Holiness and God’s Creation Purpose

©David Peterson (2011)

‘To allow the legitimacy of homosexual acts would frustrate the divine purpose and deny the perfection of God’s provision of two sexes to support and complement one another.’[1]

1. Two starting-points

a. Holiness and sexuality

We live in a culture that has abandoned traditional sexual values, many of which were informed by Scripture.  Even church leaders regularly endorse cultural, rather than scriptural standards.  Engaging in debates about sexuality, we find ourselves confronted with fundamental questions about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.  We are challenged to explain why the Bible’s teaching on sexuality has any relevance to our world today.

This article focuses on homosexuality because it is currently so contentious in Christian circles.  Theologically and pastorally, however, homosexuality cannot be considered in isolation from human sexual behaviour more generally.  What we conclude with regard to homosexuality has profound implications for what we say about every other form of sexuality.  Similarly, biblical teaching about homosexuality must be understood in relation to the broader perspectives of Scripture on sexuality.  One of the most serious errors in the current debate is the isolation of homosexuality from this wider context.

Three arguments for endorsing homosexual behaviour are often heard:[2]

(1)           The ‘Love-Tolerance-Unity’ Argument.  Love, tolerance and unity demand the affirmation of consensual, loving same-sex erotic unions, no matter what some Scripture texts espouse on same-sex intercourse.

(2)           The ‘Non-Essential Issue’ Argument.  One can find a rejection of same-sex intercourse in Scripture, but it is not a core issue or does not address the phenomenon of loving homosexual relationships.

(3)           The ‘New Knowledge’ Argument.  We have acquired medical and psychological insights that the biblical authors did not have, which puts at jeopardy their viewpoint.

A fourth argument has now emerged, associated particularly with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.[3] Homosexual practice cannot be ruled out on the basis of its non-reproductive character.  The Bible is used to make the point that in authentic sexual encounters, our bodies become a source of happiness to ourselves and of grace to other people.  The unitive aspect of sexual relations becomes the key; the self-giving desire of God as Trinity becomes the model.  On this basis, committed homosexual behaviour is justified and the door appears to be open for any kind of desire-based, self-giving sexual union.

In addition to such arguments, the issue of justice for homosexuals is also brought into the discussion by many pro-gay church leaders.  But the language of holiness is rarely heard.  This is remarkable since holiness is the theological context and motivation for the teaching of the Mosaic law about sexual behaviour (Lev. 18:1-30; 20:7-26).  Holiness is similarly the basis of Paul’s appeal for distinctive sexual behaviour in several key passages (e.g. 1 Thes. 4:1-8; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 6:14 – 7:2).  How law and gospel differ in this connection remains to be explored.  However, in terms of biblical theology, holiness rather than justice, love, tolerance, unity or personal fulfilment should be our first consideration.[4] Holiness is a gospel issue that cannot be side-stepped.

b. The consistency of Scripture

In this article, I want to approach the relevant biblical material on holiness and sexuality, to demonstrate the overall consistency of Scripture on this subject.  Beginning with the law of Moses, I will expose the framework and purpose of the teaching in Leviticus about sexuality.  In so doing, I will show links with the fundamental purposes of God in creation, as revealed in the early chapters of Genesis.  Turning to the teaching of Jesus, I will show how he similarly highlights the foundational purposes of God in creation when considering issues of marriage and sexuality.  Jesus endorses the essential teaching of the law in this area, while enunciating the radical holiness which is at the heart of the New Covenant he inaugurates.

When the letters of Paul are studied against this background, it is clear that the foundational purposes of God in creation are the basis of his thinking about sexual matters.  At the same time, he makes a clear link between holiness and sexuality, as in the Mosaic law.  However, the newness of the situation is that sanctification is achieved for us through the redemptive work of Christ.  The outcome of that redemption is the present work of the Spirit, empowering God’s people for holiness, and ultimately the resurrection of the body.  All this is the context for the apostle’s teaching about the way we use our bodies now.

