I've written lots of little posts on the issue of homosexuality. But I've managed, I think, to steer clear of being really clear about the legitimacy of same-sex marriage and same-sex eroticism. I've done well to keep the focus on the church--that the church might be a welcome place for gay people, that the gospel might be good news to gay people--and on the misconceptions people have about gay people and the Biblical argument. I have not, that I can remember, come out and specifically dealt with the variety of biblical passages which are associated with the conversation (if someone can find some posts where I do that, lemme know. Guess my blog is not as organized as I thought). So, even though I'd like t keep the focus on the church and even though I'd like to stand in the space between "sides" and build bridges wherever I can, I think it's about time I gave some thoughts on specific passages, specifically New Testament passages.
Prop 8: The Musical," from Funny or Die, where Jack Black comes out as Jesus (it's nice to see a chubby Jesus every once in a while) and John C. Reilly's character asks, "Jesus, doesn't the Bible say that these people [gay people] are an abomination?" And Black's response is, "yeah... but you know, it says the exact same thing about this shrimp cocktail" as he hold up a cocktail, compelling excitement from his listeners because it looks delicious. "mmmm. Shrimp Cocktail!" But Black, as Jesus, then says the classic line "Leviticus says shellfish is an abomination." And it's true. It seems that we do pick and choose which of the Levitical laws to take seriously. The Old Testament references are easier to shoot down because of their placement in the cannon and their drastic removal from our current context. It's relatively easy to show that Leviticus has different reasons for saying some things and to see that the transferable principals are rarely found in literal readings of propositional statements. It's also quite easy to show that Sodom and Gomorrah were not destroyed because of gay marriage.
I think the real battle ground is in the New Testament. The Liberals seem to be ignoring it and the conservatives are obsessed with it. It's the only place in the bible where the word "homosexuality" is actually used (in some English translations). It seems to even describe homosexuality in some places, not to mention that since it's post-Jesus, post-resurrection, there's no arguing that the cross solves the problem for us.
There are solid and responsible biblical arguments from the New Testament that oppose the ethical legitimacy of homosexuality. But I'd propose that there is also a solid biblical argument for it's ethical legitimacy in the New Testament. I at least would like to show that there's somewhat of a stalemate in the biblical argument. I think that one side has made it's point and I'd like to show that the other side has a point as well. A stalemate is a win in my book because when you reach a stalemate, it's better to choose love instead of hate. If both sides have an argument, then it's better to land not on one side or the other but on the side of the marginalized and the oppressed, in this case, on the side of our gay brothers and sisters.
Now on to Romans 1...Romans 1 might be the best starting point because it seems to be the most popular passage they throw into the ring when people are condemning homosexuality.
"In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error" (Romans 1:27).Is Paul describing homosexuality as a sin? It seems pretty straight forward at first... but so does "Let your women keep silence in the churches. They are not permitted to speak" (1 Corinthians 14:34). So what does a careful examination of the context reveal?
First of all, it must be noted that homosexuality is not the topic of focus in the passage as a whole. It's listed among other things but it is not the focus of discussion. The focus of discussion is the corruption of human existence in Pagan culture, primarily through cult worship and idolatry, as a foundation to point out the corruption in the Jewish religious culture as well... "You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things" (Romans 2:1)... a point which, perhaps, should be applied to this conversation as well.
It's important to note that some scholars posit that Paul is writing this letter from Corinth, which was, according to Tony Campolo,
"a Greek city whose dominant religion was the worship of Aphrodite. Aphrodite was a hermaphroditic deity whose worshipers--heterosexual men and women--acted as members of the opposite sex to experience the sexual side of their deity that differed from their own. According to this interpretation, in Romans 1 Paul is railing against idolatryand the obscene sexual practices that he was familiar with in Corinth; he was not condemning homosexuality per se" (Adventures in Missing the Point, page 185).This interpretation makes sense because Paul's major motif in Romans 1 up to that point was, in fact, idolatry. "They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator" (Romans 1:25). Campolo himself concedes to church history on this one but nevertheless, the legitimacy of this historical contextual interpretation stands as a challenge.
