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

GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B)

Okay, when Hays gets to Romans 1, he argues on the exegetical level for a very similar reading of the text that I give: Paul is describing first the state of fallen Gentile humanity and then the state of fallen Jewish humanity in order to get to his conclusion that “there is no excuse,” all have sinned, Christ’s redemption is the only remedy, and there is no cause for boasting for either Jews or Gentiles.

Hays, “The unrighteous behavior catalogued in Romans 1:26-31 is a list of symptoms [italics in original]: the underlying sickness of humanity as a whole, Jews and Greeks alike, is that they have turned away from God and fallen under the power of sin (cf. Rom. 3:9).”  From here he goes on to make what he calls several important observations about Romans 1 and “homosexuality.”:

  • Paul is not describing the individual life histories of pagan sinners; not every pagan has first known the true God of Israel and then chosen to turn away into idolatry. When Paul writes, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” he is giving a global account of the universal fally of humanity.  This fall  is manifested continually in the various ungodly behaviors listed in vv. 24-31.  [But what if, I ask, a different understanding of sexual orientation means that some same-sex behavior, namely that in covenant relationship between two people for whom this is their natural expression of sexuality, is NOT an “ungodly behavior”–even if it bears surface resemblance to the same–but a variation in God’s creation like left handedness?]
  • Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order.  God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply. When human beings “exchange” these created roles for homosexual intercourse, they embody the spiritual condition of those who have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.”  [I agree that this is how Paul sees things. It assumes that all sex is for procreation.]
  • Homosexual acts are not, however, specially reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in this passage (vv. 29-31)–no worse in principle than covetousness or gossip or disrespect for parents.
  • Homosexual activity will not incur [emphasis in original] God’s punishment: it is its own punishment, an “antireward.” Paul here simply echoes a traditional Jewish idea. The Wisdom of Solomon, an intertestamental writing that has surely informed Paul’s thinking in Romans 1, puts it like this, “Therefore those who lived unrighteously in a life of folly, [God] tormented through their own abominations” (Wisdom of Solomon 12:23). [Here I agree completely with this exegetical reading. Paul understands gay sex as a result of human fallenness and idolatry.

Hays concludes that the contemporary church should welcome GLBT persons the way it welcomes all sinners, but should continue to teach that all same-sex acts are always sinful signs of human idolatry/fallenness. He concludes that the church should not bless same-sex unions analagous to heterosexual marriage and should ordain gay and lesbian ministers only if they are celibate (as it would single heterosexual ministers).

He reaches this conclusion for several reasons–and it is here at the hermeneutical level that I think Hays’ argument fails.:

  1. The Bible speaks sparingly about homosexual acts (contrary to the impression from many preachers), but it speaks with one voice. The canon is unanimous in condemnation.  (I think there is a possible text he has overlooked–subject of my next post in this series–but it is ambiguous. Hays could be right. But, his conclusion need not follow. The Bible is also unanimous in never explicitly condemning slavery, but Hays would not conclude that slavery that followed biblical patterns, was not race-based, etc. could be legitimate.  In the case of slavery, the general direction of biblical message as a whole undermines the commands/permissions of specific texts.  The relevant question for our discussion is whether or not this is also true for same-sex covenantal love.  This is the metaphor making act of interpretation that Hays has emphasized–the embodiment of the Word in churches as communities of moral discernment.
  2. Hays points out that the Christian tradition is even more condemnatory than the Scripture. He’s right. But the tradition is also almost entirely supercessionist in its treatment of Judaism–and Hays conclusion on that issue is that the tradition gets it completely wrong.
  3. Hays is worried that revisionists like myself are simply substituting personal experience for the authority of Scripture.  There is always that danger. I share Hays’ concern here–he and I are equally critical of the way that, since Constantine, the churches have blessed war and militarism in direct opposition to the witness of Jesus and the New Testament writers.  He and I share a loyalty to biblical faithfulness against faddish trends.  But Hays’ misses the way that his own experience is shaping his interpretation, especially at the hermeneutical level: He begins the chapter on “homosexuality,” with a story about a friend of his, a gay Christian named Gary, who died of AIDS. Hays has personal loyalty to this friend–a friend who saw his inability to remain celibate as an addiction and who rejected as “cheap,” the revisionist welcoming and affirming line that I am taking.  (It is even more obvious in the original article in Sojourners from which this chapter comes that Gary’s story, including his interpretation that God had cured him of same-sex desires before his death, drives Hays’ interpretation throughout.) Likewise, it is Hays’ experience with Jews in a post-Holocaust world that directs his re-reading of the NT and rejection supercessionist readings–as he admitted personally at a meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics under questioning from a former student. Thus, without the Holocaust, Hays would probably have drawn different conclusions–more in line with the supercessionism of the church through the centuries–on Israel and the Church.  So, experience and contemporary new insights affect ALL our readings of Scripture–Hays’ included.
  4. Hays’ normative conclusions turns Romans 1 into a set of rules: Do not ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians; do not sanction same-sex marriages or “Holy Unions.”  But Hays has said that we should not transform Scripture from one mode of ethical discourse to another (see previous post).