2.  Holiness and sexuality in the law of Moses

It is often argued that it is illegitimate to use passages from Leviticus to argue the case against homosexual practice.  Christians are not bound by the Mosaic law and it seems arbitrary to hold to one set of regulations from the Torah and not to others.  However, I will argue that a pattern of sanctification is established for Israel under the Mosaic Covenant that foreshadows the definitive work of Christ and the operation of the Holy Spirit for believers under the New Covenant.  Within that pattern, laws about sexual behaviour and interpersonal relationships have a special place.  To put it another way, there seems to be a continuity of biblical teaching about holiness and sexuality, despite differences of detail in the way the teaching is presented in both testaments.

a. Israel’s sanctification

Under the Sinai Covenant, Israel was set apart by God to be his own ‘treasured possession among all peoples’, ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:5-6; cf. Dt. 14:2).  Holiness was a status conferred by divine promise and divine redemption.  It was also a calling to be lived out in obedience to God’s voice and in keeping the covenant he had made with them.  A common factor in the terms describing Israel’s vocation in Exodus 19:5-6 is the note of separation from the nations, so as to be uniquely at God’s disposal.  As ‘a holy nation’, they were to demonstrate what it means to live under the direct rule of God, with God’s sanctifying presence in their midst.  As ‘a priestly kingdom’, they were to serve the Lord exclusively and thus be a people through whom his character and will might be displayed to the world.  In this way, God’s original promise to bring blessing to all the nations would be enacted (cf. Gen. 12:1-3).[5]

It is important to dwell on this last point.  Israel’s sanctification was meant to be for the blessing of the nations.  As Israel fulfilled her holy calling, the attractiveness of being in a relationship with the one true God would be demonstrated to the whole world.  God’s creation purposes, marred and obscured because of sin, would be enacted and thus made clear to all.  But the rest of the Old Testament shows how Israel compromised her calling and adopted the beliefs and practices of the nations.  Judgement, rather than blessing and salvation, was the consequence of a lack of holiness.

Under the Sinai covenant, pollution and sin were to be avoided in every aspect of life, and there was to be a complete break with every form of idolatry and false religion.  Separation from the nations and consecration to God were two different facets of their exclusive relationship with the Lord.

b. Sexuality and the covenant in the Book of Leviticus

Leviticus 1-16

The first sixteen chapters of Leviticus deal with laws of sacrifice, the institution of the priesthood, and various regulations about uncleanness and its treatment.  By preserving Israel’s purity, these cultic provisions would enable her ‘to remain in contact with God and witness to his presence in the world.’[6] The New Testament points to the fulfilment and replacement of this tabernacle or temple cult in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Heb. 9:1 – 10:18).  Under the New Covenant, definitive cleansing and sanctification is available for Jews and Gentiles alike through the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11).  Continual access to God ‘with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ is possible because of the high-priestly ministry of Jesus the exalted Messiah (Heb. 10:19-22).

Leviticus 18 and practical holiness

Leviticus 17-27 offers various prescriptions for practical holiness, covering every area of Israelite life.  Chapter 17 gives basic principles about food and sacrifice, chapter 18 deals specifically with sexual behaviour, and chapter 19 articulates what it means to be a good neighbour, including the famous injunction to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (v. 18).  The list of capital and other grave crimes in Leviticus 20 includes religious and sexual behaviour, showing again how family and sexual matters were central to the Old Testament view of holiness.

Seven times in Leviticus 18 the Israelites are warned not to behave like the nations who occupied Canaan before them (vv. 3 [twice], 24, 26, 27, 29, 30).  The fundamental reason is simply stated: ‘I am the Lord (your God)’ (vv. 2, 4, 5, 6, 21, 30).  This phrase recalls the revelation of the name of God to Israel, associated with the promise of redemption from Egypt and settlement in the promised land (Ex. 3:13-17; 6:2-9; Lev. 19:34, 36; 23:43; 25:38, 55; 26:13, 45; cf. Nu. 15:41).  In Leviticus it is regularly linked with the general command to be holy, because the Lord himself is holy (Lev. 11:44-5; 19:2; 20:7-8, 24).  The phrase is also linked with specific instructions to indicate that ‘the people of God were expected to keep the law, not merely as a formal duty but as a loving response to God’s grace in redemption.’[7]

Negatively, therefore, there is a continuing challenge in Leviticus 18 to turn away from the practices of the nations, including incestuous relationships (vv. 6-18), adultery (v. 20), offering children in sacrifice (v. 21), homosexual behaviour (v. 22), and bestiality (v. 23).  Positively, there is the continuing challenge to be different because of who God is (vv. 2-4) and because his rules offer true life (v. 5, cf. 26:3-13), rather than uncleanness, which leads to judgement (vv. 24-30).

