Monday, January 22, 2007

Romans 1 and Homosexuality

Since my sermon in chapel came today before I finished blogging my research, I'll just give the highlights of the sermon.

I started by pointing out that no matter whose statistics you used, there were almost certainly several people in the service who struggled with being attracted to the same sex. I noted that if they were at IWU, I assumed they struggled with the issue because they likely grew up in a conservative Christian home and likely believed the Bible to teach that homosexual sex was wrong. I ventured a guess that their attraction to the same sex was a dominating concern for them, one that probably caused regular discouragement for them. I wondered if for some this was a central area of defeat in their life.

This led to the first and main point of the sermon for those people:

God does not judge us for what we are tempted by. God judges us for what we do with our temptation.

Here I reminded that no IWU students, unless they are married, are supposed to be having sex, regardless of who they are attracted to. And I reminded them that all of us are supposed to control (with the Spirit's power) lustful thoughts. The long and the short of it is that no one in the chapel, no matter whether their temptation came from, needed to feel defeated or discouraged if they were not having sex and submitting their thoughts to God.

Placing Romans 1
In the next part of the sermon I tried to put the argument of Romans 1 into context.

1. It's a sting operation, to use Richard Hays' phrase in his chapter on homosexuality in Moral Vision. Paul has picked "easy Gentile sins" to catch a self-hypocrite in Romans 2. The conclusion toward which he is building is in Romans 3: "all (both Jew and Gentile) have sinned."

So Paul picks idolatry and sexual immorality--the kinds of things Jews loved to talk down Gentiles over. But his point is in chapter 2, where he finds the self-righteous person in Romans 2 guilty of sin as well.

Point: Too many Christians treat homosexuality as if it is an issue they can make fun of, that they are "allowed" to hate or say hateful things about homosexuals. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what Paul is doing in Romans 1-2. Paul is saying that none of us deserve God's grace any more than the idolaters and sexually immoral individuals he has mentioned in Romans 1.

2. The argument of Romans 1 is not meant to tell us the progression of every individual. And it's a good thing, because after all, not everyone in the ancient world who worshipped idols ended up having homosexual sex. And not everyone who has homosexual sex ends up being disobedient to parents. Paul is not giving the story of everyone who doesn't acknowledge God as God. After all, there are a lot of atheists who don't engage in homosexual sex.

Rather Romans 1 is a picture in broad strokes of a world that God has "let go" (thus the three times Paul says "God abandoned them...") These are not all the same person, but broad strokes to paint a picture of a fallen world.

At this point I mentioned what I said in the last post, that the question of how a person comes to have same sex desires is really a side issue to the question of whether a person should engage in homosexual sex. Although I did point out the extreme unlikelihood that the people in the room who struggled with this issue had woken up one morning and said to themselves "Hmm, yesterday I was attracted to women but I think I'll be attracted to men today."

Another point I didn't really get to go into was the fact that at least in Romans 1, homosexual sex is not spoken of as the cause of God's wrath. In Romans 1 homosexual sex seems to be the the wrath. Paul would not be thinking of venereal diseases or some AIDS like "punishment." That would be anachronistic. He seems to imply that the shame of the act itself is its own punishment. By the way, Paul seems to be building heavily off of material from Wisdom 12-14 in Romans 1.

What Romans 1:26-27 is not about
1. Not about a heterosexual having homosexual sex.
In other words, some have argued that while it wouldn't be unnatural for a homosexual to have homosexual sex, it would be unnatural for a heterosexual to do so--such a person would be exchanging the natural use of the female for them.

The problem with this is that the idea of a homosexual, a person with an orientation toward the same sex, is a modern concept that seems to date from the 1890's. Before this, we had people who we would call bisexual, individuals who were probably married but also had sex with others of the same sex. This interpretation is thus incredibly anachronistic in terms of anything Paul might have been thinking (I suppose someone might try to use the argument to add another layer to the appropriation of the text, but Paul could not have been thinking this).

The biblical texts consistently refer to sex acts, not to an unexpressed orientation. Leviticus 18:22 speaks of a male lying with a male. Romans 1:26 speaks of women exchanging the natural use. And males are doing with males in Romans 1:27. The very terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9 seem to refer to a person in the active sexual role (arsenokoite) or in the passive sexual role (malakos). So the Bible simply does not discuss unexpressed homosexual orientations. Homosexual passions are discussed in Romans 1 in conjunction with a homosexual act.

2. Not only about pederasty.
This is of course the argument made by Robin Scroggs in The New Testament and Homosexuality (1983). Interestingly, while most in the ancient world rejected sexual relationships between adult men, a "mentoring" relationship between an adult male and an early teen, often blurring into a sexual relationship, was common. So Scroggs argues that the pederastic relationship is likely what would have been in Paul's mind when he wrote Romans 1:27.

