R.E.O. White, "Homosexuality" in Walter Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Baker 1984) 528-530.

Homosexuality. Sexual desire directed toward members of one's own sex. Female homosexuality is frequently called lesbianism, from Lesbos, where the Greek poetess Sappho (reputedly homosexual) lived ca. 600 B.C. Traditionally homosexuality was the sin for which Sodom was destroyed by divine judgment, hence the popular term "sodomy." This interpretation depends upon uncertain translation. while Ezek. 16:49ff. and Sir. 16:8ff. give other reasons for the judgment. The assumption of homosexuality in Sodom dates from the Greek occupation of Palestine, when "the Greek sin" seriously endangered Jewish youth and strong scriptural warning was necessary.

Homosexuality had been condemned in both Leviticus (18:22; 20:13), where it is abhorrent to God, defiling, punishable by death, and in Deuteronomy (23:18), where it is forbidden to bring the hire of harlot or homosexual ("dog") into the house of God in payment of religious vows, both being abhorrent to God. It is usually assumed that the male cult prostitutes common in heathen shrines but forbidden in Israel (Deut. 23:17), though sometimes prevalent (I Kings 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; II Kings 23:7), were homosexual.

Some hold that tolerance (and institutionalizing) of homosexual prostitution contributed much to the decay of Greek youth and army. Roman law punished it severely as early as the third century B.C., later protecting minors and forbidding the use of premises on pain of death—even by burning. Rome's concern was probably more military than moral.

Such laws show the practice ancient and widespread. Today, it has been claimed, 4-5 percent of white adult males are homosexual, 10-20 percent bisexual, the remainder heterosexual; but innumerable gradations must be recognized: a "six point scale" of degrees of homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality oversimplifies the situation.

Early Christian reaction is expressed by Paul: homosexuals "will not inherit the kingdom of God" (I Cor. 6:9-10); because of idolatry God gave the heathen up "to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error" (Rom. 1:26-27). Here the association with idolatry, the unnaturalness of the practice, and the divine judgment which abandons individuals to it (an echo of Sodom?) are all significant. The Sodom story recurs in Jude 7 ("unnatural lust") and II Pet. 2:6-7 ("lust of defiling passion"), perpetuating the tradition that homosexuals were under divine ban.

The Didache extends the commandments to forbid corrupting of boys; Athenagoras classes pederasty with adultery. Perhaps influenced by the Roman attitude, Christian canon law laid down penalties ranging from nine years' penance to permanent excommunication. On the whole, the church treated homosexuality as a sin needing spiritual cure rather than a crime for magistrates to punish—unless linked with heresy, when the punishment was death. Earthquakes threatening Byzantium ("Sodom") were blamed upon homosexuals.

In Britain from the sixteenth century the law prescribed (though rarely exacted) death. The jurist William Blackstone (eighteenth century) wrote: "Homosexuality, the crime against nature, one which the voice of nature and reason and the express law of God determine to be capital. Of which we have a signal instance long before the Jewish dispensation, in the destruction of the cities by fire from heaven, so that this is a universal not merely a provincial precept." In the nineteenth century imprisonment was substituted.

In recent decades the prevalence of blackmail and suicide, the difficulties of detection and punishment ("sending homosexuals to prison resembles sending alcoholics to a brewery"), led to reconsideration. Private acts by consenting adults of responsible age without duress are commonly no longer crimes. Some interpret this change as tacit public approval or indifference, Tolerance of homosexuals has greatly increased, within and outside the churches (and within the Christian ministry), largely through (misnamed) "gay" protestation, publicity, clubs, and by uninhibited discussion of the condition's causes.

Causes of Homosexuality. The attempt to understand causes is very recent, and important to a Christian judgment.

