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My Take: The Bible’s surprisingly mixed messages on sexuality
February 9th, 2011
10:31 AM ET

My Take: The Bible’s surprisingly mixed messages on sexuality

Editor's Note: Jennifer Wright Knust is author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.

By Jennifer Wright Knust, Special to CNN

We often hears that Christians have no choice but to regard homosexuality as a sin - that Scripture simply demands it.

As a Bible scholar and pastor myself, I say that Scripture does no such thing.

"I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them" is a poor excuse that attempts to avoid accountability by wrapping a very particular and narrow interpretation of a few biblical passages in a cloak of divinely inspired respectability.

Truth is, Scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways. And biblical writers held a much more complicated view of human sexuality than contemporary debates have acknowledged.

In Genesis, for example, it would seem that God’s original intention for humanity was androgyny, not sexual differentiation and heterosexuality.

Genesis includes two versions of the story of God’s creation of the human person. First, God creates humanity male and female and then God forms the human person again, this time in the Garden of Eden. The second human person is given the name Adam and the female is formed from his rib.

Ancient Christians and Jews explained this two-step creation by imagining that the first human person possessed the genitalia of both sexes. Then, when the androgynous, dually-sexed person was placed in the garden, s/he was divided in two.

According to this account, the man “clings to the woman” in an attempt to regain half his flesh, which God took from him once he was placed in Eden. As third century Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman explained, when God created the first man, God created him with two faces. “Then he split the androgyne and made two bodies, one on each side, and turned them about.”

When the apostle Paul envisioned the bodies that would be given to humanity at the end of time, he imagined that they would be androgynous, “not male and female.” The third-century non-canonical Gospel of Philip, meanwhile, lamented that sexual difference had been created at all: “If the female had not separated from the male, she and the male would not die. That being’s separation became the source of death.”

From these perspectives, God’s original plan was sexual unity in one body, not two. The Genesis creation stories can support the notion that sexual intercourse is designed to reunite male and female into one body, but they can also suggest that God’s blessing was first placed on an undifferentiated body that didn’t have sex at all.

Heterosexual sex was therefore an afterthought designed to give back the man what he had lost.

Despite common misperceptions, biblical writers could also imagine same-sex intimacy as a source of blessing. For example, the seemingly intimate relationship between the Old Testament's David and Jonathan, in which Jonathan loved David more than he loved women, may have been intended to justify David’s rise as king.

Jonathan, not David, was a king’s son. David was only a shepherd. Yet by becoming David’s “woman,” Jonathan voluntarily gave up his place for his beloved friend.

Thus, Jonathan “took great delight in David,” foiling King Saul’s attempts to arrange for David’s death (1 Samuel 19:1). Choosing David over his father, Jonathan makes a formal covenant with his friend, asking David to remain faithful to him and his descendants.

Sealing the covenant, David swears his devotion to Jonathan, “for he loved him as he loved his own life” (1 Samuel 20:17). When Jonathan is killed, King David composes a eulogy for him, praising his devotion: “greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

Confident claims about the forms of sex rejected by God are also called into question by early Christian interpretations of the story of Sodom. From the perspective of the New Testament, it was the near rape of angels - not sex between men - that led to the demise of the city.

Linking a strange story in Genesis about “sons of God” who lust after “daughters of men” to the story of the angels who visit Abraham’s nephew Lot, New Testament writers concluded that the mingling of human and divine flesh is an intolerable sin.

As the New Testament letter Jude puts it:

And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day. Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and went after strange flesh, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire (Jude 6-7).

The first time angels dared to mix with humans, God flooded the earth, saving only Noah, his family, and the animals. In the case of Sodom, as soon as men attempted to engage in sexual activity with angels, God obliterated the city with fire, delivering only Lot and his family. Sex with angels was regarded as the most dangerous and offensive sex of all.

