What did Jesus say about homosexuality?

© David Peterson (2009)

Many people who write on the subject of homosexuality consider it within the framework of justice or love or tolerance or personal fulfilment.  This is remarkable since holiness is the theological context and motivation for the teaching of the Mosaic law about sexual behaviour (Lv. 18:1-30; 20:7-26).

Holiness is similarly the basis of Paul’s appeal for distinctive sexual behaviour in several key passages (e.g. 1 Thes. 4:1-8; 1 Cor. 6:9-20; 2 Cor. 6:14 – 7:2).

But what about the teaching of Jesus?  Did Jesus say anything like this or is his apparent silence on the subject of homosexuality an indication that he thought differently?[1]

Jesus and the law of Moses

It is very common to hear people quote John 8:1-11 (the story of the woman taken in adultery), focussing on the challenge ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’ and leaving out the final challenge ‘Go now and leave your life of sin’!  More broadly, it is argued that Jesus came to fulfil and replace the law with a new ethic, so that his silence on the subject of homosexuality means that he does not condemn it. I am afraid that, when I come across such arguments (‘Did Jesus really say . . .?’), I am reminded of the serpent’s question in Genesis 3:1 (‘Did God really say . . . ?)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes beyond the wooden literalism of his own day and makes a radical demand for the interiorization of the law.  In this way, he points to the inauguration of the New Covenant promised in Jeremiah 31:31-4.  There God indicates his intention to put his law ‘within’ his people and to ‘write it upon their hearts’.  This does not imply the total abandonment of the law’s teaching.  Together with the amazing provision of a definitive forgiveness of sins, God will help his faithless people to know his will better and to be personally renewed in their commitment to him (cf. Ezk. 36:25-7).

A challenge about sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage stands at the centre of Jesus’ prophetic application of the law to the disciples in Matthew 5:27-32.  Far from softening the demands of the law, he warns that lust, being adultery in the heart, is sufficient to condemn the unrepentant to the judgement of hell.  Divorce under certain circumstances may cause someone to commit adultery.  A call to ‘be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (5:48) concludes the first section of the Sermon and recalls the challenge of Leviticus 19:2, ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’.  A fundamental demand for those living in a new covenant relationship with God, is to reflect God’s character, with the requirements of the relationship being established by Jesus himself.

Dealing with defilement

The Pharisees and scribes complained that Jesus’ disciples defiled themselves by not observing ‘the tradition of the elders’ about ritual washing before taking food (Mk. 7:1-5; Mt. 15:1-2).  In a subsequent address to the crowds, Jesus raises the issue of the true source of defilement (Mk. 7:15; Mt. 15:11).  His teaching does not attack Old Testament laws about ritual cleanness directly but expresses an entirely new understanding of what does and does not constitute defilement.  True purity before God cannot be obtained by scrupulous observance of cultic laws because rituals are unable to deal with the defilement that comes from within, from a rebellious and corrupt ‘heart’ (Mk. 7:17-23; Mt. 15:16-20; recalling Is. 29:13).

In this context, Jesus uses a range of terms to describe unacceptable sexual behaviour (Mk. 7:20-3).  Sexual immorality (Gk. porneiai, a general term), adultery (moicheiai, a specific term) and sensuality (aselgeia, a general term for sexual excesses or licentiousness) are listed with many other things that ‘come from within’ and ‘defile a person’.  Although Jesus does not refer explicitly to same-sex intercourse, ‘no first-century Jew could have spoken of porneiai (plural) without having in mind the list of forbidden sexual offenses in Leviticus 18 and 20 (incest, adultery, same-sex intercourse, bestiality).’[2]

The prescriptions of the Mosaic Covenant for ritual cleansing were a sign of the need for purification in a more profound and complete sense.  Jesus’ teaching raises a question about where such cleansing might be found.  The immediate context provides no answer, though his teaching about the significance of his death ultimately offers the solution to this problem.  He will give his life as ‘a ransom for many’ (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45) and will thus inaugurate the New Covenant, which promises a definitive forgiveness of sins (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20; cf. Jer. 31:34).

