Monday, September 21, 2015

Romans 1 and Homosexuality: Some Possible Interpretations

Not Long ago, Ty (my collaborator on this blog) wrote up some thoughts about Romans chapter 1. He proposed a reading of Romans 1 that takes into account the context of the book (literary) and the context of its writing (historical). Ty's interpretation (which I like), makes more sense once you know the context of other interpretations of the passage.

But first...

Why Focus on Romans?

We've already looked at some of the challenges to studying homosexuality in the bible. But among the challenging passages, Romans is probably the most challenging of them all. 

Leviticus is Easy(ish)

In Leviticus there are two condemnations of male-male sexual acts (18:22,29 and 20:13). There is very little context or explanation to those rules (or to any of the other rules listed in Leviticus which includes kosher laws, prohibitions against getting tattoos, and rules on how to treat slaves). So you can make a case (as many do) for throwing out all of Leviticus as normative for Christian living since large chunks of it have already been thrown out (we no longer keep kosher, practice religious circumcision, or prohibit tattoos).

I propose that such a reading of Leviticus is shallow and misses the point of its inclusion in the bible, but that's for a later post. I think it's important for us to know what the laws of the Israelites were, but also to know why they had such laws. The three possible explanations are: 1) God made up some random rules to test the obedience of the Israelites; 2) God gave specific rules to a specific people for a specific time which are applications of eternal, enduring principles; or 3) God gave eternal, enduring rules for all time. 

Paul, in Galatians 3 points out that the law was given to convict people of the sin that was already going on and to point to the promise of relationship with God that already existed. That automatically rules out options 1 and 3 from above. If the law was given to reveal sin that already existed, then the rules could not have been random, and if the law was given to reveal sin, yet the law was no longer necessary after Jesus, then the law cannot contain eternal rules. 

So, the law (i.e. Leviticus) was given to show how the Israelites were sinning (that is violating the eternal principles of God) within their specific context, which included instructions about food, circumcision, and tattoos. We don't know exactly what was going on around them due to a dearth of archaeological evidence, but we do know that God was (and is) opposed to the worship of idols. It's the first commandment (Exodus 20:3), and the Greatest Command (Matt. 22:34-40). And we do know that some of the idol worship in Canaan involved what they called "sacred marriage" which required priests and priestesses to have sex to compel the good will of the gods. It is likely that many of the prohibitions in Leviticus are related to unknown or little-known religious practices of the Canaanites, including the prohibitions against male-male sex acts. 

Corinthians and Colossians are Easy(ish) Too

In both mentions of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul uses an invented Greek word that modern translators render as "homosexuality" or "homosexual acts." That word is a compound word of the two Greek words used in Leviticus to refer to male-male sex acts. Since Paul was well-schooled in the Hebrew scriptures, it makes sense that his understanding of that specific sin would be inextricably tied to Leviticus. And, since both Corinth and Ephesus were centers for idol worship in the first century, it makes sense that Paul would refer back to idolatry practices in his list of sins. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul goes from his general list of sins to the specific sin of having sex with a prostitute (6:12-20), which, in Corinth, likely meant temple prostitution. 

Whether or not Paul had temple prostitution in mind as he wrote 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, it is clear that he had Leviticus in mind, which was given in response to the historical context of the Israelites in Canaan, which likely referred to idol worship through acts like male-male sex and tattoos. 

Leaving Romans

So if the two passages in Leviticus are related to the two non-Romans passages in the New Testament, then the same explanation and interpretation for Leviticus applies to them all. It is difficult, at best, to argue that Leviticus offers instructions for all people for all time, especially since the bible itself rules out at least some of the Levitical law (kosher rules and the sacrificial system).

But Romans doesn't call back to Leviticus. It doesn't even call back to the Hebrew scriptures. Rather, Romans 1 calls back to creation and to its self-evident revelation about the attributes of God that leave people without an excuse (Rom. 1:18-20). So, for Paul, there is something different about Romans chapter 1 and its reference to homosexual acts as a sin (both male and female) requires a much more thorough look.

What Romans 1 Might Mean

Similar to how Leviticus can be viewed as arbitrary laws, eternal rules, or culturally specific instructions, Romans can be viewed in the same way. In my opinion, attempting to divorce scripture from the culture into which it was written is tantamount to arbitrarily deciding on what the passages mean. If we don't look at the culture into which the bible was written, we miss hugely important points about its message, and we reduce the interpretive framework to our own reactions to the text in isolation. 

