The Bible rarely addresses homosexuality, and all modern theological and ethical discussions of same-sex relationships are based roughly on six bible passages. In recent decades, theologians have recognized that these six verses are difficult to interpret, and many have questioned the traditional interpretations of them, and whether they apply to same-sex relationships today. However, in popular culture, these six verses are presumed to be clear and certain condemnations of all forms of homosexuality, and are now known as clobber verses because these same six verses are frequently cited at anyone who is gay, lesbian, in a same-sex relationship, or anyone who supports the LGBTQ+ community to condemn them. In clarification, I will not be doing material criticism (i.e. sachkritik) of these verses at this time, or establishing a sexual ethic, but instead this will be an apophatic attempt to show that these verses only become clobber verses after they have been grossly misinterpreted and carelessly generalized. In this post, I will take a closer look at these six clobber verses and explain why these verses are not clobber verses after all, and do not support bible thumping at all!
The Six Clobber Verses
|1.||Sodom & Gomorrah||Genesis 19:1-38|
|2.||Levitical Laws||Leviticus 18:22; 20:13|
|3.||Pederasty in Corinth||1 Corinthians 6:9-11|
|4.||Pederasty in Ephesus||1 Timothy 1:9-10|
|5.||Strange Flesh||Jude 6-7|
|6.||Cult Prostitution||Romans 1:25-27|
(*Note: The number of "clobber verses" and supporting scripture references may vary)
Clobber Verse #1. Sodom & Gomorrah (Genesis 19)
The first clobber verse is the Sodom and Gomorrah story (Genesis 19), and occasionally the parallel Gibeah story (Judges 19) is referenced in conjunction to it. When reduced to a clobber verse, the Sodom and Gomorrah story is interpreted as a single prohibition against all forms of homosexuality without distinction, but that ethical conclusion is not made anywhere in this biblical text. In fact, Genesis 19 does not provide a vice list or define any sexual ethics at all, and if the homosexual elements were removed, the stories would hardly change.
So what were the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah? The Old Testament answers this question in Ezekiel 16:49-50 without any direct reference to same-sex relationships: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it" (Ezekiel 16:49-50 NRSV, italics added). Theologians summarize this vice list as sins of inhospitality, and therefore interpret the story as the most egregious form of inhospitality (exemplified by the gang-rape and violence throughout it). The phrase "abominable things" is a gloss referring to the vice list in the previous verse (Ez 16:49), that follows the familiar pattern of "you shall not do x, for x is an abomination" used throughout the Old Testament, and therefore it cannot be explained as a gloss for any homosexual acts: For instance, this passage may be summarized as "you may not commit the sin of inhospitality, for it is an abomination." So homosexuality—especially consensual same-sex relationships—are not prohibited by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Ironically, if anything is inhospitable, it is using clobber verses to bible thump people.
Prof. Richard Hays explains in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, why the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is ultimately irrelevant to the ethics of homosexuality today (especially in regards to consensual same-sex relationships):
Richard Hays writes, "The notorious story of Sodom and Gomorrah—often cited in connection with homosexuality—is actually irrelevant to the topic. The 'men of Sodom' come pounding on Lot's door, apparently with the intentions of gang-raping Lot's two visitors—who, as we readers know, are actually angels. The angels rescue Lot and his family and pronounce destruction on the city. The gang-rape scenario exemplifies the wickedness of the city, but there is nothing in the passage pertinent to a judgement about the morality of consensual homosexual intercourse. Indeed, there is nothing in the rest of the biblical tradition, save an obscure reference in Jude 7, to suggest that the sin of Sodom was particularly identified with sexual misconduct of any kind. In fact, the clearest statement about the sin of Sodom is to be found in an oracle of the prophet Ezekiel: 'This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezek 16:49).'" 
Clobber Verse #2. Levitical Law (Lev 18:22; 20:13)
Leviticus 18:22 (also repeated in Lev 20:13) may be the only direct reference to a homosexual act in the Old Testament. The Levitical Law says when "a man lies with a male as with a woman" it is an abomination; the law does not discuss lesbians or other forms of homosexuality. There's also considerable debate on what specific sexual acts are described by the original Hebrew words (and the Greek translations), but some forms of homosexual acts are prohibited by this verse. Scholars are divided whether these two verses referred to sexual acts performed as religion cultic acts by surrounding pagan nations, or other forms of cultic or temple prostitution that was common place in the Ancient Near East. So again, these verses should not be carelessly generalized (pace. John Boswell) as a sweeping condemnation of all forms of same-sex relationships today.
