Biblical Perspectives, Round 2

I want to thank James Brownson for his thought-provoking essay.  It challenged me to go deeper and keep exploring this issue.   

There are a number of points on which we can agree.  First, Dr. Brownson begins with the assumption that there are gay and lesbian Christians in committed relationships who show evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives (Gal. 5:22–23). I completely agree. The fruit of the Spirit is evidence that a believer has a relationship with Jesus Christ and has God’s Spirit in their life. But the fruit of the Spirit is not proof that a person is sinless or that they are not struggling with sin in certain areas.  I had a close pastor friend who was without doubt a true believer and in whom I saw a daily demonstration of  the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.,).  Several years later I found out he was having an affair during much of this time.  While exhibiting much of the fruit of a true believer, he still struggled with and succumbed to sinful desires (see Rom. 7:14–25). Similarly, the believers at Corinth exhibited powerful spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 1:7) and yet some continued to visit prostitutes, claiming it did not affect their spiritual life (1 Cor. 6:12–20). Paul disagreed.

I also agree with Dr. Brownson’s assumption that so-called “reparative therapy” is generally not successful or the simple “answer” to a very complex situation. While God can do anything he wants in a person’s life, including changing their sexual orientation, experience suggests that this is not usually how God works. Similarly, God did not remove Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” when Paul asked (2 Cor. 12:7–10). He instead taught Paul to rely on divine power to endure trials and temptation. None of us will be perfected (physically, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) this side of eternity.  But the frequent failure of “reparative therapy” does not prove that homosexual inclination is either natural or God’s design for human sexuality.  Paul’s thorn in the flesh (whether disease, demon, opponents, etc.) was not part of God’s good design. It was evidence of creation’s fallen state.

This brings up another important point I don’t think Dr. Brownson has adequately addressed. Is homosexual inclination part of God’s intentional design for human sexuality? Or is such inclination a result of our fallen state (like other sinful sexual desires)? As I discussed in my previous essay, the claim for God’s intentional design for same-sex sexual relations seems to run counter to the paradigmatic creation account in Genesis 1–2.  Taking this question one step further, both Dr. Brownson and I use the designation “LGBT” (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender).  But he has only discussed monogamous same-sex relationships (Lesbian/Gay). If it is God’s good plan and intention for people to have lesbian and gay desires, is it also his design for some people to be males in a female body, and females in a male body? Has Bruce Jenner discovered his true identity as God intended? Or is his transgender status further evidence of the fallen state of humanity? Transgender identity and bisexuality would seem to provide evidence that all such attractions are a result of humanity’s brokenness rather than God’s design.

Another area of agreement between Dr. Brownson and myself is in his emphasis upon the reasons behind biblical commands. It is not just the what of these commands but especially their why that is important. This is because all commands in Scripture are culturally embedded. Determining the functional significance of cultural commands like foot washing or the holy kiss enables us to determine how God would have us to fulfill these mandates today. I am also happy to adopt the category of the “moral logic” behind the Bible’s teaching.

Where we differ, however, is in our conclusions about the nature of this moral logic. Dr. Brownson claims that in Roman 1:24–27, “Paul is not speaking here only of misdirected desire, but of excessive desire,” and that this kind of excessive lust has little relation to mutual and loving same-sex relations. My response would be that Paul seems clearly to be talking about both misdirected and excessive desire. And the misdirection is explicitly defined as “female with female” and “male with male” sexual behavior. Paul’s strong language related to this (“inflamed with lust,” etc.) is not at all surprising considering his Jewish background. As Dr. Brownson himself points out, Jews of Paul’s day viewed homosexual relations as particularly repulsive and evidence of the godlessness and corruption of the Gentile world. To claim that this Jewish repulsion related only to “excessive” or particularly lustful homosexual activity seems unlikely to me.

Nor will it do to claim—as many have—that Paul could not have conceived of a committed same-sex relationship, since the ancients had no conception of homosexual inclination, only homosexual behavior. On the contrary, both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature speak about men whose temperament or inclination is to love other men. In Plato’s Symoposium, Aristophanes speaks of men who “pursue the masculine… making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men’s embraces…. A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind.”  He goes on to say that “These are they who continue together throughout life, though they could not even say what they would have of one another” (Plato, Symposium 191d-192c). Though no one doubts that pederasty (adult men with adolescent male youths) was common in Greece, there is also evidence for mature adult men whose inclination was for other men. Judging from Paul’s Jewish background and strong and explicit language here, it is inconceivable to me that he would have approved of such relationships under any circumstances.

