• Archive for February, 2012

    Paul on Homosexuality: PART FIVE

    February 10, 2012 // Comments Off on Paul on Homosexuality: PART FIVE

    I feel as though for the first time in my life Paul’s letter to the Romans makes sense as a cohesive unit. When I tried making “Romans” chapter 1 about humanity’s metaphorical idolatry and homosexuality, nothing quite clicked. Once I understood the culture of Paul’s day and the circumstances within the early church in Rome which Paul must have been addressing, everything came into focus.

    It’s well known that there was discord in the early days of the Christian faith. Jewish followers found it difficult to believe and accept that God had made those dirty awful Gentiles equal recipients with the chosen people, the Jews, in the kingdom of heaven. Quite simply, the Jews were jealous and offended. For their part, the Gentiles were at times given to arrogance over their newfound access to a relationship with God. They boasted against the Jews who they saw as having been cast aside by God for their disobedience and unbelief.

    The apostle Paul sets about the task of writing a long and brilliant thesis on why there is no cause for jealousy or arrogance because there is no difference in God’s sight between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:22-24; 10:12-13). The “Good News” is not just that people can be forgiven of their sins and restored to fellowship with the God of all creation. The “Good News” is that all people can have this experience. The Jew, yes, but also the Gentile. The circumcised and the uncircumcised alike. This seems obvious to us today. It was shocking and controversial early on.

    Paul begins in Romans 1, not (at least in my mind and the minds of many commentators) to discuss humanity’s metaphorical idolatries, but to describe the awful pagan idolatries of the Gentiles. He uses common imagery which the Jews would have seen around them in the culture of the day: the worship of creatures rather than the Creator, idols made in the form of reptiles, men, and women; pagan sex rites, orgies involving men and women, and emasculated male priests having para physin sex with men in order to transcend gender and become like the goddesses they worshipped. Paul does his best to make the Gentiles look truly awful in their fallenness. One can almost hear his Jewish readers saying, “Yeah! That’s right, Paul! Get ’em!”

    Of course the celebration ends abruptly in Romans 2 when Paul springs his trap on the Jews.

    ROMANS 2
    17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— 21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God\’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

    Why would Paul suddenly start staying, “Hey, you too,” to the Jews if he had already included them in Romans 1? If Romans 1 is all about the fall of humanity as a whole, there would be no need for chapter 2. It seems to me that Romans 1 is written to make the Jews feel that familiar sense of superiority that they’d enjoyed as God’s chosen people throughout the ages. Then Paul overturns their confidence with Romans 2 and indicts them as well. He says, in effect, “You who trust in the law and judge the law-breaking Gentiles … you’re just as guilty!”

    So all are under judgment for sin. All have fallen short of God’s glorious standard.

    ROMANS 3
    9 What shall we conclude then? Do we [Jews] have any advantage? Not at all! For we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin … There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

    So grace comes by faith, not by keeping the Old Testament Law, and that grace is available through faith to Jew and Gentile alike.

    In Romans 4 and 5, Paul shows how this theology is consistent with the Old Testament. Abraham was given the promise after the first Adam sinned. Now the second Adam (Jesus) has made good on God’s promise. In Romans 6 through 8, we are now released from the covenant (Old Testament Law) that leads to death and are inducted into a new covenant (the law of the Spirit) that leads to life. In Romans 9, we see that all of this is by God’s sovereign choice. Again, in Romans 10, there is now no difference between Jew of Gentile. The Lord of all is generous toward all who call on him.

    This might make the Gentiles a little boastful to suddenly find themselves in such favor with God. Paul says there is no cause for boasting.

    ROMANS 11

    17 If some of the branches [Jews] have been broken off, and you [the Gentiles], though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

    The “Good News,” the Gospel, is that all are on the same level now before God. All must trust in Jesus’ sacrifice for sins. There is no other salvation.

    In Romans 12 – 16, Paul describes how God’s people should live in light of this grace provided. This final section of his letter, or thesis, builds on Jesus’ “new commandment” to love one another.

    ROMANS 13

    8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

    Did you catch that? “… Whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

    That’s it? That’s all I have to keep in mind? No more picking and choosing from the Old Testament laws? No more endless debates over whether this or that is sin? I simply need to ask myself, am I, in doing this thing or that, loving my neighbor as I would love myself? Could it really be that simple?