Even if this verse is correctly interpreted to prohibit some forms of male same-sex relationships, this prohibition is not immediately binding on Christians today, due to the complex question of how the Levitical Laws, Mosaic Law and Old Testament applies to the Christian Church today (c.f. Karl Barth's "Gospel is Law"). Leviticus 18 and 20 provide a list of "abominations" that had a specific purpose of separating the Israelites from the surrounding nations and their respective cult practices, but their purpose wasn't to establish a timeless ethic that is binding on Christians. The Jerusalem Council (c.f Act 15) determined that Gentile Christians were not required to follow the Jewish Law, and didn't require Gentiles to be circumcised, which was the most important sign of Israelite separation from surrounding nations. Therefore, this clobber verse does not provide grounds for establishing a positive or negative ethic for same-sex relationships today.
James Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, is possible the most famous (and infamous) analysis of Leviticus 18:22; 20:1, and references to Boswell are ubiquitous, and the following is a quotation from this book provide a helpful explanation of Leviticus 18:22; 20:13.
John Boswell writes, "The only place in the Old Testament where homosexual acts per se are mentioned is Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 . . . The Hebrew word . . . translated "abomination" , does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft (discussed elsewhere in Leviticus), but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are prohibited in these same chapters. . . . Chapter 20 begins with the prohibition of sexual idolatry almost identical with this, and like 18, its manifest (and stated Lev 20:3-4) purpose is to elaborate a system of ritual "cleanliness" whereby the Jews will be distinguished from neighboring peoples. Although both chapters also contain prohibitions (e.g. against incest and adultery) which might seem to stem from moral absolutes, their function in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20 seems to be as symbols of Jewish distinctiveness. This was certainly the interpretation given them by later Jewish commentaries, for example, that of Maimonides."
Clobber Verse #3. Pederasty in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
Perhaps 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is the first verse discussed so far that prohibits certain homosexual behavior. This verse is translated in many ways, in english bible translations, and even the more literal translations deficiently renders this vice list "oute moichoi oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai" as "nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals" (NASB). Most scholars leave these terms untranslated as malakoi and arsenokoitai, to avoid misunderstanding them due to the challenge of translating these terms, especially since the second term is basically an hapax legomena first used by Paul (and likely invented by him). Some theologians (pace. John Boswell) argue that these terms do not refer to homosexuality at all, since malakoi means 'soft' or 'passive' and arsenokoitai means 'men who have intercourse', and at the other extreme the words are generalized to reject all effeminate and homosexual behavior respectively (to justify hypermasculinity).
The interpretation that has the best explaining power, is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is a vice list, and that malakoi and arsenokoitai refer to the passive and active partners in pederasty, as commonly practiced in the New Testament era. Vice lists are common in the New Testament, and provide a list of practice examples of how a ethical teaching is violated that would be familiar to the intended audience. Since this vice list was written to Gentile Christians in Corinth, these dual terms would be recognized as a description of pederasty, which was commonly practiced in Corinth; and this is why Greek lexicons define malakoi as a 'catamite' and arsenokoitai as a 'pederast', respectively. The most common known examples of pederasty were Romans officers and officials (pederasts) who purchased boy slaves (catamites) for sexual intercourse, and the boys were often procured through temple prostitution, and these officials kept them as personal sex slaves, somewhat like sex trafficking today. For instance, the Centurion's relationship to his beloved sick boy slave (Luke 7:1-11; Matt 8:5-13) is often identified as a pederasty relationship, and this is an important connection, due to the grace that Jesus extended to the Centurian (pederast) and his young boy slave whom he loved (catamite) (c.f. Luke 7:6).
Richard Hays and other scholars argue that these dual terms may include more than pederasty, because the word arsenokoitai resembles the Greek Septuagint's translation of Leviticus 20:13 and includes the two terms "aresenos koitan" which look similar to "arsenokoitai" (c.f. 1 Cor 6:9), and although this is a convincing point to some scholars, others argue that it is a coincidence of common words in a vague phrase, and therefore it is a speculative connection; the term arsenokoitai is vague and used for different behaviors, for instance, it is used by John Faster (6th c.) to prohibit a husband from having anal sex with his wife. So it is difficult to say whether 1 Cor 6:9-11 refers to homosexuality at all, due to the obscurity of the words malakoi and arsenokoitai, and if any particular homosexual prohibition is made in it, then it is most likely prohibiting both passive (catamite) and active (pederast) partners from practicing pederasty, and therefore a general prohibition of all forms of homosexuality cannot be clearly or certainly proven by this text alone.
Gordon Fee, in his commentary on First Corinthians, argues for the traditionalist inclusive position, but he admits that 1 Cor 6:9-11 is a vice list that is subjectively interpreted, and it is difficult to concretely define, due to the obscurity of the words in the Biblical text.
