Ted Grimsrud—August 28, 2017
The first two posts in this series on “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion” tell the story of my thirty-year journey as an advocate for welcome and offer reflections on some of what I have learned from that journey. I told there how I was stimulated to write about these subjects again by an assertion by Mennonite pastor Harold Miller in a blog post discussion on the Mennonite World Review site that I had failed to “engage with the strongest biblical arguments” (“My Denomination Swings Left,” [July 19, 2017]). Challenged by that assertion, I initially set out to demonstrate that I did want to (continue to) engage such arguments. I figured I would do that with an extended engagement with Harold’s own articulation of those arguments.
As it turned out, I ended up writing something quite a bit different. However, as a two-part appendix to those first two articles, I want to go ahead an offer my response to Harold’s version of the biblical arguments. What follows may seem dry and overly detailed to many people, so I offer a “reader beware.” Unless you are particularly interested in close-grained debates about the meaning of a few verses in the New Testament, what follows might not really be worth your time. That warning given, I do think there is quite a bit at stake in this part of the discussion. A lot hinges on the restrictive reading of these particular verses, since these are two of the main biblical bases for their views. The soundness of “the strongest biblical arguments” would seem closely connected, then, to the soundness of the restrictive perspective in general.
In this first post, I will respond to Harold’s essay, “Romans 1:18-32 – Interpretations I Have Met” from his Interacting with Jesus blog (July 8, 2016), and in the second post, I will respond to a somewhat shorter post on the same blog, “1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – A Strong Interpretation” (July 12, 2016). My main interest with my two additional posts is to illustrate the kinds of arguments I have been using in exploring the meaning of the biblical passages. I have and do understand myself to be responding to “the best biblical arguments” that support the restrictive approach—and here I will do so in some detail with regard to those arguments as presented by Harold. I am open to further discussion concerning the interpretation of these texts, of course. But that is not my main intent here. It’s merely to show the kind of thing I have been doing the past 30 years as I have sought to have a conversation around the Bible with other Mennonites about issues many of us disagree about. My website, Peace Theology, contains many other examples.
Harold’s admirable efforts
Harold Miller, to his credit I would say, for many years has devoted energy and web space to educating interested readers concerning the Mennonite discussion about “homosexuality.” He began that ministry, as far as I remember, when he was a pastor in upstate New York and has continued since he moved to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley a few years ago. Harold’s writing has been clear, well documented, and wide-ranging, always with an irenic tone. He has decided to disallow comments on his blog, so there had not been a lot of back and forth. But his writing has made a significant contribution.
Harold has also been an active presence in many online venues I have been aware of and probably many more I have not known about. He has taken the trouble to make many thoughtful and non-defensive comments on my blog over the years. He has also been an active participant in many denominational settings, often as a delegate to national conventions. While his writings do admittedly not have the scholarly depth of published Mennonite professors such as Willard Swartley and Mark Thiessen Nation, I think it would be accurate to call Harold the foremost advocate in Mennonite Church USA for the restrictive approach—at least in terms of sustained and prolific contributions to the discernment dynamics.
Recently, Harold took part in a group of eight MC USA pastors in the Harrisonburg area in a sustained conversation of these issues, especially in relation to biblical interpretation. His two lengthy blog posts that I will respond to were originally prepared for and presented to that group. On December 13, 2016, Harold posted some interesting reflections on the group’s work at the conclusion of their time together.
So, while I will be pretty critical of Harold’s presentations in what follows, I want to start by expressing my gratitude for his courageous initiative in attempting to keep a conversation going, for his consistently irenic tone, and for the wide-ranging, thoughtful, and clearly expressed content he has shared. We do share in common a disappointment that MC USA has not been more committed to biblical conversation over these years.
Interpreting Romans 1:26-27
Harold organizes his comments on the Romans passage around a list of six “interpretations I have met.” These are six different ways that inclusive interpreters have tried to show how Paul’s comments in these verses do not support the restrictive view that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. Harold seeks to refute those interpretations and show that, indeed, present day churches should still follow what he sees to be Paul’s prohibition. I will show why I think Harold does not make his case successfully.
In this discussion, Harold provides little analysis of the broader context of these two verses in the first part of Paul’s letter to the Romans. He focuses on the two verses (1:26-27) without expending much effort to look at the broader passage (say, 1:18-32 as a section that plays a key role in the larger section, 1:18–3:31). He does make mention briefly of the 1:18-32 section in his first interpretation, but this does not play a noticeable role in the rest of his essay.