Homosexuality in this context

Homosexuality is described as ‘an abomination’ (18:22, cf. 20:13; Heb. tô‘ēbâ), meaning something abhorred or hated.  The implication is that certain practices are hated by God and should therefore be hated by his people.  In 18:26, 27, 29, 30, the term is employed to describe everything prohibited in the chapter.  In biblical usage, it does not simply speak of idolatry, as some have argued, nor does it limit the prohibition against homosexuality to cult prostitution.[8]

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both use the general term ‘male’ (Heb. zākār, as in Gen. 1:27), thus forbidding every kind of male-male intercourse.  Both partners are equally condemned in 20:13.  Furthermore, both texts use the term ‘lie with’ (Heb. škb with a preposition), rather than a verb which may suggest rape or any kind of forced relationship.[9] The phrase ‘as with a woman’ indicates that what is condemned is sexual activity in which a male puts another male in the position of a female.  In short, these texts condemn homosexual intercourse where both parties consent, whether it is practised privately or in connection with pagan worship.

Gordon Wenham explains the distinctiveness of these prohibitions in the light of what can be known about attitudes towards homosexuality amongst Israel’s neighbours:

‘The ancient Near East was a world in which the practice of homosexuality was well known.  It was an integral part of temple life at least in parts of Mesopotamia, and no blame appears to have attached to its practice outside of worship.  Those who regularly played the passive role in intercourse were despised for being effeminate, and certain relationships such as father-son or pederasty were regarded as wrong, but otherwise it was regarded as quite respectable.’[10]

Set against this background, the Old Testament laws are very striking.  They ban every type of homosexual activity, not just forcible intercourse as the Assyrians did, or sex with youths as the Egyptians did.

Reflecting the perspectives of Genesis

This distinctiveness cannot simply be explained in terms of Israel’s aversion to the customs of her neighbours.  Many of the most fundamental principles of Old Testament theology are expressed in the opening chapters of Genesis.  The biblical view of creation is that God created the different plants and animals to reproduce according to their own particular type.  ‘Hence the law forbids any mixed breeding or acts that might encourage it (Lev. 19:19; Dt. 22:5, 9-11).’[11] Genesis speaks of the creation of mankind in two sexes, in order to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28), but also so that male and female might relate together in total intimacy and become ‘one flesh’ (2:18-24).  Wenham concludes:

‘It therefore seems most likely that Israel’s repudiation of homosexual intercourse arises out of its doctrine of creation . . . To allow the legitimacy of homosexual acts would frustrate the divine purpose and deny the perfection of God’s provision of two sexes to support and complement one another.’[12]

More generally, Mary Douglas makes the same point.  Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation:

‘It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.  Under this head all the rules of sexual morality exemplify the holy.  Incest and adultery (Lev. 18:6-20) are against holiness, in the simple sense of right order.  Morality does not conflict with holiness, but holiness is more a matter of separating that which should be separated than of protecting the rights of husbands and brothers.’[13]

The apostle Paul seems to reflect this view of creation when he describes homosexual behaviour as ‘contrary to nature’ (Gk. para physin, Rom. 1:26).  I deal with this issue more fully in an article entitled Same-sex unions and Romans 1.  Sanctification under old and new covenants involves God’s enabling to live according to the ‘right order’ that he has established for relationships (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

c. Sexuality and the death penalty

Leviticus 20 in context

The laws in Leviticus 20 appear in casuistic form, stating what should be done if prohibitions such as those in Leviticus 18 are broken.  The chapter begins with the penalty for idolatry and seeking after mediums and wizards (vv. 1-6).  A call to holiness (vv. 7-8) precedes the central section dealing with family life (vv. 9-21).  A second call to holiness (vv. 22-6) leads to a final statement about the penalty for being a medium or wizard (v. 27).