It’s true that same-sex intimacy is condemned in a few biblical passages. But these passages, which I can count on one hand, are addressed to specific sex acts and specific persons, not to all humanity forever, and they can be interpreted in any number of ways.

The book of Leviticus, for example, is directed at Israelite men, offering instructions regarding legitimate sexual partners so long as they are living in Israel. Biblical patriarchs and kings violate nearly every one of these commandments.

Paul’s letters urge followers of Christ to remain celibate and blame all Gentiles in general for their poor sexual standards. Jesus, meanwhile, says nothing at all about same-sex pairing, and when he discusses marriage, he discourages it.

So why are we pretending that the Bible is dictating our sexual morals? It isn’t.

Moreover, as Americans we should have learned by now that such a simplistic approach to the Bible will lead us astray.

Only a little more than a century ago, many of the very same passages now being invoked to argue that the scriptures label homosexuality a sin or that God cannot countenance gay marriage were used to justify not “biblical marriage” but slavery.

Yes, the apostle Paul selected same-sex pairings as one among many possible examples of human sin, but he also assumed that slavery was acceptable and then did nothing to protect slaves from sexual use by their masters, a common practice at the time. Letters attributed to him go so far as to command slaves to obey their masters and women to obey their husbands as if they were obeying Christ.

These passages served as fundamental proof texts to those who were arguing that slavery was God’s will and accusing abolitionists of failing to obey biblical mandates.

It is therefore disturbing to hear some Christian leaders today claim that they have no choice but to regard homosexuality as a sin. They do have a choice and should be held accountable for the ones they are making.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jennifer Wright Knust.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Homosexuality • Opinion • Sex

soundoff (4,235 Responses)
  1. Hmm

    The worst thing Christians in the U.S. ever did was to allow the fundamentalists to define what it means to be Christian.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Sockettrees

      I would argue that the worst thing Christians did was stand idly by while our red-skinned brothers were oppressed and slaughtered.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Jeffry

      agreed.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Hmm

      Socktrees – I think that came out of a fundamentalist definition of what it meant to be Christian.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • WDrad

      What happened to the Indians had to happen for progress to happen. Without it the world would be a much different place. Progress can't always be made with chit chats at starbucks and throwing tax dollars at problems.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Sockettrees

      Hmm – There is nothing without fundamentals. Why don't you take a flight on a plane that wasn't built according to the fundamental understanding of aerodynamics? Or abandon the fundamental idea of gravity and take a leap? Fundamentals are absolutely essential for a healthy worldview. To abandon the fundamentals of the written scripture is to be a part of what I've heard called, 'Christianity and water". If you are satisfied with that level of theology, then enjoy. It is, without a doubt, the most fun thing in the world to invent your own religion.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  2. phillyguy

    If being gay was ok, then it wouldn't talk about it being wrong in the bible. NUFF SAID!!!!!!!!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Jeffry

      The Bible never says being gay is wrong.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  3. Ben

    Clearly she's reading her bible upside down. She sounds like the false prophetess spoken of in Revelations 2. Just to make a point. Woman he created them in his image (spirit). He created them male and female that they may be fruitfull and multiply. Don't stretch the truth to prove your point. Christianity is a choice; One truth. If you compromise that Truth, it's no longer Christianity. Get your facts straight woman. May the Lord deal with you as it is written do not add or take away from the Word.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Observer

      "they may be fruitful and multiply" unless of course they are the ultimate in religious examples like Jesus, John the Baptist, most of the disciples, the Pope, priests, nuns, monks, etc.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Ben

      In which case they remain to themselve. Not man burn with passion for man and woman burn with passion for woman. No example in the bible. If you want to be gay be gay, but don't try to adulterate the truth

      February 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Gary

      Again, the entire point of the article is that the "divine" book has contradications on the subject that people like you ignore because you are so vane to not see any point of view but your own. Stop trying to represent your own personal opinion as "truth".

