What Did Jesus Make of Homosexual Practice?

At the present time, homosexuality is an issue that is very much in people’s attention in Christian circles. Increasingly, in Western countries those who would define themselves as Christians are abandoning the belief that homosexual practice is always wrong and are adopting the view that in certain circumstances this practice is acceptable to God.

Those who take this view sometimes argue that although the Old Testament condemns homosexual practice, the New Testament, written under New Covenant conditions, does not, and that because the New Covenant supersedes the Old Covenant, we are therefore entitled to conclude that in specific circumstances this practice is acceptable to God.

People who argue in this way, however, are fairly few in number, the reason surely being that there are passages in the New Testament, such as Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9, which strongly and clearly condemn homosexual practice in a blanket way. For more details on this point, please see my article: What Attitude Should Christians Have to Homosexuality?

A more common approach taken by those who try to support homosexual practice on the basis of the New Testament is to admit that Paul condemns it, but to argue that Jesus’ attitude as revealed in the Gospels is very different. Because Jesus’ teaching is of paramount importance, this argument goes on, we can reject Paul’s understanding as mistaken.

This line of argument is obviously made by people who do not accept the authority of the Bible, since any view of Scripture as authoritative will not involve regarding parts of the New Testament as teaching contradictory things on an important moral issue.

In countering this argument, one approach should be to try to persuade people that the Bible is authoritative, and that this means that the New Testament will not contradict itself in its moral teaching. Another approach should be to outline what the Gospels really do suggest regarding Jesus’ attitude to homosexual practice. It is this second issue that I will discuss in what follows.

In preparation for writing this article, I spent some time researching the kinds of arguments that people use to support the view that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice, and what I found was a real eye-opener. I have been involved in close analysis of the New Testament in the original Greek for over twenty years, and I have spent countless hours reading and analysing people’s interpretations of New Testament passages. For me personally, what is so striking about so many of the biblical interpretations of those who claim that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice is how weak they are in comparison to what I am used to reading. If it weren’t such a serious matter, many of the arguments are so bad that they would actually be quite amusing.

When all things are considered, not only is there no real evidence that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice, but there is actually significant evidence that He condemned it without qualification:

(1) It is sometimes claimed that in the account of the centurion and his slave in Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:2-10 we find Jesus affirming a homosexual relationship. In this passage, the word ‘pais’ is used to refer to the slave (Matt 8:6, 8, 13; Luke 7:7), and there are some who argue in this way: In the Greco-Roman world pais was sometimes used of a slave who was also his master’s homosexual partner; Luke’s account informs us that this slave was precious to the centurion (Luke 7:2); therefore, we have evidence of a homosexual relationship between them.

This argument is very poorly founded. The word pais usually meant simply slave/servant (as well as ‘child’ in other contexts), without any suggestion that the person in question had a sexual relationship with his master. In the Greco-Roman world most male slaves did not have sexual relationships with their masters, and there is no suggestion in the context of either Matthew or Luke that this one did. The Greek word entimos, used in Luke 7:2, in context probably actually means something along the lines of ‘highly regarded’ rather than ‘precious’. Moreover, even if entimos includes a connotation that the slave was dear to the centurion, there is still no reason for seeing any implication of a sexual relationship between the two. In short, there is no suggestion in this passage that Jesus is endorsing a homosexual relationship.

(2) In Matthew 19:12 Jesus refers to people who were born as eunuchs. Some claim that these people are, or include, those who have homosexual orientation, and that in His words Jesus is endorsing homosexual practice.

Again, this argument is entirely without foundation. Technically, a eunuch is a man who has been castrated, and in speaking of those who were born eunuchs, the most natural interpretation is that Jesus is thinking simply of men who were born without testicles. It is true that in the latter part of the verse Jesus speaks about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, and here we should understand the word ‘eunuch’ in a loose sense that refers not to those who have literally castrated themselves but to those who abstain from sex. Despite this loose usage later in the verse, it is most natural to understand the word literally in the reference to those who were born eunuchs.