    We’ll return to this later, but first, let’s look at the other two brief references Paul makes to some sort of homosexual activity.

    Posted in The Gay Posts

    Paul on Homosexuality: PART FOUR

    February 8, 2012 // Comments Off on Paul on Homosexuality: PART FOUR

    Remember Sophia Petrillo sitting around the kitchen table spinning epic yarns for her incredulous roommates? “Picture it! Sicily. 1945.”

    Well, picture it:

    Rome. First century A.D. You walk the city streets by day as you have since you arrived here on your missionary journey months ago. The pagan culture shock you experienced at first finally is subsiding. Somewhat, at least. The ubiquitous idol worship no longer surprises. The pervasive imagery of gods and goddesses, the temple to Artemis high on a hill, the likeness of Cybele on the coins you use to buy and sell–it’s all quickly becoming old hat. Even the stories you hear of public orgies and pagan sex rites, of men having sex with male temple priests–the men hoping for good luck from the gods, the priests hoping to transcend gender, thus becoming more like the gods–even these stories are becoming all too familiar.

    Nothing prepares you, however, for what you see this day. You come upon a crowd of maybe a couple hundred, all singing, shouting, and dancing around a solitary man who stands stark naked at the center of the scene. He appears as though in some sort of a trance. His eyes are fire and frenzy. In one hand he grasps a sword as he sways to the rhythm of the crowd’s chanting. Is the mob attacking him, or is he threatening them? Suddenly, the man looks toward heaven, lets out a piercing cry, grabs his genitals with one hand, and with the other runs the sword between his legs. The throng roars with–is it celebration?–as the man drops the sword and lifts his testicles to the sky. Blood puddles at the man’s feet. You gag, overcome with nausea, as the man runs off through the streets, the crowd chasing after.

    In the apostle Paul’s day, pagan worship and idolatry were everywhere. Read the biblical book of Acts, or even just a history book about the time. The Roman Empire was a hotbed for public, pagan religious celebration. One shocking (though commonplace by some accounts) public display of this religious fervor was the ordination ceremony for male temple priests of many goddess religions who made themselves eunuchs in an attempt to move beyond gender. By the second century A.D., the official Roman calendar even set aside the Day of Blood for this “celebration.”

    Lucian (c. 125 A.D. – after 180 A.D.) describes the scene:

    “Any young man who has resolved on this action, strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd, and picks up a sword from a number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself and then runs wild through the city, bearing in his hands what he has cut off. He casts it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women’s raiment and ornaments. Thus they act during their ceremonies of castration.”

    Bearing in mind that public orgies and sex rites involving both men and women were just part of the culture of Paul’s day, and bearing in mind these castration ceremonies, let’s go back to Romans 1.

    26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 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.

    Doesn’t it seem possible, even likely, that the “them” and “they” of this passage isn’t humanity in general, but the Gentiles of Rome who, far from engaging in some metaphorical idolatry, were involved in very literal, physical worship of creatures, rather than the Creator? And as for the mysterious “penalty” which men “received in themselves”–rather than the groundless claim that Paul is referring to sexually transmitted diseases–doesn’t it seem more plausible that Paul has in mind the physical consequence to men of becoming like these gods and goddesses, of forsaking all gender, and that “their error” was not homosexuality itself, but the idolatry that led to, among other things, heterosexual male temple priests having sex with men and castrating themselves? If castration is the penalty Paul has in mind, it would make sense that he mentions only men enduring it and says nothing of a penalty for the women involved in these sex rites. If Paul had disease in mind, it should have been a penalty to both men and women.

    Again, I could be wrong, and one can make an argument for the traditional interpretation of Romans 1. I simply think a better argument is made when we acknowledge the world in which Paul was living and how that surely influenced what he said. I just don’t think he was sitting secluded in a library or synagogue somewhere, contemplating metaphorical idolatry and its effects on the human race. I think he was describing the very real scene “on the street,” the reality the early Christians of Rome were facing as they tried to live out their faith in such an idolatrous culture.

    Up next, the structure of Romans as a whole, and whether the interpretation proposed here is in harmony with the rest of Paul’s letter.

