In Another Addendum on GLBT Posts, Michael Westmoreland-White states the following:
“In 1 Cor. 11:14, Paul asks rhetorically, ‘Does not even nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a dishonor to him. . .?’ Here ‘nature’ clearly means ‘custom,’ because what is ‘unnatural’ is cutting one’s hair. So, it is possible (by no means certain) that Paul has the same meaning in mind in Romans 1 when he calls same sex pairings ‘unnatural.’ What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to ‘nature’ or to natural law arguments.”
Okay, let me get something off my chest at the outset. Michael Westmoreland-White tries to look at this issue from a variety of angles, and that’s commendable. But that doesn’t stop him from making unwarranted dogmatic assertions every now and then. “What is clear is that Paul is not a reliable guide to ‘nature’ or to natural law arguments”? Or, to quote another part of his post, “It is certain that [Paul] is condemning exploitive relationships like pederasty and temple prostitution.” How are these points “clear” or “certain”? In the latter case, Paul doesn’t even mention pederasty or temple prostitution in Romans 1. Nor does he use a Greek word for “exploitation.” Westmoreland-White is reading those things into the text. What is certain to some is not necessarily obvious to others.
But back to “natural.” We see in Romans 1:27 that Paul considers homosexual activity to be unnatural, for he states that “men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another” (NRSV). Westmoreland-White proposes that “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “according to nature” in this case, but rather “according to custom.”
I’ve encountered this sort of tactic before from a lot of liberal Christians. When I was at DePauw, I attended a gay Bible study group in order to hear the other side. I thought that the Scriptures were pretty clear in their stance against homosexuality, so I wanted to see if there were other ways to look at the Bible. The workbook that we used offered a rather bizarre interpretation of “natural” in Romans 1:26-27. It cited Romans 11:24, which states, “For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.” Here, “contrary to nature” refers to something that’s positive: the inclusion of the Gentiles. Consequently, the argument ran, who’s to say that what’s “unnatural” is necessarily bad?
But, seriously, can you honestly look at Romans 1 and tell me that Paul thinks homosexual activity is a good thing? He calls it “shameless”! He says it reaps a penalty! As far as he’s concerned, it’s not good.
At Harvard, I got into a little debate with another student about homosexuality. As many of you know, Leviticus 18:22 says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” According to my friend, “abomination” in that passage does not mean a moral abomination, but rather a socially unacceptable act: a social abomination, if you will. After all, he pointed out, the same word for “abomination” (toevah) appears in Genesis 43:32, which says that “the Egyptians could not eat with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.” For my friend, “abomination” addresses a cultural preference rather than a moral concern, so Leviticus 18:22 doesn’t mean that homosexuality is morally wrong.
And that’s essentially Westmoreland-White’s approach to Romans 1:26-27, at least in the quote that I pasted above (he says different things elsewhere): there, natural means according to custom.
But does that make any sense at all? First of all, however Paul defines “natural,” he obviously sees homosexuality as a sin in the eyes of God. The context of Romans 1:26-27 is the Gentiles’ downward spiral into sin. And, to challenge my Harvard friend as well, who cares if “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22 means a social abomination (which is disputable, since toevah can refer to moral abominations as well; see Proverbs 6:16-20)? God says don’t do it. He even mandated the death penalty for it in Old Testament Israel (Leviticus 20:13). Would God say that about a mere social taboo?
Secondly, who says that Paul deems homosexuality to be contrary to custom? As far as he’s concerned, it’s obviously not against Gentile custom, for the Gentiles are doing it! And the same goes for my Harvard friend’s argument: Leviticus 18:22 is not saying “don’t do homosexual acts because a lot of cultures disapprove of them.” As a matter of fact, it says the opposite, for Leviticus 18:26-27 states that the Canaanites engaged in those sorts of practices, which is why the land spewed them out. Paul and Leviticus are not saying, “Don’t do this because it’s socially unacceptable.” Rather, they’re contending that what is acceptable to the predominant culture is not always approved by God.
There are other aspects of Westmoreland-White’s arguments that I’m not comfortable addressing right now. For example, he appeals to the usual “the Bible supported slavery” spiel, and I’m not sure what to say about that at this time. But my overall point is that most attempts to reconcile homosexuality with Scripture reflect bad exegesis, to say the least.