Gordon Fee writes, "The first word, malakoi, has the basic meaning of 'soft'; but it also became a pejorative epithet for men who were 'soft' or 'effeminate,' most likely referring to the younger, 'passive' partner in a pederastic relationship—the most common form of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world. In many instances young men sold themselves as 'mistresses' for the sexual pleasure of men older than themselves. The problem is that there was a technical word for such men, and malakos is seldom, if ever, used. Since it is not the ordinary word for such homosexual behavior, one cannot be sure what it means in a list like this, where there is no further context to help. What is certain is that it refers to behavior of some kind, not simply to an attitude or characteristic.
What makes 'male prostitute' (in the sense of 'effeminate call-boy') the best guess is that it is immediately followed by a word that does seem to refer to male homosexuality, especially the active partner. This word (arsenokoitai), however, is also difficult. This is its first appearance in preserved literature, and subsequent authors are reluctant to use it, especially when describing homosexuality. The word is a compound of 'male' and 'intercourse.' There is no question as to the meaning of the koitai part of the word; it is vulgar slang for 'intercourse' (which probably accounts for its seldom being found in the literature). What is not certain whether 'male' is subject (= 'males who have intercourse'; thus a word for male prostitutes of all kinds) or object (= 'intercourse with males'; therefore male homosexual). In light of these ambiguities, Boswell has argued that neither word can be certainly made to denote homosexuality. His argument, however, seems to be a case of 'divide and conquer.' What may be true of the words individually is one thing. But here they are not individual; they appear side by side in a vice list that is heavily weighted towards sexual sins. Although one cannot be certain . . ." 
Clobber Verse #4. Pederasty in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:10)
1 Timothy 1:10 contains a vice list that is very similar to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (c.f. Clobber Verse #4) that begins with the phrase "pornois arsenokoitais andrapodistais" that is translated as "fornicators, sodomites, slave traders" (NRSV) and in other significantly different ways in other bible translations. In Clobber Verse #3, I explained how the rare term arsenokoitais most likely referred to a pederast, and this is confirmed by 1 Timothy 1:10 by its place between pornois, and andrapodistais, because lexicons define pornois as male prostitutes and most bible translations define andrapodistais as slave traders. If 1 Corinthians 6:9 prohibits both catamite and pederast activity, then 1 Timothy 1:10 expands this prohibition to condemn the entire sex slave trade industry, by condemning those who enslave catamites to sells them to pederasts too. Potentially this verse may be generalized to condemn the sex trafficking today, but any general condemnation of all homosexual activity (especially consensual, monogamous same-sex relationships) are not discussed in this vice list. The author of 1 Timothy is repeating to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus in more specific terms, which was already written to Corinth (perhaps because the sale of catamites to pederasts was more prevalent in Ephesus than Corinth.)
Stanley Grenz writes, "there is a lack of consensus as to whether the references are to specific acts or are more general in scope. Many exegetes gravitate to the possibility that Paul was only speaking against 'youthful callboys and their customers.' [e.g. Gerald D. Coleman; Joseph J. Kotva] For example, Robin Scroggs asserted that in 1 Timothy 1:10 pronos is juxtaposed to arsenokoites in a manner similar to malakos in 1 Corinthians [6:9]. Drawing from what he saw as the normal Greek use of pornos as 'prostitute'—whether one who sells himself or who is a slave in the brothel house—and linking all three terms together, he offered the translation: 'males who lie with them and slave dealers who procured them." 
Clobber Verse #5. Strange Flesh (Jude 6-7)
Jude 6-7 (c.f. 2 Peter 2:6-8) may be the least used clobber verse, because it is the most obscure and makes no direct reference to homosexuality, and even scholars who are opposed to homosexuality admit that this verse is irrelevant to the same-sex relationship ethics. Jude 6-7 only becomes a clobber verse, when there is a presupposition that Sodom and Gomorrah was specifically a prohibition against same-sex relationships (c.f. Clobber Verse #1). Jude 7 refers to "unnatural lust" (RSV), but this may be literally translated as "other flesh" or "strange flesh" and in connection to the angels mentioned in Jude 7, this is best explained as a reference to the angels who had sexual relations with humans in Genesis 6:1-4, in concert with the people who desired to have sexual relations with Lot's angelic guests.
Jack Rogers, in his book Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality, provided an excellent summary of Jude 6-7 that explains why these texts are irrelevant to same-sex relationship ethics today.
