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Homosexuality in the New Testament

Within the New Testament we find references to homosexual orientation and behavior only in writings associated with Paul, who sees both as a manifestation of sin and whose views have in recent times be subject to critical review.


There are very few references to homosexuality—that is, being sexually oriented to people of the same sex—in the New Testament. References are to be found only in writings associated with Paul. Elsewhere we look in vain or have to be satisfied with the “if”s and “but”s of speculation. Was the centurion’s slave who was dear to him a sex slave (Luke 7:1-11; cf. Matt 8:5-11)? Nothing indicates this; the variant of the story in John identifies the sick person as an official’s son (John 4:46-54). Was the disciple whom Jesus loved an erotic lover (so John 13:23 and elsewhere)? No such indication. When Jesus refers to eunuchs and eunuchs for the kingdom, did he mean gays (Matt 19:12)? But a eunuch is not a gay person. Though unable to produce children, some were notorious for sexual exploits, heterosexual and homosexual.

The only clear reference to same-sex sexual activity and same-sex orientation is to be found in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul is writing to ensure that the Roman believers will welcome him and his preaching when he comes and not be put off by his critics. As typical, Paul begins with common ground: the faith they affirm together (Rom 1:3-5) and the sin they together condemn (Rom 1:18-32). He could have singled out various sins, but he chose to take same-sex relations as his example (Rom 1:24-28). It represented both to him and to his readers pagan depravity. On this Paul knew he would have the agreement of his fellow Jews in Rome and gentile converts. Paul would go on to suggest that their own sins were no better (Rom 2:1), but in no way did he pull back from his condemnation.

How did Paul understand homosexuality, and how did he view homosexual orientation and action?

Paul’s approach to homosexuality and homosexual acts reflects the assumption he shares with other Jews of his time, that all people are heterosexual because God created humans male and female (Gen 1:27). Feeling or acting otherwise is unnatural and against God’s intent, an abomination Leviticus taught was worthy of death (Lev 18:20; Lev 20:13; see Rom 1:32). Paul typically focuses not just on the act of sinning but on sin as a state of being. Accordingly, he condemns the action involved in same-sex relations, namely, for males, anal intercourse, but he goes behind it to what he sees as the state of being which produces it. Thus, Paul argues that a perverted response to God led to people having a perverted response to each other, in particular, having passions towards their own sex. Paul’s concern is not just pederasty but also consensual sex (Rom 1:27). He probably saw intense passions producing the perversion. Like other Jews of the time, Paul extended this to lesbian relations (Rom 1:26). Although some scholars suggest that “unnatural” (Greek para physin) relations concerns birth control or nonprocreative heterosexual intercourse, the context suggests that Paul is talking about same-sex sexual relationships between women (Rom 1:26). In Paul’s world, for a man to take a passive (female) role or a woman to take an active (male) role was unnatural and shameful. Paul’s contemporary, the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, shared Plato’s argument that same-sex relationships were unnatural because they wasted semen and would depopulate cities. On this detail Paul is silent, but he shares Philo’s view that such relationships are unnatural because God made people only male or female.

Elsewhere, in a list of people excluded from the kingdom, Paul mentions “male-bedders” and “softies,” probably referring to active and passive male partners (1Cor 6:9-10; see also 1Tim 1:10). The list in 1Tim 1:10 also mentions “kidnappers” or “slave traders” after “male-bedders,” perhaps implying trafficking of male slaves into prostitution.

Are all people heterosexual, as Paul assumed? How we answer that question will determine what conclusions we draw in our world. Where churches and societies have reached the conclusion that not all people are heterosexual, many have taken steps to remove all forms of discrimination against such people that might exclude them, for instance, from marrying, or exercising leadership roles are removed. Others, accepting that not all people are heterosexual, still retain the condemnation of acts and so urge celibacy upon gay people.

  • loader-william

    William Loader, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia. One of his major research areas has been attitudes towards sexuality in early Judaism and the New Testament. Major publications on the theme include: The New Testament on Sexuality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012); Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in the Writings of Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011); The Pseudepigrapha on Sexuality: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Apocalypses, Testaments, Legends, Wisdom, and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).