Interpreting Scripture, Round 3

I am grateful for this conversation with Dr. Strauss.  It helps me to see the more clearly those areas that still need work, and more particularly, those areas that are most prone to misunderstanding and ineffective communication.  That, of course, is no assurance that such “misunderstanding” can be easily fixed, but it does provide a focus for further work.

I’m also grateful for the multiple points of agreement that we have been able to discern between us.  This definitely moves the discussion forward.  Even where we disagree, there is much we have in common. I agree with him, for example, that neither the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of committed gay and lesbian Christians, nor the failure of reparative therapy settles the question of how we are to interpret Scripture.  But I also want to push Dr. Strauss a bit further on this.  Certainly people can exhibit the fruit of the Spirit while they are sinning.  But if we take the New Testament seriously, it was also the fruit of the Spirit that led early Christians to say that the failure of Gentiles to abide by certain explicit requirements of Scripture (Kosher, Sabbath, and circumcision) should not be regarded as “sin,” despite explicit texts of Scripture to the contrary (including the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers).  Setting aside the Sabbath commandment in particular is striking, since it is grounded in the creation narrative itself.  So yes, these appeals to the fruit of the Spirit do not settle the matter, but they do open the question more forcefully.

Similarly, Dr. Strauss makes an analogy between Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and the failure of reparative therapy, arguing that God does not always take away all manifestations of human brokenness.  I agree that God does not always do this.  But Paul also devotes significant attention in 2 Corinthians 12 to the purpose of this “thorn in the flesh,” and what God may be intending to communicate by his refusal to remove it.  At the very least, gay and lesbian Christians deserve some thoughtful attention to this topic.  Simply saying “this doesn’t prove gay sex is not sinful” is not sufficient.  I suspect that Dr. Strauss would agree.

Then, Dr. Strauss turns to another issue that he says I have not adequately addressed:  “Is homosexual inclination part of God’s intentional design for human sexuality?”  I agree that I have not addressed this in our conversation, so let me try to do so now.  I think that this is an issue over which many Christians may disagree, even if they agree to advocate for a more affirming posture toward gay and lesbian Christians in committed relationships.  What is at issue here is the distinction between “God’s creative design” and what is “sanctifiable” in God’s redemptive purpose.  Let’s consider a completely different issue to make the distinction.  I think most people would agree that disability is not part of “God’s creative design.”  God did not create human beings intending them to be blind, or unable to walk.  And yet all Christians would agree that God can take our experience of blindness or our inability to walk, even if that disability is due to the Fall, and draw that disability into God’s creative purpose, so that the purposes of the Kingdom of God are fulfilled through it, without eliminating it.  (Note that I am not suggesting that being gay or lesbian is a disability; I am simply noting how some elements that may be disputed as part of God’s creative purpose may still generate consensus when they are envisioned as part of God’s redemptive purpose.)   Another example would be procreation in marriage.  I would agree with Dr. Strauss that procreation is part of God’s creative design for marriage.  And yet the church recognizes that God’s redemptive purpose can include married couples who are incapable of procreation.  So it is not enough to talk about God’s creative design; we also need to talk about God’s redemptive purpose, including a redemptive purpose for gay and lesbian sexuality.

So what is at stake in this conversation, it seems to me, is the extent to which core aspects of God’s redemptive purpose for heterosexual marriage, revealed in Scripture, can be replicated in same-sex couples.  I simply don’t find necessary and essential aspects of the divine purpose for marriage which cannot be fulfilled by same-sex couples.  I suggested in an earlier post that the marriage vows might be a good place to start in this conversation.

In response to Dr. Strauss’ discussion of my treatment of lust, I simply want to reiterate that ancient Jews and Christians saw same-sex behavior springing from heterosexual desire that was driven by a thirst for the exotic, uncontent with more “normal” means of gratification.  This assumption, which can be well documented in ancient sources, doesn’t seem to fit the experience of gay and lesbian Christians today.  They do not experience desire that is marked by this particular sort of “excess.”  I don’t see any evidence postulated by Dr. Strausss that dissuades me from this conviction.  In the absence of such contradictory evidence, I continue to believe that Paul’s language about same-sex relationships being “lustful” and “consumed with passion” assumes a frame of reference that does not apply consistently to gay and lesbian Christians today.

Next, we turn to an old chestnut in this conversation, whether Paul had in mind or intended to include committed same-sex relationships in his language in Romans 1.  Dr. Strauss appeals to the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium to argue that the ancient world envisioned committed same-sex relationships, and thus Paul would have had these in mind.  In response, I have several observations.  First of all, the entire speech of Aristophanes is in praise of the power of eros, erotic love, which is not among the highest values of Greeks generally, and certainly not among the highest values of Jews and Christians.  The binary creatures Aristophanes describes are not all human beings; they were originally a third portion of the human race, in addition to males and females as we now know them [189D].  Moreover, these are not model creatures.  In fact, they are all, in Plato’s view, distorted, even though this is rendered in comic fashion here.  Aristophanes says “Now they were of surprising strength and vigour, and so lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods, . . . scheming to assault the gods in fight they essayed to mount high heaven” [190B].  This is not admirable in Plato’s world, but all the binary creatures are described in this way. 

But this is not the only negative word about these original binaries:  Aristophanes also says the following about those descended from the original man-woman pairs: “All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, which likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses” [191D-E].  In other words, all of the people who originated from the dyads described in Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium are those who lives are marked by excess, by desire that is out of control.  Similarly, those descended from the original male-male pairs pursue men, but only “so long as their boyhood lasts” [191E], i.e., as long as they are children (pais in Greek).  Plato does not present these as mature, adult relationships.    What is central throughout this speech is that all these folks pay far too much attention to eros, to erotic desire (due, in the speech, to their unique origins). They lack proper balance.  In other words, they are lustful, when it comes to overall sexual ethics.  This raises an important question today:  should we, like Aristophanes, lump gay and lesbian people together with adulterers, as those marked by erotic desire out of control?  I don’t think so.  This seems to fit more with the perspective I discussed in the prior paragraph, focusing on out-of-control and excessive desire.  It’s a very different interpretive framework within which to understand same-sex desire, and not one that we find helpful today.  These, quite simply, are not committed, adult same-sex couples like we see today.