These exhortations to holiness and the warnings about transgressors being ‘cut off’ from among the people (vv. 3, 5, 6, 17, 18) make it clear that the provisions are specifically for national Israel.  Living in the land that God had given them, they were not to pollute themselves and their inheritance with the practices of the nations (vv. 22-6).  Having been separated from those nations to belong to God, they were to maintain the separation by removing everything from their midst that offended God.  The death penalty was an indication of the seriousness of this call to holiness.

The ultimate ground for the death penalty in Scripture lies in the Creation and Fall narratives of Genesis.  Death is threatened (2:17) and imposed (3:19) by God as his response to human rebellion.  The sentence is universal and put into effect by God himself.  After the Flood, however, human judges are given a limited responsibility in this area (9:6).  Murder is identified as a capital offence ‘because it is a direct assault on the created order established by God, in which man, made in his image, functions as his representative.’[14] The penalties of the Mosaic law must also be read against the background of Genesis 1-3:

The Sinai Covenant must be seen as a particular expression of the relationship between God and the world implicit in creation itself, and incest, adultery and homosexuality as violations of the created order.[15]

Capital crimes in Leviticus 20

Capital crimes listed at the heart of Leviticus 20 include the cursing of parents (v. 9), rather than honouring them as the Decalogue commands, adultery (v. 10), incest with close relatives (vv. 11, 12, 14), homosexual activity (v. 13) and bestiality (vv. 15-16). Wenham notes three main types of punishment in the Pentateuch: the death penalty for the gravest public sins against life, religion, and the family; ‘cutting off’ for grave private sins; and restitution for property sins.[16] Religious offences, and offences against life and the structure of the family, tended to be punished more severely in Israel than elsewhere in the Ancient Near East.

Once again, we must note that the theology of holiness is fundamental to these laws.  On the one hand, there is need to exclude from the holy community of Israel those things that deny God’s purpose for his creation and ignore the consequences of disobedience.  At the same time, there is need to protect the integrity of the holy community so that its witness to the world can be maintained.  The death penalty thus relates to the particular circumstances of historic Israel, as a community formed to manifest his holiness in all its dimensions to a fallen world.  Since holiness and sexuality are linked under the New Covenant, we will need to consider what penalty is envisaged by the writers of the New Testament in connection with persistent unholy behaviour.

3.  The New Testament and the law of Moses

As we begin to consider the relevance of the levitical material for contemporary debates about sexuality, we need to ask more fundamental questions about the role of the Mosaic law in the life of Christians.  Only some brief comments on this subject can be made here.  A more detailed analysis of the way in which the apostle Paul uses the teaching of the law in connection with his reflections on sexual matters is explored in an article called Holiness and Sexuality in the Pauline Writings. Clearly, however, the perspective of Jesus on the law, and more narrowly on sexuality, is of great significance.

a. Jesus and the Law

Jesus’ attitude to the law is a complex and much discussed issue.  He takes the sacrificial system and the associated cult as a given (e.g. Mt. 5:23-4; Mk. 1:44; 12:41-4), but often stands with the Old Testament prophets in condemning the cultic practices and traditions of his contemporaries.  At the same time, Jesus claims to ‘fulfil’ the law (Mt. 5:17), most obviously in his teaching, but also apparently in his living, and in his dying.[17] His ministry is a transitional stage in salvation history, in which he prepares his disciples for a new era.

Written on the heart

In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew shows how ‘the law finds its prophetic centre in Jesus but not necessarily its end.’[18] Jesus goes beyond the wooden literalism of his own day and makes a radical demand for the interiorization of the law.  In this way, he points to the inauguration of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-4.  There God indicates his intention to put his law ‘within’ his people and to ‘write it upon their hearts’.  This does not imply the abandonment of the law’s teaching.  Together with the amazing provision of a definitive forgiveness of sins, God will help his faithless people to know his will better and to be personally renewed in their commitment to him (cf. Ezk. 36:25-7).

A challenge about sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage stands at the centre of Jesus’ prophetic application of the law to the messianic community (Mt. 5:27-32).  He warns that lust, being adultery in the heart, is sufficient to condemn the unrepentant to the judgement of hell.  Divorce under certain circumstances may cause someone to commit adultery.  A call to ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (5:48) concludes the first section of the Sermon and recalls the levitical challenge, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ (Lev. 19:2).  A fundamental demand for those living in a new covenant relationship with God, is to reflect God’s character, with the parameters of the relationship being established by Jesus himself.

