Jesus and the apostles on homosexuality
I was asked: do you really believe that Jesus and the apostles considered homosexual activity to be acceptable?
The gospels do not depict Jesus making any explicit statements on this topic. Nor is there much reason to think that his part of the world was familiar with concepts of sexual orientation or committed homosexual relationships as we would know them today. So to answer this question we have to speculate about Jesus’ reaction might have been to concepts he didn’t know about… so let the rampant speculation begin…
Jews in general at the time were against homosexual practices as they knew and understood them. Therefore we might think that Jesus, being a Jew, would have also held such a view. Alternatively we could consider that Jesus' ministry was focused on supporting, helping, and endorsing the oppressed minorities that the Jewish culture of his time was against. That in turn might lend us to speculate that Jesus would have opposed the Jewish view on this issue and supported homosexuals. I think however that if we apply the principles Jesus' stood for to the modern issues of homosexuality there is only one answer: By the principles Jesus taught, stood for and depicted in his ministry, the challenges he mounted against traditional Jewish moral and social viewpoints, lead me to believe that were he to speak on today’s issues he would uphold the rights of homosexuals. (Liberation theology has, I think, in general correctly grounded itself in Jesus' biblical ministry.)
Would the apostles have considered homosexuality acceptable? Well that is a very interesting question. The apostles struggled for years with understanding the implications of Jesus' ministry and values when applied to circumstances Jesus hadn't explicitly dealt with - most notably its application to the question of circumcision of Gentiles. I see us today as being like the apostles and having to struggle with the question of how Jesus' teachings play out in a new area that was not addressed by him. It took them years and more than one argument to reach a consensus (if indeed they ever did?) about circumcision of Gentiles, so we're in good company. I can only speculate that most/all of the apostles were, by default, against homosexuality because the Jews were (and time and again the Jewish apostles show they default to Jewish values unless some situation causes them to think deeply about how the teachings and values of Jesus might change these). Like them, we are being faced with an issue today in a way that has caused us to reflect deeply on it to a degree never done before when we took our assumed tradition for granted.
Paul is the only apostle to mention homosexuality in his writings and only does so once IMO (ie 1 Cor 6:9, I believe for exegetical reasons that Romans 1:26-27 is part of a speech by Paul's opponents). Paul is somewhat infamous in scholarship for the tensions that lie within his own ethical framework. He argues that Christians are bound by the spirit of the law not its letter, and that the entire law is summarized in the love of ones neighbour as themselves. This suggests a virtue-ethic moral framework where a good action is defined as one characterized by benevolence. (Which IMO as a moral philosopher is a really powerful and logical framework, and I myself would endorse it) Yet at other times, Paul defaults back to a Jewish rule-based ethic that is founded on a list of "do"s and "don't"s based on the Jewish Law. For example Paul gets upset when his Corinthian converts with whom he lived for years had so imbibed his spirit-of-the-law ethic and "freedom from the law" claims that their actions which logically flowed from these shocked his Jewish sensibilities. Many scholars have commented on the uneasy tension that thus exists within Paul's own ethics as his framework of "freedom" and "spirit-of-the-law based on love" battle the list of "do"s and "don't"s that have been ingrained into him from his life as a Jew. His love-framework leads him to make great statements of equality in line with Jesus' teachings, like "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." Yet the ramifications of this truly revolutionary egalitarian statement are not carried out fully in Paul's program. His biases creep back in - eg he doesn't allow woman to talk in churches, they should have long hair etc where he capitulates to cultural views rather than allow his ethical theory full reign. The fact that he buys into societies gender-roles battles with the egalitarianism that he'd learned from Christ. One major ethical conflict that shaped Paul’s life and ministry was the fact that as a Jew he had bought into Jewish racial/cultural roles of "Jew vs Greek" and this battled with the egalitarian principle that he saw in Christ's teachings. Paul's egalitarian won out on the race/culture issue and he made that his life focus, but it seems that he never fully let Jesus' egalitarian teachings flower with regard to the gender roles, or slavery issues.
Gender roles were of huge importance in the society of their day - a hundred or a thousand times more so than anything we in the West today can perhaps understand. Rejection of homosexuality in their culture was founded on an emphasis on gender roles. For example, Philo (a first century Jew) argues that homosexual acts lead one partner to act like a woman which is so bad that it deserves the death penalty (because in his eyes manliness is the ultimate virtue), and that the other partner is equally deserving of death for causing the other man to act like a woman. The speech Paul quotes in Romans 1 also ties homosexuality to gender roles. Modern societies with firm gender roles (eg Arab ones) are also firm in rejecting homosexual acts on the grounds that it causes a man to act like a woman. However in our Western society which has let biblical egalitarianism shape our view of gender roles, where we truly put into practice Paul's statement of "there is no longer male and female" we find that homosexuality seems to most people to be acceptable. For if no distinction is to be made between men and women in the social roles they are permitted to take, then it follows there should be no social rules about when genders take part in sexual acts.
Hence, I would argue that though Paul rejected homosexual activity it was due to him failing to fully work through on the subject of gender roles the egalitarian teachings of Christ that he preached. The moral advances he achieved and advocated in the area of Jew-Gentile relations were never accompanied by a corresponding thorough-going challenge to his society's view of gender-roles or slavery, and this is depicted by many of his writings. In today's society we have put into practice the principles that he preached on the subject of gender roles and slavery, and have come to see that it thus supersedes what he said about woman having long hair, covering their heads, not speaking in Church, and having slaves obey their masters. Time and again on these issues we have determined that the clear ethical spirit of the New Testament needs to be worked out fully in practice in a way that the New Testament Christians themselves were not able to do, and that the ethical spirit of the biblical witness needs to trump the letter of the law when the views they express consistent with their culture are not justified in light of the underlying principles of Christian ethics they are espousing. The next logical step in our egalitarian abolition of gender roles is an acceptance of homosexuality.
I see there as being two basic biblical ethical principles advocated in the New Testament: (1) A love ethic, (2) Egalitarianism. (The second one is really a subset of the first, and so the first is essentially the overarching biblical principle) The love ethic expounded first by Jesus and subsequently by his apostles is that an action has a morally good intent if and only if it is done out of love, and morally good consequences if and only if it is beneficial to those who are affected by it. In other words, morality is solely about benevolence, and the good or harm that our actions bring to others. This principle is used ruthlessly by Jesus and the apostles against Jewish rituals and practices that the Jews saw as commanded by God. Early Christianity was insistent that such rituals had no moral value because they were not motivated by benevolence/love toward others. Today’s Western society due to its historically Christian origins has learned well the lesson of this love ethic and as a result it pervades public thinking and laws in a way that it has ironically actually failed to pervade the thinking of conservative Christians (who usually endorse a divine-command ethic). Since the general view is that homosexuality is neither malevolent nor brings harm to others, it is generally deemed a morally permissible act under a love ethic. Furthermore those who are anti-homosexual and/or want to forbid homosexuals expressing and living the love they feel for others are acting in a way that is contrary to such an ethic (hence why I would deem such opposition unchristian).