Dr. Strauss concludes his discussion by saying “it is inconceivable to me that [Paul] would have approved of such [committed] relationships under any circumstances.”  In response, I would at least partially agree.  Paul could not have envisioned same-sex relationship that he would approve of, because he assumed that they were all marked by this sort of out-of-control lust, even if they restricted themselves to one person.  But what if the framework that Paul takes for granted is not the only possible framework that people envision or live under?  What if we have learned some things about same-sex desire and behavior that Paul didn’t know?  How might that cause us to reassess what he says here?  I’ll say more about this a bit later, when I address the topic of “natural theology.”

On a related topic, Dr. Strauss critiques my argument that impurity is behavior marked by selfishness and lack of restraint, and uses premarital sex, polygamy, or incest between consenting adults as counter-examples.  We could discuss lots of issues here, but let’s explore the question with respect to the example of incest between consenting adults.  I agree that incest between consenting adults is always wrong.  However, “impurity” is not the only reason why it is wrong.  As I noted in earlier posts, incest is wrong for a whole variety of reasons, many of which center on role conflicts in a household.  But that doesn’t mean that all of those reasons are included under the category of “impurity.”  Dr. Strauss’ case will have more strength if he can identify behaviors that the New Testament explicitly calls “impurity” that are not marked by lack of restraint and selfishness, or that don’t fit the definition of impurity Paul offers in Romans 14:14.  Then we have a different sort of discussion, about the scope of Paul’s definition in this verse (along with the example of Jesus), and whether this discussion applies other forms of impurity, beyond what Paul explicitly addresses in this chapter.  But my bottom line is that while Paul characterizes a variety of sexual misbehaviors as “impurity,” the category of “impurity” is not the only one that makes these things wrong.  We still need to get at what it is about “impurity” that makes it wrong in particular.  I haven’t seen any evidence yet which makes me think that this category should be defined in a way other than behavior that is marked by selfishness and lack of restraint.

With respect to the discussion of women in Romans 1:26, I repeat that the early church, for the first 300 years of its life, read this verse as not applying to same-sex eroticism between females, but to non-procreative intercourse between women and men.  One can’t assume that Paul is speaking of lesbian relationships here.  That’s an extended discussion in its own right.

With respect to Dr. Strauss’ treatment of my discussion of honor and shame, I would only respond that Paul would consider it shameful for a man to treat another man like a woman—it is failing to give appropriate honor to someone else.  I don‘t see his critique touching on core issues here.

Finally, we turn to one of the big one—how to interpret appeals to “nature” in Romans 1.  I agree that Jewish writers around the time of Paul use the concept of “nature” utilizing the Greek word physis, and that it is not unique to Paul.  But I would argue that, for both Jewish interpreters like Philo or Josephus as well as for Paul, they use the word in order to communicate with a gentile audience for whom this word is familiar and already defined.  It’s an apologetic move, plain and simple.  They all interpret this category to be readily identifiable with divine purpose and design, finding a point of contact between wat we would call “natural revelation” and the “special revelation” found in the Torah.  But here’s the important thing:  when they use the word “nature,” their readers would not think of special revelation, but of general revelation.  That’s the category within which we need to envision this language. 

I agree that “Paul’s views on homosexual behavior coincide with his Jewish background.”  But there are two further issues at stake here concerning “nature.”  One of them is whether Paul’s understanding of the natural world is subject to change, based on further research and understanding.  I think that natural revelation is not a fixed thing.  Otherwise, the church would have been right to condemn Galileo’s heliocentric view of the solar system, which contradicted what everyone had assumed about the natural order (but he was right!)  Rather, I believe that our understanding of the “natural world” is subject to growth and enhancement.  That is what I think has happened on this topic.  So I think Dr. Strauss and I agree about what Paul thought.  We disagree about why he thought it, and on whether this is a “final word” in contemporary application.

The second area needing clarification concerning “nature” and Paul’s Jewish background is Dr. Strauss’ complaint about my language of “convergence” between individual disposition, social consensus, and the natural world as the goal of physis.  He sees this Stoic ideal as something “higher” and fundamentally different from a “Jewish worldview.”  I disagree.  I think that the Jews of Paul’s day longed for a similar convergence between individual disposition, social consensus, and the natural world, and saw the Torah pointing in this direction.  That’s why they seized on this Stoic category in their own apologetics for Torah.  The Torah itself is loaded with concerns involving individual disposition, social order, and the natural world.  The question is whether this “convergence” is fixed for all time, or subject to development and refinement.  I think that Paul would have definitely opted for “refinement.”  That’s why he embraced a gospel for Gentiles that was free of many explicit Torah requirements.  The question for us today is whether we have the same freedom, in the pursuit of deeper goals of Torah.

I’m grateful for this conversation, and have learned a lot through it.  I will need to think more, and perhaps say a bit more about the relationship between God’s original creative design and God’s redemptive purpose.  These are clearly related to each other, but cannot be collapsed into a single thing.   And I would love to have a wider conversation with Dr. Strauss about natural and special revelation, and how this distinction impacts Christian ethics more generally.  I hope that Dr. Strauss and I will have opportunity to continue this conversation at some point face-to-face, since written conversation is always somewhat stilted and limited.