I think it makes a difference in our normative Christian ethics not only how we read Scripture, but with whom.  If black and white North American Christians had read the Bible together in the same church buildings, could white Christians have continued to justify slavery or segregation?  Likewise, the catalyst for many of us in re-reading Scripture on “homosexuality” was our experience of reading these texts in the company of gay and lesbian Christians–and the testimony of their lives of holiness.

The full theological argument for my revisionist position awaits.  But for Hays’ counterargument(s) to work, he has to modify several of his guidelines for using Scripture in moral discernment–or come to different conclusions on his treatment of the supercessionist texts. As it stands now, his conclusions on “homosexuality” show a use of Scripture that is in tension with the use he gives in Jewish/Christian relations.

Hays is codifying Paul’s presuppositions about the causes of homosexuality–and allowing no new information to challenge those presuppositions. I think that not only fundamentally distorts Paul’s argument in the structure of Romans (Paul could have used another illustration than same-sex acts for Rom. 1), but it turns an illustration in a moral argument into a rule. On every other issue in the book, Richard Hays is a better theologian.

We all have our blind spots and I conclude that this is one of his.

July 18, 2008 - Posted by | discipleship, ethics, GLBT issues


  1. I have been waiting 18 months for you to write this. Wouldn’t you know that you would write this while I am out of town, away from my books.(?!) I will have to go on the best of my memory for now. On the matter of supercessionism, Hays sees a tension within the New Testament itself. There are John and Matthew, which might have certain supercessionist tendencies. However, there is also Paul, who is in no way a supercessionisht (at least in Hays’ reading). Yes, experience (esp. of Holocaust) shapes his interpretation of the relation of Christianity and Judaism, but the anti-supercessionist case he finally makes, is within Paul himself. He does not use experience to ‘trump’ the univocal voice of Scripture. He uses experience to shape his choosing of Paul over Matthew/John. This is an important distinction. Hays still sees himself as being faithful to Paul.

    Homosexual activity is different. Unlike the question of supercessionism, there is univocal condemnation of homosexual activity in the New Testament (and old). So one would indeed have to use experience as a trump card over Scripture in order to make the revisionist argument you make. But on supercessionism, experience only helps us take Paul over John and Matthew; it does not overturn the univocal word of the New Testament witness.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 18, 2008

  2. Jonathan,
    The “univocal” nature of the biblical witness on “homosexuality” is why I compare it to the slavery issue. All the Bible texts were on the side of the pro-slavery persons–just the major biblical concepts of justice, love, equality, etc. were on the side of the abolitionists.
    Most NT scholars see Hays’ reading of Paul as non-supercessionist as tendentious–as motivated entirely by his experience with the Holocaust and Jewish Christian dialogue. I agree. He sees a tension between Paul and Matt./John because he wants to see one. I think his conclusions are nonetheless right–but that he fails to see the parallels between what he says there and what revisionists say about “homosexuality.”
    In my next post, I will open the possibility that the witness of Scripture is not as univocal as Hays thinks.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 18, 2008

  3. It’s been a long time since I read Hays’ book, but does he address the question of what kinds of same-sex relationships Paul is referring to? This seems to me the nub of the argument, at least as far as exegisis is concerned: is the reason that Paul is upholding these relationships as examples of the effects of idolatry that they’re taking place between members of the same sex or is it some other reason (that they’re exploitative or abusive, e.g.).

    My personal view is that at the end of the day this text is just too thin a reed to build a case on one way or the other, and that we are thrown back on reason and experience in light of general principles from Scripture.

