The Sexual Prohibitions in Leviticus 18 Don’t Apply to Christians
The Reformation Project (TRP) describes itself as a Bible-based, Christian organization whose “mission is to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church.” As part of their mission, they have published a ten-point, biblical case that argues for the affirmation of LGBTQ sexual values by the Christian church. The seventh point of TRP’s ten-point argument says:
The prohibitions in Leviticus don’t apply to Christians. The prohibitions of male same-sex relations in Leviticus are grounded in cultural concerns about patriarchal gender roles, which the New Testament points us beyond.The Reformation Project, Point #7
As a theologian who has spent some time studying this issue, I felt it important to compare TRP’s theology to Scripture in order to gain a sound and accurate understanding of the biblical position on issues of sexuality. Below you’ll find TRP’s arguments in support of Point 7 on the left, and responses to each on the right:
|TRP’s Arguments||A Theological Response|
|Leviticus 18:22 prohibits male same-sex intercourse, and Leviticus 20:13 prescribes the death penalty for violators. But Christians have never lived under the Old Testament law.||(a.) True. The prohibitions in Leviticus are indeed part of the Law of Moses, which was given under the old covenant, and Christians do not live under the Law of Moses. However, the Mosiac prohibitions against same-sex relations are repeated and endorsed under the New Covenant (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21; Acts 15:20, 15:29; 21:25; Rom 1:26–27, 13:13; 1 Cor 5:1, 6:9–10, 6:13, 6:18, 10:8; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thes 4:3; 1 Timothy 1:10; Jude 1:7.)|
|Q: Prohibitions of things like mixed fabrics were part of the ceremonial law, but wasn’t the prohibition of male same-sex relations part of the moral law?|
|Some argue that all laws related to sexual conduct carry over to the New Testament, but Leviticus also prohibits sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Leviticus 18:19), which most Christians do not regard as sinful.||(b.) The law regarding sex during a woman’s menstrual period is not repeated under the New Covenant, while the law against same-sex relations is;|
(c.) Sin is not determined by social norms or “what most Christians regard as sinful.” The opinions of God’s people, which change from age to age, do not determine the sinfulness of a behavior. Sin is determined by God’s Word alone. (Note: In logical categories, appealing to the fact that many people do something as an attempted form of validation is known as the “bandwagon” fallacy.)
|Others suggest that the term “abomination” indicates that same-sex behavior is particularly egregious, but we widely accept other practices that were called abominations: charging interest on loans (Ezekiel 18:13), burning incense (Isaiah 1:13), and eating pork, rabbit, and shellfish. (Deuteronomy 14:3-21).||(d.) As a matter of logical clarity, because some Christians “widely accept” three practices deemed sinful in Scripture, does not make a fourth sinful practice okay. It makes those Christians wrong for accepting the three sinful practices. See (c.);|
(e.) It is true that in Leviticus 18, homosexual sex is not singled out as more egregious than any other sin. Indeed, all of the listed sins—which include homosexuality, incest, bestiality, and sacrificing children—are called “abominations” (Lev 18:26-30);
(f.) As a matter of theological clarity, the “abominations” cited in Ezekiel and Isaiah are not part of the Mosaic Covenant. Those are found in the Prophets, not the Law, so they would need to be approached differently, from a theological perspective;
(g.) Prohibitions against same-sex behavior are repeated under the New Covenant while the other “abominations” listed here are not. See: (a.);
(h.) One more theological matter: It should be noted that Ezekiel 18:13 does not prescribe the death penalty merely for charging interest on a loan. Verse 13 appears at the end of a longer passage (v 10-13) where a list of sins is mentioned. This passage talks about a man and asks, “when he eats at the mountain shrines and defiles his neighbor’s wife, and when he oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, and does not return collateral, and when he looks to the idols, commits detestable acts (abominations), and lends at interest or for profit, will he live?”
|Even the death penalty applied to some practices we now accept: working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and charging interest on loans (Ezekiel 18:13).||See: (a.), (c.), and (h.).|
|The Old Testament doesn’t distinguish between “ceremonial” and “moral” laws.||True. Those classifications are made by theologians, not the OT text. However;|
(i.) The distinction between moral and ceremonial law comes from a careful study of Scripture. There is a set of laws from the OT that are repeated and endorsed in the NT which are centered on matters of morality. There is another set of laws from the OT which are either not repeated or explicitly overturned in the NT. These deal with ceremonial and/or civil matters such as temple practices, priestly rituals, food, sacrifices, etc. Hence, the theological classification of “ceremonial” and “moral” laws.
|Q: Doesn’t Leviticus prohibit male same-sex behavior for a reason that hasn’t changed — God’s complementary design of men and women?|
|As Hebrew scholar Saul Olyan and rabbinic scholar Daniel Boyarin have argued, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 specifically prohibit male same-sex anal intercourse—not all same-sex acts. That act was seen as uniquely degrading to men, as it placed them in the socially inferior, “female” role.||(j.1.) As regards the biblical position on same-sex relations, this is a distinction without a difference;|
(j.) The reason for any biblical command or prohibition, while of interest and worth knowing, does not affect whether or not we are expected to obey it.
|In a first-century commentary, Philo inveighed against pederasty, warning that males might suffer “the affliction of being treated like women.” The active partner, too, was “a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and… effeminacy.”||(j.2) This appears to be a non-sequitur. It’s unclear how Philo’s opinion on an ancient Greek practice relates to the biblical commands in Leviticus. In fact, including this statement seems to undermine TRP’s position because it lists extra-biblical negative consequences to same-sex relations.|
|The Talmud, a collection of rabbinic commentaries from the early centuries AD, distinguishes between anal intercourse and other sexual acts between men. Only the former is prohibited in Leviticus, the writers of the Talmud said. They treated other same-sex acts as separate, lesser issues of lust.||See (j.1) and (j.); In addition,|
(k.) The Talmud, while of historical interest, is not Scripture and has no authority in the life of a Christian.
