The Hermeneutics of Homosexuality in Leviticus

I originally published this post a while back on my Wordpress blog. As I move content over to the new site, I'm going to periodically highlight certain posts. Here's another one.

“If you condemn homosexuality based on passages in Leviticus, you should also then condemn football, Red Lobster, and most modern fabrics.” The bigger challenge with discussing passages in Leviticus concerning the issue of homosexuality is the hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpreting the Bible. It addresses methodological issues, such as the process we follow when interpreting a passage, and philosophical issues, such as the philosophical grounding for how we read and understand. These questions are front and center when discussing Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

Let's get this out in the open: Leviticus prohibits all kinds of behaviors which Christians now accept without question. For example, touching a pig carcass is prohibited by Lev 11:7-8; on those grounds we could prohibit playing football with a true pigskin. Lev 11:9-12 prohibits shellfish; on those grounds, much of the menu at Red Lobster would be off-limits. Lev 19:19 prohibits fabrics made from different types of threads; farewell to my favorite cotton-poly blend t-shirt. The person who argues against homosexuality from Leviticus but doesn’t prohibit these other things is open to the charge of inconsistency. Without proper hermeneutical grounding, arguing against homosexuality from Leviticus appears to be cherry-picking based upon factors other than the full scope of biblical teaching.

Those who argue against the validity of Leviticus on this issue generally assert the interpreter has only two choices: All commands in the Old Testament should be given equal weight, or the entire OT is superseded. That is, the hermeneutical rule is essentially "all or nothing." To answer this objection, we must discuss carefully the constituent parts of the OT. Leviticus is part of the OT law, given to govern the behavior of Israel after they entered into covenant with the Lord in Exodus 19. (Often the word Law is used to refer to the entirety of the first five books of the OT, but I'm using the term more specifically here.) As a believer in Christ, I accept a much larger canon of scripture than just the OT law. I accept a host of other books in the OT, and I also accept the NT. Here is where it gets interesting: The NT argues that the OT law has been fulfilled in Christ and is therefore superseded by something greater. At the same time, many of the principles and concepts embodied in the OT law are reaffirmed in the NT. Particular laws no longer have force as such, but if their teaching is reaffirmed in the NT, then they have an important function of pointing us to God’s standards of holiness which are still applicable and illustrative. That would certainly be the case here. On this basis we can argue that Leviticus does have a lot to say to us about a number of issues, including human sexuality, but its force as law has been superseded by Christ.

So this means we must be nuanced in how we discuss this. If we present these passages in a discussion of homosexuality as something which must be obeyed simply because it is in the Bible or it is part of the OT law, then we are saying too much. Leviticus no longer holds a place as a law which governs the actions of God’s people. At the same time, if we ignore it or don't understand the principles it embodies, we say too little, because it certainly serves to illustrate truth with contemporary value. Long and short, it is best never to end a discussion about homosexuality here in Leviticus. This passage speaks of prohibition and condemnation for Israelites who were under the law. Our current situation is one of grace as God extends salvation freely to all people, so we must discuss the issue in those terms.