As I mentioned earlier, this Wednesday I finally finished my Forum series at church on Homosexuality and the Church. This forum gave me an opportunity to revisit and re-explore some of the issues I raised about a year ago (Dec. 6, 2005 - exactly one year to the day before I concluded my series at church) in my mammoth post, The Culture War and Homosexuality: A Different Sort of Quagmire.
While I am still quite pleased with that post, finding it to be a thorough exploration of the moral, theological, and scriptural issues related to how Christians should view the phenomenon of same sex attraction, I was in hindsight a little bit disappointed in the brief exegetes of various New Testament passages.
There are basically four New Testament verses/passages which have historically been used to condemn homosexuality. Each of these four verses comes from the Epistles, and three of the four have been attributed to Paul. They are, in order of appearance:
I Corinthians 6:9-10
I Timothy 1:9-10, and
Because the final three selections are so weak, I essentially did not deal with them in my original piece. In fact, I ignored Jude 7 altogether as it seemed clear to me (for reasons I'll get into in a moment) that it could not be seriously applied to homosexuality as we understand it today. Of I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-10, I said only this:
The only other passages from Paul, and as such the only other passages in the Bible, which appear to deal with homosexuality are found in I Corinthians 6:9 (in a list of types of people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven) and I Timothy 1:10. In both cases the best translation of the word which is often translated as something like “homosexuals” is unclear. There is, however, no reason other than prejudice to believe that the obscure Greek word in question amounts to a Biblical condemnation of all homosexuals, or even homosexual acts.
Today I'll say a bit more about these verses before I briefly mention the verse I omitted altogether last time. Then I'll conclude with a much more thorough exegesis of Romans 1:26-27, as I am no longer completely satisfied with the treatment I gave it last year.
I Corinthians 6:9-10 reads in the NRSV:
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.
Similarly, I Timothy 1:9-10 reads:
This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching.
Each of these passages offers us basically a list of "sins," of behavior contrary to "sound teaching" and which thus places one outside the kingdom of God. In each of these passages a group called "sodomites" stand among the condemned. Before we explore whether or not this group can be equated with the monogamous homosexual couple seeking full inclusion in the church and society as a whole we should first note that, even if they can be equated with that loving, committed couple, they do not stand uniquely condemned. In fact, despite our tendency to set sexual sinners in general and gays and lesbians in particular up as a special class of sinner, these "sodomites" have good company in both passages.
Like a good Pharisee, Paul sees "the Law" as a cohesive whole. If you violate any part of it you have violated the whole thing. It doesn't matter what part of the Law you've broken. If you break any of it, you stand as condemned as anyone else who's broken it. This is one of the many reasons why grace is so important for him. As all of us stand condemned by the Law, having at some point broken some part of it and as such standing perpetually in condemnation, grace is our only hope.
So, for Paul, "the greedy" stand in every bit as much judgment as the "sodomites," whoever those "sodomites" are. So, if you've ever wanted something that wasn't yours, or if you've ever under any circumstances told a lie, you stand as condemned as the murderers, thieves and rapists mentioned here. These lists, then, instead of setting up certain groups as uniquely sinful, instead remind us of the universality of sin. Those groups mentioned in them serve to remind us that all stand in condemnation, in need of grace. We should not read these lists looking to find in them some group more deviant than ourselves who reflect God's judgment away from us. Rather we should see that, in some way, these lists include us, reinforcing in us our fundamental need of God's grace.
That said, can these "sodomites" really be compared to those in the homosexual relationships which so trouble the church today? In her essay What the Bible Says, or Doesn't Say, About Homosexuality, Rev. Dr. Lisa W. Davison writes:
The word translated in both passages as, "sodomites," is the Greek word, arsenokoitai, which is hard to translate. Linguistically the word possibly means "male beds." It is most often used to mean "male prostitute."
According to Davison, this difficult word reflects Paul's concern with "pagan religious practices," which often employed male prostitutes, rather than with "a relationship between consenting adults, whose attraction is to someone of their same sex."
Jude 7, which clearly condemns the "sexual immorality" of "Sodom and Gomorrah", reads (in the NRSV):
Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
The view that this relatively obscure verse stands as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality as it is understood today rests on a very bad interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And since I dealt with that story in last year's piece, I thought that it would be redundant to attack that interpretation of Jude 7. Here is what I had to say about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah:
Genesis 19:1-11 describes the sin committed by the men of Sodom, which is often understood to be homosexuality. It is from this passage that we get the word “sodomy.” Yet sodomy, ironically, does not describe the sin of Sodom. Sodom was not condemned for homosexuality. Sure, the men of Sodom tried to take two of Lot’s male guests for sex acts, but their intention was certainly not to be sexual partners with them. “Partners” implies a kind of equality, like what is seen in good, loving, sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. The intention of the men of Sodom was gang rape.
And, alas, it was not the gang rape which was condemned. After all, Lot offered to allow the mob to gang rape his daughters and is still considered righteous. No, the people of Sodom are condemned for their failure to observe the laws of hospitality of the Middle East. Because the men (or angels in the guise of men, though it is unclear what is meant by "angel" here) were Lot’s guests, they were also guests of the community. As such they fell under both the protection of Lot and the protection of all of Sodom. The men of Sodom, in their attempt to kidnap and ritually gang rape Lot’s guests, failed to live up to the divine law concerning how you treat guests. There is absolutely nothing in this story to indicate how we should view homosexuality. Of course, even if there were something about homosexuality in this story, would we want to learn sexual ethics from a story which allows its hero to offer up his daughters to a mob bent on gang rape?
