The Bible and Homosexuality: Romans 1

This series currently includes three more posts... (2, 3, 4)

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.

But first, a thought on the Old Testament. Too many people who are arguing for the legitimacy of homosexual relationships are going straight to the Old Testament and staying there. I think it's because it's an easy whipping boy. I'm reminded of "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.


Jonathan Tzedaqyal said…
Hi, just saw you on Twitter, thanks. You write well, you're columnist? I have also dived into the Bible recently. Especially the so-called "clobber passages". Interesting, not to say fun to hear all opinions, both religious people as well as from more secular people of what the Bible says or not says about homosexuality. I started my journey with a completely different approach; what the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) says about the promises about Jesus... think I have been with Jews For Judaism to long, he, he. But, as a gay myself (not a big deal, really), I started to look for these mysterious Clobber Passages. It was a new concept for me, so I had to make a little research on that too. Well, I read Greek in High school, so when I became a Christian in 1980 (Pentecostal), I read the New Testament and soon realized that the preachers back home used the Bibel as a drunk uses a lamp-post; not so much for illumination, but as a support! I later learned Hebrew, sonow I can follow the Jewish Bible (O.T) too.

Make an experiment!

The word "homosexuals" is interesting while using Bible app from YouVersion©. I found that word literally speaking in 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 (NASB translation). The strange thing is that when you make a search in the Bible app, you even run into a bunch of verses that does not mention this word explicitly; from N.T: Matt. 19:5, James 4:12, Jude v7.

O.T:  Lev. 18:22, 20:13, Deut. 22:5. The last one is about hm... "transvestites" and "drag queens"?? So, you see, it's funny that Bible App knowingly place an "implicit" thought in the verses which is not so crystal clear. That is an old Judean-Christian concept. What we know, hoverever, is that neither the Christian nor the Jewish Bible speaks of homosexuality, this concept was unknown for the people of the Bible. And the opposite situation; the other side of the "agenda" tries to find supporting verses. They would love to see gay affirmative verses in the Bible, such as the story of David and Jonathan, or the story of Ruth and Naomi. It sounds so beautiful, but unfortunately it's a hasty conclusion.

So to the sources; Tanach, the Jewish Bible. According to orthodox Judaism, the Levitical texts are really carved in stone, they have an eternal legitimacy, but modern conservative and liberal Jewishness have a lighter view on the topic. One thing is for sure; The Bible does not subject homosexuality, but that all loving relationships demand a certain order, to be performed in a righteous way. Note that the Levitical verses from chapter 18 and 20 is not about moral and ethics, but are included in the Holiness Laws.

To be holy was very important for the Jewish people just days away from the promised land. "You shall be holy, because I am holy". They were about to enter into an area where the people used an unrighteous sacrificial system, a bad copy of a right way to make sacrifices, and to the wrong god too! The surrounding peoples performed explicit sexually sacrificies, and there were even peoples that also used to sacrifice their own children to Molech. If we read the Levitical texts in context, well, that's so interesting! Finally, later rabbinic thinkers in the past did not consider homosexuality a Jewish behavior problem.
Read more on Bible "thumb verse" picking on Twitter @Tzedaqyal.
\ Jonathan
wellis68 said…
Thanks for the comment Jonathan :-)
Jeff D said…
Wes, this is a very interesting post, but the reference is Dio Chrysostom as an influence on Paul is pretty off base. The dating of Romans is, at the latest, mid-60s as it is indisputably Pauline. Dio didn't write his discourses until Trajan was Caesar, which is almost to the second century. Dio more likely would have been borrowing from Paul rather than the other way around. It also appears that Dio is using Paul as a launching pad, adding his own specific commentary to Paul's more broad condemnation of homosexuality. Keep in mind, too that even if the discourses had been written during Paul's time, they would have been very new, most likely un-circulated volumes that would not have gained much traction by the time of Paul's death (Dio would have only been 26 at the time of Paul's approximate death).

