David* and Ann* were two of the first gay people I met after my brother came out to me in the early 1990s. In moments of great vulnerability, each of them shared with me that they were attracted to people of the same sex. My memory is a bit hazy (I’m almost 50, after all) but I think I was the first person either of them had told about being gay. They both immediately shared that they wanted God to change their desires, and I was on board with that. I prayed that they would become straight, and I processed with them as they went through counseling, what was called ‘reparative therapy’ at the time.
But neither of their desires changed. What did change, however, was my theology.
I’ve known these two Christians for over twenty years. I’ve seen them wrestle with God, almost lose faith, and come through to the other side of some dark times. David is now married to another Christian man, and Ann is a committed single. Both are still attracted to people of the same sex. So do you think those friendships might have affected my theology? You bet.
My understanding of how prayer works, when God heals, and what it means to be made in God’s image were all pretty simple twenty five years ago. All three of those theological constructs have changed because of knowing David and Ann. I’ve had to allow a bit more mystery into my theology, a bit more flexibility, and a lot more grace. Before, everything was neat and tidy for me. And that’s not even to mention having to do a lot of rethinking about human sexuality.
Shifting Away From Tradition
At a pastors’ conference, Joe* approached me and asked to talk away from everyone else. On a long walk through the hills, he shared that he’d never thought much about his traditional views on sexuality until the day he came home early from church and walked in on his teenage son watching TV in a dress. That was the beginning of Joe’s journey of rethinking his theology.
I often talk with Christians who once held a traditional perspective about LGBTQ morality but have since become ‘affirming’ because a close friend or family member came out to them. For example, progressive New Testament scholar James Brownson shares in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality that his son coming out was a major motivator for him to re-evaluate his thinking.
As I wrote in my last post about How the LGBTQ Community is Saving the Church, there’s something powerfully motivating about shifting your thoughts from abstract theology to real people, especially people you love. Having LGBTQ people in your life whom you love deeply typically changes you. Here are two of the big ways:
Your attitude becomes less judgmental. Unfortunately, this often comes only after a lot of tears or a few shouting matches. Crushing the spirit of a friend or loved one has a way of making you reconsider how you see them. Whether or not your perspective on morality shifts, this is still a theological shift because it means that Jesus is breaking open your heart for others in new and good ways.
Your theology becomes ‘affirming’ – either because you re-evaluate your reading of the bible (for those who value scripture highly), or you simply allow your experience to dictate your morals and don’t want to condemn the sexual activity of your friend or loved one.
The one instance where I often see a lack of theological shift is when a parent finds out that a child is LGBTQ and, instead of processing that in a healthy way, clamps down on that information, turning it into a family secret. Often these families can feel like fortresses, where vulnerability and intimacy cower in the corners. If you’re part of a family like this, I’d be glad to be a safe place to process or help you find one. (contact me here).
Shifting in Other Ways
Last month, Ernie* invited me over to his house and shared with me that he’s gay. He told me of the struggles he’s had in different churches, the loneliness he’s felt, and the deep connection he has to Jesus that has come from his costly commitment to celibacy. Even though we were the only two in the house, he mostly whispered all of this to me, which seemed appropriate since it seemed we were on holy ground. I felt so honored, so privileged to be there with him, to listen to him, and to be able to be with him on his journey.
Having friends like Ernie changes you. Through conversations with my friends who are not embracing their same-sex attraction, my theology has changed. In particular,
I’m realizing that I (and the church) idolize marriage – we view it as the highest form of relationship. We’re strangely uncomfortable with those who are single, always trying to set them up with someone – which is ironic since our founder was single. Celibate author Wes Hill has done the church a tremendous service in his website promoting spiritual friendship – which historically has been viewed as a higher form of relationship than marriage. Talk about being counter-cultural!
I’m seeing how I (and the culture) obsess over sex – we view it as paramount in our personal identity. Those who are celibate in our midst stand as a stark contrast to the way our culture glorifies and commodifies sexuality, and we’re forced to rethink what it means to be made in the image of God.
I’m realizing that my theology of discipleship has gone soft. Jesus says, “Let any who would come after me take up their cross daily and follow me,” but I want to negotiate with Jesus, haggling down the cost of following him. My friends who are choosing not to act on their same-sex attraction remind me of what it means to follow Jesus at all costs.
David, whom I mentioned earlier, came to see me recently. I met his husband, we walked through the neighborhood, we caught up. Just before we parted, he started to cry as he talked about how he’s met God on his journey since coming out to me twenty-five years ago. David caught me by surprise when he said, “Amidst all of the pain of this process, I wonder if God brought me into your life all those years ago so that you’d be better prepared to welcome your son when he came out.”
I think David is on to something.
*Most of the names and identifying details in this blog have been changed.
Recently I was at a unique gathering in Malibu. Our group was made up of a dozen individuals from around the U.S., differing ages and ethnicities and genders, covering a spectrum of experiences and beliefs about how to be LGBTQ in the church; gay, straight, trans, and everything from celibate to questioning to dating to divorced to married. All we held in common was that we follow Jesus and love scripture.
