Ted Grimsrud—October 4, 2017
Over the past several decades, as North American Christians have sought to discern the way forward amidst differing convictions concerning the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians and of same-sex marriage, one of the arenas of debate has been what to make of the writings of Paul the Apostle. Several different perspectives have been argued for, in a general sense breaking down into three broad options.
Paul and “homosexuality”*: Three options
*[I will use quotes around “homosexuality” throughout this post to signify my uneasiness with using the word because of the pejorative connotations it has in general usage. What I will mean by “homosexuality” is the general phenomenon of people being attracted to others of the same sex. Part of the difficulty with the language is due to the fluidity of human sexual attraction in general that shows that our reality cannot be reduced to two simple categories, “heterosexual” and “homosexual.”]
(Option 1) Paul may not have written a great deal about “homosexuality,” but what he did write is clear and utterly damning. In Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 Paul makes it clear that same-sex sexual intimacy is always wrong. And, for those who hold this view, Paul’s views remain normative for today. Hence, Christians are bound to oppose same-sex marriage and to restrict the involvement of LGBTQ Christians in the churches.
(Option 2) Others mostly agree with the interpretation of Paul’s writings given by the people in the first group, but they would strongly disagree about the application of Paul’s perspective for today. They would say that Paul was simply wrong; that he was bound by his cultural limitations to hold to views that we no longer need accept. So, in spite of Paul, we should affirm same-sex marriage and full LGBTQ involvement in the churches.
(Option 3) Yet others argue Paul was not writing about we today call “homosexuality” at all. He simply did not address the phenomenon we know today of people whose affectional orientation is toward people of their same sex. Rather, in both Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6, he had in mind the kinds of behaviors that are also wrong for heterosexual people—not a condemning of a class of people for the inherent wrongness of their same-sex orientation.
I suspect that #1 and #2 are both conclusions that follow from starting with the question of what does the Bible tell us about “homosexuality”—with the assumption that it does indeed speak about “homosexuality” and that it is going to be negative about it. Generations of hostility toward “sexual deviance” have reinforced these assumptions—both among people who want to continue that hostility and people who want to eliminate the hostility.
So, the few texts that allegedly speak about “homosexuality” are usually simply cited rather than explored with the question of how we best understand these passages on their own terms. This dynamic then raises the more general issue of how we best apply the Bible to our current concerns: Do we try to find verses that seem to speak directly to our issues or do we look for more general guidance that follows from seeking first to understand the texts on their own terms?
An approach that focuses on understanding the texts on their own terms—and only then tries to draw some general kind of guidance—is much more likely to end up with #3. I believe that when we look at the texts on their own terms we will recognize that Paul did not write about “homosexuality” at all and hence does not offer direct guidance for our ethics on this topic. I would add, then, that following option #3 would lead to a similar conclusion regardless of one’s view of biblical inspiration and authority—whether these are words directly from God or simply from Paul, when looked at on their own terms they are not concerned with “homosexuality.”
What Paul does say
I have written at length elsewhere about what I think these texts, when read on their own terms, do address. In brief, Paul presents in Romans 1 the dynamics of idolatry among Roman pagans as a spiral of injustice where people trust in the creation rather than the creator. Such people inevitably depart from the justice of God and instead embody injustice. One of the most outrageous manifestations of this dynamic, Paul suggests, is how the Roman elite engage in extreme orgiastic parties (notoriously linked with emperors such as Caligula and Nero).
Paul goes on, though, in Romans 2 to make it clear that this description of pagan excess is a caricature that plays the rhetorical role of setting his readers up for a more important critique—the equally unjust dynamics of self-righteous religious folk who point fingers at other terrible sinners while engaged in their own profound injustices. Part of the background here likely is Paul’s own profound injustices borne out of his own earlier religiosity as a zealot Pharisee when he violently persecuted followers of Jesus.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul also uses an exaggerated caricature of unjust acts done by pagans as a rhetorical device to critique the behavior of Christians. Some in the Corinthian church took fellow church members to secular courts, suing them to address their grievances. Paul heatedly rejects that practice and urgently argues that the Corinthian Christians must instead find ways to resolve their internal conflicts internally and not via the secular magistrates.
To make this point, he emphasizes that the magistrates are unjust, as is typical of pagans, just as the Corinthian Christians themselves were unjust before they met Jesus. To drive this point home, Paul uses what may be a standard “vice list” that illustrates just how unjust pagans are. All of the items on the list Paul uses here seem to refer to obviously unjust behaviors. Their meaning is to be found in their aggregate impression, not in any details about individual terms.
In this context, Paul uses an extremely rare word (no other known uses outside of Paul’s in any Greek writings we have from the first century) that likely alludes to male/male sexual activity. Absent any elaboration in this list of the specific meaning of this term, we best recognize that it is meant simply to add to the sense of the injustice that the Corinthians must avoid in their processing their internal conflicts.