The problem with this argument is three fold. First, Paul gives us no contextual clues that would point us in this direction. Second, following the culture of the day, if Paul rejected pederastic relationships, then he almost certainly would have rejected adult male-male relationships. Finally, the parallelism with women in 1:26 pushes us away from this conclusion. The parallelism would then make us expect that it is referring to female pederastic relationships. But what evidence of any significance is there of that in the ancient world?

3. Not about homosexual rape or violence.
Mary Tolbert has argued recently that all sexual relationships in the ancient world were conceptualized in terms of dominance. Men should take the active role, women should take the passive role. I suspect that there is some truth to this in general. Her point is therefore to dismiss Paul's rhetoric on homosexual relations as too culturally conditioned to be of relevance.

After saying that, Romans 1 does not discuss homosexual acts in these terms. It is the direction of the (expressed) passion that is discussed, not the respective roles of dominance or submission.

I did mention, however, that it is wrong to connect Sodom to the question of homosexuality, although the story of Sodom does discuss the intention to commit homosexual rape. We hear stereotypical stories of this type of rape in prison. It is a known form of humiliation in the ancient world--thus Roman soldiers sometimes did this to men they had defeated to humiliate them.

The reason for this interpretation is three-fold:

a. First, the homosexual reading requires us to put a modern understanding of homosexual orientation anachronistically into the text. The ancients would have assumed these men had wives and children.

b. As an illustration, the very similar similar story in Judges 19 tells how the men who want to rape the Levite go on to rape his concubine to death.

c. The clincher is that the rest of the Bible unanimously does not understand the story in this way:

Ezekiel 16:49: "This was the guilt of your sister Sodom--she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy" (NRSV).

(note that the Bible has much more to say about those who do not help the poor than it ever says about homosexual sex!)

Matthew 10:14-15: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town" (NRSV).

This focuses on the fact that Sodom rejected the messengers that God sent them.

Jude 6-7: "And the angels ... Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities ... indulged in sexual immorality and went after other flesh..."

This seems to be about the homosexual act at first glance, but Hays argues plausibly that the "other flesh" Jude has in mind is that of the angels. I am not 100% certain of this because I'm not sure that Jude would think of angels as having flesh. But having said that, if the immorality he has in mind here is homosexual, it would be a homosexual act in view, not a person with a homosexual orientation.

My conclusion was two-fold.
1. A reiteration to those who struggle: God does not judge us by what tempts us but by what we do with that temptation.

2. Jesus tells us to love our neighbor and our enemy. No one else is left. We must love homosexuals, and anyone who tries to use the Bible to justify hatred of homosexuals is using the Bible wrongly.


Kristin Keith said...

Thank you for the message this morning Dr. Schenck. I thought you did an excellent job speaking truth on a somewhat sensitive topic. I especially appreciated your first point, that God doesn't judge us on our temptations but on our reactions to them. It's true in this situation and with everything else we struggle with-it's encouraging to be hearing it. Thank you.

Keith.Drury said...

I am sorry I missed the chapel... so thank you for the summary of a thoughtful christian approach that calls for victory of any temptation.

matthew said...

thanks for posting this. i'm teaching through romans right now and your thoughts have been helpful so far :)

Steph said...

Post again about homosexuality. Your posts on the matter have been good food for thought, esp. since it's generally so hush hush.

JKnott said...

Hi. I know this is belated, but I do have a comment or three. I think it is questionable whether the idea of homosexual orientation, as we call it, was such a foreign idea in antiquity, as often as this gets claimed. Consider Plato's Symposium, in which one of the disputants tells a creation myth in which binary humans, some male-female, some male-male, and some female-female, are split down the middle and then search for their "other half." There is other evidence as well and I would point you to Rob Gagnon's _The BIble and Homosexual Practice_.

I think you are right, however, to say that the "going against one's orientation" reading of this text is all wet. The focus is clearly on behavior, and behavior precisely, as you put it, as "expressed passion."

Contra so many biblical scholars today, Even Hays at some points, there is no mention in the text of where the passion comes from. Thus, we are not left with a text that says homosexual orientation comes from idolatry. Idolatry causes God to let humanity or gentiles go their own way, to express their inner sinfulness in ever increasing ways. On the other side of the equation, Paul assumes that NON-idolaters (Jews and Christians) CAN commit "the very same things" (ch. 2 of Rom.), and so the Apostle could not have consistently assumed the sins catalogued in ch. 1 were unique to idolaters.

All this adds up, in my mind, to the conclusion that Paul was echoing Wisdom and other similar Jewish arguments, but in a deeply subversive way.