I was asked this question, “What do you think is the value in LGBT people naming and defining their sexuality? How is that helpful or harmful for the heterosexual majority community and the church?”
This is going to sound a bit dramatic, but I responded by saying I think that the LGBTQ community is saving the church. I’m not saying it’s been worth the cost to that community; I grieve that cost and I sorrow over my own complicity in it. What I am saying is that I’m grateful for the gifts I’ve received from the LGBTQ community.
Below are some of the ways I think God is using the LGBTQ community to help the church.
No longer is “LGBTQ” a theological issue, now it’s real people. It’s people like my brother, Porter. People like my son, Timothy. By coming out, the LGBTQ community has forced the heterosexual community to deal with real people and not just ideas untethered from the world we live in. Jesus emphasized the importance of dealing with real people, so by coming out, the LGBTQ community has been serving the church by enabling us to be more like Jesus. Thank you, friends, for your incredible resilience and strength in reminding me that you are people, not issues. I’m sorry for treating you otherwise too often.
We’ve had to face our judgment. In his book unChristian, David Kinnaman points out that, statistically speaking, the first three terms non-Christians use to describe Christians, in order, are 1) anti-homosexual, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. How devastating is that!? Those last two are the very things that Jesus spent a lot of time confronting – in fact, more than any other. So the LGBTQ community has provided the opportunity for Jesus to speak to those of us in the heterosexual community in the same way he spoke to his followers 2,000 years ago. Friends, I’m so sorry for my own judgment and hypocrisy. I’m also sorry for how often I’ve been silent and forced you to speak up alone when it would have been so easy for me to stand up and speak with you. Please forgive me. While
We’ve had to face hard conversations that we’ve previously avoided. Facing hard conversations is what the church is all about, and yet we’ve shied away from that mandate. Instead, we’ve become like the culture and hidden. In fact, we have failed to have these conversations in places where the culture around us has faced them squarely. The LGBTQ community has forced our church to have this conversation, and this conversation is training us to have other conversations. Friends, thank you for the courage you’ve demonstrated every time you’ve come out to someone. I want to be as courageous as you. I could never quantify if it’s worth the cost to you, but I can say that I’ve gained by your sacrifice.
We’re rediscovering what identity is, what it means to be made in the image of God. The church has simply equated being heterosexual/cisgender (and preferably married!) with being human. It’s like how White, male, Western theologians can be unaware of their Whiteness, maleness and Westernness when doing theology because often they live in an echo chamber only reading their own stuff… until they read Black theology or Feminist theology or Liberation theology. In the same way, the LGBTQ community helps the majority/straight community figure itself out more. And along the way, it helps us uncover our assumptions about being made in the image of God. Friends, thank you for surfacing my assumptions, for helping me see humanity through another lens, and for the implicit invitation to think more deeply about what it means to be made in God’s image.
The LGBTQ community is helping us rediscover grace, because it’s raising the crucial questions:How are people accepted into the community around Jesus? Do people have to become straight/cisgender to be accepted? Is grace really enough? In new ways, we’re getting at core gospel truths because our assumptions are being exposed, and we’re seeing that we’ve layered a lot of culture on top of the gospel. Friends, thank you for reintroducing me to grace – it’s alway better than it was the last time I knew it.
The LGBTQ community is driving a deeper look at scripture. The majority/heterosexual community is not allowed to get off with easy answers and proof-testing anymore. Just throwing out a reference to Leviticus or Romans was so easy, and so misguided – like throwing out a reference in Joshua to justify war. And not only do we have to be careful and thoughtful with scripture, we’re starting to have to become transparent in our theology of scripture – now we’re having to show our cards on how we approach scripture. We didn’t have to do that before. We could get away with saying, “we just follow the bible.” Friends, you’ve help me (and us) think more clearly, enabling us to love God more with our mind. Thank you.
The LGBTQ community is helping us rediscover unity. Because there’s such diversity around these issues, the church is having to wrestle with unity again. Who is in and who is out? What are the qualifications for unity in the body of Christ? These are really important questions that the church is facing at a new level. While denominations are splitting, there’s also been a lot of movement towards a more sacramental unity, as opposed to the ideological unity that currently presides over the evangelical world. Friends, I wish it weren’t so painful for you. I wish our battles about unity weren’t being fought over your bruised and bloodied souls. I’m so sorry. May God have mercy on us all, healing his church and ‘reconciling to himself all things’ (Colossians 1:20).
Finally, to my son, to my brother, to my LGBTQ friends at City Church and in Long Beach and in the broader community, whether you’re in church or not, I want to say these words:
Thank you for how gracious you have been to me personally as I try to figure out what to do with you. That sounds so awful, and it is. I’m so sorry for how I’ve participated in the injustice that has left you in the petri dish as those of us in the majority culture fight over the microscope. It’s embarrassing to write it. Please forgive me.
