Religious Doctrine on Homosexuality as a Sin

In the Judeo/Christian traditions, from which ultimately sprang Islam, the core doctrinal position traces to two passages in Leviticus.

You shall not copulate with a man as one copulates with a woman: it is an abomination. [Leviticus 18:22]

If a man copulates with another male as one copulates with a woman, both of them have acted abominably; they shall be put to death... [Leviticus 20:13]

Judaism's doctrines on homosexuality

Traditionally, upon these two verses was built the doctrinal position on homosexuality, reinforced by the view of what is natural (natural law). What should be clear, though, at the outset, is that the core of the doctrine is abomination , and the penalty is death.

The doctrine developed from these two verses to condemn all things homosexual (male on male and female on female), and only in more recent times has consideration been given to the fact that the two passages do not, in fact, condemn homosexuals or homosexuality (same gender attraction), per se, but condemn one specific act: anal intercourse. It should be noted that there is debate about the actual meaning and implication of this passage, because the Hebrew term To'ebah has to do with ritual uncleanliness, literally meaning means "disgusting", "repugnant" to a specific person, group of people, or god. The argument is that it has to do with health and cleanliness because it is found in a long list of prohibitions having to do with uncleanliness, not with moral or immoral behavior, and was no worse than eating pork or camel, eating any seafood without fins or scales, having sex with your wife during her period, etc.

Societal pressures in the last fifty years which have decriminalized homosexuality and legalized same-sex marriage, have challenged the view that all homosexual behavior is an abomination, have led to a significant dialogue in the Rabbinical community. The more traditional Reformed and Orthidox parts of Judaism still stand on a moral interpretation, expecting renunciation of all homosexual behavior, and exclusion of gays from clerical roles—though some parts of Conservative (MAsorti) Judaism do ordain gay people as Rabbis.

Rabbi Simchah Roth wrote a sympathetic, comprehensive and detailed treatment of the theological and doctrinal positions, as well as the consequences upon homosexuals in 2003, that can be accessed here . He concludes with a somewhat rhetorical question and challenge to wider Judaism:

Is it too fanciful to suggest that our generation must make a name for itself by "putting right" the status of religiously observant gays? Surely, the time has come.

In his responsum of a decade ago Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff wrote:

Taken together, these data are sufficient for me to affirm confidently that we should no longer see homosexuality as a moral abomination. The tradition, in saying that it was, clearly assumed that sexual attraction to, and sexual intercourse with, people of the same gender were totally voluntary. We certainly know enough by now to assert that that is a factual error.

In an article entitled "Dr. Laura Misguided On Homosexuality," June 2, 2000 / 28 Iyyar 5760, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written:

Religious people should finally get over their all-too-apparent homophobia and reverse the discriminatory policy which says that homosexuality is an aberration marked by God for special censure. Like heterosexual men and women, gays are God's children, capable of bringing light and love to a planet whose darkness is caused not only by sin but also misguided judgmentalism.


Christianity's doctrines on homosexuality

It should be noted that the Christian position of defining homosexuality as a sin is built on this foundation from Judaism BUT, and this is a major point of misunderstanding, it was not codified as a doctrine until quite late. John Boswell in his exhaustive treatment Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, documents that the Roman Catholic Church didn't condemn homosexuality until the mid-12th Century, and that likely is about the same time for the Eastern Orthodox Churches. His research makes the case that for the first millennium the Church pretty much accepted the previous Roman and Greek cultural view that sex was sex and gay sex was just one variation on a theme.

It would no doubt surprise most Christians who oppose homosexuality to learn that Jesus is not recorded in the New Testament or any extra-testamental writings as having mentioned it. The tolerance of homosexuality in the first millennium is further documented in another book by Boswell titled Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe , showing that there were even liturgical rites for same-sex unions! Condemnation of homosexuality in Christianity not only came late (interestingly about the same time as clerical celibacy) but is built on a small number of passages: four in the Old Testament and three in the New.

Old Testament Passages

Genesis 1:27 - "God created people in His own image, in the image of God, he created them; He created male and female." This reference to the creation passage is an argument from so-called natural law, defining what is "natural," but importantly is part of a 5,000 year-old world view the majority of which has been modified or rejected (such as the sun orbits the earth, the earth is flat and populated by demons, there was no knowledge of the cause of disease or even how human reproduction worked).

Genesis 19 (cf. 18:20) - The story of Sodom and Lot's duty of hospitality to his guests. Sodom is referenced in many other places in the Bible, but not talking about the sin of homosexuality, rather about pride, gluttony, prosperity, domination, and not helping the poor and needy. The sin at Sodom was sexual abuse.

Deuteronomy 23:17-18 - "There shall be no female cult prostitute of the daughters of Israel nor a male cult prostitute of the sons of Israel." This is about cult temple prostitution and the only case that can be made here is that prostitution can occur in two genders! It should be noted that this means that male cult prostitution was common enough to merit attention, and mainly involved young boys.

Leviticus 18:22 (20:13) - "You shall not lie with men as with woman: it is abomination." These are among the many declarations within the holiness codes. Additionally, in the hierarchal ancient world, there was great significance placed on dominance and submission, and anal intercourse between men means one assumes a submissive position. The view correlates with another, that not just of men above and women subordinate, but that women were chattel, meaning the property of their husbands!

