• Paul on Homosexuality: PART ONE

    February 3, 2012

    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

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