      February 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Pssst

      Gary,

      I agree. (fyi: 'vane' should be 'vain')

      February 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  4. Derek Ream

    I stay away from religion all together because of the many interpretations that it can present itself, such as this woman. While I was raised a Catholic, I do attest that, the bible is often changed to conform to each era, we have many alterations and editing that is involved, as I once sat down with a handful of bibles and compared several passages. The bible did justify slavery, something that modern-day society now frowns upon for the most part, but nevertheless, it was "justified" but uttering the phrase "God deems so". This is common for any judgmental society or person, as long as they use their religious background and beliefs to justify taking away rights, implementing rules to defame groups of other people they feel are not of their group's "norm."

    I find her interpretation to be very interesting and plausible. Since our current inhabitants really have no clue what may or may not have transpired with the supposed Christ walked the planet, all we can do is interpret and speculate.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  5. Larry

    What Jennifer is referring to is found in the Bible. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 "For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. I am sure that Jennifer is making a number of itching ears hear what they want to hear, ie, myths and not the truth. Thanks Jennifer for dropping your mask.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  6. Observer

    Jesus never put down gays but he had PLENTY to say about heteros, and much of it wasn't good. Pure hypocrisy when Christians ignor that to pick on gays.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  7. hope

    Why you let a prosttute to write this kind of article?

    February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  8. Rbb Johnson

    Shameful, just one more attack by the media against our Lord and his word.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Gary

      Shameful, another vane person that fails to get the point of the article and instead interprets it as an affront to everything that he knows to be "true". If you learn to think for yourself, actually read your "divine" book, and look at all of the contradications contained therein, you might rethink your predisposed "truth" and start to be the kind of person that your messiah preached about.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Ravak

      @ Gary

      Don't be so quick to speak at the very things you don't understand. When was the last time YOU took a look into what the Bible said, more so than just a quick glance at the words on the page?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Gary

      @ Ravak

      Quite often, as I like to be armed against people who use biased interpretations of religious works to advance an agenda of hatred.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  9. Kim

    This is a good post!

    I think 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 sums this up. Yes God and Jesus shows love by forgiving us of our sins and giving us the chance to change and forgives us when we do. I dont like when people use the bible out of contends to cover sin. Jesus did teach love in forgiveness but if we dont change he will not forgive! Please follow 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and dont be Mislead!

    9 What! Do YOU not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes,NOR MEN WHO LIE WITH ME, 10 nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom. 11 And yet that is what some of YOU were. But YOU have been washed clean, but YOU have been sanctified, but YOU have been declared righteous in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the spirit of our God.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  10. Brad

    Wow! Warped thinking!

    February 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  11. sparky

    I have to agree with Mike Hunt. LOL. Jennifer Wright Knust is interpreting the Scriptures in her own way. She proves it by the fact that she references two parts of scripture are not in any TRUE Christian denomination Bilble. I question the bibilical scholar part very much. She speaks of the Apostle Paul but seems to ignore Romans Chapter 1. He is as clear as can be here. Ms. Knust you should also go back and read Revelation. The Apostle John makes it clear that Jesus Himself made it clear that no one should ADD or DETRACT from His word. Be very careful where you go in Scripture. Make sure you read it all. Your interpretation never changes the TRUTH. Christians do not hate or say,"I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them." Condemnation is only for the Son of God. Sin is still Sin. You left too many clues that you have not done your homework.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Gary

      You haven't done your homework either. Revelations was not written by the Apostle John.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • Mikey

      Wow – so only the books cobbled together in Constantine's time count??? Your lack of knowledge of the history of your religion is astounding and dismaying. There is so much missing from the King James version of the Bible – context, faulty translations (the Romans did not crucify by nailing through the hands as one example), customs of the society. To imagine that some pastor that has no degree in religion, or history, can accurately interpret the Bible and deliver sermons is ridiculous. This idea that "my pastor" told me so, makes anything right is sad.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  12. Aleen