Biblical Perspectives, Round 3

I have greatly appreciated this opportunity for dialogue. I have learned a great deal and expect to keep learning. I want to thank Dr. Brownson for his incisive but fair and cordial engagement.

In this final post, we have been asked to respond to our dialogue partner’s previous post and then to identify issues that need more thought and that form the basis for further conversation. I will take on these two tasks in order, first with responses to the previous post.

Dr. Brownson points to 1 Corinthians 1:21ff. — that the gospel is seen as “foolishness” in the eyes of the world—to challenge my claim that what “makes the most sense” biblically, socially and psychologically is that homosexual desire is a result of humanity’s fallen state.  He points out that “what seems self-evident” may not be correct.  This is certainly true. But Paul’s point in these chapters of First Corinthians is that “the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness” (1 Cor. 2:14). As I noted in an earlier post, for two thousand years the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led church has recognized  same-sex relations as contrary to God’s will for human sexuality. Are we really to believe that for all that time God’s people have misunderstood and misrepresented the Spirit’s voice? Let’s not forget that today it is “those without the Spirit”—the unbelieving culture around us—that is placing the greatest pressure on the church to conform in this area.

Dr. Brownson is also unhappy with the parallel I drew between “my own heterosexual inclination toward lust” and same-sex desire, because—he notes—lust is very different from a loving and mutual same-sex relationship. I agree that these are different. But my point was not to equate the two, but to identify both as disordered inclinations.  My inclination toward lust is not in itself sinful. But it is disordered (a result of our fallenness). In the same way, the inclination toward same-sex relations is not sin. But it is disordered and a result of our fallenness. If we give in to these temptations (by lusting or in same-sex sexual acts), they become sin.

Nor is the reality of infertile heterosexual couples evidence that Genesis 1-2 could envision same-sex partners. When I said, “God could not have told marriage partners to procreate if he had in mind same-sex partners,” my point was that God’s command to procreate requires a heterosexual couple.  My point was not the inverse—that every heterosexual couple can and must procreate. Infertility is another result of our fallen state. But this does not negate the fact that procreation is a key part of the very nature and institution of marriage. 

Dr. Brownson makes a good point that it is unlikely that Paul coined the term arsenokoits (1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10) just for this purpose, since Paul assumes his readers will understand the word. I will concede that point. At the same time, the striking parallel between this word and the terms used for homosexual relations in Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 LXX (arsn +koit) suggest to me that the term was likely a Jewish one of recent vintage, and that it alludes back to these passages. But we cannot be certain of this.

Dr. Brownson and I disagree on Romans 1 at two key points. He does not believe that lesbian relationships are in view in v. 26 nor that the male sexual relationship described in v. 27 is mutual (rather than coercive).  Concerning the first, the verbal parallels between verses 26-27 seems too similar to deny that homosexual acts (lesbian and gay, respectively) are in view in both cases.  Verse 26 says that women exchanged “natural sexual relations for unnatural ones” (or, more formally, “the natural use for the unnatural”).  Verse 27 then says, “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women [formally, ‘the natural use of the female’].” Paul’s use of “in the same way,” “also,” and the nearly identical language (“the natural use”) strongly suggests that he has the same kind of sin in mind in both verses.

As far as the mutuality of the same-sex relations in v. 27 is concerned, the phrase “for one another” (eis allēlous) would seem to indicate this. Further support for this comes from 1 Corinthians 6:9, where both the active (arsenokoits) and passive (malakoi) participants in same-sex acts are identified as guilty of sin.

Dr. Brownson also pushes back on my uncertainty concerning when homosexual desire becomes sin, suggesting that this is an acknowledgment that something is “off” in my perspective. But my uncertainty relates to the recognition that friendships are a good thing. At the same time, I think we would all acknowledge that friendships can become inappropriate and sinful when they cross certain lines of propriety. A man might have family affection for his wife’s sister. He may find her attractive and enjoy her company. There is nothing wrong with this. But at some point this relationship could cross the line to inordinate desire or lust, at which point it becomes sinful. When would this line be crossed in a same-sex relationship? My answer would be the same: when the enjoyment of friendship crosses the line to inordinate desire.

I know Dr. Brownson would challenge my reference to lust (or inordinate desire) here, claiming that lust is self-centered and without restraint, whereas same-sex love can be selfless and committed. But sexual desire for another person simply happens. It is not necessarily initiated by selfishness or lack of restraint. But if this sexual attraction is allowed to grow or is acted upon, then it becomes sin. I would argue that it is the same with same-sex sexual attraction. It may simply happen. But to nurture it or act upon it would be sin. (I will discuss the apparent “unfairness” of this below.)

Dr. Brownson also invites me to expand upon what I mean by “gracious tolerance,” especially in light of my subsequent interpretation of texts (where I conclude that same-sex relationships are contrary to God’s will.) The implication of his invitation, if I’m understanding it correctly, is that he doesn’t see how I can be “tolerant” and still believe that the Bible treats same-sex relationships as sinful.  But this seems to be an inappropriate definition of tolerance.  Tolerance does not mean that I agree with or affirm someone else’s beliefs or actions. It means that despite our differences, I still treat that person with love and respect. I don’t hate them, or persecute them, or seek to harm them. Instead, I love them despite our differences. If we did not disagree, there would be no need for tolerance. For example, I have a friend who is Jewish. I love him and treat him with respect and would never intentionally harm him. But I don’t agree with his beliefs. I have another friend who is an atheist. He lives a lifestyle that I consider to be immoral.  Yet I show gracious tolerance to him. I love him and spend time with him and treat him with respect and dignity, and I pray for him. He knows I don’t agree with his beliefs or approve of his lifestyle, but we can still share friendship, mutual love and respect. It is the same with friends who are practicing homosexuals. 

