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006063796XOur journey through The Moral Vision of the New Testament continues as Richard Hays devotes a series of chapters to the New Testament’s witness regarding specific, controversial issues. (If you’ve gotten behind in the reading or you’re just joining us, see the reading schedule here.)

Two weeks ago, we looked at the question of Christians using violence in the defense of justice. Last week, we looked Hays’ treatment of divorce and remarriage. Today, we tackle the controversial issue of homosexuality by asking Hays’ question: How is Scripture rightly to be employed in our deliberations about this matter?

Key Texts

Hays admits that the Bible rarely discusses homosexual behavior, but in both Old and New Testaments, the texts are “unambiguously and unremittingly negative in their judgment.”

  • Gen. 19:1-29: Hays believes the story of Sodom and Gomorroah is irrelevant to the topic because its focus is gang rape and other passages focus on the city’s pride and excess (Ezekiel 16:49).
  • Leviticus 18:22, 20:13: The holiness code explicitly prohibits male homosexual intercourse.
  • 1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim 1:10, Acts 15:28-29: The early church adopted the Old Testament’s teaching on sexual morality, including the prohibition of homosexuality.
  • Romans 1:18-32: Hays believes this to be the most crucial text for Christian ethics concerning homosexuality because it condemns homosexual behavior from a theological framework. In this context, it is an example of idolatry, an expression of humanity’s rejection of God’s design, and the consequence of God’s wrath.

Synthesis: Homosexuality in Canonical Context

Hays does not see diversity in the New Testament corpus, since the witness against homosexual practice is univocal. But how do we understand this prohibition within the larger canonical framework?

  • First, we note that God’s creative intention for human sexuality is the backdrop for New Testament teaching.
  • Secondly, the Bible describes our fallen human condition as being in “a state of self-affirming confusion” as a result of our bondage to sin.
  • Third, the Bible undercuts our cultural obsession with sexual fulfillment by “demythologizing sex.” Sexuality is never the basis for defining identity.

Next, Hays looks at the question through the three focal lenses:

Community: Sex is not a purely private affair, but something that concerns the church. To engage in sexual immorality defiles the body of Christ.

Cross: The cross models the way the church should respond to persons of homosexual inclination: not in condemnation but sacrificial service. The power of the cross means “no one in Christ is locked into the past or into a psychological or biological determinism.”

New Creation: Christians struggle to live faithfully in the present time. The transforming power of the Spirit is already present, and yet we live with the reality of temptation.

Hermeneutics: Responding to the New Testament’s Witness Against Homosexuality

Where do we go from here? How do we apply the New Testament texts to the issues of today, “as the church faces new and forceful demands for the acceptance and ordination of homosexuals?” Hays starts by showing how the New Testament speaks to the issue:

  • Rule: The New Testament affirms the witness of the Old, but does not clearly articulate a rule against homosexual practice.
  • Principle: The prohibition is part of what it means to honor God’s creative design and glorify Him with our bodies.
  • Paradigm: In the paradigmatic mode, the New Testament is emphatically and entirely negative.
  • Symbolic world: Homosexual activities are “explicitly and without qualification” identified as symptomatic of humanity’s rebellion against God.
  • Other Authorities: Tradition of the church has considered homosexuality as contrary to God’s will. Reason makes the case for sexual orientation that is unchangeable, but research is disputed, and even if a genetic link for same-sex preference were proven, it would not make homosexual behavior morally appropriate. Experience of homosexuality today may be different than in biblical times, but the Bible’s witness is clear.

Hays concludes:

“Marriage between man and woman is the normative form for human sexual fulfillment, and homosexuality is one among many tragic signs that we are a broken people, alienated from God’s loving purpose.”

Living the Text: The Church As Community Suffering with the Creation

  • Should the church support civil rights for homosexuals? Hays says yes.
  • Can homosexuals be members of the Christian church? Yes, they already are, but like all believers, they must reshape their identity in conformity with the gospel.
  • “Is it Christianly appropriate for Christians who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation to continue to participate in same-sex erotic activity?” No. Unless they enter a heterosexual marriage, they should seek disciplined sexual abstinence. “Sexual gratification is not a sacred right, and celibacy is not a fate worse than death.”
  • Should the church sanction and bless homosexual unions? No.
  • Is the imposition of celibacy on homosexually oriented persons different? No. Heterosexually oriented persons are also called to abstinence apart from marriage.
  • Should homosexuals expect to change their orientation? Hays gives an eschatological response of “already / not yet.” Unless we live with the hope of the Spirit’s transforming power “already” available, we are hoping for too little from God. Meanwhile, the “not yet looms” large and many may not experience freedom from this struggle in this life.
  • Should persons of homosexual orientation be ordained? Yes, if seeking to live a life of disciplined absence.

Some Personal Considerations: The opening of this chapter differs from the other in that Hays tells the story of his friend, Gary, a gay man who wrestled with the biblical teaching on sexuality and eventually came to the conclusion that he must renounce homosexual activity as part of his pursuit of Christ. Hays was wise to begin this chapter with a personal story. Too often, the perception of the church is that Christians are more concerned about having the right position on homosexuality than loving and serving our gay and lesbian friends and neighbors. By beginning and ending this chapter with reference to Gary, Hays reminds us that the discussion concerns people made in God’s image, people we are called to love and serve.

Hays’ chapter on homosexuality, recommended by N. T. Wright as the best brief treatment of the issue, puts forth a consistent ethic of sexuality that is based in God’s design, Scriptural support, and the tradition of the church. I have quibbles here and there: his brushing aside the sexual element of Sodom’s sin (referenced in Jude 7), and his blanket endorsement of “civil rights” without qualification. (Does supporting protections for gays and lesbians against unjust discrimination mean he would support the civil redefinition of marriage?)