|Male same-sex intercourse was prohibited because it subverted patriarchal gender norms of male dominance in a society that devalued women.||See (a.), (c.), and (j.);|
(l.) This claim is not found in, nor supported by, Scripture;
(m.) I would further submit that this claim is an anachronism that applies modern conceptions of patriarchy and gender norms to ancient texts;
(n.) Even if for the sake of argument, we suppose this point is true, it does not change the fact that it is a prohibition given as part of Holy Scripture.
|Q: Leviticus doesn’t distinguish between active and passive partners. Why?|
|Leviticus 24:22 says the Israelites “are to have the same law for the foreigner and the native-born.” Old Testament scholars Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky argue that the prohibitions of male same-sex relations exist because “by cross-cultural perception, such intercourse would necessarily denigrate the passive partner and violate his equal status under God’s law.” Consequently, both partners would be culpable.||See (a.), (c.), (j.), and (n.);|
(o.) Israel was a nation created supernaturally by God (Gen 21:1-2), and set apart from other nations (Ex 19:5-6; Deut 7:6, Ps 135:4; Isa 41:8-9; Amos 3:2) Thus if prohibitions of male same-sex relations were given because of “cross-cultural perception,” it would be because God wanted to set Israel apart as a moral example for other nations. This would mean that same-sex relations were prohibited because God deemed them immoral and did not want Israel leading the other nations astray in this matter;
(p.) I submit that the opposite is more accurate: these prohibitions were given so that Israel would not be influenced by the immoral sexual norms practiced by the nations around them, especially the Canaanites;
(q.) There is no scriptural support for the notion that being a passive homosexual partner violates one’s “equal status under God’s law.” Moreover;
(r.) There is no distinction made in the Law of Moses between active and passive partners of homosexual sex acts.
|Leviticus also doesn’t address female same-sex relations, which undermines the belief that male same-sex relations were prohibited because they violate gender complementarity.||See (j.);|
(s.) Leviticus 18 is a message to the men of Israel who were the heads of the families. It puts God-ordained boundaries on their sexual behavior. Since the prohibitions in this chapter were given to men, telling them to abstain from lesbian relations wouldn’t make sense;
(t.) There is an interesting theory suggested by some scholars (Heiser, Milgram, Levine, etc.) about why lesbianism was not addressed here. There is evidence to suggest that in ancient Israel part of the reason homosexuality was looked down on was that it was seen as causing a “loss of life” in the sense that it involves the emission of semen that cannot produce life. Whereas, in lesbian relations, there would not be a “loss of life” because there is no semen involved;
(u.) Under the New Covenant lesbianism is explicitly prohibited (Rom 1:26).
|Q: Does this mean the Bible is a misogynistic text?|
|While patriarchal norms certainly shape the Old Testament text, patriarchy wasn’t unique to ancient Israel. But even though the Old Testament law does not treat men and women equally, there are countercultural elements within the Old Testament, including the presence of women leaders. In the New Testament, women like Lydia, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche also hold leadership positions. In Matthew 19:8, Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” As John Piper wrote, “There are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time.” That’s also how Christians view slavery and polygamy — and it should be how we view patriarchy as well.||We’re moving away from the original issue, which is the prohibition of same-sex relations in Scripture. (And on that note, I think TRP missed a good opportunity by not ending their thought with “and it should be how we view same-sex unions (as opposed to patriarchy) as well.”)|
The issue of patriarchy is a separate, but equally important matter.
(v.) Biblical patriarchy is a system in which the father or eldest male is head of the family. They are given the responsibility to protect, care for, lead, and provide the spiritual headship for the family. It is part of the order of creation established by God (Gen 1-2; 1 Cor 11:3);
(w.) The patriarchal creation order is grounded in God Himself. God is spirit, not a physical being, of course, and therefore He does not have a gender. However, in His holy Word, He refers to Himself in patriarchal terms as our Father. In His sovereignty, that is the role He chose to assume in relation to His people. And not just in the NT. The OT refers to God in patriarchal Father terms as well (Duet 14:1-2, Isa. 63:16–17, 64:8-9; Jer 31:20; Ps 103:13;);
(x.) Biblical patriarchy was not established by God as a system of oppression or dominance, but rather a system of physical and spiritual protection, provision, and accountability for the family, especially the women and children. This is why, for example, Paul teaches that humanity sinned in Adam, not in Eve. Although it was Eve who first disobeyed God, Adam, as the head of the first family, was held accountable for it (Romans 5:12-21). Therefore;
(y.) The modern move against patriarchy opposes Scripture and is unbiblical;
(z.) Although, oppressive or abusive patriarchs can be rejected on a biblical basis (Eph 5:28-30).
|The New Testament witness moves Christians away from patriarchy and toward gender equality (see Galatians 3:28), which means that the rationale for the Leviticus prohibitions does not extend to Christians.||(aa.) The NT does not “move Christians away from patriarchy.” Rather, it teaches the same biblical patriarchy (grounded in God as our Father) that is taught in the OT. “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3. See also Eph 5:23; Col 1:18, 2:10);|
(ab.) Gal 3:28 is not about gender equality, it’s about salvation. It teaches that, rather than being limited to the Jews through the Law, salvation is now available to all people equally through faith in Jesus. (See the full passage Galatians 3:15-29.)
(ac.) Both genders have always been of equal value in God’s eyes. Both man and woman were created in the image of God from the very beginning (Gen 1:27)