Finally, we have been asked to identify issues that need more thought and that should form the basis for further conversation.  The church will no doubt continue to wrestle with the biblical texts and how they relate to contemporary same-sex relationships. Although Dr. Brownson and I remain convinced of our own interpretations of these texts, I hope we can continue to dialogue in hopes of finding more common ground.

Another area that needs more thought and discernment is how the church should respond in a society that is increasingly at odds with its moral standards.  Some, like David Gushee, have warned that the church will lose its witness if it remains at odds with the larger culture. I would say the opposite. We will lose our witness if we give in to the world’s standards. The first century church was greatly at odds with the moral values of the Greco-Roman world. Yet it survived and thrived not by changing its values, but by standing firm on God’s commands while demonstrating sacrificial love, mercy and peace toward outsiders—even when facing persecution and loss. This represents the greatest challenge for the church today, to remain true to its convictions while practicing self-sacrificial love, joy and kindness toward those who oppose us. There is no place in the church for anger, hatred, ostracism or homophobia. 

So how does this translate into relationships within the church?  I think we are all struggling with this question. I believe the church should welcome and show Christ’s love to anyone who comes into its fellowship. We are all simply sinners saved by God’s grace. Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners and tax collectors and welcomed them. Though he did not agree with their sinful lifestyle, he continued to spend time with them and to love them unconditionally.

While the church needs to be a welcoming place, I don’t believe anyone who is involved in a consistently sinful lifestyle should assume a leadership role in the church. This pertains not only to sexual sins, but to persistent and unrepentant sins of any kind.

The church also needs to be more proactive in supporting and encouraging all those who come through its doors, whether married, single, divorced or widowed, whether homosexual or heterosexual. The church is a family, and as a family it needs to work hard to provide support and accountability. This means strengthening and supporting marriages. It means encouraging healthy celibate relationships that nurture the soul with deep and caring commitment and family affection. It means acknowledging the reality of sexual temptation and providing support systems and accountability partnerships to help all of us maintain sexual purity.

Some may respond that it is not fair that those with same-sex attraction do not have a sexual outlet, while heterosexual people do. But this argument from fairness will not get us very far. Unfortunately, life is never “fair” in the sense of the same for everyone. Not everyone has equal abilities or opportunities. Not everyone—whether homosexual or heterosexual—has the opportunity for marriage or sexual fulfillment. Some people are born with severe handicaps. Some are impotent. Some suffer from debilitating diseases. Some die much too young. Life in this fallen world is never fair. Yet we are still responsible to God for what he has given us.  We are still called to live lives of faith, obedience and purity. This is because, ultimately, our hope is not in the fairness of this world, but in the fairness of eternity.

This does not mean that people cannot have full and satisfying lives. Joy and fulfillment can be found in deep and meaningful relationships that are not sexual. Of course, ultimate joy and fulfillment is to be found in the abiding fellowship we have through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

Reading Scripture, Round 2

Here are the questions I’ve been given, and some responses:

  • What can you affirm about the other person’s position and his/her reasons for taking that position?

There is a great deal that Dr. Strauss and I share in common.  I essentially agree with what he identifies as “some contextual points of agreement,” and I also think they represent an important delineation of common ground from which to begin our work.

I also find Dr. Strauss’s “criterion of purpose” to be essentially in agreement with what I am saying, using the language of “moral logic.”  We agree that we need to ask why the Bible says what it does, particularly when dealing with complex, cross-cultural matters.  I also find myself to be essentially in agreement with Dr. Strauss with respect to how to interpret the Bible when it comes to the role and authority of women–the diversity of the canonical witness is an important clue here.

Finally, I recognize and affirm Dr. Strauss’s desire to take the Bible seriously, and agree that this is a core value for all who want to read Scripture as committed Christians.

  • What concerns do you have about the other person’s position?

First, I want to flag a key line that comes early in Dr. Strauss’s piece.  He states,

I firmly believe that homosexual desire (like my own heterosexual inclination toward lust) arises from fallen human nature and is not part of God’s will for human sexuality.  This seems to me the clear teaching of Scripture and also makes the most sense emotionally, socially, and psychologically.

It’s particularly the last section–what makes “the most sense”–that I want to highlight.  What “makes the most sense” to us is not always what represents the will of God.  Paul repeatedly speaks of the Gospel as “foolishness” in the eyes of the world (e.g. 1 Cor 1:21ff.).  We need to be able to hold what seems self-evident to us at arm’s length at points.

But quite apart from this, I’m not at all convinced that a homosexual orientation should be viewed as analogous to a heterosexual inclination toward lust. Lust treats the other person as an object; not all gay people treat their partners this way.  Lust avoids commitment; not all gay people do.  Lust is essentially self-centered; not all same-sex desire is.  Heterosexual lust is normal desire, but cranked up, with an absence of restraint, and a self-centered focus.  I’m not convinced that all same-sex desire fits this paradigm.  I would love to hear from Dr. Strauss more about the analogy between heterosexual lust and same-sex desire. I see a lot of problems here.

With respect to Genesis 1, Dr. Strauss writes, “God could not have told marriage partners to procreate if he had in mind same-sex partners.”  But the church has never used this rationale to deny marriage to heterosexual couples incapable of procreation.  I agree that procreation is an important purpose of marriage, but I disagree that all non-procreative couples should be refused marriage.  The church has never said that.  So why should we single out gay non-procreative couples and deny them marriage, when we don’t treat non-procreative heterosexual couples similarly?

With respect to Leviticus, I agree that purity is not the only concern motivating these texts to forbid same-sex sexual activity.  But I don’t think that appeal to the death penalty is a helpful signal of cross-cultural relevance.  The Bible calls for the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers (Ex. 31:15. 35:2, Num 15:32ff.), and outsiders who come too close to the tabernacle (Num 1:51), etc.  One simply cannot reason automatically from the severity of the biblical penalty to its cross-cultural relevance.