The Church in Rome

As Ty pointed out, the Roman church to which Paul wrote had a problem: they didn't know how to play well together. There were Gentile Christians who had developed their faith without Jewish Christians there (because Emperor Claudius kicked all of the Jews out of the city; Acts 18:2). But when the exile of the Jews from Rome was over, the Jewish Christians found a Gentile church that they were not comfortable with at all. Gone were the practices of avoiding food sacrificed to idols and celebrating Jewish holidays (at least, Rom. 14). So the Jewish Christians were uncomfortable and caused a fuss. The letter of Romans is Paul's response to that issue, namely, answering how people are saved in Christ. 

No One is Righteous

Before we start to look at where the interpretations vary, we should look at where they are consistent. There is no doubt that Romans 1-3 establishes one, simple fact: no one is righteous on their own merit (Rom. 3:19-31). Paul then goes on, through the rest of Romans, to establish how Jesus has united both Gentile and Jew in his church (and how a united church ought to treat one another). 

Romans 3 states that all have sinned, both those under the law (code for the Jews) and those not under the law (code for the Gentiles). Romans 2 points out the the Jewish Christians in Rome that their confidence in the law, and their understanding of the law, is insufficient to save them from their own sins (2:23). And Romans 1, after the introduction section, points out how Gentile Christians are not righteous based on their own merits (1:32). 

Possible Interpretations

First, many people think that Paul is using his own thoughts to condemn both the Gentiles (1:18-32) and the Jews (2:17-29). So the condemnation of male-male sex and female-female sex (1:26-27) reflects Paul's condemnation of those acts and, as an inspired writer of the bible, also reflects God's condemnation. This view is a more traditional and literal reading of scripture and at the heart of much of the church's opposition to homosexual acts and to the inclusion of homosexual Christians. 

Ty suggested that Paul was not giving his own thoughts (in 1:18-32), but quoting the words of the Jewish Christians in Rome who were opposing the Gentiles there. The rhetorical device would be to start with something that the audience agreed with, and then use it to point out their own shortcomings (not dissimilar from the way the prophet Nathan confronted King David, 2 Sam. 12). The agreement of Paul with the passage is immaterial, in this view, to the effect of the passage on his audience, namely personal conviction. 

Some, like John Boswell, have suggested that the homosexuality in view in Romans 1 is not committed, adult sex, rather same-sex acts by those who are heterosexual -- which would be against nature. It was common for men, especially men in positions of power, to physically humiliate other men as a means of subjugation (e.g. soldiers raping a male prisoner), not because of any physical attraction, but because it would demean and humiliate. This view, however, does not adequately explain the prohibition against female same-sex acts which are in view in Romans 1. 

Another view, held by Robin Scroggs, is that Paul was not condemning committed, monogamous, adult same-sex relationships, but the Hellenistic practice of pederasty where an adult man would take on a boy as a lover. But that also does not explain the female-female sex referred to by Paul. 

Still another view, held by Victor Paul Furnish, is that the idea of homosexuality as an orientation was inconceivable to Paul since it has only come to light in the Western world during the last century. Since Paul could not have had in mind those who know that they were born with homosexual desires, it is impossible, according to this interpretation, that Paul could be condemning those acting on such desires. Those who oppose this view, like Kevin DeYoung, assert that the ancient world knew not only about pederasty, and exploitive same-sex acts, but also about committed, long-term, adult relationships.

It is also important to note that the heart of the passage (1:18-32) is a condemnation of idolatry as the source of all of the sinfulness (Schreiner, pg. 90ff), especially sexual immorality, but also including every other type of immorality (Rom. 1:29-31). While Romans 1 has same-sex relations as a prime example in this list of sins, it is still just one item in a list of sins (similar to 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1).


As promised, these interpretations aren't given to try to convince you one way or the other, but to give you the tools to convince yourself of what you think is right. So, in a sense, this isn't a conclusion where I'm going to tell you the "right" answer, but it's the end of this post so you can begin to work on what you think the right answer is. 

I'll leave you with this: 
Therefore you are without excuse, whoever you are, when you judge someone else. For on whatever grounds you judge another, you condemn yourself, because you who judge practice the same things (Rom. 2:1). 
The point of Romans 1:18-32, according to Paul in Romans 2:1, is that none of us have an excuse when we judge another because we "practice the same things." We may not be practicing homosexuality or idolatry or murder or greed (all in Paul's list), but we are practicing the root of sin which is denying God's righteousness and claiming that we can, through our works, attain righteousness on our own merit. We're all guilt of that when we judge the sinfulness of others without admitting fully to our own.


Which of the interpretations of Romans 1 are most compelling for you? Which are easiest to dismiss? Why?

If you were writing Romans 1 today, with the purpose of uniting divided Christians, what examples would you use? Which groups do you think are most divided?

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bound to What? Loosed from What?: A Warning(?)

