I begin with two assumptions that are not directly found in Scripture, but which frame the way the church approaches Scripture on this issue. The first assumption is that there are gay and lesbian Christians in committed relationships who show evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Gal 5:22f.). I do not intend, by making this claim, to declare that the conversation is over, and there is nothing remaining to speak of in Scripture. Rather, I make this claim to suggest that the church has a problem and a challenge in dealing with the Bible’s witness regarding same-sex relationships.
The second assumption I want to make is that, over the last 30 years or so, the church has made intense efforts toward “reparative therapy,” trying to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian Christians into a heterosexual orientation. What the church has learned over this time is that, despite the prayerful and sincere attempts of thousands of gay and lesbian Christians to pursue this goal, in the vast majority of instances, the Spirit has not brought about that sort of change to heterosexual desire in those who sought it. Now again, this does not settle the question. Resistance to change does not inherently justify the behavior that resists that change. But neither is the failure of reparative therapy irrelevant to this discussion. And I want simply to underscore, at this point, the pastoral complexity that this failure of reparative therapy creates for the church, and the accompanying need to look more carefully at texts.
This poses an important question for the church: How should this tangible evidence of the Spirit’s work shape the way in which we interpret the Bible on sexuality in general, and on the church’s posture toward LGBT persons in particular? I introduce this frame of reference for a particular reason: unless we acknowledge the pastoral complexity of this issue, we may be tempted to read the Bible in a superficial way, and not delve to core principles and issues. This need to delve to deeper issues was certainly present in the early church. It was the evident fruit of the Spirit, and the reality of the Spirit’s work in Gentiles that led the early church to set aside the seemingly obvious application of Old Testament laws concerning kosher eating, circumcision, and Sabbath observance for Gentile Christian converts (cf. Acts 11:15-17, Gal. 3). In other words, it is the apparent work of the Spirit that sends us back to the Bible, to read more carefully, to delve more deeply into its witness, and to center our reading of the Bible more fully on the heart of the gospel. We do this not because experience trumps Scripture, but rather because experience often raises new questions that bring us back to the Bible with fresh eyes and fresh concerns. This was true in the early church, and it remains true today.
So how do we do that? How do we read the Bible more deeply? As I have argued in my book, we need to probe the “moral logic” of the commands and prohibitions of Scripture, asking not only what they say, but also why they say what they do. This understanding of why the texts make the claims that they do gives us the wisdom to know how to apply them in complex or varied cultural contexts. This is not a controversial claim; in fact the church has deployed just such an approach to many issues, including the sixth commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” particularly in its application to just-war theory, as well as more mundane commandments like the exhortation “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” (Rom 16:16, 1 Cor 16:20, 2 Cor 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14). When we know why the Bible gives these instructions, we know how to apply them more cogently in complex or cross-cultural circumstances.
And so we turn more directly to the biblical text. I want to focus specifically on Romans 1:24-27, since almost everyone agrees that this is the clearest and most important text on this question. Everyone agrees that Paul views very negatively the same-sex behavior he describes in these verses. This behavior is presented as evidence of humanity’s idolatry and alienation from God. The dispute arises over why Paul views this behavior as wrong, what sort of behavior he has in view, and whether his discussion also applies to long-term, committed same-sex relationships today.
I propose that we address this problem by looking as carefully as we can at the actual language that Paul uses in Romans 1. This, I would argue, is the most reliable way for us to understand the moral logic that Paul is using in this text.
Paul first categorizes this behavior as lustful. Rom 1:24 speaks of the “lusts of their hearts.” Rom 1:26 speaks of “degrading passions,” and Rom 1:27 speaks of how these perpetrators were “consumed with passion.” Paul is not speaking here only of misdirected desire, but of excessive desire. As I argue in the chapter on lust in my book, Jewish and Christian writers (including Paul) held to a particular theory about same-sex desire—that it was driven by excessive lust, by an insatiable appetite for increasingly exotic forms of stimulation. [e.g. Philo, de Abraham, scroll to section XXVI, paragraphs 133-136]
This raises a question, then, of the applicability of this sort of logic to committed gay and lesbian unions today. Most gay and lesbian Christians do not “leave behind” ordinary desire for those of the opposite sex as Rom 1:27 assumes; they never experienced such desire to begin with. So while Paul appears to be speaking of those with an insatiable desire for the exotic, not content with heterosexual gratification; that analysis doesn’t seem to fit the experience of gay and lesbians in committed relationships. We can all agree that any sort of sexual desire driven only by a thirst for the exotic is morally wrong. What remains questionable is whether all gay and lesbian relationships should be described this way, whether all such relationships are necessarily “consumed with passion.”