Dealing with defilement

The Pharisees and scribes complained that Jesus’ disciples defiled themselves by not observing ‘the tradition of the elders’ about ritual washing before taking food (Mk. 7:1-5; Mt. 15:1-2).  In a subsequent address to the crowds, Jesus raises the issue of the true source of defilement (Mk. 7:15; Mt. 15:11).  His teaching does not attack Old Testament laws about ritual cleanness directly.  ‘It moves in a different realm altogether, for it expresses an entirely new understanding of what does and does not constitute defilement.’[19] True purity before God cannot be obtained by scrupulous observance of cultic laws because rituals are unable to deal with the defilement that comes from within, from a rebellious and corrupt ‘heart’ (Mk. 7:17-23; Mt. 15:16-20; recalling Is. 29:13).

In this context, Jesus uses a range of terms to describe unacceptable sexual behaviour (Mk. 7:20-3).  Sexual immorality (Gk. porneiai, a general term), adultery (moicheiai, a specific term) and sensuality (aselgeia, a general term for sexual excesses or licentiousness) are listed with many other things that ‘come from within’ and ‘defile a person’.  Although Jesus does not refer explicitly to same-sex intercourse, ‘no first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (plural) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, bestiality).’[20]

The prescriptions of the Mosaic Covenant for ritual cleansing were a sign of the need for purification in a more profound and complete sense.  Jesus’ teaching raises a question about where such cleansing might be found.  The immediate context provides no answer, though his teaching about the significance of his death ultimately offers the solution to this problem.  He will give his life as ‘a ransom for many’ (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45) and will thus inaugurate the New Covenant, which promises a definitive forgiveness sins (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; cf. Jer. 31:34).

Continuity and discontinuity

Mark’s editorial note on the discourse about ritual uncleanness draws out the implications of Jesus’ teaching for the benefit of his readers (‘thus he declared all foods clean’, 7:19).  Mark indicates that the food-laws are not binding on those to whom his Gospel is addressed.  This teaching anticipates the vision given to Peter in Acts 10:9-16, with its assurance that the purity laws of the Mosaic Covenant are not applicable under the New Covenant.  The holiness of God’s people is no longer to be defined in such terms, but holiness is still to be expressed in moral terms (e.g. 1 Thes. 4:1-8; 1 Pet. 1:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce (Mt. 19:2-12; Mk. 10:2-12) points to a specific continuity between Old and New Testaments in this connection.  Although he does not use the terminology of holiness here, he clearly shows that God’s demand for sexual purity remains as exacting as ever for those who are his children.  Pointing to Genesis 2:24 as normative, Jesus confirms that ‘the Mosaic legislation was intended, in general, to reflect the created order as represented in Genesis 2 and to prevent violations of it.  Jesus’ teaching gives fresh expression to this basic principle.’[21] He recognises only marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual union.

Far from loosing the moral demands of the law, Jesus seems to be at pains to point out the deeper implications of God’s revelation to Israel (cf. Mt. 5:17-20).  He does this by way of example in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, not by an exhaustive comment on every aspect of the levitical teaching on sexuality.

Although Jesus does not address the question of homosexuality directly, his response to the disciples’ challenge (‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry’, Mt. 19:10) is relevant to the debate.  He indicates that some may be impotent, some may have been castrated and some may make a voluntary decision to make themselves eunuchs, ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (19:11-12).  Abstinent singleness is being commended here.  ‘Christ’s coming and the inbreaking of God’s kingdom opens up a new way of life which, without denying the goodness of marriage, forgoes marriage for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:11-12; 1 Cor. 7).’[22]

‘The portrayal of Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jew who was open to homosexual practice is simply ahistorical.  All the evidence leads in the opposite direction.’[23] His calling is to faithful heterosexual marriage and abstinent singleness.  With regard to the latter, the example of his own life is ‘of vital importance in shaping the Christian vision of sexual beahviour.’[24]

b. Some Pauline perspectives

Paul’s teaching about the law is also complex and much debated.  I give particular attention to his teaching in Holiness and Sexuality in the Pauline Writings. Here, I would simply draw attention to two foundational notions in his letters.  First, there is the principle of freedom from the law.  As Christians we are released from the law’s penalties and the law’s dominion, so that we may belong to the risen Christ and ‘bear fruit for God’ (Rom. 7:4).  Now we serve God ‘not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit’ (Rom. 7:6).  But secondly, there is the principle of reapplication in Christ.  ‘Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we may have hope’ (Rom. 15:4).

