• Paul on Homosexuality: PART THREE

    February 7, 2012

    The traditional interpretation would say that Romans 1:26 refers to female homosexuality. If that\’s true, it is the only verse in all the Bible to do so. This verse is crucial to a scriptural argument that the Bible treats homosexuality in general as sin. Without it, the best a traditionalist can show is where the Bible mentions male homosexuality. Let\’s look at it, because the meaning of verse 26, and how it has been interpreted throughout the ages, touches on another possible understanding of the “unnatural” (para physin) sex Paul discusses here in Romans 1. Paul says that “they”—again, whoever “they” are, be they Gentiles only or all human beings—“they exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”

    26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

    “In the same way …” That connecting phrase makes all the difference in the world in determining what verse 26 means. Either “in the same way” means both men and women were involved in the same specific form of unnatural sex—i.e., homosexuality—or, “in the same way,” they abandoned the natural for the unnatural in a more general sense. But what else could that mean than that the women engaged in lesbianism? One way to get at least a good idea how that verse might have been understood in Paul\’s day is to look at how the early church leaders and interpreters understood it.

    As we\’ve seen previously, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 A.D. – c. 215 A.D.) did not see lesbianism in Romans 1:26. He saw any sex that was not procreative. He saw in that verse women having “unnatural” anal sex. He wrote,

    “It is clear that we should reject sex between men, sex with the infertile, anal sex with women, and sex with the androgynous.”

    He said nothing about women having sex with women.

    Augustine (354 A.D – 430 A.D.) wrote,

    “But if one has relations even with one\’s wife in a part of the body which was not made for begetting children, such relations are against nature and indecent. In fact, the same apostle earlier said the same thing about women, ‘For their women exchanged natural relations for those which are against nature (Romans 1:26)\’.”

    So Augustine agreed with Clement that the sex “against nature” was not lesbianism, but men having sex with women in a non-procreative manner.

    Didymus the Blind (c. 313 A.D. – 398 A.D.) expanded on Paul\’s words in Romans 1:26 precisely because he did not feel Paul had dealt with lesbianism. Didymus wrote,

    “… Those who did not see fit to acknowledge God and were given up to a debased mind are guilty of improper behavior, having lustful desires for one another, males committing shameless acts with males, females exchanging the intercourse natural to females for unnatural, and women having lewd desires for women” (emphasis, mine).

    Why add that last phrase about lesbianism if it was already covered in what Paul said about women exchanging natural intercourse for that which is unnatural?

    At least early on in church history, Romans 1:26 was not widely understood as referring to women having sex with women. It referred to women having sex that was not at least potentially procreative. In other words, anything other than vaginal sex. If that is, in fact, what Paul meant, then (1) no where in the Bible does Scripture mention female homosexuality, (2) Scripture cannot be said to condemn homosexuality in general, for only male homosexuality is ever mentioned, and (3) the Catholics have it right on sex: no condoms and no sex that wastes the semen, that thwarts the procreative intent of sex.

    Of course, even the Catholics have made some, shall we say, allowances? Over the years, the Church has softened Clement\’s stances. Sex with the barren is permitted, as far as I know. I am unaware of any prohibition the Catholic church has on sex with inter-sexed persons. If there is one, please let me know.

    In general, I would say most protestants today have no problem with contraception, sex with the infertile, or sex among the elderly, even though these are all para physin, if by “unnatural” we mean non-procreative. If that\’s what Paul meant. Why do we make those exceptions, but none for gay people who had no say in their orientation? For that matter, what right have we to make any exceptions with holy scripture? And what is our consistent ethic for making those exceptions? Do we have one?

    Up next, what Paul might have seen around him in Rome that led to his talk of idolatry and men receiving in themselves “the due penalty for their error.”

    Posted in: The Gay Posts

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