Paul's comments here, regardless of whether of not he's thinking about Aphrodite worship, are remarkably similar to those of some of his contemporaries. Some of those contemporaries worthy of note include Philo, Seneca and Dio Chrysostom. What's true about all of them is that they assumed that homosexual eroticism was a product of absolute insatiable lust and that it "necessarily involved one person's exploitation of another" (V.P. Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul, page 66.) Dio wrote this:
"the man whose appetite is insatiate in such things, when he finds there is no scarcity, no resistance, in this field [the field of sex with women], will have contempt for the easy conquest and scorn for a woman's love as a thing too readily given... and will turn his assult against the male quarters..." (Discourse VII, 151-152)He suggests, in other words, that gay men are the product of too much sex with women. They had so much sex with women that they needed a harder drug, so to speak, and chose to start having sex with men. Sound like the gay people you know today? Well, certainly some might fit a similar description, but hardly a percentage, hardly enough for us to project this description onto all homosexuals and onto homosexuality definitively. Yet that's what Dio did and that's what's likely in the back of Paul's mind as he wrote his description, for it resembles quite closely the sentiments represented in Dio's thought--"men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another." Also, listen to the subtle similarities between Paul and Philo here:
they threw off from their necks the law of nature and applied themselves to deep drinking of strong liquor and dainty feeding and forbidden forms of intercourse. Not only in their mad lust for women did they violate the marriages of their neighbors, but also men mounted males without respect for the sex nature which active partner shares with the passive..." (On Abraham 135-136)Subtle, yes, but the same sentiment is there, the same assumption that men gave into their lust so much that they ended up exploiting one another.
Since Paul does not himself "teach" on the topic of homosexuality, since it's never the focus of discussion for him, we must look to his contemporaries (even the ones who wrote after he wrote Romans, like Dio) to see what definitions were traveling through the culture, to possibly see what presuppositions may have been traveling through his mind when he used terms that imply or describe homosexuality. So the question is, is Paul talking about the same thing we're talking about?
Now some assume that Paul is making false assumptions about homosexuality. But take homosexuality out of the equation and what is Paul condemning? Exploitative sexual practices that result from the overly promiscuous lustful appetites of privileged individuals (privileged because sex would not have been nearly as accessible to poor Greeks who could not afford prostitutes and concubines) or idolatrous worship of a hermaphroditic deity. Well, that's not a fair definition of homosexuality at all, is it? I agree with the condemnation of those sorts of practices, sure! But is that homosexuality?
So what is homosexuality by the modern definition? Well, it refers to sexual orientation (a concept that Paul wouldn't have understood at all, nor would his contemporaries) or, if that terminology does not compute, it refers to sexual relationships between people of the same sex. It's important to note here that not every homosexual relationship is ethically legitimate or illegitimate on the basis of this definition alone. Essentially, it's ethically neutral. There are, I believe, both ethical and unethical homosexual relationships just as there are both ethical and unethical heterosexual relationships. But just as with heterosexuality, we do not need to say that the whole thing is vice just because of the specific unethical examples therein (if we did that, then procreation would be a sin).
At its ethical and biblical best, homosexuality (as with heterosexuality) describes a loving, monogamous, and Christ-centered relationship between two people of the same sex who's intimacy with one another is in proportion with their commitment to one another. Though we cannot fully assume that this ethical homosexuality would have been completely unfamiliar to Paul, it's obvious that this is not what Paul is describing here in Romans. It would be a mistake for Paul to apply his words to ethical homosexual relationships since lust and exploitation are not a part of them. Paul's definition here assumes insatiable lust and exploitation. It describes an exchange of one sexual practice for another, also not part of all homosexual relationships. Indeed, Paul is talking about a sort of homosexuality of which the core is superficial and idolatrous physical relationships. As such, Paul is not describing homosexuality as a whole. He is condemning a specifically unethical form of homosexuality of which the principals could also be applied to the condemnation of some heterosexual relationships. And as such, we should be able to echo his claims without conceding that homosexuality, as a whole, is a sin. Then we can move on to the main point of the passage, namely, that we who judge the ethics of such practices are guilty of the same things are thus equally in need of the love of God.