I’ve been reading some of Michael Westmoreland-White‘s posts on homosexuality and the church. Today, I want to interact with points that he makes on Romans 1:26-27, a key proof-text that conservatives cite against homosexuality. I will also allude to other approaches that liberal Christians have taken.
There’s one disclaimer that I want to make before I launch into this: It’s hard to stereotype Michael Westmoreland-White’s position. His overall view seems to be that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle, but many of his arguments are quite nuanced. His approach to the Bible isn’t really all that dogmatic, but it acknowledges a variety of possible interpretations. You’ll see what I mean when we look at one of his posts on Romans 1 (Another Addendum on GLBT Posts).
In addition, what I’ll be addressing here is only one aspect of his overall interaction with Romans 1, for he brings up other points in his discussion of Richard Hays’ arguments. For that, see GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (A), GLBT Persons in the Church: Richard Hays’ Argument (B).
And so, here we go! Let’s start with a quotation of Romans 1:26-27:
“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error” (NRSV).
In Another Addendum on GLBT Posts, Westmoreland-White says the following:
“Would the biblical writers, especially the Apostle Paul, have known of long-term, same sex, partnerships based on love? I have followed the likes of Robin Scroggs and Victor Paul Furnish in saying, ‘No.’ However, several classicists have pointed out that such pairings were well-known in the Greco-Roman world–something I did not know when I began this series. ([D.R.] Randle and others repeatedly cited Plato’s Symposium. The thrust of that discussion still seems to me to be Plato’s condemnation of pederasty in ‘mentoring,’ but there are mentions of longterm male/male lovers. Ergo, Scroggs’ original claim, and mine by extension, was too strong.) However, this does not settle the question of whether Paul would have known them or had them in mind in his condemnations. It is certain that he is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution. If, in Rom. 1, he is also including non-exploitive same-sex pairings more like marriage (which is possible), it is not because he knows the concept of sexual orientation, but because he considers such acts to be evidence of idolatry and ‘unnatural’ behavior.”
We see a variety of approaches here. Westmoreland-White says that Paul is condemning exploitative homosexual relationships, such as temple prostitution and pederasty. (In it’s article on “homosexuality,” the Oxford Classical Dictionary defines pederasty as “the sexual pursuit of ‘boys’ (paides or paidika; Lat. pueri) by ‘men’ (andres; viri).“) And this is a common argument among a lot of liberal Christians: when Paul thought of homosexual sex, what went through his mind was male prostitution and pederasty, not a lifelong commitment between two men or two women. If Paul had known of gay marriage, the argument runs, then he probably wouldn’t have condemned it. Or liberals may argue that Paul is actually condemning temple prostitution and pederasty, not gay marriage, which he doesn’t even address; consequently, there’s no biblical ban on gay marriage.
But what is Paul’s problem with the homosexual acts in Romans 1:26-27? Is it that they were exploitative? No, for he focuses on men having sex with men, and women with women. He deems that to be an unnatural activity. Paul doesn’t mention exploitation here at all!
But that form of liberal argumentation is rather conservative in its approach to the Bible. You find it particularly among gay evangelical groups like the Metropolitan Christian Church. It acknowledges the authority of Scripture, and so it strives to demonstrate that Scripture doesn’t condemn all homosexual activity, especially when it’s within a committed relationship. Consequently, when the topic is homosexuality, it seeks to narrow the application of Scripture as much as possible. “Oh, Leviticus 18:22 isn’t condemning all homosexual acts, but only a very specific kind–the type that occurs in idol worship.” Or “Romans 1 doesn’t address all homosexual activity, but only pederasty and temple prostitution.” But as ex-homosexual Joe Dallas noted on The Bible Answer Man, the exegesis of the Metropolitan Christian crowd isn’t quite so narrow when homosexuality is not the subject!
Another approach of liberal Christians is to say that Paul didn’t know what he was talking about. This argument runs: “Paul didn’t have the science that we now have, which says that homosexuals are born that way. As far as he was concerned, homosexuality was a product of idol worship. Paul was wrong!”
Actually, I’ve heard Metropolitan Christian types argue this way as well. One speaker I heard exclaimed, “I didn’t worship idols! I went to Intervarsity. I loved God! But I was still gay.”
I doubt that many homosexuals today worship Greco-Roman idols. But maybe Paul is saying that sin flows from a general human alienation from God. In Paul’s time, that manifested itself among the Gentiles as idolatry, but perhaps it can be expressed in other ways as well. What kicks off the whole cycle of degeneration is specified in Romans 1:21: “for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.” And Paul may not be saying that every single homosexual hates God, for he could be looking at the issue in communal rather than individual terms: the human race’s general alienation from its creator has led to a number of sins.
And the fact is that all of us are alienated from God. That’s what gets me about that one Metropolitan Christian speaker I mentioned earlier: “I wasn’t alienated from God! That can’t be why I’m gay! I went to Intervarsity.” But he was alienated from God, as is the entire human race (Romans 3:23). A lot of what Paul describes in Romans 1 applies to me, let me tell you! I especially identify with the parts about being full of malice and envy (v 29). And I went to Intervarsity, so that must not be a cure! But sin exists because of the human race’s alienation from God. And, even when we become reconciled with God through Christ, the sins of the flesh can still impact us, which is why Paul tells us not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies (Romans 6:12).
Is Paul’s account of homosexuality inconsistent with a modern scientific explanation, which maintains that homosexuality is a genetic condition? For one, I’m not sure if the scientific explanation is all that conclusive. Whenever I read about the issue, there are always experts who argue that it’s not, as there are experts who say the opposite.
But, secondly, even if homosexuality is genetic, does that have to contradict what Paul is saying? Paul criticizes the flesh. What makes the flesh the way that it is can have a variety of explanations. And who says God can’t use genetics when he gives people over to certain passions? That doesn’t mean that we should act on the flesh’s inclinations.
Next time, I’ll address Westmoreland-White’s treatment of “natural” in Romans 1:26-27.