Best Progressive Arguments on Romans 1 (Part 3)

sacredheartLast week I spoke with a guy who needed to process the impact of twenty of his friends leaving his church because the church decided to begin a conversation about the potential inclusion of LGBTQ people in church membership. A different guy told me last week, “It won’t do you any good to talk about homosexuality” because people from his church background don’t talk about things like that.

I was struck in both of those conversations that it’s so hard for people coming from a traditional perspective to really listen to the thoughts and insights of those from a more progressive position. In so many ways, it’s not much different from how hard it is for people from a progressive perspective to listen earnestly to those from a traditional perspective!

In my last blog I looked at what I think are the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 that same-sex sexual activity is sinful. Today I want to summarize what I think are the five best arguments that same-sex sexual activity is not sinful, again from Romans 1. Regardless of your perspective, would you be open to listening in to this conversation?

By way of context, the progressive arguments here are that the morality of monogamous, covenantal, same-sex sexual relations (a.k.a., marriage) is what’s on the table, and not other sexual activity.

1. Paul Critiqued the Same-Sex Cultural Climate of His Day, Not of Ours

In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 we looked at the differing views on the word ‘nature.’ Most progressives understand that word in Romans 1:26-27 as having to do with cultural convention (e.g. ‘It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!’), just like Paul uses that word in 1 Corinthians 11:13-14 to describe how it’s ‘unnatural’ for men to have long hair.

Progressives argue that Paul uses a number of key phrases describing excessive passion (‘shameful lusts’ in 1:26 and ‘inflamed with lust’ in 1:27) to highlight the culturally degrading form that homosexuality took in that time. As the Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8 by James Dunn puts it, Paul’s description of homosexuality “is a characteristic expression of Jewish antipathy toward the practice of homosexuality so prevalent in the Greco Roman world.” Therefore, Paul is not critiquing consensual, monogamous homosexual expression but, rather, the form it took in his day.

Another approach to this same argument is that there is a cultural normativity that makes same sex marriage fine now, even while it wouldn’t have been in Paul’s time. (A parallel would be that Paul prohibits women from braiding their hair in 1 Timothy 2:9, almost certainly because the cultural norm then was that prostitutes braided their hair – but that norm has changed in our culture.)

2. Paul is Addressing Sexual Exploitation Pastorally

While there’s some disagreement on whether the Greco-Roman world knew much about covenantal same-sex relationships, scholars agree that the dominant forms of homosexuality were coercive: pederasty (adult males with adolescent boys), prostitution and master-slave sex (2/3 of the Roman world were slaves or freed slaves).  If you’d like to read some of the ancient source material yourself, here’s a quick summary.

Paul’s comments in Romans 1:26-27 would have been received as remarkably empathetic and pastoral by those in the congregation who had been sexually exploited in the ways he described. The progressive argument here is that Paul is not dealing with mutual, covenantal same-sex relationships in Romans 1, but instead he is condemning the rampant sexual exploitation of the culture and giving a much needed voice to those who had been victimized by it.

3. The New Testament Moves from External Sins to the Heart

Jesus taught that the real issue behind murder was anger and that what lay behind adultery was lust, and he summarized the Old Testament law into just two commands, both about love. Paul built on that move from externals to internals when he wrote things like:

  • Whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8
  • For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

Progressives like James Brownson articulate this theological move like this:

Jesus sought to focus attention concerning purity, not primarily on external behaviors, but on internal states… In the New Testament generally, and in Paul’s writings in particular, purity is primarily a matter of the heart and one’s internal disposition. The fact that Paul in Romans 1:24 links “the lusts of their hearts” with “impurity” confirms the connection between these two ideas in this passage in particular.

The argument here is that the core issue going on in Romans 1:26-27 is not the condemnation of externals, (in this case, the manifestation of all homosexual sexual expression) but rather about the impurity that drives lustful actions. Therefore, channeling sexual desire in healthy and godly ways within marriage, whether straight or gay, honors God and reflects biblical teaching.

4. Church History Has Gotten It Wrong Before

While progressives recognize that church history has consistently read Romans 1 as condemning same-sex behavior, they also point out that church history has gotten some things wrong in the past and that engaging in careful study and discussion of scripture is always healthy.

For 1,500 years the church consistently held that the correct way to interpret Genesis 1 and other passages was that Earth was in the center of the universe and that the sun moved around it. When that idea was challenged with the research and teaching of Copernicus and then Galileo, the church strongly resisted reinterpretation of the scriptures. For example:

  • In a sermon on 1 Corinthians 10, John Calvin warned against those who say, “that the sun does not move and that it is the earth that moves.” He goes on to call those who believe that the earth moves “stark raving mad” and “possessed” by the devil.
  • Martin Luther said, “The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth” and elsewhere Luther refers to Copernicus as “a fool who went against Holy Writ.”

Progressives argue that being open to reinterpreting Romans 1 is simply part of the age-old process of doing theology. They say that just as Calvin and Luther were wrong on the earth standing still, new insights and understandings of history, science, and scripture, indicate that the traditional interpretation of Romans 1 banning all homosexual practice is wrong and the church should not be completely bound by its tradition of interpretation.

5. Christians Have Not Always Read This Text the Same Way

The vast majority of us who read Romans 1:26 immediately see it as referring to lesbianism: “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” However, that was not always the case.

James Alison points out,

we have several commentaries on these words dating from the centuries between the writing of this text and the preaching of St John Chrysostom at the end of the fourth century. None of them read the passage as referring to lesbianism. Both St Augustine and Clement of Alexandria interpreted it straightforwardly as meaning women having anal intercourse with members of the other sex. Chrysostom was in fact the first Church Father of whom we have record to read the passage as having anything to do with lesbianism… what modern readers claim to be “the obvious meaning of the text” was not obvious to Saint Augustine, who has for many centuries enjoyed the status of being a particularly authoritative reader of Scripture. Therefore there can be no claim that there has been an uninterrupted witness to the text being read as having to do with lesbianism. There hasn’t.

Progressives point out that even with parts of Romans 1, there has been diversity of interpretation throughout the church’s history, and that doesn’t necessarily make Augustine (!) or modern interpreters apostates. Instead, diversity of interpretation can be a mark of faithfully engaging the text.

Final Thought

Personally, as I reflect on my own journey of thinking about these things I remember reading all of the Christian literature available to me in 1990 when my brother came out to me. I read all of the conservative arguments, but there were no progressive arguments available – at least not that I could find (remember, there was no internet!). I point this out to say that the conversation is different now because there are two sides to it.

I’ll continue to explore that conversation in coming weeks.

If you’d like to read related blogs:

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Author: Bill White

I am a pastor at City Church of Long Beach, a friend to many LGBTQ people, and a conversation partner for people all over the spectrum of beliefs about how being LGBTQ and Christian fit together.

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