Most importantly, whether the word is used literally or figuratively, the most important characteristic of a eunuch is that he is someone who does not engage in sexual practice. To suppose that those who were born eunuchs are practising homosexuals is an extremely implausible interpretation of Jesus’ words. Only those who are prepared to deny the clear sense of the passage will find homosexual practice in this verse.

(3) In Mark 7:15, 18 Jesus teaches that nothing which goes into a person from outside can defile them, and some claim that His teaching here implies that homosexual acts are not sinful.

Once again, this argument will not hold water. The context of Jesus’ words has to do with eating certain foods as v. 19 makes clear, and to understand His words as referring also to something other than foods is unwarranted. There is no support here for the view that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice.

(4) In Luke 17:34 we find Jesus teaching that on the night He returns: ‘there will be two on/in one bed; one will be taken and the other left’, where the Greek words for ‘one’ and ‘other’ are both masculine. Unsurprisingly, some claim that there is evidence here that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice.

At first sight, this argument might seem to carry some real weight, but we should delve a little deeper:

First, it is quite possible that a man and a woman are in view in this verse, despite the two masculine words.

We need to bear in mind that New Testament Greek frequently uses the masculine gender when referring to a combination of people who include at least one male and at least one female. Although things are somewhat different in this verse since the masculine words are each used to refer to a single person, it does not look unreasonably awkward if two masculines are being used with reference to a man and a woman. The Greek language was probably flexible enough to allow this.

It is important to note that there is a good reason why two masculine words might have been chosen in preference to one masculine and one feminine, even if a man and a woman are in view in this verse. If one masculine and one feminine word had been chosen for ‘one’ and ‘other’, a decision would have to have been made about whether the man or the woman was taken or left behind, i.e., which ended up in heaven and which ended up in hell. However, it is not difficult to believe that Luke would not have wanted to portray Jesus expressing a decision of this sort, and that words were therefore chosen which kept things ambiguous. (Jesus’ original Aramaic could also have been ambiguous.) Using two masculine words to refer to a man and a woman allows Jesus’ saying to avoid any suggestion of whether the man or the woman is saved.

Second, even if v. 34 does have two men in view, that in no way has to suggest a sexual relationship between them. Different cultures have very different attitudes to non-sexual bed-sharing, the key factor often being the amount of space available. Today, as in the first century, there are places in the world where houses typically have only one room (cf. Matt 5:15), and people in that house have no option but to sleep close together. Even in Luke 11:7 we find a man and his children in bed, where the Greek most naturally suggests the same bed, which would presumably have been a mat on the floor.

Of course, even if the bed of Luke 17:34 is envisaged as being in a one-room house, it is still true (if the reference is not to a man and a woman) that only two men are mentioned being present. Someone might therefore want to argue that the fact that no other family members are mentioned is evidence for a homosexual relationship between these men.

We do need to be very careful, however, about how much we read into concise sayings such as this one. Jesus really gives us very little information here, and scenarios other than a sexual relationship can easily be understood as the context of His words.

When all things are considered, there is no need whatever to conclude that Luke 17:34 portrays Jesus endorsing homosexual practice.

(5) There are three texts in which Jesus states that it will be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgement than for those who fail to repent at His preaching or who refuse to accept the preaching of His disciples (Matt 10:15; 11:24; Luke 10.12). These are highly relevant for our inquiry.

To begin with, we need to recognise that these passages fit very well with the teaching of the historical Jesus. The evidence of the Gospels as a whole very strongly draws us to the conclusion that Jesus’ preaching included a focus both on the need for people to respond positively to Himself, and on their need to repent. In the light of this, His sayings on Sodom look genuine. They have Jesus written all over them. To reject these passages as supposedly unhistorical is therefore to stand on very shaky ground.

We need to note that in these sayings Jesus is clearly implying that what the people of Sodom did was very bad. Of course, He is implying too that those who fail to repent or who reject His disciples are even worse, but the whole point of mentioning Sodom is because the inhabitants of Sodom are well known for being very sinful.

So, what did Jesus have in mind as the sins that the Sodomites committed? Well, in Genesis 13:13; 18:20-33; 19:13 we are told only that the Sodomites were very sinful; no details are given. In Gen 19:1-9, however, they are portrayed as guilty of attempted homosexual rape.