New Testament Passages

It should be noted that not only are none of the New Testament passages from the Gospels quoting the words of Jesus, they are all from Epistles written by St. Paul, a Jewish rabbi who became a Christian, and for whom homosexuality was a perversion because it was driven by unchecked passion.

Romans 1:26-27 - Pagan "women exchange natural use for unnatural and also the [pagan] men, leaving the natural use of women, lust in their desire for each other, males working shame with males, and receiving within themselves the penalty of their error." This passage harkens back to both the Temple Prostitution passage in Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code passages in Leviticus. They certainly show Paul's bias brought into Christianity from Judaism, but this in a time when same-sex relationships were common across the Roman Empire, as they had been in classical Greece before, and continued to be even in the Christian Roman and Byzantine Empires for 1,100 years.

I Corinthians 6:9 & Timothy 1:10 – These passages contain Paul's reference to malakoi and arsenokoitai. These are unique terms apparently coined by Paul himself. Likely these were effeminate call boys and their customers, and also carry a certain corollary to male temple prostitutes.

The Doctrines

Whether or not you support, as most of Christianity does, the condemnation of homosexuality, the fact remains that the doctrine is built on very little substance, especially given that Jesus himself never mentioned it! What is most striking, then, is not just that a doctrine condemning homosexuality developed from such a limited basis, nor how late it came into being, but just how detailed it became. Specifically, this means not just that homosexual acts were labeled "sinful," but that depending on the church or denomination, the doctrine was further developed to apply different qualities or levels or types of sin.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the common term is that homosexuality is an intrinsic moral disorder, and thus you're intrinsically immoral if you are gay, but when you drill down in the doctrine you find that it is also a mortal sin (Latin: peccatum mortale ) meaning it is a gravely sinful act, which can lead to damnation if a person does not repent of the sin before death. A sin is considered to be "mortal" when its quality is such that it leads to a separation of that person from God's saving grace. Another way to say it would be perverse and damned.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity is striking in its understanding of Creation as "essentially good" as created by God, in contrast to the view of fallen creation that is intrinsically sinful as held by Roman Catholicism and most Protestant denominations. Homosexual acts, however, are viewed as condemned by Scripture, as immoral, and as undercutting the natural structure of marriage and family. Strikingly, while it does not formally use terms like depraved or intrinsically immoral, it does however place them in the same category as fornication, adultery, abortion and abusive sexual behavior. Thus, is it considered perverse and unnatural.

For most denominations in the Reformed tradition (i.e. Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and the denominations derived from those roots), which all broke from Catholicism, the underlying doctrine from Catholicism carries forward. However, homosexuality is likewise a sin with its own quality or type. For most of these denominations it is described as a depraved sin. That is to say, perverse, unnatural and particularly immoral.

In the Evangelical/Fundamentalist traditions (post-Reformation movements), with its literalist interpretation of Scripture, the terminology used to describe homosexuality is taken from the Bible, most commonly the usage in Leviticus. Homosexual acts are labeled an abomination, meaning worthy of stoning to death or minimally of excommunication!

Islam's doctrines on homosexuality

Islam prohibits all forms of same-sex acts, and condemns homosexuality, based on references in the Quran, teachings in the Hadith, and working from the natural order. Sodomy is specifically prohibited and homosexuality is described as obscene and abnormal. Contemporary efforts of reformist voices to make the arguments that the Quran does not explicitly condemn same-sex orientation, and that the Quran's references to Sodom and Lot should be interpreted as sexual assault, have been met with categorical resistance by Islamic scholars citing full and unbroken consensus on prohibition from all legal schools since the time of the Prophet. In many Muslim countries, where Sharia law and the national legal system are closely related or one and the same, homosexual behavior is subject to legal punishment that can range from flogging to the death penalty.

Hinduism and Buddhism's doctrines on homosexuality

In the traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism the position on homosexuality is more informed by natural law (what is natural and normal) than it is by an explicitly derived moral doctrine.

For Hinduism some sects see it as deviant, it was only decriminalized in India in 2018, and the best summary seems to be: "Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik summarizes the place of homosexuality in Hindu literature as follows: "though not part of the mainstream, its existence was acknowledged but not approved." The result is certainly the treatment of gays as second class citizens, occasional outbreaks of violence, and a general understanding that it is a unnatural and abnormal orientation.

Buddhism is principally driven by individual teachers, and homosexuality is not mentioned in its texts specifically, but it is commonly seen as unnatural. Some later traditions feature restrictions on non-vaginal sex (some Buddhist texts mention non-vaginal sex as sexual misconduct, including men having sex with men). This non-vaginal sex view is not based on what Buddha said, but from some later scriptures. For all his wisdom in other areas , the Dalai Lama's (Tenzen Gyatso) view is striking in following the traditional Tibetan Buddhist assertion that inappropriate sexual behavior includes lesbian and gay sex, and indeed any sex other than penis-vagina intercourse with one's own monogamous partner, including oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation." At best then, homosexuality is seen as unnatural and abnormal.


Wikipedia page on denominational religions and their positions on homosexuality

Human Rights Campaign listing of various faiths position on homosexuality

A list of print and on-line resources on many aspects of the subject is available from Welcoming Resources (particularly valuable is Pastor I'm Gay by Howard Bess