Dr. Brownson also claims that Paul’s language in Romans 1:27 about “abandoning” (1:27; aphentes) natural relations for unnatural is not analogous to today’s world, since most gay and lesbian Christians do not “leave behind” their desire for the opposite sex. They have never had such desires in the first place. But Paul is not speaking about an individual’s departure from their personal inclination. He rather says that these people abandoned or left behind “natural relations with women” (or more formally, “the natural use the female”). What is condemned here is not turning away from one’s natural inclination, but departing from the norm, which is defined as male with female sexual relations.

Dr. Brownson also seeks to clarify Paul’s language of “impurity” in Romans 1:24 (akatharsia). He claims that the New Testament sees a movement from external purity concerns to internal ones. Internal impurity is marked not by external legal requirements but by selfishness and the absence of restraint.  He then argues that committed gay and lesbian relationships hardly seem to be driven by selfishness or the absence of restraint.

This is a strong argument and I would have to agree that a committed, loving, lifelong gay or lesbian relationship would seem to be in a different category than other kinds of sexual impurity, such as promiscuous sexual behavior or exploitative sexual acts (incest, pederasty, rape, etc.). At the same time, sexual immorality/impurity is not always or necessarily connected to selfishness or the absence of restraint. Consider, for example, premarital sex, polygamy or incest between consenting adults, which could be loving, mutual and committed, yet would still be contrary to God’s will. Our point is that sexual behavior can be “impure” and sinful without necessarily being driven by excessive selfishness or lack of restraint. Even in a new covenant context, God deems certain sexual behavior to be wrong even if it doesn’t appear to be destructive to oneself or others.

Dr. Brownson also picks up on Paul’s language of shamefulness in Romans 1 (vv. 24, 26, 27) and links this passage to the important cultural values of honor/shame in the Greco-Roman world.  With reference to gender, he points out that “shame is specifically associated with failure to act in accordance with one’s own gender.” For women this involved sexual behavior outside of marriage. For men, it meant failing to act as the dominant partner in sexual relations (i.e., to be penetrated, instead of the penetrator). Dr. Brownson concludes that the sexual behavior of Romans 1:24–27 is viewed as shameful and degrading not because it is homosexual per se, but because, “such behavior violates established social expectations of the time regarding gender, and regarding behaviors that are seen as appropriate to males and females.”

There is significant insight here. Shame and honor were certainly extremely important values in the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. Furthermore, although male homosexual behavior was common and widely accepted, the passive partner was often viewed with derision and shame. To be a true man meant to dominate, which meant assuming the active sexual role.

While these cultural insights are valid, applying them to Romans 1 is problematic. First, they do not work well with the lesbian relationship Paul describes in 1:26. A woman’s shame in the Greco-Roman world came from unfaithfulness to her family or her husband. This would be most commonly expressed in lack of submission, immodesty, promiscuity or adultery. It would be very strange indeed to express it in terms of lesbianism, a topic seldom discussed in the Greco-Roman world. Much more likely is the explanation we have introduced previously, which is that both lesbianism and male homosexual behavior are intended by Paul to represent obvious distortions of human sexuality as defined by the paradigmatic creation account in Genesis 1–2.

The other major problem with this shame/honor explanation of Romans 1 is that it does not apply well to what Paul says about male homosexual behavior. According to Paul, what is “degrading,” “impure,” and “shameful” (1:24, 26, 27) is not the passive partner in the homosexual act, but both partners “men…with other men” who were inflamed with lust “for one another.” It is the acts themselves, not the particular role played, that is shameful.

Finally, Dr. Brownson continues his emphasis on Greco-Roman culture by discussing what Paul means by “nature” (physis). He claims that since physis does not appear in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), this is “not a Jewish category, but figures prominently in Stoic philosophy, the dominant philosophical perspective among Gentiles in Paul’s day.” And the Stoics understood physis to be “a form of harmony and coherence between one’s individual disposition, the social order, and the natural world.” Applied to the present debate, he suggests that both those with heterosexual and same-sex sexual orientation can find “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.”

In response, it is not quite correct to say that “nature” is not a Jewish category. Although physis (and its cognate adjective physikos; vv. 26, 27) does not appear in the Septuagint, it is common in the literature of first century Judaism. The Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher Philo, and other Jewish writings of Paul’s day commonly refer to heterosexual behavior as “natural” (physikos) or “according to nature” (kata physin) and homosexual behavior as “contrary to nature” (para physin). By this they clearly mean “according to God’s design.” Josephus writes:

But what are our laws about marriage? The law acknowledges no other intercourse between the sexes except that which is natural [kata physin], of a man with his wife, and this for the procreation of children. But it abhors the mixture of a male with a male. (Against Apion 2.24 §199).

As noted in my previous essay, considering Paul’s many allusions to the creation account throughout Romans chapter one and his distinctive use of female/male language echoing Genesis 1:27, it seems most likely that “natural” for him means God’s created design, which has been distorted through the hardness of human hearts (Rom. 1:21–30).