Importantly for our purposes, in first century Judaism the sin of the Sodomites had come to be associated simply with homosexual practice, without any connotation of rape, just as ‘sodomy’ became a term in English to refer to male homosexual acts, again without any connotation of rape. Historians of the first century agree that in condemning what the Sodomites did, the typical first-century Jew had simply homosexual practice in mind, not specifically homosexual rape.

Now, someone might want to argue that Jesus could have had a different view from the usual one, and that when he condemned the Sodomites, he was in fact specifically condemning homosexual rape, and perhaps other sins as well, but not consensual homosexual practice.

It is true that we should not automatically assume that Jesus held the views of His contemporaries on things. Nevertheless, it does seem an awkward interpretation of the passage to understand Jesus to be taking a different view of the sin of the Sodomites from that of mainstream Jews in His day. By stating that on the day of judgement it will be more tolerable for the Sodomites than for certain others, He is giving a new piece of information – that the others will be in big trouble – by reference to a known piece of information – that the Sodomites will be in a lot of trouble. By using a comparison of this sort, it would be unnatural for Jesus not to have the same understanding of the known piece of information as those listening to His words. If He had differed from mainstream Jews in His understanding of what the sins of the Sodomites consisted of, it would make much more sense for Him to have found an alternative way of stressing the sins of those who rejected Him or His disciples.

All things considered, therefore, the sayings of Jesus in which He teaches that it will be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgement than for certain other people provide a significant piece of evidence that in His earthly ministry Jesus condemned all homosexual practice as sinful and liable to severe punishment.

(6) We also need to consider the teaching of Jesus on marriage and divorce in Matt 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12. Again, we should begin by noting that there is good reason for believing that these passages are based on the teaching of the historical Jesus. The teaching on divorce and remarriage attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is at odds not only with the Jewish Law of Moses, but also with Greek and Roman customs, and this difference helps to authenticate the teaching as genuinely from Jesus. Importantly too, it makes perfect sense that Jesus would have based His strict approach to divorce and remarriage on Gen 2:24, as He is portrayed doing in Matt 19:5-6 and Mark 10:8.

Gen 2:24 states that a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, and Jesus apparently understood this as a reference to physical joining in sexual intercourse. This is certainly how Paul understands it in 1 Cor 6:16. But in Genesis and in Jesus’ words becoming one flesh also seems to imply something more, that in this sexual union there is a deeper level of bonding, as 1 Cor 6:16 also seems to imply. Importantly too, the context both of Genesis and of Jesus’ words in Matthew and Mark strongly suggest that this deep bonding is only appropriate in the context of a marriage relationship between a husband and wife.

If, then, as the evidence suggests, Jesus understood sexual intercourse to involve a deep level of bonding between a man and a woman that is only appropriate in a marriage relationship, He would certainly not have condoned homosexual acts. The sayings on marriage and divorce attributed to Jesus in the Gospels therefore constitute a further weighty piece of evidence that Jesus believed that all homosexual acts are sinful.

We have now completed our survey of the relevant passages. In summing up our findings, we can say that when all these texts are taken into account, the Gospels provide significant evidence that Jesus believed that all homosexual practice was contrary to the will of God. And of course, because Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8), His attitude will not have changed since.

As I mentioned above, one thing that has struck me in examining the views of those who claim that Jesus supported homosexual practice is how poorly this position is argued. Often when people argue in a careless way it is because they think that they have would have nothing to lose even if it were to turn out that they are wrong on the issue in question. I get the impression that many of those who say that Jesus endorsed homosexual practice have a similar attitude; they think that there will be no price to pay even if they are wrong, and so they are not really trying to be honest in their analysis of the Bible.

This is foolishness of a very high order and also very tragic. In 1 Cor 6:9-10 Paul explicitly tells his readers not to be misled into believing that practising homosexuals (and those who practise other vices) will inherit the kingdom of God, i.e., end up in heaven. It is tragic that there are many who have allowed themselves to be misled in exactly this way, and we can be sure that they will end up in hell if they die without repenting. God’s warnings are meant genuinely and He will certainly follow through on them.

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