"I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith.' The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.
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 men are without excuse. 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. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator-who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment?"
Oh no. You're here. If you stumbled onto this entry through the Archives or the Categories then run, do not stop, until you get to my updated and concise entry on Romans 1. Trust me on this. It's for your own good. But if you're here because you went to the revised entry and actually elected to jump into this mess then fine. You were warned. Don't blame me. So go on. Start reading. Just remember to stop for dinner. And breakfast.
CAN WE TALK ABOUT...PAUL?
Before we jump into Romans, I Corinthians and I Timothy which are all attributed to Paul and contain the only passages in the New Testament that refer to homoeroticism, let's stop for a moment to look at the man Paul. In Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, Martti Nissinen offers some needed perspective:
"In various Christian communities, what Paul once wrote has subsequently been perceived as the word of God. Paul himself was flesh and blood, an educated male of Hellenistic Jewish origin whose worldview and moral standards, even after his conversion to Jesus Christ, had much to do with his cultural environment. Paul was a man of considerable self-awareness, whose letters were meant to be authoritative, indeed; nevertheless, when writing his letter to the Romans, he was scarcely aware that he was participating in the making of Holy Scriptures. His words in Romans 1:26-27 concerning female and male same-sex interaction, however continue to affect the lives of lesbian and gay persons at the turn of the third millennium C.E." (page 103).
In conservative Christian circles questioning Paul is tantamount to questioning God or Jesus and while I believe Paul was a man after God's heart and had clearly gone through a life-transforming experience on the road to Damascus, I'm concerned by our tendency to avoid any critical examination of some of Paul's teaching, even though Paul himself occasionally attributes his teaching to his personal views rather than that which comes from Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:6). Can I be so bold as to say that there's about three thousand miles of difference between questioning Paul's theology on certain points and questioning God or does that earn me the label of heretic? If so, I gladly wear it.
When speaking of women, Paul clearly reflects the culture of his time. "Women are to be silent in the church...for it is a shame for a woman to speak in church" (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and women are to dress in modest apparel, avoiding " braided hair, and gold or pearls or costly raiment (I Timothy 2:9). If Paul's teaching is the word of God and as relevant today as it was within the ancient world then what are we to do with conservative Christian female evangelists and pastors like Joyce Meyers or Jan Crouch? How is it that in many Christian circles going to church is an occasion to dress up in one's finest clothing including expensive jewelry and designer clothing? Somehow Evangelical Christians have managed to ignore these passages and yet cling to Paul's clearly negative message concerning homoeroticism, most certainly influenced by Pauls' exposure to negative same-sex activities in the ancient world and apply it across the board to gays and lesbians in our current world. As I mentioned in my treatment of Leviticus, I'm concerned by the obvious lack of consistency by many Christians in their treatment of Biblical teaching whether in the Hebrew or Christian Testaments. A continual charge made toward gay and lesbian Christians is that they avoid dealing with the passages that condemn same-sex attraction and yet, even if this were true, is the charge any less toward those who highlight the negative comments regarding homoeroticism while ignoring passages that would affect their own behavior and lives were they to emphasize them with the same rigor?
I now dismount my soap box to return to Romans 1 and because this is the passage that seems to be most quickly hurled at gay and lesbian Christians by the church, it might be valuable, and I hope interesting, to look at several general topics prior to jumping into the passage itself. You can come along with me or jump ahead to my concluding remarks
although you might miss something you'll later regret and I don't want to have to say I told you so!
SAME-SEX RELATIONSHIPS IN ANTIQUITY (GREEK AND ROMAN)
If you've done any reading on the topic of Homosexuality and the Bible then you've no doubt stumbled over the term pederasty. It wasn't until a recent class I took at Pacific School of Religion from Mary Tolbert, that I came to understand what pederasty meant and how it applies to the Biblical understanding of homoeroticism. I will fall heavily on notes from my class lectures. I deliberately have chosen homoeroticism since it refers to the sexual activity of the individuals involved rather than homosexuality which refers to their sexual orientation. Homosexuality is limited to homosexuals. Homoeroticism can be experienced by both homosexuals and heterosexuals.