This is the perspective of leading commentators on Romans. C. E. B. Cranfield notes that by physikos and para physin “Paul clearly means ‘in accordance with the intention of the Creator’ and ‘contrary to the intention of the Creator’, respectively.”[1] J. D. G. Dunn similarly concludes that “Paul’s attitude to homosexual practice is unambiguous…a piece with and direct result of the basic corruption of the glory and truth of God in idolatry.”[2] Douglas Moo writes,

In keeping with the biblical and Jewish worldview, the heterosexual desires observed normally in nature are traced to God’s creative intent. Sexual sins that are “against nature” are also, then, against God, and it is this close association that makes it probable that Paul’s appeal to “nature” in this verse includes appeal to God’s created order.[3]

Whether or not Stoic thought comes into play in Paul’s perception of “nature” (it may), it seems hard to deny that Paul’s views on homosexual behavior coincide with his Jewish background, where such behaviors were universally and unambiguously viewed as contrary to God’s design for human sexuality. To claim that —despite all appearances—Paul had a higher (Stoic?) vision of convergence that would have trumped not only his Jewish worldview, but everything the Bible says about same-sex behavior, seems to me incredible.

So in the end, I have to say that I have not found the biblical or hermeneutical arguments marshaled for same-sex relationships ultimately convincing. There is an old maxim that if you argue long enough and hard enough in support of something, you can eventually prove your point. But in the end, the arguments are so nuanced and convoluted (to my mind), I cannot believe that this is what the biblical authors intended.

At the same time, I do find the stories from the gay community and their supporters very compelling. And I feel deeply and empathetically with those who are agonizing over these issues. That alone is enough to keep me engaged in the conversation.


[1] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Introduction and Commentary on Romans 2 vols. (International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000, 2004, 6th ed.) 1:125.

[2] James D. G. Dunn, Romans, 2 Vols. (Word Biblical Commentary; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988), 74.

[3] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 115.

8 replies
  1. says:

    My Gay friends who are Christian, some of who are in long term relationships, married or not, find it impossible to comprehend the idea that their identity as a same sex directed person is unnatural for them.
    I imagine heterosexual individuals could be persuaded by biblical scholars analyzing the ideas of ancient cultures and distinguishing them from what the many writers of scripture wrote contemporaneously. As a heterosexual one doesn't require introspection about the 'sin' of homosexuality. But because sexuality is an integral part of every person's identity, those who do not fit the 'natural' definition of sexuality are faced with an insoluble problem if they are convinced they are making a sinful choice.
    When I have listened to young gay Christians who have yet to 'come out' say they feel the need to choose between their sexual identity and their faith. They of course are unable to change who they are, so some will attempt to give up their Christian faith. In most cases I have observed that was not possible for them either.
    So while Mr. Strauss has empathy for those who are in agony, the sufferers are finding Christian communities who can accept them as whole people worthy as anyone of God'd grace.

  2. says:

    I appreciate this forum for respectful discourse and the guidelines which in themselves are instructive to the church in calling us to disagree well.

    I hope there is counter-engagement on some of the specifics discussed here. I'm compelled to note that the point by Dr. Strauss that I find most baffling is his contention that there is no "absence of restraint" in the cases of premarital sex, polygamy or incest. There is considerable and significant absence of restraint in those cases! While they may be done with consent and with love, each violates boundaries that have been established in the Bible and by the church which Christians in same-sex partnerships also wish to honor: namely, that sexual intercourse be limited to exclusive covenantal partnerships between non-relatives. (As Dr. Brownson pointed out elsewhere, polygamy is nonetheless an accepted norm in the Old Testament, but that's a separate discussion.) For Dr. Strauss to associate the restraints being violated in the cases of premarital sex, polygamy, and incest with the restraints he sees being violated by Christians in same-sex partnerships is misleading and does a disservice to Christians who find highly significant ethical distinctions there that help us evaluate the acceptability of sexual practices.

  3. says:

    I can't presume to know the mind of God in such detail or even justify the assumption that he had a specific design intention like a human craftsman might, but if I did I still could not presume to think I could discern and comprehend his pre-lapsarian vision and from that extrapolate a universal theory of human sexuality. Even with relevant PhDs in biology and theology I would not be adequately equipped.

    Suppose we do not try to go away from the human community that is Christ's body and God's images in the world to try to suss out hidden truths without which we cannot relate to other image-bearers. Suppose we reverse the process and start with loving others in real, specific, community/congregational/pastoral relationships and then see how we read the Bible. Isn't that what Jesus did?

  4. Ronald Williams
    Ronald Williams says:

    I look forward to the segment that brings biology and science into the the discussion. Frankly I do not see how it can be bracketed off apart from any discussion of this issue without impoverishing it.

