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

Another Addendum on GLBT Posts

Some “cleaning up” matters on these posts before going to the next stage.  I am rushing through some things in order to try to finish this series and be done with it. The series is tiring for me and I don’t want to neglect it again.

At any rate, there are some loose ends on the biblical survey to date that need to be cleared up.

  • Would the biblical writers, especially the Apostle Paul, have known of long-term, same sex, partnerships based on love? I have followed the likes of Robin Scroggs and Victor Paul Furnish in saying, “No.”  However, several classicists have pointed out that such pairings were well-known in the Greco-Roman world–something I did not know when I began this series. (Randle and others repeatedly cited Plato’s Symposium. The thrust of that discussion still seems to me to be Plato’s condemnation of pederasty in “mentoring,” but there are mentions of longterm male/male lovers. Ergo, Scroggs’ original claim, and mine by extension, was too strong.)   However, this does not settle the question of whether Paul would have known them or had them in mind in his condemnations. It is certain that he is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution. If, in Rom. 1, he is also including non-exploitive same-sex pairings more like marriage (which is possible), it is not because he knows the concept of sexual orientation, but because he considers such acts to be evidence of idolatry and “unnatural” behavior.
  • In 1 Cor. 11:14, Paul asks rhetorically, “Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him. . .?”  Here “nature” clearly means “custom,” because what is “unnatural” is cutting one’s hair.  So, it is possible (by no means certain) that Paul has the same meaning in mind in Romans 1 when he calls same sex pairings “unnatural.”  What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to “nature” or to natural law arguments.
  • I have said that Romans 1 is the only place where lesbian acts, not just male same-sex actions, are under review.  What I didn’t know until quite recently is that lesbianism may not even be mentioned in Romans 1.  The early church, up to and including St. Augustine, interpreted “Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones,” NOT as referring to female-to-female sex acts (i.e., lesbian behavior), but to male-female anal intercourse.  It is only beginning with St. John Chrysostom that the early church starts interpreting this verse as referring to lesbian actions.
  • If the earlier tradition is the correct exegesis, then nowhere in the Bible are lesbian acts discussed.  The focus is entirely on male/male acts and the concerns are purity/holiness concerns and concerns about men being treated “as women,” like conquering armies did in raping those conquered. Note the strong connection between condemnation of male homosexuality and patriarchy.

In my next post, I will briefly turn from the biblical texts to discuss the (little) we know scientifically about the causes of homosexual orientation. Science does not give moral guidance on its own. But, as H. Richard Niebuhr constantly reminded his students in Christian ethics, the first question to be asked is not, “What should I/we do?” but, “What is going on?”  This post will also include a brief discussion of the related-but-different issues surrounding transgendered persons.

From there, I will make some comments on ethical method and on hermeneutics (as it applies to our discussion).  My concluding posts will present a theological case for fully welcoming and affirming GLBT persons in the church:  Defending their civil rights in society (something I would expect even of “welcoming, but NOT affirming” folks since public justice matters are distinct from purity issues or moral issues for religious communities); blessing same-sex covenantal unions (whether or not the law grants them the status of “marriage,”); and ordaining those called to ministry with same standards of chastity used for heterosexuals (not restricting all gay or lesbian ministers to celibacy unless the same standard is required for heterosexual ministers).  I will conclude with a brief outline of a “single standard sexual ethic” for the church today–one which is open-ended and welcomes additions and corrections by my readers.

I will then update the index of all these posts and create a new page of indexed series.

I hope to post the science post this afternoon/evening.

July 23, 2008 - Posted by | GLBT issues, homosexuality


  1. A great deal of this post is based upon deconstruction and possibility, not on hard evidence, historical facts, or on solid reasoning.

    Your goal seems to be to place doubt in the reader’s mind that the texts actually mean what is naturally inferred from them and that the Early Church just could not have understood homosexuality as you do today (again leaving out the Holy Spirit’s direct action in the world).

    But you never really set forth a positive case (just as Scroggs and others fail to do). One problem is your exegesis of Romans 1. Notice that Paul here first says that God gave them over to the lust of their hearts. The lust on its own was managed before God gave them over to it. I don’t claim that there are men and women with homosexual desires, even in our churches. The natural effect of the fall is that men and women desire things they shouldn’t.

    But, because they desired to make God into the image that best suit them (which all idolatry is – making God into your own image), God gave them over to those desires so that they acted upon them (committed the homosexual acts). The acts themselves were why they were condemned.

    The idea of sexual orientation has over and over again been shown to be fluid. There are many who have desires for one or both of the sexes and act upon those desires. In this passage, Paul is not concerned with sexual orientation, not because he doesn’t consider it, but because it doesn’t matter. God’s boundary is in acting out, not in desires. We all have sinful desires, but acting upon them is what causes us condemnation and judgement. Had God not allowed them to commit such acts, then there would be no condemnation.

    I have a response to the 1 Cor. passage, but I will hold back, because I want you to document where you got your 3rd point.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | July 23, 2008

  2. I want to add that I did run across today a reference by Eusebius of Caesarea (born around 260 A.D.) speaking of the sexual union of “women with women and men with men” – so that at least bumps back this tradition 150 years prior to your assertion.

    However, I have yet to find any reference that clearly points out that Romans 1 refers to anal sex and not lesbianism.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | July 23, 2008

  3. I think so far you’ve done a great job with this series, with the obvious criticisms I have voiced for your future improvement on the series (maybe a book of the subject?).

    While the strongest counter argument here is this: While you agree Paul was condemning male-male sex as “sin,” you simply disagree with Paul. You cannot prove Paul did not know of long-term, committed same-sex relationships, and most of the argument rests on the definition of homosexuality.

    However, this is something the contemporary Church does frequently with other topics of Paul’s (as you noted), especially in reference to hair and women. If women were dissuaded from speaking in congregation for cultural reasons then, yet they’re free to do so now, couldn’t this also apply to same-sex relations?

    Perhaps you will also get to Genesis, because this is something I hear a lot. “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 23, 2008

  4. Oh yeah, and another problem with this from a theological point of view is in dealing with orthodoxy which holds the same view Paul shows here, that sex is for procreation. If all sex (in the view of most orthodoxy) is for procreation, homosexual relations automatically default.

    This is especially tricky when Orthodoxy holds Tradition and the Church at the same level as Scripture.

    Comment by Steven Kippel | July 23, 2008

  5. […] Addendum: Loose Ends. […]

    Pingback by Index of Posts on GLBT Persons in the Church: A Case for Full Inclusion « Levellers | July 25, 2008

  6. Romans 1:26-27 seems to me to be saying that homosexual activity is wrong. Here’s the passage:

    “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.”

    Paul’s point is that heterosexual sex is natural, whereas homosexual sex is unnatural.

    Does “natural” mean “custom” in this case? I don’t know. Paul still calls homosexual acts “shameless.” He says that there is a penalty, which indicates that God disapproves of it.

    Comment by James Pate | July 28, 2008

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