He pays little attention to the possibility that Paul develops an argument here, the consideration of which we should always keep in mind as we seek to understand what is said in these two particular verses. Instead, Harold emphasizes just the two verses. Doing so makes it easier for him to operate with the assumption that Paul’s agenda in saying what he says in 1:26-27 is simply to provide normative directives for Christians concerning “homosexuality.”
I have concluded, on the other hand, that when we are attentive to the broader argument Paul develops in the first part of Romans it becomes clear that “homosexuality” as an issue among Christians was not at all part of his agenda. The two verses that Harold interprets to be “bad news” for LGBTQ Christians are in fact simply a small part of Paul’s argument in chapters 1–3 that God’s mercy as revealed in Jesus Christ is extraordinarily radical and is “good news” for everyone. This careful, detailed argument in favor of God’s mercy in the context of Romans as a whole serves Paul’s more practical argument seeking to bolster the unity of the Christian community in Rome. Gentiles and Jews alike are welcome in the church of Jesus Christ.
So, in trying to discern the relevance of Romans 1:26-27 for our concerns regarding LGBTQ inclusion, I believe we should try to identify the meaning of the larger section 1:18-32, in the context of 1:16–3:32, before jumping directly to the two verses that Harold focuses on. We should get a sense of what Paul’s agenda was before asking how his words in specific verses might apply to us. That Harold does not consider the bigger picture already raises a concern about whether he is actually going to be able to shed much light on the meaning of the text.
As I noted, Harold does nod briefly to the broader context in his discussion of the first “interpretation.” He acknowledges that the section 1:18-32 is part of Paul’s “sting operation” meant to challenge the self-righteousness of his Jewish-Christian readers (that is, the readers who are most like Paul himself was before he met Jesus). But Harold ignores this point in the rest of his essay, proceeding as if the “sting operation” has no relevance to how he reads and applies the text. For example, there is no wrestling with whether his own use of 1:26-27 to, in effect, “point fingers” at married LGBTQ Christians as engaged in unrepentant sin might itself actually be contrary to the spirit of the argument Paul makes here.
The six “interpretations”
Harold’s strategy in his essay is to refute the main arguments against using Romans 1:26-27 as our main basis for concluding that the Bible teaches that all forms of same-sex intimacy are contrary to God’s will. He does so by working through his list of six different interpretations of how to read these verses in ways other than as forbidding same-sex intimacy. At the end of this discussion, he concludes, “Surely we no longer have Scripture as a trusted authority when we hold a stance on same-sex relations that must rely instead on an interpretation with a weak probability of being right.” So, this is the question—does Harold actually establish that his interpretation has “strong exegetical certainty” (as he claims at the end of his essay)?
In brief, these are the six interpretations: (1) “For Paul, 1:18-32 had no value except as a ‘sting’ to catch judgmentalism.” (2) Romans 1:26 might not refer to lesbianism. (3) “Paul was only condemning homosexual acts connected to temple worship.” (4) “This passage refers to heterosexual persons who engage in homosexual acts.” (5) “This passage refers to abusive, exploitative same-sex relations.” (6) “This passage refers to same-sex relations driven by excessive lust.”
The way Harold’s argument seems to work is that if he can show that none of these ways of denying the conclusion he has come to are valid, by default the passage must mean what he thinks it means and be applicable to our present day in the way he asserts. And what Harold thinks these verses mean, as we will see, is that Paul speaks directly to our context with a message that all possible expressions of same-sex sexual intimacy are wrong. That is, Paul’s negative teaching here provides a basis for us making a generalizing prohibition that applies across the board.
In making this assertion, though, Harold does not address the question of who Paul actually is describing. We learn from what precedes his mention of men lusting after other men that he describes what pagans caught in the spiral of idolatry do. He does not refer to Christians doing these behaviors and he does not directly present ethical directives for Christians. He simply describes problematic pagan behavior; he does not make general statements about “homosexuality.” So, already we have reason to doubt that these verses are best understood as “prohibitions” directed at Christians.
However, for the sake of evaluating Harold’s argument on its own terms, let’s look at this “refutations” of these six interpretations.