Pederasty was an acceptable form of same-sex encounters within Greek literature. A critical component of these encounters were that they were always between two people of unequal status which is fairly clear in the word pederasty which in Greek is paiderastia and is translated in English as "love for boys." While these relationships were erotic in nature that doesn't necessarily mean they were always sexual. What we do know about pederasty is that it was used as an acceptable, desirable and important tool for educating young men into the adult culture. The older man (perhaps by only a couple years) was known as the erastes or active partner. His role in the relationship was to serve as the mentor to the youth who was considered the eromenos, the passive partner or the beloved. Plato, provides the ideal Greek model of pederasty in the Symposium:
"When an older lover and a young man come together and each obeys the principle appropriate to him - when the lover realizes that he is justified in doing anything for a loved one who grants him favors, and when the young man understands that he is justified in performing a service for a lover who can make him wise and virtuous - and when the lover is able to help the young man become wise and better, and the young man is eager to be taught and improved by his lover - then, and only then, when these two principles coincide absolutely, is it ever honorable for a young man to accept the lover."
In many ways, pederasty was a rite of passage for the youth into the world of adulthood and the education provided by his mentor concerned all areas of his life from education into the cultural world, business world, even preparing him to be a sexual partner of his future wife. While the relationship would often continue after the youth's marriage, any sexual activity was usually suspended at this point. The concern for many regarding pederasty was as in any rite of passage or initiation there was a risk and in this case the risk was that the young man would go to far, enjoying the passive role too much and in doing so remain there rather than maturing into the classical desired active male. While statistics from antiquity can never be known, by the appearance of pederasty in ancient literature as well as the attention it receives by writers such as Plato, Socrates and others, it was a common occurrence and well known throughout Greece and Rome. It's important to note that in the midst of this practice men continued to have sexual relations with women. They were not exclusively same-sex in their attractions as would be the case for self-identified gays and lesbians in our culture.
In Sparta pederasty was widespread but in a slightly different way. Returning to Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, Nissinen explains that "in Sparta and some other states pederasty had an established connection with military culture. Because 'only lovers can die for one another' military troops were sometimes arranged according to pederastic relations, so that a man and a boy would fight side by side, the older serving as a model and prodding the younger to heroic actions." (page 58) I hope the irony of this isn't lost on you considering the current debate on gays in the military!
Pederasty took a disturbing and unacceptable form by many in Rome. Rather than existing as a mentor-student relationship between two free persons, it manifested itself within Rome as a relationship between a free man and a slave. The motivation of the relationship was no longer centered in love and education but in the sexual pleasure of the active partner. The emperor Nero, known in literature for his homoerotic activities went so far as to 'marry' one of his slaves. He castrated the slave, dressed him up as a woman and bestowed upon him a woman's name. Nero's activity as the emperor no doubt spread throughout the ancient world, as in our own, and it seems more than likely Paul might have heard of these outrageous tales coming from Rome influencing his thoughts on same-sex relationships yet that's only an assumed possibility. What we do know is that Paul connected same-sex eroticism primarily with idolatry.
THE CLASSICAL WORLD VIEW OF PASSION
The greatest problem of pederasty, whether as practiced in Rome or in those instances when the young man would identify too closely with the role of the passive partner in Greek culture, according to both the moralists and the stoics, was that it lead to passion. In our context the word passion brings to mind desire and great emotion. We view passion as a possible force for the good. "Follow your passion" is a phrase used to inspire and a "passionate embrace" is one full of emotion that we want to experience with our loved one. You can be passionate about French cooking or passionate about proclaiming the Gospel. Yet the classical worldview of passion was primarily negative. Passion, or pathos, was synonymous with being "out of control. We see the word pathos, appearing several places in Paul's writings and in each case it denotes a negative force that voids man of self-control (Romans 7:5, I Thessalonians 4:5, Galatians 5:24, Romans 1:26). In Colossians 3:5 passion (pathos) is in general to be avoided. Again, there is no good passion for Paul. The motive to marry for Paul had little to do with love but was the best solution he knew to avoid being out of control sexually, which puts an unusual spin on a "Christian marriage" (I Corinthians 7:9). Likewise, same-sex relations, most likely with pederasty in mind, always led to being out of control, and were to be avoided just as leaving the more ideal state of celibacy to be abandoned for marriage. Paul believed the return of Jesus was imminent and therefore remaining single was to be desired over marriage which was a distraction and of little purpose.