Every part of what we call the Old Testament has something to teach us about God’s purposes for humanity and the whole created order.  The plan of salvation through Christ is revealed there and the pattern of holiness revealed to Israel prepares for the pattern revealed by Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14 – 7:1).    The holiness of God’s people is meant to bear witness to the world concerning God’s character and intentions.  Moreover, Scripture is not meant to depress us and defeat us but to give us hope, as we understand the way it is fulfilled in Christ.  So we need to reflect on the way in which Paul’s teaching on sexuality and holiness is constrained and directed by the Old Testament.

c. The call to holiness in 1 Peter

As a parallel to Paul’s teaching, it is interesting to observe briefly the way 1 Peter reflects the broad perspectives of the Mosaic law.  In the law, we discern the principles of holiness by which the people of God were to be distinguished from the world and its values.  But we have already noted that the call to holiness was designed to bring blessing to the world, enabling God’s people to bear witness to the Creator and his purposes.  In 1 Peter, there is an explicit challenge to ‘be holy in all your conduct’ (1:15-16, citing Lev. 11:44) and a declaration that ‘holy nation’ status now belongs to the disciples of Christ (2:9-10, alluding to Ex. 19:5-6).  Following on from this, there are exhortations to behave before the world in such a way that unbelievers may ‘see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation’ (2:12, apparently alluding to Mt. 5:16).  These exhortations include the general challenge ‘to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul’ (2:11).  Although Peter later gives some idea of what these passions might include (4:2-4), it is likely that he expected his readers to understand the details of what God requires for his people from the Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus.


4.  Conclusion

In this article I have examined the specific connection between laws about sexuality and the demand for holiness under the Old Covenant.  Holiness in the Old Testament is not simply a matter of being different from the unbelieving world – protesting against the lifestyle of the unbelieving.  It is first a status given by God to his people and then a demand to live out the relationship made possible by God’s gracious provision.  The challenge is to reflect God’s character and purposes in a positive way, demonstrating his will for humanity and the created order.  Since marriage and sexuality are fundamental to our existence as men and women, it is not surprising to see strong links between the provisions of Leviticus and the teaching of Genesis 1-3.  The levitical laws define the way in which God’s intentions for marriage and sexuality are to be guarded and expressed.

The priesthood and sacrificial ritual of the Book of Leviticus have been fulfilled and replaced for us by the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, the New Testament speaks about the people of Christ being sanctified by his redemptive work.  Holiness is no longer to be expressed in terms of food or ritual.  But the New Testament continues to link holiness with the demand for sexual purity and loving relationships.  Jesus’ own teaching in this area shows the continuity of God’s demand.  He grounds his prescriptions in Genesis and draws out the implications of the Mosaic law in this connection.  The apostle Paul develops this biblical theological trajectory in ways which we must now examine in some detail.

As Christians, we are not ‘under the law’ as Israel was.  But Jesus and his apostle make it clear that the teaching of the law about marriage and sexuality cannot be ignored or set aside.  The moral provisions of the law must be understood and applied in terms of scriptural revelation as a whole.  Their relational dimension makes them fundamental to God’s creative and redemptive purposes.


[1] G. J. Wenham, ‘The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality’, ExpT 102 (1991), pp. 359-63 (p. 363).

[2] This is a summary of the argument of R. A. J. Gagnon, ‘The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Theology, Analogies and Genes’, Theology Matters, Vol 7 No 6 (Nov/Dec 2001), pp. 4-5.

[3] The Body’s Grace (London: Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and The Institute for the Study of Christianity and Sexuality, 1989, 2nd ed. 2002).

[4] Cf. G. Rowell, K. W. Stevenson, R. Williams (ed.), Love’s Redeeming Work: the Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001).  The index of this anthology, covering 500 years or so of Anglican thinking on holiness, contains no reference to the body or sexuality or chastity.  This omission is surprising, given the link between these ideas in Scripture and in Christian teaching about holiness across the centuries.