So, in neither Romans 1 nor 1 Corinthians 6 did Paul address Christian sexual ethics. Whatever allusions there might be in either text to male/male sexual behavior are at most illustrative of pagan dynamics of injustice in general. And these dynamics are noted in both texts for rhetorical purposes that have nothing to do with our present-day “homosexuality.”
The injustices Paul had in mind in these texts are unjust behaviors for anyone who might indulge in them—and insofar as they touch on sexual behavior, they allude to behavior that would be equally wrong for heterosexual people such as indiscriminate sexual indulgence and economically exploitive use of sex. To link these with “homosexuality” in our modern sense of an affectional orientation makes no more sense than to link a man having sex with his father’s wife (1 Cor 5:1) or using a prostitute (1 Cor 6:15) to “heterosexuality.” With those latter examples, Paul did not say that “heterosexuality” is the problem, but the specific behaviors. Surely this is the case with regard to the allusions in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 as well.
Why is it important to recognize that Paul does not write about “homosexuality”?
One of the main reasons is that virtually the entire basis for discrimination against LGBTQ people (e.g., in relation to marriage and to church participation) is based on religious convictions that override the actual evidence of the wellbeing of people in same-sex intimate relationships. The lack of evidence of genuine harm caused by the affirmation of same-sex marriage is one of the main reasons that American courts have recently legalized it.
The bases for those religious convictions include understandings of the Bible’s teachings. There actually are very few texts that are cited. Two of the major texts are these two passages from Paul’s writings, Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6. In fact for many thinkers, including the influential New Testament scholar Richard Hays, Romans 1 provides the main evidence for the restrictive position.
So, to recognize that Paul in fact does not write about “homosexuality” is to take away one of the major pillars of the restrictive position. In fact, the only biblical evidence that remains would be a few Old Testament texts, each with its own limitations. There is nothing else that could directly apply from the New Testament.
If we realize that we can’t base our judgment concerning “homosexuality” on New Testament teaching we will have to pay much more attention to the actual present-day experiences of LGBTQ people. And we will most likely realize that the aspirations, joys, failures, and struggles of people in same-sex intimate relationships are very similar to those in opposite-sex intimate relationships—and that the “homosexual lifestyle” is pretty much the same as the “heterosexual lifestyle,” for better and for worse.
To recognize that Paul does not give us any guidance concerning same-sex marriage will also likely require us to take a less rule-centered approach to these issues. If we don’t have direct commands that tell us what to do, we will have to think more in terms of broad understandings of human flourishing shaped by biblical teachings (both general commands [such as the call to mutual respect and servanthood] and stories [such as the account given in the book of Ruth]) as well as our sense of ways of life that are healthy in practice (and those that are not).
One other benefit of the recognition about Paul not writing about “homosexuality” is that it will help those Christians whose instincts push them to be inclusive but are held back by a loyalty to the Bible. If they realize that, in fact, Paul does not teach the traditional restrictive approach, they will be freer to base their understandings on other moral convictions.
In my own process, I started with an acceptance of the restrictive evangelical view that was questioning due to my growing sense of the Bible’s message of care for the vulnerable and offer of mercy to all people. I also was troubled by the hostility toward LGBTQ people that I saw around me among my fellow evangelicals. So when I read a carefully written essay on the Bible and “homosexuality” by a trusted evangelical writer (John Alexander in The Other Side magazine) that showed how many of the traditional understandings of the Bible on these issues were not the best interpretations of the texts, I was ready to move away from the restrictive views that had seemed increasing incompatible with the rest of my theological and ethical worldview.
Using the Bible for ethics
This discussion about “homosexuality” may serve as a helpful case study in relation to use of the Bible for ethics. We see here the common approach where Christians begin with an issue of concern and then look to the Bible for direct teaching about that issue. What often happens in such cases is that some oblique or obscure biblical text takes on an outsized importance because it can be seen to allude to the issue—though when read on its own terms the text does not warrant such attention.
So, when we have thought of a Christian response to “homosexuality” we have focused a few obscure texts—such as Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11—and use them as the authoritative base for Christian practices and beliefs. As I have suggested above, though, this approach leads to imputing into these texts meaning that the texts themselves do not have when read on their own terms.
If we recognize that in fact Paul did not write about “homosexuality” it could be easier to take a different approach to ethical discernment. Rather than looking for direct teaching, we will look rather for broader, more general messages that could contribute to our ethical discernment. We may thus draw some general guidance from the Bible, but we will also be more likely to be transparent about the role other sources play (and should play)—such as experience, scientific data, church teachings, and theological analyses.
Now, we do have general guidance that we may draw from the Romans and 1 Corinthian texts. I’ll mention just a few points. Romans 1–2 teach of the problems of self-righteousness and judging others as a way of reinforcing self-serving religious boundary markers. The broader context of Romans 1–3 emphasizes the message of the gospel of God’s mercy made available to all people. And 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 calls Christians to a biblical/relational restorative justice in contrast to the “magisterial justice” that Paul’s readers were turning to as means to adjudicate their conflicts. Each of these points is plenty relevant to LGBTQ inclusion in the churches.