitions concerning idolatry. Chapter 17 includes laws against sacrificing animals outside the tabernacle and against eating blood — both of which were pagan practices. Chapter 19 also addresses a number of pagan practices, including making idols, divination, and ritual self-mutilation.

So the larger context of Leviticus 18 suggests it has something to do with worship. The surrounding context narrows the focus to idolatry. Both are indications that Leviticus 18 might not be making a broad statement about human sexuality.

Now look at the immediate context. Notice how chapter 18 begins:

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: “I am the LORD your God. You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices. You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” ’

Next, notice how Leviticus 18 ends:

‘ “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things, for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” ’

The prohibitions in Leviticus 18 are introduced with a warning for Israel not to imitate its former neighbors (the Egyptians) or its new ones (the Canaanites). The behaviors listed here are called toh-ey-vah in Hebrew (“detestable things” or “abominations”), a term used to describe that which is prohibited in worship. To do as Egypt and Canaan did was to become taw-may — that is, “defiled” or “ritually unclean.” In other words, unfit for worship. 

The larger, surrounding, and immediate contexts all indicate that Leviticus 18 is addressing matters of worship. In other words, the prohibitions are dealing with various forms of ritual sex.

Ritual sex was common among many ancient religious traditions. Temples across the ancient Near East employed (or enslaved) both male and female prostitutes (which explains why Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar was able to pass herself off as a “shrine prostitute” in Genesis).

If there’s any doubt Leviticus 18 is addressing religious practice, notice how it brings up another form of idolatry, child sacrifice, smack in the middle of all these sexual prohibitions:

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molek [a Canaanite deity], for you must not profane the name of your God.

The message of Leviticus 18 is that pagan practices like ritual sex and child sacrifice have no place in Israelite worship. The Egyptians and Canaanites may have done these things when they worshipped their gods, but this was not how Yahweh was to be worshiped.

Option #3: Leviticus 18 is dealing with predatory sexual behavior.

Another view (not incompatible with option #2) is that Leviticus 18 forbids predatory sexual activity.

Like most of Leviticus, the sexual prohibitions in this chapter are addressed to adult males. And for good reason. In the ancient Near Eastern family hierarchy, adult males always outranked females. Women were inferior, second-class. They were property. Even in the Old Testament law, women were valued less than their male counterparts, literally. For the purpose of making a sacred vow, for example, Leviticus set the value of men and women as follows:

  • Men (20-60 years old): 50 shekels of silver
  • Women (20-60 years old): 30 shekels of silver

(Remember what I wrote about Leviticus not being an easy book to like?)

Most of the prohibited sexual relationships in Leviticus 18 are incestuous in nature. But there’s another common thread connecting them all: each prohibited act involves an imbalance of power.

Sex in the ancient Near East was often a way of asserting dominance over someone else. That’s what was going on in the story of Sodom. That’s what was going on when Reuben slept with his father’s concubine; he was presumptuously asserting his power over the rest of the family as the firstborn son.

Predatory behavior is also in view in Leviticus’ prohibition against male homosexual activity (female homosexual activity is never mentioned in the Old Testament):

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.

The phrase “as one does with a woman” is key. It emphasizes the passive, weaker role played by one of the two men. Which is exactly what you’d have if, as suggested by option #2, Leviticus 18:22 is describing an act of ritual sex in which one of the two members is a temple prostitute (and most likely a slave). In this case, the act becomes very predatory indeed. It was about one man brutally asserting his dominance over another, reducing him to the much lower status (in that culture) of a woman.

Every single act prohibited in Leviticus 18, whatever else it may be, can be understood as predatory — one person wrongly asserting their dominance over another.

One advantage of this view is that it helps explain Leviticus 18 in light of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” found in the very next chapter. Jesus, like many Jews of his day, insisted that this was one of the two greatest commands in all of Scripture (the other being “love the Lord your God”).

Every other command — all 611 of them — had to be interpreted in light of these two. Everything else was subordinate to “love God” and “love your neighbor.”

When understood as prohibitions against predatory sexual behavior, the commands in Leviticus 18 make perfect sense as an application of “love your neighbor.” In other words, do not prey on the vulnerable or the weak. Do not take advantage of your neighbor, sexually or otherwise.

These are the three ways I can think of to interpret Leviticus 18. What options do you see for understanding this text?

If Leviticus 18 is a prohibition against ritual, predatory sex, then what it doesn’t address is a committed, equal relationship between two males or two females. It seems that Leviticus 18:22 can only be used as arsenal in the debate over homosexuality when it’s pulled out of its cultural, literary, and religious context.

Of course, much is made of the fact that Leviticus calls a man “lying with another man” a “defiling” and “detestable” act. But take note of what else was considered “defiling,” “detestable,” or the antithesis of “holy,” according to Leviticus:

  • Eating “unclean” animals, including pork, rabbit, and shellfish
  • Eating raw or rare meat
  • Cross-breeding animals
  • Wearing mixed fabrics
  • Cutting the hair at the sides of your head
  • Clipping the edges off your beard
  • Anyone with a skin disease
  • Anyone who was disfigured in any way — the blind, hunchbacks, dwarfs, eunuchs, etc. — and thus prohibited from serving God

Today, we don’t exclude people with physical impairments from serving in the church. We don’t call someone “unholy” for trimming their sideburns. Most of us don’t see anything defiling or detestable about eating pork or ordering our steak medium rare. We wouldn’t ostracize someone with eczema or write them off as “defiled.”

What if our reading of Leviticus is too selective? What if Leviticus has nothing to offer when it comes to the contemporary debate over sexual identity?