Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

SOA Vigil

The annual vigil to close the School of the Americas, Ft. Benning, GA, the U.S.’ own tax-supported school for state-supported terrorists and human rights abusers, is going on right now.  You can see pictures and keep up with developments here.  Several people, including many of the older youth, at my church are there this year.  Friends from the BPFNA and FOR will be there. My prayers are with them and my prayer for all the people of Central and South America are that this horrendous school will soon be closed. Far too many peasants, priests, nuns, and human rights workers have been killed in Central and South America by graduates of the SOA.  It’s time to padlock this “School of Assassins” forever.

November 17, 2007 Posted by | human rights., terrorism prevention, U.S. politics | 1 Comment

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion 7

Yes, Gentle Readers, after long neglect, I am returning to this series.  I am arguing (too slowly) for full inclusion (‘welcoming and affirming’) gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgendered persons in the church. I am arguing for a single sexual ethic that includes the options of monogamy or celibacy for everyone–instead of the current ethic of most churches whereby heterosexual Christians may be monogamous (and we wink at “serial polygamy,”–one spouse at a time) or celibate, but GLBT Christians are told they must either be celibate or “cured” of their sexual orientation.  If you are new to the series, please read the previous installments first:  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, this addendum, and 6.  Jumping straight to this post is not advised.  Also, even those who have read the entire series may want to refresh themselves before this post.

Rom. 1: 18-2:1.  :  For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of  those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.  So they are without excuse. For though 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 they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

       Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!  Amen.

       For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions.  Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another.  Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

    And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God have them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die–yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

   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. 


This is the most important biblical passage about our topic so far.  It is the only passage in which same-sex acts between women (lesbianism) is discussed along with male/male acts.  It is also the only passage which gives a theological rationale for condemning same-sex activity.  For many people, this is the passage which controls their decision on such matters.  For instance, the late Stanley Grenz, Canadian-American Baptist theologian and ethicist, said that without Romans 1, he would adopt a fully inclusive view toward GLBT folks like I am endorsing. Because of Rom. 1, Grenz coined the term “welcoming, but NOT affirming” for his view.  (See Stanley J. Grenz, Welcoming but Not Affirming: An Evangelical Response to Homosexuality. ) For many years, I came to the same conclusion.

The condemnation is clear:  There are no difficult translation issues as with other passages.  Same sex acts are condemned clearly without being overly graphic in description.  The reason is also clear:  Paul thinks all same-sex activity is “unnatural” and a result of rejecting the general revelation of God (a kind of “natural law” thinking) and embracing of idolatry–which has resulted in “a debased mind,” and unnatural passions, leading to all kinds of sin.

It is important, however, to see that Paul’s emphasis is not on “homosexuality.” It is not called more sinful than other things, nor even listed in the sins condemned in vv. 29-32.  We need to step back and see Paul’s larger purpose by seeing the structure of Romans as a whole. 

The church (or series of house churches) at Rome was not one of the Christian communities that Paul founded.  Unlike the recipients of most of Paul’s letters, most of the believers in Rome did not know him. Paul was about to visit them (he thought) before a planned missionary trip to Spain. (Paul was arrested and eventually brought to Rome in chains and executed without ever having the opportunity for the visit with the Roman Christians, much less the mission to Spain.) He wrote both to introduce himself and to outline his basic gospel message–along with some peacemaking, as we’ll see.

The house churches in Rome were divided between Jewish and Gentile Christians, each boasting and prideful toward the other.  For Paul, the gospel of justification by grace through faith denies all reasons for pride and boasting and demands reconciliation.  Romans is a careful argument for that message. 

Romans 1 is part of a larger argument that climaxes in Romans 5: Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus and we must reconcile with one another–boasting only in suffering for the sake of the gospel.  To get to this point, Paul must convince both Gentile Christians (Rom. 1) and Jewish Christians (Rom. 3) that they have no grounds for boasting–they all sin and they are all without excuse.  Jews are without excuse because of special revelation in God’s delivering acts and in giving of the Torah (Law). Gentiles are without excuse because even though they didn’t have the Law, they had enough general revelation to worship God (not idols) and to know the basics of morality.  Romans 1 condemns stereotypical Gentile sins (all the Jewish Christians were saying “Amen!”) and Romans 3 condemns stereotypical Jewish sins (and then the Jewish Christians said, “say what?” and the Gentile Christians said, “Yeah!”). 

The purpose of Romans 1 is not to make heterosexual Christians feel superior–it climaxes in 2:1 with the condemnation of the one who judges (i.e., condemns) as being a hypocrite because the judge does the same things. 

Having said that, it isclear that Paul understood same-sex acts as sinful.  He sees them as evidence of idolatry and rejecting God’s standards revealed through nature–that is, Paul sees the primary purpose of sexuality as procreative.  NOTE: I am not claiming that Paul sees procreation as the ONLY purpose of human sexuality even within marriage. I believe that to be a later doctrine–when Greco-Roman views of the body as inferior to the spirit led Christian theologians to elevate virginity and celibacy as somehow more holy than monogamous sex–a view that intensified after the work of St. Augustine, who projected his own past lusts onto everyone and distorted Christian views of sex in the West for centuries.  I don’t think Paul shared that view.  But Paul did believe that procreation was a primary purpose of sex and that same-sex actions denied this–and were thus unnatural.