There's a larger argument here that Paul is basing on the creative order. The language (in Greek) alludes to the Septuagint words of creation throughout Romans 1. There is also evidence (from vases and other writings) that monogamous homosexual relationships were, in fact, present during Paul's time, and while they may not have been prevalent or even the norm, Paul would have been aware of them. Richard Hays has an excellent synopsis on Romans 1 in his "Moral Vision of the New Testament" and N. T. Wright, while not writing anything, has spoken on the subject as well and finds it difficult to say that Paul would not have been aware of monogamous homosexual relationships and seems to indicate that this would have been on Paul's mind as well in writing Romans 1.

I've heard the arguments from both sides, and Ockham's Razor consistently leads me to believe that the simplest interpretation of Romans 1 is most accurate: Paul is broadly condemning homosexuality, not some subset or offshoot practice. More specifically, he seems to be condemning the act of homosexuality regardless of orientation. It doesn't seem to matter to Paul in what context the act is happening; the act itself is inappropriate. Every other interpretation I've seen requires so much hoop jumping and gymnastics that it doesn't hold up to scrutiny (in my mind anyway). Now, Christians have handled this issue horribly, particularly in recent history. I believe we are called to love everyone, to accept everyone, and to understand that it is God's job to judge, to change, to direct, and lead. We are simply witnesses of God's love, pointing back to Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. When I see it in that perspective, peripheral issues like this (and I really believe theologically it is since the Bible doesn't devote much time at all while the theme of God sending his witnesses is practically omnipresent throughout Scripture) fall to the wayside.
wellis68 said…
Good note on Dio. I should not have implied that Dio was influencing Paul but their correspondence, along with others who were writing in roughly the same time period , seems to me to be our best evidence for what Paul may have had in mind... a particularly unethical form of homosexuality.

I have written in the past on Wright's view on this and, as I mentioned, there's no issue here in Romans 1 if Paul was familiar with monogamous, Christian homosexual relationships. It would still be a mistake for him to apply this description in Romans 1 to those sorts of ethical homosexual relationships. I don't think that's what he's doing. I've also read Hayes and he's definitely the most convincing on that side. Like I said, the other side has made its case.

I don't think that this is anymore hoop jumping than what is required to get out of the would-be sexist texts about women being silent in church and so-on. Yes, there is necessary exegetical work to be done, but that doesn't mean it's gymnastics. Ockham's Razor takes me the other direction...if the Bible's obsession with love and justice for the marginalized and oppressed is added to the evidence, then, since both sides have made their case, it seems simple for me to conclude that I should stand on the side of gay people who have been marginalized in our culture, especially by the church.

Ockham's Razor, when I see Christian gay couples who love one another and love Jesus and have been faithful to one another, tells me that their relationship is ethical. i'd have to jump through hoops to show that they're "living in sin."
Danny said…
I would be interested to read a book on Roman temple practices in a book that is something like "Christians as the Romans saw Them," but about the way that Romans viewed their own sexual practices so that we can have some view of how the Romans viewed themselves (as this is often more telling than an outside polemic of such a practice).

Any way that we slice it, as you note in the post, too much focus on the practice itself over people becomes a problem.
Unknown said…
Great thoughts Wes. Though I am on the "other side", I would concede that homosexuals have been victims all too often of marginalization. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and scholarship. I do not agree with your assumption that anyone who believes the practice (same sex acts) is wrong is necessarily hating. That implies, quite frankly, that you know the heart of individuals and that permissible equates beneficial. I would not spend great length defending my love and experience in the homosexual community (both Christian and non-Christian). I would say that my belief on what is beneficial, though contrary to born desires, does not mean I or others have chosen to hate. We all believe and teach things that are wrong in God's sight. We all are, in some measure, going to be guilty of heresy. But we dare not tread on assuming people's hearts. Then any who disagree might be enemies. You and I, however, remain brothers because of our refusal to do this. Grace and peace to you.