Was Paul Against Loving, Consensual Homosexual Relationships?

Did Paul teach against homosexual behavior or only abuse?

by Liz Abrams on November 29, 2022
Featured in Answers in Depth

Editor’s note: This discussion contains terminology that may not be appropriate for young or sensitive readers. Parents are cautioned.

Most people from older generations can remember when homosexual behavior was not considered “normal” in society and the appearance of the first gay TV characters was scandalous. Today, it is more unusual to see a show that doesn’t feature a gay character, and it is the assertion of biblical morality that is scandalous in society. The normalization of homosexual behavior, in turn, normalized increasingly radical departures from God’s created design for men and women, and record numbers of boys, girls, and even men and women report that their feelings do not conform with their biological gender.

Men and women report that their feelings do not conform with their biological gender. Some argue that we have misunderstood the Bible’s teachings regarding homosexual behavior.

Some argue that we have misunderstood the Bible’s teachings regarding homosexual behavior. They argue that Moses and Paul did not have any conception of loving, consensual gay relationships, only abusive and coercive acts connected to slavery or temple prostitution. They further hypothesize that there may be homosexual relationships depicted in the Bible, such as David and Jonathan.

God’s Good, Created Design

There is a strong argument from nature that homosexual activity departs from the created design. Biologically, the only way to naturally reproduce is for a man and woman to engage in heterosexual activity. Furthermore, homosexual activity is linked with much higher rates of disease and injury, to the point that homosexual men, in particular, have shorter average lifespans.1 Rates of mental illness are higher as well.2 However, if that were our sole argument against homosexual behavior, the answer might be only to make the activity safer, treat diseases better, and provide targeted mental health care.

The only way to argue that homosexual behavior is wrong rather than simply risky is to look at God’s created design for men and women. From the beginning, God’s design has been for a man and a woman to be united in a monogamous marriage for life. While polygamy and divorce, among other things, came into the world as a result of the fall, the biblical ideal remains faithful monogamy, which is one reason why it is a requirement for men who want to be elders or deacons in the church.

Some accuse Christians of hypocrisy because we seem more vocally against homosexual behavior than against various forms of heterosexual sin. To be clear, it is also sinful for an unmarried man and woman to engage in sexual activity or for men or women to be unfaithful in their marriages.

A Quick Tour of the “Clobber Passages”

Some point out that there are only six passages that clearly speak against homosexual behavior and argue that each of these is misused. Christians who wish to defend the Bible’s teaching regarding marriage need to be familiar with these.

The first appearance of homosexual behavior is in the Genesis 19 account of Sodom and Gomorrah. The universal interpretation for thousands of years of Jewish and Christian interpretation was that the sin of Sodom was homosexual behavior, so much so that the male homosexual act was termed “sodomy.” However, some appeal to Ezekiel 16:49–50: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” Liberal interpreters use this to say that the sin of Sodom was not homosexual behavior but various social sins. However, the word for “abomination” is toebah and is used for particularly egregious sins, such as idolatry (particularly offering children to Molech) and certain sexual sins, not limited to but certainly including homosexual behavior. All of the things Ezekiel records are sins, but none of them are “abominations.” The only abomination recorded in Scripture is their homosexual behavior. So Ezekiel’s reference to “toebah” is naming homosexual behavior as the culmination of an escalating pattern of sin that caused God to judge them. Furthermore, Jude 1:7 says, “just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” So the New Testament interpretation of the story is that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexual behavior.

Leviticus 18:22 is the second “clobber passage”: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” and the third is Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” The word “abomination” in both verses is toebah, the same as in Ezekiel. The death penalty is not unique to homosexual activity—adultery, incest, and bestiality fall within the same category of sexual sins that warrant the death penalty. While it might seem harsh to prescribe the death penalty for sexual sins, it shows the seriousness with which God views them. Also, the seriousness of the punishment may have been intended to act as a deterrent.

Also, it is significant that the prohibition on homosexual behavior is listed in the context with other sexual offenses, not with the prohibitions on idolatry. This means the prohibition is limited to not just temple prostitution but homosexual behavior in any context.

Did the Bible Positively Depict Homosexual Relationships?