PAUL'S VIEW ON NATURAL VERSUS UNNATURAL
Before taking on Paul's specific reference to natural and unnatural relations in Romans 1:26-27, it would do us well to understand both the ancient worldview on these words and the context in which Paul used the same words in other passages. The word nature or in Greek physis, from which we get the word for the study of physics, refers to things that are understood to be in keeping with its particular character or kind. (What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, by Daniel Helminiak, page 63). "For Paul, the world 'natural' does not mean 'in accord with universal laws.' Rather, 'natural' refers to what is characteristic, consistent, ordinary, standard, expected and regular" (What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality, page 64).
This definition is in keeping with other occasions when Paul wrote about what was deemed natural. For example, it was expected that a Jew would be a Jew by nature (Romans 2:14). You would always expect a Jew to be acquainted with the Law and to be circumcised for both of these were only consistent with what was standard for a Jew. Gender roles, as we discovered in our discussion on Leviticus, were required to provide clear boundaries between the superior male and the inferior female. Male honor would be compromised were the male to appear too feminine and lower himself to the inferior position of a female. For this reason, Paul says in I Corinthians 11:14 that "Does not nature (physin) itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him? but if a woman has long hair it is her glory?"
The two words (para and physin) that appear in some versions of the Bible as "unnatural", which we understand in our culture as being something perverse or contrived (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) seems to be an inaccurate translation. Para means either 'against' or 'beyond', so para physin means either that which is against or beyond nature. This takes us back to our recent look at passion and Paul's understanding that passion was equated with being out of control. Likewise to be beyond nature was to be out of control. You weren't doing what was expected but you were going beyond what was expected to the extreme. You weren't doing the ordinary thing but you were doing something that was out of the ordinary. While going beyond nature seems less negative than doing what is unnatural, it held very negative connotations for Paul. Remember again what Paul might have known concerning homoeroticism from the practice of Greek and Roman pederasty to the story of Nero's same-sex marriage. Paul and his contemporaries had no understanding of the sexual orientation of homosexuality since homosexuality is a relatively new concept. Instead the ancient moralists considered homosexual behavior to be "the most extreme expression of heterosexual lust" (Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32 by Dale Martin, page 342.) This same thought also led the moralists to conclude that gluttony was going beyond what was natural eating. Nature intends that normal people be satiated with a moderate amount of food and yet the glutton indulges excessively, going beyond the normal limits that would ordinarily satisfy. "Gluttony was 'too much eating'; homosexuality (homoeroticism) was 'too much sex'" (Martin, page 343). Accordingly, in the footnotes of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Third Edition, referring to Romans 1:26 it agrees that "Although widely read today as a reference to homosexuality, the language of unnatural intercourse was more often used in Paul's day to denote not the orientation of sexual desire, but its immoderate indulgence, which was believed to weaken the body (the due penalty)."
THE LETTER TO THE ROMANS: WHAT WAS PAUL'S INTENT?
All we need to do is look at the first thee chapters of Romans to see that Paul is making a strong case for the need of all people, both Jew and Gentile, to establish their faith in Jesus Christ. In Chapter 1 Paul speaks to the Jews of the sin of the Gentiles which they seem to have initially reported to him that resulted in this reply. In Chapter 2 Paul turns on the Jews and highlights their sin. In Chapter 3 Paul reaches the conclusion that "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus" (vs. 23, 24). With this brief overview, let's go ahead and look at the specific passage. You never thought I'd get here, did you? (Note: More recent scholarship has argued for an all Gentile audience. See Stanley Stowers: A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles.)
Let's begin with a simple question. Is the sin of Romans 1 homosexuality? No. The sin of the Gentiles that Paul addresses in this chapter is the sin of idolatry. In committing idolatry the people had dishonored God and in response God turns them over to dishonor themselves.The people actively chose to engage in one sin, that being idolatry but from that point on it was God who gave them over to other sins as a penalty for the original great offense. Before jumping into the eye of the storm (verses 26-27) take a minute to read verses 21 through 31 as I've provided here so you can more clearly see the pattern included in the text.
