• Paul on Homosexuality: PART TWO

    February 6, 2012

    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

Comments are closed.