Hays’ words of counsel for the church are based in love and Christ’s call to holiness, but it is hard to imagine how his vision would play out in real life unless one is part of a community that practices meaningful church discipline. Implementing his suggestions seems almost impossible apart from a biblically functioning church.

What do you think of Hays’ summary of New Testament teaching on this controversial issue? 


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3 thoughts on “Richard Hays and the New Testament’s Witness on Homosexuality”

  1. My first thoughts about this chapter were that Hays seemed a bit like a man trying to tiptoe through a flower bed. So careful to not disturb anything. Seeing that this was written in 1996 made me wonder. In the following 18 years this issue has become even more contentious. If he were writing today would he be as firm? or even more tiptoe-y?

    I have a few brief thoughts:

    1) I’m in general agreement with Hays conclusions and think they are pretty faithful. Especially impressed with him saying that sexual activity is a community affair. This is so important for Christians to latch onto these days.

    2) When Hays says Christians ought to seek civil rights for gay persons, I could agree or disagree but it depends on what he means. Should we seek to keep people from being arbitrarily fired from their jobs because of their gay lifestyle? Sure. Should we get out of the way of the quest for ‘gay marriage’ or even to advocate for it? Don’t think so.

    3) His denial that Sodom has anything to do with homosexual activity seems like a convenient dodge. It’s a gritty part of Scripture and attempts to soften it don’t really jive. Robert Gagnon has good treatments of that passage.

    4) Hays’ introduction of his friend Gary I appreciated. Usually the “I have a gay friend” card is a little lame but Hays uses it with purpose. These issues are far from abstract. Everyone in my congregation loves someone who is gay – either a family member or co-worker or friend. Every single person – I cannot think of one exception. I live in a country that has had ‘gay marriage’ for a while now. It’s personal. And we need to not just get the truth right but also the tone of how we are to communicate it.

    5) Finally, Hays grid of rule, principle, paradigm, symbolic world, other authority is especially helpful here. At first I balked when he suggested that there is no ‘rule’ against homosexual acts in the NT. But then I thought maybe he was right. The strength of the NT witness against homosexual acts is the symbolic world it portrays. When this is embraced I think it could be a good antidote to the “there’s just 5, 6, or 7 little texts against it’ crap that we often hear from affirming voices. One man-one woman, monogamous sexual expression is part of the warp and woof of the whole OT and NT (to borrow from NT Wright). If you mess with it, you tear the fabric of the whole. So I like Hays emphasis on the symbolic world.

    Trevin, thanks again for this series. I’ll try to be with you until the end!

  2. I appreciate Hays’ work in this chapter as the issue of homosexuality and the church is the issue that won’t go away. I appreciate, as noted, that Hays begins with an anecdote talking about his friend Gary. After all the “issue” we are facing theologically and pastorally boils down to people. Our response to the issue affects the lives of people and sadly, evangelicals have not had the best reputation for ministering to LGBT people with grace.

    Hays masterfully touches on the key exegetical, theological, and pastoral points in this chapter. I appreciate his handling of the key texts and I appreciate EVEN MORE his synthesis and theological approach to the issue. We do need to read the 5-7 texts regarding homosexuality carefully, but we can not press them too hard to address the particular modern issue of gay marriage. Yes, as Hays points out, the texts are all univocal: homosexual activity is outside the bounds for God-designed human sexuality. But none of these texts address the modern issue of committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. So while I appreciate Hays’ sound reading of the text, I appreciate his theological reasoning even more: homosexual activity is a rejection of God’s good creation.

  3. Daly says:

    One problem with Hays exegesis is that he mixes up his “symbolic” reading of scripture, his “typologies,” with his own social-contextual notion of God’s will. He offers a livable and pragmatic vision of scripture, but only given that you agree with his (not Paul’s) social vision. Hays is plainly an apologist for the many branches of Christianity that discriminate against homosexuality, and his chapter on Gary is at once quite sincere and disingenuous. It allows him to deal with grief by flaunting his Christian compassion and personal experience (on this he builds his ethical defense), while using the isolated case and testimony of Gary in a way that “proves,” albeit impressionistically, the stereotype he creates to describe a homosexual lifestyle. He offers quite a tragedy, in which, oddly, he feels no complicity. After all, the riotous gay culture of the 70’s and 80’s found its exuberance precisely in rebelling against oppression–take for instance the unjust discipline of chastity that Hays’ metes out to gay people, even while keeping sexual pleasure for himself. This is ironic.

    Hays essentially contradicts himself when he writes that– 1. Paul condemns no particular form of behavior as, in itself, idolatrous, and 2. homosexuality is, in itself, idolatrous. (See final paragraph of chapter). I therefore do not understand the accolades he receives when his position is based on this contradiction. I see rather that he debases the notion that people may exercise moral judgment in the pursuit of righteousness. This perhaps entails his own notion of the absolute depravity of human beings, though I would not think so, since he is so Wesleyan and perhaps takes seriously the idea of human moral perfection. I can’t help asking how Hays, in the moral baptism he grants his stereotype of the “homosexual lifestyle” (itself an obvious anachronism), can ignore that Paul tends to dissolve such stereotypes in the life of Christ. I would tend to think that Paul speaks from experience, referring to certain forms of homosexual practice. This surmise is as valid as Hays, and neither can be confirmed.

    In my search for biblical arguments against homosexuality, I have found Hays’ work not very convincing. I rather find it illogical and emotionally manipulative.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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