The first interpretation
First, Harold addresses the view that the longer passage, 1:18-32, had no value except as a “sting” to catch judgmentalism. Harold actually refers to my writings here. He grants a point that I make, that “Paul’s purpose in writing the passage was not to tell the Romans what he thinks about homosexuality.” Rather, Paul uses this example of pagan behavior to set up his readers for his challenge beginning in 2:1 that they are being self-righteous in pointing fingers at the pagan misbehavior and that in doing so they miss the deeper truth that they are just as guilty of idolatrous behavior in their own way.
As it turns out, though, after granting this point, Harold ignores it. He proceeds during the rest of his essay to act as if Paul’s purpose was to tell his readers “what he thinks about homosexuality.” Paul, in fact, as Harold interprets 1:26-27, issues the most thorough New Testament teaching that tells us what to think about “homosexuality.” Paul telling us what to think about “homosexuality” here gives Harold “textual certainty” for his rejection of the validity of same-sex marriage.
Harold goes on to say that I am “wrong in suggesting we do not learn what Paul thinks about homosexuality.” Well, what I would say is that we do learn something of what Paul thinks about the activities of people who are caught in a spiral of idolatry that leads to profound injustice (or “wickedness”—adikia, 1:31)—including, most notably, being consumed with and acting on lust. Paul thinks that dynamic is indeed wrong and shows the dangers of idolatry. But these particular kinds of acts are not the sum of “homosexuality” any more than the idolatrous, lustful, orgiastic behaviors of men with women are the sum of “heterosexuality.”
Paul does not mention “homosexuality” here; he mentions the “excessive passion” of men and women that leads to unjust/wicked behaviors. And he does this in order to illustrate the negative spiral of the idolatry of pagans. And does that in order, in chapter 2, to challenge his readers in relation to their own dynamics of idolatry that lead them to sin just as badly as the pagans. Recognizing Paul’s agenda should challenge present day Christian readers not to extrapolate Paul’s general view of “homosexuality” in order to prohibit same-sex marriage but to ask how is it that we echo the attitudes and behaviors of those Paul is most concerned about in this passage—self-righteous Christians.
The second interpretation
Harold’s second point that he “refutes” is the idea that Paul might not actually refer to “lesbianism” in 1:26. This issue is not really central to the overall argument of this passage. The restrictive view that Paul is indeed opposed to all same-sex intimacy does not stand or fall on how we interpret his reference to women’s “unnatural” sexual behavior—nor would a conclusion that Paul may be referring to male/female sex when he mentions women here itself refute the restrictive argument.
At the same time, there are several problems with Harold’s argument here. For one thing, to equate women “who exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural” with “lesbianism” is a huge leap. Even if Paul has female/female sex in mind, he is talking about particular acts, not a category of people.
Harold mainly just gives quotes from various scholars on this point and does not discuss the verse itself in any detail. He ignores my main argument (that echoes others’) that verses 26 and 27 themselves are ambiguous in their meaning of the reference to women. It is not at all clear whether the “women” and “likewise” in 1:26 link with the “consumed with passion” or the “one another” in 1:27. In one case, Paul would be saying that what was “unnatural” was for the women to be “consumed with passion” and acting out sexually, presumably with men. In the other case, Paul would be saying that what was “unnatural” was for the women to be having sex with “one another,” i.e. other women.
If we read into the text an antipathy toward “homosexuality” (as Harold obviously does), then we will conclude the latter option. However, if we are attentive to the surrounding verses and recognize that often in the NT and especially in Paul’s writings, we are warned about being “consumed with passion,” we will likely recognize that Paul probably had the former option in mind. My main point, though, in relation to the broader issue from my last post about Mennonite conversations, is that to challenge the notion that Paul had in mind female/female sexual acts here (much less that he had “lesbianism” in mind) is a consequence of simply reading the text and trying to understand what Paul says, not a result of denying biblical authority or of wanting to twist the meaning of the text to conform to what we want to find there.
The third interpretation
The third point is that “Paul was only condemning homosexual acts connected to temple worship.” I will bypass this one because it is not a point that I make in my interpretation of Romans 1:26-27, and I don’t think anything of significance concerning this text hinges on making this argument.
The fourth interpretation
The fourth interpretation, like the third one, refers to a point of view that I do not see as very significant: That “this passage refers to heterosexual persons who engage in homosexual acts” seems like an anachronistic idea to me. I would not argue that Paul has in mind people “who are heterosexual by nature” engaging in same-sex sex. Whatever he did mean by the acts he mentions, I can’t imagine it was anything about people being either “heterosexual” or “homosexual” by nature since I don’t think that distinction would have been part of his understanding of human identity.