Thank you for how you’ve led me back to Jesus time and time again by exposing how unlike him I am, by helping me think more deeply about scripture, by calling me to love people more freely and especially by how you’ve shown me grace, cared for me, and loved me well.
You have shown Jesus to me. You have been Jesus to me. Thank you.
Last 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.
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.
On Tuesday, I sat down for coffee with J., who at had just come out to his family and friends. He cried a couple of times as he shared his story, including when he told of his father hugging him afterwards – a rare occurrence.
J. was raised in a church nearby, but he’s stopped attending because God feels distant and he doesn’t want to put on his ‘happy church face’ and show up. But he couldn’t have been clearer about wanting to follow Jesus. “For the first time I’m actually open to considering having a partner – but I won’t do it if it’s not right. And I don’t want to just convince myself the bible says something if it doesn’t.” Then he leaned in, “So what do you think God wants for me?”
Well, that’s a good question.
In my own attempts to answer it, I thought I’d look at the best arguments on Romans 1 from the traditional perspective (in this blog) and from the progressive perspective (in next week’s blog). As we think on the scriptures and wrestle with the issues, I will try to remember that we’re actually talking about real people, like my new friend J.
Here are what I’ve found to be the five best traditional arguments from Romans 1 against same-sex sexual behavior. As a good friend of mine just reminded me today, I would be remiss not to mention at the outset that the whole point of the traditional arguments are that God loves gay people and wants their best. With that in mind, let’s dive in.
1. Same-Sex Behavior is Contrary to God’s Creational Order
In Part 1 of this series on Romans 1 (which basically covered the nature of the word ‘nature’) I outlined this argument, so I won’t say much more about it here. In the simplest of terms it goes like this: God created male and female sex parts to work together, so doing sex otherwise is immoral. To summarize the argument in a more scholarly way, Richard Hays writes that:
[since] the complementarity of male and female is given a theological grounding in God’s creative activity… when human beings engage in homosexual activity, they enact an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality: the rejection of the Creator’s design.
2. Paul Uses Additional Terms to Emphasize Creational Intent
In addition to the immediate context of Creation just mentioned, Paul seems to be referring specifically to the Genesis 1 account in Romans 1:26-27 by the use of two key terms for ‘women’ and ‘men.’ Here’s the break down of those terms from one of my seminary professors:
Paul does not use the normal terms for women (gyne) and men (aner) but two terms (thelys and arsen) that may well allude to God’s created order, as they are used in the Septuagint of the creation account, “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27 LXX). (Grant Osborn, Romans, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series)
Using those terms is a way for Paul to ‘double down’ on his emphasis that the only godly way to have sex is the way God designed it in the Garden of Eden, namely, between a man and a woman. In a sort of repetition of point #1, this shows Paul’s commitment to the original design as the only moral way to behave sexually.
3. Same-Sex Behavior is the Third of Three Sinful “Exchanges”
Paul’s overarching argument in Romans 1 is that the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) are disconnected from God, caught in unhealthy/sinful ways of living, and in need of a Savior. Paul builds his argument with a series of three ‘exchanges’:
[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for idols (1:23)
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie (1:25)
Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones (1:26)
Paul uses the same greek work (‘exchange’) to emphasize how, because of each of these scenarios, the Gentiles have distanced themselves from God and are suffering for it and in need of rescue. The parallel items at the back end of each of the ‘exchanges’ look like this:
idols : lies : same-sex acts
Essentially, this argument says, since idols and lies are always immoral, the parallel activity of same-sex behavior is immoral.
As one renowned scholar put it, “Paul’s attitude to homosexual practice is unambiguous. The third appearance of the word “changed’ (cf. vv 23 and 25) seems to imply that the action described (“changing the natural use to that which is contrary to nature”) is of a piece with and direct result of the basic corruption of the glory and truth of God in idolatry.” (James Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary Romans 1-8)
4. The Text Condemns All Same-Sex Behavior
This argument says that, for the sake of drawing all people to Christ, Romans 1 highlights the sinfulness of all same-sex behavior, as opposed to just pederasty or temple prostitution. In an interesting twist, Romans 1 critiques female-female sex, which was far less common than male-male sex in the ancient Greco-Roman world, suggesting that Paul was trying to cover all his bases.
In addition to that, Paul uses key words that clarify the range of whom God holds responsible in cases of same-sex behavior. In an article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, James DeYoung writes that “The terms ‘toward one another,’ ‘men with men,’ ‘in themselves’ and ‘their error’ all argue for adult reciprocal mutuality and mutual culpability, which would not characterize pederasty. As the error is mutual, so is the recompense.”
Therefore, since Paul includes both male and female same-sex activity while implicating both parties of such activity, he clearly defines all same-sex activity (and not merely exploitative same-sex activity) under the category of “shameful lusts” (1:26).