Continuity and discontinuity

Mark’s comment about ritual uncleanness draws out the implications of Jesus’ teaching for the benefit of his readers (‘In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean”’, 7:19).  This teaching anticipates the vision given to Peter in Acts 10:9-16, with its assurance that the purity laws of the Mosaic Covenant are not applicable under the New Covenant.  The holiness of God’s people is no longer to be defined in such terms, but holiness is still to be expressed in moral terms (e.g. 1 Thes. 4:1-8; 1 Pet. 1:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce (Mt. 19:2-12; Mk. 10:2-12) points to a specific continuity between Old and New Testaments in this connection.  Although he does not use the terminology of holiness here, he clearly shows that God’s demand for sexual purity remains as exacting as ever for those who are his children.  Pointing to Genesis 2:24 as normative, Jesus confirms that ‘the Mosaic legislation was intended, in general, to reflect the created order as represented in Genesis 2 and to prevent violations of it.  Jesus’ teaching gives fresh expression to this basic principle.’[3] He recognises only marriage between a man and a woman as the proper context for sexual union.

Although Jesus does not address the question of homosexuality directly, his response to the disciples’ challenge (‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry’, Mt. 19:10) is relevant to the debate.  He indicates that some may be impotent, some may have been castrated and some may make a voluntary decision to make themselves eunuchs, ‘because of the kingdom of heaven’ (19:11-12).  Abstinent singleness is being commended here.  ‘Christ’s coming and the inbreaking of God’s kingdom opens up a new way of life which, without denying the goodness of marriage, forgoes marriage for the sake of the kingdom (Matt. 19:11-12; 1 Cor. 7).’[4]

‘The portrayal of Jesus as a first-century Palestinian Jew who was open to homosexual practice is simply ahistorical.  All the evidence leads in the opposite direction.’[5] His calling is to faithful heterosexual marriage and abstinent singleness.  With regard to the latter, the example of his own life is ‘of vital importance in shaping the Christian vision of sexual behaviour.’[6]


[1] Much of the following is an extract from D. Peterson (ed.), Holiness and Sexuality.  Homosexuality in a  Biblical Context (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004).

[2] R. A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice.  Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 191.

[3] B. G. Webb, ‘Homosexuality in Scripture’, in Explorations 8  Theological and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality (Adelaide: Openbook, 1994), 85.

[4] D. W. Gomez (ed.), True Union in the Body?  A contribution to the discussion within the Anglican Communion concerning the public blessing of same-sex unions (Oxford, 2002), 11.

[5] Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 228.  The argument that Jesus was neutral or even affirming of homosexual conduct is ‘revisionist history’.

[6] Gomez, True Union, 23.

5 Responses to “What did Jesus say about homosexuality?”

  1. Tristan Bradshaw says:

    Thanks for this entry David. Really helpful considerations; I will encourage some of my non-Chrstian friends who struggle with conservative teaching on the issue to look at this. Love the website. Thanks for making so much good material easily and freely accessible.

  2. Julia says:

    Hello David,

    I’ve read the information you provided 3 times and each time, I have come to the same conclusion. Jesus did not address homosexuality. However, He did address other sins such as adultery and divorce. I wonder why He did not directly speak of homosexuality but did address sexual sins of other kinds.

    • Hi Julia,

      Jesus seems to have responded to particular questions about marriage and divorce and only spoke more generally about sexual sins in passages like Matthew 15:19-20. However, his call to uphold the ideal of heterosexual marriage, as presented in Genesis 1-2, coupled with his endorsement of singleness ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 19:1-12), leaves no room either for committed or promiscuous homosexual relationships. And you have to remember that he was speaking to Israelites living under the Mosaic law, which spoke so clearly against homosexual behaviour in Leviticus 18 and 20. The sort of questions we have today about homosexuality would not have been asked in his time because the law was so clear on these matters.

      David

  3. Hi David,

    Thank you. I agree with your comments of the role of the Sermon on the Mount and first read such notions in Bornhoeffer’s extended exposition of the Sermon on the Mount in The Cost of Discipleship. I’m keen to ask you about whether you have elsewhere further explain Matthew 5:27-30?

    In Matthew 5:27-30 I read that the bar is being listed on adultery for good reason. In context with the overall Sermon, and attuned to your comment of “interiorization of the law”, I’m reading that Jesus is saying: “you first love is to be God, and in human relationship your love is to be in Biblical attuned settings (man to wife, man (as father) to son etc etc). I’m reading that lust is a distortion of love – it objectifies people. I’m also inclined to go further and suggest that to lust after something that you can not have within the Biblical order (be it my neighbour’s wife where I am a married man or another male where I am same sex attracted) is covetousness. I think l that the link to covetousness nicely falls together once it is established that lust objectifies.

Leave a Reply