However, in refuting this interpretation, Harold does discuss an important point. He writes about what he thinks Paul had in mind by his use of the term “against nature” of the acts that are mentioned (however, the acts are not described, so it is unclear what Paul actually means). Harold suggests, though, “Paul had in mind … [going against] how the human body fits sexually or against the order of the world as designed by God and revealed through the stories and laws of scripture.” That is, Harold seems to mean, we learn from “nature” (i.e., how human bodies fit sexually as designed by God) that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong under any circumstances.
I think Harold’s use of this cryptic statement of Paul’s about “unnatural acts” seems to be a case of taking cultural biases and attributing them to God’s law in nature—and denying the possibility of any exceptions (i.e., “since it is ‘natural’ for men and women to be together, any exception is sinful”). Such a move reveals a sensibility that Jesus opposed—using cultural biases to hurt people, drawing inappropriate conclusions from superficial physical characteristics, and using “revelation” in order to control and punish vulnerable people. Natural law is deeply problematic when it turns cultural prejudices into divine revelation. Likewise, when it creates universal laws with no exceptions simply from what the majority of people are like. No matter how “natural” opposite-sex sexual intimacy might be, there is no inherent reasons why exceptions to the “norm” have to be seen as problematic.
Even with all this, Harold’s argument about what is “natural” does not necessarily even speak to the “homosexuality” issue. If Paul refers to a kind of “natural law” here (though I think he is not), he could just as easily be saying that being “consumed with passion” and engaging in promiscuous and orgiastic sex is “unnatural” as saying that male/male sex is. And I think the former possibility fits the broader context here better than the latter.
The fifth interpretation
The suggestion that “this passage only refers to abusive, exploitative same-sex relations” is challenged by Harold. He argues that because Paul leads “with the reference to female-to-female sexual relations (1:26) which have no such associations,” then it is unlikely he has abuse and exploitation in mind. To reinforce this point, according to Harold, “the words ‘consumed with passion for one another’ (1:27) suggest something consensual rather than something exploitative. The language of mutual desire shows that Paul was referring to relations of attraction and affection rather than domination or prostitution…. He described a practice that is virtually indistinguishable from homosexuality as we know it today.”
As far as I know, this is a unique interpretation by Harold. He cites no scholars in support of his argument. Paul’s “consumed with passion for one another” indeed need not have referred to abusive behavior. However, I don’t think that that phrase would likely have been used in reference to “relations of attraction and affection.” It makes the most sense to think of consensual orgy-like contexts—something well known in Rome among the cultural elite (the ones most likely to be seen as idolaters by Paul and his readers).
With Harold’s concluding thought, “Paul described a practice that is virtually indistinguishable from homosexuality as we know it today,” he seems to have forgotten what he wrote earlier: “Paul’s purpose in writing the passage was not to tell the Romans what he thinks about homosexuality” but to set them up for his critique that starts at 2:1. So, if Romans 1:26-27 has an ethical lesson for us, it is to found in its role in deepening Paul’s critique in Romans 2 of self-righteousness, finger pointing, and obliviousness to one’s own idolatry. The ethical lesson is not to be found in Paul’s summary of pagan idolatry (which is not to say that Paul does not disapprove of what he writes of in 1:18-32, just that that is not his main concern here—and it shouldn’t be ours if we are to grant Paul’s teaching authority).
The sixth interpretation
The interpretation that probably is the one that is closest to my own argument is the final one. This interpretation suggests that “this passage refers to same-sex relations driven by excessive lust” (though, I would add, that I think the reference to women in 1:26 more likely has female/male sexual acts in mind).
Harold refutes this interpretation with: “Even if it is true that ‘consumed with passion’ means excessive, wrongful lust, a strong case can be made that Romans 1 applies to committed same-sex couples.” The “strong case” is based on two points—(1) Paul, “like all Hebrews,” would have believed that every possible kind of same-sex relations was “sin.” Therefore, obviously, he would have seen “even committed, loving same-sex relations” as, by definition, examples of out of control desire. (2) In any case, “out-of-control desire is an apt description for a dominant pattern in today’s male couples, even long-term ones.”
The logic for Harold’s first point seems to work as follows: First, all Hebrews of Paul’s day saw same-sex relations as sinful. Second, Paul as a Hebrew would certainly have shared this view. And, third, therefore Paul would have understood his excessive lust charge to apply to all possible same-sex partnerships, including covenanted, monogamous marriages. However, Harold gives us no evidence to support his assertion that “all Hebrews of Paul’s day saw same-sex relations as sinful.” It is hard to see how he possibly could, given our lack of access to data about what “all Hebrews” thought about anything. However, without such evidence, the rest of the line of logic has no basis. Yet, this is Harold’s main basis for “refuting” the sixth interpretation.
Certainly, whatever basis there is for applying “out of control desire” as a descriptor of “today’s male couples” (a descriptor I would reject), it can’t serve as evidence that Paul was thinking of even covenanted, monogamous same-sex partnerships “as sin.” The term “out of control desire” has no meaning if it applied to same-sex couples who, like opposite sex couples, precisely pledge to limit their sexual expression to their partner. As well, even Harold’s evidence (questionable as it is) by definition applies only to men, not to all same-sex couples.
Harold states in his “refutation” of the sixth interpretation that “excessive lust was not the reason those same-sex relations were sinful.” This turns out, though, simply to be an assertion. He does not provide any evidence to support his claim. I argue, on the other hand, that “excessive lust” was in fact quite possibly the only reason Paul had for seeing the behaviors he alludes to in 1:26-27 as problematic. Remember, he is not writing a treatise on sexual sin here. All he means to do is illustrate the injustice of pagan idolaters in order then to discuss the injustice of religious idolaters in Romans 2.
The “exchange” Paul talks about here is the trading of trust in God for trust in idols—an exchange that leads to a spiral of injustice/wickedness, as Paul illustrates with his “vice list” at the end of Romans 1. That spiral as applied to the pagan idolaters would stereotypically, for Paul’s audience, result in out of control behavior, including replacing healthy intimacy with “excessive lust.” And, as we know, Paul uses the pagan idolatry to make his main point, which is about the idolatry of his religiously rigorous readers.
Harold concludes his Romans 1 essay by suggesting that those who want to bless same-sex marriages likely accept an “interpretation that Paul was saying what [they] think he should say.” Let me suggest a few ways that Harold may be vulnerable to that same charge.
(1) Harold suggests, following New Testament scholar Richard Hays, that same-sex marriage partners “embody the spiritual condition of those who have ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie’” (Hays’s emphasis). I would say that this statement ignores the actual content of the passage. Paul refers only to certain behaviors, not to people in a committed relationship. If anyone in this section of Romans 1:18–3:32 embodies the problematic “exchange” it would be those who are the rhetorical focus of Paul’s argument about sin and idolatry—the self-righteous religious people Paul cites at 2:1 who are “doing the same thing” as the pagan idolaters.
(2) Harold suggests that when Paul refers to acts as “contrary to nature” he had in mind people acting “against how the human body fits sexually.” I note, though, that Harold seems to act as if Paul is writing a discourse on sexual sin here rather than showing that religious self-righteousness can be as idolatrous as pagan spirals of injustice/wickedness. There is nothing in the text itself that suggests Paul was thinking of how “the human body fits sexually.”
(3) Harold concludes that by “consumed with passion for one another” (1:27), Paul had in mind “relations of attraction and affection”—thinking in terms of covenanted, love-based partnerships. I note that this is not the normal sense of what “consumed with passion” means. I don’t know of any scholar who writes on Romans 1 who has proposed this reading.
(4) Harold states as a certainty, “Paul, like all Hebrews, saw same-sex relations as sin.” I note that he gives no evidence to support of this statement. How could we know what “all Hebrews” believed? Worse, Harold uses this statement as a key element in his argument that Paul’s words apply to today’s same-sex marriage. That Paul believed all possible same-sex relations are sinful is what Harold is supposed to show, not simply assert.
(5) Harold concludes: “Paul in Romans 1 gave an amazingly accurate description of a pattern still today seen in male couples.” I respond by pointing out that Harold simply hasn’t made the case that, first of all, Paul makes general (and negative) statements about same-sex intimacy. And, second, to think that Paul, 2,000 years ago, could possibly describe a 21st century phenomena that is, so far as we know, unprecedented in human history (the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage) seems far-fetched. And, again, Harold treats these two verses as if Paul’s intention with them is to give some kind of general assessment of “homosexuality” rather than reading them in the context of the rest of the first part of Romans and its critique of religious insiders for their self-righteousness.