Jack Rogers writes, "The Letter of Jude is the only book of the Bible that relates the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah to "sexual immorality." . . . In Genesis 6:1-4 angels ("sons of God") are described as coming down to earth to have sex with human women ("daughters of humans"). When Jude 6 refers to "angels who did not keep their own positions," it is believed by most scholars that he is referring to events in Genesis 6:1-4. In Genesis 19:1-29 Lot's guests are also described as angels. Jude 7 draws a parrallel between the "unnatural lust" of angels who wanted to have sex with human women (Gen 6:1-4) and the men of Sodom who wanted to have sex with (male) angels (Gen 19). Jude writes that for their transgressions the Lord has kept the angels "in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great day" (Jude 6). Likewise, the men of Sodom suffered "a punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7). . . . to make the leap that this text somehow condemns present-day Christians who are homosexuals strikes me as bizarre. . . . we discover a significant body of scholarship that concludes that these texts have no direct application to faithful, God-loving, twenty-first-century Christians who are homosexual. . . . this scholarly consensus includes many people who have traditionally opposed equal rights for people who are homosexual, such as scholars Richard Hays and Marion Soards." 
(Insisting that this clobber verse is prohibiting same-sex relationships today, may be a defensive tactic, or stemmed from a fear of a slippery slope, such that if Jude 7 proves not to condemn same-sex relationships, then all the other clobber verses would lose their force to condemn homosexuality—such a fallacious argument is not helpful in understanding any of the Biblical texts.)
Clobber Verse #6. Cult Prostitution (Romans 1:25-27)
Ultimately, the entire debate over same-sex relationship ethics today, comes down to interpreting Romans 1:25-27 within the broader context of Romans 1:18-32, and therefore Romans 1 is the biblical linchpin for all same-sex relationship ethics. In Romans 1:20, Paul builds his argument upon the "divine nature" (theiotes), which has been wrongly used (as a clobber verse) to make a Natural Revelation argument against homosexuality, that suggests that homosexuality is wrong because it is contrary to the natural order of the world, especially in the animal kingdom. Again, theiotes is yet another hapax legomena that is used only once in the bible, so as all good Barthians acknowledge, the error of Natural Revelation is not supported by this or any other scripture, so any ethic established on an appeal to Natural Revelation, such as this, should be rejected. Nevertheless, evangelical scholars wrongly make appeals to natural revelation to oppose same-sex relationships. For example, Jack Rogers laments Robert Gagnon's misguided appeal to Natural Revelation to oppose homosexuality as follows:
Jack Rogers writes, "The irony is that Gagnon doesn't seem to need the Bible because, he argues, everything the Bible says about homosexuality comes initially from the observation of nature. In fact, in the conclusion to his book, Gagnon actually says what many heterosexual people believe: 'Acceptance of biblical revelation is thus not a prerequisite for rejecting the legitimacy of same-sex intercourse.' So where does he believe the constraints against homosexual behavior are found? As it turns out, behind all the ancient sources, including biblical sources, according to Gagnon, is 'the simple recognition of a 'fittedness' of the sex organs, male to female.' He goes on to say that the Old Testament Holiness Code 'was responding to the conviction that same-sex intercourse was fundamentally incompatible with the creation of men and women as anatomically complementary sexual beings.' He also refers to 'Paul's own reasoning, grounded in divinely-given clues in nature.' In each of these statements, Gagnon gives priority to nature over revelation." 
Now that it has been shown that appeals to Natural Revelation are invalid arguments against same-sex relationship ethics, the challenge of interpreting this biblical text still remains.
Richard Hays writes, "Romans 1:18-32: The most crucial text for Christian ethics concerning homosexuality remains Romans 1, because this is the only passage in the New Testament that explains the condemnation of homosexual behavior in an explicitly theological context . . . (Rom 1:24-27). (This is, incidentally, the only passage in the Bible that refers to lesbian sexual relations.) Because the passage is often cited and frequently misunderstood, a careful examination of its place in Paul's argument is necessary." 
So the particular challenge of Romans 1:24-27, is that includes female same-sex behavior (for the first and only time in the entire Bible), that traditionalists have interpreted as a prohibition of all forms of homosexuality. The comparison of lesbian same-sex behavior to male same-sex behavior, suggests that Paul had a certain behavior in mind, and it would not be right to generalize it to include all forms, because practices like pederasty were generally not practiced by women (or extremely rarely). My best guess is that this vice refers to cult prostitution known to the Roman Church, similar to the other instances of cult practice discussed previously in this post. Precisely what forms of homosexuality are prohibited by Romans 1 beyond cult practices is inconclusive, and requires further discussion. I don't have a final answer on the ethics of same-sex relationships, but I do believe that Romans 1 is the linchpin, and the center for debate, if any one verse is central, but further discussion is needed. I don't see how this verse may be construed to refer to same-sex relationships, especially in consensual and monogamous context, such as same-sex marriage today.