    Posted in The Gay Posts

    Paul on Homosexuality: PART THREE

    February 7, 2012 // Comments Off on Paul on Homosexuality: PART THREE

    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

    Paul on Homosexuality: PART TWO

    February 6, 2012 // Comments Off on Paul on Homosexuality: PART TWO

    I wish there were an easy way of dealing with “Romans” tidily in a single blog post, rather than stretching this thing out over many days and posts. But alas, Paul was quite the thinker, and his writings are dense and his reasoning deliberately (and brilliantly) tangled at times. I’ll have to ask that you hang with me over the coming days.

    I’m keenly aware of the possibility, when quibbling about the exact meanings of Greek terms, of sounding like one former president who famously argued in grand jury testimony, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” The world laughed: Does the President of the United States really not know? Of course he did. He was using some good ol’ lawyer tactics to evade the obvious.

    Anyway, I worry that some will think I’m doing the same, just playing with words, the meanings of which are clear. Though you’ll have to take my word, or at least give me the benefit of the doubt, I’m not trying to evade the obvious. I’m not playing politics with holy scripture. I’m trying to really understand what Paul is saying, because people’s lives and the reputation and witness of the church in our culture are at stake in our conclusions.

    In Romans 1, Paul says that because “they,” whomever he means by “they,” “exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” God gave them over to “shameful” (Greek: atimias) lusts so that men and women exchanged “natural” (Greek: physiken) sexual relations for those that were “unnatural” (Greek: para physin). According to the traditionalist point of view, “unnatural” means contrary to the laws of the natural world which were established by God. Men are meant to have sex with women and women with men, not women with women and not men with men. Homosexuality then is condemned as “shameful,” intrinsically sinful.

    One of the first things I learned, however, in my study of this issue, was that Paul uses the same Greek terms for “shameful” and “nature” when speaking of men who have … wait for it … long hair!


    14 Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him, 15 but if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16 But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God.

    “Does not even nature (physin) itself teach you …?” Well, no, Paul, if by nature you mean the laws of the natural world as God designed them. In fact, if that is Paul’s meaning, just the opposite is true! Nature would teach that long hair is perfectly natural, for if you don’t cut it, it grows, according to nature, not para physin, contrary to nature. Clearly, by “nature,” Paul means “normal,” as in the normal way of doing things, or, what is the culturally accepted norm. He also uses the same Greek word for “shameful” here to say that long hair on a man is a “dishonor.” Surely, Paul does not mean that long hair on men is intrinsically sinful.

    Back to Romans, now. Insert the same meanings for “nature” and “shameful” or “a dishonor.” You get a very different understanding of the passage. Is Paul saying these “shameful” or “dishonoring” lusts are inherently sinful, or is he saying they violate the normal way of doing things, the culturally accepted norm? A valid argument can be made for either interpretation. Without Paul here to tell us which is correct, we can only guess, and I need something more than my best guess to tell millions of people that their love is intrinsically sinful.

    One more passage to consider today:


    24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

    Paul is using a metaphor to describe how the Gentiles came to be equal recipients with the Jews of the promises of God. He says the Gentiles were a branch of a wild olive tree grafted into the cultivated olive tree, the Jewish people. And he says this was done “contrary to nature.” Yep, same Greek words as in Romans 1, para physin. God acted contrary to what is normal, what is commonly done. Instead of grafting a cultivated branch into a wild tree so that the cultivated branch benefits from the strength of the wild tree, God does the opposite. He acts contrary to convention. He surely isn’t violating any laws of the natural world in doing so. He’s simply acting in an unexpected, uncommon way. He is behaving para physin.

    Again, back to Romans 1. Could Paul simply be saying that para physin sex is contrary to cultural convention and, therefore, is shameful, though not necessarily intrinsically sinful? If we’re quick to say, “NAW!” I have to wonder if bias is at work, if years of hearing things one way have rendered us nearly incapable of hearing them any other way. I mean, if Paul consistently uses words to mean one thing, why would we, without question, assume he suddenly uses them some other way in Romans 1?

    There is another possibility, though, for what Paul means by sex that is para physin. But alas, that will have to be for next time.