    Comment by Lee | July 19, 2008

  4. Um, that’s “exegesis” of course.

    Comment by Lee | July 19, 2008

  5. It seems problematic to draw a connection between the NT’s stance on homosexuality and slavery; the NT’s position on these respective issues is quite different. Yes, the NT does not give a unilateral condemnation of slavery, but it does not say that emancipation is a sin, either. Based on this, we can begin to argue biblically for emancipation by looking at the overarching message of the NT. However, unlike emancipation, the NT, in no uncertain terms, says that homosexual sex is a sin. Thus, taking our hermeneutic for justifying emancipation and using that to condone homosexual sex is untenable. The NT’s positions on homosexuality and slavery are different. I would appreciate any critiques or comments.

    Comment by Ryan Hamilton | July 19, 2008

  6. Lee, Hays contends that Paul’s judgment in Romans 1 pertains to any same-sex act. The context does not seem to restrict this to simply exploitive pederasty or temple prostitution.

    I certainly agree (though I once did not) that this passage is too thin a reed to build a case on, one way or the other. Yet, it is here that the majority of (nonfundamentalist) traditionalists stand or fall. I chose Hays as the most sophisticated defender of this view, but my old boss, Richard Mouw (President of Fuller Seminary) says that without Romans 1, he could embrace the revisionist/inclusive viewpoint. The late Stanley Grenz, Marva Dawn, Willard Swartley, Tony Campolo, and other “not affirming” folk (who, unlike folk like James Dobson, do not try to stir up anti-gay hatred or pass legislation against their civil rights, etc.) say the same. It seems to me to turn an EXAMPLE Paul draws from “life as he knows it” for the purposes of a theological argument that is not even about sexuality and turn it into a rule forbidding all same-sex acts regardless of context or orientation, etc. That, Hays to the contrary, seems to me to violate Hays’ hermeneutical guideline of using biblical texts in moral reflection IN THE MODE IN WHICH THEY ARE WRITTEN.

    Ryan, it is true that the NT does not condemn emancipation (in fact, Philemon is the closest thing we have to a condemnation of Christian’s owning other Christians). The analogy is not perfect and I have yet to complete a positive case for condoning same-sex covenantal unions analogous to heterosexual marriage.

    However, the example of slavery shows the difficulty of all biblical interpretation. The first crisis of biblical authority in the U.S. was not German “higher criticism” (which mostly did not circulate into the U.S. until after the Civil War), but the crisis over slavery. The biggest problem the Abolitionists faced in debate with the slaveholders was that the latter seemed to have the better biblical case–whereas the Abolitionists “merely” had the spirit of the gospel itself.

    I also contend that most U.S. evangelicals have never really adjusted their hermeneutical theory. They abandoned slave holding because they lost a war, but they have not really learned to read the Bible in a way that would condemn slavery. I think, though I have not finished my case for this, that there are indications in Scripture’s overall liberating message that, combined with our very different understanding of sexuality, would lead us, like the Abolitionists, to take our stand with the spirit of the gospel over against a handful of prohibitive texts.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 19, 2008

  7. Michael, are you saying that you think Paul was a supercessionist? (we would need to define exactly what we mean by this term)

    Your claim that a majority of NT scholars see Hays your way sounds like a powerplay to me, or an “appeal to authority.” You would certainly have to substantiate this claim for it to be convincing to me. N. T. Wright certainly does not share your point of view. I realize that he is not the only major NT scholar, but he is certainly one of the world’s leading NT scholars.

    I have asked you and other bloggers several times over the last few years whether you think NT Wright is a supercessionist, and a lot hangs in the balance on that one.

    N. T. Wright could be added to your list along with Richard Hays, Marva Dawn, Stanley Gretz and others. See his commentaries on Romans 1 for why Romans 1 is not a thin reed, but rather a recapituation of a major strand within the Scriptures.

    N. T. Wright has some wise words as well about the comparison of ‘homosexuality’ with slavery.

    I will write more about this at The Ivy Bush when I get home next week and have my books in front of me.

    Michael, thank you so much for pushing me on this. Although we are not agreeing, you are doing exactly the sort of things that one would need to do in order to convince me to change my mind about this. You do not realize how much you are helping me.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 19, 2008

  8. sorry, Stanley Grenz (sp)

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 19, 2008

  9. Thanks for the clarification. When you say that our contemporary society has a “very different understanding of sexuality,” do you mean that we have become more egalitarian, in terms of relationships and sexuality, than the 1st century society? In other words, we should view Paul’s statements on homosexuality as a 1st century bias.

    Also, using “Scripture’s overall liberating message” in this kind of vague way seems dangerous. What would happen if this hermeneutic got in the hands of today’s secular pop psychologists. What’s to stop people from using “Scripture’s liberating message” to justify what ever they want to be liberated from, namely, any ethical directive they don’t like.