Some claim that the Bible depicts positive homosexual relationships, strengthening the idea that only abusive or idolatrous homosexual behavior is condemned. Practically every pair of the same sex has been floated as a possible gay couple, from Ruth and Naomi to David and Jonathan to even Jesus and the apostle whom he loved, and more.

One may point out the sickness of the mind of one who sees the need to sexualize the relationship between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, male friends, or teacher and student. Rather, the Bible shows a range of deep, meaningful, non-sexual healthy relationships between two men or two women. Ruth loved Naomi loyally, provided for her when she would have been otherwise destitute, and became part of Jesus’ lineage. Jonathan was a true friend to David, and David repaid his loyalty by mourning him after his death and taking care of Jonathan’s only surviving child. John’s reference to himself being the disciple that Jesus loved speaks of the awe John felt that the Son of God, as a man “made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Hebrews 2:17), would partake in humanly friendships and could love and choose him to be a disciple.

One instance worth a closer look is in Matthew 8:5–13 and the parallel account in Luke 7:1–10. A Roman centurion has a valued servant paralyzed with an excruciatingly painful illness. He asks the Jewish leaders to arrange a meeting with Jesus. The Jewish leaders speak of the centurion’s love of the Jews and his building of their synagogue. Jesus meets with the centurion and agrees to go heal the servant. However, the centurion, likely aware that the Jews consider him and his dwelling ceremonially unclean, says that he is not worthy of such an honor and believes it is enough for Jesus to tell him the servant will be well. Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion and grants his wish, healing the servant from afar.

Where is the homosexual behavior lurking under the surface? One commentator states that Matthew’s use of the word pais, which can mean “child” or “servant,” could have sexual overtones—in an utterly fanciful, unfounded leap of eisegesis. Other interpreters argue that the servant is so valued because he is the Roman’s lover—but such a relationship with master and slave would otherwise be condemned by these same commentators as abusive and coercive because the servant would not be able to refuse and thus could not give true consent. So either there is no homosexual behavior present in the relationship between master and servant, or the relationship is just the sort of abusive situation that these very commentators believe the Leviticus passage was meant to condemn.

The centurion is presented as a righteous man who displayed true faith and loved God and, by extension, his people—this description is not compatible with him being an unrepentant or abusive homosexual. While homosexual activity was common among Romans—specifically free Roman men dominating young boys and male slaves—this does not mean the behavior was universal.

Did Jesus Say Anything About Homosexual Behavior?

Before examining the NT clobber passages, all within the writings of the apostle Paul, it is worth a brief detour to consider another argument from critics—that Jesus never said anything about homosexual behavior. There are a number of arguments in response.

First, Jesus did many things that are not recorded in the Gospels. The authors of the Gospels (speaking for a moment only considering the human authors while recognizing that the Holy Spirit was superintending the process and inspiring the human authors) were constrained by the physical size of the pages/scrolls they were writing on, the message they were conveying to their original audience, and other factors. To say that Jesus never said anything about homosexual behavior is an argument from silence, given that John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30). In other words, Jesus did and said lots of things that weren’t recorded in the Gospels.

Second, the vast majority of Jesus’ ministry occurred among Jews who agreed about the foundation of the Old Testament, so they had the passages discussed above to inform their shared beliefs about the immorality of homosexual behavior. Jesus simply didn’t need to talk about homosexual behavior any more than he needed to talk about bestiality or incest being wrong.

Third, when Jesus spoke about marriage, he taught that God’s original intent for marriage at creation was normative before sin made it necessary for God to make concessions such as divorce necessary because of the hardness of people’s hearts. God’s intention was that marriage would be between one man and one woman for life and that sexual activity would only occur within marriage. That excludes all manner of sexual relationships, such as polyamory, adultery, and homosexual behavior. It is inconceivable that any first-century Jew would approve of homosexual relationships. In fact, even the Mishnah (Kiddushin 82a), the written record of the oral tradition of the Jews, seems to describe that homosexual behavior did not occur between Jews, so Jesus would have had little reason to speak about it.

Finally, Jesus is God, and God inspired the entirety of Scripture, including the parts of the Pentateuch and Paul’s letters that explicitly condemn homosexual behavior.