    Posted in The Gay Posts

    Paul on Homosexuality: PART ONE

    February 3, 2012 // Comments Off on Paul on Homosexuality: PART ONE

    Given that I just wrote about humility, I will try taking my own advice. I will try not to convince you I’m right and all others are wrong. To be upfront, I am not certain my view of Paul’s teaching is correct. I only know that the reading I’ve done over the past two years has convinced me the traditional interpretation of Paul’s thoughts on homosexuality is extremely questionable. So, I will only try persuading you that there is more to see in Paul’s thoughts on homosexuality than you might have heard in church, and that an alternate understanding of Paul might make better sense of his writings.

    For today, I’ll simply share the relevant passage from Romans 1, the traditional interpretation I once espoused, and the nagging doubts I had with that understanding, even before I began my study of the topic two years ago. In later posts, I’ll share what I’ve learned since.

    ROMANS 1

    18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God\’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

    21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

    24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

    The traditional view of this passage says that Paul is here describing the whole of humanity, which chose to worship the created things of this world rather than the Creator himself. Idolatry is taken less in a literal sense and more metaphorically for anything we give priority to instead of God. Since we are all guilty of this, Paul is here lumping us all in the same boat.

    So far, I was always pretty much on board the typical interpretation of the passage, although it did seem odd that, if Paul was speaking metaphorically about idolatry, why did it sound like he had literal, physical idolatry in mind? He said, “They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” That didn’t sound at all metaphorical. It sounded like Paul had specific idols in mind, perhaps “images” he saw pagans worshipping throughout the Roman empire. So, was this passage addressing all humanity, or just the pagan gentiles? Was Paul speaking to Jews about Gentiles and their literal idolatry, or was he speaking to Jews and Gentiles about idolatry in general, whether physical or merely that of the heart?

    26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 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.

    Because of this idolatry, this worship of created things instead of the Creator, God took action. He gave these people over to “shameful lusts.” The traditional understanding of the passage says verse 26 refers to lesbianism (if true, the only mention of female homosexuality in all the Bible), and verse 27 refers to male homosexuality. Most people of the traditional mindset would say that Paul isn’t suggesting that homosexuality is any worse than any other sin; it’s simply an obvious illustration Paul can use to show what goes wrong when we turn from nature’s God: we do unnatural things, things God never intended when he designed nature. According to the traditional view, Paul is not saying literal worship of literal idols led people to being gay, but that man’s turning from God in general led to our many struggles with sin in this life, only one of which is homosexuality.

    Here is where the nagging questions really began to bother me. If Paul was speaking of all of humanity, why did it sound like he had very specific people in mind who committed very specific, literal idolatry and who were then given over by God to a specific form of sinfulness? It didn’t sound generic, or global, at all. Some group of people, whoever the “they” were that Paul was talking about, worshipped images of reptiles and birds and human beings, and were then given over to the specific sin of homosexuality.

    Again, the traditional view would say that people don’t choose to be gay; we are sinners first and we struggle with all sorts of things as a consequence, only one of which is homosexuality. And yet, that didn’t sound like what Paul was saying. Honestly, that felt like a cheat, a concept not drawn from the Scriptures themselves, but imposed on the Scriptures to get Paul off the hook for saying men did choose to be gay. I mean, he flat out says, women “exchanged” the natural for the unnatural, and men “abandoned” the natural for the unnatural. Exchanging and abandoning are actions people take. They aren’t things that just happen to us. Traditionalists would say, “That’s not what Paul means. The exchanging and abandoning happening here are unconscious. Yes, people are doing them, but not intentionally. It’s just an unfortunate consequence of our sinful nature.” Maybe, but that sure wasn’t the way it sounded to me. It sounded like Paul thought they deliberately turned from the natural to the unnatural, that they began as straight people who abandoned heterosexuality for homosexuality. And I think most gay people would say they were always attracted to the same sex, that heterosexuality was not something they ever abandoned, consciously or unconsciously. They simply never were straight.