The Church as a Means of Grace: Exclusion as Damnation

In Matthew 16 and Matthew 18 Jesus uses some odd language to describe the relationship between the actions of church leaders and "metaphysical" or heavenly reality, but the implications of what he says are important for understanding what is at stake in the actions of church leaders vis-à-vis people in their care. While I could survey the data of the many articles written over the last forty years, I think most people will find a discussion of the immediate scriptural context more enlightening and convincing as a method of revealing the meaning behind Jesus' words.

The Church as the Context

In both cases, Jesus (or the author) makes it clear that he is talking about something that is happening in the church. In Matthew 16 Peter has confessed that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah and Jesus responds with something that would translate roughly as, "you are 'Rocky,' and on this 'bedrock' (the confession that Jesus is Messiah) I will build my church. He then segues into this seemingly unconnected section on giving the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter and says that whatever Peter limits here will be excluded from Heaven and whatever he allows will be included.

The Connection between Earth and Heaven

In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about people handling their interpersonal sins beginning with personal confrontation, escalating to bringing witnesses and culminating in a confrontation before the gathered church which, if repentance is withheld, results in exclusion. In this context, Jesus again talks about the connection between what is allowed and banned here and what is included and excluded in Heaven, speaking this time in the plural to indicate that anyone who participates in this process of facing interpersonal sin is doing something that has "metaphysical" results.

While the first text is harder to understand, the second is pretty clear: the church is a means of Grace, banning something in the church is a serious thing with consequences that can include exclusion from Heaven. I think this should be read as a warning to be careful what we decide is worthy of pursuing to the point where the church must intervene since the result can be more serious than life or death.

What about Matthew 16, is Peter special in holding the keys? I understand that if you are a Catholic, you have to say "yes," but I don't think that is what is happening here, I think Jesus is warning Peter personally that he will be in a position to allow people access to Heaven or to exclude them from Heaven. In context, Jesus makes it clear that the limit he is setting on entrance into the church is the confession that Jesus is the Christ, but that Peter will be in a position to turn away (or invite) others based on his own set of parameters.

What is God Making Clean?

I think we see the reason for that warning in Acts chapter 10 , when Peter is called to the house of the Gentile, Cornelius. Peter experiences three repetitions of a vision when is is hungry of many unclean animals being offered for him and God tells him to butcher them and eat, but he refuses again and again because it is against his religious beliefs (and probably because it is disgusting). Each time God ends the vision with “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Eventually, Peter finds himself in the position of welcoming Cornelius into the church and later defending that decision against the people with whom he had agreed before his vision.

Conclusion: When is Excluding Others Christlike?

If I am correct, this is what Jesus was warning Peter about, but, along with the passage in chapter 18, it serves as a warning to every Christian that the decisions we make have big consequences. If we close the doors to the church on someone who truly confesses that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, we had better be sure that we are making the right decision because our exclusion has the potential to result in their exclusion from Heaven.

Before the vision of Acts chapter 10, Peter was pretty certain about who was banned from Heaven, but he was wrong. Could it be that you and I hold beliefs about who should be excluded that are not what God wants us to believe? Basic humility leads me to question any boundary beliefs I have, and if I have doubts, I think it far more like Christ to include those who my feelings would lead me to exclude, if I can find any reason to doubt my conclusion, than it would be for me to exclude anyone about whom I have doubts.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Hardest Part: Understanding Romans 1

Hang in There!

First, thank you all for hanging in there with me through this project. I am approaching it with prayer and seeking to speak from peace and hope rather than fear and disillusionment: that takes time for me. My experience says that any connection to a conversation like this one puts me in danger of losing a lot: the respect and approval of people that I respect, the peaceful interactions I have with friends and family, any potential jobs as a minister or teacher in a Christian setting, and my home in my local congregation; some people even receive death threats over such things. Furthermore, I hate to be wrong publicly (or at all, for that matter), so I try to check and double check to make sure I am not missing some obvious flaw in my research or reasoning. Finally, I have a natural desire to agree with others and I am not naturally suited to making waves, a tendency which I have to fight every step of the way to act with integrity on this.

The Hardest Passage

When it comes to the issue of homosexuality in the Bible, I have struggled for many years with Romans 1.* I felt it was my greatest support for denying a place in the church to married gay couples, but I had a sneaking suspicion that something was amiss, and for a long time I couldn't put my finger on what it was. I was left in the awkward position of having to ask myself, "in a situation where we have been wrong so many times about interpretations, does it make logical sense for me to base exclusion of an entire group based on only one clear passage (where I am getting the feeling that I missed something) among many passages where the meanings, upon serious investigation, cannot hold a lot of weight?" While I plan to talk about why these other passages fail to convince later, I think it best to deal with the best arguments first, so, Romans it is.