Paul’s Condemnations of Homosexual Behavior

Returning to the final three “clobber passages,” the fourth is Romans 1, which presents both male and female homosexual behavior as the culmination of a pattern of rebellion against the Creator: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:26–27).

First, note that the sin Paul is describing is mutual. The participants are consumed with lust for one another. If Paul could conceive of a “loving,” consensual homosexual relationship, it would be condemned under this passage. However, Paul would likely say it is not possible for such a relationship to be truly loving because it is impossible to love someone while sinning with and against them simultaneously.

The last two “clobber passages” are similar. 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 says, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, no men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Timothy 1:8–11 says: “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.”

Both condemnations of homosexual behavior occur within the context of vice lists. There are a few elements worth noticing. First, homosexual behavior is not singled out as a particularly unique sin—it is listed alongside assaulting one’s parents, other forms of sexual immorality, and other sins, any of which will send someone to hell without Christ’s blood to cover them. Second, no one is trapped in condemnation—there is the possibility for repentance, forgiveness, and transformation into a new way of life. When Paul says, “And such were some of you,” he acknowledges that the Corinthian church was made up of former adulterers, former drunks, and former practitioners of homosexual behavior. But those sins didn’t define them anymore—their inclusion in the family of God washed them clean from their former sins and gave them a new identity as followers and joint heirs with Christ.

It is also worth taking a look at the word translated “men who practice homosexuality,” which in both places is the Greek arsenokoites, arsen meaning man, and koites meaning bed (the word “coitus” similarly comes from koites). The 1 Corinthians passage actually pairs arsenokoites with the term malakos, meaning “soft” or “effeminate,” meaning that Paul specifies both the active and passive partner. The word arsenokoites was possibly coined by Paul (not being attested before his time), based on the LXX Leviticus 18:22, where the Greek translation of the Old Testament reads Kai meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gynaikos, translated, “And with men you shall not lie as with women.” So Paul’s sexual ethic is clearly informed by God’s law.

Every sin can ultimately be explained as either violating God’s nature or violating God’s design for creation.

Homosexual Behavior and the Gospel

Some people seem to think God randomly assigns certain things as sins just to get in the way of our fun. But in fact, morality flows from God’s own nature and how he designed creation to function. Every sin can ultimately be explained as either violating God’s nature or violating God’s design for creation. What many don’t understand is that God tells us what is good and what is sinful in Scripture because he loves us and wants us to live in alignment with his will and design for our good and his glory.

A man who experiences homosexual attraction may claim that it is unfair that God’s law constrains him from acting on his homosexual desires. But a man with heterosexual desires is equally unable to act on them unless and until he gets married—and even then, he must confine the expression of his heterosexuality to his marriage. And a man with a strong desire to get drunk also must bring his desires into conformity with God’s law.

In a culture that literally flies rainbow flags for a whole month of the year for people who identify as LGBTQ, it can seem unloving to confront people with the truth of what God’s Word says. However, God’s Word is clear that sin separates us from God, and if we do not repent and trust in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, it will condemn us to an eternity in hell. In love then, Christians must share the gospel, which begins with the bad news that we are all sinners but ends in the glorious realization that Christ loves us anyway and died to cover our sins, giving us a new life and purpose.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1–10)

There are many accounts of people who repented of their homosexual activities and have found their new identities in Christ. For instance, Rosaria Butterfield was a lesbian women’s studies professor whose unlikely friendship with a pastor and his wife led to her hearing and believing the gospel, which completely transformed her life. She is now a wife and mother to many adopted children. There are many other stories like hers.

Being a Christian has always meant believing and defending things that are unpopular in the wider culture. Today, the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sexuality is particularly unpopular. That means, as Christians, we must be prepared to speak about this topic with hostile people in truth and grace, trusting that God will reach people with the power of the gospel.

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2022 Volume 17

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  1. P. Cameron, K. Cameron, W.L. Playfair, “Does Homosexual Activity Shorten Life?” Psychological Reports 83, vol 3 pt 1:847–66, December 1998, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9923159/.
  2. Leann Bentley, “Why Does the LGBTQIA+ Community Suffer from Poor Mental Health at Higher Rates?” University of Utah Healthcare Blog, July 7 2021.


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