    Um.. it still says plain and simply that marriage is meant ONLY for one MAN and one WOMAN.

    so, you're using your OWN rationality and not listening to God's Word.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  13. runamukus

    We (we being the human race) need to evolve. Someday humans will understand that death is a disease and scientists will find a cure giving all of us extended lives. As the human race continues to evolve, more understanding will go into science and we'll be able to leap above and beyond all imagination. But that day will forever be hindered by religion. Besides, if God created us all in his/her image – wouldn't God appreciate the very fact that you question his/her existence if they do not ever show his/herself? If I break a bone – I'll go to the doctor. You religious folks can pray for it to heal itself.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  14. Joshua

    I think 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 sums this up. Yes God and Jesus shows love by forgiving us of our sins and giving us the chance to change and forgives us when we do. I dont like when people use the bible out of contends to cover sin. Jesus did teach love in forgiveness but if we dont change he will not forgive! Please follow 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and dont be Mislead!!!

    9 What! Do YOU not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes,NOR MEN WHO LIE WITH ME, 10 nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom. 11 And yet that is what some of YOU were. But YOU have been washed clean, but YOU have been sanctified, but YOU have been declared righteous in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the spirit of our God.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
    • Thomas

      I am curious with the imprecision of words and some words with more than one meaning such as "lie" coupled with the difficulty in translating ancient texts are you SURE that 'lie' means to lay with or to 'lie' such as using possibility as absolute truth?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Ravak

      "lie" is simply the word that his version of the Bible chooses to use, however, if you go back to the original Greek it was written in, there wouldn't be any confusion about which version of the word was being used.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  15. martin

    I can barely get through a few comments before just getting sad. Sad for Christians who think it is their place to speak down to people and speak to them in a way that is completely unlike Jesus would; but also sad that the Bible gets twisted so much in order to justify our selfishness as a human race.

    I am a Christian, but I try to live my life like Jesus did. That might sound trite, but, shouldn't that be the obvious response by anyone who calls themselves Christian?

    For anyone who is particularly upset with messages from Christians commenting on this article or who has been frustrated by a Christian they know who is "hypocritical", there are hypocrites out there, yes - Christian and Non-Christian. Just like there are nice Christians, and nice Atheists. Christ called people to admit their faults and follow him, despite the sin that, as much as they should try to walk away from, will not be able to shake in this lifetime. So what you are left with is someone who wants to act like Christ, but is just as susceptible to selfishness, self-promotion, envy, hate, and greed as the next person.

    I feel like its hard to accuse a sincere Christian for being a hypocrite when the root of their faith is to admit that they sin.

    Unfortunately selfishness is just like any other addiction. Take smoking. You could have the most well-intentioned person who absolutely wants to quit - and maybe the can for a while. But until that lifestyle change comes about through a ridiculously difficult effort on their part to walk away from an addiction, you see brackish water. There is flip-flopping. Sure, some people quit cold turkey, some people don't. The water only clears through time and effort, as you keep pouring more and more clear water in.

    That being said, Knust infers and presumes a scary amount of information in this article. Some main things are left out, like the fact that God spoke through those who wrote the Bible, including Paul. We aren't relying solely on the few words recorded that Jesus spoke in 3 years of ministry. We are also spoken to through those who wrote the books of the Old New Testament. Also, Paul did encourage people to be celibate, but also provided instruction for those who who married.