The Sin: For although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. (verses 21-23)
The Penalty: Therefore (on account of) God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the dishonoring of their bodies with one another. (verse 24)
The Sin: because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. (verse 25)
The Penalty: For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (verses 26-27)
The Sin: And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God...(verse 28a)
The Penalty: God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. (verses 28b-31)
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (verses 26-27)
From what we've already discussed, both here and with the passages from Leviticus, we have certain things we understand that seem to be very much in keeping with the words of Paul in Romans 1:26-27. We also need to be honest enough to admit that we don't know exactly what Paul might have meant or what Paul might have thought concerning our current day understanding of homosexuality. It seems clear that in verses 26-27 Paul has a negative view of homoeroticism and while we can't know with any precision what Paul meant, we can make several general assumptions:
* Unnatural (para physin) is better understood as that which is out of the ordinary or beyond the ordinary rather than as perversion.
* Sex was for the purpose of procreation and had to include a dominant partner (male) and a passive partner (female). Anything that didn't meet that normative form was para physin.
* One of the men in a same-sex encounter would dishonor himself by assuming the role of the passive partner and lowering his status to that of a woman. The other man brought dishonor on himself by allowing his kinsman to assume the role of the passive partner.
* Paul, as his contemporaries, saw all passions as uncontrolled and negative. As a result passion was always dishonorable and would obviously result in being consumed by it. The passion that a husband might have for his wife would be seen as equally negative. Paul's not so much interested in condemning homoerotic behavior but on uncontrolled passions and lack of moderation.
* In the ancient world there was no understanding of a homosexual orientation or a heterosexual orientation for that matter. Paul saw idolatry as the cause of same-sex eroticism rather than a person's sexual orientation or even a choice. It was a penalty exacted by God on the idolatrous Gentiles.
* Unnatural relations for women could refer to any sexual activity where procreation wasn't a possibility. This could include sex during menstruation, anal sex or homoeroticism. Unnatural relationship for women could also refer to any sexual activity that was beyond the ordinary. Because women were expected in every sexual encounter to be the passive partner it would be against nature for a woman to be the aggressor in a heterosexual encounter or to take the dominant role in sex with another woman.
There are those who use this chapter to condemn homosexuality but in doing so they're choosing to emphasize wrongly one portion of a progressive descent into sin by a particular people whose original sin was idolatry. Remember that everything that follows their adulterous practices are a direct result of God giving them up to behaviors that would cause them to dishonor themselves. Their deliberate choice was to practice idolatry but the rest was punishment imposed on them by God.
I would propose that this passage does not speak of gay men and lesbians within our culture but to the Gentile idolaters located in Rome. If anyone uses this passage as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality within our current world then there are several premises that they must hold as true.
* Everyone who is gay and lesbian was first an idolater, even those who realized they were homosexual from their earliest youth.
* Everyone who is gay or lesbian is that way because God made them to be homosexual. Homosexuality at this point ceases to be either a sexual orientation OR a choice.
* Everyone who is gay and lesbian is without faith and hates God, including those who proclaim Jesus as their Savior, whether they are practicing homosexuals or living as celibates within the church community.
For those of you who are gay and lesbian and continue to struggle with this passage I'd encourage you to consider these three points explicitly stated in Romans One and ask yourself some questions to see if Paul is referring to you in this writing.
* Did you practice idolatry prior to your first awareness of your homosexuality?
* Do you remember a fixed moment in time when you felt your heterosexuality (an exclusive attraction to the opposite sex) replaced with homosexuality (an exclusive attraction to the same sex)?
* Are you void of all faith and filled with hate for God? Are you filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice? How about envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, gossip, slanderer, insolent, haughty and boastfulness? Are you an inventor of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless?
* Would you describe your relationship with the person you love as centered solely in uncontrolled passions and lust?
For this passage to be speaking of all gays and lesbians and more specifically of you, you have to be able to answer in the affirmative to every question. If you answer no to any or all of them then perhaps it's time to let go of this passage as being what stands between reconciling your faith and sexuality. While there's a clearly negative word here regarding homoeroticism, it's exclusively a punishment of God for idolaters in Paul's understanding and so remains an empty closet for those of us today who are gay and lesbian and continue to worship God and God alone.
Anita Cadonau is the Founder and Administrator of ChristianLesbians.com, which has evolved into SisterFriends Together. She has spent nearly 30 years in pastoral ministry.
Note from Mary: When I was first struggling with my sexuality and my faith, I found Christian Lesbians. Anita's leadership and her delightful sense of humour made my journey easier. It was so good to know I was not the only one. I will forever be in her debt.
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