Did Jesus say that all homosexual sex is a sin? What about homosexual sex within a marriage relationship?
Some say Jesus did not say anything about homosexual sex.
Others say he indicated any sex (hetero- or homosexual) outside of a marriage relationship is a sin, but did not say anything about homosexual sex within a marriage or similar relationship.
Still others say that he declared homosexual sex in any setting to be a sin.
Of those who say Jesus discussed the issue directly, nearly all point only to one place in scripture. This post takes a look at both sides of the argument relative to that scripture.
Alternating Voices in this Post
This post continues a series of posts regarding what Christians who affirm same-sex marriage and Christians who oppose same-sex marriage say about relevant scripture. Like the prior posts in the series, this post describes a hypothetical conversation between the two sides after providing context to the main scripture discussed in the post.
That is, below, after the context and main scripture are described, the point of view expressed alternates between an affirming and non-affirming viewpoint, as in a conversation between the two.
Context of the Main Scripture
A group of Jews asked Jesus why his disciples (also Jews) did not follow the tradition that Jews must wash their hands before eating.
Jesus called the questioners hypocrites. He said they “have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” He exclaimed they “have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
Jesus then spoke to the crowd that had gathered: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
The disciples later asked Jesus what he meant. He responded, “nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them” because “it doesn’t go into their heart.” Instead, he explained, it goes “into their stomach … and then out of the body.”
And then Jesus explained …
The Main Scripture (Mark 7:21-22 (NIV))
…. “For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Non-Affirming Christians Say: Jesus declares homosexual sex of any kind evil in Mark 7:21.
At the time Jesus lived, homosexual activity was considered sexual immorality. Old Testament law, which the people to which he was speaking followed, even labelled such activity an “abomination.”
Thus, when Jesus said “sexual immorality” is evil, everyone listening would have understood him to mean that homosexual activity is evil and thus a sin.
Notice that Jesus made no exception for same-sex marriage.
Affirming Christians Say: Jesus says nothing about homosexual sex within a marriage relationship in Mark 7:21.
In fact, Mark 7:21 does not even refer to “sexual immorality.”
The verse was originally written in Greek. The Greek word translated “sexual immorality” in the translation quoted above is porneiai (πορνεῖαι in Greek letters, in the plural form).
Porneiai means “fornication,” a specific type of sexual immorality.
In nearly all translations of Mark 7:21 before the mid-20th century, porneiai was translated as “fornication” or “whoredom” (a harsher term for fornication), rather than “sexual immorality.”
For example, the King James Version of the Bible translated porneiai as “fornication.” Young’s Literal Translation translated it as “whoredoms.” More than half of the English translations on Biblehub translate it as “fornication” or “whoredoms.” Translations that attempt a literal translation tend to use “fornication.”
Fornication is generally defined as consensual sexual intercourse outside of marriage.
In other words, Jesus does not say that “sexual immorality” is evil. He says a particular kind of sexual immorality—fornication, consensual sexual intercourse outside of marriage—is evil.
Homosexual sex within a marriage relationship is not fornication.
A few Bible translations after the 1940s of Mark 7:21 say “sexual morality” instead of “fornication.” Why?
It may be that the translators realized that people today do not use the words “fornication” or “whoredom” regularly, so “sexual immorality” would be more understandable. In some instances, it may come from the bias or theological view of the translator.
Non-Affirming Christians Say: The broad translation is better.
Same-sex marriage did not exist then. So, any homosexual sex would have been fornication then.
Regardless, modern translators have more information, and thus “sexual immorality” is the better translation. That is why those newer translations use “sexual immorality.”
It has nothing or little to do with readability or bias.
Affirming Christians Say: “Fornication” is the more precise translation, and it is wrong to condemn others in such an instance.
A modern translation that many view as more precise and objective than other modern translations, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), translates porneiai as “fornication.” So, it is not a “more information” issue.
Indeed, modern translations that try to provide a literal translation use “fornication.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with using a modern translation that is more readable, but when you try to condemn others or argue that something is a sin based on a single word, reference to the more precise definition is necessary.
Non-Affirming Christians Say: Others say it is right.
Mark 7:21’s use of porneiai is a broad one, encompassing all sexual immorality, including homosexual sex.
The American Family Association (AFA) has analyzed this issue and points out that porneiai does not just mean fornication, but means any homosexual activity, too, whether inside or outside of marriage. The AFA explains that “Demosthenes, for example, used porneiai to refer to homosexuality centuries before” Christ made the statements in Mark 7:21.
Affirming Christians Say: If porneiai means “sexual immorality” then it would have been redundant for Jesus to have also mentioned “adultery” in Mark 7:21.
First, interpreting porneiai broadly to mean “sexual immorality” directly conflicts with what Jesus said.
Jesus said, “[f]or it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: porneiai, theft, murder, adultery, ….” (Mark 7:21)
If porneiai means “sexual immorality,” Jesus would not have needed to then say “adultery” because “sexual immorality” would have already covered it.
Second, the AFA does not cite to specifics in Demosthenes. It is well known that Demosthenes refers to prostitution and, regardless, even under the AFA’s description, it refers to fornication and is thus wholly consistent with the use of term to mean fornication or whoredom.
Using the AFA’s logic, Demosthenes and these other texts referring to a female prostitute having sex with a male in relation to porneiai would mean that all heterosexual sex is included within the definition of porneiai, whether that heterosexual sex occurs inside or outside of marriage. The AFA’s argument is illogical.
Christians who affirm same-sex marriage and Christians who oppose same-sex marriage each have more to say about such interpretation.
An important point that is rarely raised is that Jesus almost certainly did not say “porneiai,” either, as it is highly unlikely that he was speaking in Greek to his Jewish disciples. The books of the New Testament were written in Greek, but scholars generally agree that Jesus spoke Aramaic. Aramaic was the common language spoken by Jews in Israel at the time Jesus lived.
How precisely does “porneiai” capture the Aramaic word or phrase Jesus actually said?
That Jesus was speaking a different language than the language in which the New Testament was written makes focusing on a single word or phrase in it to proclaim something a sin or not a sin for others even more questionable.
Grace and humbleness seem appropriate.
This is the seventh post in a series on both sides’ view of scripture relevant to same-sex marriage. The first three in the series address scripture in the Old Test related to homosexual activity. The second three relate to “the Biblical definition of marriage.”
Click here to begin with the first post in the series.
Sources & Notes
“only one place”: Some also say that scripture discussing divorce is relevant, though few say it addresses sex directly.
Main scripture (and context) is from Mark 7.
(the parallel scripture is at Matthew 15:19; this post will discuss Mark 7)
“… abomination …”: Leviticus 18:22; 20:13.
“… porneiai …”: http://biblehub.com/text/mark/7-21.htm;
“… fornication …”: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fornication.
“mid-20th … half … literal … 1940s …”: http://biblehub.com/mark/7-21.htm.
Mark 7:21 (NRSV): https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+7%3A21-23&version=NRSV.
Jesus spoke Aramaic: