The biblical prohibition against male same-sex sexual expression is found in Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” (Lev. 18:22) and also, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” (Leviticus 20:13). These passages are from the so-called “Holiness Code,” which contains a variety of rules and consequences for violating these rules. Some of these rules we would clearly see as morally binding (“You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another.” Lev. 19: 11). Others we do not see as morally binding (You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your animals breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. Lev. 19:19).
One of the central questions of the early Church was to what extent the particular laws of the Jews, such as the Holiness Code, were to apply to Gentile Christians. This question was resolved by the Jerusalem Council. Gentile Christians were to “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20b). “Fornication” is sometimes translated as “sexual immorality.” The Greek word is porneia. This means that the question, in the first instance, is whether or not same-sex sexual behavior must always be an instance of sexual immorality.
It does seem clear that St. Paul, for example, believed that same-sex sexual behavior was immoral. However, this was clearly not because it was prohibited in the Holiness Code. After all, St. Paul believed that the Holiness Code did not define morality. Instead, St. Paul believed that same-sex sexual behavior was immoral because there was no social context in which instances of such behavior could be seen to be anything other than unbridled lust. Such behavior could not be within the context of marriage in St. Paul’s world. Marriage was an economic and procreative institution in that world. Same-sex unions had no possible morally permissible place in that context.
The question facing United Methodists and other Christians today is this: will we honor the social space that has opened up in at least some cultures for same-sex relationships that embody the kind of mutual love and respect that makes sexual expression within them morally appropriate? Sexual expression in such relationships is by no means “incompatible with Christian teaching.” There is no compelling argument that the Bible teaches otherwise. Acceptance of same-sex sexual behavior within the emerging context of same-sex unions and marriages does not mean that one denies what the Bible teaches. The notion that one must deny biblical teaching to believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons should be fully welcomed into the life of the Church is simply false.