  5. Ronald Williams
    Ronald Williams says:

    Taking Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner as emblematic or typical of "transsexual" people is a mistake; Jenner is transgender, and there is a difference. Professor Strauss seems not to recognize this distinction or the more common fact of people who are born with an obvious sex ambiguity.

    I often perceive that these types of discussions are hampered by a lack of awareness and/or agreement on basic facts like these. It is undeniable that hermaphrodism exists and homosexuality occurs throughout nature; this seems to be a near consensus now even in the domain of intra-Christian controversy. Rabbinical commentary since ancient times wrestles with these facts in the face of its traditional moral imperatives and the pragmatic needs of a people defined by family and reproductive lineage. We should learn from this. Too much contemporary Christian commentary does not do that work and focuses on the strangest and most seemingly "deviant" cases that can be found. Naturally they become the objects of ridicule and demonization. Jenner has played the role of the "slippery slope" for many Christians, as if legalized same-sex marriage leads to "popularized transgenderism." (Instead we might more readily see that a failed Christian witness in the area of marriage and media consumption enables the celebrity narcissism and corrupt heterosexualities the Kardashians have made into a family business.) Let's deal with normal, healthier people instead who are trying to live moral and Christian lives.

    I wonder if it's extra hard to "see the other" as Christ, or as our neighbor and like ourselves if we have a prior attachment to the assumption that all "natural" biological outcomes must reflect "design" (and therefore divine intention). Does this make us incapable of seeing equally natural and abiding deviations from the norm as anything but "broken" and therefore a special product of the fall and sin? Could this be the result of taking the Genesis story literally and making it a theoretical basis that all science and empirical data must support? There is in fact no biblical necessity for any part of this chain of speculative reasoning, and the range of Jewish responses to gender, sexuality and reproductive issues that do not take this path is instructive, especially since they tend to remain quite literalistic in their unique way.

    So I want to ask if there is any possibility of self-questioning, that perhaps we have made unwarranted metaphysical assumptions and hurt ourselves in trying to "save the appearances" of a bad theory once again as evidence against it mounts to an overwhelming degree. Bad theological theories are, in their own way, idols and it is unsurprising that they cause scandal, division, and uncharitable relations with our fellow image bearers. There is a distinct similarity between the metaphysical needs of young earth creationism, for example, and the denial that "God made some people gay" or not unambiguously cisgendered heterosexuals. If I take this position then I have no choice but to reject all the facts (and people) who do not "fit" the theory. I must see LGBTQ people as deviant by their own sinful choices or specially and arbitrarily cursed by a loving God. This dead end of two bad choices suggests a wrong turn was taken earlier.

  6. Mark Strauss
    Mark Strauss says:

    Thank you, Ronald, for your thoughtful comments and your correction to my post. I referred to "transsexual" when I meant "transgender" (I have corrected this in the post). But since in the designation LGBT, the "T" stands for transgender, my point about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner is the same. My intention was not to provoke an emotional response with this celebrated case, but to raise the question of whether such sexual confusion (between biological and psychological gender) was also part of God's design.

  7. says:

    I agree with Dr. Strauss that homosexuality is (my comparison) more like being near sighted than being left handed. Lefthandedness in a minority attribute, but there is nothing deficient about it. It is "normal", just not typical. Nearsightedness, however, is a defect – not a moral defect of course, but can be considered as a result of the Fall.

    However, consider what we do with/for folk who are nearsighted (or lame or blind): We find ways for them to experience life as fully as possible given their condition. Same should hold for homosexuals. And certainly the most important way in which we can accommodate homosexuals is in acknowledging the truth of Genesis that "it is not good for man to be alone." Yes, in Paradise man had a woman (and no weeds and no pain). We now muddle through in this fallen world with pain killers, with divorce, with herbicides, and with same-sex marriage. Not part of God's ideal plan, but easily arguably part of God's plan for a fallen world.

  8. says:

    Several times in his essays, Dr. Strauss bases his argument on the claim that Romans 1 references "female with female" sex. That is an assumption that he has imposed on the text, presumably making an analogy with the explicit mention of male same-sex behavior. Romans 1:26 says that "women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural," but it's not explicit that their "unnatural" behavior was same-sex. That is a possible interpretation, but not the only one. That interpretation cannot form the basis of other conclusions.

    I am working my way through the essays, so perhaps my most pressing concern will be addressed later; but I would like to see the proponents of the "traditional" position wrestle with the demonstrable harm done to sexual minorities by the presumption that they or their committed relationships are outside God's plan or will. The examples are many, but I'll just mention the young people growing up to question their self-worth and God's love for them, and the parents convinced by church teaching to throw their gay kids out of the house. There are other parts of Scripture that inform Christian ethics in this matter, such as Romans 13:8-10 and Mark 2:23-3:6.


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