    And then there was the matter of that last sentence, “Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” What was that about? What was this mysterious penalty? I knew that that line had been used at times to suggest that AIDS was the penalty men received “in themselves,” since infection rates are much higher among gay men. But if this were so, Paul would have been speaking about something that didn’t even exist in his time, an obvious anachronism, and what about the lesbians? Did they not receive any penalty in their bodies for the sin of abandoning the natural use of their sexuality for the unnatural? Why only the men? What was this penalty of which Paul spoke? The traditionalist answers were all over the place, and none of them seemed satisfying to me.

    Next time, everything I didn’t know for so many years.

    (PS, if anyone of the traditional viewpoint feels I neglected to mention something or misrepresented their viewpoint, drop me an email through the contact page of this site, and I’ll take it under consideration.)

    Posted in The Gay Posts

    A little humility, please

    February 1, 2012 // Comments Off on A little humility, please

    Years ago when I was battling depression and wrestling with great mysteries, particularly predestination versus free will, I was around a group of folks in college who found the apostle Paul’s thoughts in “Romans” from the New Testament far easier to understand than I did. Everything was clear to them. Obviously, God chooses to save us. Obviously, we have no part in it. Obviously, grace is irresistible.

    I, rather, found Paul not so obvious. One minute he seemed to say that God chooses whom he’ll save. The next, he seemed to say it’s on us to believe. There were even moments when he seemed to say both at virtually the same moment. Since I was melancholic, full of self-doubt and -loathing, I assumed the problem was all mine. My friends were seeing things more clearly because they were closer to God than I was. God had revealed more truth to them because he either loved them more or because I was just too messed up to see things correctly.

    Then, one wonderful day, I took a break from Paul and read the letters of Peter in the New Testament. There was some heresy spreading through the church, apparently. False teachers were twisting some of the apostle Paul’s teachings to their advantage, which prompted Peter to write,

    “… Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:15-16 NIV, italics added).

    What was that? Did he just say Paul wrote things that were sometimes hard to understand? I nearly danced a little jig around my room, and some of you know how excited I would have to be for that to happen. This is the apostle frickin’ Peter, the man Catholics believe was the first pope, the man who walked on water with Jesus, for crying out loud! If anyone should have found Paul’s writings to be light reading, it should have been Peter, but here he freely acknowledges that, yeah, some of it’s tough.

    Maybe wrestling with Paul’s letter to the “Romans” didn’t make me a dullard. Maybe it just made me normal. Maybe my friends in college lacked one great essential quality of the Christian faith: humility. I bring up all of this because we’re headed into “Romans” in what will probably be a series of blog posts; “Romans” is just too rich and tangled a work to handle neatly and simply in a few paragraphs. “Romans” is, I think, the densest and most complicated of Paul’s letters to rightly interpret and apply to life. A little humility will be needed here. Already we’ve seen how a passage can be interpreted wrongly (I think) to condemn gay relationships (see posts “The Sodom Story” and “What about Judges 19?”) And already we’ve been told in a recent email I received from an old friend how “very clear” God is in his Word:

    “God is very clear in His Word. He doesn\’t mince words and He doesn\’t contradict Himself. There are times, especially when I want to rationalize my own sin, that I wish He were more gray in certain areas but He\’s pretty much black and white on most topics.”

    Again, I’m not picking on my friend who sent me this email, and I agree that the Bible is sometimes clear, but sometimes what we find obvious is, upon further reflection, more complex and complicated than we ever imagined. Even Peter seemed to think the New Testament writings could be difficult. Things can’t be both “hard to understand,” as Peter said Paul sometimes was, and “very clear.” Paul himself devotes a chapter in “Romans” to “gray areas” of the faith, matters of disagreement among Christians, areas where things are not “black and white.”

    If we do not approach the Scriptures humbly, willing to challenge what we’ve always heard, open to asking, “What if I’ve been wrong all this time?” we risk, I think, becoming the “ignorant and unstable” people Peter references, people who twist the Scriptures, albeit unintentionally. I’m not saying we need wallow in confusion forever, or that we can never have a settled confidence about what the Bible says. I’m certainly not arguing, as some do, that the Bible can say anything. No, the Bible says some things and not others, and the task for all of us is to determine what it means by the some things it says, and how to live in the light of that meaning. That’s the tricky process of interpretation and application. Tricky, but not impossible, and it can be quite a fun task, but it does require humility.

    Posted in The Gay Posts