With respect to Paul, I want to offer a word about Dr. Strauss’s claim that Paul coined the word arsenokoites in his New Testament letters.  This represents a basic misunderstanding of how lexicography works.  If Paul is making up words, it seems pretty clear that his readers–especially the predominantly gentile readers in Corinth–will not know what he is talking about.  In order for words to have meaning, there needs to be a shared context of understanding between speakers and hearers.  That shared context is simply absent if Paul made up this word.  I just don’t buy that.  This is a fairly new term, but most likely understood by both Paul and His hearers, and not Paul’s invention.

Finally, with respect to Dr. Strauss’s reading of Romans 1 near the end of his piece, I (along with other scholars) am not convinced that these verses are referring to lesbian relationships.  For the first 300 years of the church’s history, the reference to “their women” in Rom 1:26 was always understood as referring to non-procreative heterosexual engagements that were “contrary to nature,” e.g. oral or anal sex.    I am not convinced that “inflamed with lust for one another” in v. 27 necessarily refers to “mutual” relationships, nor that all same-sex desire necessarily fits this description.  Nor do I accept, for reasons listed in my previous posting, that Paul is alluding to Gen. 1-2 in these verses.

  • What key question do you think the other person has avoided or has not addressed adequately?

I would like to invite Dr. Strauss to reflect further on his own commitment to “gracious tolerance” in his second paragraph (with which I agree), and his subsequent exegesis, which seems to leave little if any space for such tolerance.  What is the basis on which such “gracious tolerance” should be given?  How does this translate into actual church practice?

I also would like to invite Dr. Strauss to push harder on his own unanswered question, “At what point does homosexual desire become a sin?”  Dr. Strauss acknowledges how difficult it is to answer this question, and avoids making a clear answer.  But I wonder whether the difficulty in answering that question in a way that might actually be helpful to LGBT folks is a signal that something is “off” here, and that perhaps this way of framing the question is not the correct way.

Dr. Strauss argues that the Bible consistently and unequivocally rejects all same-sex relationships.  But this begs the question of why the Bible does this, and what sorts of relationships it has in view.  Dr. Strauss insists that the purpose of the Bible requires that all same-sex relationships must be in view, even those marked by discipline, mutual commitment, and faithful love.  It seems to me clearly to be the case that the Bible does not have such relationships in view when it addresses same-sex behavior.  I’ve documented this from many sources.  In other words, I want to push Dr. Strauss to reconcile a disparity between his “purpose of a commandment” hermeneutic, and his “canonical consistency” hermeneutic.  These two have to be brought into a deeper conversation with each other.  When we do that, the question of why the Bible says what it does consistently becomes a more pertinent question.

I also  want to push Dr. Strauss a bit on his interpretation of Gen. 1-2.  He insists that these chapters require a definition of marriage as “between one man and one woman.”  But for over a thousand years, the Hebrew people interpreted these chapters in a way that allowed them to justify polygamy.  Surely that represents something of a problem with any reading that says that “one man and one woman” is the only way to read the text.  I think polygamy is wrong, but I base that conclusion on the teaching of Jesus as he interprets Genesis, not just on Gen. 1-2.

I want to push a little further on the analogy of slavery.  For 1800 years, you simply will not find a Christian writer who says that the institution of slavery is essentially contradictory to the gospel.  Sure you will find people uncomfortable with it, and those who locate it only in this present age.  You will find plenty of advocates for more humane treatment of slaves, as well as some who even discourage slavery.  But you won’t find folks saying that the entire institution should be done away with.  That didn’t happen until the 19th century, and folks who resisted this change made very similar arguments against the abolition of slavery that we hear now being made, resisting gay and lesbian committed relationships.  I’ll grant that Dr. Strauss has identified some anti-slavery motifs in the Bible, but most of these weren’t really recognized and articulated with their full force until the 19th century.  

I’m actually convinced that something similar needs to happen with respect to gay and lesbian committed relationships.  If, 50 years from now, the church doesn’t say that we now understand the biblical teaching on sexuality more clearly, and are able to obey its core teachings more deeply, we haven’t made any real progress.

That leads to my final observation in this category.  I want to invite Dr. Strauss to consider a distinction between heterosexual marriage as “normative” and as “exclusively normative.”  I agree with him that Gen. 1-2 has heterosexual marriage in mind.  But I want to press further, to ask what it is that these verses single out about heterosexual marriage.  I then want to press still further, to ask whether same-sex unions might also fulfill those same core ideals, particularly complementarity and companionship.  I don’t disagree that the Bible has heterosexual marriage in mind.  But I want to ask whether those same norms can also be applied more broadly.  One way to do this, for example, is to think of the marriage vows that lie at the heart of a Christian marriage service.  Can gay or lesbian couples make these same vows to each other using the same words, and fulfill them in a Christian way?  If so, why should they be forbidden from doing so?

  • What insights can you glean from the other person’s initial post as to ways in which he/she is seeking to be faithful to his/her particular understanding of  commitment to the Christian faith?

Clearly, Dr. Strauss is seeking to take Scripture seriously.  I applaud that commitment.  He is seeking to find balance, and to discern common ground.  I also appreciate that.  I accept (with a few quibbles) the hermeneutical principles with which he begins and agree that they are a helpful starting point.  Dr. Strauss clearly is trying to create space for cultural factors in interpreting Scripture, something that not all participants in their conversation worry about sufficiently.  This is critical, I believe, to an appropriately missional reading of Scripture, as the gospel crosses cultural boundaries.  