Something Sounds Different

Just recently, prompted by various discussions, I spent a great deal of time mulling over the passage, reading it again and again in Greek and occasionally in English versions, I realized what it is that bothers me about this section of Romans 1: it does not sound like the following section, or even like the rest of Romans. The easiest element of this strangeness to quantify is the difference in vocabulary; words used only here in the book of Romans are far more dense than in other parts of Romans (excluding OT quotations), to the point that if I found any other passage of comparable size so dense with "unfamiliar" words, I would expect it to be a quotation. But it isn't only that, there are things I cannot easily measure, like the way it sounds in comparison with the surrounding sections, if you read it aloud, even in English, you will find that this difference is so great that it even shows through in most translations.

Paul then spends the next section of Romans (after a brief connecting section) balancing out this section featuring Gentiles by presenting a section about Jews and culminating in the 3:10-18, where "None is righteous." Why might Paul use a quotation that condemns Gentiles and then create his own section on Jewish failure?

A Message to Paul

Let me tell you what I think is happening: Paul is writing to the Roman church because he has gotten word that Jews and Gentiles are not getting along in the Roman church. I think he received a messenger who told him about the situation and brought a letter about the situation. I think that it went something like this (I am not going to go to any concerted effort to avoid anachronism at this point in the hope that more familiar language will make the idea the central focus rather than the flaws in my reconstruction):

Grace to you, Paul... We have heard of your work among the Gentiles and we hope that you will clarify some things that are troubling us. When we began to believe in Christ, we heard the Good News through Gentile Christians and we knew only Gentile Christians, as the Jews had been expelled from Rome for a time.
We believed that those of us who had been Godfearers had actually been granted full membership in Christ. When the Jewish believers returned to Rome, we found ourselves pushed to the margins, put back into the same place we used to be before we heard of Christ. When we protested the situation, we were told that Christ was given first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.
At first, we resisted this idea and asserted our equality in Christ, but the opposition made a devastating argument that, because the wrath of God is standing in opposition to Gentiles due to the idolatry in our heritage, Gentiles can never have the same relationship to God as those to whom were entrusted the 'very oracles of God.'
Not long ago, a piece of the argument appeared anonymously and has proven so convincing that we have not been able to effectively argue against it:
'God chose long ago to reveal Himself to His Children, the Jews, choosing them above idolatrous men in the surrounding world, and giving them the primary position and relegating the idolatrous men to an eternally inferior place.... For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth...' [Romans 1:18-32]."
I would like to dismiss this as a nasty piece of invective, but it makes a good point about idolatry in our age, more than that, it speaks to the deep-seated feelings of our Jewish brothers and sisters, who feel great pride in being "Children of God," as well as to the shame Gentiles feel concerning the idolatry in our past. Can you clarify things for us?...

A Collective Rather than an Individualistic Reading

If that is the case, then the audience to whom Paul writes would already understand this section as anti-gentile polemic rather than an attack on individuals. This would make sense of the  section on judging in chapter 2, where the Apostle seems to say that anyone who judges is condemned by his or her own failures to do right, yet it then goes on to speak of individuals (signaled by "each one") who do not suffer from these failures. What does this mean? Are there individuals condemning individuals, but those individuals who condemn are only wrong because they happen to be guilty, unlike the individuals in 2:7? Would those individuals in 2:7 be allowed to judge others? I think context makes sense of this jumble, specifically, the first section (Romans 1:18-32) is the "judgement" about which he is speaking here. That means that the word translated "another" would take a slightly different translation (See Liddell's ἕτερον, headings II & III), perhaps "a person who is different from you," "another type of person" or "another group" (i.e. Gentiles). This would then become a condemnation of prejudice against a group rather than a system for determining when it is appropriate for one person to judge another. This interpretation fits perfectly with the following section where there are two groups without a reason to judge: Law-Following Jews and the Law-Less Gentiles.

Conclusion: The Boundaries of Christian Ethics

If I am correct about the purpose of Romans 1, Paul's use of the quote does not indicate agreement with the content (or disagreement with the content) but it is intended to illustrate a form of reasoning taking place in the Roman church community that Paul believes is outside the boundaries of Christian ethics: group discrimination. Paul opposes the individual model to this passage and then he shows how Jewish exclusion of Gentiles based on their idolatrous heritage clearly falls into this category due to the Jewish failure to perfectly follow the Law.

*There is a great deal that others have already written about the focus of this section of Romans 1 on idolatry and its punishment as the cause of shame through the violation of the social norms rather than the focus being on the particular violations. Some have also explored the difficulties for understanding the situation caused by the negative evaluation of women in general and the way that perceptions of homosexual intercourse at the time were linked to this perceptual framework. Anyone who wants to take this subject seriously should track down and evaluate these arguments as well, but due to the usual attention span of those reading blogs, I think it best to limit this entry to my own insights.