5. Church History
For two thousand years (that’s a long time) the church has consistently held to these interpretations (and some other ones which I don’t find as convincing) of Romans 1. That much history is not something to trifle with. There should be strong reasoning to consider even having conversation about an area of theology that has enjoyed such unanimous support for so long and so widely, much less to consider changing that theology.
In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams summarize their findings from looking throughout scripture and church history at these issues:
In the context of the current confusion, we intend to demonstrate that Scripture and the historic, orthodox church consistently have warned that homosexual practice is sin. We will show that the suggestion that homosexual practice is acceptable before God is contrary to Scripture and to what all the church everywhere has always taught.
Next week, I’ll look at the five best arguments for a progressive interpretation of Romans 1.
Many have called Romans 1 a “clobber passage” (because of how it’s been weaponized at times against the LGBTQ community). So is it? For those unfamiliar with these conversations, the two verses in Romans 1:26-27 form the longest passage in the bible that speaks directly to same-sex sexual behavior, so it’s super important in this conversation.
Our Study Team set aside an entire Saturday morning to discuss it (after we’d done a bunch of reading and thinking about it), so I thought it would be helpful to share my reflections from that study.
There’s some real thinking required here, and we’re going to look at it over several blog posts, so get ready to do some work. And if you’re not willing to really understand this text, I might suggest you remove it from any conversations about LGBTQ people in the church because you may well be misusing it and, one way or the other, turning it into a weapon to hurt people.
One of the pieces the Study Team read was from Richard Hays’ masterpiece The Moral Vision of the New Testament. In his chapter on homosexuality, he reminds us that all of the talk of sin in Romans 1 (including the bits about gay sex) are “a homiletical sting operation.” They are set up to deal with the kind of evil that destroys more people than any sexual sin: judgmentalism. Here is Hays on Romans 1:18-32:
The passage builds a crescendo of condemnation, declaring God’s wrath upon human unrighteousness, using rhetoric characteristic of Jewish polemic against Gentile immorality. It whips the reader into a frenzy of indignation against others: those unbelievers, those idol-worshipers, those immoral enemies of God. But then the sting strikes in Romans 2:1: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” The reader who gleefully joins in the condemnation of the unrighteousness is “without excuse” (2:1) before God just as those who refuse to acknowledge God are “without excuse”(1:20).
Hays helps us see that however we read Romans 1:26-27 on homosexuality, being judgmental is inexcusable in the sight of God. That shouldn’t stop us from thinking and talking about what is sin and what’s not sin, but it should wipe that ‘those people…‘ thought right from our minds, to be replaced with ‘us people...’
The Nature of Nature
A lot of the arguments on Romans 1 hinge on the Greek word physis. It’s commonly translated ‘nature’ in English. The Greek word comes up 14 times in various forms in the New Testament, and 3 of those are here in our passage:
…their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. (Romans 1:26-27)
Needless to say, the word ‘nature’ is crucial in these verses, so how we understand it drastically affects how we read this text. So what is the nature of ‘nature’?
The premier Greek lexicon (Baurer/Danker) gives 4 definitions of physis (nature). You can read them yourself here if you’re a true nerd. Their English counterparts are similar in many ways, and as with all definitions, there’s some elasticity and overlap. Here’s a basic summary of those 4 definitions of the Greek word for nature:
Endowment (the Creation interpretation) – “Cotton is a natural material; polyester is not.”
Predisposition (the personal interpretation) – “Optimism comes naturally to my wife.”
Convention (the cultural interpretation) – “It’s just unnatural for people to skydive!”
Species (not relevant for this discussion – see James 3:7 – physis is translated ‘kinds’)
The first three definitions have each been part of the LGBTQ conversation around Romans 1. I want to briefly dispel of the second definition and then dive in deep to the first and third since they have more impact.
When progressives first started looking at Romans 1, they would on occasionally argue that what Paul was writing about here was that it was unnatural if a straight person had gay sex or if a gay person had straight sex because it was contrary to their personal disposition (definition 2). My sense is that most current scholars on both sides of the debate don’t think this is a very plausible interpretation, so we’re not going to focus on that argument here.
Nature as Creation (Definition 1)
Romans 1:25 mentions creation twice – “they worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator.” Therefore it’s natural (pun intended) when it comes to the very next verse to read “nature” through the Creation interpretation (definition 1). Context matters, and the fact that Creation is mentioned in verse 25 gives weight to verse 26 being read in the same light.
The Creation interpretation is the standard approach of the traditionalists to Romans 1. As Robert Gagnon writes in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, “Nature here for Paul, as a Jew, is that which something truly is by virtue of its creation… For Paul homoeroticism constitutes an extreme expression of human revolt against the divinely ordained natural order and not just a subversion of customary gender roles.” Nature is tied to creation and to ‘divinely ordained natural order.’
The argument goes this way: despite the fact that people were designed by God at Creation to have sexual relations with the opposite sex, people instead had sex with the same sex, which is contrary to how God ordered the world. Because this is disordered (not part of God’s original design) it’s sinful.
The nature of ‘nature’ is crucial to the traditional reading of the text. It’s also crucial to the progressive reading of the text.