Paul also refers to the same-sex behavior he describes in these verses as “impurity” (Rom 1:24). Paul frequently refers to sexual misbehavior as “impurity” (e.g. 2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19). But this language also needs to be viewed in the larger context of the New Testament’s treatment of the categories of pure/impure and clean/unclean generally. In particular, Jesus takes a remarkably loose attitude to the Levitical standards of purity and impurity. He touches lepers, allows a menstruating woman to touch him, eats with tax collectors and sinners, and dies in a way that is, Paul reminds us, explicitly cursed by God (Gal 3:13-14, cf. Deut. 21:23). But perhaps the most striking text reflecting this larger approach to purity comes from Paul himself in Rom 14:14, where Paul defines purity and impurity solely by one’s internal disposition, not by external criteria. This raises the pressing question: How is one to relate this quote to the passage from Rom 1?
What we see overall in the New Testament is a movement away from defining impurity externally by the law, to an approach that defines it internally, by whether or not behaviors are marked by selfishness and the absence of restraint. Paul clearly views the sexual behavior he describes in Romans 1 as “impurity” (as do other Jewish and Christian writers of the period) in this fuller and more nuanced way, as marked by selfishness and absence of restraint. But again, we confront the difficulty in applying Paul’s language in Romans 1 to contemporary committed gay and lesbian unions, where folks commit themselves to each other “for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until we are parted by death.” Such commitments hardly seem to be characterized by selfishness and lack of restraint—indeed such vows entail the acceptance of substantial commitments and limitations for life!
Paul also characterizes the same-sex behavior he envisions in Romans 1 as “shameful,” “degrading,” or “shameless” (Rom 1:24, 26, 27). This is the language of honor and shame, which was very common in the ancient world. The ancient world in which the New Testament was written was a culture which anthropologists characterize as an “honor-shame culture.” In these cultures, sensitivity to the dynamics of honor and shame is one of the centrally defining values that shapes all social interactions. “Honor” represents a claim to worth or value, along with the social acknowledgement of that worth or value. A critical piece of any honor-shame culture is what anthropologists call the “public court of reputation.” Honor depends radically on what other people think of you. Honor and shame are thus not absolute values, but are deeply contextual. You have honor if people honor you; you have shame if they shame you. It’s as simple as that.
All human cultures reflect these dynamics to some extent, but honor-shame cultures are those cultures in which these concerns tend to dominate everyday interaction. It’s also important to understand the role of gender in particular in honor-shame cultures. Public competition for honor happens mainly (but not exclusively) among males, who, in terms of gender, embody honor. Conversely, females are thought to embody shame. Shame here is considered a positive quality—the sensitivity to what other people think and the willingness to adapt one’s behavior and demeanor to publicly accepted values. We also might describe this sort of shame using the word modesty. The honor of females is bound up with the honor of the male who is responsible for them—usually the patriarchal head of the household in which wives and daughters reside
But the most important thing to understand about honor and shame in Romans 1 is the way in which shame is specifically associated with failure to act in accordance with one’s own gender. Here a passage from 1 Cor 11:14f. is particularly germane: Paul states, “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Here we see the same juxtaposition of the language of honor-shame and references to “nature” that we find in Rom 1:26-27. We’ll explore that further below. But it is also important to note here the close linkage between the blurring of gender distinctions and the loss of honor in the world in which the Scriptures were written. For a man to wear long hair is considered inherently degrading, but for a woman to wear long hair is “her glory.” To present yourself in a way that conforms to gender expectations was considered honorable; to violate those gender expectations was shameful.
This confirms the understanding of the moral logic implicit in the honor-shame language of Rom 1:24-27. The sexual misbehavior described here, in addition to being characterized as “lustful” and “impure,” is considered “degrading” or “shameless” for a particular reason: such behavior violates established social expectations of the time regarding gender, and regarding behaviors that are seen as appropriate to males and females. For females, such dishonor arose from any sort of sexual behavior outside of marriage, as well as the failure to maintain the appropriate passive or submissive role within marriage; for males, dishonor or shame was more particularly a result of failure to “act like a man,” which included (among other things) playing the passive role in sexual intercourse and being penetrated by another male.
One further point, then, before we move on to “nature.” It is important to recognize that all this discussion about honor and shame takes place without any reference to the revealed will of God at all. Cases of honor and shame are regarded in this text, as in most biblical texts, as entirely self-evident, in need of no argument from Scripture. In any culture, one doesn’t need revelation to tell you what is honorable or shameful; you learn that every day of your life in lessons great and small. Honor and shame are defined by how people react to you, not what you read in a book.