    It just sounds like a large stretch of the truth of the Bible in order to be able to do what we want.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Ben

      You make no sense. We admit sin, but don't remain in it. Not admit and then embrace it.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Tommie Dee

      Martin,
      Yes, we are to love people. But, the Christian is never to condone or simply bypass herasy. That is a major problem in the church of today. We have become afraid to speak the truth for fear we mind offend someone. Jesus was no so gentle with the scribes and pharisees. They were leading God's people astray.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Reminded to be kind

      Martin, thanks for the reminder to be kind. I disagreed with the article, but I should be kind and calm about my disagreement, not angry and yelling. I had forgotten about that until I read your response, thanks for reminding us think about how we live our lives even in our smaller actions.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Neva

      Thanks for taking the time to leave that martin. Blessings to you.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • martin

      Ben– I don't think I said that. I was just stressing that the root of Christianity is an admittance of sin, and striving to be perfect, - but we can't ignore that Christians are human and flawed also - hence, the Christians are hypocritical argument

      tommie dee– I agree. I was trying to appeal more to the responses that really weren't the words that I believe Christ would have used

      February 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  16. Dale

    If you believe that this cobbled-together set of myths is the coherent word of the OTD (Only True Diety) on this–or any–subject, nothing's going to change your mind: not logic, not evidence, not argumentation, not emotion; nothing. That's fine, if you want to base your life on such foundations and assumptions. Hooray for you.

    But, please, pipe the hell down about judging the actions of adults who are not harming themselves or others, especially when your judgments are drawn from readings of the myth book.

    Religion should be private–tolerated, yes; given an undue share of the public discourse, hell, no.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  17. Lee

    i would rather believe and upon death be proven wrong, than to NOT believe and upon be proven wrong...

    February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Normon

      I'd rather, if He exists, have God explain it to me and have it right, rather than have Him fvck with my head the way it seems He's doing.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • Normon

      In other words,
      God, quit p!ssing around and just tell us in person!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Jeremy

      Pascal's wager. Fire insurance. There's no joy or fulfillment in that.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • A Christian

      Amen!

      February 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • Ravak

      @ Norman

      I know how it can sometimes seem like God is just messing with you, but I would encourage you to take a little closer look at life. Don't forget, Satan is the prince of this world and he is the one who loves messing with your head. God wants to see that you will respond with "God, help me through this" instead of a "God, why did you do this"

      February 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  18. Jennifer Wright Knust knows nothing

    "I love gay people, but the Bible forces me to condemn them" the bible tells us not to condem anyone, for any reason. If she can't get that right the rest of anything she says is not worth reading. Very poor article, I now have to change my home page away from CNN. I can't believe they put such rubbish on the web.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Ben

      I agree. Why would CNN put this nonsense on the cover

      February 9, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • Donna Kay

      I think you missed the point. She is talking about not condemning! The sentence you quote is the one she hears from others, and that she is refuting with this article.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Ravak

      My thoughts exactly 🙂

      February 9, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Doctordonna

      Did you actually read the article? Go back and read it, beginning to end, then comment. Basing your assumptions on the first few sentences is irresponsible at best.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  19. Joshua

    I think 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 sums this up. Yes God and Jesus shows love by forgiving us of our sins and giving us the chance to change and forgives us when we do. I dont like when people use the bible out of contends to cover sin. Jesus did teach love in forgiveness but if we dont change he will not forgive! Please follow 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and dont be Mislead!!!!!!!!!!

    9 What! Do YOU not know that unrighteous persons will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes,NOR MEN WHO LIE WITH ME, 10 nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom. 11 And yet that is what some of YOU were. But YOU have been washed clean, but YOU have been sanctified, but YOU have been declared righteous in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and with the spirit of our God.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Kris

      You are also interpretting the Bible to fit your beliefs.

      February 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  20. Pinolera

    People will twist and turn the bible any kind of way to justify their lifestyle. Nothing new under the sun. Bottom line is that God created Adam and Eve and they were to be one to procreate and fill the earth. Just like the bible doesn't say "apple" it says "fruit" it doesn't say "whale" it says "great fish" and it doesn't say Adam and Steve it says Adam and Eve and the list goes on and on. Ignorance is no excuse.

    February 9, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • Jane

      Wait, you think the Bible was written in English?

      February 9, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      "Ignorance is no excuse."
      Gee, that is what I always say about believers.....

      February 9, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.