Appendix on Genesis 1-3: A Seventh Clobber Verse?
Genesis 1-3 (in conjunction with Matthew 19:1-11) is sometimes referred to as a seventh clobber verse, even though these verses do not discuss homosexuality at all. Similar to Romans 1, when an erroneous appeal to Natural Revelation is made, to justify a gender mythology, that teaches that there is a timeless creation ordinance of two genders throughout nature from the very beginning, that is normative to this day. A popular example of this error of Natural Revelation is in John Piper and Wayne Grudem's argument for complementarian schema for a two gender mythology, that is made to oppose same-sex relationships as well as same-sex-marriage. I disagree that this is the correct way to interpret Genesis 1-3 or Matthew 19.
David Congdon, in his book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology, provides a helpful explanation why the Creation stories may not be used to establish a timeless ethic, that may be used as a clobber verse against homosexuals today:
David Congdon writes, "John Piper thus declares: 'When the Bible teaches that men and women fulfill different roles in relation to each other, charging man with a unique leadership role, it bases this differentiation not on temporary cultural norms but on permanent facts of creation.' See John Piper and Wayne A. Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991; reprint 2006), 35; emphasis added. Piper here advocates what we might call a 'natural theology of gender,' or to use Bultmann's terminology, a 'gender mythology.' Piper's claim that certain features of culture are actually permanent elements of creation itself is reminiscent of Thielicke's claim that certain mythical concepts are timelessly valid as the 'crib' within which God chose to dwell in the incarnation. Piper seeks to objectify a certain gender hierarchy by finding an acultural zone free from contingencies of history. Such a zone does not exist, however, and what he calls 'permanent facts of creation' is simply the constantinian essentialization of particular cultural norms under the fabricated guise of a doctrine of creation. Something analogous take place among the 'new natural law' theorists who use appeals to an acultural and timeless 'nature' as a way of stabilizing and objectifying certain moral precepts. All this is merely an attempt to justify one's own cultural assumptions—that is, to engage in an act of self-justification according to the law rather than the gospel—by securing a certain understanding of the kerygma. In other words, the contemporary culture wars are simply 'hermeneutical wars,' and as hermeneutical wars they are in fact 'missiological wars.' What is finally at stake in these culture wars is the question whether the church is truly and without reserve a missionary church." 
After a closer analysis of these six clobber verses, none of these verses definitely demonstrate that all forms of homosexuality are unethical or unholy, and none of them may be quoted as a clear and certain proof-text for condemning same-sex relationships today, especially consensual and monogamous ones such as in same-sex marriage. I believe a biblical ethic is possible, but my apophatic goal is to discourage people from weaponizing scripture into so-called clobber verses to bible thump anyone who disagrees with their ethical conclusions. If any practice is definitely unethical, it is carelessly citing these six clobber verses at gays, lesbians or anyone who supports the LGBTQ+ in order to condemn them by bible-thumping. My goal in discussing these clobber verses, is to provide explanations why none of the scriptures may be used to clobber anyone, and to encourage people who carelessly generalize them against all forms of homosexuality, to look closer at the biblical texts, and listen more carefully by scholars on both sides of the debate, and be willing to change ones mind when faced with biblical truth. Disarming the clobber verses (or clobber passages) allows us to see same-sex relationships is a diaphora, so that we may learn to love one-another, even if we disagree on difficult ethical problems). Remember that salvation is by faith alone, so anyone who says that salvation is by faith plus anything (even heterosexuality) is speaking heresy. I agree with Stanley Grenz, that if one ultimately sides with the traditionalists in opposing same-sex relationships, one must still be welcoming to the LGBTQ+ individuals in the Christian Church, even if one is not open and affirming of any same-sex relationships.
1. Hays, Richard B. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: a Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics, T & T Clark, 2003, p. 381.
2. Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, The University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp. 100–101.
3. Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2014, pp. 243-4
4. Grenz, Stanley J. Welcoming but Not Affirming: an Evangelical Response to Homosexuality, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, p. 58.
5. Rogers, Jack. Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. p. 72.
6. Ibid. 78.
7. Congdon, David W. The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology. Fortress Press, 2015. p. 684
8. Richard Hays. Ibid. pp. 383-4.
Related: bible, clobber passages, clobber verses, David Congdon, gay, Gordon Fee, Homosexuality, Jack Rogers, John Boswell, lesbian, lgbq, lgbt, lgbtq, Richard Hays, same-sex relationships, Stanley Grenz