    Comment by Ryan Hamilton | July 19, 2008

  10. Sorry, the above comment is to Michael.

    Comment by Ryan Hamilton | July 19, 2008

  11. Jonathan,
    Re: N.T. Wright–Only his works on the historical Jesus and the early church have I read closely. I have just skimmed his stuff on Paul, so I couldn’t say if he is a supercessionist or not.

    Is Paul a supercessionist? Paul clearly says that God has not abandoned Israel, but there are other tensions within his thought whereby he seems to see only Jewish CHRISTIANS as having any future in God’s saving economy–and this is little different than John or Matthew.

    Since there is so little said about same-sex matters in Scripture, I cannot see how Romans 1 (whose focus is elsewhere as even Hays says) could be a recapitulation of a “major strand within the Scriptures.” At BEST, it could be considered a recapitulation of a very minor strand within the Scriptures–and then we have to take all the concerns of purity, idolatry, ritual cleanliness, and violence/exploitation in those other fragments of passages into account.

    One of the things that boggles my mind (except I remember I used to do the same thing) is that folk like Hays (Grenz, Wright, etc.) are very careful to discuss these dimensions with the OTHER handful of biblical texts on “homosexuality,” but then toss them aside when considering Romans 1–even though the overall background concern of idolatry is clear!

    Ryan, I agree that there are dangers in my hermeneutical strategy. There are no ways of reading Scripture that do NOT involve danger. It’s a dangerous Book bearing witness to a dangerous GOD. Different reading strategies entail different risks–but there are no risk-free reading strategies where Scripture is concerned. Nor should there be.
    That’s why we must read in the community of saints–and in the presence of strangers.

    As for how I am interpreting sexuality altogether, you’ll have to wait for one or two other installments for that. I can’t do everything at once.

    Jonathan, again: Thanks for being patient with me when I neglected this series.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 19, 2008

  12. Thanks for your comments. I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say.

    Comment by Ryan Hamilton | July 19, 2008

  13. Michael, could you point me in the direction of a few books that deal with the “hermeneutical dangers” inherent in reading Scripture. I haven’t really considered this idea that “there are no risk-free reading strategies” concerning Scripture, and would like to look into it. Again, I appreciate it.

    Comment by Ryan Hamilton | July 19, 2008

  14. Ryan, if you’ll give me a few days, I think I can work up such a beginning bibliography.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 19, 2008

  15. My point in calling Romans 1 a “thin reed” is the same as what I take Michael’s to be: it may recapitulate a major theme of the Bible, but that theme is idolatry and the consequences of turning away from God, not the wickedness of same-sex relationships. I think Hays, et al. are trying to make it bear more weight than it can with respect to this question since Rom. 1 isn’t “about” same-sex relationships in a major way, plus I simply don’t think we can really know what kind of relationships Paul was referring to or why he thought they exhibited the consequences of idolatry. Fortunately, I don’t think we have to make up our minds on that particular exegetical question to make an informed judgment.

    Comment by Lee | July 20, 2008

  16. “I also contend that most U.S. evangelicals have never really adjusted their hermeneutical theory. They abandoned slave holding because they lost a war, but they have not really learned to read the Bible in a way that would condemn slavery.”

    Michael, could you elaborate further at some point on what precisely this pre-antebellum hermeneutic looks like and how it’s still being used today? Obviously, our modern-day positions on issues such as slavery have changed but I’m not clear as to how the hermeneutic has managed to stay the same (apart from being grounded in a privileged social location).

    Having read your article on [b]aptist hermeneutics (based on McClendon, Day, King, Jordan, et al.), I think I have a good sense of how you understand hermeneneutics ought to be done now (as well as how it was done in the past by biblically-grounded, socially-progressive Baptists). And, thus, I’m assuming that this would be your preferred alternative to the pre-antebellum hermeneutic you refer to above.

    Comment by haitianministries | July 21, 2008

  17. Yes, Dan. Basically, I think the antebellum hermeneutic not only showed a privileged social location from which to read the texts, but also showed a focus on direct commands to the neglect of larger canonical (usually narrative) themes. It also was a “flat” reading that treated every biblical text as of equal weight and a direct word from God, etc.
    These are all still very common among Baptists and evangelicals in the USA.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 22, 2008

  18. I should point out here that you have compared same-sex relations to slavery a few times now, and I don’t think they’re comparable. While the Church is to have “no slave or free” it is possible to hold gays and straights on this same level within the church without necessarily affirming the deeds of either the master, slave, gay or homophobe.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 23, 2008

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