Nature as Convention (Definition 3)
Paul uses the word physis a few other times in similar ways to how he uses it here in Romans 1. For example,
Does not the very nature of things (physis) teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him,but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering.If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. 1 Corinthians 11:14-16
This passage is particularly interesting because Paul is writing about male-female relationships as in Romans 1, and he’s also making a very broad statement for how it plays out in all churches of that time. And yet, the plain reading of this text suggests that Paul’s comments on hair length are primarily about a cultural convention, not about God’s original moral design.
Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, a leader of an ex-gay ministry in Canada, was led to question her conservative convictions because of verses like these. She writes,
Again from Romans 1:26–27 is the phrase para physis, which is normally translated as “unnatural.” Some suggest that this cannot mean “immoral” because Paul uses this word to describe God’s act of including gentiles in Romans 11:24. Paul also uses the same wording in 1 Corinthians 11:14–15 to state that long hair on men is against nature. This raises the question of whether it is inherently immoral (that is, for all times and all places) or a statement for that culture.
Many progressives, using this ‘cultural convention’ interpretation, read Romans 1 in conjunction with the kind of homosexuality they see in the Greco-Roman world (see my blog on those ancient documents here) and make an argument that goes like this: The cultural forms of homosexuality that Paul was writing about were immoral, however they are not the covenantal, monogamous, mutual, adult relationships that gay Christians are seeking to honor God with today.
Again, as with the traditional approach, the nature of ‘nature’ has a big impact on how we read Romans 1.
So What Does This Mean?
For me, looking honestly and deeply at the key words in this discussion, like physis, is unnerving. I’d prefer to have everything neat and tidy.
And yet, God has instead left us to do the hard work understanding scripture and, I believe, has invited us to dialogue well with each other along the way. It’s almost as if he wants us to love one another even when we disagree!
With that in mind, I’ll close with thoughts on Romans 1 from two scholars I respect immensely, who see the passage very differently, and yet who see the conversation very similarly:
Conservative scholar Preston Sprinkle has blogged that “there is room for dialogue and fellowship with those who hold different views on this topic” because:
I’ve seen that the issue is a hundred times more complicated than I thought. No longer do I believe Christians can simply quote a verse from Leviticus (or wherever) and think that the debate is settled. There are a lot of questions surrounding the biblical material that refers to homosexual sex.
Progressive scholar James Brownson writes something very similar:
Both sides of the debate can agree that Paul is correct in what he says here [in Romans 1]. In other words, both sides accept the authority of the text in what it is directly teaching. This is an important point that should not be passed over lightly. Neither side of the debate denies the authority and truthfulness of Scripture. The point of difference centers on the underlying moral logic that shapes the text, and thus its applicability to contemporary life.
Next week we’ll spend time looking at the best traditional arguments from Romans 1, and the following week we’ll look at the best progressive arguments from Romans 1.
Tuesday January 24, 2017 I had these six interactions throughout the day:
I spoke by phone with a pastor in our area who is transgender (female to male), processing his spiritual journey.
A dear friend’s son had come out of the closet the previous week, and the dad was trying to figure out what to do about that.
I received a call from a pastor who was planning on leaving our denomination because we’d become ‘unblibilcal’ (his word).
I heard the story of a young woman who said she would come to Sunday worship because she couldn’t believe there was a church that talked about these things (she had stopped going to church because these things weren’t discussed).
I processed with a dad how to respond to his 12 year old daughter who had asked him aggressively the night before, “Dad, what do you think about homosexuality?”
My son called from college to process his experience with a Queer Christian Fellowship group on campus.
And that was just one day. The next day, I launched this blog.
It’s been two months since I started the LGBTQConversations blog, and as of the writing of this post, there have been 16,956 page views of this blog. I’m stunned by that number. Whether we are comfortable with it or not, people are interested in these conversations. And there are so many more to have.
Today, for example, I’m part of a denominational vote on whether marriage should be defined as only between a man and a woman. That’s a big conversation.
Yesterday an old friend wrote me a long Facebook message pondering these things, asking me if I thought homosexuality was a sin. That’s a big conversation.
This morning I was asked by a person who I’m guessing is transgender, “If you had a magic wand that could turn all the LGBTQIA folks into cisgender heterosexuals, would you wave it—why or why not?” That’s a big conversation.
And this morning I got an email from man I’ve never met who asked to grab coffee with me. He told me about being raised in a Christian home and coming out to his family earlier this month. As he ponders what’s next for him in terms of relationships and his process of thinking about what the bible says, he concluded with the line “I know that if I were to do my own thing without seeking God’s approval I would be ruined with guilt.” That’s a big conversation, too.
There are a lot of other really important things to talk about in the church. For whatever reason, this is just one of those things that God continues to bring to me.
In debates about LGBTQ people in the church today, a key argument that progressives make goes like this:
because same-sex sexual behavior in the ancient world was so different from how it is practiced in our culture, we need to recalibrate what the biblical prohibitions would mean for us now and therefore allow same-sex sexual activity within covenantal relationships.