The phrase "sexual immorality" covered as broad a topic in the time of the writing of Jude as it does today, and the only clue we have as to what it might mean here is the connection with Sodom and Gomorrah. As it is clear from reading that story that the sin of Sodom was certainly not consensual, monogamous, homogenital sex, we have to say that it is impossible to apply this verse from Jude to the current debate on homosexuality.
This leaves us with only Romans 1:26-27. In most English translations it uses some pretty strong language; words like "degrading," "unnatural," and "shameless." The two verses in their entirety read (in the NRSV):
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse of unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
My first treatment of this passage focused on the textual context. Whenever a passage begins with something like "For this reason..." contextual questions should immediately pop into your head. "For what reason?" The passage we have here doesn't say, so we must look before verse 26 for our answer.
The best context within which to frame this passage is Romans 1:18-34, taking us a little bit before our passage begins, and just a little bit past where it ends. Seen in that context it immediately becomes clear that homosexuality is not the primary subject of the passage. Instead the subject is idolatry. Homosexuality, especially the male prostitution found in pagan temples, is not seen as the sin here. Rather it is seen as evidence of a deeper sin, an inversion of the natural, a worshipping of the created rather than the Creator.
In my treatment of the context of the passage, however, I used a few clumsy phrases, based on old assumptions, which embarrass me today. For instance, I wrote:
Paul’s intention in this section from his letter to the church in Rome was not to condemn homosexuality, though he certainly didn’t think it was a good thing.
I'm not sure now, however, whether there is enough evidence here to determine Paul's view of homosexuality as it is understood today. I say this for two reasons:
1. It is not at all clear that Paul is concerned here with consensual, monogamous, homogenital sex. It is quite possible that he has in his sights instead a more ritualized sex which was part of a religion he is seeking to discredit.
2. Many of the words which have been translated into strong negative terms have more ambiguous meanings in the Greek.
As I said earlier, the NRSV text follows the lead of other English translations in using stark language to describe the homosexual behavior in question. The words "degrading," "unnatural," and "shameless" are very strong, and imply a strong, negative judgment. This passage, like all other Biblical passages, was not, however, written in English. As such, we should look at these terms in their original Greek to get a fuller understanding of the passage.
We should first look at the distinction made here between "natural" and "unnatural." In the Greek this is physis (natural) and para physin (unnatural).
Physis is commonly translated "natural," and is the root of "physics." It is commonly used in Stoic philosophy, and is also used quite a bit by Paul, whose usage differs considerably from the Stoics. Of Paul's use of the term, Daniel A. Heliminiak, author of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality says:
For Paul, something is "natural" when it responds according to its own kind, when it is as it is expected to be. For Paul, the word "natural" does not mean "in accord with universal laws." Rather, "natural" refers to what is characteristic, consistent, ordinary, standard, expected and regular. When people acted as was expected and showed a certain consistency, they were acting "naturally." When people did something surprising, something unusual, something beyond the routine, something out of character, they were acting "unnaturally." That was the sense of the word "nature" in Paul's usage.
The word "unnatural," para physin, is simply a form of "natural" (physis) with the prefix para added to it. As we can see from English adaptations of the prefix para, such as paralegal, paraprofessional, paranormal, etc., the prefix is not exactly a negation, unlike the prefix "un." Rather, according to Helminiak, it "usually means 'beside,' 'more than,' 'over and above, 'beyond.'" So para physin rather than referring to something "unnatural" in the almost exclusively negative connotation that we bring to the word, more literally refers to something which is "beside," "more than," "over and above," or "beyond" nature. Something which is, perhaps, extra natural. This, then, is not always negative, nor is it always positive.
A quick look at how Paul uses para physin elsewhere in his work should suffice to demonstrate that "unnatural" is not always bad. Helminiak writes:
In Romans 11:24, Paul uses those very same words to talk about God. Paul describes how God grafted the Gentiles into the olive tree that is the Jews. Now Gentile and Jew are one in Christ. But to graft a wild tree into a cultivated tree is not the ordinary thing to do; it is something unusual. Still, that is what God did through Christ.
Helminiak then goes on the state the obvious conclusion one must draw from the Pauline application of par physin to the activity of God:
If to act para physin is immoral, then God must be immoral - and that is patently absurd. Therefore, there can be no moral meaning in those Greek words for Paul.
As such, "Romans is not a moral condemnation of male-male sex."
The other words which appear to carry moral baggage are also, in the Greek, a great deal less loaded. The word for "degrading" found in the "degrading passions" of verse 26 is atimia, which best translates as "not highly valued," or "not held in honor." As such it speaks not to some universal moral status, but instead to how it is viewed within a particular cultural context. Similarly, "shameless," as in the "shameless acts" of verse 27, is aschemosyne, which literally translates "not according to form." Helminiak says that this can be understood as "not nice," "unseemly," "uncomely," or "inappropriate." Looking for aschemosyne elsewhere in Paul's writing, Helminiak notes:
In I Corinthians 7:36 Paul uses the word to describe the father who refuses to give his daughter in marriage: that is not the socially correct thing to do. In I Corinthians 12:23, the prudish Paul refers to the "uncomely" or "unrepresentable" parts of the body. Of course, he means the genitals.
Helminiak also seeks out Paul's use of atimia elsewhere, writing:
[I]n 2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:21, Paul applies the word to himself. He notes that he is sometimes held in disrepute or shame because of his commitment to Christ. Evidently, then, to be in atimia is not necessarily a bad thing.
These words, so full of judgment in the English, do not carry such moral weight in Paul's usage of the Greek. As such it is quite difficult to use them to claim that Paul, and as such scripture, uniformly condemns homosexuality.
These four passages are the only places in the New Testament which can be made to apply to homosexuality as we understand it. And, when we look more closely at these passages it become clear that, on that subject, the Bible has little to offer in the way of condemnation.