Dr. Strauss also understands deeply that we are in a crisis situation with respect to the relationship between the church and the larger culture with regard to sexual ethics.  Our context is one which ignores, more than ever before in the history at least of this country, what the church teaches about sexual ethics.  We have to pay attention to that, and Dr. Strauss is seeking to do that.

  • What, if anything, did you find out about the other person that surprised you or caused you to change your view of him/her?

I didn’t know Dr. Strauss prior to our engagement here, so I can’t say that my view has “changed.”  However, I appreciate particularly Dr. Strauss’s concern for hermeneutical clarity, which is a helpful perspective in this conversation.  I also find his writing accessible and clear.

I find that most of our disagreements are on specific and debatable issues.  That, in itself, may help to explain why Dr. Strauss seeks a “gracious tolerance” with those who disagree.  But it also invites a further conversation about the status of our disagreement, and the extent to which, in general, Christians should be able to recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ when they disagree on this question.  That is an important conversation in its own right.


Looking at Scripture in Fresh Ways

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.

 James Brownson

God’s design for human sexuality

Issues related to same-sex attraction are without a doubt the most difficult and volatile issue facing the church today. In the context of these Respectful Conversations, I have been asked to address the question of the Bible’s teaching on this issue from the traditional perspective that same-sex sexual relations are outside God’s design for human sexuality.

I have to admit from the beginning that I am torn on this issue.  Like many other Christians, I find that my positive personal experiences with those who identify with the LGBT community are often at odds with the Bible’s apparent teaching on this issue. While I respect those like James Brownson and David Gushee whose personal experiences have provoked them to return to Scripture with new eyes and to change their mind, I personally have found it impossible to reconcile a high view of Scripture and a consistent hermeneutic with this revisionist perspective. I bear no animosity toward any person who is gay or toward anyone who holds an inclusive perspective. I will continue to seek to love all people and live in gracious tolerance toward everyone, even (and especially) those who treat me with animosity or who view my beliefs as insensitive, bigoted or offensive.

On certain issues I am still firmly settled. There is no doubt in my mind that monogamous heterosexual relationships represent God’s design for human sexuality. I firmly believe that homosexual desire (like my own heterosexual inclination toward lust) arises from fallen human nature and is not part of God’s will for human sexuality.  This seems to me the clear teaching of Scripture and also makes the most sense emotionally, socially, and psychologically. We live in a fallen world and should not be surprised to see evidence of this brokenness in ourselves and those around us.

At the same time there are many issues on which I am unsettled. At what point does homosexual desire become a sin?  My inclination is to say at the same time as heterosexual inclination: when such desire becomes lust. But when does a same-sex relationship become sinful? Can people with same-sex attraction share intimacy? Is homosexual “romance” in and of itself wrong? To what degree should churches welcome same-sex couples? As attenders? Into membership? Into leadership? These are difficult questions, regarding which full agreement among Christians is proving elusive.


Some Points of Agreement

I would like to start with several areas I think we can agree on. First, those involved in this forum agree on the authority and inspiration of Scripture. We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. There are two basic ways to approach the Bible. Some view the Bible as merely human reflections about God. From this perspective, the text is subjective, multivocal and fallible. It represents many voices communicating different and often contradictory messages about the nature of God, his purpose for the world and how human beings ought to live in relationship to God and to one another.  It may be inspiring, but it is not divinely inspired. Those on this forum, however, consider the Bible to be God’s Word, a divine message from God to humanity. It is authoritative and infallible, communicating God’s will, plan and purpose for his creation.

Second, however, we agree that the Bible is contextually given. God has revealed himself and his will through limited human agents in diverse cultural contexts and situations. Though God’s nature does not change, his purpose and intention for specific groups or individuals may differ depending on time and place. The most obvious example of this is the old covenant laws that were given to Israel. These commands were meant to regulate and order Israel’s civil and religious life in the Old Testament period and do not necessarily apply to the church. The Old Testament sacrificial system—though explicitly commanded in Scripture—was always intended to be temporary, pointing forward to its ultimate fulfillment in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Even new covenant commands are contextual and potentially limited in application. Most Christians today recognize that commands related to head coverings for women, greeting one another with a kiss, and washing feet as an act of service were given in specific cultural contexts and do not necessarily apply directly to the church today. The point is that biblical commands forbidding same-sex sexual relations are potentially within this category, applying only to certain historical contexts and situations and never intended to forbid faithful and monogamous same-sex sexual relationships.

This brings up what I believe is a third point of agreement. All participants in this discussion affirm that God’s design for human sexuality is for loving, faithful, self-sacrificial, monogamous sexual relationships. Though many within the gay rights movement (as well as the heterosexual community!) claim they have the right to complete sexual freedom and multiple sexual partners, this forum is about whether God ever blesses faithful, monogamous and lifelong same-sex unions.


The Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis

If God’s commands are sometimes limited to specific persons, groups, times and places, how do we determine God’s will for us at any point in time? The answer is by establishing and consistently applying sound principles of hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the science and art of determining the original meaning of Scripture (through “exegesis”) and how it applies in diverse cultural and historical contexts (through “re-contextualization”). I have elsewhere suggested a variety of criteria for determining whether and how culturally-embedded commands apply to believers today (see my How to Read the Bible in Changing Times [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011], ch. 8). I would consider three of these to be most important and will briefly summarize them here.

(1) Criterion of Purpose: The purpose, or rationale, behind a command determines its application. We might say that the purpose of a command is more important than the command itself. For example, when Paul commands believers to greet one another with a kiss, his purpose is not to make sure that there is a lot of kissing in the church. It is to encourage believers to practice family affection. Whatever way a particular culture expresses family affection would be an appropriate fulfillment of this command.

With reference to our present topic, it will be essential to determine the purpose behind biblical commands related to same-sex relationships. Are the purposes for these commands related to sexual purity per se, or to something else, such as exploitation, abuse, inhospitality, ritual impurity, etc.?