The vast majority of progressives (e.g., Vines, DeFranza, Brownson, Loader, Rogers) argue
this line of reasoning in some form. Essentially they build off of the cultural distance argument to say that while the bible disallows much same-sex activity for us today – just as it disallows much heterosexual activity today – it does not prohibit same-sex monogamous, covenantal relationships because it did not know about those types of relationships.
Traditionalists are split in how they approach the argument from cultural distance. Some (e.g., N.T. Wright, Hill, DeYoung, Shaw) argue that the cultural distance is not very great between us now and the ancient Greco-Roman context, so all same-sex sexual activity is still sinful. Others (e.g., Hays, Paris, Holmes) argue that there is indeed a large cultural gap, but that the solution is still not to allow same-sex behavior in the church.
So which of these options is it?
I invite you to do some thinking for yourself here. Below is a catalogue of what I’ve found to be the very best ancient citations around LGBTQ issues, culled from dozens of books, a hundred articles and a zillion blogs and online libraries. You can decide for yourself how large the cultural gap is between the ancient context and ours.
Types of Homosexuality in the Greco-Roman World
In a survey of anthropological work on sexuality, Jenell Williams Paris, professor of Anthropology at Messiah College, discerns four main types of same-sex sexual activity observable across the spectrum of human cultures. Steven Holmes summarizes her work:
Age-structured relationships, like those familiar from classical Greece, require an age difference between partners, typically an adult inducting an adolescent into adult ways.
Profession-based relationships are those in which generally nonstandard patterns of sexual behavior are legitimated for prostitutes or people in certain religious roles.
Gender-structured relationships are based around complex, non-binary [meaning exclusively male or female], cultural gender patterns.
Egalitarian relationships are between equals. Crucially, almost every cultural instance of “egalitarian” relationships outside of the modern West is temporary and occurs before or alongside a heterosexual marriage. Lifelong, exclusive, equal same-sex partnerships are virtually unknown to human history and anthropology outside the contemporary West. Same-sex sexual activity is common, but it almost never takes this cultural form. Realizing this is very important for understanding contemporary ecclesial debates over sexuality.
– from Steven Holmes’ chapter in Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church
As I’ve looked at the original ancient writings, Paris’s four categories make a ton of sense. So here’s how I’d summarize the material in regards to the types of minority gender/sexual expression in the ancient Greco-Roman world.
Pederasty (adult males having sex with adolescent boys) was very common and even celebrated in the Greco-Roman world (see 1.1-1.4 below). This is Paris’s ‘age-structured’ category.
Sex with household slaves was assumed in the Greco-Roman world as the right of the slave owner (see 2.1 below). Prostitution at temples was a well-known part of the cultural context of the Greco-Roman world (see 2.2 and 2.3 below). These are Paris’s ‘profession-based’ category.
Eunuchs were not uncommon in the ancient world (see the three types of eunuchs that Jesus mentions in Matthew 19:12, for example). In terms of sexual activity, they were most often assigned roles in #2 and #3 above (slave sex or prostituted). Additionally, they played a role of breaking down how most people viewed gender as either male or female. Since eunuchs took on aspects of both masculinity and femininity, and were even called ‘the third gender,’ they subverted cultural norms and opened up new ways of seeing sexuality and gender. See 8.1-8.3 below. This is Paris’s ‘gender-structured’ category.
References to consensual, committed, adult, same-sex sexual behavior are rare and complicated at best. There are some references that could be construed to indicate there were examples of such mutual relationships, but they are contested and not particularly clear (for example, whether Achilles was an adult in reference 4.1 below). I could find no clear references to same-sex adults in consensual long term relationships (for example, Euripides and Agathon are sometimes referenced, and evidence suggested they had a long term relationship, but I struggle with that because it began while Euripedes was an adult and Agathon was a boy). I included the Sappho fragment dealing with lesbianism, but I couldn’t find a lot that clearly indicated adult, long term, consensual, committed lesbian relationships (I need to do more study here). This is Paris’s ‘egalitarian’ category.
Attraction, Orientation, and Morality in the Greco Roman World
Besides the various ways that same-sex activity was structured in the ancient Greco-Roman world, it’s worth looking at how that world viewed sexual attraction. So in addition to my above 4 summary statements about types of same-sex activity, here are four summary statements of how I perceive the source material relating to questions around attraction, orientation, and morality.
5. Sexual attraction in the Greco-Roman world was often based on ideals of beauty regardless of the sex of the object (see 5.1 below). While this might seem like an unusual form of bi-sexuality to us today, in that world it was seen as normal.