[5] ‘Just as a priest is separated from an ancient society in order to serve it and serves it by his distinctiveness, so Israel serves her world by maintaining her distance and her difference from it’ (W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation. An Old Testament Theology [Flemington Markets: Lancer; Exeter: Paternoster, 1984], p. 90).  Dumbrell provides an excellent discussion of Ex. 19:5-6, showing particularly how Israel was to exercise an ‘Abrahamic role’ (pp. 84-90).

[6] Cf. G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 5.  Note Wenham’s examination of holiness and purity in Leviticus (pp. 18-25).

[7] Wenham, Leviticus, p. 251.

[8] The noun tô‘ēbâ (‘abomination’) is related to the verb t‘b (‘abhor, detest’).  In the OT, ‘pagan worship practices, deceit and insubordination within the covenant nation, and superficial worship of Yahweh constitute three major realms of abhorrent activities.’ (M. A. Grisanti, NIDOTTE 4: 315)

[9] W. C. Williams NIDOTTE 4:102 overstates the case when he concludes that, ‘when used to denote sexual relations, the idiom “lie with” and its derivatives denote sexual relations that are illicit.’  Exceptions such as Gen. 30:15-16; 2 Sam. 11:11; 12:24 show that the expression can be used of legitimate sexual relation.

[10] Wenham, ‘Homosexuality’, p. 361.

[11] Wenham, ‘Homosexuality’, p. 363.

[12] Wenham, ‘Homosexuality’, p. 363.  Leviticus refers to incest as literally sex with your ‘own flesh’ (18:16-17; 20:19).  Homosexuality is similarly rejected because it involves intercourse between beings that are too much alike.  By contrast, bestiality is condemned because it is sex between beings that are too much unlike.

[13] M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 54.  Note that bestiality is condemned in Lev. 18:23 because it is literally ‘a confusion’ (Heb. tebel from bālal, ‘to mix’). EVV translate ‘perversion’.  Cf. 20:12, where the same word is used in connection with a man having intercourse with his daughter-in-law.

[14] B. G. Webb, ‘Homosexuality in Scripture’, in B. G. Webb (ed.), Theological and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality Explorations 8 (Adelaide: Openbook, 1994), p. 82.

[15] Webb, ‘Homosexuality in Scripture’, p. 82.

[16] Wenham, Leviticus, pp. 284-6.  Wenham argues that he penalties prescribed in the law were the maximum penalties.  Where there were mitigating circumstances, lesser penalties would have been enforced.  ‘Cutting off’ is ‘a threat of direct punishment by God usually in the form of premature death.’

[17] Cf. Webb, ‘Homosexuality in Scripture’, pp. 83-4.

[18] W. J. Dumbrell, ‘The Logic of the Role of the Law in Mt. 5:1-20’, NovT 23 (1981), pp. 1-21 (p. 19).

[19] R. J. Banks, Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition SNTSMS 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1975), p. 141.  Contravention of the Mosaic law at this point is unlikely since Jesus has just argued from the law about the invalidity of Pharisaical traditions.

[20] R. A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice.  Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), p. 191.  Consistent with OT teaching, Jewish writers who were roughly contemporary with Jesus condemned homosexual practice asa violation of God’s will (e.g. Wis. 14:26; T. Levi 17:11; Sib. Or. 3:596-600; Philo, Special Laws 3.39; Josephus, Against Apion 2.273). It is impossible to imagine that Jesus thought or taught otherwise.

[21] Webb, ‘Homosexuality in Scripture’, p. 85.  Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 197, argues that Jesus’ expectations regarding sexual purity, ‘in some respects at least, exceeded the expectations both of the Torah and of the traditions prevailing in Jesus’ day.’

[22] D. W. Gomez (ed.), True Union in the Body?  A contribution to the discussion within the Anglican Communion concerning the public blessing of same-sex unions (Oxford, 2002), p. 11.

[23] Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 228.  The argument that Jesus was neutral or even affirming of homosexual conduct is ‘revisionist history’.

[24] Gomez (ed.), True Union, p. 23.



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