Finally, it’s important to note that the categories of honor and shame are often critiqued in the New Testament (e.g. 1 Cor 1:27f.; Heb 12:2). Honor and shame are not revelational categories; they are cultural categories that are re-interpreted in light of the gospel. I think it’s fair to say that Christians in any cultural context should avoid treating people in ways that those people will experience as shameful or degrading. That’s what Paul is addressing here. However, what counts for shameful and degrading varies substantially from one culture to the next, and behavioral norms need to change accordingly. And it is not at all clear that folks in our culture all experience same-sex sexual behavior as inherently degrading.
Lastly, we turn to the category of “nature.” Paul says that “their women” exchanged the “natural use” for that which is “contrary to” or “beyond” nature (1:26), and similarly, men left behind “the natural use of woman” and had sex with men instead. But the first thing we must note is that the word “nature” (Greek physis) does not occur in the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This is not a Jewish category, but figures prominently in Stoic philosophy, the dominant philosophical perspective among Gentiles in Paul’s day. And when we look at Paul’s other uses of this word, they coincide with what we also see in Stoic philosophy. “Nature” refers to a convergence of individual disposition (cf. the same word rendered “instinctively” in Rom 2:14), social consensus (cf. the same word used in 1 Cor 11:14-16), and the biological world (cf. Rom 11:21, 24).
Here is where the debate gets stuck: Revisionists (who argue for greater acceptance of LGBT folks) talk about the personal and social dimensions of what is “natural” and traditionalists (who argue that Scripture supports a view of same-sex behavior as inherently sinful) talk about the biological dimensions. Yet the ancient Stoic vision of “nature,” like Paul’s usage, encompassed a harmony between all these.
But cultural and scientific changes have altered this landscape with respect to sexuality in significant ways: We have to ask ourselves: Is sexual orientation a new discovery that changes the way we think about individual disposition? How have changing notions of gender (and recent Supreme Court decisions) altered our conception of the “natural” social order and the resulting social cohesion we expect and hope for? How has the development of contraception changed the centrality of biological procreation for the meaning of sexuality?
When confronted with this sort of dilemma, we face two choices: One choice is simply to insist that the ancient Stoic vision was inspired by God, and true for all time. But we have to be honest here: do we really think that “nature” itself still teaches that it is shameful for a man to wear long hair regardless of cultural context? Do we really believe today that the central and defining goal toward which sex is directed is only biological procreation? Do we really believe that sexual orientation is simply a human choice, and not a “natural” disposition? These are all problematic in this vision that was so widespread in the ancient world.
But there is another alternative, beyond simply chucking the whole Stoic vision of “nature.” I think what the stoics longed for in their vision for nature was essentially a form of harmony and coherence between one’s individual disposition, the social order, and the natural world. I think that this is what God intends as well. Our understanding of ourselves, of the social order, and of the natural world are all subject to change, but the Stoic vision of the integration of these realms is still a compelling one: how do we live, so that these various arenas of our lives exist in peaceful harmony with each other?
This requires the exercise of a sanctified imagination: Can we imagine a world in which the divine pronouncement at the beginning of creation, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18) finds a range of deeply satisfying resolutions, from heterosexual marriage, to celibate communities, to gay and lesbian committed unions? Can we imagine both those with heterosexual and same-sex sexual orientation finding the deep sort of intimate communion which satisfies the longings of the heart and the body, builds stable households in society, and draws all persons more deeply into the experience of interpersonal grace which echoes and leads into the divine communion itself? Can we imagine these diverse households all contributing toward a fruitful and just society where children are conceived, sometimes adopted, and nurtured, where the hungry are fed, the poor and the sick are cared for, and where creativity and productivity is unleashed in the “natural” energy and vitality of communal life? Such exercises in imagination reach toward the same synthesis we saw in the ancient Stoic vision—the harmony of one’s individual “nature, the “natural” ordering of society, and the wider, natural world. Yet such a vision is only imaginable in light of the power of the Holy Spirit, who continues to draw human life, both individually and collectively, into communion with the divine life.
In conclusion, I have tried to argue that we should agree with Paul, that whenever sex is driven by selfishness and a lack of restraint; whenever it is marked by excessive and self-centered desire; whenever sex acts make people feel degraded; and whenever sexuality is not integrated into a broad vision of the individual, the social order, and the biological world, such sexuality is deeply flawed, and evidence of our alienation from God. But in our context today, it is at least an open question whether committed gay and lesbian unions should be painted with the same brush.