6. The Greek/Roman authors who objected to same-sex sexual activity did so on three primary grounds. The first was if it was illegal. Both same-sex and heterosexual sex was illegal in the Roman Empire between non-married free adults. It was legal with slaves or minors of a different social standing. The second criticism of same-sex behavior was criticized rested on excessive/unrestrained desire. In that culture, lack of restraint was deplorable (see 6.1 and 6.2 below). The third reason for criticizing same-sex sexual activity was directed specifically at the passive partner. Being penetrated (vs. being the penetrator) was abhorred because it meant not being dominant but, rather, ‘womanly.’ Dominance, strength, and manliness were highly prized in that culture (see 6.3 and 6.4 below).
7. Jewish authors in the Greco-Roman world universally reviled same-sex sexual activity. This is important because it helps us understand the cultural backgrounds of authors like Paul (see 7.1-7.5 below).
8. In ancient Greece there was a theory as to the origin of sexual attraction, which included same-sex attraction (see 8.1 below). This supports that that there was some understanding in the Greco-Roman world of ‘orientation’ and not just attraction.
The source material is quoted below for you to read and draw your own conclusions. If you want a more extensive, though less curated, list click HERE.
1.1 Plato, Symposium, the speech of Pausanius, (Greek, written in Athens in 380 B.C)
…this is that love which is of youths… Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature [than women]… they love not boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow. And in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them.
1.2 Sibylline Oracles, 3:596-99 (Jewish authorship, 2nd Century BC, written in Greek)
Above all men they are mindful to keep the bed undefiled; they have no unholy intercourse with boys, as do the Phoenicians, Egyptians, the Latins and wide Hellas and many nations besides, the Persians, Galatians and them of all Asia.
1.3 2 Enoch 10:2 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
…those who dishonor God, who on earth practice sin against nature, which is child-corruption after the sodomitic fashion.
1.4 Philo, Contemplations, 59-61 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
But the entertainment recorded by Plato is almost entirely connected with love; not that of men madly desirous or fond of women, or of women furiously in love with men, for these desires are accomplished in accordance with a law of nature, but with that love which is felt by men for one another, differing only in respect of age; for if there is anything in the account of that banquet elegantly said in praise of genuine love and heavenly Venus, it is introduced merely for the sake of making a neat speech; for the greater part of the book is occupied by common, vulgar, promiscuous love, which takes away from the soul courage, that which is the most serviceable of all virtues both in war and in peace, and which engenders in it instead the female disease, and renders men men-women, though they ought rather to be carefully trained in all the practices likely to give men valour. And having corrupted the age of boys, and having metamorphosed them and removed them into the classification and character of women, it has injured their lovers also in the most important particulars, their bodies, their souls, and their properties.
2.1 Artimedorus, The Interpretations of Dreams, (Greek, writing from Ephesus in the 2nd century AD)
Having sexual intercourse with one’s servant, whether male or female, is good; for slaves are possessions of the dreamer, so they signify, quite naturally, that the dreamer will derive pleasure from his possessions.
2.2 Strabo, Geography (Greek, writing from Turkey in 20 AD)
The temple of Aphrodite was once so rich that it had acquired more than a thousand prostitutes, donated by both men and women to the service of the goddess. And because of them, the city used to be jam-packed and became wealthy. The ship-captains would spend fortunes there, and so the proverb says: “The voyage to Corinth isn’t for just any man.”
2.3 Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae Book XIII (Greek author writing in the 2nd century AD)
[referencing temple slaves] …those trained fillies, stripped for action and posted in battle-line, stand in scarfs of finest weaving… From them, constantly and securely, you may purchase your pleasure for a little coin.
3.1 Marial, Epigrams 6:67 (Roman poet, first century AD)
Do you ask, Panychus, why your Caelia only consorts with eunuchs? Caelia wants the flowers of marriage – not the fruits.
3.2 Pliny the Elder, Natural History 11:48-50 (Roman writing in the 1st century AD)
In humans, [testicles] are weakened/broken both by injury and by the source of nature. And for that reason they acquire the third gender, on the side of hermaphrodites and eunuchs.
3.3 Josephus Jewish Antiquities, 4.8.40 (Roman-Jewish historian writing in the 1st century AD)
Let those who have made themselves eunuchs be held in detestation; and avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men for the increase of their kind: let such be driven away, as if they had killed their children, since they beforehand have lost what should procure them; for evident it is their soul is become effeminate, they have withal transfused that effeminacy to their body also.
4.1 Plato, Symposium (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)
…the true love of Achilles towards his lover Patroclus-his lover and not his love. The notion that Patroclus was the beloved one is a foolish error… for Achilles was surely the fairer of the two, fairer also than all the other heroes; and, as Homer informs us, he was still beardless, and younger far.
4.2 Plato, Symposium (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)
Those who start a love affair with boys of that age are prepared, I think, to be friends, and live together, for life. The others are deceivers, who take advantage of youthful folly, and then quite cheerfully abandon their victims in search of others. There ought really be a law against loving young boys, to stop so much energy being expended on an uncertain end. After all, no-one knows how good or bad, in mind and body, young boys will eventually turn out.