  1. Since the individual's earliest sexual curiosity and experience is usually with his own body, then with others of the same sex, a puberty phase of homosexual interest is normal. Some adult homosexual interest may therefore merely be arrested development, due to extreme shyness, introversion, disfigurement, fear of rejection, only-child inability to socialize, or some physical deficiency. This arrested-development explanation makes many heterosexual men treat homosexuals with contempt, as "just kids."
  2. Similarly, after normal heterosexual out-turning to the other sex has taken place, an unhappy love affair, an illness, pathological fear of women/men, or the like may lead to regression, a return to the furtive but safer relief of early puberty.
  3. Environmental causes include artificial all-male society in one-sex school, army, or prison; a wrong relationship between, or with, parents, or with any oversexed adult; male resentment, or protest, against aggressive, predatory, overdominating women, or by women against similar men; unfortunate conflict in childhood and/or puberty, with relatives, guardians, teachers who repressed, scorned, terrified, or disgusted the growing mind.
  4. Constitutional causes include genetic or hormone factors that condition the individual from birth to respond sexually to his or her own sex; there seems no doubt that in some cases the homosexual disposition can be inborn, prenatal in origin, wholly involuntary.
  5. Vicious causes include unbridled sensuality, flagrant exhibitionism, and the mischievous desire to shock; exploitation by the depraved of the young, the timid, the mentally unstable, for carnal indulgence; duress, bribery, or blackmail.

Even so slight an analysis of causes has important consequences. A homosexual tendency arising from psychological, accidental, or environmental influences is said sometimes to yield, as do some other deep-seated disorders, to psychological treatment by enticing the underlying, subconscious cause into full consciousness and self-understanding. Constitutionally homosexual disposition, on the other hand, is probably incurable.

Further, an involuntary predisposition, traceable to psychological distortion, infantile terrors, accidental situations, or congenital factors, whether or not complicated by later unhappy experiences, is obviously not a fitting target for moral condemnation or contempt, but for sympathy.

In Karl Barth's phrase, much homosexual inclination is "a moral malady"; it is no more to be blamed than left-handedness or colorblindness. To borrow convenient terms of distinction, it is the recognition of constitutional homosexuality, in men and women, that has moderated Christian judgments in recent years, even when homosexual practice (homosexualism) remains condemned.

A Christian View. This discrimination between condition and conduct is essential to a fair Christian reaction. Homosexual acts continue to arouse disgust. Though ignorance, and fear for the vulnerable, mingle with it, moral repulsion is sometimes a healthy reaction—as that toward wanton cruelty. Aquinas first articulated the age-old intuition reflected in Leviticus, in Deuteronomy (where homosexuality is linked with bestiality as perversion), and in Paul that homosexual activity is essentially unnatural, a perversion of the natural order linking sex with procreation, and so defiance of divine natural law, Society still disapproves, but discovery of homosexual situations involving those we have loved, trusted, and admired does affect our judgment of their character, trustworthiness, and quality. Secrecy and deceit are therefore still necessary. Known homosexual behavior alienates from "normal" society, making normal relationships more difficult to establish, thus leading to frustration and despair. Though the Sodom argument be abandoned, Scripture reprobates such practices, while Christian love must condemn the use, for sensual purposes only, of another's body, mind, and emotions if, as seems inevitable in unnatural relations, that degrades and undervalues the partner. Finally, in the constant conflict between flesh and spirit in Christian life, deliberate cultivation of homosexual sensuality can have no defensible place. For all these reasons, homosexual activity is wrong.

But the homosexual condition, until indulged, is innocent, and should be cleared of the guilt feeling that may drive into deeper introversion. Like all congenital deviations from the normal, established homosexuality has to be accepted and lived with. The resulting problem is acute, but no more so than for heterosexuals, the widower/widow, the impotent, the single who long to marry and cannot or (through inherited insanity) should not. For all such, prostitution or promiscuity may offer constant temptation, but one to be resisted by the help of God. For neither heterosexual nor homosexual is the situation culpable; but actions to which the situation may incline them remain sinful, as unnatural, degrading, contrary to Christian concern for total welfare of others, inimical to religious devotion and spiritual progress, and no solution to their problem.

But to say this is to acknowledge that the existence and acuteness of the problem challenge Christian compassion and ministry, and call for ever improving sex education in a Christian context. A mature society will recognize prevalent homosexual activity not as "liberation" but as a symptom of moral malaise; an alert church will not ostracize but befriend those whose constitution and circumstances make Christian living harder for them than for most. R. E. O. WHITE

Bibliography. F. Lake, "The Homosexual Man," First Aid in Counselling; H. Kimball-Jones, Toward a Christian Understanding of the Homosexual; R. Lovelace, Homosexuality and the Church; R. Moss, Christianity and Homosexuality; N. W. Pittenger, Time for Consent.