Is the Leviticus Prohibition of Homosexuality Irrelevant?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 03/20/2013

Alan’s monthly letter for February 2013

Dear Friend,

Skeptics of all stripes believe the book of Leviticus is irrelevant. Just cite the prohibition of homosexual behavior in Chapter 18 and brace for the impending attack. They’ll say something akin to, “Leviticus 19:19 says you can’t wear clothes made from two different linens or plant two different seeds in the same field. You don’t follow those rules, so why follow the homosexual ones?” They’re claiming you’re inconsistent.

And they may have a point. Christians don’t follow every Levitical law. But some, like Leviticus 19:18 that commands one to “Love your neighbor as yourself” are upheld. How do we make sense of this?

Leviticus is part of the Mosaic Law or Old Covenant. God established this covenant as a contract between Himself and the Jewish nation during Moses’ leadership. It contained 613 commands pertaining to marriage, ritual purity, sacrifice, justice, and other guidelines for the fledgling theocracy. But these laws were never intended to be a legal code for all cultures and at all times. They were unique to the nation of Israel.

When Jesus came, He fulfilled the requirements of the Mosaic Law by satisfying the terms of the old contract. Matthew 5:17 quotes Jesus as saying, “I have not come to abolish [the Law,] but to fulfill [it.]”

Then, Jesus established a new covenant (in His blood). It entails a new contract with new terms that govern God’s relationship with His people (both Jew and Gentile). Hebrews 8:13 says of Jesus: “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete.” That means Christ’s new covenant supersedes the old covenant of the Mosaic Law. We are no longer legally bound to observe Mosaic commands. It also means pulled-pork sandwiches are now on the menu.

Am I then saying that the Leviticus prohibition of homosexual behavior is irrelevant? Not at all. Although its specific expression in the Mosaic Law is not binding under the New Covenant of Christ, it reflects a long-term universal moral value. That is, the ethical rule transcends the particular application in Leviticus.

There are at least two ways to recognize this. First, the way some Mosaic laws are written suggest an appeal to the natural order of the world. For example, Leviticus 18:22 (the verse that prohibits homosexual behavior) implies that sexual activity is designed to occur a certain way. The one-flesh union can only be achieved through heterosexual intercourse. Homosexual behavior violates the God-intended design of human sexuality.

The other indication is that the same prohibition is re-expressed in the New Testament.

Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1 all identify homosexual behavior as sin, suggesting that this prohibition is not culture-bound to Israel under the Mosaic Law.

So although Leviticus and the rest of the Mosaic Law is still valuable to know and study, I don’t think citing Leviticus is the best idea. It requires a nuanced explanation of theology and how covenants work. This is confusing to nonbelievers and will likely be rejected by skeptics.

Instead, use Romans 1:26–27. It’s the most powerful, straightforward, and defensible text on homosexuality for several reasons. First, it’s perfectly consistent with the moral value expressed in Leviticus. It re-affirms what appears to be a universal moral value about human sexual activity. Second, it’s the only one to address both male and female homosexuality in a single passage. Third, it clearly describes the behavior in question and explains why it’s wrong: men abandoned the natural sexual function of women. But fourth, and most importantly for this discussion, it’s a New Testament text, written under the New Covenant of Christ. That’s the contract that primarily governs behavior today.

I’ve written this to help explain the confusion surrounding the Bible and homosexuality. Sadly, Christians who are responsible for clarifying these matters are often the ones who struggle with making sense of it. That’s why I’m excited about my upcoming Ambassador’s Guide on homosexuality that will be published this year. It will clarify what both Scripture and science say about homosexual behavior and equip believers to respond in a thoughtful and compassionate manner.

I’m able to write this book thanks to you. I am grateful for your faithful support of my work. Please know that you are making a huge impact for the kingdom of God.

In Christ,

Alan Shlemon