Paul was trained as a rabbi. His thinking is very Jewish–even as transformed by the experience of the Risen Christ and his salvation.  So, doubtless Paul shares the thinking behind the condemnations we saw in Leviticus:  The need to separate the sacred from the profane.  Crossing categories is taboo; it pollutes. Thus, same sex acts (unlike in Leviticus, Rom. 1 does not specify intercourse–other sexual acts could have been included–and for the women most certainly were) are unnatural because they violate the “order of creation.” Paul has no concept of a created order in which some are naturally attracted to their own sex. That is outside his worldview–which is shaped by Levitical purity concerns, not by scientific study of human psycho-sexual nature.

The import of this text for the contemporary church discussion of GLBT inclusion depends not on its exegesis, but on how we understand it’s authority.  This is Scripture and I confess believing it to be inspired and authoritative.  But Paul’s intention here is to teach human sinfulness (without excuse) and the need for justification by faith. Are we to understand his background views about human sexuality to be equally inspired?  What authority do we give to new scientific perspectives which tell us that some persons are born attracted to their own sex?  Paul assumes that all people are heterosexual in orientation unless their idolatrous ways lead God to “give them up” to unnatural passions. He clearly sees same sex acts as the result of idolatry and excess lust (“burned with passion.”) Well, there is no denying that SOME same-sex activity, like much heterosexual activity, is a result of such things.  There are some feminists who adopted lesbianism for political reasons.  And we live in a culture that exploits women and promotes rampant promiscuity–and part of that ideology is to convince “Girls Gone Wild” that they should commit sex acts with other women (regardless of their sexual orientation) in order to increase the lusts of men. 

THAT kind of same sex activity (along with the promiscuous heterosexual activity) is clearly condemned by this passage. But what of those for whom attraction to their own sex IS natural and attraction to the other sex is unnatural?  One response to this is to deny that such people exist.  Everyone is heterosexual as Paul believed.  But does the inspiration of Romans mean that Paul had revealed scientific information? Would Paul have written Romans 1 in quite the way he did if he had known that some people are naturally oriented to their own sex? That not all same-sex couples are the result of “a depraved mind” and excess lust?

We cannot know.  But having information that Paul did not, we have to wrestle not only with the text, but with new questions, new challenges.  I think that relativizes the normativity of vv. 26-27 while reinforcing the overall argument of the epistle:  All have sinned; all are without excuse; none are righteous in themselves; none have reason to boast; none have a right to condemn others–all need justification by faith in Christ.

Update: Comments have made it clear that I have been less than clear in places.  D.R. Randle has been asking me from the beginning of my NT survey on this subject to deal with Plato’s Symposium.  He says (following, I suppose, people like Robert Gagnon, Thomas Schmidt, & Craig S. Keener) that because Plato deals with “homosexuality” in the Symposium and condemns it as “unnatural,” that Paul probably got his “natural/unnatural” terminology from Plato (I agree) and that this shows that Paul knew about same-sex monogamous love analogous to heterosexual marriage and rejected THAT.  Here, I disagree.  Plato didn’t know about modern biological understandings of sexual orientation anymore than the biblical writers did.  Nor did Plato think of marriage in terms of monogamous sexual love between equals–heterosexual or homosexual equals.  For Plato, women were inferior to men. Therefore, marriage was for procreative purposes and childrearing. One could have only an inferior kind of love between men and women.  The highest forms of love had to be between equals which meant that men had to love men and women had to love women.  This was traditionally done in the case of males when an older man, a mentor, undertook to educate and prepare an adolescent boy for manhood.  For Plato, this was to be without sex.  That is why we get the term “platonic love” or “platonic relationship” for deep, loving, friendships that are not sexual.  But this mentor-student relationship often degenerated in practice into what we, today, would call pederasty–sexual abuse of a minor of the same sex.  THIS Plato condemned. And these kinds of exploitive relationships (along with male prostitution) are what Paul understood when he condemned “homosexuality.”

Does this mean that if Paul HAD KNOWN of monogamous same-sex relationships between equals, he would have considered them “not sinful?” We CANNOT KNOW that. He might still have used the natural/unnatural analogy.  But that natual law tradition is not based on deep understanding of human sexuality–but on basic “this fits there” reasoning and on the connection with procreation.  Should we declare the understanding of sex “inerrant” rather than focus on what Paul is trying to teach (or what God is trying to teach through this epistle)? I contend that would be like those who insist that, contrary to modern botany, the mustard seed must really be “the smallest of all seeds” because Jesus said so in Matt. 13:32–instead of focusing on what Jesus was trying to teach about the Rule of God in the parable of the mustard seed.

In my next post, I will stay with Romans 1 and interact with NT scholar Richard Hays who comes to a “welcoming but not affirming” position. Hays is a brilliant scholar with whom I am often in agreement and whose work I usually celebrate. I want to show, however, that on this issue, his exegesis is better than his conclusion–because he violates the hermeneutical (interpretive) perspective that he outlines in his larger work.  After that, I will turn to a neglected word from Jesus that may bear directly on our subject.  After that, my biblical survey will be complete and I will turn to other considerations in coming to our final conclusion.

N.B.: I will be very busy with a writing deadline for several days. If I take awhile to get to your comments, rebukes, etc., please be patient. I am not ignoring you and will get back to you. You may have to discuss among yourselves for awhile, first, though.  Sorry it took me so long to get back to this series.

November 17, 2007 Posted by | Biblical exegesis, ethics, GLBT issues | 22 Comments