Marriage and Homosexuality in the New TestamentApril 19, 2013
Any discussion of the topic of marriage and homosexuality in the New Testament must be done against the backgrounds of several areas predominant to the writers of the New Testament in the first century: the Jewish Scripture, first century Judaism, Greek culture, and Roman practices. This short article can hardly do justice to all of these areas, but an attempt will be offered to give a brief overview of these topics as depicted in the writings about Jesus and the letters of Paul. The New Testament records do not include treatises by Jesus or Paul on the issue of marriage per se, but there are materials in the NT that indicate a concern for the issue. In the Gospels, Jesus speaks about marriage (or the related event, divorce) in six passages (Matthew 19:1-12; 22:23-28; Mark 10:2-12; 12:18-27; Luke 16:18; 20:27-40). These passages represent two events in the life of Christ: 1) a time when Jesus addresses the issue of divorce; and 2) a question from some Jewish rulers about Levirate marriage laws. In both cases the foundation of the discussion is that marriage is something that involves a man and a woman. Jesus’ makes this emphatic in Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:5-9 when he goes back to the creation of humans (Genesis 1:27; 2:24) to describe God’s intention for marriage as involving “male and female” as the agents of a biblical marriage. Jesus reaffirms here the ideal for marriage laid down from the beginning, indeed, an ideal that was supported even by much of Greco-Roman culture (For more on this issue, see Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 70-76). That ideal was a view of a monogamous marriage of a man and a woman until death.
Paul likewise affirms this view in his various dealings with the subject of marriage and divorce. In Ephesians 5:15-32 Paul addresses the issue of relationships in marriage and uses the exclusive language of male and female as the primary agents of what constitutes a marriage. Paul even quotes Genesis 2:24 (like Jesus) in discussing this relationship. Paul, like Jesus, viewed marriage as a commitment between a man and a woman. In the Pastoral epistles (certainly of Pauline influence) even the characteristics of certain leadership positions within the church include the call to be “the husband of one wife” (literally mias gynaikos andra, 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6; cf. 1 Timothy 5:9. Alternative translations emphasize the exclusivity of the genders here with words like “married to one wife only” or “a man faithful to his own wife” or even “one woman man”). At the very least, when Paul deals with issues of marriage, the focus is on the relationship between a man and a woman. No reference is given anywhere in the NT to a marriage as consisting of a committed relationship between individuals of the same gender.
If marriage in the New Testament is characterized as one man and one woman in a monogamous relationship, then homosexuality is presented as a rejection or even a corruption of a proper knowledge of God. Although Jesus never directly addresses the issue of homosexuality, Paul mentions the issue several times in his letters (Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-11). The last two references primarily name “homosexuality” as one of many sins in a list of what is considered unrighteous, while in Romans Paul lumps homosexual relations in with a host of “unnatural” errors that humans embrace when they cease to acknowledge God and his righteousness. Paul here lists male and female homosexual activities as an exchange of the natural passions for that which God considers unnatural (Rom. 1:26-27). The point Paul seems to make is that homosexual sin is one of many ways that humans tend to exchange God’s natural order for an idolatrous unnatural expression of their own humanity. In other words, Paul sees sexual sin in general (including sins like fornication and adultery) as a rejection of God’s natural intentions. In other words, to reject God’s purpose is to exchange God’s nature for selfish human desires.
What is the point then of this short investigation? The point is that marriage and sex are presented in the New Testament as having a particularly godly function. Marriage is not a means of satisfying an individual’s personal cravings for attention or for adulation, and sex is not created purely for the sake of human pleasure. This brief article does not allow room to explore the Old Testament views of sex and related issues, but suffice it to say that the goal of these relationships focuses not on human pleasure but rather on the nature and intentions of God. That humans are created for relationships is evident in the whole of the Bible, but that those relationships are created solely for selfish pleasure is not at all apparent. The goal of human relationships is to reflect the image of God; that is, to give little glimpses of God’s character. To relegate these relationships solely to the area of personal preference or even personal pleasure is in essence to deny that human beings resemble the Creator in any way. This denial damages human relationships in general and will eventually degenerate into a treatment of other people as merely a means to a rather selfish end. The recognition that God has a purpose for sex and marriage is not a magic wand to cure all relationship problems, but this recognition requires us to investigate fully how our relationships reflect God’s purposes and designs. If they do not, they must be changed.
- Leo Percer, PhD
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies