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.
[Appendix B, a lengthy discussion of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 with extensive comments from Harold Miller, may be found by following this link.]
26 thoughts on “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on Romans 1:26-27”
Ted, you’ve written a lawyer’s brief to knock down Harold’s arguments. It’s not a suspect form of communication—I’ve written many myself. But fair-and-balanced a lawyer’s brief is not. It’s very important in this instance to go back and read what Harold actually wrote.
A line-by-line analysis of your respective arguments may be important to the two of you, but for me what matters is the teaching of Romans itself. I’ll go directly there.
1. The behavior of the empire’s best and the brightest (the emperors Caligula, Claudius & Nero included) is described in 1:24-32. This behavior reveals the ugly consequences of exchanging the glory of YHWH for imperial glory (1:23), “the truth about YHWH for a lie” (1:25).
Is it significant (as Ted asserts) that Paul does not speak about people who manifest these same behaviors but have NOT made the same exchange? No, because that is an empty set. YHWH’s “eternal power and divine nature” have been obvious “ever since the creation of the world . . . through the things YHWH has made” (1:20). People do not engage in described behaviors unless they first become confused in their so-called wisdom and make the fatal exchange (1:21-22). That’s Paul’s assumption and nothing in the text enables us to reject it.
Ted characterizes as “superficial physical characteristics” the gendered creation described in Genesis and embraced by Jesus and further calls for the recognition of “exceptions.” I expect Harold would join a conversation about exceptions, so long as it is framed by the acknowledgement that there is nothing superficial about a gendered creation.
2. Chapter 1 is part of the stage-setter for all of Romans, in which Paul holds up the justice of YHWH as far superior to the justice of the empire. As a stage-setter, it begins to build a frame based on a consensus thinking Paul assumed the assemblies in Rome shared. They regarded sexual passion as part of the human condition. Living as they did in a highly sexualized public culture in which bisexual relations were the norm among the best and the brightest, they were acutely aware of the fluidity of sexual passion and of the diverse ways it is manifested. Nevertheless, this consensus flatly disapproved of same-sex coupling; that’s why it could be on a stage-setter list of behaviors that reflect YHWH’s just wrath.
Notice the “wrath” of YHWH does not follow the behaviors; rather, the behaviors follow the wrath—YHWH’s “giving up.”
Chapter 1 is not a text that provides the fine distinctions Ted seeks based on whether a particular experience of sexual passion is intense or mild, whether it occurs within the context of a one-night stand or within a lifelong commitment, or whether the persons in question really, really love each other. Chapter 1 is meant to elicit ready agreement from Roman believers regarding the justice of YHWH’s “wrath” (how it is shown, who the recipients are) when revealed in the lives of those who have substituted the empire for YHWH as the source of their salvation.
3. In Chapter 2 Paul implicitly asks his audience to reflect on their own behavior, but he does not (as Ted claims) signal that his central concern is “self-righteous Christians.” As Neil Elliott puts it, “It is crucially important to recognize that Paul is here indicting the attitude of hypocrisy, not of moral judgment as such” (p.84 of The Arrogance of Nations). Again, Romans is about the superiority of YHWH’s justice to the empire’s justice. It is especially aimed at the more assimilationist non-Jewish believers who were becoming disrespectful of and impatient with the Jewish roots of their shared faith. We certainly should not assume that “self-righteous Jews” were Paul’s target.
My brain is slow. And I have limited time, so I haven’t worked through all of your post.
Your first section describing our interactions was permeated with a warm tone. You went out of your way to be careful to signal respect. That means a lot.
I hope it’s okay if I point out ways that you were not careful to catch what I was saying in my Rom 1 article. As you begin your response to my arguments, you repeatedly say that “Harold discusses just the two verses.” (Twice you say “just” those verses.) But then immediately after you tell your readers how this is a red flag (the fact “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”), you describe me commenting on 1:18-32. In fact, my section commenting on 1:18-32 is one of the 6 points of my article, so it feels like a significant amount to me. So why say I only discuss two verses?
Maybe to you it feels like I only discuss the two verses because of your perception that, after my “nod” to the broader context, “Harold ignores this point in the rest of his essay.” This is where it feels to me that you were not careful to catch what I was saying. In that section on 1:18-32 I gave a reason why it was now okay to devote the rest of the article to determining what behavior Paul was referring to in vv 26 & 27. That was the heart of what I was saying in that section. And it doesn’t seem that you heard it. At least it doesn’t seem that you engaged it.
Here is what I was trying to say (my central argument in the first section):
Yes, Romans 1:18-32 is a “sting operation” to catch the self-righteous. But we also learn what Paul thinks about certain behaviors. We know what Paul thinks of “gossips” and “slanderers,” for instance—because he has them on the list of those who do “not see fit to acknowledge God” and have been given up “to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (v28). And we know what Paul thinks of women who “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural” and men who “give up natural intercourse with women” and are “consumed with passion for one another.” Because they, too, are on this list.
I revised that to make it more clear. (When a reader misses the point I was making, I feel that some of it is my responsibility–that I didn’t write it as clear as I should have.) I revised it by taking out the word “homosexuality.” Because you focused on that word and on what “particular kinds of acts” Paul had in mind in this passage. But that’s not what this section was about; that’s what the next 5 sections are about. This first section was only to say that we know what Paul thinks of women who “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural” and men who are “consumed with passion for one another” because they are on his list of those who have been given up “to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.”
But I do not see you ever engaging that central point. Perhaps because I did not write clear enough.
I hope the rest of your piece is more careful and helpful. Sorry I haven’t read it yet, other than the last paragraph which I see also rests on your charge that I ignored context.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, Harold.
You are correct that I am not as clear as I should be, and that I do contradict myself a bit when I state that you focus on only the two verses and then late note that you discuss 1:18-32. So, I have edited the piece better to say what I mean:
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.”
The point I seek to make is that, in my understanding, there is a method to trying to understand biblical texts. The meaning deepens and becomes more clear as we move outward from individual words. The words get much of their meaning from the sentences, paragraphs, sections, and books/letters where they are used. So, to understand what Paul is getting at with his reference to the men and women he refers to in 1:26-27 we need to try to understand the argument he tries to make that those two verses serve.
I believe that when we look at what Paul is trying to say in 1:18-32 and in 1:16–3:31 we will see that he is not at all interested in giving Christians prohibitions concerning their sexual behavior nor is he at all interested in telling us anything at all about “homosexual practice” as it applies to Christians—he cares here only about stereotypical pagan acts (quite possibly the orgiastic behavior of the paradigmatic idolatrous pagans, the Roman Empire’s power elite).
Because of what I understand to be the way we should read a text such as this, I do not think it is “okay” for you to ignore the broader context of 1:26-27—nor is it okay to proceed as if in fact Paul is giving us considered guidance concerning how Christians should behave sexually. And, again, it is especially problematic when you interpret and apply this text in ways that so are hurtful to many vulnerable people and that seem oblivious to the danger Paul is most concerned about—the tendency of his readers to be so eager to judge others that they miss their own proclivity “to do the very same thing” (2:1).
Somehow you and I, Ted, have difficulty fully connecting, fully communicating.
For instance, your initial response to my first section (on whether 1:18-32 has no value except as a ‘sting’ to catch judgmentalism) involved no interaction with the central argument I was trying to make. Willing to think that it might help if I was clearer, I made a comment trying to restate that argument. You responded again as if my argument wasn’t there—you didn’t interact with it, didn’t refute it. You just restated your understanding (that Paul in 26-27 is not “telling us anything at all…concerning how Christians should behave sexually,” that 1:18-32 has no value except as the ‘sting’), acting as if I hadn’t even mentioned an argument to the contrary. Why?! Please, as you write your response to me, be thinking, “I want to catch the heart of Harold’s argument and I want to respond to it.” None of us wants our conversation partner off and running when something we say reminds them of a point they can make.
I will try once more, restating my argument once more. I’ll use some things Preston Sprinkle said in his book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue, pp.98-101. (Darrin Snyder Belousek—who has read almost everything written on this topic since 4th C. BCE!—singles out that book as giving a succinct survey of various views of Romans 1.)
Sprinkle writes: “[I]f we could climb inside Paul’s imagination, I seriously doubt that he was picturing a gay couple getting married after many months of nonsexual courtship when he penned Romans 1. I can see why Christian gays and lesbians read this passage and say, ‘That doesn’t describe me!’ … Paul is describing same-sex acts that fit the historical context of Corinth (where he is writing from) and Rome (where his audience lives).”
Further, Sprinkle says: “Paul doesn’t write this chapter to condemn gay people. He writes it to condemn all people. Reading Romans 1 without reading Romans 2-3 (or the rest of the letter) is like walking out of a theater five minutes after the movie started. Any discussion, debate, sermon, or lecture on homosexuality that doesn’t showcase the scandalous grace that beams from the rest of Romans is itself a scandalous disregard of the gospel. Until we find our own self-worth in Jesus, cling to his righteousness and not our own, pry every log from our eyes right down to the last splinter, assault every species of judgmentalism and hypocrisy lurking in the corners of our pharisaic hearts, …and pummel the insidious notion that we straight people are closer to God than ‘those’ gay people over there—until we do these things, we will never view homosexuality the way God does.”
Does that reassure you, Ted, that I’m aware of the context (that Paul is describing stereotypical pagan acts, and that his aim is to convict those who are self-righteous)?
You say that those elements of the context show that this passage has no relevance “concerning how Christians should behave sexually,” no application whatsoever to the lives of Christians.
I will now again try to state what I have been trying to argue (but which you haven’t yet interacted with).
I argue (in the first section of my article) that there is a valid application of vv26-27 for how we Christians today should behave. Here it is: we know what the Spirit thinks of gossip—because those who gossip are on the list of those who do “not see fit to acknowledge God” and have been given up “to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.” We know what the Spirit thinks of slander—because they too are on this list. And we know what Paul thinks of women who “exchange natural intercourse for unnatural” and men who “give up natural intercourse with women” and are “consumed with passion for one another.” Because they, too, are on this list. We don’t say that slander or gossip is wrong only when it is done by pagans. You and I (and any readers slogging through this) wouldn’t say that slander or gossip (or murder or envy or deceit or coveteousness) is okay as long as it is done by persons who normally are loving, God-honoring Christians. Everything on the list of sins in vv26-31 is wrong for everybody. They are “things that should not be done,” whether by a pagan or by a Christ-follower.
Because of that argument, it seemed rather important to me that I devote considerable time to vv26-27: does Paul have in mind all forms of same-sex intercourse that occurred in his day (included pederasty, prostitution, and long-term peer partnerships)?
As a gracious brother, as an Anabaptist committed to healthy relationships with those with whom you disagree, you surprise me that you ding me for spending those 5 sections examining vv26-27 (“Harold emphasizes just the two verses”) without first interacting with the argument I make as to why it’s important to do so.
I guess I’m confused as to what “common ground” would look like in your eyes? For folks to not say that they believe all same sex relationships to be sin even if they honestly believe that’s what God’s word says just so we don’t hurt someone’s feelings? To accept same sex couples into an accountable relationships with fellow believers but not hold them accountable to sin? To accept persons in same sex relationships to be leaders and teachers in our fellowship and model sin to our children? I really can’t see how that could happen. I would like to understand from your perspective, how would a fellowship of believers work with such divergent belief systems? What would you have those who disagree with same sex relationships do? It is beyond my ability to imagine it ever working.
Well, it’s interesting. For many years I was part of congregations that were not welcoming, and I lived with being in a minority. I think the issue, really, is whether people want to find a way to live with their differences—or not.
That’s a non-answer. Can you address my specific examples? Should those who see same sex relationships as sin not tell those in their congregations (presumably covenanted members) that they are in sin? Just ignore it? Should we allow them to become leaders and teachers and model sin to our children and not say anything? Should we tell our children that it’s okay for adults to remain in unrepentant sin if we just decide we want to live with our differences? Is not saying anything to those remaining in sin following Jesus’ direct instructions in Matthew 18?
I don’t expect you to answer my questions directly. Because they can’t be answered in the way that would be acceptable to both parties.
Your decision to join a fellowship with which you disagreed was your own decision. The statements of faith made by that fellowship were clearly defined when you made that decision. Being a minority was your choice. It is my understanding that when we choose to become members of an Anabaptist fellowship, we are covenanting with one another based on these statements of faith, which are based on Scripture and are to hold one another accountable to them. I understood what the CoF said and covenanted with the church under those statements. I didn’t have my fingers crossed or hold any exceptions to those statements.
I was trying to answer your question, Linda, though I see I wasn’t very clear.
I think there may be two different general sensibilities among those “who see same-sex relationships as sin.” The one is that this “sin” is a deal breaker and the other is that it is not.
For the first of these sensibilities, it appears that there is no common ground substantial enough to provide a place for continued shared congregational or denominational membership. Then there is no reason for continued conversation.
The second of the sensibilities would reflect more a sense that this “sin” is one of many, that we are all sinful (most of us even have “unrepentant sin” in our lives). So we keep working at things, sharing our views, listening to others’, and believing that there is something precious in the shared membership that disagreement over this one issue will not destroy. The common ground of this sense of the preciousness of the shared fellowship does then provide a place for continued conversation where we recognize that at times some of will have to accept our minority status and live with some things we don’t agree with.
I’m slowing working through the niagara of words flowing from your fertile and fast mind, Ted. I would prefer something more simple and succinct! But I will receive the gift of you engaging with me in whatever form you give it.
Though I will complain a bit more. I’m surprised that you don’t treat a piece you are reviewing with more care. For instance, you put quotes around words, attributing them to me. A couple times I was surprised I would say something that way, so I searched for them in my article to see if the context shed any light–and see that I never used the word or see that you left essential chunks out of what I said (the sentence involving “no longer have Scripture as a trusted authority”).
Some comments on your response to my second section (whether v26 refers to lesbian behavior).
Thanks for pointing out that I shouldn’t use the word “lesbianism” in my title for this section, that Paul would have been “talking about particular acts, not a category of people.”
You pronounce this verse ambiguous, implying that no more needs to be said, feeling that you have successfully “challenge[d] the notion that Paul had in mind female/female sexual acts here.” But you don’t mention that I end this second section acknowledging that ambiguity but going on to say that our common sense approach to ambiguity is to weigh the various possible meanings and go with the one that has the most weight. Even worse, you leave unmentioned the four points I raise which show the historic interpretation as having overwhelmingly probability (though not having total certainty). Well, to be fully fair to you, I should acknowledge that maybe you deal with half of one of the four points.
And I should also acknowledge that perhaps you don’t spend time on the four points because you see this second section as “not really central to the overall argument of this passage.” That surprises me, because last year you were celebrating that “Brownson does a nice job showing that [v.26] almost certainly does not concern lesbian activities.”
When it comes to sections three, four, and five, you don’t spend a lot of time interacting with them, viewing their lines of argument as not very prevalent or significant.
That again surprises me.
– As I said in the article, last year I heard the argument in section three championed at length by a “highly respected pastor in MC USA.” (He was also probably the most visible pastor at our MC USA Orlando assembly last month.)
– I’m especially surprised that you refer to the argument I respond to in section four (that Paul in Rom 1 refers to heterosexual persons who engage in homosexual acts) as a point of view that you “do not see as very significant.” I quoted you in the article as asking Mark Thiessen Nation: “Is Romans 1 relevant to all same-sex relationships or only same-sex sex that is practiced by people who are heterosexual in orientation?”
– And, as far as the argument I respond to in section five (that Paul in Rom 1 refers to abusive, exploitive same-sex relations), as recently as last year you lauded someone making the “well-argued and persuasive” case that the NT texts on same-sex relations refer “to dynamics that we should still today be critical of (promiscuity, coercion, exploitation).”
Since you don’t put much weight on the arguments in sections four and five, I will only respond to two things that you say in those sections.
You say that I seem to be, in section four, taking my cultural biases and then baptizing them (“attributing them to God’s law in nature”) and then using them to hurt “vulnerable people.” Wow. Isn’t it possible that I am merely trying to let Paul speak? Paul, not me, is the one who describes certain acts as “against nature.” And with all his language about creation in this passage, and his echoes of Genesis, he clearly is not seeing his sensibility as a cultural bias but as something based in creation realities.
In section five, you are right in pointing out that Paul’s description of same-sex “passion for one another” could have referred to “consensual orgy-like” events. That’s new to me; I hadn’t considered that before. Thank you. As I wrote the article, I was (wrongly) assuming that some sort of desire “for one another” could only mean consensual “relations of attraction and affection.” But I’m curious as to why you go on to assert that you “don’t think that that phrase would likely have been used in reference to ‘relations of attraction and affection.'” Surely when Paul was thinking of men passionate for one another, he could been thinking of consensual, mutual same-sex partnerships. Many scholars point out that such relationships were known in the ancient world. For instance, William Loader (Making Sense of Sex, 132) writes of first-century Jewish sources which provide direct evidence of awareness (and condemnation) of consensual, mutual same-sex relations between adult males (2 Enoch 34:1-2; Apocalypse of Abraham 24:8). Even Robin Scroggs decades ago (New Testament and Homosexuality, 130-38) acknowledged the wide range of male same-sex practices in the Greco-Roman world—including same-sex activity between age-comparable partners, based on mutual interest, and exhibiting long-term fidelity. (Scroggs tries to shoehorn all those instances into his model of pederasty. But that makes it such an elastic definition of pederasty that it is meaningless!) So you are right that Paul’s description of same-sex “passion for one another” could have referred to “consensual orgy-like” events. But I am also right that Paul’s description could have referred to consensual “relations of attraction and affection.”
When you come to section six, you say that the argument that I respond to there (that Paul in Rom 1 refers to same-sex relations driven by excessive lust) is the one that is closest to your own argument. It seems like you are now putting all your eggs in one basket, abandoning the baskets you used previously, making this argument the crux of the matter, the only reason Paul condemns same-sex intercourse. I haven’t fully read that part of your post yet. I will see how careful you are there. For me to be learning from you, you will need to be both careful yet high-powered. For I just read Preston Sprinkle’s section “Was Paul Critiquing Excessive Lust?” in his book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue, pp.98-101. (That link is to the Google Books copy; go to it, and put “excessive lust and uncontrollable passions” in the Search Inside box, and you can read that section.) It seems to me that Sprinkle ably lays the excessive lust argument to rest. But I will intently read the response you have written, and anything further that you write.
Thanks for taking the time to respond to my post, Harold.
I apologize for my confusing use of quotes. I did not even imagine that someone would think I was quoting you every time I did that, but I now can see how it might seem that I was. When I have time, I will try to clean that up.
There are a few more of your comments that I would like directly to respond to:
(1) I explain why I think it is unlikely that Paul had female/female sexual acts in mind here. It’s because of the ambiguities in the text itself. I don’t really care about the “historic interpretation” if it is not engaging the ambiguity in the text. I don’t remember that you have ever engaged that either, even though I have been saying that for a long time.
(2) I really don’t think you should be surprised that I don’t spend a lot of time on points 3-5, since in my own detailed discussions of this passage that you have been reading since I first posted them on Mennolink 15 or so years ago, I have not used these arguments as my main points. At the same time, I think I do spend enough time on those points (except #3) to refute your arguments.
(3) The reason I don’t think you actually are “merely trying to let Paul speak” (your words) is that you spend so little time dealing with the context of 1:26-27, and no time at all that I noticed applying the critique that begins at 2:1 to your interpretation. And, you bring in a lot of extraneous evidence (e.g., discussing what other people in Paul’s Greco-Roman context and what “all Hebrews” [your words] thought) while not discussing the verses that surround 1:26-27.
(4) I disagree that it is simply a matter of “he said,” “she said,” in deciding between orgy-like behaviors and relations of attraction and affection. As I discuss in the post, this is where paying attention to the context in Romans tips the balance toward the former possibility. There is nothing in the context in Romans that would support your reading, as near as I can tell.
(5) As I think you know, I read and wrote a review of Sprinke’s People to Be Loved. I definitely do not think he “lays the excessive lust argument to rest” (your words). Each of the four points he makes to challenge that argument seem deeply problematic to me.  It would be misstating my point to say that “Paul believes that homosexual sex is wrong simply because it’s the product of excessive lust” (Sprinkle’s words). I don’t think Paul is saying “homosexual sex is wrong.” Paul is saying that the “degrading passions” he alludes to illustrate the dynamics of pagan idolatry. The point here has mostly to do with the “degrading passions.” So it doesn’t matter what other ancient writers thought about “homosexual sex.”  Whatever Paul has in mind when he refers to the women in 1:26, he surely is indeed thinking of them as a manifestation of “the lusts of their hearts” (1:24), “degrading passions” (1:26), being “consumed with passion” (1:27), and “filled with every kind of wickedness” (1:29)—that is, as indeed expressions of excessive lust. If Sprinkle is right that female/female intimate relationships tended not to be characterized by excessive lust, then that is all the more reason to interpret Paul’s reference to women to be more likely referring to female/male sex in the context of Roman orgies.  It seems altogether possible to think that by “against nature” Paul was indeed referring to the excessive lust as manifested in sexual promiscuity. Sprinkle tries to define “against nature” in terms of outside use of the term rather than from the context in Romans 1 itself. It would appear that Paul thought it was “against nature” for people to worship the creation rather than the creator, and that idolatry results in a spiral of excessive lustful behavior—again, as typical of pagans and in order to then do his “sting” operation.  When Sprinkle argues that Paul never says the passion and desire are excessive here he simply seems to be missing the most obvious interpretation what Paul would have meant when he wrote the phrases I quote above under point #2: “lusts,” “degrading passions,” “consumed with passion,” and “every kind of wickedness.”
Let me repeat again what I see as the main points in my post (and these are mainly points you don’t respond to):
(1) Reading verses in the context of their wider literary units is crucial to interpretation, even to defining what specific words mean in their context. Here, Paul’s argument in 1:16–3:31 is crucial as is, of course, the more immediate section of 1:18-32. By “reading in the context” I mean, in part, always keeping the context in mind and consciously orienting our interpretation of particular words in relation to that context.
(2) Paul is not writing about “homosexuality” here in any directive way, nor is he making prohibitions about Christian behavior. He is merely describing the stereotypical behavior of non-Christian pagans to illustrate how they get caught up in a spiral of injustice/wickedness set off my their idolatry. To read this as a direct statement about Christian ethics is to take it out of context.
(3) While Paul shows the depravity of idolatrous pagans here in an exaggerated way (note that in 2:14 he actually refers to pagans who “do what the law requires,” so he is not actually assuming 1:18-32 describes typical pagan behavior), he does this for the purpose of actually challenging the behavior of his Christian readers—who, “do the very same things” when they judge others (2:1). So, 1:26-27 are part of a unit whose purpose is to confront Christian judgmentalism.
(4) Being attentive to the context of 1:26-27 provides our best guidance for discerning what his comments concerning sexual behavior most likely mean. That is, the sexual behavior illustrates the dynamics of idolatry that are excessive, lustful, unjust, wicked, depraved, and over all out of control and terrible. Awareness of this context helps us see why terms such as “against nature” and “women exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural” are more likely to be alluding to particular behaviors that would surely be just as unjust and wicked for heterosexual practice as if they were same-sex.
(5) If Paul’s allusion to sexual behavior are only understandable in this context (not to say that such unjust behavior is not always wrong, but that he’s not making generalizable statements about “homosexuality” in general), his larger point remains directly apropos, I would say—judgmentalism is not something followers of Jesus should engage in.
Egg on my face. I didn’t see that you commented last evening about Sprinkle. Just saw it because I was going through the comment stream to read your exchange with Berry.
It strikes me that you insert “excessive lust” into every place Paul talks about desire. And even see “excessive lust” when Paul speaks of “filled with every kind of wickedness.” That’s a stretch! (I get that from your sentence about Paul thinking about “a manifestation of ‘the lusts of their hearts’ (1:24), ‘degrading passions’ (1:26), being ‘consumed with passion’ (1:27), and ‘filled with every kind of wickedness’ (1:29)—that is, as indeed expressions of excessive lust.” You rely on that again for a couple points later, too.)
You also say that “Sprinkle tries to define ‘against nature’ in terms of outside use of the term rather than from the context in Romans 1 itself.” Really? In the quote I gave from Sprinkle on this (in my comment a bit ago) he was referring to indications in Rom 1: “Given the context of creation in Romans 1, together with the emphasis on gender (male and female), it seems more likely that Paul uses para physin according to its typical meaning: same-sex relations go against the way God created men and women to relate sexually.”
One other response, again on context (which you keep circling back to!). You talk about the “little time” I spend on the context of 1:26-27 and the “no time at all” spent “applying the critique that begins at 2:1 to your interpretation.” Does a reference to 2:1,3,9,12 count? (In the article I say that Paul uses “the list of Gentile sins at the end of the passage to catch his Jewish readers who weren’t acknowledging that they, too, have sinned (2:1,3,9,12).”)
This is a busy time for me. Sometime I will get to look at your 1 Cor 6 post!
Thanks for this, Ted. I’m just leaving a brief comment so I can be notified of further comments as the discussion unfolds.
Ted, the distinction you draw in response to Linda is helpful.
I am in the second “sensibility,” yet am feeling pushed to the first. Not your problem, perhaps, but I need your help (and the help of other liberal Christians) in order to stay where I am.
You see, I perceive the liberal wing of MCUSA (and liberal Christians generally) to have lost its footing. Ten years ago–even five–you were persistently telling those of us further right that the body of Messiah Jesus could not exclude believers who were born with same-sex orientation. It was a strong and compelling argument based on fairness, scripture texts related to inclusion, and a recognition we all share that life is far from perfect. Thus, we all carry evidence of imperfection within us and into our fellowship within the body. Though Christ is at work within us, our transformation is far from complete.
But now the dynamics of this debate have overtaken us all. Gender is increasingly regarded in progressive Christian circles an an oppressive construct. The Christian tradition that male-female marriage is the wisdom of God is increasingly regarded as either “sexual violence” or as “heterosexism.” What exactly is Christian morality if gender and orientation are not only fluid but anachronistic?
I hear no progressive Mennonites (or progressive Christians for that matter) drawing careful distinctions within this burgeoning agenda. I am given no hope that my liberal brothers and sisters have any interest in forging a teaching position for the guidance of our youth, other that God loves them as they figure out month-to-month their gender and their sexual orientation (or if they tire of that and jettison those “constructs” entirely, then that’s okay too).
So I sometimes wonder if I mistaken in my second sensibility; maybe the first sensibility is the wiser choice.
I appreciate your comment here, Berry. I don’t think I quite agree with the your characterization of the state of the present discussion, but I do agree that the “dynamics of [the] debate” have moved far beyond the earlier “strong and compelling argument” concerning inclusion. And I share a sense that the current “progressive Mennonite” perspective is not characterized by “drawing careful distinctions.”
Beyond that, I don’t know what else to say. In many ways the “dynamics of the debate” seem to have left me behind. I talked with a “restrictive” friend the other day and he told me I should be happy. “You have won!” But I don’t feel very happy….
Yes, we all are far from sinless, however, we are not trying to redefine sin (in my opinion). Yes, your beliefs were a minority in the Mennonite community for many years, and you just spent three long blog posts lamenting that some Mennonites never came around to seeing things your way. Continued conversation to what end? How long? What outcomes? Again, I cannot see where this ends amicably. There will be two divisions. It’s just a waiting game to see how long folks from the traditional side last until they leave.
I’ll respond briefly to two of your comments, Ted, on section six of the article (about whether vv26-27 refer to same-sex relations driven by excessive lust).
The only objection you raise to the first argument of the section is: “Harold gives us no evidence to support his assertion that ‘all Hebrews of Paul’s day saw same-sex relations as sinful.'” Isn’t this common knowledge? The first-century Jewish culture and its writers rejected all forms of homosexual activity. Louis Crompton, a gay man, in his massive work, Homosexuality and Civilization (Harvard, 2003), writes, “Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance.” Josephus is representative: “The law [of Moses] recognizes only sexual intercourse that is according to nature, that which is with a woman…. But it abhors the intercourse of males with males” (Against Apion 2.199).
The objection you raise to my second argument (that “excessive lust” is an apt description since most long-term male couples agree to allow outside sexual liaisons) is simply that my evidence is “questionable.” The data was gathered by gays themselves or from national studies in peer-reviewed journals, etc. You don’t say why it’s questionable.
Since this is the interpretation you lean toward, Ted, I’ll throw in a line of argument from Sprinkle in his book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just an Issue.
“Paul never said that same-sex eroticism was wrong because it results from excessive lust. But he does say it was ‘against nature,’ and ‘against nature’ does not mean ‘excessive lust.’ Given the context of creation in Romans 1, together with the emphasis on gender (male and female), it seems more likely that Paul uses para physin according to its typical meaning: same-sex relations go against the way God created men and women to relate sexually.”
I appreciate your energy, Harold.
I will focus here mainly on one point and then move on the the discussion of 1 Cor 6.
I agree with you insofar as you are saying that Paul means to say that all the behaviors he refers to in 1:26-31 are deeply problematic for the people he singles out for doing them—those who worship images (1:23)—including the behaviors alluded to in 1:26-27. He does not qualify that sense in any way. “Slanderers” and “gossipers” and those given “up to degrading passions” are all unequivocally portrayed as objects of God’s wrath (1:18).
It is important to note, though, that throughout this section Paul over and over refers to these people as “they”—he’s not talking about Christians. So these verses are being taken out of context when they are treated as a direct prohibition directed at Christians. This point is important not as a way of implying that Paul would say being given up to degrading passions is okay for Christians but not pagans (I agree with you that Paul probably thinks that is always wrong based on other things he writes). Rather, this point is important because the context of the passage is necessary to understand why Paul makes his reference to “degrading passions” which is necessary to understand what he means by the picture he paints here which is necessary to understand what these verses might mean for us.
So, we are on the wrong track when we think we can understand what Paul is getting at in these verses without explicitly orienting our interpretation of them at every point in relation to the broader argument Paul makes. For example, you don’t note that Paul is talking about “they” here (not “us”), and so you don’t consider what the significance is that Paul is presenting a picture of what these stereotypical pagans are doing.
If we take the context into account, we will recognize that Paul is presenting a stereotypical and even exaggerated picture of the dynamics of idolatry in order to set his readers up for his punchline (as I noted before, 2:14 shows that Paul did not really think all pagans were characterized by the vices in 1:26-31). This means, I think, that Paul could not possibly be meaning to refer to “all forms of same-sex intercourse” (your words) nor making an objective statement with the intent of telling Christians what not to do. He’s simply referring to stereotypical expressions of “the lusts of their hearts” in order to increasing the judgmentalism of his readers.
So, the point of all this is seen beginning in 2:1 where he turns to his self-righteous readers and confronts them with “you condemn yourself.” It is true that you (very briefly) list a few verses from chapter 2. But I think you miss the point, and don’t allow those verses to inform your interpretation and application of 1:26-27. I think the message of Romans 2 to us is that we should be extremely careful when we write about what “they” do.
And I would argue that at the heart of what you have written (and of Sprinkle’s book), in spite of protestations of saying you really care about these people as people, is a fundamental act of “othering,” of treating LGBTQ Christians as “they.” I think the message of Romans 2 should challenge people tempted to make the kind of argument you make from Romans 1 to step back and rethink that approach. It seems to me that reading Romans 1 as a prohibition text proscribing “all forms of same-sex intercourse” that they do actually turn the meaning of the passage on its head.
I have been trying to make a sense of the issues and to me the whole paradigm is different to my understanding of Christianity. In a post Christ and Holy Spirit many Christians are still using the tactics and techniques of Jesus’s Jewish adversaries of killing by the black letters as Paul says.
1. The first misunderstanding is the common understanding of the word love. Anything you desire to please yourselves is lust and not love. Love is the transactional currency of God and that love is sacrificial love. When God talks above love it is a self-sacrificial love. This God demonstrated by allowing our choices to mess up His perfect creation. He sacrificed His own son, the best that He had to have a relation with us. The greatest love that any man can have is to give his own life for his friend. So if the church had taught and practiced Divine Love then we would have the Kingdom of God on earth rather than the mess created by lust.
2. The second aspect is that homosexuality is one among the sins that Bible talks of. How many of us are without any sin that we can throw stones at people in a particular sin addiction. Any change to getting rid of sin may need much more than condemnation or realistion of it being wrong especially when it has a addictive behaviour or genetic component. It would as useless as a sheep telling a lion eating meat is wrong. That change may take as long as the it took for the addiction to take place in a therapeutic conditions. With God nothing is impossible as it says in Isaiah the Lion and the lamb will both eat grass. The only thing Christians can do is to pray and live as Christ wants them to and keep on living in righteousness.
I went back and read our comments, searching if I have been missing some point I need to hear.
We mainly go back and forth about section 1 about context. You keep saying what you have said many times. And I keep saying what I have said many times. What’s wrong with us?! Why do our brains not hear each other?
As I reflected on it, I think I saw a pattern.
Is this the heart of our tangle?
• I would say (Point A; my repeated point re: section 1, context): the behaviors on the list (vv26-31) are “things that should not be done,” whether by a pagan or by a Christ-follower.
• Then you would respond (Point B; your repeated point re: section 1, context): the passage is not a “direct prohibition” to Christians; Paul’s purpose of the passage is to confront his self-righteous readers.
• Then I would state agreement with you on that interpretation and application (and note where I had already affirmed that interpretation and application). But then I would say some form of Point A again (because I have the impression that one can affirm both Point B and Point A).
• Then you would repeat Point B again (because you have the impression that raising Point A again shows that I am ignoring Point B).
Is that perhaps the merry-go-round we have been on?
If not, I would value some alternate theory!
If it is, then our problem is the fact that I view it as self-evident that one who holds Point B can still hold Point A. (I assume that we Christians will sit up and take notice when Paul gives a list of things that the pagans do that are “things that should not be done.” Some of us may point self-righteous fingers and say “look at what the pagans do.” The rest of us will examine the list and examine our lives and say “let’s not do what the pagans do.”) Because I viewed it as self-evident, I explicitly never made a case for holding both. And so I let you to continue to have the impression that raising Point A shows that I am ignoring Point B. And so you never explained why one who holds Point B can’t still hold Point A but just repeated the reasons for Point B.
I think that’s bare-bones, accurate description. (But I surely could be missing something! Let me know.) (It’s expressed in extremely simple words, but that’s just to help me write as clearly as I can. Hopefully, it’s not because I’m being simplistic.)
If it is accurate and a helpful explanation, then the help that I need from you is this: can you help me see why it’s not self-evident that one who holds Point B can still hold Point A?
I’m still fueled by a (naive?) hope that two persons like us can talk with each other, not past each other.
Thanks for your perseverance, Harold. You have challenged me to try to more to communicate. I apologize for the delay in my response. I think your analysis of our impasse is helpful. I will give you my sense of the issues from my point of view with regard to our discussion of Romans 1:18-32.
I think your summary of the “Point A” (that “the behaviors on [Paul’s] list (1:26-31) are ‘things that should not be done,’ whether by pagans or by Christ-followers”) and “Point B” (that “the passage is not a ‘direct prohibition’ to Christians; Paul’s purpose of the passage is to confront his self-righteous readers”) seems like a pretty good portrayal of what we are each trying to say.
I do agree with both points, as you obviously say that you do as well. But I guess they mean something a bit different for the two of us.
So, I would indeed completely agree that what Paul writes of in 1:26-31 are “things that should not be done.” We are not differing on that point. The difference, as I see it, is about what those “things” are. You would say that those “things” include same-sex intimacy per se. I would say that those “things” are behaviors that promiscuous and excessively lustful—that is, behaviors that are equally wrong for people of all sexual identities.
I think we have addressed our differences on this point in the course of our discussion—but it seems worthwhile to say again that the difference is not about “Point A” as you state it but about what it applies to.
I will add, though, that it is important to my interpretation to note that Paul’s listing of these behaviors as characteristic, it appears, of pagans as a class of people is a caricature that he uses here for a bigger point. He is not actually making a careful, reasoned statement about actual pagans so much as setting up his rhetorical trap.
So, I think, though Paul does believe that these are “things that should not be done,” his is not making this statement in order to give us a measured, objective, analytical kind of statement describing objective moral principles or serving as normative ethical instruction. He’s exaggerating (as we see when we note in chapter 2 that he states that some pagans actually are ethically exemplary and do, in effect, successfully keep the law).
So, the content in 1:18-32 is not about LGBTQ inclusion in the churches or about same-sex marriage at all. It should not be read as offering normative Christian ethical guidance. It adds nothing to our understanding of acceptable and unacceptable ethical behavior for Christians. Paul assumes (and I think he was right) that all of his readers (then and now) would agree that these behaviors are always wrong for everyone (if we understand accurately what behaviors he has in mind). That’s a commonplace; he is not saying anything remotely disputable. Indeed, that he is not offering any kind of ethical directives here is something we must recognize in order to understand what his bigger point is. That these are indisputable stereotypes is required for his next step to work—that, yes indeed, these are bad behaviors. But wait, “you (his religiously scrupulous readers) are doing the same thing!”
So, again, I accept that both “Point A” and “Point B” are true. But I think I also understand the weight of “Point B” a bit differently than you do. It seems to me that, though you say you do affirm “Point B,” that indeed you do still interpret Romans 1:18-32 as if, in that passage, Paul is giving us a “direct prohibition.” This happens, I think, when you use these verses as a main basis for your “prohibition” of the affirmation of same-sex marriage as morally on the same level as heterosexual marriage.
I understand Paul’s main point in Romans 1–2, which I think must be read together in order fully to understand either chapter and any section within those chapters, does not have to do with the stuff that he cites as “things that should not be done” in 1:18-32. Rather, it has to do with the stuff he implicitly says “should not be done” in 2:1ff. These two sets of references to bad behaviors are not equally important—the references in chapter 1 serves the bigger point that chapter 2 makes about “self-righteous fingers” (your term).
I don’t think your argument recognizes that point. You do indeed acknowledge that “Point A” sets up “Point B.” However, then you essentially drop that insight and go on to focus on what you in effect present as ethical directives in chapter 1 as if this point about the sting operation need not affect how you interpret 1:26-31.
I would say that taking “Point B” as seriously as Paul does should push us to drop the idea of using Romans 1 as our central basis for rejecting LGBTQ inclusion or same-sex marriage (as, for example, Richard Hays does). It does strike me that doing otherwise, as is the case for Hays, is actually to be guilty of “pointing self-righteous fingers” in the sense of twisting the meaning of the text in order to condemn other people’s alleged sins.
These points are why I conclude that those who use Romans 1:18-32 in the ways that you do are not so much trying to figure out the actually meaning of that text on its own terms. Rather, it seems more that what’s going on is an attempt to try to find something in the Bible that speaks directly to our current issues of sexuality. Such a use of the Bible runs a great risk of people trying to find what they want in the Bible….
Sorry I’m taking so much time on this. For your sake and for mine! I want our church’s stance to be formed as much as possible by the Word, so conversation on interpretation is vital. Nonetheless, at some point we (I) need to stop. So any response you give to this will be the last word!
Most of your comments (90% of them?) have been on the argument about context. Thankfully we’ve found some agreement on context. You say (and I cheer loudly): “Paul assumes (and I think he was right) that all of his readers (then and now) would agree that these behaviors [on Paul’s list in 1:26-31] are always wrong for everyone.” But it feels like the agreement didn’t actually exist. Because you also say that the passage “should not be read as offering normative Christian ethical guidance.” We agree here a bit. You are right in one sense: Paul indeed “is not offering any kind of ethical directives here”—the passage is not a “direct prohibition” but rather a “sting” to catch self-righteous readers.” But you seem to be insisting that we can get no ethical guidance whatsoever from this list of behaviors that “are always wrong for everyone.” Really? Can’t we say, “Paul gives us a list of sins; we as believers don’t want to commit sins, so let’s encourage each other to stay away from those behaviors”?
One more extended comment. You are right to point out that we must determine what specific behavior Paul is referring to on the list in vv26-31. A couple times in this conversation you have said that, of the various interpretations offered over the years, the “excessive lust” interpretation (that Paul in Rom 1 refers to same-sex relations driven by excessive lust) is the one that you are defending now. Yet you haven’t offered a sustained defense against my argument that even if we assume that Paul is talking about excessive lust a strong case can be made that Paul would see today’s committed same-sex couples fitting that description. For instance, I said that Paul, like all Hebrews of his day, saw same-sex relations as sin, and so of course he would have viewed all same-sex intimacy as “excessive lust,” as desire ballooning out of control, leading persons to go where the law of God forbids. Your response was to cast doubt on the idea that we can know “what ‘all Hebrews’ thought about anything.” I responded by citing persons as diverse as Louis Crompton and Josephus as evidence that it’s pretty well common knowledge that first-century Hebrews would have seen same-sex relations as sinful. You didn’t follow up with any response. (I know there are probably many significant things in our long and tangled dialogue that I didn’t follow up on, too. But this is your main interpretive argument regarding Rom 1; so your lack of follow up here is surprising.)
Again, please now have the last word. I will read it eagerly and thoroughly, but won’t respond. (And if you make another comment on the 1 Cor 6 blog, you’ll have the last word there too!)
Thanks, Harold, for your continued thoughtful challenges. Let me share some thoughts in response—and I won’t hold you to your commitment not to respond. ☺
I’ll start with your first paragraph. I agree that Paul does think the behaviors he mentions in Romans 1:26-31 are wrong—I think the behaviors he has in mind are out of control sex and spiraling injustice. His mentioning those behaviors is not “guidance” because he was not thinking any of his readers would need guidance not to do such things. His purpose, as you acknowledge, is the “sting” he sets up with his caricature of pagan behavior in thrall to idolatry—to challenge the “idolatry” of religiosity characteristic of those he critiques beginning with 2:1.
The point I want to make is not so much that “we can get no ethical guidance whatsoever from the list” but that the list is so extreme and obviously harmful that his purpose with it surely is not about such guidance. So he is not in any sense trying to tell his readers (then or now) what to think about “homosexuality” per se.
It strikes me, Harold, that you may be moving away from your own use of Romans 1 when you admit that I am correct to say that Romans 1:26-31 does not offer ethical directives nor give a direct prohibition, but rather sets up a “sting.” When I read your essay on the different ways inclusive writers try to explain Romans 1, I understand you to treat Romans 1:26-31 as your main “ethical directive” for a “direct prohibition” of same-sex marriage. Maybe you’re changing your view?
Finally, I would say there is nothing disagreeable for me with your sentence, “Paul gives us a list of sins; we as believers don’t want to commit sins, so let’s encourage each other to stay away from those behaviors.” Our disagreement seems to be over what to see the “sins” as being—sexual identity per se (which is what I perceive your view to come down to) or out-of-control sex and spiraling injustice (my view)?
With regard to your second paragraph, I’d say first of all that the discussion of the “excessive lust” view is a secondary discussion for me in trying to understand and apply Romans 1:26-31. I’d say, first, that my main argument about this text is that Paul is not giving us ethical directives here but setting up a stereotypical caricature of pagan idolatry for rhetorical purposes—setting up his “sting” operation. This point already indicates that Romans 1 should not be used as the basis for our ethical directives concerning same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion in the churches.
A second level of discussion is to say that for the purposes of Paul’s rhetorical move of setting up his sting, he drops into the text a “vice list” (1:26-31) that should be understood in its entirety more than broken down into its parts. The point of the list is to portray the spiral of injustice that pagan idolatry sets loose. There are many items on the list that have a cumulative effect, but no one item is essential. If we eliminated 1:26-27, the meaning of the list an the role it plays would stay essentially the same.
But, then, we do get to a third (less important) level of discussion. Paul does include 1:26-27, and in these verses he highlights one particular (and probably especially inflammatory) expression of idolatrous injustice. I’d name this as out of control sex that follows from “degrading passions”—women who are wildly promiscuous and men “consumed with passion” for other men.
What meaning might we find in this specific example (and, again, I would say this question is of little importance for understanding the meaning of the passage as a whole or of how to apply it to our day)? Given that Paul writes to people in Rome and wants to appeal to widely held stereotypes in order to spring his sting, I think it is likely that he had the well-known and despised orgies of the Roman power elite in mind. The various examples of “every kind of injustice” (1:29-31) could also have directly applied to people such as Caligula and Nero.
The whole picture of idolatrous injustice that we are given in 1:26-31 clearly has nothing in common with those same-sex married couples of our day whose marriages are identical in every respect to healthy, non-idolatrous opposite-sex marriages. I think it is deeply problematic that you would say that a same-sex marriage that does not manifest any of the elements of injustice/wickedness that are cited in 1:29-31 is nonetheless an expression of the “excessive lust” that Paul portrays as characteristic of pagan idolatry.
The only way that I can imagine that one would make such a statement would be that one does indeed take 1:26-27 to be an “ethical directive”—which would then edge dangerously close to the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that the entire passage in Romans 1 is set up to critique.
Finally, one problem with your “all Hebrews saw same-sex relations as sin” statement is that we know so little about what people of that time thought. At most, we know what only the very few who wrote thought and what they thought a few other people thought. It seems just absurd to use this (by definition) speculative statement as factual evidence for a present-day position.
I think the most we can say is that we have a very few scattered statements that contain some kind of negative sentiments regarding people having sex with others of the same sex. We don’t know anything about what the people who didn’t write about it thought. I’m not suggesting they wouldn’t have been negative, necessarily, just that we can’t know. We certainly have no basis for the kind of flat, absolute statement you make.
Let me suggest a bit of an analogy. Say, sometime in the future, all the knowledge of 20th century American Mennonite pacifism that remains are church statements and, maybe, some news articles and entries in encyclopedias. We might conclude, “All 20th century American Mennonites were opposed to participation in war.” However, the actual reality is that the most objective data on the matter, the draft records of World War II, show that 50% of Mennonite draftees went into the military. I would agree that it would be accurate to say that Mennonites have tended to be opposed to war. But that is a very different kind of statement than an absolutist “all Mennonites were opposed.” I emphasize this point because I don’t think you have warrant to use first century Hebrews views as evidence for your current beliefs in the way you do.
That said, I can imagine granting that the general sensibility among first century Jews likely was negative about the same-sex sexual behaviors of which they knew. This may be true even to the point that if they could have imagined same-sex marriage they would have opposed it (at least until one of their own children got married☺ —I just recently learned of another prominent Mennonite whose views changed for this reason).
However, what I still would say is that what we have to do in this scenario is culturally driven prejudice, not God-revealed truth. Like with the acceptance of slavery and patriarchy, the presence of such culturally driven prejudice in the Bible is not evidence that it is God’s will. And the main thrust of the message of the prophets and, especially, Jesus challenges us to oppose these kinds of prejudices that indeed are harmful and unjust.
I have found it generally the most helpful approach to the most controversial and difficult texts is to look at the argument made and how it works. Generally we should look for the argument rather than the appeal to authority. If we can make the writer present an argument that is not only sensible, but also rhetorically good, then this is probably what he is doing, and therefore this can help us clarify the way the elements of the argument work.
In this case, Paul seems to be making an argument of just how bad the gentile world was. As part of a set up to show that the Jewish world was also a failure. But that does not change the argument made in chapter 1 was an argument for just how bad the gentile world was.
In making his argument, Paul appeals to some practices. The practices were the evidence. His argument works as follows:
The gentile world has practices A, B and C etc.
A, B, and C, etc. are corrupt practices
The gentile world is corrupt.
Paul offers no argument why the practices listed are corrupt, or at least he needn’t. His argument works because his audience already agrees and knows that these practices are corrupt.
The listing, therefore, is not an argument to show that these practices are corrupt. But both the author Paul and his audience necessarily agree (or Paul assumed they would agree) that every practice listed was corrupt.
Whether there is an element of exaggeration or caricature in the argument, or whether the argument worked by compounding and accumulating the practices hardly defeats the position that each and every practice listed was corrupt. The point of making a list like this is to provide, at every point, additional and undisputed evidence. The author would not include practices that some of his audience thought were OK, as that would invite nit-picking and undermine the point he is trying to make. The rhetorical technique in such cases is to pick the most visible and extreme and incontrovertible items, and to exclude the rest as unnecessary and unhelpful.
Notwithstanding the lack of need for arguments as to why the practices listed were corrupt, Paul does include some of particular relevance and aid for the present issue: they not only provide at least some of his reasons for so considering the practices with reasons noted, they also help clarify what the practices were.
Firstly, he refers to ‘dishonourable affections’ (YLT, Rom 1:26). The problem with the passions was not their strength, but their dishonourable character. Which affections were dishonourable, and why, Paul lists next.
The word translated affections, pathos, seems to mean ‘desire’ rather than ‘lust.’ In 1 Thes 4:3-5 the terms seems to be used with the word ‘lust’ to distinguish improper sexual desire and conduct from the proper sexual conduct. The desire must be controlled so that it is not released in sexual immorality, and so that honour is maintained. So, in effect, the dishonourable affections of Rom 1:26 are the opposite of the self control of the passions that maintains holiness and honour in 1 Thes 4:4. (Of course that is not to say that ‘pathos’ can’t mean ‘lust’, rather that it does not necessarily mean it, and that here in Rom 1:26 it has to be coloured with ‘dishonourable’ for Paul to explain what in particular the problem he is identifying.)
The concept of honour and dishonour Paul is invoking here is about propriety of sexual conduct at the most elemental level. This has to be taken in the context of the people Paul is setting up for his trap, which is the Jews, not the gentiles. I don’t think at all unfair or inappropriate to argue that Jewish sensibilities held homosexual conduct of every description dishonourable. Homosexual conduct was proscribed in the law of Moses as a capital offense and described as an abomination and unless we can produce some evidence of a softening of views at the time of Paul, we should go with that. Yes there was a marked softening of views about actually carrying out the death penalty, but not about the point that capital offences were regarded as particularly serious.
Paul’s explanation of what he means by dishonourable passions is reasonably detailed:
‘Because of this did God give them up to dishonourable affections, for even their females did change the natural use into that against nature; and in like manner also the males having left the natural use of the female, did burn in their longing toward one another; males with males working shame, and the recompense of their error that was fit, in themselves receiving. And, according as they did not approve of having God in knowledge, God gave them up to a disapproved mind, to do the things not seemly;’
The context is passions of a dishonourable kind. The first thing Paul says to explain himself and identify the dishonourable passions is not to explain the intensity of the passions, nor to state that the women were promiscuous or unfaithful to their husbands, but to say they changed something: the natural use for the against nature [use].
This is not the natural social order of having a husband and conceiving and bearing children. It is the natural use. And it concerns the passions. So what is the natural passion of the woman? The natural desire of the woman is for her man (Gen 3:16). The natural use of the passion is having sexual relations with the man. The creation context here suggests that it is a subversion of the creation order, the creation order is traded in for another kind of order, a perversion, an abomination.
It is notable that Paul has no reference to adultery or promiscuity or fornication or illegal marriages or adultery through remarriage. He does not seem to be referring to breach of a woman’s duty to protect her virginity until marriage, and to honour her marriage vows, and to ensure her marriages are lawful and properly contracted. There is no suggestion he is talking about ceremonial uncleanness or menstrual blood. He is referring to a more fundamental subversion of female sexual conduct: passions which are themselves dishonourable, and against nature.
He goes on further to explain that it was not just the women — the weaker sex, more vulnerable to sexual passion and emotions and desires, so it was generally viewed at the time — but the men were doing the same thing. The argument structure is that the men’s conduct was wrong in the same character and manner as the women’s misconduct just described. Paul seems to think his readers have explicit enough language to understand what he has been referring to. In this subject it is normally to use euphemisms (e.g. Rev 22:15) and to avoid even speaking of it (Eph 5:12). So Paul is already suggested what he is referring to sufficiently for his audience to know what he means. This means that the ambiguity about what the women were doing is not a justifiable basis for failure to identify what was meant. It is the reader’s duty to take the language to its suggested meaning even if the author does not try to explain how women have sexual intercourse with each other (something I don’t profess to know, let alone how to explain in words!).
The description of the activity of the men is adequately clear: they are having sexual intercourse with other men. This is the ‘use’ that the women changed from natural to unnatural. For the men, the charge was that they abandoned the natural ‘use’ of women, and instead were burned with passion for one another, men with men.
The words used to describe the men’s desire are suggestive of burning and lustful desire. What is the significance of this? This is parallel to ‘dishonourable’ passions in verse 26. The passion — pathos, not necessarily meaning improper lust, but can mean simply desire — was qualified as ‘dishonourable.’ Yet in verse 27, it is burning and lustful. It seems to be that the connotation of these words is equivalent to dishonourable. And the referent to the burning and lust is for other men. What makes the desire dishonourable or wrongful is unavoidable from the immediate context: that the desire was for a man sexually toward another man.
The claim of allusion to orgies or pederasty is unsupported. Just as with the women there is no discussion or suggestion of social context, so with the men there is none.
To make Paul refer to burning and lust as describing the intensity of the desire or the lack of control of the desire is to change his reference entirely. If Paul was arguing that the gentile world was corrupt because it was promiscuous, and full of adultery or prostitution, or was simply consumed with passions and lack of self control, he would probably have said that. Elsewhere he does speak in those terms and for that effect, for example in Romans 13:13 and Gal 5:19-21. If Paul was referring to such, why would he not have suggested it with his language?
If Paul were to be describing out of control sexual desire and conduct, to shock his readers to condemn the gentile world, he would have listed it as ‘consumed with passion, carrying out orgies and every kind of sexual immorality’ with the reference to pederasty or the like thrown in for good measure if he wanted to make the picture as extreme as he could.
But his argument is not about lack of self control, it is about perversion of the order God made. This is why he hardly mentions passion except in the context of its perversion. God made man, male and female, and he created sexual desire and sexual intercourse for the procreation of the race. But man perverted it. Men abandoned the natural desire for women and instead desired other men sexually. *that* is the perversion. It is not the control of the desires, it is the perversion of the desires and the perversion of the sexual act itself. This is what fits the context.
Paul has a specific argument not about the level of desire, not about its control, but about its shamefulness, dishonour because of its direction and expression in particular acts.
Paul does not just identify the conduct by naming it, as he does in 1 Cor 6, he actually goes further to describe it well enough. Let’s look at the descriptive elements:
1. It is dishonourable affections. The affections or passions themselves are dishonourable.
2. It is a rejection of the natural use of the man/woman sexually. The men abandoned the natural use of women, in order to do the unnatural use of the man. And the women did change the natural use for the unnatural use.
3. They burned in their lust for each other (as with the women (with women), men with men)
4. [men with men] committing shameless acts i.e. the active male penetrating another man
5. receiving in themselves due penalty for their error i.e. the passive male receiving the penetration of the active male.
Analysing the text in this manner shows the focus of the text: the exchanging of natural male-female sex for female-female sex and male-male sex. The desire elements precede the conduct elements. The problem was the dishonourable desire, the the dishonourable desire was carried out with the commission and reception of shameful acts.
The order of reference is the opposite of 1 Cor 6:9
effeminate [receptive male], nor homosexuals [active male] (1 Cor 6:9)
men committing shameless acts [active male], and receiving in themselves [receptive male]
I am not sure if there is any significance in the order of these in these texts.
Sorry to be repetitious, but there is no hint about the social context whatsoever. The crux of the argument is that female-female and male-male sexual acts are unnatural and shameful, and the manifestation of such conduct proves that the gentile world is corrupt.
Being into man-man-sex myself, I have taken part in such debates. And for a long time I am decided to treat this a case of 1.Corinth 8;1-11:1, the problem of “meat sacrificed to idols”.
People are more rigorous or more lax about this – and we are allowed to be more lax personally, but only as long as we respect the sensitivities of the more rigorous. Which means I would never try to impose myself on a church against the wishes and feelings of the church members.