4.3 Sappho, fragment 1 V, (Greek female poet, 6th Century BC)
…You, Blessed One,
With a smile on your unaging face
Asking again what I have suffered
And why I am calling again
And in my wild heart what did I most wish
To happen to me: “Again whom must I persuade
Back into the harness of your love?
Sappho, who wrongs you?
For if she flees, soon she’ll pursue;
She doesn’t accept gifts, but she’ll give;
If not now loving, soon she’ll love
Even against her will.”
Come to me now again, release me from
This pain, everything my spirit longs
To have fulfilled, fulfill, and you
Be my ally.
5.1 Plutarch, Moralia (Greek, writing from near Athens in the 1st century AD)
The noble lover of beauty engages in love wherever he sees excellence and splendid natural endowment without regard for any difference in physiological detail. The lover of human beauty [will] be fairly and equably disposed towards both sexes…
6.1 Plato, Laws (Greek, writing from Athens in the 4th century BC)
The pleasure enjoyed by males with males and females with females seems to be beyond nature, and the boldness of those who first engaged in this practice seems to have arisen out of an inability to control pleasure.
6.2 Musonius Rufus, (Roman, writing near Rome 1st century AD)
Not the least significant part of the life of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess. For example, those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves, not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men; sometimes they pursue one love and sometimes another, and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible.
6.3 Plutarch, Moralia (Greek, writing from near Athens in the 1st century AD)
We class those who enjoy the passive part as belonging to the lowest depth of vice and allow them not the least degree of confidence or respect or friendship.
6.4 Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, (Roman, writing in Rome in the 1st century BC)
Everything comes down to this: that you rule yourself… [do not] do anything in a base, timid, ignoble, slave-like, or womanish way.
7.1 2 Enoch 34:1–2 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
…sin which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus in the manner of Sodom” and “abominable fornications, that is, friend with friend in the anus, and every other kind of wicked uncleanness which it is disgusting to report”
7.2 Sibylline Oracles, 5:166-68 (Jewish authorship, 2nd Century BC, written in Greek)
Among evil men thou shalt suffer evil, but shall remain desolate for whole ages, loathing the soil of the land: because thou didst seek after enchantments, adultery was in thy midst, with unlawful intercourse with boys, thou woman-hearted city, unrighteous.
7.3 2 Enoch 34:1 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
…have laden the whole earth with untruths, offences, abominable lecheries, namely one with another, and all manner of other unclean wickedness, which are disgusting to relate.
7.4 Pseudo-Phocylides 188-193 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
Do not outrage your wife by shameful ways of intercourse. Do not transgress with unlawful sex the limits set by nature. For even animals are not pleased by intercourse male with male. And let not women imitate the sexual roles of men. Do not surrender wholly to unbridled sensuality toward your wife.
7.5 Philo, On the Life of Abraham, 135 (Jewish authorship, 1st Century AD, written in Greek)
As men, being unable to bear discreetly a satiety of these things, get restive like cattle, and become stiff-necked, and discard the laws of nature, pursuing a great and intemperate indulgence of gluttony, and drinking, and unlawful connections; for not only did they go mad after women, and defile the marriage bed of others, but also those who were men lusted after one another, doing unseemly things, and not regarding or respecting their common nature, and though eager for children, they were convicted by having only an abortive offspring; but the conviction produced no advantage, since they were overcome by violent desire.
8.1 Plato’s Symposium, (Greek author writing in Athens, 4th century BC)
For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two, and whose name survives though, the thing itself has vanished. For ‘man-woman’ was then a unity in form no less than name, composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female…
[Zeus said] ‘I propose now to slice every one of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs. If they continue turbulent and do not choose to keep quiet, I will do it again,’ said he; ‘I will slice every person in two, and then they must go their ways on one leg, hopping.’ So saying, he sliced each human being in two, just as they slice sorb-apples to make a dry preserve, or eggs with hairs…
Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half in longing for its fellow would come to it again; and then would they fling their arms about each other and in mutual embraces yearn to be grafted together…
If in their embracements a man should happen on a woman there might be conception and continuation of their kind; and also, if male met with male they might have satiety of their union and a relief, and so might turn their hands to their labors and their interest to ordinary life. Thus anciently is mutual love ingrained in mankind, reassembling our early estate and endeavoring to combine two in one and heal the human sore.
Each of us, then, is but a tally of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the she-minions.
Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature. Some say they are shameless creatures, but falsely: for their behavior is due not to shamelessness but to daring, manliness, and virility, since they are quick to welcome their like. Sure evidence of this is the fact that on reaching maturity these alone prove in a public career to be men. So when they come to man’s estate they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children, but only do these things under stress of custom; they are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days.
A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind. Well, when one of them—whether he be a boy-lover or a lover of any other sort— happens on his own particular half, the two of them are wondrously thrilled with affection and intimacy and love, and are hardly to be induced to leave each other’s side for a single moment. These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another. No one could imagine this to be the mere amorous connection, or that such alone could be the reason why each rejoices in the other’s company with so eager a zest: obviously the soul of each is wishing for something else that it cannot express.