(2) Criterion of Cultural Correspondence: The closer the cultural or historical context to our own, the more likely we should apply the command directly.  Many commands in Scripture are related to cultural practices that have direct parallels today. For example, Paul’s command to avoid drunkenness (Eph. 5:18) has direct relevance today. Alcohol abuse causes the same kinds of personal, social and societal problems today that it did in the first century.  Other commands, like head covering on women, may not have the same cultural significance today that they did in the first century world.

One of the major questions of debate around our topic is whether the homosexual acts condemned in the Old Testament and in Paul’s writings are analogous to same-sex relationships being advocated by some Christians today.

(3) Criterion of Canonical Consistency: Ethical imperatives that remain consistent throughout the Bible are more likely to reflect God’s universal purpose and will.  This criterion relates especially to fundamentally moral commands, which relate to more or less absolute standards of right and wrong.  Commands such as those against murder, stealing, lying, cheating, coveting, adultery, exploitation of the poor, and idolatry remain consistent throughout the Old and New Testaments and so are almost certainly God’s will for all time.

Conversely, biblical commands that vary significantly across time and space are not necessarily binding. This criterion can be helpfully applied to various controversial areas that many see as parallel to the same-sex debate, such as the role of women and men and the issue of slavery.  It is certainly true that Scripture allows practices like slavery, polygamy, and the subordination of women when they were part of the social fabric of the biblical world.  I often tell my students that we do not necessarily have an absolute ethic in Scripture on many issues. God is working in and through fallen human cultures and sometimes allows less-than-ideal institutions to govern life in certain cultural situations.

While many passages in the Bible affirm a patriarchal system and call for male leadership and female submission (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1; 1 Tim. 2:11–15), there are many others that affirm the equality of women as divine image bearers (Gen. 1:27; Gal. 3:28) and depict women in various leadership roles (Miriam [Exod. 15:20]; Huldah [2 Kings 22:14]; Deborah [Judg. 4–5]; Priscilla [Acts 18:26]; Phoebe [Rom. 16:1]; Junia [Rom. 16:7]; Euodia and Syntyche [Phil. 4:2–3]). While all these passages are debated as to their significance, it is hard to argue for complete canonical consistency on this issue.

Similarly, although the Bible allows slavery (or indentured servitude) in various cultural contexts (Lev. 25:44–45; Eph. 6:5–6; Col. 3:22; Titus 2:9; 1 Pet. 2:18), there are many indications that slavery is not God’s ideal for human relationships (Gen. 1:26–27; 1 Cor. 7:22; Eph. 6:8; Col. 3:24; Philem. 15–17). Consider, for example, the Exodus deliverance as the OT paradigm of God’s salvation and the eschatological promise of freedom for those in bondage (Isa. 61:1–2).

By contrast, whenever same-sex sexual acts are mentioned in Scripture, they are consistently and univocally forbidden. There is never a hint that these acts are part of God’s design for human sexuality. God surely knew that this issue would become controversial in the church of the twenty-first century. Yet I have found it impossible to read Scripture in any normal or straightforward manner and reach the conclusion that, contrary to all appearances, God blesses such unions. To be sure, Scripture is not always simple or easy. But what puzzles and confounds me is that, if God in fact intended us to understand Scripture in this way, he could hardly have chosen a more confusing and contradictory way of communicating this.

This argument can be extended throughout church history. For three millennia the people of God have understood Scripture to teach that same-sex sexual activity is outside God’s will for human sexuality. Are we really to believe that even the most Godly and sensitive of believers have for millennia radically misunderstood and misapplied the Spirit’s voice on this issue and are only now coming to the light?  Isn’t it more likely that today—as throughout history—sinful human culture is placing pressure on the people of God to compromise God’s standards of righteousness? There are many Godly believers throughout history who have affirmed the value and dignity of women as divine image bearers and who have viewed slavery as an evil and fallen human institution. Yet there is no such historical precedent for those affirming same-sex unions.


Some Key Biblical Texts

Genesis 1-2.  Genesis 2 establishes monogamous heterosexual relationships as the pre-Fall standard for human sexuality. While up to this point in the Genesis narrative all of creation is identified as “good,” here we learn that, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  So from the man’s own body God creates a “helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Eve is brought to Adam and the narrator announces the establishment of the marriage relationship: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). The union is between one man (ʾı̂š) and one woman (ʾiššā).

Advocates of same-sex relationships often claim that this text is not speaking about gender complementarity but about companionship, which can be equally fulfilled in a same-sex relationship. While no doubt companionship is a key component here, in the near context both procreation and gender complementarity are also emphasized. In the first (summary) creation account in Genesis 1, God creates humanity in his own image as male (zāḵār) and female (nᵉqēḇāh) and commands them to procreate: “Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it” (1:27–28). God could not have told marriage partners to procreate if he had in mind same-sex partners.

Similarly, gender complementary is emphasized in chapter two.  Eve is created as “a helper suitable for him” (2:18 NIV). The rare Hebrew word kᵉneg̱dô, translated variously as “suitable for him” (NIV), “who is right for him” (God’s Word), “who corresponds to him” (NET), “as his complement” (HCSB), could be more formally rendered as “like opposite him.” In context it clearly carries the sense of both similarity and difference. Eve is like Adam and distinct from the animals because she was created from him. She is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). Yet she is also different from him and is his perfect complement. He is man (ʾı̂š); she is woman (ʾiššā). He is male (zāḵār); she is female (nᵉqēḇāh). She was created from his side to be at his side as his equal and partner. In the marriage relationship, the two complement each other and together become “one flesh” (2:24). This binary complementarity and suitability is most clearly evident in the sexual union (male and female body parts fit together) but also likely refers to complementary emotional, psychological and social traits.  Though it is true that male and female gender qualities and stereotypes vary somewhat across cultures and between individuals within a particular culture, it is hard to deny that men and women are indeed different—and wonderfully complementary.

As the foundational creation account, these passages establish God’s purpose and parameters for human sexuality. God meets Adam’s need of companionship by creating a woman. The result is a monogamous heterosexual marriage relationship. The foundational and paradigmatic nature of this text suggests that it represents God’s design for human sexuality.  By implication, any form of sexual behavior outside of this relationship—whether premarital, extramarital or homosexual—is beyond the bounds of God’s design. Jesus, of course, cites these passages when discussing the fundamental nature of the marriage relationship (Matt. 19:3-12//Mark 10:2-12).

While indicative of God’s ideal, the Genesis account alone would be insufficient to rule out same-sex sexual acts as sinful. Yet such behavior is explicitly forbidden elsewhere in both the OT and the NT.

Leviticus 18:22; 20:13. The most explicit commands against homosexual behavior in the OT come in the holiness code of Leviticus. Leviticus 18:22 reads, “Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable” (NIV). Leviticus 20:13 identifies the penalty for such actions as death.

Some claim that these commands relate merely to purity issues rather than to overtly sinful behavior. But the imposition of the death penalty shows that this is far more significant than a purity issue. Purity issues are resolved through the passage of time, ritual washing or offering sacrifices, not through capital punishment. The death penalty is reserved for serious violations of God’s character, his created order, and the covenant between Yahweh and his people. Similar punishments apply to sins like adultery, incest, and cursing one’s parents. Our point, of course, is not that Christians should advocate for capital punishment for any of these sins (these are old covenant punishments related to Israel), but only that they are clearly in a different category than purity concerns.

Others argue that these passages concern not sexual relationships per se, but cultic prostitution, thus violating God’s commands to be separate from the nations. But there is nothing in the context to indicate this. The surrounding laws govern sexual matters generally, not cultic prostitution. The language associated with cultic prostitution used elsewhere does not occur here (cf. Deut. 23:17-18).

Further evidence that these Levitical commands are inherently moral comes from two references to homosexual behavior in the letters of Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.  Both are in lists or catalogs of sins common in the pagan world. Some argue that Paul is not here referring to homosexual behavior per se, but rather to pederasty, slave prostitution or other form of exploitation. Yet the primary term Paul uses in both passages (arsenokoitai) is a compound word combining “male” (arsēn) and “bed” (koitē), a euphemism for male with male sexual activity. Since 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the first appearance of arsenokoits in Greek literature, it seems likely that Paul coined the term in intentional imitation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where the Greek translation (the Septuagint) uses these same two terms. “With a male [arsn] do not lie on a bed [koit] as with a woman; for that is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22; authors’ translation; cf. 20:13). If this is the case, Paul takes the general Levitical prohibition and applies it in a new covenant context.

Romans 1:26-27. Romans 1:18-32 is the beginning of Paul’s argument that all human beings are sinful and fallen, deserving God’s condemnation. Although God has revealed himself in creation, human beings have suppressed this knowledge. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…” (1:25).  As a result “God gave them over to shameful lusts” (1:26a), illustrated with reference to homosexual behavior:

Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (1:26b-27 NIV).

Paul here identifies homosexual behavior (females with females; males with males) as “unnatural” (para physin), an example of the distortion that results from humanity’s rejection of God. Paul probably singles out same-sex behavior not because it is unique or a greater sin than others, but because it is perceived by most people (i.e. heterosexuals) as unnatural, contrary to their own sexual desires. Having made this point, Paul subsequently lists many other sins that result from our fallen state, including envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, God-hating, insolence, arrogance, etc. (1:29-31). 

Some advocates of same-sex relationships claim that Romans 1:26-27 only condemns “perversion” (acting contrary to one’s natural sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual). But this cannot be right.  Paul does not say that “certain men abandoned their natural sexual inclination” but rather that “males” (arsenes) abandoned “the natural use” (tēn physikēn chrēsin) “of the female” (tēs thēleias)” (v. 27). Unnatural is explicitly defined as males with males and females with females—i.e., homosexual activity.

Others argue that Paul is here referring only to oppressive and exploitative behavior, like temple prostitution or pederasty, not faithful, loving homosexual relationships. While these practices were well known in the Greco-Roman world of the first century, the immediate context makes it unlikely that Paul is limiting his discussion to these. First, Paul’s reference to lesbianism would make little sense in these kinds of exploitative and abusive relationships. Second, Paul’s reference to mutual desire (“inflamed with lust for one another”; v. 27) rules out an oppressive or exploitative relationship.  Most importantly, allusions to the creation account throughout this chapter suggest that Paul has Genesis 1–2 in mind. Paul’s distinctive use of thēlys/arsēn (female/male) instead gynē/anēr (woman/man), echoes the language of Gen. 1:27 (LXX) —“male and female he created them”—supporting the view that “natural” here refers to God’s created order of human sexuality as expressed in Genesis 1–2. Same-sex sexual acts are “unnatural”—that is, contrary to God’s created order.



I’m afraid that this brief essay has just begun to delve into the complex exegetical and hermeneutical issues surrounding these texts. Yet I also fear that since this round is about “biblical understandings,” my post sounds more like a theology paper than a real conversation.  So in closing let me just affirm my own desire to learn and grow through dialogue on this issue and most of all to exemplify through it the two greatest commandments—to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself.

Mark Strauss

Topic #2: Biblical Understandings (August 2015)

Conversation Partners:

  • Mark Strauss, University Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary San Diego
  • James Brownson, James and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament Western Theological Seminary

Leading Question: What is your understanding of biblical/theological teachings relevant to issues being raised by Christians who identify themselves as members of the LGBT community?